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Power Sharing

Volume 732: debated on Wednesday 10 May 2023

First, let me say that it was fantastic to see all those from across the political spectrum come together to celebrate the coronation of His Majesty the King at the weekend. I would like to put on record my thanks to the staff at the royal palaces and Hillsborough Castle, who helped to make the weekend such a success. More than 5,000 people attended different events in the gardens, which were opened to the public by Mo Mowlam, a previous incumbent of my role.

The Government are working tirelessly towards the return of devolved government. The Windsor framework delivers stability for the people of Northern Ireland and protects its place in the Union. I remain in close contact with all the political parties and will continue to do everything I can to facilitate the restoration of the Executive.

I associate myself with the Secretary of State’s comments about the coronation. May I pay tribute the staff of the House who were working that day for their professionalism and for making everything so wonderful for those of us who watched the coronation from the House of Commons with our families?

I wonder whether the Secretary of State has had the opportunity to look at the recent Northern Ireland Fiscal Council report entitled “Updated estimate of the relative need for public spending in Northern Ireland”. If he has, will he be acting on it? What are his views on parity across the UK?

Yes, I have and I met the chair of the Northern Ireland Fiscal Council, Sir Robert Chote, last week to go through the report’s findings, and I will have further such meetings. The whole debate about funding and the Barnett formula is ongoing. It is almost part of the ongoing local elections, so I shall steer clear of giving a specific answer today, but I have read the report and met its authors.

Last month, we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday agreement, but there is currently no fully functional Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. Given that large areas of policy are devolved to Northern Ireland, including health and social care, education, culture, transport and local government, that is a matter of immense concern. What assessment has the Secretary of State made of the lack of a power sharing Executive in Stormont on the day-to-day lives of the people of Northern Ireland?

The hon. Lady is right to intimate that there is a great effect on the delivery of public services in Northern Ireland, which is ongoing. That is why everyone is working hard to try to get the Executive restored and the Assembly sitting; it is so that Stormont can work and so that decisions about public services across the piece in Northern Ireland can be made by people elected by the people those public services affect.

Given the hugely advantageous position Northern Ireland now finds itself in, as was outlined by the Prime Minister when the Windsor accord was announced, is it not time that power sharing was restored and that the Secretary of State perhaps considered a deadline for the restoration of power sharing?

The hon. Gentleman speaks many a wise word. However, the one thing I have learned in my role as Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is that deadlines are deadly and it is pointless setting timelines on things. The right thing to do is to get the job done properly so that when the Executive come back, they can be there for a very long time, and that is what everyone is working towards.

It has been 15 months since we had an Executive at Stormont. Our health service has basically collapsed, and our economy is not taking up the opportunity provided by the Windsor framework and the protocol. Surely now it is time for the Secretary of State to look at a greater role for the Irish Government in the affairs of Northern Ireland.

As I say, all my efforts at this point in time are going into getting the Executive restored. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s point of view and the principles he stands by. I respect those, but the right thing to do now is to work hard with all the political parties, including his, to get the Executive restored.

May I join in the congratulations about the coronation and say to you, Mr Speaker, that we all thought you represented us very well? Given the concerns that have been expressed about changes in EU law about the movement of goods, does the Secretary of State agree that it is important to get the Assembly up and running so that the Stormont brake can be used if necessary?

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his question and thank him again for the work that he does as co-chair of the UK-EU Parliamentary Partnership Assembly, which is one of the forums in which we will be able to discuss these matters and start to solve any issues that arise in future. I want to get the Assembly up and running, and I believe—truly—that the Windsor framework strengthens Northern Ireland’s place within our Union and delivers extra checks and balances for Stormont, but the only way that we can see whether those actually work is if Stormont is sitting.

Power sharing has collapsed several times since its introduction. In addition to my right hon. Friend’s efforts to restore power sharing, what work is being done to ensure that devolved government in Northern Ireland is based on a more stable foundation?

I thank my hon. Friend for his interest in this space. When power sharing is working in Northern Ireland, it is proven to work very well. Indeed, it has brought huge benefits across the piece, from the delivery of public services to the economy and elsewhere. As a previous questioner intimated, there is now a massive opportunity for Northern Ireland as we move forward, but we do need the Executive to be formed. In a speech that my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave at the events to mark the 25th anniversary of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, he said that the first thing we need to do is to get the Executive up and running, and I agree with him entirely. Further conversations can happen after that.

We have recently been reminded of some of the lessons from the Good Friday agreement. One such is the importance of structures to delivering successful negotiations. The Windsor framework is a policy success, but it has not yet delivered political progress. From the outside, it is hard to see any formal discussions or negotiations that are under way with the Northern Irish parties or leaders. Will the Secretary of State set out what he is doing to restore power sharing?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. I would say a couple of things on that. First, he could have watched the great BBC or UTV coverage last week when the political parties were leaving Hillsborough after the latest series of talks that we had there, because there is an ongoing pattern of formal talks with the parties. However, the one thing that I learned from the negotiations to get the Windsor framework over the line is that some of these things are best done on a confidential basis, because otherwise other people get to pull the threads of the negotiations and the whole thing falls apart.

The Government’s analysis of why power sharing collapsed is that, under the Good Friday agreement, the rights and aspirations of some parts of the community were being undermined. By that understanding, however, the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill goes even further in undermining the agreement. It is opposed by all communities in Northern Ireland; the Irish Government, who were the other signatories of the agreement; and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission, which was created by it. Is now not the time for a total rethink on legacy?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his pivot to legacy, as it is something that I hope to talk about a great deal in the coming weeks. As I have said from this Dispatch Box a number of times, we have been on a journey to improve the legacy Bill dramatically. It has its final Committee sitting in the House of Lords tomorrow and we will be tabling a range of quite big—game-changing, I would like to think—amendments over the next couple of weeks before Report stage. We will also have some other announcements that I am sure he will welcome.

The Secretary of State will know that the political institutions in Northern Ireland operate effectively when there is cross-community consensus. A continuing concern of the Unionist community is the ongoing application of EU law for all manufactured goods in Northern Ireland and that, over time, the divergence from UK law will inhibit our ability to trade with the rest of the United Kingdom. That is what we need the Government to address and resolve.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his point, which he has made to me in no uncertain terms on a number of occasions. I thank him for his frankness in those discussions, because if we do not identify exactly what the issues are, we could skate around them for ages and not get anywhere. As he well knows, there are things that I think we can do as a Government that can exemplify and amplify how we can solve the problem behind his question, and I look forward to having further engagement with him on these matters.

I, too, look forward to that engagement, because if we are to get Stormont restored on a stable foundation, which is what we want, we must resolve those issues. People in Northern Ireland, and Unionists in particular, need to know that their place in the United Kingdom, which was enshrined and protected in article 1 of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, will be equally enshrined and protected in UK law as a result of any arrangements that are put in place.

I can give the right hon. Gentleman that assurance from this Dispatch Box, but I know from the engagement we have had that he would like to see that in other terms as well. That is why I look forward to our continuing conversations, so that we can work out exactly what the ask is and I can try to deliver on that.