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Northern Ireland

Volume 707: debated on Wednesday 26 January 2022

The Secretary of State was asked—

Veterans: Protection from Prosecution

1. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on bringing forward legislative proposals to protect veterans from prosecution for actions taken during the troubles. (905208)

2. What discussions he has had with the Northern Ireland Executive on when legislative proposals will be brought forward against vexatious claims made regarding veterans who served in Northern Ireland. (905209)

Before we begin, I would like to make some brief remarks regarding the upcoming anniversary of Bloody Sunday. This Sunday marks the 50th anniversary of Bloody Sunday. The killing of 14 people on that day began what was the most brutal and tragic year of the troubles in terms of lives lost. I echo the words of the then Prime Minister David Cameron, who, following the publication of the Saville report in 2010, stood at this Dispatch Box and apologised on behalf of the British Government, describing the events of Bloody Sunday, rightly, as “unjustified and unjustifiable.” It is important that we do not repeat the mistakes of the past, but remember these difficult moments in our history, and come together to help build a better shared future for all the people of Northern Ireland. My thoughts this weekend will be with all those affected.

The Government collectively believe that any system for addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past must focus on delivering for those most impacted by the troubles, including victims, survivors and veterans. We were very clear when publishing the Command Paper that we would engage intensively and widely with stakeholders, including the Northern Ireland parties, before introducing legislation, and that is what we have done and what we are doing. We are reflecting carefully on what we have heard, and we remain committed to addressing the issue through legislation.

Does the Secretary of State agree that if he reflects carefully on the responses to his Command Paper and if he engages with the professionals who have worked on legacy over many years, there is a landing zone for victims and for veterans that will address the grievance industry that has been built up in Northern Ireland off the back of people’s horrendous experiences and will deliver a lasting legacy agreement so that Northern Ireland can move forward?

My hon. Friend is absolutely right, and I agree with what he says. It is important that we find a way forward that works for the people of Northern Ireland and, as I say, delivers for victims, survivors and veterans; has a lasting ability to move things forward; and ensures that those who still do not know the truth and do not have information about what happened to loved ones will have a chance to get to that truth in a reasonable timeframe.

As a veteran who served in Op Banner, I welcome any legislation that comes forward on this issue. While we wait for that legislation, will the Secretary of State work with the Office for Veterans’ Affairs to ensure that any Op Banner veterans have the support they need?

Yes. Again, my hon. Friend is absolutely right. The Government are unequivocal in our commitment to deliver for all those most impacted by the troubles, including those who served so bravely to protect life and country for people in Northern Ireland. As part of that process, I assure my hon. Friend that we will work closely—and we are working closely—with the Office for Veterans’ Affairs and my hon. Friend the Minister for Defence People and Veterans; in fact, we will be meeting this afternoon.

Can I welcome the Secretary of State’s words at the outset? Fifty years ago this week, the Parachute Regiment were sent to my city to murder 14 people—people who were unarmed, marching for civil rights—[Interruption.] And I would condemn that as well, as well the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) knows. Last weekend, Parachute Regiment flags were flown on the outskirts of Derry. The Parachute Regiment rightly condemned the flying of those flags as a grossly offensive act against the victims of Bloody Sunday, but they have yet to apologise for and condemn the actions of their soldiers on Bloody Sunday in Derry in 1972. Does the Secretary of State think they should?

As I have outlined, as the Prime Minister said at the time and as I have said in responding to public inquiries recently, we as the Government must accept responsibility for what has happened in the past. When things are wrong, we need to be clear about that, as we have been. It is right that we have apologised for that, and I have added my own personal apology to that of the Government. We also need to ensure that we all work together to find a way forward to ensure that people are clear that violence is not an answer to anything in Northern Ireland or elsewhere.

The Secretary of State rightly made his comments about Bloody Sunday at the beginning of his remarks, but he will recognise that it took nearly 40 years for the Saville inquiry to clear the innocent victims who were murdered that day and those who were injured. Will he confirm that under the proposals that he will bring to the House a judicial inquiry will still be possible? If not, we condemn victims and their families to the accusation of guilt when an inquiry would prove their innocence.

The hon. Gentleman gives a powerful example. Ballymurphy, which I spoke about at the Dispatch Box not that long ago, is another powerful example of it taking far too long in these situations for families to get answers and to get to the truth. I can be very clear with the House, as I have been before, that I am determined that the legislation we bring forward will allow families to get to the truth and understand what happened quicker than we have seen before. People should not be waiting decades for information.

British soldiers like myself were sent to Northern Ireland to keep the peace, and to put their lives on the line for the peace of everybody in Northern Ireland. I say to the Secretary of State that, while I welcome the Command Paper, we must not have any delay in the functions of Government getting to a conclusion on this, so that veterans—many of them have passed away already—can live their lives in peace, rather than in fear of being dragged before the courts.

My right hon. Friend makes an important point, from the point of view of veterans. He is absolutely right: most people who went out there served their country to protect life, in quite a contrast to the terrorists in Northern Ireland who went out every day to do harm. It is important that we deal with the issue, so that we do not leave it to another generation, and that we do so before we lose a generation who not only have information but deserve to live their final years in peace.

Every life lost in Northern Ireland matters, and we remember the two very courageous Royal Ulster Constabulary officers murdered in Londonderry 50 years ago tomorrow. As a proud former member of the Ulster Defence Regiment, I want to ensure that whatever proposals the Government bring forward do not create a moral equivalence between the brave men and women who served in our armed forces and the police service and those who took the law into their own hands, engaged in acts of terrorism and sought to bring Northern Ireland to its knees. Will the Secretary of State be clear that there will be no moral equivalence between our armed forces and police and the terrorists of the IRA and other paramilitary groups?

The right hon. Gentleman makes an important point. I can be very clear, and as a Government we are clear, that we will never accept any moral equivalence between those who upheld the law in Northern Ireland—those who, as I say, went out every day to protect life and to do their service—and those who, from any point of view, went out every morning to destroy life and to destroy Northern Ireland. They must never be allowed to win, and there can be no moral equivalence.

In bringing forward proposals on dealing with the legacy of our past, can the Secretary of State advise what discussions he has had with the representatives of innocent victims in Northern Ireland, and will he heed the very clear view, right across the community in Northern Ireland, from those innocent victims and their families that what they want out of the process is access to truth and justice? Justice must not be dispensed with.

The right hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. As we have said from the beginning, it is important that we engage with a wide range of stakeholders. I have done that myself, as have my Ministers. Indeed, in the last week I have been meeting with the very groups that he refers to—victims groups as well as veterans. It is clear that people have waited far too long for information. We also have to be honest with people about what is achievable and the reality of what we can do, bearing in mind the Northern Ireland (Sentences) Act 1998 that followed the Good Friday agreement, decommissioning and other things that have happened since then. We must deliver a process and a structure of investigations and information recovery that helps people to get to the truth, while being clear that, as I have said before, there are so many people who did so much to keep Northern Ireland safe.

Stability

A stable Northern Ireland needs sustainable devolved institutions. We have progressed the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill to that end. Prosperity is another foundation stone of stability. We have been working with the Executive to deliver the city and growth deals, which my hon. Friend the Minister of State, the right hon. Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns), is taking forward, and to invest in priority areas such as skills through the new deal for Northern Ireland. We will continue to support stability and co-operation in Northern Ireland throughout this important election year.

We are absolutely right to recall David Cameron’s apology in 2010, and I send my best wishes to the families and the people of Derry/Londonderry. Will the Secretary of State confirm that the measures in New Decade, New Approach to protect sustainability and to keep Stormont running will be put on the statute book at the earliest opportunity?

Yes, absolutely. That is our focus, and we have been taking this through the House. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State said a short while ago, and no doubt he will be back here talking about it soon, taking this through is important for Northern Ireland and its people, who want a functioning Northern Ireland Executive.

The right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) brought forward New Decade, New Approach with commitments within it that would guarantee and protect the stability of our institutions. The Secretary of State knows that the commitment to protect the UK’s internal market has not been delivered. He knows that some of the balanced commitments in that document are now being tinkered with, be they on legacy or on language. What steps will he take in the very short term to sincerely protect the institutions?

On the cultural package, what we agreed to take forward is exactly what was agreed between the parties in New Decade, New Approach itself, and we will continue to look at that. It is important that we deliver on all of New Decade, New Approach. We have the United Kingdom Internal Market Act 2020, which is doing that work and has ensured that trade between GB and NI from the NI side is working in an unfettered way. We said we would bring forward further work to develop and deliver that, which we will do, but it is also important—this is why the work on the Northern Ireland protocol is so important—to ensure the same sort of effect in GB to NI as in NI to GB and that it is working for everyone in Northern Ireland.

My right hon. Friend knows that the thuggery and criminality of the self-styled paramilitaries add nothing to stability anywhere in Northern Ireland. What further steps can his Department take to disrupt their activity, in particular through unexplained wealth orders?

We have been making progress in this area. We work in partnership with and support the Northern Ireland Department of Justice in the devolved areas, as well as with the Police Service of Northern Ireland and other partners, who are doing phenomenal work. We have seen real success this year, and in the crackdown over the past 12 to 18 months on criminal gangs. My hon. Friend the Chair of the Select Committee is right: these groups are criminal gangs and should be treated as such. They are nothing more than thugs who threaten people and try to destroy life in Northern Ireland. I support the PSNI and partners in their work to disrupt their activity and bring the people involved to justice.

I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s important words regarding Bloody Sunday. I also pay tribute to the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith) for skilfully negotiating the New Decade, New Approach in the first place. Part of that was legislation on identity, language and culture. When will that package of legislation be introduced?

We are committed to bringing that forward within the mandate of the period for Stormont, as we said at the time, and that remains our commitment.

The statement to the House last June was that we would have it by October last year. There is a theme: we did not get that by October last year; legacy was promised by autumn, then by Christmas, and it is still nowhere to be seen; and then the Secretary of State introduced double-jobbing to Parliament and, within the same week, withdrew it. A question constantly put to me by people in Northern Ireland is, “What’s the point of Brandon Lewis?” Perhaps he can tell us.

I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman has been over to Northern Ireland once and so is basing his comments on some odd conversation. I find what he just said a bit rich, bearing in mind that he is part of a Labour Front-Bench team who over the past six to nine months have called for us to bring forward dual mandates, then argued against them when we did what we said we would do. They called for us to engage widely on legacy and to take into account what people say; then they complain when we do exactly that. Labour argues that it is a party of the Union, but does not get involved in Northern Ireland and then cannot get its Front Benchers to confirm that it supports the Union for Northern Ireland on live TV. Until Labour decides that it is a party for the Union in Northern Ireland, I will not take any lessons.

The Northern Ireland protocol is clearly causing political instability. Will the Secretary of State agree that it needs replacing, not just a few amendments?

My right hon. Friend makes an important point. The protocol is not working—that is clear. The feedback we get from businesses across Northern Ireland is that it is not sustainable in its current format. It needs to be dealt with. It needs to be fixed. That is what the Foreign Secretary and I are working on together to ensure we can do that and do well for the people of Northern Ireland.

Balance of Trade with Great Britain and the EU

4. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of trends in the balance of trade between Northern Ireland and (a) Great Britain and (b) the EU. (905211)

9. What recent assessment he has made of the implications for his policies of trends in the balance of trade between Northern Ireland and (a) Great Britain and (b) the EU. (905216)

We are committed to boosting trade in Northern Ireland with both the rest of the United Kingdom and the rest of the world. The Northern Ireland protocol has, as I just said, impacted businesses. It is creating barriers to trade and causing disruption. It is the Government’s priority to deal with those issues and make the protocol work better for business. That is essential to ensuring Northern Ireland continues to prosper as part of the Union.

Exports from Great Britain to the Republic of Ireland have crashed by more than 20% since Brexit, costing the GB economy more than £3 billion. Meanwhile, Northern Irish exports to the Republic, which are benefiting from still being in the EU market, have soared by 64% in 2021 alone. Does the Secretary of State recognise the overwhelming benefits of being in a market seven times the size of the UK market?

We are seeing 200-plus businesses in Northern Ireland stopping delivering to customers in Northern Ireland, medicines and drugs having issues and challenges getting to Northern Ireland, consumers having reduced choice on the shelves, and garden centres unable to get the plants and seeds they want from the rest of the UK. That is a farcical situation. It is not sustainable. It is not fair or right for the people of Northern Ireland and it is right that we focus on correcting that.

I wonder if I could invite the Secretary of State to actually answer the point made by my hon. Friend the Member for Midlothian (Owen Thompson). The most recent quarterly economic survey by the Northern Ireland chamber of commerce shows that 70% of Northern Ireland businesses believe that their unique trading position of being both within the UK and the EU single markets and the customs union presents opportunities for Northern Ireland. Does he agree with the vast majority of businesses in Northern Ireland? If so, why did his Government not fight for remain-voting Scotland to have the same benefits of dual access as Northern Ireland?

I meet businesses across Northern Ireland representing all sectors of Northern Ireland on a regular basis, as does the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, my right hon. Friend the Member for Bournemouth West (Conor Burns). They are very clear: the protocol in its current format is not working. It is not sustainable. The EU offer is not good enough. They are very clear about that. That is something we are determined to fix. The hon. and learned Lady is absolutely right that if the protocol works in the way it was envisaged, it does create opportunities for Northern Ireland. The problem is that the EU’s requirements for implementation are failing Northern Ireland and we need to see that fixed.

The Secretary of State says the Northern Ireland protocol is not working and he is right. Why don’t we scrap it?

The Foreign Secretary, the Prime Minister and I are absolutely determined to ensure that we resolve the issues for Northern Ireland. We would obviously like to do that in a sustainable and agreed way with the EU. That is the best way to get legal certainty. That is our focus, but we do not rule out anything from the table to deliver for Northern Ireland.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that reducing barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and Great Britain is not just desirable, but vital to protecting the integrity of the United Kingdom?

Yes. My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We need to ensure that consumers and businesses in any part of the UK can access products as they would anywhere else in the UK. That is what we are determined to deliver, and that is where our focus and work is.

I take this opportunity to associate my party with the Secretary of State’s remarks about the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. Our thoughts are very much with those who continue to grieve and who continue to be affected to this day.

When it comes to trade, the Government have not so much been ambushed by cake as by reality. While the Northern Ireland economy is thriving as part of the single market, the economy of the UK is labouring. Should the UK Government not, with the opportunities presented by the possibility of a change in Prime Minister, realign Great Britain with Northern Ireland in the single market and allow businesses across these islands to flourish?

I encourage the hon. Gentleman to do a little more research. It is very good news that the Northern Ireland economy is moving forward, as is the whole UK economy. Of course, in Northern Ireland there are more factors, not least the scale of the public sector compared with anywhere else in the UK. However, it is also true that the UK is moving forward as one of the fastest-growing economies in the G7, if not the fastest, with employment going up from where it was even before covid. That is because the Government are focused on delivering for people across the United Kingdom. I am sure he understands why, as a Unionist, I support that. He should too.

Platinum Jubilee Celebrations

May I briefly associate myself with the comments of the Secretary of State on the dreadful events in the city of the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) in 1972, the year of my birth in Belfast?

Officials in the Northern Ireland Office are working closely with officials in the Department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, the lead Government Department on the jubilee. My right hon. Friend the Secretary of State and my noble Friend Lord Caine are working on a series of events in Northern Ireland to mark Her Majesty’s jubilee, her immense contribution to life in Northern Ireland and to peace and reconciliation on the island of Ireland.

Will the Minister describe how he will encourage all parts of the NHS across Northern Ireland to celebrate the platinum jubilee as one great, unifying feature of the Union towards another?

My hon. Friend makes an important point. Everyone in every part of our United Kingdom is deeply proud of the national health service. People across Northern Ireland, whatever their allegiance, recognise the immense contribution of frontline NHS staff, whom I hope will be recognised in this jubilee year.

Her Majesty’s platinum jubilee is a fantastic opportunity to celebrate our Union far and wide, with people around the Commonwealth and the world joining us in marking the occasion. Will the Secretary of State set out the Government’s plans on using the jubilee to showcase the best of Northern Ireland?

Whatever tradition or belief they come from in Northern Ireland, everyone recognises the immense contribution Her Majesty the Queen has made to this United Kingdom. As I alluded to, Her Majesty’s contribution to reconciliation and mutual understanding on the island of Ireland has been beyond compare. This will be a fantastic opportunity to celebrate her amazing life and achievements.

This summer, Her Majesty will award jubilee medals to members of the armed forces and emergency services and to prison officers. As things stand, frontline paramedics working for ambulance services will rightly be recognised, but those working in hospital A&E departments and private ambulances might not be. Will my right hon. Friend work with ministerial colleagues to ensure that all frontline paramedics get the recognition their work so richly deserves?

My hon. Friend makes his point powerfully, as ever. I am sure it will be heard. If it is not, I will make sure that it is by making it on his behalf to relevant Ministers.

As we begin the 70th year of Her Majesty’s reign, the Northern Ireland protocol still seems to threaten the free movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. Will the Minister take urgent action to stand up to the bureaucratic posturing of the European Union and ensure that oak tree saplings can be traded freely between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom for the platinum jubilee?

I am immensely grateful to my hon. Friend. He makes that point incredibly powerfully. Members from across the House will look forward to planting oak saplings in their constituencies to mark this amazing achievement of Her Majesty’s platinum jubilee. The Foreign Secretary is on the Front Bench. I know her well; I served with her in International Trade. She is on the case. There is absolutely no reason why oak tree saplings should not be planted in Northern Ireland as they are in every other part of the United Kingdom.

The Queen’s Green Canopy is a wonderful way to both celebrate the jubilee and promote the environment. Tomorrow, in Dervock, Bushmills, Ballymoney and Ballymena, a number of primary schools will plant trees to mark Her Majesty’s jubilee. I encourage the Secretary of State, the Minister and, indeed, the Foreign Secretary, who will be in Northern Ireland tomorrow, to take the opportunity to visit one of those schools and encourage young people as they promote the environment, honour Her Majesty the Queen and encourage our country to look positively to its future.

I entirely agree that all Members across the House will look forward to planting trees on the amazing anniversary of Her Majesty’s reign. I was in the hon. Gentleman’s constituency just before Christmas, at my grandfather’s former primary school in Armoy. The event is cross-community and cross-tradition, and we are all looking forward to celebrating it. I will happily accept an invitation, as I am sure my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State would, to join the hon. Gentleman in his constituency and plant a tree.

As hon. Members on the Benches behind me know, my wife hails from County Armagh. There is a tremendous link between Scotland and Northern Ireland through music; recently, the Kiltearn Fiddlers from my constituency have played in Northern Ireland as the guests of Ulster University. Would it not be splendid if we could celebrate Her Majesty’s jubilee by having musical events the length and breadth of our United Kingdom?

I totally agree, and what a wonderful, harmonious note on which to end Northern Ireland questions.

People in Newport West and across Northern Ireland know that Her Majesty has always led by example and demonstrated the highest standards in public life, so can the Minister confirm that this Government will be following her example as they mark her platinum jubilee?

The hon. Lady is absolutely right that Her Majesty is an example to us all. The House should unite in thanking her for her decades of dedicated service to our country and the Commonwealth.

Engagement with Businesses: Northern Ireland Protocol

6. What engagement the Government has had with Northern Ireland businesses on the Northern Ireland protocol since 1 January 2022. (905213)

My engagement with the Northern Ireland business community is extensive. Just this week I have been in Northern Ireland engaging directly with businesses, as I do every week, to discuss the impacts of the protocol as well as any wider concerns or issues.

The Government published their Command Paper last July, the European Union published four papers last October, and I understand that the Government have tabled a revised legal text in the negotiations. Does the Secretary of State recognise that there is a desire among businesses in Northern Ireland for much greater transparency around the UK Government’s negotiating objectives?

We have been very transparent and clear with businesses. The Minister for Europe and I, and indeed the Foreign Secretary, have met and engaged with businesses, as we will be doing tomorrow, and outlined exactly what our objectives are: to deliver what businesses in Northern Ireland want, which is to rectify the problems that are hampering businesses in Northern Ireland. We need to correct the protocol, and the EU needs to show some flexibility to make that work.

When it comes to negotiations with the European Union, this Government told us that we could have our cake and eat it, but we face a harsh reality: a Prime Minister ambushed by cake while businesses in Northern Ireland are crying out for certainty. When will the Government finally bake off and deliver a veterinary agreement?

I will ignore the cakeism directed from the Opposition Front Bench and just say that it is good to see the hon. Lady finally supporting the UK Government, which Labour has failed to do while we are focused on delivering for Northern Ireland, rectifying the protocol and fixing the problem. Get on board!

Before we come to Prime Minister’s questions, I would like to point out that the British Sign Language interpretation of proceedings is available to watch on parliamentlive.tv.