With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the issues arising from the failure of the devolved Government of Northern Ireland—the Northern Ireland Executive—to form. The overriding priority of this Government is to implement, maintain and protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
“Northern Ireland is governed best when it is governed locally.”
“that has not been possible. However, our commitment remains absolutely clear”.
The Government believe that this is the moment for restoration of the devolved institutions
“and will work to that end as a matter of utmost priority... My predecessors have all referred to critical times for Northern Ireland, and there have been many, but this year is indeed critical”.—[Official Report, 11 January 2006; Vol. 441, c. 287.]
I can see you are thinking that you might have heard those words before, Mr Deputy Speaker. That is because you have: they were spoken by the then Secretary of State and right hon. Member for Neath at this Dispatch Box back in 2006.
Although these are different times, with different issues affecting Northern Ireland, I and this Government believe strongly that the people of Northern Ireland deserve a functioning Assembly and Executive where locally elected representatives can address the issues that matter most to the people who elect them. Back in May, people cast their votes in Northern Ireland to give their communities a voice in Stormont. However, for six months the parties have not come together.
On 28 October, the deadline for forming an Executive, as set out in the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022, passed. That is hugely disappointing. As a result, I am bound by law to call new elections for the Northern Ireland Assembly, as set out in the New Decade, New Approach agreement. Those elections will have to take place within 12 weeks of 28 October.
Since 28 October, I have been engaging widely in Northern Ireland with the parties, with businesses, with community representatives and with members of the public. I have also spoken with other international interlocutors. I think it is fair to say that the vast majority of those to whom I have spoken think that an election at this time would be most unwelcome.
What people would welcome is having their devolved institutions up and running, because they are worried to see a massive £660 million black hole in this year’s public finances at the same time that their public services are deteriorating. They are worried that almost 187,000 people in Northern Ireland have been waiting for more than a year for their first out-patient appointment. They are worried that the share of working-age adults with no formal qualifications is higher in Northern Ireland than anywhere else in the United Kingdom. There is also legitimate and deep concern about the functioning of the Northern Ireland protocol. That concern is felt across Northern Ireland and very strongly indeed in the Unionist community.
The one thing on which everyone agrees is that we must try to find a way through the current impasse, in which I have a legal duty to call an election that few people want and that everyone tells me will change nothing. I will therefore introduce legislation to provide a short, straightforward extension to the period for Executive formation. The current period will be extended by six weeks to 8 December, with the potential for a further six-week extension to 19 January if necessary. The aim is to create the time and space necessary for talks between the UK Government and the European Commission to develop, and for the Northern Ireland parties to work together to restore the devolved institutions as soon as possible.
As I stand here, the Northern Ireland Executive have no Ministers in post. That means no Ministers to make the choices that deliver the public services that people rely on, to react to the budgetary pressures that schools, hospitals and other key services face, or to deliver the energy support payments that this Government have made available to people across the rest of the United Kingdom. Before leaving his post, the Northern Ireland Finance Minister highlighted a £660 million in-year budget black hole, but there are no Ministers in the Executive to address it.
As civil servants do not have the legal authority to tackle these issues in the absence of an Executive, I must take limited but necessary steps to protect Northern Ireland’s public finances and the delivery of public services. As has been done before, the legislation that I introduce will enable Northern Ireland Departments to support public service delivery, make a small number of vital public appointments such as those to the Northern Ireland Policing Board, and address the serious budgetary concerns that I have mentioned.
At a time when so many people are concerned about the cost of living in Northern Ireland, I know that the public there will welcome a further measure that I intend, which will address another matter that was addressed by the former Secretary of State whom I quoted earlier. People across Northern Ireland are frustrated that Members of the Legislative Assembly continue to draw a full salary while not performing all the duties that they were elected to do. I will therefore be asking for this House’s support to enable me to reduce MLAs’ salaries appropriately.
Let me end by repeating that the overriding priority of this Government is to implement, maintain and protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which has been the bedrock of so much of the progress in Northern Ireland over the past quarter-century. In recent days, some people have called for joint authority in Northern Ireland. Let me say that that will not be considered. The UK Government are absolutely clear that the consent principle governs the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, under which Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom. We will not support any arrangements that are inconsistent with that principle. In addition, we remain fully committed to the long-established three-strand approach to Northern Ireland affairs.
As we approach the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, I have found myself reflecting on the fact that political progress in Northern Ireland has so often required courage, understanding and compromise. I hope that the measures that I have announced in my statement will allow some extra time for those qualities to be displayed once again. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Here at Westminster, our respective parties should strive to work together and build consensus on Northern Ireland whenever possible, so I appreciate his efforts to inform me of developments over the weekend and during the period since the 28 October deadline passed.
Tony Blair was right when he called the peace process
“a responsibility that weighs not just upon the mind, but the soul.”
So I understand the difficulties that the Government are facing. When we talk about elections in Northern Ireland, it is worth repeating that power-sharing, frustrating as it can be, is the essential and hard-won outcome of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and the principle of consent is fundamental to it. The fact that we have been without an Executive since February damages the agreement that we all cherish.
That has also hit public finances. The independent Northern Ireland Fiscal Council has made it clear that the lack of an Executive has made it harder to manage the pressure of inflation. The cost of living crisis is hitting Northern Ireland particularly hard, and the Government must urgently implement the support that they have promised. If they delay any further, they must give the people of Northern Ireland an explanation, beyond simply saying, “It’s complicated.”
The Labour party has taken a constructive approach to the challenges posed by the absence of devolution. We have called for any of the three Prime Ministers in that time to use their great office to bring parties together. Can the Secretary of State therefore confirm when the current Minister for the Union—who is also the Prime Minister—will visit Belfast? We have taken all parties on their own terms. Will the Secretary of State consider bringing all parties together in one room, so that they can hear the same message at the same time from him? We need everyone to be on the same page when it comes to the challenges that face Northern Ireland.
We have also put forward solutions to the outstanding issues with the Northern Ireland protocol. The politics, as well as the implementation, of the protocol are indivisible from the current impasse. Anyone who thinks differently is on a hiding to nothing. Even though the protocol forms part of a treaty between the UK and the EU, Northern Ireland is, by definition, on the frontline. The Unionist community perceive it as an existential threat, yet party leaders from both communities, and the Alliance party, tell me that they are not meaningfully updated, let alone consulted, on the UK’s negotiations. The Secretary of State is still relatively new in his position. Will he turn a new page and find ways to bring Northern Ireland’s parties together; to bring them in from the cold? Given that negotiations with the EU are so opaque, perhaps he could tell us whether they are finally trying for a veterinary agreement.
I met all the party leaders in the week before the 28 October deadline, and I do not think that what they said then has changed since. There is great hope that the nature of negotiations with the EU has changed, and that a deal is close. If that is indeed the case, the Government need to update the House regularly, and to keep us updated henceforth. Three Secretaries of State in six months was never likely to lead to a sustained effort to restore Stormont. Chaos has consequences. More than any other part of our country, Northern Ireland is reeling from the Tory dysfunction here in Westminster.
I have made it clear that I will support the Government in delaying elections in extreme circumstances, but we need to hear what the time will be used for. This is the crux of the matter. The Government wasted the last six months, so what will they do in the next few weeks that they have bought themselves that they did not do in the previous weeks? If the coming period is to be fruitful, something different needs to happen, so rather than our focusing on the technical aspects of date changes, I would like to hear more from the Secretary of State about what he intends to use that time for.
In the year since my appointment, this is the first statement on Northern Ireland, despite everything that has happened. Will the Secretary of State commit to keeping the House more updated, on a more regular basis, than his predecessors did?
Northern Ireland deservers more than uncertainty, limbo and neglect. The Labour party will always be an honest broker for Northern Ireland, and we will work tirelessly to find the stability that is necessary for a bright future shared by all.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his constructive tone, and for the way in which we have worked together since I took over this role. I welcome the fact that he, too, noted the contents of the Fiscal Council’s report—issued yesterday—and its explanation of what such a budget deficit means in real terms for Northern Ireland’s finances, and the difficulties that it creates.
The hon. Gentleman asked me about bringing all the parties together, and I would be delighted to do so. The one thing that I suppose the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland can do is convene, and there are many conversations to be had. I know that all the parties are very willing to talk to me, and I hope they are also very willing to talk to each other. So I shall certainly take that opportunity, but I also enjoy my individual conversations with them, and believe them to be very important indeed.
The hon. Gentleman asked about updating the House and the Northern Ireland parties on the ongoing negotiations on the EU protocol. First, it is not for me to update the House on those negotiations; it is the Foreign Secretary who is conducting those. Secondly, on the basis of my experience—I spent a decade in the European Parliament, and have now spent 12 years in this place—I reckon that it is probably quite unhelpful, in many respects, to provide a running commentary on negotiations. However, I understand the sentiment behind the hon. Gentleman’s request, and I will ask the Foreign Secretary to see what can be done to offer appropriate briefings to the parties concerned.
The legislation that I will introduce is intended to create the time and space needed for the talks between the UK and the EU to develop, and for the Northern Ireland parties to work together to restore the devolved institutions as soon as possible. I think it only right that, as we move forward, I do update the House regularly on those matters.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. I welcome his proposals with regard to the pay cut, and I agree with him that now is the time for bravery, leadership and compromise, such as we saw during the period leading up to the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.
My right hon. Friend said to the Select Committee recently, in relation to the rubric of the formation of the Executive, that there should be a bottom-up rather than a top-down review. May I ask him to reflect on that, given the impasse that we are in and given the more than desperate requirement for functioning devolution for the people of Northern Ireland at a time of high inflation, high interest rates and a high cost of living? Surely, in the 21st century, no one party should have a veto on devolution.
I thank the Select Committee Chair for his words. That session before the Committee a few weeks ago was my first ever session as Secretary of State. I appreciate what he has said, in many ways, but the bedrock of the peace and prosperity that has flowed through Northern Ireland’s veins for the last 25 years is the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and the three strands are absolutely clear about both consent and majorities.
I understand that various political parties, and indeed others, are now talking about how things might change in the future, and how reformation, as the hon. Gentleman put it, could occur. I know that those conversations are taking place. However, my job at this point—and I hope that this is what my statement does—is to ensure, as I keep reminding the House, that we have the time and the space that are necessary for the talks between the UK and the EU to develop, and for the Northern Ireland parties to work together to restore devolved institutions as soon as possible.
I, too, thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. I very much echo his sentiment that Northern Ireland is governed best when it is governed locally, but it is also important to recognise that government and politics in Northern Ireland work best when there are good and productive relations between London and Dublin, and between the UK and the European Union.
Northern Ireland has been in the unfortunate position of having both its Governments paralysed by inaction over the past few months, albeit for different reasons, but we have made clear our view that the best place for Members of the Legislative Assembly to be—and where the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland expect them to be—is at work in Stormont, holding a functioning Executive to account as it gets on with overseeing the delivery of vital public services. We do not think it serves the interests of people in Northern Ireland for there not to be an Executive in place, but neither would it serve their interests to hold an election, which, if it achieved anything, would only be to further entrench already well-dug positions. We therefore look forward to the legislation on the period for Executive formation, to allow for essential decision making to take place in the meantime and to allow for some long overdue negotiations to take place.
While we have been clear that the protocol was a necessary measure to protect Northern Ireland from Brexit, we have also been clear that it is not unreasonable in the light of experience for the UK Government to try to renegotiate it. Does the Secretary of State agree that any new settlement on the protocol cannot only be about Northern Ireland and that a revised settlement will only be a better settlement if it eases trade for all parts of the UK, including the UK-EU export trading environment, rather than just trade between GB and Northern Ireland?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his contribution and his support. I completely echo his view that things work best when conversations are being had, whether in the Executive or the Assembly in Northern Ireland, or between London and Dublin—I would like to think that we have strongly reset that relationship in recent weeks—or indeed between the United Kingdom and the European Commission. Again, I would like to think that we have strongly reset that relationship in a good place in recent weeks. I understand his views about how we move forward. I believe the key to everything is to try to ensure that we get the appropriate, correct negotiated solution to the protocol. All things that flow from that will be beneficial for us all.
I can see why the Secretary of State is seeking to reduce the salaries of MLAs at the present time. However, he has opened a bit of a can of worms here. Does he not think it ironic that Sinn Féin MPs are paid in full when they do not attend and take their seats in this House?
The Secretary of State is making a statement under provisions laid out in the New Decade, New Approach agreement, yet the only remaining part of that agreement that has not been implemented and honoured by this Government is the most important one of all: restoring Northern Ireland’s place in the UK internal market.
We have had legislation passed on language and identity, and other pieces of legislation, including the provisions that the Secretary of State draws upon today. We recognise that the Government have brought forward legislation on the protocol, which is welcome, and that negotiations are ongoing. The Belfast/Good Friday agreement is based on the principle of consensus and cross-community support. When I hear some Members in this House saying that no one party should have a veto and praising the Good Friday agreement, maybe they need to read the agreement again and recognise that it is cross-community. There was silence from some when Sinn Féin kept Northern Ireland without a Government for three years; nothing was said about removing the Sinn Féin veto, so let us be even-handed.
To conclude, I say to the Secretary of State that words such as “courage”, “understanding” and “compromise” are fine and good words, but what the people of Northern Ireland need now, the sooner the better, is a solution that sees the institutions restored on the basis that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the United Kingdom, in line with article 1 of the Belfast agreement and with the Act of Union itself.
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his words and his questions. I hear exactly what he says. He details where legislation is in this place. The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is, I believe, now in Committee in the House of Lords, unamended at this point. It is moving at good pace. This Government’s preferred view is to have a negotiated solution with our European partners, but he can see what we are aiming for in the content of that Bill.
I also hear what the right hon. Gentleman says about the history—I have made that point myself to all those who have raised similar points with me because I am aware of it and of the responsibility that sits on my shoulders. I am also aware that the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement on 10 April could and should be a great day for Northern Ireland, its politics and its past, present and future. I look forward to working with the right hon. Gentleman on all those matters.
I very much welcome the bipartisan tone of these exchanges; we need to look forward without blame and with hope in our hearts that we can restore power sharing and the working of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement as quickly as possible, but are we not learning something from the state of the Northern Ireland protocol? It has been in force for nearly three years but it has not been fully implemented and probably never will be. Might we not have to face the fact that, for as long as the protocol exists and applies EU law in Northern Ireland directly, it is increasingly unlikely that power sharing will be restored in Northern Ireland? Do we not need to look more grandly and strategically at this question with the Republic of Ireland, with our American allies, with the European Union and with all the parties in Northern Ireland about how to restore the functioning of the Good Friday agreement?
I concur with the sentiment behind my hon. Friend’s question. He has mentioned a whole host of important interlocutors in this space. Drawing on my experience of European institutions, I do not believe that the protocol was written in malice. I believe that it was written in a way that people believed would work. However, the practicalities of it are obvious to all in Northern Ireland in many different ways. Even its partial application is disrupting goods and the way people can go about their business, and it has had serious ramifications for consumers and businesses across Northern Ireland, so it absolutely does need to be reformed. This is now recognised by all the parties in all negotiations.
May I say at the outset that I was never quiet when Sinn Féin kept the institutions of the Good Friday agreement down? I will challenge any party that tries to stop the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland being properly implemented.
I thank the Secretary of State for recognising that an election at this time is a bad idea and would make things worse rather than better, and for recognising that an arrangement will have to be put in place in the absence of an Executive, but does he not agree that it is pretty shameful, in the middle of winter when people and businesses are panicking about their bills, that one party is preventing a Government from being formed in Northern Ireland so that we can deal with those issues? Surely now is the time to put these arrangements aside, have a DUP Deputy First Minister go into Stormont and have an Executive to deal with the priorities of the people.
I believe that it would require quite a leap of faith for that to happen at this time, and I have to deal with the reality of the situation that we find ourselves in. As the hon. Gentleman well knows, a huge swathe of the Unionist community has found its lives disrupted and really worries about the implications there. I completely understand his sentiment, because there are also important issues—energy and a whole host of other things—that affect every single person in Northern Ireland. That is why I am bringing forward legislation to create, I hope, the time and space—as I will say time and again—for the UK and the European Union to develop their talks and for the parties to work together in the hope that we can restore the devolved institutions as soon as possible.
I am glad the Secretary of State appears to agree with me that elections will not solve anything, because they are not the problem. The problem is that we need fundamental change to the Northern Ireland protocol, not least because the protocol challenges the very principles of fairness and of a shared future in Northern Ireland. When the Foreign Office negotiates with Europe, will it insist, at the very least, on the equivalence of the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which is currently going through the House of Lords?
My hon. Friend has rich experience in this area, and I recognise everything he has done for Northern Ireland past and present.
I think it is fair to say that everybody recognises the seriousness of the situation between the negotiating partners. Indeed, maintaining and protecting the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and its provisions was at the core of the European Union’s original negotiating mandate. Things have slightly changed with the protocol, which is why the negotiations need to move forward. The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill demonstrates where we want to get to in our relationship with Europe, and I believe some of these aspects are now well recognised.
Nobody is asking for a running commentary on the protocol negotiations. Three years on, “running” is hardly the expression any of us would use. It is important that we now create trust between the European Commission and the UK Government because, in the end, the protocol must be made to work, which will need compromise on all parts. The gap is very small, but it has to be bridged. Are the Government prepared to make that effort?
Through this statement and the forthcoming legislation, I will be creating the time and space needed for the talks to develop. On behalf of another Secretary of State, I have made commitments about updating the various parties. I will try to make sure we keep to those commitments.
In this period of remembrance, I seek an assurance from the Secretary of State that, whatever the outcome of this necessary delay to the elections issue, he will stand fast by the legislation sponsored by his predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Great Yarmouth (Brandon Lewis), to incorporate a statute of limitation in the truth recovery process as a way of ensuring an end to the repeated reinvestigation of former service personnel who served during the troubles? That measure was first recommended by the Select Committee on Defence in April 2017, and all other alternatives have been found to be useless.
There were a number of questions on this at oral questions, but I am not sure if my right hon. Friend was in his place. The Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill is about to have its Second Reading in the other place, and I look forward to working with everyone to make sure it gets to the right place. Lots of people are not happy with that Bill, and I tried to explain to the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis) earlier that it will never please everyone. However, I believe we can improve that Bill through the parliamentary process in the other place to encompass both its critics and its supporters. That will make the Bill a whole lot better.
The British-Irish relationship has been somewhat problematic for a couple of centuries, rather than just since 2006. The Secretary of State is in for a long haul. This is the easy bit, because we have not yet diverged from the European Union. Brexit has divided the island and, as the UK seeks to diverge, there will be more problems of this nature. He referred to the three strands of the Good Friday agreement, and he needs to make sure those three strands are fully implemented to help us through both this crisis and the forthcoming crisis. What action does he propose to take with regard to strands 2 and 3?
I intend to spend a lot of time working on all three strands. I would like to think the hon. Lady has already noticed a complete change in tone, emphasis and friendship between the Government of Ireland and the Government of the United Kingdom. How we work is based on respect and trust, which is what I intend to bring to all my relationships both with institutions based on the three strands and with those outside the strands.
It is never easy to be Northern Ireland Secretary but, with the current impasse, it would be no wonder if my right hon. Friend thought back fondly on his time as Chief Whip as a time of relative simplicity. I welcome the clarity he has provided today on the opportunity for more dialogue, reconciliation and compromise. Does he agree that all parties, including the UK Government, the EU and the parties in Northern Ireland, must use this time to break the stalemate and to ensure the Executive is restored in time for the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement?
I am not sure whether I look back fondly on those times, but they were certainly very interesting. I had already lost my hair, so it is difficult to judge.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. We now have time and space both to reflect and to understand everyone’s position. The Unionist community in Northern Ireland has articulated a principled position with reference to issues with the protocol, which I completely understand. To fix it, we need time and space to have those discussions with our European Commission interlocutors. That is part of what I hope to do with the forthcoming legislation.
It is welcome that, latterly, the EU has seen the error of its ways and is showing a willingness to negotiate the wrongs of the Northern Ireland protocol with our Government. Seed potatoes, plants and medical supplies are no threat to the EU, so the restrictions are designed solely to punish the UK for voting to leave. Will the Secretary of State confirm to my constituents that the Government remain committed to achieving the same outcome through negotiations as would be delivered through the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, as promised by the former Prime Minister?
I think we all agree that life and progress cannot stop for people in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State says he will take powers over public service delivery. He will recall the statement he made on 24 October, in which he accepted responsibility for ensuring that women in Northern Ireland can access their human right to a safe, legal and local abortion. He said it was for the Northern Ireland Executive to fund that service.
Women in Northern Ireland have now had three years of various Secretaries of State exchanging letters, rattling and saying that, somehow, this is going to happen, yet it has not happened. Given that the Secretary of State has these powers, can he now tell us the date on which a woman in Northern Ireland, if she so chooses, will be able to access a safe, legal and local abortion?
I cannot give the hon. Lady that date, because a bit more needs to be done. I have said that I hope to meet the commissioners of services in the next week or so, and I will be writing to the directors of finance in the trusts to ensure, hopefully, that the money flows so they can start to build up the required services.
Frankly, there is no excuse for the Executive not to function at present. Even a deal with the European Union in the coming weeks might not be enough for some. The Good Friday agreement allows for its own review, so does the Secretary of State accept that we need to end the cycle of ransom politics and vetoes and to ensure that the institutions are restored on a sustainable basis? Indeed, if the choice boils down to continued deadlock or direct rule, what is wrong with considering reform to allow those parties that wish to govern to do so?
I will comment on the here and now, if I may, because the legislation I am bringing forward will create the time and space needed for the talks between the UK and the EU to develop and for the Northern Ireland parties to work together to restore the devolved institutions as soon as possible. I have had conversations with the hon. Gentleman’s party leader, who I know is enthused by the prospect of having a debate on the evolution of institutions in Northern Ireland. I tend to think that is a political debate to be framed in Northern Ireland by voices from Northern Ireland, and I will listen to it carefully in the coming months.
The delay to the elections is clearly sensible, but it deals only with the symptoms. We are told that technical discussions are taking place on the protocol, but we all know that this is a political problem that requires a political solution. So will the Secretary of State assure the House that the time that he is now making available will be used for intensive political negotiations with the EU to find that landing zone that he has said he believes there to be—I agree with him—so that the institutions in Northern Ireland can get up and running again?
I welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment that there will be no consideration of joint authority. May I mildly castigate the Northern Ireland Office for the 48-hour hiatus when it left that question hanging two weeks ago, with no clarification given? It is a welcome commitment given on the Floor of the House today. If he is extending that commitment into considering the three-stranded approach within the Belfast agreement, was he as bemused as I was to see the Taoiseach of the Irish Republic last Monday indicate that any reforms would have to involve and be predicated upon the agreement of the Irish Republic? The Secretary of State knows that is a breach of strand 1. Does he accept that to facilitate the Irish Government having such a role would represent the joint authority he has just ruled out?
It is kind of the hon. Gentleman to admonish my Department. I think he will find—this is a problem that politicians have—that I did stand outside the Northern Ireland Department and knock back joint authority within a few hours of it being mooted, but I had also said a couple of other things that seemed to catch the public’s eye rather than that. Our focus is on ensuring that the institutions in Northern Ireland are able to deliver on the priorities of its people, which means that our first priority must be restoring the Executive. The people of Northern Ireland deserve a stable and accountable devolved Government and we will continue to work tirelessly to secure that objective. I hear what he says about other commentators. He will understand that there is a massive international focus on what is going on in Northern Ireland. I, like him, intend to ensure that all strands of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement continue to be agreed to.
We believe strongly and hope that a fair deal is available between the EU and the UK that will satisfy all people of all identities and all economic sectors, if parties will just lead and compromise, and not spend their time on misinformation and disinformation. I believe that that is what the people of Northern Ireland want. For many years, people of my background faced the jibe that we did not want to make Northern Ireland work. We desperately do, but, unfortunately, the party in front of me, the Democratic Unionist party, will not allow that at the moment. Let us consider the following:
“it is wrong…in a democracy, that one party, representing…25% of the people, is able to veto the establishment of a Government. That is not democracy”.
Those are not my words but the words of the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), whose party represents 21.3% of the voters. Will the Minister confirm that he will allow the exploration by all parties, in a transparent and inclusive way, of reforms of the Assembly, if necessary, to incentivise compromise and allow those of us who want to serve the people to do so together?
I am new to my glasses and when I looked up as the hon. Lady was talking about the people in front of her, I saw the Lib Dem Member here, the right hon. Member for Orkney and Shetland (Mr Carmichael), and I thought, “I am so sorry that you have been holding up so much progress in Northern Ireland for some time.” He is a great man so he will understand the point. I hear what the hon. Lady says. I will not be stopping any debate on anything. The one thing I have learnt quickly in Northern Ireland is that it is impossible to stop any sort of conversation or debate, so I will not even be trying.
I apologise to you, Mr Deputy Speaker, and to the Secretary of State for missing the start of his statement. I promise him that when I have the sort of influence that he ascribes to me he will certainly know about it.
I cannot believe that an agreement that involves the operation of the d’Hondt formula and community designations was ever intended to be permanent. We all knew, however, that everybody would sign up to it because it was the best workable solution at the time. When it has stopped working, it is difficult to see how we can still call it the best workable solution. That is why, surely, if we cannot restore the good faith that is necessary to see the operation of a functioning Executive, we have to look at it from first principles again.
I have been reading up on the history of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. The right hon. Gentleman will know this, and I do not mean it glibly, but it was not a very easy process to get to the point it got to. It did involve huge sacrifices of personal and political capital by some very well-respected and great men, some of whom have been honoured internationally. But I really think we can get the institutions up and running again. There is a problem we have to solve to help that, which is the reformation of the protocol, and hard work is ongoing to try to achieve that.
It is a great shame for the people of Northern Ireland, in these most challenging of times, to have clearly expressed their democratic will and to now find themselves continually ungoverned. May I ask the Secretary of State to reflect on two things? First, in his statement, he talks about reducing MLA salaries. That would be a comprehensive sanction where refusal to form an Administration seems less than comprehensive. Secondly, this hugely complex and challenging dynamic is a direct consequence of Brexit, which was not properly transacted in this place prior to our leaving the EU, and it is now the people of Northern Ireland, of all communities, who are paying the most weighty price for that failure to govern properly.
I humbly push back on the second part of the hon. Gentleman’s question, but I completely understand what he says about the action I plan to take on MLA pay. Actually, the course of action I intend to take on MLA pay has been done before and has a legal basis, so I feel comfortable that I will be able to do it. However, I understand the points that he made.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement. It is a matter for the Secretary of State if he wishes to call or not to call an election and legislate here in this House for that purpose. He brought the focus on to himself. Does he recognise that Unionism is ready to renew and strengthen our mandate, but only when the protocol is replaced with arrangements that Unionists support and are behind? It will be an election for nothing, as he and others have said, and elections are the bedrock of democracy, but, unlike others, we will readily take our case to the electorate and win again.
I completely understand what the hon. Gentleman states, but the election was not brought by me; it was brought by the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Act 2022, following the cross-party agreement—I know that the Ulster Unionist party did not agree to it—from New Decade, New Approach. The timings are all set out in there. What happened was that the legal duty fell to me and it still sits of my shoulders. I have outlined what I intend to do as we move forward. It is an interesting thing when politicians are keen to have elections. We all say things about being keen about something, but I would not want to wish a Christmas election on the good people of Northern Ireland, which is why I have brought forward these measures today.
The UK voted for Brexit, but not to leave the single market—just to leave the political union—and Northern Ireland did neither, so will the Government consider the UK converging with a view to eventually re-joining the single market, so that the Good Friday agreement and peace are protected, Northern Ireland governance is resumed, trade is supported and international law is respected?
I agree with the Secretary of State that we need to get devolved Government restored to Northern Ireland, although he must understand that the basis of restoring devolved Government is that the terms for that Government to be restored have to be adhered to, namely, that the principle of consent is adhered to and accepted, and of course, no Unionist who would have to implement the agreement in the Assembly is prepared to do so. I do not share the Secretary of State’s optimism, by the way, that it would solve all the economic problems. The £600 million hole in the budget was caused by the Assembly when it was sitting and could not agree a budget, so I would not be too optimistic about that. However, can he give me an assurance about the promise made by the Prime Minister? He said:
“Under my leadership, the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill will continue to make its way through Parliament. If negotiation with the EU doesn’t deliver what we need it to, the bill will become law.”
The Bill required that European Court of Justice jurisdiction in Northern Ireland be removed, that EU law would no longer apply in Northern Ireland, except for those firms that volunteered, and that the trade restrictions would be removed. Can he assure us that that is what he needs to see from the negotiations with the EU?
The very simple answer is to say yes, but, as we were reminded by my hon. Friend the Member for Newcastle-under-Lyme (Aaron Bell) just a moment ago, as Chief Whip, I used to enjoy my weekly conversations with the right hon. Gentleman and we talked about these points a great deal, so he knows and would understand that I will always prefer to have a negotiated outcome. I believe that that is possible, but what the Prime Minister said about the Bill remains so.
As the Northern Ireland Office has only been in receipt of, essentially, the books for the Executive for a very short period, we are yet to get to the point where we can clarify numbers exactly. But the hon. Member will have seen both from the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council and the Northern Ireland Finance Minister, when in post, the size of the problem that is being inherited, we could say. The Minister of State, my hon. Friend the Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker), stated the position in Northern Ireland questions earlier and I should refer her to his quite long and detailed answer. However, as no budget was set, the Northern Ireland Health Minister, when in post, was unable to do what he wrote to me to ask me to do when he left post. I will do everything that I possibly can, but I currently am not in possession of all the facts. I do not know where the black hole extends to and how deep it is, but I will come back to the hon. Member when I have full details.
I was surprised that the Secretary of State did not correct the hon. Member for Blackpool South (Scott Benton), who said that Sinn Fein MPs receive their salaries. Of course, quite rightly, they do not receive their salaries because they do not come and do their work in this House. The current impasse is affecting this House. I served on the draft Greenhouse Gas Emissions Trading Scheme (Amendment) (No. 3) Order 2022 on Monday, but it applied only to Great Britain, as Northern Ireland’s part of that important measure for the environment could not be implemented because of the lack of the working institutions in Northern Ireland. Unfortunate as it is if he is going to dock the pay of MLAs, particularly those who are willing to do their full shift, what percentage is he intending to dock from their pay?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I know that he was on the Order Paper earlier today and did not get to ask his question of me then. I had a fairly witty riposte, which I will use next time. However, based on the precedent that I talked about earlier—when the late James Brokenshire was Secretary of State, we went through this process and there was a review—the percentage that I would be looking at would be the same as then, which was 27.5%.