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Northern Ireland

Volume 662: debated on Wednesday 3 July 2019

The Secretary of State was asked—

Northern Ireland Centenary

1. When she will announce a schedule of the events that will mark the centenary in 2021 of the creation of Northern Ireland. (911624)

I hope, Mr Speaker, you will allow me a slight indulgence at the beginning of proceedings to wish the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) a very happy birthday. Today is, I believe, the feast day of St Thomas, but none of us is in any doubt about the joy he brings to this House.

My Department is exploring the options to mark the centenary of Northern Ireland in 2021. The centenary represents an excellent opportunity to reflect on the past, to celebrate the present, and to build a united Northern Ireland for the future. It needs to be undertaken in a spirit of historical accuracy, mutual respect, inclusiveness and reconciliation.

I thank the Secretary of State for her response. Does she agree that people across Northern Ireland will want to enjoy, celebrate and commemorate the centenary at the events in the 18 months leading up to it but, more than that, they will want to do it in a spirit of generosity and inclusiveness, remarking upon our history, our culture and our heritage for the next 100 years of Northern Ireland within the UK?

I agree wholeheartedly with the hon. Gentleman. He is absolutely right in the way he describes how the 2021 anniversary should be marked. I reflect on the work by the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) on the world war one commemorations, which had an inclusive nature that fostered reconciliation and brought great joy to the people of Northern Ireland.

Would it not be a good idea for the Secretary of State to declare, or to get the relevant organisation to declare, a bank holiday on 5 May, which will be the exact date, 100 years ago, that Northern Ireland was founded?

That is a matter for my colleagues in the Cabinet Office, who will have heard my hon. Friend’s question. He will know that we are changing the date of the early May bank holiday next year to mark VE-day. Perhaps they would want to consider using the subsequent bank holiday for a similar purpose.

The 100th anniversary of the establishment of Northern Ireland is an opportunity to look at the history of Northern Ireland in its times of darkness and of light, and particularly to build on the tremendous progress of recent years. Last week, commemorating the sad passing of Ivan Cooper, the Archdeacon of Derry quoted Lord Carson, who said in 1921:

“From the start be tolerant to all religions, and, while maintaining to the last your own traditions and your own citizenship, take care that similar rights are preserved for those who differ from us.”

Will the Secretary of State be liaising with her Irish counterpart and other interested parties to make the most of this opportunity, as she said, to learn from the mistakes of the past and promote the Northern Ireland of the future?

I absolutely agree with the hon. Lady. We should all reflect on the words that she quoted. She will be pleased to know that, at the last meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, my hon. Friend the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office raised exactly those points with his Irish counterpart. It is important that we do mark this in a spirit of reconciliation, mutual understanding and looking to the future.

Devolved Government: Restoration

2. What recent steps she has taken to facilitate the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland. (911625)

There has been significant engagement over the past nine weeks with the political parties in Northern Ireland, considering a range of important and difficult issues. Progress has been made, but there are a number of areas of disagreement between the political parties.

The Secretary of State’s mapping exercise on the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland revealed 96 areas directly underpinned by or linked to EU law. After Brexit, obviously, these will need to be replaced and shaped by the institutions of Stormont. Given that, does she believe that it would be irresponsible to pursue a no-deal Brexit while the devolved Administration is not in place?

My focus is on getting the devolved Administration back together and getting all the institutions that were agreed in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement working—in particular, the north-south institutions, which are incredibly important. Having those, and also having representation of the Northern Ireland Executive on the Joint Ministerial Committee, are both very important points in making sure that Northern Ireland’s voice is heard in the Brexit debate.

Both sides of the border are willing and praying for success in the talks in which my right hon. Friend is involved. The absence of devolution is now tangibly and negatively impacting upon the lives of too many people in Northern Ireland. Will she commit to ensure that the summer recess is not an excuse for pausing the talks and keep parties in the room—by force, if necessary—to ensure that, by the time we come back in September, we are on the cusp of seeing devolution return?

May I start by congratulating my hon. Friend on his appointment to the role of Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee? I have not had an opportunity to do so in the Chamber before now. I am sure he will make an excellent Chair, following his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison), who is now a Minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.

I want to reassure my hon. Friend that I am doing everything in my power to ensure that the parties continue to talk. They are all still in the room. I will be returning to Northern Ireland straight after questions, to continue talks over the rest of the week. I want the talks to succeed and will do whatever I can to ensure that they do.

12. I obviously hope that the devolved Administration is restored as soon as possible but, in the absence of devolution, can the Secretary of State examine how this House can scrutinise the decisions of officials in the Northern Ireland Departments—for example, by tabling parliamentary questions on the key issues that affect people in Northern Ireland? (911636)

As the right hon. Gentleman knows, he was the last direct rule Minister in Northern Ireland, and I very much hope that he continues to be. He will understand the constitutional implications of the independence of the civil service in Northern Ireland and the fact that it reports to the Executive Office, not to this House. I am determined to get the institutions restored because then the question that he asked will become irrelevant.

11. What fresh approaches have been pursued by the Department in recent months to try to secure a breakthrough in these talks? (911635)

We have, of course, ensured that all parties are in the room. These have been talks with the five main parties in Northern Ireland—those that are eligible to form an Executive and the Alliance party—and they have all made a valuable contribution to the discussions. We have done so through working groups, chaired by five independent facilitators. Good progress has been made, but we have not had any institutions in place for two and a half years because of some very difficult issues, and those difficult issues remain.

13. With no governance in Northern Ireland accountable to the public, what steps will the Secretary of State take to improve this? (911637)

I am trying to get the institutions restored. It is vital for the people of Northern Ireland that the politicians they elected make decisions on their behalf, so I am doing everything I can to ensure that those politicians are able to do what will be very difficult for all of them to find a compromise and an accommodation and go back into Stormont.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the measures she has taken thus far. There is clearly a need to compromise on all sides in order to bring the talks to fruition. What compromises is she prepared to make?

My role is to help the parties but, clearly, if they are able to reach an agreement, I am sure that they will want things from the UK Government, and I will consider those when we are at that stage. If my hon. Friend will forgive me, we are at a delicate stage in the negotiations and I would not want to compromise anybody’s position at this point.

One of the issues that has to be addressed in the talks is justice for victims. The Secretary of State will be aware that the late William Frazer, who was laid to rest this Monday, devoted his life to fighting for victims; I pay tribute to him and his work. Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the biggest issues must be addressing the definition of a victim, so that innocent victims are entitled to the pension they need?

The right hon. Gentleman refers to a number of issues, and he is right to do so. He refers to dealing with the legacy of the past. He will know that we have consulted on the institutions agreed at Stormont House and will publish a response to the consultation in due course. He also mentioned pensions for severely injured victims, which have been promised to them for far too long. I am determined to make progress on that matter.

Another issue that is causing real problems across the community in Northern Ireland, in the absence of devolved government, is the atrocious waiting lists in the health service, with cancer victims being made to wait a horrendously long time and targets being missed. Surely in the last days of the Prime Minister’s tenure, she will address that point and ensure that something is done to bring waiting lists under control. It is not good enough that the Government sit on their hands while this is happening.

I do not accept the right hon. Gentleman’s comment that the Government are sitting on their hands; the Government are absolutely determined to see these matters addressed and the best way to do that, as he knows, is through devolved government in Stormont. I pay tribute to him and his party for the willingness that has been shown and their determination to engage in the talks very constructively and to make progress. I very much welcome that, particularly from the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, Arlene Foster, whose attitude has been exemplary throughout.

Istanbul Convention and Northern Ireland Law on Domestic Abuse

3. What discussions she has had with Cabinet colleagues on ensuring that the law in Northern Ireland is consistent with the Istanbul convention in relation to domestic abuse; and if she will make a statement. (911626)

I am sorry to report that, while the UK has signed the Istanbul convention, we are one of only a handful of signatories that have not yet ratified it. So, in the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive, the Home Office and the Ministry of Justice are working closely with the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland to establish how this can be progressed for Northern Ireland, perhaps in the upcoming Domestic Abuse Bill.

The Minister is absolutely right. If it was the will of Government to include Northern Ireland in the jurisdiction covered by the Domestic Abuse Bill, that would allow the Istanbul convention to be ratified, so I ask the Government to do that, as did the prelegislative scrutiny Committee on the Domestic Abuse Bill in one of its recommendations.

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that the prelegislative scrutiny process by the Joint Committee made that recommendation. That has opened the door and it is certainly one of the things that are therefore being considered. Obviously, we need to work through the detail, but that door is certainly now open and we are considering it carefully.

Can the Minister confirm that the extraterritorial jurisdiction required under the convention will be included in the Domestic Abuse Bill and therefore enable us to ratify that?

I cannot yet categorically confirm any of those measures to be in or out, but it is certainly one of the points that was addressed by the prelegislative scrutiny Committee. It was one of the things it recommended, so it is one of the things that are being considered very carefully.

Does the Minister of State acknowledge that the fact that every two minutes there is a phone call to abuse charities regarding domestic abuse means that it must top the agenda when the Assembly reconvenes? Further, will he pledge to raise the matter with local parties and be assured of the DUP’s support to make that happen?

I am delighted to hear that there is broad support for the measures that we have just been discussing. I am sure that, when the Stormont Assembly reconvenes, it will be one of the most important issues. There are others, of course, but I am glad to hear the hon. Gentleman’s support.

Leaving the EU: Talks on Restoring Devolution

4. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of the UK leaving the EU on the progress of talks on restoring devolution in Northern Ireland. (911627)

5. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of the UK leaving the EU on the progress of talks on restoring devolution in Northern Ireland. (911628)

9. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of the UK leaving the EU on the progress of talks on restoring devolution in Northern Ireland. (911633)

10. What recent assessment she has made of the effect of the UK leaving the EU on the progress of talks on restoring devolution in Northern Ireland. (911634)

The Northern Ireland parties have made it clear that they want to use the limited window ahead of us to make a success of the current talks process. I agree with them that restoring devolved government cannot wait. I remain determined to do what is necessary to make this talks process a success.

The future Prime Minister held a private meeting with the leadership of the DUP yesterday. For over two years now, the Conservative party has been beholden to one political party in Northern Ireland. Does the Secretary of State seriously believe that there is no connection between this narrow and self-interested relationship between these two political parties and the continued absence of devolved institutions in Northern Ireland?

I reject that entirely. The institutions collapsed well before the confidence and supply arrangements between the Democratic Unionist party and my party and, as the Northern Ireland Office, we are rigorously impartial. I pay tribute to the Democratic Unionist party and the attitude that it has brought to the talks. I pay tribute to all other parties in that respect.

All of us in this House would want to see the restoration of a functioning devolved Government in Northern Ireland. Clearly, one of the things that is most important about that is transparency. In the interests of transparency, will the Secretary of State’s party in the months ahead be offering another Brexit bung to that lot behind us?

The matter of transparency is very important. It has been a matter for one of our working groups, which has been working and making good progress on how we improve transparency within the institutions established under the Belfast agreement. I look forward to seeing the parties going back into government and seeing those transparency measures being enacted.

Would it not quite simply be a constitutional outrage for the UK to leave the EU in October with Northern Ireland having been without an accountable and elected devolved Parliament for the entirety of the article 50 process? Is that not all the more reason why we cannot and must not leave in October?

The people of the United Kingdom voted to leave the European Union and we will leave the European Union as one United Kingdom, but I agree with the hon. Gentleman that we need to see restored devolved government in Northern Ireland and that is what I am working to achieve.

Did the Prime Minister consult the Secretary of State before appointing Lord Dunlop to conduct a review of devolution? Brexit is already driving a coach and horses through the devolution settlement on these islands, and it will not be helped if the two arms of Government do not know what the other is doing, so will the Dunlop review extend to Northern Ireland and the effects of Brexit on devolution?

While we listen to all the rhetoric and the excuses about talks not proceeding—we have heard that Brexit is one of them—surely it is in our interest, I am sure the Secretary of State will agree, that we make an even better Northern Ireland, a perfect Brexit and a frictionless border for all the people of Northern Ireland.

I agree, and we will have a better chance of doing that if we have the devolved institutions restored. That is what we are working to do.

As the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson) is likely to have promised the Secretary of State’s position to about six or seven people, this may well be her last appearance at Northern Ireland questions. Having now spent considerable time in Northern Ireland and knowing the damage that a no-deal Brexit would inflict, will she commit to voting against a no-deal Brexit if the House is given the opportunity to do so? Will she commit, as the Chancellor did yesterday, to doing everything she can to avoid no deal?

I assure the hon. Gentleman that this will not be my last appearance at Northern Ireland questions; I will absolutely be at Northern Ireland questions for many years to come. I believe that the right way for the United Kingdom to leave the European Union as one United Kingdom is with a deal, and that is what we are working to achieve.

With your indulgence, Mr Speaker, may I make the point to this House, which has known the murder of its own Members, that it must condemn threats to Arlene Foster? Democratic politicians are entitled to operate in security without such threats of violence.

The Secretary of State knows, because she has voted in a way to prevent it, that a hard Brexit would lead to a hard border across the island of Ireland, with the threats of terrorism that the former Chief Constable has invoked and with increased unemployment and all the difficulties that that would cause. The Secretary of State has taken a different view in the past. Will she make it clear that a no-deal Brexit would be massively damaging for the people of Northern Ireland and that she will continue to oppose that step?

I join the hon. Gentleman in condemning threats against any politician. Those of us who are democratically elected put ourselves into public service because we believe in public service. We are all entitled, no matter our political persuasion, to have protection and not to receive death threats. I join him in condemning those death threats.

With respect to Brexit, I have been clear throughout that I want to see the United Kingdom leave the European Union as one United Kingdom. I believe that the best way to do that is through a deal that enables us to leave in an orderly fashion, protecting jobs and the economy. I have also been clear that a no-deal Brexit would be longer lasting and more acute in Northern Ireland, but I am doing everything I can to ensure that we leave with a deal.

City Deals: Scope

The hon. Gentleman will know that, in line with our 2017 manifesto commitment, we have already announced two city deals in Northern Ireland, with £350 million for Belfast and a combined package of £105 million for Derry/Londonderry and Strabane. Early-stage discussions have also begun with other councils in the mid, south and west, as well as Causeway Coast and Glens Borough Council.

On a recent visit to the wonderful city of Derry, I spoke with those involved in shaping the education offer in the city. They told me that a central aspect of the city deal is the establishment of a riverfront university, medical centre and innovation hub. Will the Minister update the House on the timeline and progress of this much-needed facility?

The timeline for that is the same as the timeline for the rest of the city deal. Business cases have to be worked up and the business cases for all the projects have to work well. Incidentally, for any business cases that do not shape up, there are many other ideas that can also be brought through. They will then get approved and will proceed, particularly once the—

The Belfast city deal has huge potential to bring investment and economic growth to Belfast and the wider region. Will the Minister outline in a little more detail what discussions he has had with the head of the civil service and with the city councils about getting those projects to implementation stage? When does he anticipate that the first project will be rolled out?

The difficulty is that city deals are by definition local initiatives. We can lay foundations, but they need to be taken forward by local partners and local councils. Also, ultimately, as soon as we get the Stormont Executive re-established, they will have to have an essential role in this. Although we are making progress as fast as we decently can—so are local councils—we are ultimately also dependent on the progress of the talks.

May I say to the Secretary of State how grateful I am for her kind wishes? If she would care to join me in Strangers for a small sweet sherry later on, she would be most welcome. She will be aware that the right hon. Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson), who aspires to be the father of the nation—to be fair, he does have some expertise in the field of paternity—has announced his intention of creating a Monaco-style tax-free zone in Belfast, with, presumably, a border around that fair city. Does the right hon. Lady consider that proposal to be risible and ridiculous, or the product of an unfocused mind with no knowledge of Northern Ireland?

I join my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in wishing the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) best wishes for his 21-and-a-few-months birthday. I am afraid I cannot answer for my right hon. Friend the Member for Uxbridge and South Ruislip (Boris Johnson); that is a skillset I do not have.

Being Part of the UK: Benefits

May I address the invitation I have just received, Mr Speaker? Of course I enjoy a sweet sherry, but I am afraid I will be on my way to Belfast by that point.

I’m sure he will.

As this Government have made clear on numerous occasions, Northern Ireland benefits hugely from being part of the Union. Our steadfast belief is that Northern Ireland’s future is best served within a strong United Kingdom. This Government will never be neutral in expressing our support for the Union.

Northern Ireland is home to beautiful scenery and stunning beaches. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government should leave no opportunity unturned to promote tourism in Northern Ireland, especially great events such as the Open Championship, which will be held in Portrush next month for the first time in over 60 years?

I agree wholeheartedly. I had the honour of visiting Portrush and Royal Portrush last week, and saw the beaches at their best in the sunshine. Mr Speaker, you will be delighted to know that the Open starts after Wimbledon finishes, so I hope that you will be able to enjoy it.

One of the successes of the United Kingdom is in attracting foreign direct investment. Could the Secretary of State update the House on recent FDI to Northern Ireland, and the jobs that it has created?

My Staffordshire neighbour has announced that he will not be standing at the next election; I pay tribute to him for the work that he has done for the people of Stafford, and will, I know, continue to do until the next election. He is quite right to refer to foreign direct investment in Northern Ireland; it increases year on year. It increased by 25% last year, creating nearly 1,500 new jobs.

Surely one of the benefits of Northern Ireland being in the UK is that people who live in Northern Ireland enjoy the same rights as the rest of us. If the opportunity arises—say, through an amendment to legislation—to extend equal marriage to Northern Ireland, will the Secretary of State and her Government finally support it?

The hon. Gentleman knows that personally I would like to see equal marriage extended to Northern Ireland. It is a devolved matter, and it is right that politicians in Northern Ireland deal with it, but if there is a vote on that matter in this House, it will be a free vote for Members on the Conservative Benches, as has been made clear.

Would the Secretary of State, having attended Armed Forces Day events in Lisburn this year, agree with me about the importance of Northern Ireland’s contribution to the armed forces in the first and second world wars, and in subsequent conflicts? Will she lobby for us to hold the national Armed Forces Day events in Northern Ireland?

That sounds like a very good idea. I very much enjoyed my visit to Lisburn for Armed Forces Day. As the hon. Gentleman will know, because we had a discussion on the day, I then went with my family to visit the Somme Museum, and of course I was in Belfast on Monday for the commemoration of the Somme, as were many of his hon. and right hon. Friends. The contribution that the armed forces have made is very significant, and does need to be marked in Northern Ireland.

In assessing the benefit of Northern Ireland being in the United Kingdom, can the Secretary of State advise the House of the participative role it has played in the review ordered by the Prime Minister of the rights of those in Northern Ireland, based on their rights as European citizens who identify as Irish? If Northern Ireland has not participated, why not?

I can assure the hon. Gentleman that the Northern Ireland Office has very much participated in this, and we are determined to find a way that we can resolve this, in a way that is sensitive to the rights of the people of Northern Ireland.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s claim that this Government are no longer neutral on Northern Ireland, which sets aside what was previously said about “no selfish, strategic… interest” in Northern Ireland. Will she put together promotional literature, and a promotional programme, that expresses the economic, social and cultural benefits of the Union that can be promoted not only in Northern Ireland but around the world?

I just point out to the hon. Gentleman that I am a member of the Conservative and Unionist party; I have never been neutral in my support for the Union.