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Northern Ireland’s Place in the UK

Volume 705: debated on Wednesday 8 December 2021

In the year of Northern Ireland’s centenary, the Government have delivered the largest funding settlement to Northern Ireland since devolution, record investment in public services and vaccines at a rate possible only because of our great NHS. We are boosting local economies through city and growth deals and providing, along with the Northern Ireland Executive, a UK contribution of more than £730 million to the Peace Plus programme to contribute to a more prosperous and stable Northern Ireland. This is a Government working for Northern Ireland, and Northern Ireland is stronger for being part of the UK, just as much as our United Kingdom is stronger for having Northern Ireland as an integral part of it.

Internal trade is one of the key strengths and benefits of being part of our United Kingdom. Irish Government statistics, however, suggest a 60% increase in north-south trade with the United Kingdom. Does my right hon. Friend agree that the diversion of trade is clear evidence of the need to invoke article 16?

My hon. Friend makes an important point, highlighting one of the reasons why, when we published our Command Paper in the summer, we said that, as of then, the conditions to trigger article 16 had been met. We are very clear that we do not rule that out. If we have to use article 16, we will, but we are in negotiations with the European Union. The ideal solution for us would be to come to an agreement with the EU, but that has to be one that delivers on the needs of the people of Northern Ireland.

A great strength of being an integral part of the UK is being able to benefit from the excellent trade deals being agreed around the world now that we have left the EU. Clearly, different regions and nations will have different needs from those deals, so what steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that Northern Ireland’s voice is heard in trade negotiations as a means of strengthening its place in the Union?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: as a Government of the whole United Kingdom, we are committed to ensuring that Northern Ireland’s businesses and consumers have access to and benefit from new trade deals. The Department for International Trade now has an office in Belfast and, just last month, I hosted, with the Secretary of State for International Trade, the Board of Trade in Derry/Londonderry. I look forward to doing more on that. We work with businesses in Northern Ireland and the Northern Ireland Executive to make sure that we can deliver and involve them in these opportunities.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that every UK citizen and resident should have access to a similar level of healthcare? Will he guarantee that nothing in the negotiations on the Northern Ireland protocol will put at risk access to medicines and covid vaccines for residents and citizens of Northern Ireland?

My right hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is because of our UK-wide NHS that everyone in our country can expect to receive quality health services, regardless of where they live. Currently, because of unnecessary regulatory and trade barriers in the UK internal market, we have seen difficulty in safeguarding medicine supplies. Unlike the EU, which some in this House will remember attempted to trigger article 16 earlier this year, with the intent of putting a hard border for vaccines on the island of Ireland between Northern Ireland and Ireland, this Government would never do anything that jeopardises access to medicines or covid vaccines for the residents of Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland shares many of the same traits as our great county of Lancashire, Mr Speaker, including world-class expertise in aerospace and cyber-security. Does the Secretary of State agree that we can and should do much more to join up Lancashire and Northern Ireland, so that we can do even more together?

I agree with my hon. Friend. This relates to a range of areas, including the strategic transport network, which will bring people and businesses across the UK closer together and which is helping us to build back better. It is also important to look at the business and general communication links that mean that all parts of the UK and businesses in it can work together to develop the economy for the benefit of people across the United Kingdom, including in his constituency.

A prosperous Northern Ireland is a force for democracy in Northern Ireland, so what role does my right hon. Friend see the levelling-up fund having in strengthening the economy in Northern Ireland and therefore strengthening its democracy?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right: prosperity is an important part of peace and is what has led to the peace that we have seen over the past 23 years. Northern Ireland is benefiting from being part of the fifth largest economy in the world. In addition, it is receiving its largest funding settlement since devolution. We are investing to ensure that we level up in Northern Ireland, with £60 million this year from the levelling-up fund, the community renewal fund and the community ownership fund, as well as £400 million from the new deal for Northern Ireland and more than £600 million in city and growth deal investment to drive growth. We will continue to build back better and level up in Northern Ireland through the upcoming UK shared prosperity fund, as well as the global Britain investment fund.

The Downing Street declaration states,

“on the behalf of the British Government, that they have no selfish strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland.”

That is a direct quote from the declaration—signed, of course, by a Conservative Prime Minister. Does this British Government still agree with that principle, or are they going to abandon the consent principle that means the people of Ireland, north and south, will decide the constitutional future of our island, not the British Government or anybody else?

We are absolutely clear, as we have been consistently, about our dedication to and determination to continue to deliver on the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement, which includes the principle of consent. This Government understand the difference between consent and impartiality and make no apologies, just as I make no apologies for being a Conservative and a unionist who believes in the Union and that the Union is stronger for Northern Ireland’s being in it. That does not detract from the reality that the future of Northern Ireland is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland.

Much to the Prime Minister’s presumed disappointment, his proposed bridge between Northern Ireland and Scotland has been rejected as “impossible to justify” by his own advisers, as it would cost £300 billion, 22 times more than the Prime Minister’s estimates. Does the Secretary of State agree that that flight of fancy is a perfect example of why Westminster should leave devolved matters such as transport to devolved nations? They know what is needed, and it is not impossible projects such as that, based on ideology.

I feel sorry for the hon. Lady; she should think bigger and better and be more optimistic about the future of the United Kingdom. It is absolutely right that we look at the things we can do to improve our country. If we do not look at those things, we will never achieve anything exciting that can drive our economy. It is absolutely right that we look at how we ensure that the connectivity of the whole UK is working for the benefit of the UK. Scotland is able to continue as a strong economy as part of the United Kingdom because it benefits from its links with the rest of the United Kingdom.

Does the Secretary of State agree that the best way to secure the Union is to ensure that Northern Ireland works, that we build a shared and integrated society and that all traditions in Northern Ireland are equally respected?

Yes, absolutely. An important part of that is looking at how we deliver on areas of the Good Friday agreement that have not yet been delivered on, including things such as integrated education. I think it is still shameful that only 7% of the population benefit from integrated education. There is always more to do, and we can do that working together for the benefit of the whole community of Northern Ireland.

There are many in Northern Ireland, myself included, who believe that the protocol represents the greatest threat to the Union at this time. Recalling the commitment made by the Government in the New Decade, New Approach agreement to protect and strengthen Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market, what urgent steps do the Government intend to take to deliver on that commitment and to safeguard the political institutions in Northern Ireland?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I want to be clear: the Northern Ireland protocol is not working for the people of Northern Ireland. Societal and economic difficulties have been faced across both unionist and nationalist communities and by the business community, who are very clear about that. There is also a sense that identity is being eroded and east-west links weakened. That is compounded by the very real issue of trade diversion, which has already been mentioned this morning. The European Union and the Irish Government need to recognise that the lack of movement on the Northern Ireland protocol is leading to a loss of confidence in the institutions established under the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

Restoring the balance between east-west and north-south is vital. That is why we continue to press through negotiations for a new balance to the protocol, but we are clear that all options remain on the table. We will do what we need to do to correct the situation for the UK internal market and Northern Ireland’s place within it. This Government will not allow the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, of which we are co-guarantors, to be put at risk.

I thank the Secretary of State for that answer. Another commitment made in New Decade, New Approach was the establishment of the Castlereagh Foundation to promote and to undertake proper research into the benefits of the Union to Northern Ireland. Can the Secretary of State update the House on progress made in establishing the Castlereagh Foundation?

In July, I appointed an advisory committee to provide advice on appropriate delivery partners to establish the Castlereagh Foundation, the legal form it should take, the role of the foundation and the cost to establish it. I thank the committee for its work; it is putting forward a proposal that I expect to have on my desk to look at and consider, to be able to make some decisions on the appropriate next steps, in the imminent future.