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Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill

Volume 728: debated on Wednesday 22 February 2023

Second Reading

I beg to move, That the Bill be now read a Second time.

More than a year has passed since the then First Minister of Northern Ireland resigned. Twelve months and one Assembly election later, people in Northern Ireland still do not have the strong devolved Government that they deserve. In the absence of those institutions, this Government have stepped in to protect the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. We have set a budget, delivered vital energy support funding and legislated to provide clarity on the decision-making powers of Northern Ireland civil servants to enable them to maintain public service provision. However, on each of those occasions, I have stood at this Despatch Box and expressed my deep disappointment that we still await the return of a functioning Assembly and Executive. I wish to restate that profound disappointment once again.

The restoration of the Executive, in line with the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, remains my top priority. I will continue to do everything I can to make that happen and to help the Northern Ireland parties to work together to do so equally. It was on that basis that we legislated last autumn to extend the Executive formation period through the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2022. Since that period ended in January 2023, I have again been under a statutory duty to call an Assembly election, which would have to be held within 12 weeks—on or before 13 April.

I have spent time engaging with Northern Ireland political and community leaders, assessing the options available to me. I have also spoken to the Opposition spokesperson, the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), and I appreciate his advice and guidance. It remains my view that a further Assembly election at this time would be unwelcome and expensive and, crucially, it would bring us no closer to our objective of delivering fully functioning devolved institutions.

At this critical juncture, the best approach to facilitating the return of those institutions is built on flexibility, to allow time and space for negotiations on the Northern Ireland protocol between the UK and EU to continue, and to promote collaboration by the parties in Northern Ireland to form a Government, not to compete in an unwelcome election. On that note, I will briefly summarise the overall intention of the Bill.

In order to concentrate the minds of those who hold the future of devolution in their hands, could I invite my right hon. Friend to confirm that joint authority and direct rule are not on his direct agenda, but that making sure that devolution works is front and centre?

I can confirm those points 100%.

This is a short Bill, and I propose to time my remarks accordingly. I will merely outline the Bill at this stage and save my discussion of the mechanics of its two clauses for Committee, which I hope will commence shortly. Having said that, I hope the House will permit me to pause and express my gratitude to Opposition Members and, indeed, everyone involved for their continued cross-party approach to delivering key legislation in Northern Ireland. I am grateful to the shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the hon. Member for Hove, for engaging thoughtfully with me on a number of occasions ahead of the Bill’s introduction.

The Bill will provide for a one-year retrospective extension to the Executive formation period from 19 January 2023, which means that, if the parties are unable to form an Executive on or before 18 January 2024, I will again fall under a duty to call for an Assembly election to take place within 12 weeks. However, as I said earlier, I believe flexibility is the order of the day if we are to play our part in encouraging and facilitating the return of the institutions.

The Chair of the Select Committee prompts me to reflect that I am one of the handful of people here who had an active part in the last period of direct rule, in about 2004 or 2005. It was just about the most inadequate procedure imaginable, which is a high bar to clear in this place. Ultimately, without a functioning Assembly, and without direct rule or joint authority, the people who lose out are not the politicians, but the people who rely on public services.

The right hon. Gentleman is completely right that the people of Northern Ireland end up suffering from not having functioning institutions working for them.

The Bill provides me, as Secretary of State, with the important ability to call an early election, provided that offices have not been filled. Taken together, these provisions represent a delicate balance. Eventually, if the political impasse in Northern Ireland continues, people in Northern Ireland will rightly expect to return to the polls to have their say. However, the prospect of forcing an election when it would be unwelcome or unhelpful runs contrary to our goal of providing the time and space we need for our negotiations with the European Union on the protocol to continue to develop, and for an Executive to form.

Members with a keen eye for detail will no doubt have noticed that, unless an early election is called, the extension provided for by the Bill will run past the date on which the decision-making provisions contained in the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2022 lapse, namely, 5 June 2023. During the Act’s passage late last year, we were clear that the current governance arrangements were not a sustainable long-term solution. I am therefore keeping those arrangements under review, in the continued absence of fully functioning devolved institutions, but I sincerely hope that an Executive are in place before those arrangements expire.

In the meantime, the provisions of the 2022 Act and its accompanying guidance provide Northern Ireland civil servants with the clarity they need on how and when they should be taking decisions. The decisions they have been taking under the 2022 Act are being published to ensure complete transparency. I am truly grateful for the work of Northern Ireland civil servants in making use of those provisions to maintain public services in Northern Ireland, but, as I have said many times, the right people to take those decisions are locally elected politicians, who should be doing their jobs in an Executive. The current arrangement is not and can never be a substitute for fully functioning devolved institutions.

I know everyone in this House has been deeply moved by the courage shown by a very young man, Dáithí Mac Gabhann. He and his whole family have fought for the implementation of organ donation changes. I recently met Dáithí and his family, and I met them again this morning. I am incredibly moved by his story and by his family’s dedication to seeing this important change to the law on organ donations in Northern Ireland implemented as quickly as possible.

I am a bit of a stickler for how we do things in this place, and I would never want to go against “Erskine May,” but Dáithí and his family are with us in the Gallery today. I am sure hon. Members will wish to join me in welcoming him and commending the whole family for their valiant efforts. They should not need to be here today to see this change, as the Assembly could and should have convened to take this across the finish line.

As I said in my letter to the Northern Ireland parties, they continue to have it within their power to recall the Assembly and deal with secondary legislation such as the regulations in this case. That would only require Members of the Legislative Assembly to work together to elect a Speaker—not necessarily to nominate a First Minister and a Deputy First Minister—but I was disappointed that the opportunity to do that was not taken during the Assembly recall last Tuesday. However, I recognise this issue is exceptional both in its sheer importance and in the cross-party support it commands, both in Northern Ireland and in this House. On that basis, the Government spent a lot of time with the lawyers. We have been able to table important amendments to this Bill to facilitate those changes, to be taken forward in the Assembly in the continued absence of a Speaker.

It is commendable that Dáithí and his family are here, and it is wonderful that the Government are doing the right thing. This law will now be in place faster than if the Northern Ireland Assembly were sitting, which is one of the peculiarities of the politics in which we live. We should not make political points on this. It is right and proper that it has been done for children across the United Kingdom who need organ donations, for which I thank the Secretary of State .

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his kind words. He is right that this is not a matter of politics. I know it is the family’s wish that the Bill is operational by the spring and that is what we will be able to achieve.

I thank the Secretary of State for introducing this Bill, and I thank Dáithí’s family, who are in the Gallery. The Bill will make organ donation an opt-out law in Northern Ireland, just as it is on the UK mainland. That is what we want: equal laws across the whole United Kingdom. As a result of the good work and commitment of the Secretary of State and the Government, we will now have an equal law. We all support an opt out on organ transplants.

I am also grateful to the Secretary of State for taking this action. I commend him and all the politicians who got us here, but does he agree that the real thanks and praise should go to Dáithí and his family for their fantastic campaign? It has been an extraordinary campaign, and they all deserve great praise.

Indeed. When I spoke to Dáithí earlier, I asked him whether he fancied his chances of being elected to this House and trying to put us all straight. A bit of common sense would probably go a long way in our dealings, and he and his family have displayed it in huge quantities.

Dáithí also met Mr Speaker and is now the proud owner of a Speaker teddy bear. I could make so many jokes, but I would never be called again if I went down that route. I know that he and his father Máirtín enjoyed meeting Mr Speaker. This change goes to show what can be done in politics when everybody comes together.

I will save my remarks on the technical details of the amendments for Committee, which I hope will commence shortly.

I have spoken a decent amount about the Bill’s dates and timelines, so I will conclude my remarks by noting an anniversary of which hon. and right hon. Members on both sides of the House are keenly aware—the upcoming 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. Members throughout the House will doubtless join me in celebrating the progress that Northern Ireland has made since that historic agreement, which has served as an example of peacebuilding across the world. Looking back on the signing of the agreement, and the great strides that Northern Ireland has made since then, gives me a great deal of optimism, but I am also struck by the huge importance of delivering the functioning devolved institutions that the people of Northern Ireland endorsed by voting for it.

This Government will always seek to implement, maintain and protect the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and, as I said in my opening remarks, the restoration of the Executive therefore remains my top priority. The Bill will help to bring that about by avoiding an unwelcome election and providing space for the parties to work together to end the current impasse, but, of course, the Bill alone will not be enough to achieve that. We now need all Northern Ireland’s locally elected leaders to work together once again to make the most of the opportunity that it presents. I hope that they will take their cue from those who went before them and secured the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, and display the co-operation, courage and leadership that are needed to deliver functioning devolved government in Northern Ireland.

The British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, of which I am a vice-chair, will meet for a session in Stormont in early March—led by the right hon. Member for Staffordshire Moorlands (Karen Bradley), who is not in the Chamber—bringing together people across the jurisdictions and across all parties, as happened before 1998. Those informal ties are very important, but it is also important that parliamentarians on all sides understand where we have come from and, crucially, look forward to where we are going. Will the Secretary of State endorse that aim, and encourage Members in all parts of the House to become more involved in cross-jurisdictional organisations so that we can understand each other and get ourselves out of the current impasse?

Yes, 100%. The fact that people have not been able to meet face to face and build those relationships over a period is probably one of the hangovers of covid. The hon. Lady is entirely correct, although there is a different group of people I would rather see sitting in Stormont at this time, and I very much hope that that will be the case in the not too distant future.

The Secretary of State is right to say that Northern Ireland will succeed when our local politicians work together. We have done so in the past, and we have overcome much greater difficulties than this in the past. However, this issue is not about us; it is about what has been imposed upon us. Does the Secretary of State recognise that while all of us in Northern Ireland, collectively, will serve our people, it has been the case for too long in London that the personalities may change but the playbook does not? Too many consider Northern Ireland politics to be but a game, although for us—for all of us, across communities—it is too important to be treated as a political game. I say that in the aspiration and hope that the Secretary of State recognises that what we have had for the past few years is not good enough, and that the determination to crack the protocol and the impositions that are plaguing all communities in Northern Ireland will resolve those issues.

I hope the hon. Gentleman does not mind if I gently push back. I have yet to meet anyone in Government who thinks that the politics of Northern Ireland, and the people of Northern Ireland, are anything to do with a game. This Government take their responsibilities for every part of the Union, including and especially Northern Ireland, unbelievably seriously, and I hope we will be able to demonstrate that, with the hon. Gentleman, in the coming days and weeks.

I can give, on a personal level, the assurance that those of us who have been involved with Northern Ireland politics take it seriously. Some of us actually resigned from the Northern Ireland Office and sacrificed our ministerial careers because we cared passionately about Northern Ireland, and it is certainly not a game from the viewpoint of many of the Ministers who have served there—and most certainly not a game from the viewpoint of this Minister who resigned on principle.

The former Secretary of State has, in his own words, described the seriousness with which everyone takes Northern Ireland and its politics, and especially its people—and those people in Northern Ireland want their locally elected representatives to go back to work. So do I, and so, I believe, does everyone in the House, notwithstanding the tiny bit of work that we have to do with our European Union partners. This Bill will lay the groundwork for that to happen, and I therefore commend it to the House.

May I add my own warm welcome to our very special guest Dáithí and his family?

I now call the shadow Secretary of State.

I thank the Secretary of State for setting out the measures in the Bill. We do not oppose it, because we support the implementation of Dáithí’s law, and because it is still not clear what an election at this point would achieve other than hardening positions.

I am grateful to the Secretary of State for his kind words about the engagement that has taken place between us, and, as I have said in the past, I am grateful for that engagement. I hope we shall have opportunities in the future to thank each other also for working together in the interests of Northern Ireland. I am grateful, in particular, for the fact that ideas that have been suggested during the engagement between us are reflected in the Bill, and I hope that that will prove to people throughout Northern Ireland that consensus is possible across what are sometimes wide divides in politics.

It would, of course, be better if this legislation were not needed. Northern Ireland is a valued part of the United Kingdom, and restoring the Stormont Assembly and Executive should be a priority for the Government. This is the sixth Northern Ireland Bill in the current parliamentary Session, which means that the Northern Ireland Office has been responsible for one in eight of the Government’s Bills introduced during this Session. Most of those Bills have been fast-tracked and have received one day of scrutiny. That does not serve Parliament well, and it certainly does not serve Northern Ireland well.

We are approaching the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement this April. The Labour party is proud of its part in the peace process, and power sharing is an essential and hard-won outcome of that agreement. When people voted for and chose an end to violence, the institutions that were set up promised normality and prosperity. The vacuum caused by the absence of Stormont is having a profound effect on Northern Ireland, which I do not think we would accept in any other part of our country. Public sector workers are striking, but have no Ministers with whom to negotiate; civil servants are being asked to make impossible decisions about education cuts behind closed doors; and the health service has the worst waiting lists in the UK, with no clear plan to improve them. The backdrop to these issues is the fact that families in Northern Ireland have the lowest disposable incomes in the United Kingdom, and 44% of families have no savings at all.

Despite those challenges, however, there is a massive potential waiting to be unleashed. Northern Ireland is at the forefront of countless innovations, such as hydrogen buses and next generation light anti-tank weapons. The Labour party sees it as having a huge role to play in our country’s green transition, and on all my visits I am struck by the determination of people to get on with living life as it should be lived. However, the longer there is no functional devolved government, the harder it will be for these opportunities to be seized.

Dáithí’s law, which we will celebrate and debate today, is an example of what Stormont can achieve when it is sitting. Devolved government was functioning when Dáithí’s law was introduced in the Stormont Assembly in 2021, and the Organ and Tissue Donation (Deemed Consent) Act (Northern Ireland) Act 2022 passed its final stage in February last year. That should have led to opt-out organ donation being in place across Northern Ireland.

I pay tribute to Dáithí’s family, who I know are watching in the Gallery. I am pleased that you, Madam Deputy Speaker, made them so welcome, and I am also pleased that we as a House encourage the gurgling noises that we hear from a young family. Believe me, they are the nicest noises that intervene on us when we are speaking here, and we should not be offended by them in any way, because they are welcome today.

On that note, talking of interventions and gurgling noises, I will give way to the hon. Gentleman.

I must say to the shadow Secretary of State that that is a very unfortunate choice of words, but I will take them in the spirit in which they were intended. I intervene simply to make sure it is recorded in Hansard that when you, Madam Deputy Speaker, kindly referred to the family in the Gallery, Dáithí waved at you.

I am grateful for those gurgling noises, and the hon. Gentleman is welcome to intervene any time he likes.

I pay tribute to everyone who worked on what was a positive campaign, which received support across the communities and parties. That is a real credit to Dáithí’s family. Despite the current divisions in Northern Ireland, all party leaders worked together to ask the Secretary of State to intervene in this case so that the law Stormont passed could be implemented. It is right that he has done so, and the Labour party supports the amendments that he has put forward. I hope that in the future the Assembly can pass more laws that have widespread support and make a difference to people’s lives across Northern Ireland. This is the reality of how high the stakes are for restoring Stormont.

There is a contradiction at the heart of this Bill and the Government’s strategy for restoring the Executive. When the previous Act—the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2022—was passed last year, I said that the timetable for a restored Executive was extremely short. I warned that it seemed unlikely that enough progress would have been made on the protocol negotiations for the Executive to be restored before the deadline. The Secretary of State told me that he was an optimist. We have the opposite situation with this Bill. It sets an extremely long deadline, which I support, of potentially a year for restoring the Executive as the protocol negotiations hopefully reach their end point. It is important that the Secretary of State is clear that he still has the power to call elections at any point during this period. I do not want to be pessimistic about this, but it is hard to see such a long extension as an endorsement.

Since the Prime Minister took office, the Government have followed a plan for restoring devolution by finding a negotiated solution to the protocol. That is correct. It is to be welcomed that the concerns of Unionists have been listened to and that the EU is showing more flexibility over what is possible. I cannot help but wish that the same respect had been shown to the Democratic Unionist party when it was expressing protocol concerns from within the Executive and Assembly. Had that happened, I do not believe that we would be here today.

In these late stages, I urge both the UK and the EU to strain every sinew to find a comprise that will be acceptable to all communities. As the Secretary of State knows, Labour stands ready to support such a deal. However, despite all the recent front pages and 15-minute meetings, the shape of the deal is still largely unknown to Members of Parliament. There is even confusion about whether it will be voted on in this House. I know that the Secretary of State and his Ministers have been deeply involved in these talks, so I hope they can confirm that a deal will be put before the House for a vote so that Members who represent Northern Ireland can have their say on it.

The path that the Government have not chosen to follow is the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. Yesterday, the former Justice Secretary, the right hon. and learned Member for South Swindon (Sir Robert Buckland)—who was in his place just a short while ago—wrote an article in which he said:

“The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill has outlived its political usefulness and no longer has any legal justification”.

The Labour party has always said that that Bill would take a wrecking ball to our international reputation as a country that follows the rule of law. The Government would benefit, too, by being open about the fact that their legal advice might well have changed in recent days and weeks. Ultimately, a negotiated solution will be the only lasting solution.

It would also help the negotiations if the Government were more consistent in their defence of the Good Friday agreement on other fronts. This very week, we have had the spectacle of the Justice Secretary claiming that the Government were considering leaving the European convention on human rights in the morning, and the Attorney General confirming in the afternoon that doing so would break the Good Friday agreement. I hope that the Minister, when he responds, will confirm that the Government remain committed to all parts of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement.

Problems are piling up in Northern Ireland. This Bill does not solve all of them, but it stalls and buys more time. There are 39 key decisions that require Executive approval currently on hold. All of them are important in their own ways. People in Northern Ireland deserve such decisions to be taken locally. The Government will need to keep the next King’s Speech very light and prepare for an even higher number of Bills concerning Northern Ireland in the next Parliament if we do not get this right.

It is a pleasure to follow the shadow Secretary of State. I agree with much of what he said, and I agree with everything that my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State said. Given the amount of Northern Irish legislation that we have had to deal with in recent months, it should come as no surprise that the Secretary of State sought the longest extension time he possibly could. I am not entirely sure whether he wanted that or whether the Leader of the House and the business managers said, “You can have one more go at this and don’t bother coming back again.” I think there is probably quite a lot of truth in that.

The Secretary of State is right to have gone long, regrettable though that is. The stakes are incredibly high, as we know. We are all familiar with the phrase “last chance saloon”. It has been applied on so many occasions to so many issues, particularly with regard to the politics of Northern Ireland, but we should be cognisant that this feels like a very important time in the negotiations on the protocol, and we await the outcome with interest. The Government are right not to give a daily running commentary and five-minute bulletins. These are big issues that need to be resolved calmly and amicably, and in the new spirit of trust and mutual respect. Therefore, it is a question of getting it right rather than getting it done by a particular time.

This is important, because if we get it right and a situation is alighted upon that can command near-universal support—ideally universal support—in this place and elsewhere, that will lead on to addressing all those points that we hear about weekly in the Select Committee, where the shadow Secretary of State and the Secretary of State have set out the problems relating to health, education, housing, infrastructure and the post-covid rebuilding of the economy. Those issues require real-time intervention by local politicians representing their communities and making the changes that people want. This could take one, two or three weeks. It will take as long as it needs to take in order to get it right.

All of us, irrespective of what side of the debate we come from, have been seized this week of the importance and seriousness of the time in which we are operating, of the need to get this right and of the urgency required to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland, for which there is a pent-up appetite in all parties. Nobody wants to be sitting metaphorically twiddling their thumbs; they want to be discharging the jobs to which they were elected. I think it was Dave Allen who used to say, “May your God go with you,” and now is the time, whichever God we believe in, if any, to pray that we are moving towards a solution that works across the piece and that can lead to an enduring settlement, in terms of wider UK-EU relations and how the protocol operates, and to ensure that a space can be carved out so that that deeper taproot of devolution, such as we see operating in Scotland and in Wales, can really take root and flourish in Northern Ireland.

Does the Chairman of the Select Committee agree that in this sensitive period, when we are hopefully at the end of the negotiations, we all have a responsibility to be careful and to allow the negotiations to conclude, hopefully successfully? Does he also agree that in the Western Health and Social Care Trust, some people are waiting for eight years to see a consultant, and that that situation can no longer stand? We need a Government as soon as possible to deal with that crisis.

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. That takes me neatly on to the proposal tabled by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State, which broadly mirrors that tabled on a cross-party basis by the Northern Ireland parties represented in this place. The public are not really that interested in process.

I met Dáithí and his parents yesterday—I echo everything that has been said about him, because he is an inspirational and joyful young man—and through their quiet persistence they have made a case that can unify all political parties and those of no political persuasion, and shown that the changes we are making are the right thing to do. That speaks to the point referenced by the hon. Members for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) and for Hove (Peter Kyle), among others: that most people in Northern Ireland just want a better life. They want better housing, a better economy, better health outcomes and better education. For many, the processes by which those things are delivered are a moot point; they just want to see that step change and that improvement in their lives.

Nobody who has met the family over the last few days will have come away without a bit of a lump in their throat, because the family’s story is compelling and moving. There is also a simplicity to it, because what we are doing is such an obvious thing to do, but the hurdles of politics got in the way and prevented it from happening. Something almost as natural as drawing breath has been put on hold because of processes that the vast majority of people do not fully comprehend and do not see as particularly relevant to them. As I say, people just want to see changes, and this family’s story, which has led to the Government’s proposal, shows what a power for good we can be when we all put our shoulders to the wheel and face in the same direction.

I do not know about anybody else, but when I go on school visits in my constituency, I am often asked, “What’s the difference between you all?”. We talk about philosophy, principle and world view, but the one thing that unites us—the Government’s proposal throws a sharp light on this—is that none of us entered this place, or a district council chamber, Stormont, the Senedd or Holyrood, to make our communities worse off, to make people less happy or to make them less prosperous. We are all motivated to try to make things a little better for our communities in the time—however long it happens to be—that we have the honour to represent them in whichever elected forum we happen to serve. I hope that that spirit of hope and optimism, which is writ large in the Government’s proposals, is not restricted to them and to the cross-party working on them, because this is also about recognising the good that can be achieved by this place and other forums for our people.

I conclude with a point that is relevant to us all. The Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, which I have the privilege of chairing, is currently taking evidence about the devastating impact of paramilitaries. The hon. Members for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) and other Members will have heard it all. It is a hangover that nobody can quite understand and that everybody involved in the Good Friday agreement rather expected to have disappeared. We are also starting an inquiry on the Good Friday agreement itself, and there is something that worries me. The Secretary of State talked about leadership, and it is not just about leadership in Northern Ireland—this place needs to see leadership as well. We need a clear direction to be set—a path, a clarion call—and then the troops will follow. If there is no route map and no direction, we will be left slightly rudderless, which will allow all sorts of competing corks to bob around in the water, crashing into each other and causing more harm than good.

We have heard evidence from those closely involved in the run-up to and the delivery of the Good Friday agreement, and my worry is whether it could have been delivered if social media had been around. Social media can occasionally curtail political bravery, courage and leadership. People read those who follow them and those they follow, creating a self-perpetuating, self-endorsing echo chamber with a similarity of world view, where the more strident voice gets heard because, in that echo chamber, only stridency stands out. All of us will be being buffeted by social media over the protocol and other issues: “If you do this, you’re a traitor,” “If you do that, you’re a Lundy,” “If you do this, you’re not a Unionist,” “If you do that, you’re not a nationalist,” or, “If you do something else, you can’t be a Conservative.” It is all nonsense. We are all public servants, and the Bill is about trying to get that back up and running. I wish all the parties well, and the people of Northern Ireland wish them well, so let us make the progress we need.

I think we all know why we are here yet again: the continued refusal of some to resume their seats in the Assembly and the continued impasse caused by Conservatives placing Brexit at a higher, more prized level than what they call their precious Union. It should go without saying that Northern Ireland is always governed better when it is governed locally and that the best place for MLAs is back at work in a fully functioning Assembly that is holding to account a fully functioning Executive that are getting on with tackling the many problems that exist in Northern Ireland today. The SNP will support an extension again, because at this point we do not see a great deal of point in driving voters in Northern Ireland to the polls until the politics have moved on somewhat.

It will come as an enormous relief to all concerned that I do not intend to speak in the later stages of the Bill’s proceedings, but I hope you will permit me, Madam Deputy Speaker, to make some remarks about Dáithí’s law, as others have done, and to pay my own tribute to his family for the thoroughly inspirational campaign they have conducted. Although the amendments to the Bill may be a less than perfect way of introducing that law, they at least get Northern Ireland where it needs to be. I agree wholeheartedly with the Secretary of State that this process should not become the norm in the absence of an Executive that can pass legislation, but on this occasion the ends very much justify the means, and we can very much justify looking the other way.

Dáithí’s law will bring renewed hope to many, and I very much hope he gets the outcome we all earnestly hope for, because so much hope and such positive outcomes can be brought to people in Northern Ireland. When Dáithí gets the outcome he deserves, as I am sure he will, it will allow him to lead a long and happy life, and I hope that that heart will be able to hold all the love that his mummy, his daddy and his family can possibly give him.

I echo all right hon. and hon. Members’ tributes to young Dáithí and his family, including his father, Máirtín, who is here with him. I had the pleasure of meeting them both at Lisburn in my constituency, and the case they brought was absolutely compelling. I welcome the Secretary of State’s decision to bring forward the amendments to the Bill. As you will know, Madam Deputy Speaker, I, the hon. Members for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) and for North Down (Stephen Farry) and other colleagues—in fact, all the sitting Members of the House from Northern Ireland—signed a cross-party proposal similar to the one brought forward by the Government. However, we are more than willing to support the Government’s proposal to ensure that enabling legislation is put in place to allow the Secretary of State to lay regulations implementing the necessary provisions, including the definitions of prescribed organs that are covered by the deemed consent. We very much support moving forward in that way.

I note the Secretary of State’s comments about the Assembly and the Executive. I am clear that we want to get a functioning Executive and Assembly up and running as soon as possible. He will know that when I took the decision last February to withdraw the First Minister from the Executive, I felt it was a measured response to the inactivity and failure of the EU to engage with the Government meaningfully to bring forward proposals that would address the concerns of Unionists. That enabled Ministers to remain in their Departments right up until the end of October, when, under the legislation, they could no longer remain in office. I understand why the Secretary of State has brought forward this Bill to extend the period for holding an election. Let me be clear that Democratic Unionist party Members do not fear going to the people; if and when an election is called, we will take our case to them. I noted the Secretary of State’s comment that he wants to create the space within which progress can be made—in that spirit, so do we. We are engaging with the Government on the vital matters that now need to be resolved to enable an agreement to be reached with the EU, one that we expect will result in fundamental change.

We are talking about change that will, first and foremost, respect Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom. That is not just a requirement on the part of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland, but one of the fundamental principles at the heart of the Belfast agreement signed in 1998. Section 1 of that agreement deals specifically with respecting the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and the principle of consent, and we need to see that fully restored. As I said to the Prime Minister earlier, it is important that we are dealing with not only the trading issues that are the consequence of the protocol and its imposition, but the democratic and constitutional issues that flow from the protocol—the democratic deficit and Northern Ireland’s place within the UK.

Let me ask about the space that, we hope, has been created to make progress. In the past, whatever the whys and wherefores, where a substantial segment of the community in Northern Ireland was prepared to resist, oppose and declare that they did not like the way politics worked in Northern Ireland, an accommodation had to be found to try to ensure that a new regime accommodated that view. Does my right hon. Friend agree that as we try to make progress in that space today, Unionists have to be afforded exactly the same position, whereby we reach an accommodation where both major blocs and everyone else buys into the process on which we build for the future?

I absolutely agree with my hon. Friend on that. He rightly says that at the heart of this is the need to take Northern Ireland forward on the basis of a cross-community consensus and that that consensus was broken down by the protocol, because not a single Unionist Member of the Assembly supports it. Therefore, we did not have a basis for moving Northern Ireland forward. That is important because the Executive and Assembly have important roles to play in the implementation of the protocol. I had Ministers, members of my party, who were in Departments and being required by the protocol to implement key elements that they felt were harmful to Northern Ireland. That was simply not a sustainable position. I do not want to be in the place again where I have to appoint Ministers at Stormont to Departments where they are required to implement measures that harm Northern Ireland’s ability to trade within the UK.

For us, the way to resolve the issues and move us forward lies in restoring Northern Ireland’s place within the internal market of the UK. Let me be clear that, as we have said from the outset, we are not looking to erect a hard border on the island of Ireland. I am not looking to create barriers to trade between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland; I do not want that for dairy farmers in Lagan Valley, beef farmers or whoever is wanting to continue with the arrangements that are there to facilitate cross-border trade. Coca-Cola is based in Lisburn in my constituency, and the Secretary of State visited recently. Some 80% of the products it produces in Lisburn are sold in the Republic of Ireland. I do not want Coca-Cola to have difficulty in trading both within Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Equally, I do not want the businesses in my constituency that have been impacted by the protocol to be inhibited in their ability to trade with the rest of the UK. The protocol inhibits that and that is the difficulty it creates.

This is an important issue. On Monday, my right hon. Friend, along with a number of Members from across the House, was able to attend the “Taste of Northern Ireland” event held in the Jubilee Room. Producers and food providers from all across Northern Ireland represented their trade there. One message that came out clearly from that was that trade in agrifoods is our biggest industry and it is being undermined by the regulations coming through from the EU. Those regulations must be shifted, and I am sure he welcomed the Prime Minister’s comments today that the regulations have to be part of this solution, if there is to be one.

I thank my hon. Friend for his comments. He has many farmers and some of the largest agrifood businesses in his constituency, and I know that some of his local farmers have had problems. They cannot bring seed potatoes from Scotland and that is having an impact on the potato sector in Northern Ireland. Some of his local farmers will have experienced difficulties when taking cattle to Scotland for sale and having to bring some of them back because they have not been sold at market; they face six weeks’ quarantine in part of the UK, in Scotland, before they can bring those cattle back to Northern Ireland. That is ridiculous, and those are the kinds of practical issues that we need to resolve.

These are indeed serious problems. I also went to that fantastic event on Monday. Many of the people I spoke to there had started their businesses in the past three to five years, since Brexit. The demand for Irish produce in Northern Ireland, across the island and internationally—it is being sold into Fortnum & Mason, and Harrods—is inspirational, and it is thriving. It is important that we celebrate those successes and the opportunities that some of us believe can come from the arrangements on offer from the EU and the negotiations that we want the Prime Minister to conclude. There is huge opportunity here and many of us want to see that for the people and the industries in Northern Ireland.

I thank the hon. Lady for her intervention and her continuous interest in Northern Ireland, which I know comes with family connections. She is right to say that we can walk into some of the largest stores in London and find butter from Dromara in my constituency and meat from Moira in my constituency. We are so proud that we make up 3% of the UK’s population and yet we feed almost one in five of the UK through our agrifood produce, which is of the highest quality. Of course, we want to preserve and protect it. We do see the opportunity to expand and grow our business and economy, and we welcome new businesses that are starting up. However, we also need to resolve the difficulties in trade and the barriers that have been erected as a result of the protocol. We believe they are unnecessary, both in terms of protecting the single market of the EU and being harmful to protecting the internal market of the UK.

I welcome the Prime Minister’s earlier comment that we are not talking here about tinkering around the edges. As I said in my party conference speech last year, this is about not just trade across the Irish sea but the application of EU law and how it inhibits our ability to trade within the UK. Fundamentally, that is what needs to be addressed. There is no need for EU law to apply on goods that are not leaving the internal market of the UK. We look to the Government now to bring forward a solution that addresses that issue, but it must go further than that.

On numerous occasions, I have referenced what we call the “democratic deficit”, by which I mean the fact that in Northern Ireland laws apply over which we have no say and on which we have no input. That is simply not acceptable. The Belfast agreement talks about the political and economic rights of the people of Northern Ireland. I would argue strongly that the protocol undermines our political and economic rights—specifically, our rights to legislate for the people who elect us. Although I understand the frustration that the Secretary of State mentioned in his speech about the non-functioning of the Executive, I want to be clear that, if the Executive are to function again, it cannot be on the basis that we are law takers.

The right hon. Gentleman and I have had a very similar view on the democratic deficit point, because we are both democrats. When the Committee went to Brussels 24 months ago, or thereabouts, the EU was very alert to that issue as well and pointed us in the direction of Norway to see how it deals with these matters—I am not saying that we should overlay that template. Does he see any merit in the way that the EU and the Government of Norway deal with the issue, with the rules applying, although Norway is not a member of the European Union, as a way of ensuring that Norwegian voices are heard? In the same way, the EU would want Northern Irish voices to be heard. Is there anything within that model that he thinks might work or help?

I thank the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee for that point. Of course, Norway is a sovereign country; Northern Ireland is not. Northern Ireland is part of the United Kingdom, and it is the Government of the United Kingdom who are the sovereign authority in these matters. We need to look at this not just at the level of our democratic institutions in Northern Ireland, but in relation to the mechanisms for the Government of the United Kingdom to intervene in circumstances where the UK’s internal market, and Northern Ireland’s place within it, is threatened by EU laws—whether they be changes to existing laws or new laws that are introduced. We cannot have a situation where, in respect of our trade across the Irish border, EU laws that apply to that trade impact on our ability to trade within the internal market of the United Kingdom. We certainly cannot have the situation that has arisen with the protocol, where article 6 of the Acts of Union, which govern the economic union of the United Kingdom and our place in it, is impliedly repealed by this House. That must be avoided in the future. In any arrangements, we need to have a safeguard that protects article 6 of the Acts of Union—our right to trade within the internal market of the United Kingdom without barriers being put in our way.

As I draw my remarks to a close, may I say that the reason we are here is that the protocol has undermined the cross-community consensus that is necessary, which my hon. Friend the Member for East Londonderry (Mr Campbell) referenced in his comments, to ensure that we have stable, functioning institutions in Northern Ireland. We are approaching the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, so let us not also lose sight of the successor agreements. We know that at St Andrew’s, at Hillsborough and at Stormont we have had to make changes that improve the way that Northern Ireland is governed. I have heard in recent days clarion calls to look again at the way in which our institutions operate and the principles at the heart of the agreement.

Let me put down a very clear marker on behalf of my party and, I believe, on behalf of Unionism generally: if the road that some want to take on reform is exclusion; if the road that some want to take on reform is majority rule; if the road that some want to take abandons the principle of cross-community consensus in Northern Ireland, that will not be acceptable to my party now or at any stage in the future. It is those principles that are essential to ensure that there is cross-community support for our political institutions in Northern Ireland. I say to the Government that, while we will look at what change can be made to improve the governance of Northern Ireland, we will not countenance the abandonment of that cross-community consensus that is at the heart of our institutions. In that respect, I welcome the comments made by the shadow Secretary of State that that is also the position of the Labour party. I recognise, too, the contributions that Tony Blair and others made to bringing the agreement together and the very delicate balances at the heart of that agreement. They must be protected as we go forward.

Madam Deputy Speaker, I hope that, within the timeframe that this Bill creates between now and next January for an election, we will see an outcome on negotiations and legislation that will bring fundamental change that will respect and restore Northern Ireland’s place within the United Kingdom and its internal market, that will ensure that we are not in a situation where we are rule takers from the EU and where EU law affects our ability to trade within the United Kingdom. That is not acceptable. Where we trade within our own country, the rules that apply should be those of the United Kingdom. Where we trade with the European Union, the rules that apply should be those of the European Union. That is clear. The protocol does not deliver that, and we need a solution that does.

May I remind Members that if they intervene during a speech, they should stay for the entirety of that speech, in case something they have said is referred back to. Sadly, those who are guilty of this have probably left the Chamber, but we can remind them when they return.

It is right, of course, that we are not having an election. The Secretary of State is correct to more comprehensively push that back, because it would be pointless to miss a series of little deadlines. Ultimately, an election without either a change in the context or a change in the rules would not put power in the hands of the people and would therefore be pointless.

This is a delicate time, a sensitive time, in relation to the negotiations. Hopefully, it is also a time of possibility—a possibility that we can find a deal and an outcome with which most reasonable people can live. We have all said many words in this Chamber and outside of it about the parameters of that, so I will not dwell on it this afternoon.

Clearly, the hope and the goal is to get back into Stormont as soon as possible to get on with the things that people desperately need us to progress on—in care, climate, housing and jobs. Without doubt, health is the most acute and burning issue, in terms of the need that is out there and the corrosive impact of stop-start government and what that has done to our health service over the past number of years. This has not been an overnight problem and there will not be an overnight solution. In the absence of an Assembly, we do not have health transformation; we are having ad hoc bits and pieces of collapse, which are not cost effective and not what clinicians would wish them to be, and they are not building confidence in communities about what is ahead for public health provision.

We can look at any number of examples of services in different geographical areas, but no more so than in the South West Acute Hospital in Enniskillen, where services are falling over and having to be closed without any sense of the compensatory provision that people would wish to see. People are seeing loss of services without any gain and without the improvements in health provision and outcomes that are possible if we do this properly with a locally accountable Minister and an engaged Health Committee.

I do not want to labour this point, but it is very clear that the stalemate is eroding public services. It is eroding belief in politics and it is giving comfort to some of the anti-democratic forces still skulking in the background who have not really come to terms with the agreement and with the will of most people in our society to move forward and to get on with solving our problems and creating our shared future.

This Bill, like a few that we have seen recently, is a bit of a sticking plaster on failure, but some real good is coming out of it today—thank goodness—in the progress of Dáithí’s law. I want to speak to Dáithí:

“Tá tú i do chodladh anois. Maith thú. Cinnte, tá sibh tuirseach i ndiaidh an taisteal. Duit féin, do do mhamaí, do dhaidí agus, anois, do dheirfiúr bheag, ba chomhair daoibh a bheith an-bróidiúil as an bhfeachtas a throid sibh, as an misneach a léirigh sibh, agus as an mbua mór a bhain sibh amach le chéile. Agus a Dhaithí, ár laoch, iarraim ar Dhia go mbeidh dea-scéal agus croí nua agat go luath.”

To Dáithí, to your family, to your mum and dad, and now to your wee brother: You should be so proud of all that you have achieved together—the huge progress that you have made. You have been a hero to so many people and we all just hope that you get good news and a new heart soon, and we are all with you.

It is important that we say well done to that lovely family for all that they have achieved, and to so many people who have progressed the issue over the years. I pay tribute to Jo-Anne Dobson, an Ulster Unionist MLA, who advanced the issue substantially in a previous Assembly, bringing the issue to public attention and making it a political reality. She loosened the lid.

The hon. Lady rightly refers to Jo-Anne Dobson, who has been through this situation—she had a young son, Mark, who had a transplant, without which he would not be here today. The hon. Lady looks to history, and the history is right, and she has expressed it in a very kind fashion.

I thank the hon. Gentleman. I pay tribute to others, including Fearghal McKinney, who is here from the British Heart Foundation and has worked on this issue for many years and with his colleagues has helped to get all the ducks in a row to allow the family to have the reach they need and the regulations in place. I also pay tribute to Joe Brolly and Shane Finnegan from my own parish of St Brigid’s. Joe Brolly’s act of decency and humanity a few years ago in giving his kidney to a relative stranger opened many people’s eyes; it stopped us in our tracks and underlined how meaningful and how important for life organ donation is.

I hope all those people, particularly Dáithí and his family, who brought the issue to this point, take some pride in and encouragement from their achievement, and I hope it will encourage and remind all of us in elected life that we can do good things when we work together. There are many things we need to do, and hopefully these couple of weeks can see progress and allow us collectively to get on with making many other necessary and positive changes.

I will say at the outset that the Bill going through the House today is an illustration and example of the futility of trying to use political blackmail to move my party from its principled opposition to legislation and to an agreement that is designed to take us out of the United Kingdom. I say to the Secretary of State that, to protect his own credibility in Northern Ireland, he had far better not listen to the anti-Unionist voices in the Northern Ireland Office, but use his political antennae to know what is the right thing to do.

This Bill illustrates that on four occasions the attempt to blackmail my party back into the Assembly by the threat of an election did not work, because the issues at stake are far too important simply to cave in to the threat of an election in which we might or might not have damage done to us, or to go back into an institution where, as Unionists, we would have been required to collaborate with an arrangement that was designed to, and will—as we have absolutely no doubt and as we have warned time and again—separate us from the country to which we belong. I hope the Secretary of State learns that lesson. We are not moving on an issue of principle.

The Secretary of State said in his remarks that he is disappointed that the Executive has not been re-formed. He should not be surprised. He and I campaigned to leave the European Union. We did so because we believed it was important that, as a country, we had the ability to make choices about the laws we had, the direction we took and the partnerships we made on trade, to do the best for the citizens of our own country. Yet, as a result of the protocol, Northern Ireland—and he knows it—has not gained the benefits that he and I campaigned for and that those who voted for Brexit wished to have. We are still left within the embrace of Brussels because of the imposition of EU law.

That fundamental problem is at the heart of the action we have taken. I have heard many hon. Members say today, as we will hear time and again, that this must be done to protect the Good Friday agreement. The fact of the matter, now clearly illustrated, is that the protocol and the Good Friday agreement cannot sit side by side. Indeed, one of the authors of the Good Friday agreement, the late Lord Trimble, made it quite clear that in order to keep the protocol intact, the Government would have to rip up the Good Friday agreement—and that, in effect, is what has happened. The leader of our party, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), has made that quite clear.

The consent principle of the Good Friday agreement has been removed. Even the voting mechanisms that are allowed to make decisions about whether the protocol applies have had to be manipulated and changed, and the provision in the Good Friday agreement for cross-community support on that particular issue had to be removed. The Good Friday agreement and the protocol cannot sit in place side by side. One of the two goes. That is why, as a party, we have said there must be changes to the protocol.

Why is this Bill necessary? The Secretary of State made it clear that he did not believe that an election would change anything. Why would an election not change anything? It is because he knows in his heart, even if the officials who advise him do not know it, the suppressed anger within the Unionist community at being pushed out of a country that many Unionists died, during a terrorist campaign, to remain part of. Thousands of them refused to be intimidated by threat of violence to vote in the way Sinn Féin and the IRA wanted. He knows that that anger and that determination have not changed.

All the talk about the impact of the Assembly’s not working on the day-to-day lives of people has to be measured against whether the Assembly was functioning to deal with those issues anyway. No, it was not: we had a black hole in our budget during the time the Assembly was sitting. Some of the increases in waiting lists in the health service occurred while the Assembly was working, and many of the other problems have not emerged since February last year; they are long-term problems that were not dealt with even when the Assembly was working.

Even with some of the decisions that people would like to see made, the majority of the Unionist population now realise what is at stake, and they would not find it acceptable for their Unionist representatives to go back into an Assembly even under the threat of calling an election. We have had a lot of different threats. We were told that the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill could not progress in this House unless we got a Speaker. We were told the electricity payments could not happen unless Stormont did them. All those threats have been made in the past. I must tell the Secretary of State that this problem is not going away, and this party is not going to collaborate in an Assembly where we are expected to implement that very protocol until there are changes made.

What kind of changes could avoid legislation such as this having to be made again? I think that is very clear. Some people have presented this as some kind of trade problem, saying, “If only you could do away with the trade issues and have trade flowing freely, the issue would go away.”, but it is much more fundamental than that. The trade issue only occurs because there is a different law applying and a different lawmaking body in Northern Ireland from those in the rest of the United Kingdom.

We are not subject to British law anymore—we are not subject to laws made by institutions set up in the United Kingdom. We are subject to laws made in Brussels. Those laws are imposed on us; we have no say on them, and if they are detrimental to our country, we cannot change them. If we try to not implement them—if we try to ignore them—there is a foreign court that will drag us into the dock to make sure that we do.

Would my right hon. Friend agree that the issue is not only about the laws? A raft of regulations is coming upon Northern Ireland daily and impacting on our principles and the practical issue of how we do business. For example, at the end of this week, regulations that affect the organic seal on eggs will put our egg industry effectively out of business. Those regulations will cut off our market here in Great Britain. We will not be able to market those eggs in GB, because a regulation from Europe says our organic egg products must be produced in a particular way that appeals only to the European market, where we do not have any sales.

Would the right hon. Gentleman mind saying what he thinks the specific impact will be on the dairy industry, and the many producers that sell about a third of their milk to the Republic of Ireland? What would be the environmental impact of having to dispose of a third of the milk produced in Northern Ireland? Where would that be sold if we did not have our privileged access to the single market?

The hon. Member should think about the issue the other way around. What would be the impact on the food industry in the Irish Republic if the EU and the Irish were so bold and so stupid as to cut off a third of the milk that they need to make cheese, butter and everything else in the factories there? There are always ways of working around these issues. There is an idea that, somehow or other, if we do not conform to EU law, we cannot trade with the EU. America does not conform to EU law; it does not have EU laws imposed on it. China does not have EU laws imposed on it, but it can trade freely, and its trade with the EU is worth billions. Of course there are ways of addressing the issue.

I am sure that the right hon. Gentleman would recognise that the difference between Northern Ireland and China or the United States when it comes to access to the European Union is that Northern Ireland currently has unfettered access to the European Union market for goods, whereas neither China nor the United States does. They have access, of course, but not on the same trade terms.

The cost of that is fettered access to trade with GB, our biggest trading partner. When I look at the balance, the choice I would make, as a representative of Northern Ireland’s consumers and businesses, is to have unfettered access to, and supply of goods from, GB. I would rather have that than have to pay the cost of fettered trade with GB simply to have unfettered access to the Irish Republic, when we know that there are other ways around the issue of trading with the Irish Republic.

Does the right hon. Member recognise that of all the goods coming from other countries into the EU, an average of only about 1.3% are physically checked? How could it be right for there to be checks on a greater proportion of the goods moving within the United Kingdom? That cannot be right.

The hon. Member is right, and that illustrates just how much trade with GB is fettered in order to get unfettered access for a small amount of produce in the Irish Republic. Nearly 50% of the border checks for the EU were done for goods coming through Northern Ireland, even though we account for 0.4% of trade with the EU. That is the price being paid. Leaving aside the political and constitutional issues, there are huge economic issues from that unfairness.

The Secretary of State cannot and should not be surprised or disappointed that, as a Unionist party, we refuse to take our part in an Executive who would require by law—the courts have ruled on this—that our Ministers administer and impose that kind of arrangement on the people of Northern Ireland. That is not to mention the unknown future: there is a whole raft of EU law that we cannot even see—it is over the horizon at moment—that will cause us to diverge further from GB. That will make us a colony of Brussels—that is how it has been described—and will damage our economic, political and constitutional relationships with the UK. The Secretary of State cannot expect that of us.

That brings me to the point that I want to make: how do we get out of this situation? As my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley has mentioned, we welcome any changes that have been made. We have not seen the detail of them—nobody has—so it is really hard to assess exactly the extent of the changes on trade, checks, VAT and state aid, and what exactly they mean. Until we see them in writing, we are certainly not going to take the word of those who brief us. Even if their intentions are honest, everyone will have their own interpretation of those things. We need to see the changes to measure them.

A central question needs to be addressed; if it is not, there cannot and will not be a positive response from my party. What do we do about the 300 areas of law—not 300 laws, but 300 areas of law—to which Northern Ireland is currently subject that are being determined in Brussels? Do they come back to the devolved Assembly? There are three parties represented in the Chamber today, and some of them have already said that we should go with the deal, even though they have not seen it. We have not turned the deal down because we have not seen it in its entirety; we have simply given guidelines on what we expect to see in it.

I say this to all the parties here who send representatives to the Northern Ireland Assembly: what kind of public representative wants to be, and would support being, part of an Assembly that has no say over a whole raft of the laws that impact on businesses and consumers in their constituency? What kind of representative would accept sitting and working in an Assembly, and perhaps acting as Minister, if it meant implementing laws that they did not initiate and cannot amend, but have to implement, even if those are detrimental to their constituents? That is the democratic deficit, and it affects not just Unionists, but every party and every public representative that sits in the Assembly. That issue has to be addressed.

The only way to address the issue is to ensure that when laws are made for Northern Ireland, they are made either in this place, if they are on retained issues, or in Stormont, if they are on devolved issues. That is the ultimate test. Once that happens, we will not need to worry about trade barriers and everything else, because we will have a seamless market within the United Kingdom. I hope we get that outcome, because I support devolution. In fact, I was a member of the Executive at a time when they worked at their best; I am not taking any credit for that. I can think of legislation that I took through the Assembly that has been copied in other legislatures across the United Kingdom. The Executive were innovative, and able to respond to local issues. I can see the value of devolution, but it can work only if it is based on the principle of consent from both sides of the community—especially in a divided society such as Northern Ireland.

I take issue with the shadow Secretary of State’s questioning whether there is any need for the protocol Bill. I believe that in these negotiations, the EU has to understand that there is an alternative. Not to proceed with the protocol Bill would be wrong, because there must be a fall-back position if the negotiations do not succeed.

It seems that all the wrong choices have been made. For a couple of years now, the EU has wanted access to important commercial data, and before we have even made an agreement with the EU, we have surrendered and said that we will make that data available. The EU has been complaining about there being no physical border posts, and what have we done ahead of reaching any agreement? We have agreed that, since Stormont will not do it, the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs will take responsibility for building those border posts, which are quite extensive. When I look at the size of the post in my constituency, I wonder whether everything will go through the green lane, because we have a massive 10-acre site, which DEFRA intends to develop with a huge building that would do Dover proud, for dealing with east-west trade. Those kinds of signal do not help us to reach a solution and agreement with the EU.

We wish the Government well. We think that their approach to these negotiations, as I have tried to illustrate, will not make it easy for them to get the concessions required from the EU. They have an alternative, whether that is the dual regulation alternative in the Northern Ireland protocol, or the mutual enforcement proposals that my party has put forward. The one thing I would say is that this requires radical change, not tinkering. What we have seen so far appears to be tinkering.

I rise to support the Bill, and to confirm to the Secretary of State that he is doing the right thing in moving the election timetable; as things stand, that is probably the Bill’s sole purpose, even though the debate has ranged far and wide. That said, I welcome it as a potential vehicle, and appreciate that there are procedures to go through to enable Dáithí’s law to come into full effect. I join colleagues in paying tribute to Dáithí and his family for their campaign, and thanking the British Heart Foundation for its kind support. I also place on the record our collective thanks to House officials, who have worked very creatively over the past few days to facilitate this provision, and of course to you, Madam Deputy Speaker, and to Mr Speaker for your engagement with this issue. I am sure the teddy bear will be greatly cherished for a long time.

I think it fair to say that an election will not achieve much in the short to medium term; if anything, it could be counterproductive, especially given that we are at a delicate stage in the negotiating process. Of course, there is a mandate from May last year, which is still unfulfilled, and there are a lot of restless MLAs who are unable to do their full job. We talk about how there is a democratic deficit around EU law, but I cannot avoid making the point that by far the biggest democratic deficit is the failure to have an Assembly in Northern Ireland that can take control of devolved issues. At the moment, we have issues that are stuck, and while civil servants are doing their best to fill the gap, it is not a tenable situation. If some quarters put as much effort into addressing that as is put into creating an artificial battle over EU law, we would be in a much better place.

I respect the fact that we are at a delicate stage in the process. The intention is that if we get a deal that has cross-party buy-in, we will see the restoration of the institutions in the very near future. If we do not see that happening, we have to avoid a political vacuum being created. People will say that this Bill creates space, but space can be a positive or a negative thing, and it can also be a vacuum. If there is no restoration in the near future, we need to address reform of the institutions and, in particular, the situation whereby parties can veto power-sharing, never mind decisions that cut across communities and create difficulties. Power-sharing has been vetoed in the past and is being vetoed today, and that is not a tenable situation.

This is not about excluding any party; it is about a situation where, if a party is determined to exclude itself, that will not bring the whole show down or prevent other parties, which are willing to govern, from proceeding. However, my preference is for all parties that have a mandate to work together in Northern Ireland for the collective good of our society.

Can the hon. Member explain why, in the three years when Sinn Féin excluded itself from the Executive and we had no Executive, the Alliance party not only did not propose, but refused to support any move that would have excluded Sinn Féin?

I am grateful to the right hon. Member for that intervention because it enables me to reinforce my point. My party has been seeking reform of the institutions since the passage of the Good Friday agreement. We have been consistent in highlighting that the particular form of coalition Government that applies is too rigid and has the potential for deadlock. I have to say that that is something the DUP also consistently pursued over those years, until fairly recently. With reference to the period in which Sinn Féin brought the institutions down, I encourage the right hon. Member to go on our website and look through the succession of conference speeches by our party leader, Naomi Long, in which she regularly called out the blockages in the system and called for reform of the institutions. My party has been extremely consistent on this point.

I do not want to spend too much time talking about the protocol, because that is not why we are here today, but obviously it is the backdrop or context for our discussion of the Bill and there are a few points it is important to reinforce. First, most people and businesses in Northern Ireland want to see an outcome, and they are pragmatic about the protocol; they understand why it exists and that it needs a measure of reform to work more effectively. In essence, they want to maximise the opportunities that come from it while addressing its deficiencies. That is where most people are in their headspace.

It is worth stressing, particularly in this Chamber and throughout Great Britain, that Unionism represented by the DUP is only one part of the equation of Northern Ireland society. Obviously, the DUP has an important view, which has to be taken into account, but it is far from being the majority viewpoint in Northern Ireland. It is important that commentators and others take a balanced view on what is being said in Northern Ireland and the interests being advanced by the people of Northern Ireland. For me and, I think, some others, the key test of the way forward is essentially that we preserve market access, both to the wider European Union market and to the UK economy as a whole. That is the key test for most pragmatic people and businesses.

I hate to come back to this point, but article 6 of the protocol states that there should be unfettered access to the UK internal market. Twice so far in this debate I have raised the matter of organic eggs produced in Northern Ireland. Our market is the United Kingdom, not the Republic of Ireland, yet as of Friday this week, because of EU regulations applying to Northern Ireland, our farmers cannot sell eggs to the rest of the United Kingdom. How is that helping the hon. Member’s case?

My first response is that I did not advocate Brexit. The protocol will never be a clean solution to these issues. There is no perfect outcome when a single market is broken up in the way that has happened. This is about managing and mitigating the fallout.

The hon. Gentleman may well be pleased to know that I recognise his point about eggs. I have written to a Minister at the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs to advocate for ongoing flexibility on that. For some agricultural products, Great Britain is our main market, but for others—particularly milk and the wider dairy sector—the Republic of Ireland and beyond is the key market. There are a lot of subtleties there that we have to work through.

There is frustration at the moment about the fact that we are almost in danger of re-treading a lot of old arguments that I hoped had been put to bed, but which seem to be resurfacing. With reference to Brexit and Northern Ireland, there are essentially only three choices available to policy makers. The first is to go for a soft Brexit, minimising diversions between the European Union and the UK or Great Britain, and that would ease tensions particularly in relation to Northern Ireland. The second is to go for a hard border on the island of Ireland, which, for various reasons, is politically and economically unviable. The third is to have some form of special arrangement for Northern Ireland—we could call it a “protocol”, or we could call it something else. That involves Northern Ireland being treated differently in certain respects, which is not new; it has been part and parcel of the Northern Ireland’s entire history from the early 1920s.

People get exercised about the Acts of Union being breached, but no such arguments were made in 1920, 1949 or even in 1998 with the Good Friday agreement. In practice, a single-party Unionist Government in Belfast were more than happy to diverge from the rest of the United Kingdom whenever that was viewed as in their interests. That is before we even get to the current iteration of devolution.

I will focus in particular on the democratic deficit. As I have already said, that was not an issue prior to Brexit, when the UK had full representation at all levels of the European Union. Our biggest democratic deficit by far is the failure to have an Assembly or an Executive alongside the other institutions of the Good Friday agreement. Looking ahead, we need to drill down and see what is most important in terms of addressing the democratic deficit. I recognise that there is an issue, as did the European Union in its October 2021 non-paper.

The key issue is ensuring that Northern Ireland officials, businesses, civic organisations and political voices are able to get in at ground zero whenever a new EU law that may become applicable to Northern Ireland is being designed. As I am sure everyone in the Chamber will appreciate, the most important time to try to influence a law is before the final decision is taken, rather than while it is being ratified through the various structures, when it becomes much more difficult to change the course of action. The Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), made reference to Norway. Places such as Norway, Liechtenstein, Iceland and even Switzerland, which are outside the European Union but are part of the single market or within its orbit, direct most of their lobbying energy at Brussels. We do not at present have that route directly in Northern Ireland, and that is what I want to see addressed when we talk about a democratic deficit.

By contrast, the sign-off of EU law is a secondary issue. In practice, once those laws are developed, it is in our interests to go along with them to preserve dual market access. However, I have concerns about the tenor of the democratic deficit emerging from this deal. If we end up in a situation in which there is a lack of certainty about Northern Ireland’s ongoing compliance with the aspects of EU law relevant to us gaining access to the single market, that will have a detrimental impact on the certainty of Northern Ireland’s existing businesses that they can trade with the EU. That huge issue may well deter investors from coming to Northern Ireland. There is the danger of a big asterisk beside Northern Ireland, meaning that, although we have access to the single market, it will say between brackets that it is subject to whatever mechanism is used to try to cover up this non-existent issue. That very process creates uncertainty for businesses.

I do not want to see a situation whereby, in trying to fix one particular problem in the current stand-off, we end up perhaps inadvertently creating a wider problem that acts to the detriment of our current and future businesses and the future prosperity of Northern Ireland. People talk about the “sweet spot” of Northern Ireland’s dual market access, but that will only come to fruition if we do several things. We need to promote it politically and through our investment agency, but we must not create any uncertainty in that regime beyond what we currently have.

That also applies to the European Court of Justice, for example. Whenever people talk about the European Court of Justice coming in and imposing things on Northern Ireland, I say the opposite: the Court is a means to an end. If we are abiding by a certain aspect of EU law, the Court comes as part of it. If we want to put various layers in between, that is fine—nobody will object to that particular point. But the converse is that there may well be a situation in which there is uncertainty about the access of Northern Ireland businesses to parts of the single market, and in which we are wrongly blocked from access in investment decisions, procurement opportunities or things along those lines. In that context, the European Court of Justice becomes our potential ally, opening up those doors that have been wrongly shut in the face of Northern Ireland businesses. Again, it is important that we do not inadvertently throw that out and miss the wider point of what is in the best economic interests of Northern Ireland.

I will conclude on the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill. It is appropriate that the protocol Bill is parked or drifts away—or however that may happen. I trust that the Secretary of State, who has been at the coalface, will appreciate this point more than most. Progress has been made over the past number of months because, under this Government, trust has been rebuilt with the European Union. We saw that with the breakthroughs on data sharing and, just before Christmas, on longer grace periods for veterinary medicines. But we cannot build trust and, at the same time, retain the tool to break that same trust. That is not going to close this deal.

I wish the Government well over the coming hours and days—but hopefully not weeks—in concluding a deal, but that deal has to be one that works in the interests of all the people of Northern Ireland, not just those from a Unionist background, and that works for the future economy and prosperity of our region.

I welcome the amendment to address organ donation. This moment would not have happened without the courage of a little boy, who has been mentioned so often in the debate. We really commend Dáithí, his parents Máirtín and Seph, and his little brother for their determination and tenacity in bringing about real change in Northern Ireland. It is wonderful.

We all have ideas and ideology and want to bring about change and make our mark on society, but that little boy of six really has done, and I think that is absolutely amazing. It should inspire us all to go that extra mile to stretch ourselves and do the right thing. I also pay tribute to Fearghal, who I know has played a key role in supporting the family and helping them on this journey. Navigating the legislation and being in the right place at the right time is not easy, and I commend him for it.

As a mum myself, I wish Dáithí all the best for his future medical support and care. When I looked at him yesterday, I could not help but be moved. I thought, “Here is a little boy who is fighting for everyone else, yet he needs us to fight for him.” He has such an amazing mum and dad, who have done so much for him in his short life by pushing this issue. We wish him well as he goes for his surgery in the not-too-distant future. I assure him of our thoughts and prayers for that journey.

I also pay tribute to a constituent of mine, Jo-Anne Dobson, who has already been mentioned. She has been very much at the fore of this debate. She brought the matter to the Assembly a long number of years ago when she was an MLA. She brought it because it was personal to her as well. She, too, must be commended, because she gave the gift of life to her son, Mark, when she donated her kidney to help to save him. I commend Jo-Anne for her efforts; I know that she would be proud of Dáithí today and all that he has achieved.

My colleagues and I want to see devolution. We want devolution that delivers on issues such as health, education and public services—devolution that works. We are frustrated that we find ourselves debating this legislation in the House today. It should not be needed, but sadly it is necessary, because ultimately the Government have not acted or been able to resolve the long-running issue of the Northern Ireland protocol. That issue alone is the bar to the restoration of the devolved institutions.

Over recent days, there has been a great deal of speculation about progress and reaching a new agreement. Let me be clear: the DUP stands ready to restore the Executive, but that can happen only on the basis that the principle of cross-community consent for such a restoration is in place. Members who pour out affection and commitment to the Belfast agreement cannot escape the fact that Unionism consent for power sharing does not currently exist, and that is the test for any deal that may or may not emerge over the coming days.

My colleagues who were elected as MLAs in May stood on that platform and received a mandate for their stance, and we will not betray that trust—there will be no fudge. My party has set out its tests on which any agreement will be judged. The Government know those tests well, and it is this party and the Unionist community from which we hold a mandate that will assess any agreement against those tests. This place is known throughout the world as a beacon of democracy—as a nation, we stand with those whose democracy, even today, is undermined by threats from tyrants or dictators—but we the people of Northern Ireland, because of the Northern Ireland protocol, face the erosion of democracy at the behest of the EU.

It is pertinent to make the point that:

“My visceral objection is to unaccountable power…we ought not to live our lives under unaccountable power. Power has no legitimacy other than that given to it by the people by voting.”

Those are not my words or those of my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson), but those of the Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office, the hon. Member for Wycombe (Mr Baker) when explaining his opposition to the EU. The democratic deficit foisted on Northern Ireland by the protocol comes through a power that is “unaccountable” to the people of Northern Ireland and that has “no legitimacy” in the terms described by the Minister, because not one person in Northern Ireland, to whom the rules would pertain, has voted for them.

I trust that that interview by Church Times reflects the Minister’s principles about an acceptable outcome to the negotiations and that he has not had a road to Damascus conversion from defender of democracy to someone who bows down to unaccountable EU power in the corner of the UK that I am honoured to call home. That point must be addressed, as must the totally unacceptable economic impact of the protocol.

On the Damascus road experience, a number of people, parties and organisations in Northern Ireland seem to have been enlightened that the protocol, as it was presented, is definitely not working. Those are the same people who wanted it to be fully and rigorously implemented, but they have now had that Damascus road experience and say it needs major rework.

I fully agree with my hon. Friend.

The protocol costs a significant amount annually. Some £350 million a year is spent on the trader support service, which is £18,000 an hour—let us think how that could be utilised to make things better in Northern Ireland. The protocol is damaging a wide range of small family businesses and larger industries in my constituency. My hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) eloquently highlighted the issue around organic eggs. Such issues have a daily impact on our business.

Again, there is an issue around seed potatoes that Wilson’s Country in my constituency has been at the fore of fighting, because it cannot bring seed potatoes from Scotland. That would be unacceptable anywhere else in the UK, so the Government should not accept it for the people of Northern Ireland. It beggars belief that the Government have stood by while trade has reorientated from within the UK. It serves no benefit to the UK; that diversion of trade must be addressed fully in any new agreement.

The Government know well what must be done, and they know the prize. The NIO prioritised a whopping £600,000 of taxpayers’ money to celebrate the 25th anniversary of the Belfast agreement, yet the longer it takes to reach an agreement on the protocol that respects the fundamentals of the Belfast agreement, the more air is escaping from the party balloons. Although the Bill extends the period in which an Executive must be formed following an election by 52 weeks, my hope is that this new deadline is never met, and that we have our Executive back sooner rather than later. To do so, however, the EU will have to stretch itself. If it does, it will unlock the prize of devolution; if it does not, it will be responsible for the demise of our political process and the Belfast agreement. Time will tell.

First, I join other hon. Members in congratulating Dáithí on the law that will forever bear his name. It has been a remarkable campaign for an extremely good cause. Secondly, I say to the Secretary of State that I support the Bill, because it is a sensible response to a problem that has gone on for far too long. It is never desirable to postpone elections, but in this case I think it is necessary.

As the debate has unfolded, we have been reminded that if it were not for the row over the protocol, we would not be sitting here debating the Bill. The Bill is a symptom of the mess that we have got ourselves into—one in which rather too many people have said, “We are not moving.” We will solve this issue only if those people are prepared to move in the interests of finding a way forward.

We all know that leaving the European Union was always going to create a problem for the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and just about everyone I have ever spoken to has agreed that that could not be dealt with on the border—there could be no checks, infrastructure or anything else. Something therefore had to be done to address that, while recognising that the European Union needs to be able to ensure that goods coming into its jurisdiction meet its rules. That is perfectly reasonable and we would expect no less for the United Kingdom.

In fairness to the Government, they acknowledged that from the start, rather than saying, “Well, it’s the EU’s problem, not ours, and there’s nothing that we need to do.” As a result, they came up with the Northern Ireland protocol, as we must remember. I do not want to dwell on the ebbs and flows of the rather sorry tale of what has transpired since, which I do not think reflects particularly well on the Government or, in the interest of balance, on the EU Commission.

At the beginning, the EU Commission appeared to advance the argument that what happened in the Irish sea should be treated like any other third-country border of the European Union—that was where it started from. In other words, every single thing would have to be checked, and nothing that did not conform to the rules of the single market would be allowed to make it across the Irish sea into Northern Ireland.

Very early on, the EU came to realise that that was not going to work. The best example of that is medicines, where under full application of the rules, the EU would have said, “Unless your medicines for NHS patients in Northern Ireland have been approved by the European Medicines Agency, they are not getting on the ferry, or on the plane.” It did not take very long for the Commission to work out that that would be an absurd position to adopt, and as a result, it changed EU law. That solved the problem, but it also established a really important principle: the EU can be flexible where it wants to be flexible. That should give us all encouragement in trying to sort this out.

Is my right hon. Friend aware that a review into the medicine Roaccutane, which is under an EU licence, has not been published because of issues with the Northern Ireland protocol? Since then, there have been 81 adverse health effects, including one suicide. It has been specifically said that that delay is due to the Northern Ireland protocol and the issues with the licensing arrangements. Roaccutane is licensed across the EU, and unfortunately the publication of the report has been held up, with 81 adverse health events as a result.

I am sorry to hear what my hon. Friend says. That is news to me—I do not know anything about it. No doubt, those with responsibility for trying to find a solution will have heard what my hon. Friend has said, and will see what more can be done to address the issue.

At the heart of the argument has been this really quite simple, but very complex, question: “How do you identify a good that is moving into Northern Ireland and is going to stay in Northern Ireland, and how do you identify a good that is moving into Northern Ireland on its way to the Republic?” That is why the concept of goods at risk was at the heart of the Northern Ireland protocol, but it was never defined in its application. The negotiation since, between the Government and the Commission, has all been about what that concept means in practice.

Eventually, the EU and the UK both developed their proposals—again, with slightly different names—for what we now refer to as red and green lanes. When I saw that the Commission had proposed that and the Government had also proposed it, it did not seem to me that there was a huge amount of difference between the two concepts, and to judge by the reporting—we are all slightly in the dark, because we have not seen any text—some agreement may well have been reached, which would allow goods that are coming into Northern Ireland and staying there to not be checked on a routine basis. I hope very much that that is an accurate reflection of what has been happening, because it provides the basis for a settlement.

Why does this matter so much? First of all, let us be frank: our relations with the European Union have been in a pretty bad place for far too long, and as the economic consequences of leaving the European Union are becoming more and more evident, that ruptured relationship stands in the way of trying to address some of the problems that arise from our exit from the European Union. To respond to the hon. Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart)—it is a pleasure to follow her, because she set out her views very clearly indeed—many small businesses in Great Britain will describe the problems that they now face, and many have given up exporting to the European Union because we have left the European Union. It is not just small businesses in Northern Ireland that are facing problems. We cannot address those problems until the Northern Ireland protocol is solved. That is why sorting this out is so urgent.

As was said by the hon. Member for North Down (Stephen Farry), we want Northern Ireland to take advantage of the fantastic opportunity it has: my constituents do not have access to the single market, but his constituents do. The right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson) raised a point about the democratic deficit, which I will come to, because he raises a very fair issue. The difference is that in Britain, we are largely subject to exactly the same laws because of EU retained law, but we in GB do not have the opportunity to export to the single market. Northern Ireland is subject to exactly the same laws, but does have that opportunity, which puts Northern Ireland businesses in a very advantageous position compared with businesses in my constituency. That is why, on my last visit to Northern Ireland, the businesses I spoke to said that they were really quite keen on that benefit that the protocol gives them. We need to get this solved.

Secondly, the fact that the Executive and the Assembly are not working is something that we should all be worried about. The EU now better understands the consequences of that than it perhaps realised at the beginning. We need both to be restored as quickly as possible.

My third point is a plea against absolutism in addressing this problem, and I cite the role of the European Court of Justice as an example of that potential risk. Of course, if there is any argument about what EU single market law means, the only body to which any person can reasonably go to try to find the answer is the Court of Justice of the European Union, because they are the EU’s rules, not ours. However, that is not the same as saying that any such ruling will absolutely determine the outcome of a disagreement or dispute about the implementation of the protocol within the wider dispute resolution mechanism. The example of medicines, which I gave earlier, is a really good illustration of that: a full application of EU law would have prevented medicines turning up in Northern Ireland, but in the end, a way forward was found. The willingness of the EU to delay the application of the rules to veterinary medicines, which I very much welcome, is another example of the flexibility that the EU has come to recognise it needs to apply.

To address the point that the right hon. Member for East Antrim made, I hope that consulting the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly on new single market rules and how they might apply in Northern Ireland will be another part of an agreement, if one can be reached.

Given the examples of flexibility, change and evolution that the right hon. Gentleman has highlighted, does he agree with me, and with a growing body of opinion, that the legal justification—forget anything else—for the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill has completely disappeared? Renegotiation is going on, and flexibility is being demonstrated. If the threshold for article 16 to be triggered has not been reached, it would be a complete and utter waste of time to introduce legislation in this place that is not required

I agree completely with the Chair of the Select Committee—I did not agree with the justification in the first place, but he makes an extremely powerful point, which I will return to briefly towards the end of my remarks. Indeed, I have asked Ministers why, if they have a problem with the protocol, they are not using the mechanism for dealing with disputes that they have negotiated—namely, article 16—as opposed to introducing the Bill. But, for reasons that still escape me, the Government decided that they were not going to go down that particular route.

The reason I raise the European Court of Justice as an example is that, if there is anyone who says, “Unless the ECJ is completely written out of any agreement, we cannot back a deal”, I fundamentally disagree with them. There are some voices in parts of the House and the wider community who appear to take that position, but the Government must disagree with that position too, because of the obligation we have—which the Government have always accepted—to ensure that the integrity of the single market in the Republic and beyond is respected, without unreasonably affecting the flow of goods between Northern Ireland and GB.

Finally, if an agreement is reached—and I very much hope that it is—two things will have to happen that, apart from anything else, will render this Bill’s provisions no longer necessary. First, the EU will have to drop the infraction proceedings it is currently taking against the United Kingdom for unlawfully, as the EU sees it, prolonging the grace periods; and secondly, the Government will have to drop the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, referring to the point just made by the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. Again, we read that there are voices even within Government who say that the Government should not drop it, but I cannot conceive of any circumstances in which a deal will be done in which the Government say, “Great, let’s sign. By the way, we are just hanging on to that Bill that we put into Parliament, in case we don’t like what happens subsequently.”

The reason that will never work comes to the question of trust. The Secretary of State will understand there has been a terrible breakdown of trust between the UK and the EU over this matter. I have spoken to lots of people, and it is the thing that is mentioned more than anything else. The Government negotiated the protocol, signed it and urged Parliament to vote for it. They said they would honour it, and then they did not do so. I absolutely understand the problems with the implementation of the protocol. Reference was made earlier to people changing their understanding on the road to Damascus, and I think that is true. I have certainly got a better understanding of what the problems are since this process began, and I think the EU Commission certainly has, and we should welcome that process, because it is the route by which we will be able to find a solution.

In international relations, and in particular in our fraught relations with the European Union, if we restore trust, it means we can look them in the eye and say, “If we sign, we will honour it as the United Kingdom, and we expect you to keep your side of the bargain as well.”

The right hon. Gentleman is being generous with his time, but he might be using the wrong tense. I always hesitate to disagree with him, but I think trust has been restored. Mutual respect and a much better relationship between Westminster and Dublin has led to a much better relationship between Westminster and Brussels. I do not think any of the conversations would have been taking place until my right hon. Friend became Prime Minister. The trust has already been restored. I think the right hon. Gentleman is better to use the past tense, because trust is there and clear.

I was using the word in relation to any notion the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill would be continued. I accept absolutely the characterisation that the hon. Gentleman has put on what has been happening recently, which I find encouraging.

The final thing I wanted to say—were it not for that change of personnel and approach, I do not think we would be, hopefully, fingers crossed, at the point of reaching an agreement—is to wish the negotiators well. I really do wish them well. They need the time to sort it out. The deal cannot come soon enough, not least because then we can turn our attention to other pressing matters to do with our relationship with the European Union that need urgently to be addressed.

It is always a pleasure to make a contribution on anything that refers to Northern Ireland, but particularly today on the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill. I wish to make some comments that I hope will be constructive and helpful.

Here we go again. We have heard this so much, and I am sure most of my hon. Friends in this House and those outside will be able to join in over the course of my contribution. While I may seek to change the style of address and even the words used, the substance is the same, and that is because it must be the same, because the facts have not changed. The DUP cannot and will not nominate to the Assembly until the seven conditions of the pledge that our leader, my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) has made are met. With that being the case, this Bill is a necessity.

The tone today of everyone in the Chamber has been constructive and helpful. I believe we are looking, hopefully with confidence and optimism, to the future as we try to bring things together. What a pleasure it is to follow the right hon. Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn). I am not giving him a big head, but he does make a significant contribution and brings wisdom to these debates, and I put that on record and thank him for that. As we move forward, his understanding of where we are is something I have taken note of in the short time I have been in the House. He has been in the House longer than me.

I refer first to the protocol and the democratic deficit. Others have mentioned that, and I want to speak to it as well. For us, the protocol violates the Belfast/Good Friday treaty commitment protection to uphold the rights of the people of Northern Ireland to pursue

“democratically national and political aspirations”,

as the state parties committed themselves to from 1998. At that time, I was a Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly. I supported that process, as did all my colleagues who were Members of the Assembly at that time. It was a stage of life where we may have been a bit hesitant in moving forward, but we realised that to have a working Northern Ireland Assembly, we had to have contributions from both sides of the Chamber—nationalists and Unionists—to move forward. The process put forward was one that certainly many of us bought into.

The people of Northern Ireland were able to pursue democratically national and political aspirations with respect to all the laws to which they were subject. The protocol strips the people of Northern Ireland of that right in relation not to 300 laws, but 300 areas of lawmaking to which they are subject. It constitutes an attack on other legal protections, such as article 25 of the international covenant on civil and political rights. There is huge interest in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement as one of the most famous treaties in the world ahead of the 25th anniversary celebrations, which afford special leverage.

I put on record my concerns in relation to the seven conditions. My hon. Friend the Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) is not here at the moment, but in meetings that he and I have had in the past, I have always underlined the importance of us in this House, not Brussels, having the final decision on anything referred to the European Court of Justice. That is one of the things I would have loved to have seen, and that is one of our seven conditions—our line in the sand—for where we are as a party.

The Belfast/Good Friday agreement protects rights and safeguards equality of opportunities and human rights in particular. It has commitments to mutual respect, civil rights and religious liberties for everyone in the community. I adhere to that in everything I do in this House, and Members will know that I speak highly and rightly in terms of human rights issues. I am my party’s human rights spokesperson. I speak on freedom of religion or belief on behalf of those across the world. Just last weekend I was in Pakistan, where we were upholding the rights of people to have religious liberty and be able to worship their God as they so wished to do. The Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee referred to prayer, which I believe in fervently. We must pray fervently, earnestly and unceasingly, because prayer does make a difference. With prayer we can move mountains, and I think we need prayer in this process. The Belfast/Good Friday agreement affirms:

“the right of free political thought; the right to freedom and expression of religion; the right to pursue democratically national and political aspirations; the right to seek constitutional change by peaceful and legitimate means”.

Those are the things I wish to see in the early stages.

We have been concerned in my constituency of Strangford. We did vote to leave in the referendum, by the way, and many businesses are impacted by the movement of goods and the extra tariffs. It has affected the contact between companies that have done business for 30, 40 or 50 years. We have the impact on nurseries, the purchase of steel, car dealers, farmers and pet travel. All these things are critical factors for people as a result of what the EU has done up until now. I know that the right hon. Member for Leeds Central referred to the fact that some changes have been made, but the changes need to be more significant. We welcome the move away from intransigence and obstacles, but unfortunately many of those remain in place.

These conditions are not frivolous. We are notbeing, to use a word that I use all the time, thran, as my mother would say. The spokesperson for the Scottish National party, the hon. Member for Gordon (Richard Thomson), will know all about thran. The words I use are words that he can recognise and relate to. We do not seek to garner public support; we seek to represent the public who have felt this annexation by stealth. We seek to speak for the people who are taxed without democratic representation, and we seek to speak for the small businessman who has received HMRC correspondence asking him or her to pay duty on products being shipped from Scotland to Northern Ireland, when they have already paid duty on it and they are asked to pay it again. There are double costs for Northern Ireland businesses as against the rest of the United Kingdom.

The former Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher had a saying that I have often kept in my mind, which is that Northern Ireland is as British as Finchley. Well, no, it is not, but it needs to be. I know that the Secretary of State will relate to that, and others in the House as will understand the point I am making. I want to be the same as everybody else, and my people—the constituents I have the pleasure and the privilege to represent—also want that.

We seek to outline the need for constitutional changes to be voted on and dealt with through an appropriate mechanism, not as a weapon to beat the British Government with. It is not about that. For us to do this, we need a Government who take us seriously, and that was not done. The shadow Secretary of State, the hon. Member for Hove (Peter Kyle), referred to this in his contribution—and I took note of it, by the way. He is an honourable man, and I know that he seeks to find a way forward that we can all agree on. That has left us with no option but to abstain, which is a tactic well used by others before to little comment or media attention.

So I am delighted to hear that Europe is again prepared to negotiate. I will of course be more delighted when supplied with the actual detail and can go over it to ensure that it is a deal that not only works for Europe and the remainer section, but is workable for Unionists. I think Tony Blair said that Bertie Ahern had said that in any way forward there has to be buy-in from Unionists. To anybody who thinks there cannot be, I say, “Honestly, guys, you’ve got to wake up and realise it can’t happen.” In the discussions—the friendly discussions—that I have had with the shadow Secretary of State, we have very clearly said that there must be buy-in from Unionists, and that is something we must see in place.

We have all seen the co-ordination of the media pointing the finger at the DUP for standing in the way of decision making. I have been very clear in this House that the Government have taken several decisions in this House already, including a very costly Irish language and identity Bill along with the even more costly—in terms of life—abortion legislation. Both of these and others were done from this place over the head of the institutions. When I heard the Secretary of State say last night that he had tabled an amendment to bring in Dáithí’s law, I was pleased—I put that on record, and I thank the Secretary of State for that—to see that matters of life and death did actually concern the Government when it came to Northern Ireland and that saving life could be as important as the ability to indiscriminately take one in one of the most liberal abortion regimes in Europe.

I want to mention Dáithí’s law. Others have done so, but I want to put on record that I am greatly moved and impressed by that young six-year-old, and impressed by his parents and his family, as well as by the honourable gentleman in the Gallery, Fearghal McKinney. He has been a friend for a long time, and we appreciate his work and efforts behind the scenes.

I want to tell a quick story about my nephew, and this is why I really support the opt-out system. I have always supported it: I have supported it in this Chamber for many years and I supported it before I came to this Chamber. I have a nephew called Peter, who was born with a kidney the size of a peanut. Members may say, “My goodness, how can you survive?” Well, the fact is that he did survive, but he survived because he had treatment from the day he was born right through until he had a transplant at the age of 16. I can remember that, as he grew up, he was the colour of a bowl of custard—as yellow as can be—because his system was not working.

I remember when Peter played with my boys, and my boys are very boisterous. They are young men now, of course, but they were very boisterous—I think boys always are boisterous, and probably wee girls are as well, but I would not know because I never had a wee girl, so I cannot say in all honesty, but others have, and they will understand what I mean. However, Peter was never able to run and play as my boys did. So for me and for his family—his mum and dad, and his brother and sister—when he got the transplant, it was really important. That is why this opt-out organ donation law is so important.

Peter waited for years upon years to get that transplant, but he got it, and today he is as fit as a fiddle. I remember that at the beginning when he had his transplant he took his first job, which was delivering newspapers. It was something he never thought he could do. It is a small thing—Members may say, “Look, Jim, that’s not very much”—but it was a whole lot for him, because he was never able to do any of those things. So when it comes to Dáithí’s law, I can tell Members that my family are incredibly pleased to see this coming in, because we understand this from Dáithí himself and the family, as well as from those who have worked hard, with all the party political contributions, such as those from my hon. Friend the Member for Upper Bann (Carla Lockhart) and the hon. Member for Belfast South (Claire Hanna), who referred to Jo-Anne Dobson as well. I remember her very well, and what she did for her son and how that gave him life. Those are the things that are incredibly important.

As colleagues have pointed out, the Secretary of State did not need to table new clause 2, because he could merely have accepted new clause 1, tabled by my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley and supported by the hon. Members for Belfast South, for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) and for North Down (Stephen Farry), as well as by me and other party colleagues. This circumvention of our amendment is notable in itself, and it begs the question of why it is necessary when the Northern Ireland MPs across the parties that take their seats here had already submitted an amendment. None the less, we are very pleased to see it coming forward. Little wonder that, yet again, my constituents in Strangford and people across all of Northern Ireland are highlighting to me the fact that absenteeism by certain nationalists seems to get better representation from the Government here than those who take their seat and carry out voting. It is strange that it does not seem to work with negotiation in Europe for Unionist concerns; we await to be advised otherwise.

I support this Bill and the new clause that the Secretary of State will bring forward, which is necessary. This is something I have supported since my own nephew was blessed enough to be an organ recipient, and he is a fit and healthy young man. Mark has his own house and his job, and he works away. I have often said that those who do not want to donate should have a simple ability to opt out, and that is included. I therefore have no qualms whatsoever in supporting this Bill.

Geoffrey Robinson, who used to be a Member of this House—he sat on that Opposition Bench, if I recall rightly—brought forward the organ donation opt-out, supported by the hon. Member for Barnsley Central (Dan Jarvis), and I was one of the co-sponsors. I was very glad to play a small part on an organ donation Bill in this House to change the law in England and Wales, and ultimately we can see that coming our way in Northern Ireland.

I conclude with this. There is also a clear need to allow time before an election, and we in the DUP are ready for that election. We stand strong on representation for the Unionist people with a very strong mandate. It is a mandate on which we intend to stand firm—the rock we have taken from our people, our constituents and our supporters—which is to allow for the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill to come through and take effect. That will allow for a real and proper negotiation to take place with Europe to allow the DUP—my party, my colleagues and our supporters across all of Northern Ireland, but especially in Strangford—to get back in to do what we want to do, which is to take Northern Ireland forward as an integrated part of this wonderful United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. As I often say, we are always stronger together and we are always better together. As long as Europe is honestly prepared for and agreeable to find an agreement, I hope and pray that those things can come our way and we can have the peace, stability and the political institutions in Northern Ireland once again.

I would like to take this opportunity to join everyone in the House who has paid tribute today to Dáithí, his tremendous family and friends, and the British Heart Foundation. Thank you for everything—your fight has touched us all—and it genuinely means so much that the Government and everybody has supported the change in the law today.

As the shadow Secretary of State has said, we support this Bill and recognise that, while it is in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland to have a functioning Executive in place as soon as possible, the political realities are that an election called now would not support the restoration of the Executive. As colleagues have already said, that means the Government have to present a clear plan for how they will use that extra time, and what actions they will take to restore the Executive. This is a political problem and it requires a political solution. The Government have a political responsibility to the people of Northern Ireland, to ensure that the lack of an Executive does not have a disproportionately negative impact on their day-to-day lives.

The work that civil servants are doing in Northern Ireland to keep the mechanics of the state functioning is commendable, and I record my thanks, and that of the Labour party, for all that they are doing in incredibly difficult times. They are rightly unable to make the decisions that elected politicians should be making. Will the Secretary of State commit to his Government supporting the civil service? Will he give a voice to their concerns and the concerns of the Northern Irish people, by committing to meet public sector trade unions in Northern Ireland who are engaged in industrial action, and work with them to agree a fair deal for workers, letting them return to work?

Pay negotiations are far from the only area where the lack of a devolved Administration is having a huge impact on people’s lives. I have spoken before in the House about the issues facing the Northern Irish NHS, with record waiting times and a lack of specialist gynaecological services leaving women suffering with daily pain for treatable conditions. That crisis is exemplified by the ongoing problems at Enniskillen Hospital, where challenges in recruitment have seen emergency surgery suspended. Patients are rightly concerned about the impact of reduced services, and issues of safety.

But the issues are not limited to the health service. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) rightly highlighted how Northern Ireland produce feeds people across the United Kingdom and the island of Ireland. I met representatives from the Ulster Farmers Union on my last visit to Northern Ireland, and we all know how much of an impact the ongoing saga of the protocol is having on their decision making. I join my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn) in wishing the negotiators well with the protocol.

Yesterday I had the pleasure of meeting representatives from the Northern Ireland Women’s Budget Group, who work for a gender-equal economy, to discuss their work on the disproportionate impact that the cost of living crisis is having on women in Northern Ireland, and the report that they published on women living with debt. Personal debt in Northern Ireland, excluding mortgages, is higher than in any other part of the United Kingdom. Debt is far from gender neutral, with women more likely to claim social security benefits, to be in low-paid, part-time and insecure work, and to be providing care for children and family members. They are also more likely to be making up for cuts to public services with unpaid work.

It was particularly startling that there currently are resources that have been earmarked to support the women identified by that group—resources that could support the most vulnerable in society and stop people slipping into the spiral of debt and borrowing in which far too many find themselves. Resources such as that discretionary support are underspent and underutilised, because there is no Executive to make the decisions needed to ensure that that money reaches the most vulnerable. I could spend hours listing those things and other issues, and hours more talking about the impact of such matters on people’s day-to-day lives, and I urge the Secretary of State to do what he can to ensure that we do not see another year where “business as usual” creates damage that will take years to undo. I hope he will meet and listen to concerned voices in Northern Ireland.

One point that really touched me concerned some of the language used across the House today, and I want to pick up on some of those words. During the debate the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, the hon. Member for North Dorset (Simon Hoare), spoke of a spirit of “hope and optimism”, and highlighted the responsibilities of us in this place as public servants. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley spoke of the “delicate” balances at the heart of the Good Friday agreement. The priority now is to reach an agreement on the protocol, and the Bill rightly allows the Secretary of State to focus on that and not on mechanisms around elections. The Government simply cannot waste time as they have in the past, with the protocol being little more than a prop in the ongoing psychodrama in the Conservative party. Now is the time for action, not posturing. The Prime Minister must end these delays and bring his deal to this House.

With the leave of the House, I would like to reply to the debate. Let me extend my thanks to all those who have contributed. I will answer as many of the points raised as I can. I am always struck by the deep sense of regard and affection for Northern Ireland displayed by right hon. and hon. Members when we have debates on subjects to do with Northern Ireland, and today was no exception. The shadow Secretary of State asked me some sensible questions—

Yes, actually, as always, which is nice for me. We remain committed to all parts of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, as he would expect. He surprised me: I did not know the stats on the percentage of Bills going through the House that are Northern Ireland related, and he is correct—the number is way too large, and it should not be that way. The Northern Ireland Protocol Bill is proceeding, but the Government would very much prefer to get a negotiated settlement that works for all. Really that should not need saying, but I will say it once again. The former Government Chief Whip in me tells me that the House will always find a way to have its say on anything that the Government or the Executive do, and I am absolutely sure that that will be the case here.

The Secretary of State will have heard my intervention on my right hon. Friend the Member for Leeds Central (Hilary Benn). Can he reassure the House on the issue that I raised about the review of the medicine Roaccutane, which was completed in 2021 but has not been published because of the Northern Ireland protocol, according to the Medicines and Healthcare products Regulatory Agency? Will that be included in any new protocol?

I admit that I was unaware of that case, but I like to think that we would address all the significant issues that occur around medicines in general. I am afraid that the hon. Lady will have to wait, as will everyone else, for the conclusion of the ongoing talks and negotiations.

My right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) made a number of points with which I concur, and I look forward to our continued conversations. He spoke of a “Taste of Northern Ireland” event that he attended on Monday evening, which alas, because of other matters—he might guess what they were—I could not attend. I was provided, however, with some of the products that I could have tasted had I been able to attend. It must have been a very warm evening in the Jubilee Room, because most of the liquid in the bottle of Irish whiskey that I was sent seemed to have evaporated. I hope that I can have a taste of the wee dram that remains when I finish with dry February.

I thank the Secretary of State for his reference to the Taste of Ulster event. The distillery that presented the whiskey is Hinch Distillery in my constituency, and the Secretary of State would be more than welcome to come with me on a visit. I am sure that we can replenish that which he has lost.

That is genuinely very kind of my right hon. Friend, and I add just a small sidebar to my officials: please clear the diary for 24 hours after that.

I always enjoy the contributions made by the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson). I remember our weekly meetings when I was Government Chief Whip. He was Chief Whip of the DUP, and he would come in and tell me exactly what was going on. He will know that I completely understand his, and his party’s, position. In his usual timid, shy way, he reminded us of the importance of sorting out the issues with the protocol, and he is not wrong. I hope he will forgive me for gently pushing back on what he said about civil servants in the Northern Ireland Office. They are good—some of the best in Government—and if mistakes or decisions are made that he does not like, that is not down to them. Advisers advise; Ministers decide. Any mistakes are mine.

There were a whole host of other very good contributions, and a lot was said about a young man who is here with us, aged six, who I think will make some history today as we move forward with these proceedings.

Question put and agreed to.

Bill accordingly read a Second time.