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Northern Ireland

Volume 636: debated on Tuesday 20 February 2018

With permission, Mr Speaker, I should like to make a statement on the current political situation in Northern Ireland.

Over recent weeks there have been talks involving the main political parties in Northern Ireland, particularly the two largest parties, the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin, to see whether there is a basis for re-establishing the Executive. The UK Government have facilitated and supported those intensive negotiations. We have been in close touch with all the parties and have responded to requests for advice and support.

The Irish Government have also been involved, in accordance with the well established three-strand approach. I would like to place on the record my appreciation of the contribution made by the Irish Foreign Minister, Simon Coveney, and his team. In addition, my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has been consistently and closely involved, speaking to party leaders and visiting Belfast last Monday. I have continued to give her up-to-date reports as the talks have progressed.

The aim of the talks has been very clear: to bring about the re-establishment of inclusive devolved government at Stormont, which Northern Ireland has effectively been without for over 13 months. In so doing, we have been able to build on the progress made by my predecessor, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), whom I warmly welcome back to the House today.

In the Government’s view, all parties, including the DUP and Sinn Féin, participated in discussions seriously and in good faith, and we believe that progress towards reaching agreement on all the key substantive issues has been made. It became possible, in the light of this progress, to identify a basis for a possible agreement to allow an Executive to be formed, embracing how the parties ensured that the Executive was sustainable, how they reached a balanced and fair accommodation on the difficult issues of language and culture, and how this was reflected in a package of legislation. Many other issues were also addressed, if not always resolved.

Unfortunately, however, by last Wednesday it had become clear that the current phase of talks had reached a conclusion without such an agreement being finalised and endorsed by both parties. As I said then, it is important for everyone to reflect on the circumstances that have led to this, and on their positions both now and in the future. What is important today is for me to give some directions on the next steps.

First, as our manifesto set out at the last election, the Government believe in devolution under the terms of the 1998 Belfast agreement. We want local politicians making decisions on local matters to be accountable to a local Assembly. We need devolved government to help deliver a stronger economy, to build a stronger society, and to ensure that Northern Ireland’s voice is properly heard as we leave the European Union. In addition, we want to see all the other institutions of the agreement operating in the way that was intended.

I cannot reiterate too strongly that devolved government is in the best interests of all the people of Northern Ireland, because it ensures that their interests and concerns are fairly and equitably represented. It is also in the best interests of maintaining and strengthening the Union, to which the Government remain fully committed, consistent with the principle of consent. We will therefore continue to explore with the parties whether the basis for a political agreement still exists. As my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister has reaffirmed, we stand ready to introduce the legislation that would enable an Executive to be formed at the earliest opportunity. That is the Government’s clear hope and desire, and I believe that our view is shared widely on both sides of the House.

Secondly, however, matters in Northern Ireland cannot simply remain in a state of limbo. A number of challenging decisions will have to be made. Ultimately, the Government have a responsibility to ensure good governance and the continued delivery of public services. In particular, as the head of the Northern Ireland civil service has made clear, there needs to be certainty and clarity on a budget for Northern Ireland for next year as soon as possible. I intend to take steps to provide that clarity, and I will update the House as soon as I am in a position to do so. This is clearly not where I want to be, but in the absence of an Executive in Northern Ireland I have no other choice.

In the longer term, the Government will not shirk their responsibility to take whatever steps are necessary to provide certainty and stability for the people of Northern Ireland, while maintaining our commitment to govern with rigorous impartiality in the interests of all of them. However, we will do that only once we are sure that all other viable options designed to restore devolved government have been properly considered, including my current statutory obligation to call an Assembly election.

In the absence of devolution, it is also right for us to consider the issue of salaries for Assembly Members. At the end of last year, my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup received recommendations on that from Mr Trevor Reaney, a former Clerk of the Assembly. The Government will need to decide shortly on the next steps. I acknowledge the public concern about the fact that while a number of Assembly Members continue to carry out constituency and representative functions, current salaries are maintained while the Assembly is not meeting.

As for the issue of addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past, the Government have manifesto commitments to consult on the implementation of the bodies set out in the 2014 Stormont House agreement, and to support the reform of inquests. I would much prefer to do that in the context of an agreement that would lead to the restoration of a devolved Executive, but I am conscious of the Government’s responsibility to make progress in this respect to provide better outcomes for victims and survivors—the people who suffered most during the troubles. We will therefore continue to proceed towards a full consultation as soon as possible, so that everyone can have their say.

As the House will know, April marks the 20th anniversary of the historic Belfast agreement. That agreement, along with its successors, has been fundamental in helping Northern Ireland to move forward from its violent past to a brighter, more secure future. The Government’s support for those agreements remains steadfast, as does our commitment to govern for everyone in Northern Ireland.

There is no doubt that Northern Ireland has taken huge strides forward in the past 20 years. In my short time as Northern Ireland Secretary, I have seen a place full of wonderful talent and huge potential, but any commemorations this year will look decidedly hollow if Northern Ireland still has no functioning Government of its own. Everyone must continue to strive to see devolved government restored and to build a Northern Ireland fit for the future, and that remains the clear focus and determination of this Government.

May I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement? I also thank her and her predecessor, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire)—whom I am delighted to see back in his place in this House today—for all the efforts they have both made, alongside the Irish Government, to facilitate agreement between the parties.

All of us in this place know that these are very difficult issues, and I commend all the parties in the talks, especially the DUP and Sinn Féin, on the total engagement they have shown on behalf of their communities. I have to say that I must also commend the Secretary of State on the Herculean optimism she continues to hold to in still hoping for a deal to be done and on the clear statement that she is rejecting the calls to accede to direct rule with immediate effect. Optimism is a vital ingredient in Northern Ireland, even when it is at its most difficult to summon, so I will not criticise the Government for remaining hopeful.

But clarity and contingency planning have also been important features of the process, so people know where they are in that process and what will follow if there is no progress. On those questions, I fear that many in Northern Ireland will be little the wiser after the Secretary of State’s statement this afternoon, because she told us, in a crucial passage, that “it became possible” in the recent talks “to identify a basis for a possible agreement” to form an Executive, including “on the difficult issues of language and culture”. That is a very optimistic statement, and it is a view that has been echoed by the Irish Government and Sinn Féin, but it is hotly disputed by the DUP, whose leader told us that there was no prospect of these discussions leading to a deal.

Ambiguity has also played a very important part on occasion in the Northern Ireland process, but both accounts cannot be accurate, and I hope the Secretary of State will accept that she has a duty to provide clarity to the people of Northern Ireland, not just because they deserve to know what is going on in their peace process, but because some, including some in this House, are using this period of confusion to advance their own agendas: to undermine the Good Friday agreement, which some see as an obstacle to Brexit, or to damage the concept of power sharing, which some have never supported. That is a reckless and dangerous game to play, because we in this place must never forget that the Belfast agreement ended a conflict that led to 3,500 lives being lost. Nor should we forget—especially those who are so quick to assert that the Brexit referendum is to be respected—that the Belfast agreement itself was copper-fastened with its own referendums, north and south, and they too must be respected and protected.

So I welcome the Secretary of State’s confirmation that the Government’s support for the agreement remains steadfast, and I ask her to confirm that she sees the Good Friday agreement as the only viable long-term option for the peaceful governance of Northern Ireland, and that the Government believe that its unique form of power sharing is indispensable to the agreement.

Coming back to last week and the events in Belfast, a simple way for the Government to clear up this confusion is to publish precisely where there was agreement and where the gaps remain—not in order to apportion blame, but to provide greater reassurance that progress has been made over the 13 months. So will the Secretary of State commit to providing further detail and to publishing some of those details?

One area where the Secretary of State has offered some further clarity today is on the possibility of a fresh election in Northern Ireland, and she should know that that would be met with glacial enthusiasm. Why does the Secretary of State think there is potentially an advantage in another election, the fifth in three years, in Northern Ireland? What would it achieve? Although she does have a statutory duty to call one at some point, that has been true since 27 March last year, and she and her predecessor have resisted the temptation to date.

The Secretary of State has also said that she is considering how best to give some certainty about the budget in Northern Ireland. We understand and accept that, and urge only that she consults properly with the parties, so that we can ensure maximum acceptance of, and agreements on, those budget allocations as part of the contingency planning. I hope she can commit to that too today.

Finally, may I ask the Secretary of State to consider what she will do to take forward some of the pressing issues facing Northern Ireland if her optimism is misplaced and a deal cannot be struck? It is not just on the issue of MLAs’ pay that people in Northern Ireland want to see action. Vital questions on the treatment of victims, both of the troubles and of historical institutional abuse, need to be resolved not just with consultation, but with legislation. These people have been waiting for far too long, so will she commit to looking at that in the absence of a deal?

Will the Secretary of State also commit to taking forward issues of human rights and social justice that are enjoyed naturally in other parts of the UK but denied to our citizens in Northern Ireland? In particular, can she confirm that one area of discussion between the parties was on the issue of equal marriage, and that agreement was reached to take matters forward through a private Member’s Bill in Stormont? In the absence of a Stormont Bill, would she consider legislating similarly to extend equal marriage rights to Northern Ireland? We believe that she should, and we will support her if she does so. To be clear, a Labour Government would legislate on that if Stormont could not do so.

Political problems are nothing new in Northern Ireland, but the current impasse has left the Northern Irish people without an accountable Government for almost 400 days. This is a profound crisis, and the Government have a profound duty to try to resolve it, and to preserve the Good Friday agreement and the principle of power sharing. We will continue to support the Government in trying to resolve the crisis, and we will support them on legislation wherever it is necessary, but we will hold them to account to preserve the Good Friday agreement in its spirit and its letter.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments, and for the tone of them. It is important that we in this House show unity and a unified front when it comes to resolving these issues and re-establishing devolved government in Northern Ireland. If both sides of the House work together with that purpose in mind, we will have all the more reason to hope that that can be achieved. He asked about a number of matters, and I will try to address as many of them as I can.

On the topic of legacy, to which I made reference in my statement, we have been working with the parties and the Victims’ Commissioner on a consultation programme. As I have said, I would very much prefer to do that in the context of devolved government in Stormont, but we clearly have a responsibility to the victims of the troubles, and it is absolutely right that we should deal with that. We will take whatever steps are necessary to ensure that the matter of legacy is dealt with, but as I say, we would much rather that it was done in the context of having devolved government in Stormont. We are committed to the institutions as set out in the Stormont House agreement, and we will be consulting on that.

We are also committed to the Belfast agreement, as I said in my statement, and to all successor agreements. The position in the Conservative party manifesto at the last election, and the position of this Government, is that the Belfast agreement is the right approach. It has led to great success for Northern Ireland, and more success can come. The hon. Gentleman mentioned Brexit. The joint report that was signed before Christmas makes specific reference to a commitment to the Belfast agreement and to respecting the institutions in the agreement.

The hon. Gentleman asked about the talks, and about what the British Government would publish. I want to make it clear that the talks that we have facilitated—we did not impose them—have been between the parties, particularly the two main parties. Therefore, any documentation or anything that has been written down is a matter for the parties; it is not a matter for the British Government. He also asked about an election. I have a statutory duty as Secretary of State to call an election, but I want to ensure that we have exhausted every avenue and every viable option to re-establish devolved government at Stormont. That is what the Government want to see, and that is what we are working towards. We will do all we can to achieve that, and I thank him for his support in that regard.

It is good to be back, and I thank colleagues on both sides of the House for their kind, generous and supportive comments over the past few weeks. What is not so welcome, however, is the continuing lack of devolved government in Northern Ireland, which it desperately needs. I commend the Secretary of State for all her work and for her efforts in seeking to bring the parties together. I also commend the Irish Government for their work.

I commend what the Secretary of State said about the Government’s commitment the Belfast agreement. That is our cornerstone; it is the bedrock of what we do. I also commend what she said about the troubles and the legacy of the past, and about making progress on the consultation. I hope that she will agree, however, that we need to remain firmly focused on restoring devolved government. Rather than talking up direct rule, we should continue to focus on talking out the remaining issues that lie between the two parties, and I hope that she will agree that we need to retain that focus in all we do if we are to restore devolved government and give Northern Ireland the bright, positive future that I know its people want to see.

I thank my right hon. Friend for his comments and questions, and for his approach. He was an outstanding Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and he is very much missed in Northern Ireland. I do not think I have been to a single event since being appointed Secretary of State where he has not been mentioned in the warmest and most generous terms. I am fully aware that his are big shoes for me to fill.

I agree with all that my right hon. Friend says about the importance of restoring devolved government for the people of Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland elected the Members of the Legislative Assembly, and those MLAs need to be in Stormont. That fabulous, wonderful Parliament building is empty and bereft, and it needs to be filled with the people who were elected to fill it, taking decisions on behalf of their constituents for all the people in Northern Ireland.

I join others in welcoming the former Secretary of State, the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire), on his return to the Chamber.

I also thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement, but we share the disappointment we are hearing that, although there has been some progress to report, there has not been enough. We welcome the continued public commitment of the UK and Irish Governments to the Good Friday agreement, noting, as she does, that we are approaching its 20th anniversary.

The Good Friday agreement and the institutions it established were endorsed by the people of Northern Ireland, and the preservation and restoration of those institutions should be the focus of all the parties and interlocutors involved in these vital talks. We also note the Irish Government’s firm position that the agreement, and its subsequent agreements, must be implemented in full, and in that context the Irish Government have reiterated that they do not want to see the introduction of direct rule in Northern Ireland.

I ask the Secretary of State to clarify her timetable for the next steps she has outlined. In particular, given the absence of talks, under what circumstances would she consider calling fresh elections to the Assembly? What consideration has she given to convening the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, which was established under strand 3 of the Good Friday agreement?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his comments and for his statement of commitment to the Belfast agreement. On my priorities now, in the past few weeks I have focused on the talks process. I still continue to work and communicate with all parties to see what we can do to re-establish discussion and to help the parties get to an accommodation that will enable a devolved Executive to be established. My priority in the immediate term is clearly the budget, as we need to make sure that the dedicated civil servants and public servants in Northern Ireland have the certainty they need to continue delivering public services.

Order. Of course this is an extremely important statement, upon which a further 27 hon. and right hon. Members are seeking to catch my eye, but I remind the House that there are two further ministerial statements to follow that might be considered to be on chunky matters eliciting substantial interest, and several people have applied to speak in the debate subsequent to that. There is therefore a premium on brevity, and I appeal to colleagues not to offer us mini speeches, which is not uncommon in these circumstances, but rather pithy inquiries to which I know the Secretary of State will succinctly reply. We can be led in this exercise by someone of no lesser distinction than the former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers.

None of us should underestimate the difficulty of reaching accommodation on issues of culture and identity that have divided people for centuries. Will the Secretary of State urge the parties to come together to try to find a balanced package that reflects the cultural sensitivities of all sides of the community in modern Northern Ireland?

I thank my right hon. Friend for her question and hers are another pair of shoes that I endeavour to fill. She was an excellent Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. She went through a number of these processes, so she knows only too well how these things operate. I agree wholeheartedly with what she says.

I join others in warmly welcoming the right hon. Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) back to the Chamber. I wish him well.

As the Secretary of State knows, we of course stand ready to form an Executive tomorrow, on the basis of no preconditions and on the basis of the programme for Government that was agreed with Sinn Féin back in December, before Sinn Féin walked out and set preconditions—political demands—that they want to see implemented before they get back into the Executive.

The fact that there is no Executive is not the fault of the Democratic Unionist party. Indeed, it is not the fault of the smaller parties, either—I make that very clear. But in the absence of devolved government, now is the time for the Secretary of State to do right by all the people of Northern Ireland.

I have just come from a meeting of a group of charities and others who want somebody to lobby—a Minister to argue with—about mental health funding in Northern Ireland. There have been no Ministers for 13 months. That cannot continue. Secretary of State, it is time to set a budget. Let the efforts for devolution continue—yes, we want to see devolution—but it is a dereliction of duty to continue without a budget and without ministerial decisions. It is time to get on with it.

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his assertion of the DUP’s commitment to devolved government, which is warmly welcomed by everyone. He and I have had and will continue to have discussions about the budget. The shadow Secretary of State asked whether I would be consulting the parties about the budget. I have committed to do that and will ensure that I work with the right hon. Gentleman and his party’s Members on that. He fervently summed up the reasons why devolved government is so important.

I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her statement and warmly welcome seeing my right hon. Friend the Member for Old Bexley and Sidcup (James Brokenshire) back in his place and in fine form.

The head of the Northern Ireland civil service said to the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee on 24 January:

“It will be incredibly difficult for us if we do not have budget certainty by 8 February.”

It is now 20 February. What will the Secretary of State now do to set a budget and therefore the political direction that Northern Ireland so needs?

I thank the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee. As I said in my statement, I am now working to ensure that we get certainty for civil servants in Northern Ireland—those dedicated public servants—and I will return to the House when I have further information.

The Secretary of State was absolutely right to say that she was not willing to conduct a running commentary on the talks, but now that they have collapsed once again, should she not publish the basis on which the talks failed yet again? The people of Northern Ireland have a right to know the areas of difference and what still needs to be resolved.

As I explained in my response to the shadow Secretary of State, I was not present at the discussions held between the two parties. I facilitated them, but I was not present during them. It would therefore be inappropriate for me to speculate on exactly where the parties reached in discussing their concerns. It is a matter of public record, however, that I have said that the concerns related to the very difficult issues of language and culture and the sustainability of the Executive.

Would there be any role for the Northern Ireland Legislative Assembly if direct rule, which nobody in this House wants, were to be instituted?

Some Opposition Members were Ministers during the previous period of direct rule—the right hon. Member for Delyn (David Hanson) will be asking a question shortly—and it was clear then that there was no role for Members of the Assembly at that point.

It is clear from the talks and their failure that the structures of the Belfast agreement have given a power of veto and blackmail to Sinn Féin. Given that there will be no giving in to that blackmail, will the Secretary of State recognise that, in the absence of the ability to set up an Executive, the only way forward for proper governance in Northern Ireland is for her to start taking some of the decisions that are important for the day-to-day running of Northern Ireland?

As I said in my statement, I want to see devolved government in Northern Ireland, I want the politicians elected by people in Northern Ireland to be able to take their places and represent them in the Assembly, and I want an Executive in place. That is what I am focused on trying to deliver as best we can, as I think Members on both sides of the House have stated.

All five parties were involved in the talks, including some roundtable talks. However, the clear point is that, for an Executive to be formed, the two large parties need to reach an accommodation. That is what we were working towards, and what I would like to happen in the near future.

In the welcome absence of direct rule, of which I had personal experience as a Minister, will the Secretary of State tell the House how she will bring forward the budget, what form the approval of that budget will take and whether, as the hon. Member for Beckenham (Bob Stewart) asked, Assembly Members will make any contribution to the discussions of the proposals in it?

I know that the right hon. Gentleman served as a Minister during the last period of direct rule. I have been led to believe that there was a small incident involving a football match—Wales versus Northern Ireland—when he possibly found it difficult to know which side to support. I have said that I will come back to the House on the budget.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. I know that for her, as for me, the priority will be to ensure that the peace process keeps on track. Will she therefore outline in some detail what exactly direct rule would mean for the people of Northern Ireland and for this House?

My focus is on getting devolved government back up and running because people want to know that their elected politicians—the people they have elected locally—will make the decisions for them. Those of us who believe in devolution, be it locally in our constituencies or in the devolved Administrations, know that, when local people make decisions, they are more representative of what voters want. That is why it is so important to get devolved government back up and running.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s continuing commitment to the Good Friday agreement, but does she agree that being more open and transparent about what happened in the talks—notwithstanding the fact that she says that she cannot do that because they were conducted by the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin—and explaining to the public the problems and where the parties failed to agree might mean that they were in a position to support more properly the leaders of their respective communities who are trying to reach a deal?

As I have said, it would not be appropriate for me to speculate on what happened behind closed doors at a meeting between the two parties. They are now working to see what they can do to come back to the table, and that is what I am encouraging.

I join in the tributes to my right hon. Friend for her determination and work on this issue.

Northern Ireland has enjoyed significant economic success in recent years, largely down to the dynamism of the people of Northern Ireland, but also to the conditions that effective, devolved, power-sharing government created. Does she share my view that certainty about a budget and the restoration of a devolved power-sharing Government are the most effective ways in which to ensure that that economic success continues?

I agree with my hon. Friend. I have said that I will come to the House about the budget. Last Friday, I met business representatives in Belfast and they were unanimous that they needed their politicians to form an Executive so that they could encourage investment, create jobs and wealth and build on the fantastic success story that is Northern Ireland.

My party remains committed to total restoration of an Executive on a fair and equitable basis, and I commend the Secretary of State for what she has said. As was mentioned earlier, the head of the civil service said that it would be incredibly difficult for us if we did not have budget certainty by 8 February—we are now two weeks beyond that. Does she therefore agree that the important matters that divide us are not life and death matters that require a budget to resolve them? She has the power to set one—when will she do it?

As I said, I need to consult the parties about the budget and I will return to the House at the earliest opportunity with confirmation of my decision on that.

I welcome the Secretary of State’s continuing optimism and urge her to press on, not least because, with Brexit on the horizon, Northern Ireland needs one voice, provided by a functioning Executive, to make it the best Brexit deal not just for Northern Ireland but for the whole of the UK. Does she agree that, on this issue, time is of the essence?

I do agree with my hon. Friend. We need to make sure Northern Ireland’s voice is heard properly through the proper processes in the Brexit process, and that requires a devolved Government.

The British and Irish Governments are the guardians of the Good Friday agreement, but its owners are the people of Ireland, north and south, who overwhelmingly endorsed it in referendums. Does the Secretary of State agree that it cannot be usurped by this House, by any party or by any individual in it, and that she will work for its full implementation, alongside the Irish Government?

A quick answer deserves another quick question, does it not, Mr Speaker? Mr Trevor Reaney has made recommendations on the pay of Members of the Legislative Assembly, and I am considering those at the moment.

The people of Northern Ireland will be disappointed in the Secretary of State’s statement. Of course they would like the Executive back, but what they want more than anything is a budget, and agreement on reform of the health service and education, which were all agreed before Sinn Féin walked out. Why is she still dilly-dallying, and waiting and waiting? What does she actually think is going to be achieved in the next month?

I am exploring every possible window of opportunity to get devolved government back up and running, while looking at those important decisions that need to be taken. I will revert to the House on those matters.

I warmly commend the Secretary of State for her calm and positive tone in her statement today and her response to questions. I am very pleased that the British Government have not been bounced into moving to direct rule. The people of Northern Ireland want their Assembly up and running—it is their Assembly—and they were extremely disappointed and angry last week when the talks collapsed. I am not pointing the finger of blame, because that is not going to help anybody, but the people of Northern Ireland will also be extremely angry that MLAs are receiving their full salary. What possible justification can there be for paying them a full salary 13 months after collapsing the Assembly?

I thank the hon. Lady for her comments. My predecessor did ask Trevor Reaney to look at this matter. I will be considering the recommendations and will come back to the House shortly.

Does the Secretary of State share my anxieties at the noises—the drum beat—coming from some of the hard Brexit quarters in the debate about how the Good Friday agreement has “failed” and “outlived its use”? Will she take this opportunity to reassert the Government’s view that nothing—no Brexit ideology and no attempt to justify instituting a new border—should jeopardise this carefully brokered peace settlement and that the Government are fully, 100% behind the Good Friday agreement?

I can confirm that the Government are 100% behind the Belfast agreement and that it was specifically referenced in the joint report as being of great relevance and importance to everybody in Northern Ireland.

The common structures of the EU provided the basis of a peace in Ireland via the Good Friday agreement. Is not the reality that the British Government have failed to recognise that in their Brexit positioning and that maintaining the agreement has been a secondary consideration?

As has been said, in the past 48 hours, a couple of Members of this House and a British MEP have attacked the Good Friday agreement as “failed” and “unsustainable”. Will the Secretary of State join the Tanaiste, Ireland’s Deputy Prime Minister, in condemning such language as “irresponsible”?

As I say, I can only set out the Government’s position, which is that we fully support the Belfast agreement.

A young generation in Ireland, north and south, and on the mainland have no recollection of violence because of the Good Friday agreement. Therefore, does the Secretary of State agree that those who are playing fast and loose with that agreement for their own terms over Brexit should not be doing so?

I agree that people do not remember what it was like; my children visited Northern Ireland recently and were astonished to see that there are still walls between communities. That was a shock to them because they had no idea about what the troubles were like and what it was like for people living there. The people of Northern Ireland have come so far in 20 years, and it is vital that we restore devolved government and maintain the Belfast agreement.

I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. In the light of the failure of the talks and what has ultimately happened, the vacuum has been filled by those who wish to bring about more Dublin interference in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State assure us that Dublin will have no say in the running and governance of Northern Ireland?

We have been clear that the three-stranded approach has applied in everything we have been doing. Strand 1 issues clearly do not involve the Irish Government. The hon. Gentleman will know that the best way to ensure the protection of the Union and that the people of Northern Ireland have their say is the restoration of devolved government in Stormont.

I urge the Secretary of State to get off the fence in respect of same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland. We simply would not tolerate such discrimination against any other group of UK citizens. It is not acceptable that the Government continue to be complicit in discrimination against LGBT people in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State support efforts in this place to bring forward change?

This is a devolved matter. I was proud to vote for same-sex marriage for my constituents in this House when we had that vote, but I did not vote to impose same-sex marriage in Scotland. It is not the job of this Government to introduce legislation; it is for the people of Northern Ireland and their elected politicians to make the decision.

Given the Secretary of State’s stated determination to reinstate devolved government in Northern Ireland, does she agree that perhaps the time has come for the appointment of an external mediator to chair the power-sharing talks?

I have been clear that I rule nothing out. Everything is under review and I will look at all viable options to ensure that we get devolved government back up and running.

In situations such as this, we will always get verbal excess or an aspirational wheeze from some of the participants. Will the Secretary of State indicate clearly that nowhere in the Good Friday agreement, the St Andrews agreement, the legislation that underpins them or the constitution of this country is there provision for joint authority?

I fully respect the Belfast agreement and the successor agreements. We adhere to the three-stranded approach very strictly.

I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. Will she outline the timeline for the imposition of direct rule as it is legislated for in this place, to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland do not continue to be led by the nose by Sinn Féin, a party that does not have the interests of Northern Ireland at heart but seeks only the destruction of the state of Northern Ireland in an attempt to secure an unwanted and unworkable Ireland that is never, never, never going to happen?

My priority, focus and energies are on the restoration of devolved government in line with the Belfast agreement. That is what I will be focusing on and that is what I am determined to achieve, alongside addressing the urgent issues, including the budget, that need to be dealt with in the very near future.