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Northern Ireland

Volume 667: debated on Thursday 31 October 2019

We now come to motion No. 4 on Northern Ireland. It says in the dossier “Minister to move”, but we have an upgrade, as the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, observes from a sedentary position. I call not merely any Minister, but the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, no less.

I beg to move,

That the Northern Ireland (Extension of Period for Executive Formation) (No. 2) Regulations 2019 (S.I., 2019, No. 1364), which were laid before this House on 21 October, be approved.

I just wanted to add to my tribute yesterday to your speakership by saying something about the Education Centre, Mr Speaker. During my comments, I did not mention all the amazing feedback that I have had from my constituents on the centre, which you were so key to developing. Listening to the tributes that have been paid to you, it seems to me that you will have limitless invites to the Kennington Tandoori, should you so wish, over the coming years.

Having sought the House’s approval for the Northern Ireland Budget Bill yesterday, I now seek the House’s approval for this equally vital statutory instrument. I announced on 21 October an extension of the period for Executive formation to 13 January 2020. That is the only extension permitted under the terms of the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, and I have no discretion as to the length of the extension.

I took the decision because, despite relentless engagement over the summer with the political parties and the Irish Government, the political parties have not been able to reach the accommodation that we know they need to reach to form the Assembly and the Executive. I was disappointed to have to take this approach and extend the period, but failing to extend the period and leaving it to expire at the end of 21 October would have severely constrained the ability of the Northern Ireland civil service to make decisions in the absence of Ministers. It would also have precipitated an Assembly election. That would not have been the right approach for Northern Ireland at this time.

I am pleased that, in the last week, the Northern Ireland political parties have indicated a willingness both within and outside this place to restore the institutions. There will be a short window after the general election, and before the 13 January deadline, when talks should be convened. I hope that both parties will engage seriously. As I have said in this House many times, the remaining issues are soluble if the will is there. These regulations ensure it is possible to undertake that swift work once a new Administration is formed in December. I will remain in close contact with all political parties in Northern Ireland throughout the election period, and I am sure the whole House will join me in urging the parties, particularly Sinn Féin and the DUP, to show leadership and to be ready to restore the institutions. I commend these regulations to the House.

The Secretary of State knows that it is inevitably with considerable regret on both sides of the House that we once again confront the need for these regulations to be passed. Come the 13 January deadline, Northern Ireland will have been without an Assembly and Executive for about 1,100 days, if by then there is still no newly formed Executive or Assembly in operation. I hope the general election campaign will be conducted in Great Britain and—even more importantly—in Northern Ireland with the kind of decorum that does not entrench antagonism between people and that we come out of it more likely to reach agreement in this Parliament, yes, but most certainly in Stormont. Elections can be healing, but they can also of course be divisive.

I do not plan to say an awful lot more. The Secretary of State and I, and the Minister and the shadow Minister, have debated these issues many times. We could once again talk about the paucity of decision making that bedevils Northern Ireland, the things that are not being done and the problems this causes. Those things are a matter of record. It is important that there is continuity of Executive function over the next weeks and in particular that the Secretary of State does not find himself in the extraordinary position of having to call an election during that period.

I do not think the House has any ambitions to do anything other than pass these regulations, but I am bound to finish on the following note. We are now at the end of the road for this particular process. Whatever follows in the new year has to be more creative—let me use that word—and the creativity may be the creation of an Executive and a Northern Ireland Assembly that functions.

I will not detain the House for long. It is with some regret that we reach this decision, but we understand why the Secretary of State is bringing forward these regulations. He has to bring them forward—it is logical to do so—to the Chamber today and to extend the timescale. It is vital that, after the general election on 12 December and the run-up to it, and after that the discussions to find a way forward, we can engage again, including in the new year.

At the DUP’s party conference this Saturday past, our leader, Arlene Foster, made several suggestions that could lead to discussions being engaged in again. They were constructive comments; they were meant to be. They were positive comments from the point of view that we wish to find a way forward for the Northern Ireland Assembly to engage. The leader has done that very well.

We debated the budget Bill last night in the Chamber. We all understand the issues for the budget in Northern Ireland and why it is important that those decisions be made by the Northern Ireland Assembly. I would be very pleased to report to the Chamber that the Assembly was back up and running. There is one thing we all agree on, and that is that we all think that that is the way forward.

I do not want to be entirely critical of other political parties, but I will say this: our party, the Democratic Unionist party, is willing and able and will be at Stormont on Monday morning, or whatever Monday morning, to engage in the political process and move forward. I would encourage Sinn Féin to have the same understanding of how the process works. This election will perhaps delay that. It is better that we do what we are doing and then after we can move forward, hopefully with a constructive attitude. Certainly the DUP will be of that mind. We hope that Sinn Féin will be as well.

Question put and agreed to.