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The Union

Volume 746: debated on Wednesday 28 February 2024

3. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to safeguard Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. (901647)

5. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to safeguard Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. (901649)

13. What steps he is taking with Cabinet colleagues to safeguard Northern Ireland’s place in the Union. (901657)

The Government are fully committed to protecting and upholding Northern Ireland’s place in the Union, a commitment we reaffirmed recently in the Command Paper “Safeguarding the Union”. That included proposals for new measures in domestic legislation to protect unfettered access to the UK internal market, and to affirm Northern Ireland’s constitutional position as set out in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. This Government are convinced that that is the best way we can safeguard Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom.

What action has my right hon. Friend taken to ensure that no new regulatory borders between Great Britain and Northern Ireland can emerge from future agreements with the European Union?

We have ended the presumption of automatic alignment with EU law by making it clear that the very narrow set of goods rules that apply in Northern Ireland are subject to the democratic oversight of Stormont, including the Stormont brake. Once the brake is triggered for a rule, or where an entirely new rule is brought forward, it will be for the UK to determine at the Joint Ministerial Committee whether that provision should apply in Northern Ireland. Here again, the Government have established the protections available through statute. We believe that there are very strong reasons for saying that we have ended the presumption of automatic alignment.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend and the Minister of State on their very impressive achievement in restoring the Northern Ireland Executive. Does the Secretary of State agree that good cross-border transport links are vital to safeguarding all parts of our Union? In my border constituency of Clwyd South, Iusb think of the electrification of the north Wales main line, which links to north-west England, and improved road links, such as the proposed Pant-Llanymynech bypass between Wales and north Shropshire.

I have to congratulate my hon. Friend on making some excellent constituency points as well as highlighting the importance of good transport links across our Union. The need for those links was recognised in the “Safeguarding the Union” Command Paper, and more recently, earlier this week, when we talked about the reinvestment of money that would have been spent on the northern sections of High Speed 2 into ensuring good connections across our country. Those connections include the A75, which is a vital connection between Scotland and Northern Ireland.

The Union is strongest when people can see and feel its benefits to their daily life. Does my right hon. Friend agree that a prosperous Northern Ireland, with a stable, devolved Government, is the surest way to safeguard the Union’s integral place in the United Kingdom?

I thank my hon. Friend for his question, and I absolutely, 100% agree with his sentiment. It is a real pleasure to see the devolved institutions at Stormont up and running. You, Mr Speaker, have a new colleague there: the former Speaker was desperate to retire for two years—tributes were paid to Speaker Maskey at the time—but Speaker Poots is now in place. It has been wonderful, too, to see the new First Minister and Deputy First Minister working together to achieve good solutions, on public services and a whole host of other things, for the people of Northern Ireland. The Union is best served by devolved institutions working. I very much welcome everyone’s commitment to that cause.

This morning’s High Court ruling confirms what every fair observer knows: that the Government’s legacy legislation is not compatible with human rights. It puts the needs of perpetrators ahead of the needs of victims, and it is not supported by any party in Northern Ireland or across the island of Ireland. The Secretary of State cannot truly believe that it serves the rule of law or our shared future in any constitutional arrangement. When will the Government repeal that completely unacceptable legislation?

I thank the hon. Lady for her question, but I am afraid that she will have to refer to the answer I gave earlier. The Court judgment was handed down only earlier this morning; it is a complex case and we have more than 200 pages of judgment to consider. I do not even believe that the Government KC has gone through the ruling yet in any great detail. We were not given any notice beforehand of what might be in it, but obviously I pledge that we will consider Mr Justice Colton’s findings carefully. As I will continue to say, we remain committed to implementing the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023, including delivery of the ICRIR.

The recent “Safeguarding the Union” Command Paper claimed to

“copper-fasten Northern Ireland’s political and constitutional place in the Union,”

yet the British-Irish agreement makes it clear that the agreed position is

“for the people of the island of Ireland alone, by agreement between the two parts respectively and without external impediment, to exercise their right of self-determination”.

How does the Secretary of State square that clear contradiction in the UK Government’s commitments to all the people of Northern Ireland?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question. First, getting the devolved institutions in strand 1 of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement running is of vital importance, because it means that the strand 2 institutions can work properly for everyone in all communities, and it also allows the strand 3 institutions to work in a better way, because they can include representatives such as the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, and bodies such as the British-Irish Council, so there is a whole host of things involved. The constitutional status of Northern Ireland obviously requires the consent of a simple majority of its people. All the provisions of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement still stand.

One thing of great importance to this place is our education system, including the trips that people make to Parliament. We want to safeguard the Union, so what steps are being taken to ensure that students in Northern Ireland have equal access to educational tours of Westminster? Bearing in mind that students in Northern Ireland should have the same access to them as those in England, but that the cost of flying over can be prohibitive, will consideration be given to additional funding to allow some sort of subsidisation?

Northern Ireland, being across the Irish sea, is in a geographic location that makes travel difficult to other areas of the United Kingdom. I understand the hon. Gentleman’s keenness to help Northern Ireland students benefit from learning across the Union. We put in place a £3.3 billion financial package for the incoming Executive that helps us to achieve some of those objectives by providing support for Northern Ireland, given its unique challenges. However, if he has individual cases in mind, I would be interested to hear about them, and will consider what we might do in future.

Further to the question from my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), will the Secretary of State join me in welcoming the fact that the new UK East-West Council will have its first meeting next month in Belfast? One of its key objectives is to encourage greater educational co-operation across the United Kingdom, as well as binding Northern Ireland more closely into the wider economy and the UK internal market.

I am happy to join the right hon. Gentleman in welcoming the new East-West Council and its situation, and I also look forward to seeing the North South Ministerial Council functioning. The UK East-West Council will bring together a wealth of experience and knowledge from representatives of the United Kingdom Government, the devolved Administrations, business and the culture sector, and educational leaders. We are committed to getting it working in March and doing good things.

The Secretary of State referred earlier to the financial package that the Treasury has put in place to support our public services in Northern Ireland, but our commitments on public sector pay mean that there remains a significant gap in the next two financial years. Will he work with us to seek further support from the Treasury, so that we can ensure that the Executive lives within its budget and that we can pay our public sector workers a decent wage for the vital work they do?

Again, I pay tribute to the right hon. Gentleman for all his work to ensure that the devolved institutions—the Executive and Stormont—can come back together. He has achieved an amazingly good, historic piece of work. It is good to see the Executive back up and running, making choices and opening negotiations with the unions to get the public sector in Northern Ireland back on track, on pay and work. I believe that there is a meeting today between the Finance Minister and the Chief Secretary to the Treasury. I will always happily work with the right hon. Gentleman on all those agendas.