Skip to main content

Strengthening the Union

Volume 673: debated on Wednesday 18 March 2020

10. What steps the Government are taking to strengthen the Union between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. (901573)

The Government have made it clear on many occasions that we will never be neutral in expressing our support for the Union. I believe that the UK Government working with the restored Executive to continue making Northern Ireland a great place to live, work and do business is one of the best ways we can strengthen its place in the Union. As part of the Union, Northern Ireland benefits from being part of the world’s sixth largest economy, and that allows for the pooling of risks and the sharing of resources to fund public spending, such as on defence, education and our national health service.

These are unprecedented times and our Union is incredibly precious to us. I am sure that the Minister will join me in welcoming the additional powerful financial support for Northern Ireland from the UK Government that was announced by our right hon. Friend the Chancellor for Northern Ireland to deal with covid-19.

My hon. Friend is absolutely right. There is a strong package of measures to support the UK economy at a very difficult time. The Chancellor has said that the Government will do “whatever it takes”. Yesterday’s announcement, as we discussed during last night’s Adjournment debate, will result in an additional £640 million for the Northern Ireland Executive, taking the total covid-19-related Barnett consequentials to more than £900 million.

In the absence of a functioning devolved Government in Northern Ireland, the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 made it a legal requirement for the UK Government to implement an abortion framework before the end of March this year. The Government are yet to respond to the consultation that they set up to inform the framework. However, in the spirit of devolution, does my hon. Friend agree that now that the Northern Ireland Executive is up and running, this should rightly be a matter for the devolved representatives?

The Government understand the strength of feeling about this issue. We have always been clear that the best way to bring forward reform in this area would have been for the Executive and Assembly to take that forward in the best interests of Northern Ireland. However, the Government are under a clear legal duty, which this House put on it, to make regulations that provide lawful access to abortion services in Northern Ireland by 31 March 2020. To comply with the legal requirement, we will shortly lay regulations in Parliament. It will be a matter for the Department of Health in Northern Ireland to commission the new services.

I know the Minister will agree that underlying the strength of Northern Ireland are commitments to the Good Friday and Stormont House agreements. This morning the Secretary of State made a statement about legacy. That seems to override the need for five-party consultation on this matter, and to override the need for co-operation between the Governments here in London and in Dublin. When will the Secretary of State come to the House so that he can be questioned on this matter of enormous importance to the future—if you like—of the Union, and certainly to stability in Northern Ireland?

Our commitment to the Good Friday agreement and its successors is absolutely intact and 100%—and the Secretary of State is, of course, answering questions in the House today—but it is also clear that the first step we are taking on this is to engage with the parties and, indeed, with the Irish Government. That is clear from the written statement that the Secretary of State has published.