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Power Sharing

Volume 734: debated on Wednesday 21 June 2023

3. What recent discussions he has had with Cabinet colleagues on restoring power sharing in Northern Ireland. (905483)

I regularly discuss Northern Ireland affairs with my extremely interested Cabinet colleagues and keep them fully abreast of the efforts being made to restore the power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive. My total focus is on the return of a devolved Government, and the Windsor framework is the basis on which to do that.

In the past, successful attempts to restore power sharing involved weeks of intensive talks between both Governments as well as the five main parties in Northern Ireland, but there is a vagueness about the current process. Can the Secretary of State confirm that he will try the previously tested methods over the coming summer?

I give an assurance to the hon. Lady that no stone will be left unturned in trying to get the Executive back up and running. The one thing that I did learn from the Windsor framework negotiations is that confidentiality in modern-day British politics and western politics is key in trying to get anything over the line.

The Windsor framework will make a significant difference to businesses and communities in Northern Ireland as they seek to trade with the rest of the United Kingdom. Does my right hon. Friend recognise that the Windsor framework agreement has an international dimension, in that it has improved the status of the UK around the world, allowing the Prime Minister and the President of the United States to agree the Atlantic declaration and other such agreements?

It is true, and I am slightly surprised by the element of pleasure that worldwide institutions—other Governments, the European Union and the United States Government, as my right hon. Friend says—have taken in seeing the Windsor framework come to fruition and, indeed, by how we are now talking about all sorts of important other things that seem to have been unlocked by the Windsor framework agreement.

Today is a day of reflection across Northern Ireland, and I share the Secretary of State’s support for those who are participating. The Secretary of State has said that the Government need to demonstrate that Northern Ireland remains a “strong and integral” part of the United Kingdom to restore power sharing. The problem for him is that his Department still plans to impose immunity for terrorists on Northern Ireland, against the wishes of all local parties and all victim groups there. Does he not see the damage that that could do to the Union?

This question is about the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill, which is currently on Report in the House of Lords. I disagree fundamentally with the principle behind what the hon. Gentleman is saying. Yes, none of the political parties in Northern Ireland is behind this particular Bill, but in great fairness to the Democratic Unionist party, it has never been behind any sort of amnesty. That has been a principled position on its part from the Belfast/Good Friday agreement onwards, which I completely understand. I do not think I will ever be able to win that argument with the DUP. However, we do need to address these issues. We have a question later on legacy and a family who need information to allow themselves to reconcile the death of a family member. The Bill that we will present, which will be article 2 compliant—I truly believe that—will get information for a whole host of families who have not had it for well over 25 years.

I am grateful for the Secretary of State’s detailed answer. There are ways forward that the DUP and other parties have supported, but the Government have chosen a different path. His Department cannot be fully focused on restoring power sharing while it is spending so much precious time on this Bill. Yesterday, even the Irish Government officially requested a pause in the Bill’s passage through Parliament. The Secretary of State says that the Bill will be a different beast after the Lords, so will he consider giving people the time to assess the changes before it returns to this House?

This Bill has had a long gestation. It had two days of consideration on the Floor of this House in its original form this time last year. It had one of the longest Committee stages ever in the House of Lords, taking nearly five months to complete. We laid a whole host of amendments as a Government at that point. It has its first day on Report today and another day next Wednesday. This House will have plenty of time to consider those amendments and others when the Bill returns to this place.

I join the Secretary of State in paying tribute to his outgoing permanent secretary, Madeleine Alessandri, and we wish her well in her new position.

The Secretary of State will be aware that since New Decade, New Approach at the beginning of 2020, we have pressed for legislation that will protect Northern Ireland’s ability to trade within the internal market of the United Kingdom and respect our economic rights under article VI of the Acts of Union. Are the Government any closer to bringing forward such legislation?

I very much look forward to being in a space where, following further conversations with the right hon. Gentleman, I can bring forward legislation in this place that does exactly what he needs it to do for his party to be able to give me a date when it will go back into the Executive in Northern Ireland.

The Secretary of State will know that we want to see Stormont back up and running and fully functioning again, but it is critical for us that Northern Ireland’s ability to trade with its biggest market—which is, of course, the rest of the United Kingdom—is protected. We do have concerns about the practical outworking of proposals in the Windsor framework and what it means for the movement of goods in the non-EU lane. The Prime Minister has stated that there will be free movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and we need to see that reflected in the practical arrangements, which, I have to say, are not matched by what the EU is saying about the non-EU lane and its operation.

The right hon. Gentleman has detailed knowledge of this area, and I do enjoy our regular conversations on these points. He knows that in the Command Paper on the Windsor framework, which was published back in February, we detailed the British Government’s view of how we could bring in unfettered NI to GB trade as we move forward. We need to put more flesh on that bone—of that I am sure—but, as he knows, I constantly seek his guidance to ensure that I get this bit of my job completely right.