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Referendum on the Future of Northern Ireland

Volume 683: debated on Wednesday 4 November 2020

What assessment he has made of public opinion on the holding of a referendum on the future of Northern Ireland in accordance with the Good Friday agreement. (908104)

My apologies for not being with you in person, Mr Speaker, but as you know, I am self-isolating at the moment.

The UK Government are fully committed to the requirements set out in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement in relation to the circumstances that require the Secretary of State to hold a referendum on a change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland. It remains my view that the majority of the people of Northern Ireland continue to support Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.

It is now just seven weeks before we embark on the biggest change to our trading arrangements that we have seen for a generation, yet food producers still have no idea what arrangements they have to put in place to trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. Does the Secretary of State agree that the Government’s avoidable failure to prepare now risks damaging Northern Ireland’s integral place in the UK internal market?

I simply do not agree with that outline. Apart from the discussions that I have had with food producers and, indeed, the suppliers and retailers of food across Northern Ireland, one of the key things we have always been focused on delivering is unfettered access for Northern Ireland businesses to the market across the whole United Kingdom. We are still focused and determined to do that, and that is what the United Kingdom Internal Market Bill delivers. I am confident that the work of the specialist joint committee will be completed to ensure that we continue to have that good, free flow of goods, so that Northern Ireland continues not just to be an integral part of the United Kingdom, but to have a unique opportunity to develop its economy as we leave the European Union after the transition period, from January 2021.

The Secretary of State will be aware that the conversation about our constitutional future is happening right across our community and every family in Northern Ireland. Of course, the Good Friday agreement provides the mechanism for dealing with that constitutional future through a unity referendum. Will the Secretary of State tell us exactly what criteria he will use in future to determine when a border poll will be called?

I agree with the hon. Gentleman in the sense of people having a strong constitutional debate. We are seeing that across the United Kingdom and I encourage that; I think it is important that we all look at and discuss the strength and importance of the Union. In Northern Ireland, we have seen about £2.4 billion of support, because it is part of the UK, as we deal with covid. On his specific question, the High Court, in a recent judicial review on this very matter, agreed that there is no legal requirement, nor that it is in the public interest for the Government to set out a specific policy detailing any fixed criteria on the holding of a poll.