I beg to move,
That the Northern Ireland (Extension of Period for Executive Formation) Regulations 2019 (S.I., 2019, No. 616), which were laid before this House on 21 March, be approved.
The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 initially created a five-month breathing space, in which everyone hoped and expected that we would be able to get the Stormont Executive back up and running, and that is what we have all been working towards. The Act also allowed for a one-off further extension of five months, and that is what these regulations would bring about. This is a small and perfectly formed statutory instrument. It runs to all of one side of a page and contains two regulations, one of which deals with citation and commencement. It simply adds another five months of breathing space, opportunity and potential, during which, if we work hard and if all sides are willing, we might be able reinstate the different sides in Stormont and get the Assembly back up and running.
I do not need to tell anyone here how import this is. In the preceding piece of business, we heard that this area is crying out for a political voice to deal with the devolved issues in Northern Ireland. Everyone on all sides of the community in Northern Ireland, and more broadly, understands the importance of this, and I therefore hope that everyone will back not only the statutory instrument but the efforts from all sides of the community to push everyone towards a willingness to come up with a successful resumption of and conclusion to the talks. As this is a short statutory instrument of only two regulations, I propose to sit down now and leave the floor open to others who might wish to contribute. I hope that everyone will feel able to support the regulations this evening.
I think it is appropriate, although not necessarily relevant, to mention the sombre, serious and sober debate on the murder of Lyra McKee that we had earlier. The statements that we heard from the Northern Ireland Members present will resonate long in this House and far beyond it. It makes it all the more important, when we are dealing with business like this—in the absence of an Executive and an Assembly—that we do not allow a vacuum for the gangsters and the men and women of violence to succeed and to flourish. I profoundly hope that what we heard tonight will be a tipping point and that there is a possibility of a return to normalcy, which would be epitomised by this sort of legislation.
This is an extremely unusual piece of legislation in that it has already been made. It comes before us, as the Minister said, small and perfectly formed, but it was perfectly formed last month. It is what we call an affirmative statutory instrument. I am sure that some people lie awake at night dreaming of unusual affirmative statutory instruments, but I do not count myself among those people. This is a piece—[Interruption.] Mr Deputy Speaker, I am being heckled from the Back Benches, but what I do at night is entirely my own business.
One of the first questions I asked was, “Why was it expedient for this statutory instrument to be made without the prior approval of Parliament?” The answer is quite simply that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland was deep in negotiations with the various parties in the Northern Ireland, and it is a tragedy that we have to consider this piece of legislation now after those negotiations have taken place.
The explanatory memorandum refers to negotiations that have taken place with all the Northern Ireland political parties, and I am interested to know whether any negative comments or suggestions were made at that time. I want to put the House’s mind entirely at rest, calm fragile beating hearts and say that Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition will almost certainly not oppose the regulations.
One way of avoiding this legislation would be for the Secretary of State to put it up to the parties in Northern Ireland. If they wish to go into the Assembly, as they all say they do, the Secretary of State could call the Assembly tomorrow and see who turns up. That would show which parties are the real obstacle to the Assembly forming again.
I have known the right hon. Gentleman for many years—I knew him when he was opposing his predecessor in an impressive campaign—but he tempts me down a primrose path that I must sadly resist. I cannot at this stage in my not-particularly-successful parliamentary career claim to speak for the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. The closest that I have ever come to the Secretary of State is being on the other side of the Dispatch Box, and I am sure that she is quite happy with that—the distance, I mean. I cannot make any comment, but I am familiar with the statement, which the right hon. Gentleman has made before. Labour does not intend to oppose the regulations tonight. In fact, on the contrary, we actually intend to confirm our support. However, we would like some indication of the road map to devolution being restored.
I want to refer to Paul Murphy, now Lord Torfaen, who supported the regulations in the other place. I remember him well, and he is held in great respect. I remember that the late Rev. Dr Ian Paisley would greet him every morning with the salutation, “And how is the apostle Paul this morning?” Paul Murphy loves Northern Ireland, but he said in his speech in the upper House that
“Northern Ireland is the least democratic part of our country and of the European Union. No nationalist Members of Parliament, or, for that matter, Members of this House, take their seats”—[Official Report, House of Lords, 10 April 2019; Vol. 797, c. 519.]
and “there is no Assembly”. Tonight, we realise the full impact of that situation, which cannot be allowed to pertain.
There has been some talk of the discussions being accelerated by the appointment of an independent arbiter—someone to oversee them. It is a superficially attractive proposition, but I understand that the Secretary of State is currently in discussions with two committees of Members of the Legislative Assembly, and we would like to see how that progresses.
Does the hon. Gentleman have any idea of what is going to happen after the August date expires? What we are being asked to support tonight takes us to August, and he knows how quickly July will pass with the marching season. Does he have any idea of the plan post August?
I did ask the Minister earlier for some indication of the road map, but all I can say is that if the Secretary of State or the Minister, let alone myself or my colleague the shadow Secretary of State, had the remotest idea of where we will be in two or three months, we would be buying lottery tickets, not sitting here tonight. With respect, I have to say that I do not know. All I know is that we have to show willing, determination, energy and absolute commitment, because we cannot carry on with a situation in which such legislation is taken through the House in the absence of those who should be dealing with it. This is Northern Ireland business, and it should be dealt with by Northern Ireland legislators in Northern Ireland. I hope every single one of us accepts that.
Will the hon. Gentleman give way?
Of course I will. I could hardly refuse.
I am very grateful to the hon. Gentleman, and I am sure he will not regret taking my intervention. Having listened to what he has just said, I am curious to know whether, in fact, Her Majesty’s loyal Opposition—we often hear them described as the “loyal Opposition”—would support the Secretary of State if she were to exercise her power to call a Northern Ireland Assembly election in the event that the parties do not come to any agreement before the expiry date in August. Would the hon. Gentleman and his colleagues support the Secretary of State in that event?
Once again, I am tempted by the spirit of hypothesis. I cannot imagine that situation at the present time, and it is not really appropriate at this stage even to hypothesise along those lines. I am perfectly prepared to discuss these things in the silent, tenebrous gloom of the Tea Room, but we should not be making such suggestions and prognostications on the Floor of the House.
I finish by saying that we support the regulations and will not be voting against them. We understand that the Secretary of State is doing her best on this. Obviously, like everyone in the House, I wanted to do more, and I think she wanted to do more—I think every one of us feels that way. It is with sadness that we support the regulations tonight, but we understand they are absolutely necessary. This is the first piece of made legislation I have seen come before the House in this way, and I profoundly hope it will be the last and that there will be less and less Northern Ireland business taken on the Floor of the House. Let it be repatriated to Northern Ireland, where it belongs. We support the regulations.
I share the weariness of the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound) about our continuing necessity to debate Northern Ireland business on the Floor of the House, and I hope very much that, before too long, we will see democracy in Northern Ireland restored to where it should be: Stormont.
However, we have to contemplate the possibility that that day may be some time off. I share the desire already expressed for some form of road map, some sense of when it may be necessary to bring powers back to Whitehall to make sure that Northern Ireland is properly governed, because there can be little doubt—my Select Committee has certainly taken evidence to this effect—that the good governance of Northern Ireland is suffering big time right now. Decisions that should be made in the interest of the ordinary lived experience of people in Northern Ireland are not being made because of the absence of ministerial decision making.
That situation is sustainable for a while but not for too long, and it has become increasingly clear to us that public services are suffering, that decisions are not being made and that infrastructure is not being put in place. Civil servants, who are trying to do their best, clearly have their limitations. That has been proved in the courts, despite the guidance issued by the Secretary of State, and there will come a time when Ministers here in London will have to start making those decisions with a heavy heart. It probably is not acceptable to kick this particular can too much further down the road.
I share the temptation, expressed by the right hon. Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), to think about calling the Assembly to see who turns up, but he knows as well as I do that that recall would be very short-lived indeed because of the need for cross-community consent.
The recall may well be short-lived, but does the hon. Gentleman agree that one significant advantage is that reconvening the Assembly would prove, beyond any doubt, who are the willing and who are the unwilling?
That’s as may be, but the hon. Gentleman will have gathered from my preamble that I am interested in ministerial decision making, and I rather suspect that very few decisions would be made by Ministers in the short space of time between the convening of the Assembly and it breaking down. Under the legislation, it certainly would not have legitimacy.
I can understand the hon. Gentleman’s cynicism and caution in all of this, but as Sinn Féin, which I assume he was referring to, has publicly made it clear that it does not object to going back into the Assembly, does he not think this would at least be a useful exercise to test the sincerity of Sinn Féin spokesmen, who almost daily are now saying that they wish to go back into the Assembly? If the doors were opened and the Secretary of State invited all the parties, we would see whether or not those assurances, which are given with a straight face on the TV almost every night, are sincere.
I suspect that the right hon. Gentleman has his own views on the sincerity of the party to which he refers, but the preoccupation of the Secretary of State is the good governance of Northern Ireland. In that respect, I suspect we would not be moved much further on were we to recall the Assembly and see who turns up.
The date of 25 August is interesting. As has been said, not much is likely to happen between now and then, particularly given the marching season. What happens on 25 August? It seems to me that there could be a throwing of the electoral dice in order to work out a way forward because something might turn up; the numbers may change and it may be possible to form an Executive. The sense is that that would not happen.
We are then of course faced with another important date: 31 October 2019, the latest in the deadlines for this Brexit journey. One thing has been made clear in terms of the chronology: in the event of a no-deal Brexit, there would have to be some form of direct rule from Westminster. That is the only certainty we have been given by Ministers. I would like to know from the Minister, therefore, whether it is his working assumption that, on 25 August, an election would be called in very short order, because that would give a small window between then and 31 October in which to hold elections and perhaps have a slightly different outcome from the one we have at the moment—that may just be crucial.
That is pretty much all I have to say. As the Minister has said, this is a short measure and it is unobjectionable. Like most right hon. and hon. Members, I cannot wait to get on to discuss seed potatoes, which is the second matter of Northern Ireland business we will be debating this evening.
It is very much like groundhog day when it comes to Northern Ireland legislation, albeit secondary legislation in this case. I could set out the many reasons why it is imperative that the Executive be re-formed. The Minister would largely agree with that aim but disagree as to the UK Government’s role and leadership in achieving that thus far. I hope that the real depth of feeling exhibited in Northern Ireland in recent days, following Lyra McKee’s sad death, and the Secretary of State’s conversations in the coming days with party leaders will mark a real shift in the political situation, because we are in danger of slipping into a reality where functioning devolution in Northern Ireland is no longer the norm. Although much of the fault ultimately falls on its own representatives, it is far beyond time that the UK Government began a new round of inclusive talks in earnest, in order that they be the arbiter that is required to end this impasse. I reiterate that, if the Government cannot do this, they should consider bringing in independent arbitration.
The murder of Lyra McKee last week has demonstrated to all of us across these islands just how fragile and precious the peace process in Northern Ireland is and always has been. Following her murder, the public and political reaction has been united in sending two very clear messages. The first is a condemnation of those who carried out the killing. The second is a determination that politics, and nothing else, must fill the dangerous political vacuum that has been allowed to develop. So we will not be opposing this SI tonight, but I have a few questions for the Minister to address in his summing up.
I understand that the hon. Gentleman does not wish to oppose the motion, but will he stand in our shoes and think about something? If Parliament were talking about his part of the kingdom—his part of Scotland—he would oppose the motion tonight, would he not?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for that question and understand where it comes from. It is of great regret that we have to consider this SI at all. It is not comfortable for me to address situations in another part of the United Kingdom that should be devolved. There should be elected representatives in Northern Ireland, but—I hate this phrase—we are where we are. We have to ensure that the regulations are passed this evening, so we will not oppose them.
On Monday, the leaders of the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Ulster Unionist party and the Alliance party called on the Secretary of State to reconvene inclusive talks on power sharing this week. We in the SNP have been calling for such urgent talks at every turn. The Secretary of State has said that the restoration of devolution is her top priority, so will the Minister respond to the public and political calls to convene talks urgently? They should be proper talks, not just brief conversations between the Secretary of State and the party leaders. Why must there be such delay? I see no reason why talks should be dragged out beyond the local and European elections. The people of Northern Ireland deserved a functioning Assembly three years ago, and they deserve one now, not at some arbitrary future date. Can the Minister explain the justification for this—is the extension a deliberate attempt to stall the reconvening of talks until September?
In previous debates, Members from all parties have outlined concerns that the Northern Irish civil service has been stretched to its limit. Will the Minister update the House on the administrative pressures that the Northern Irish civil service is experiencing because of the absence of political direction? Given the vacuum in Northern Ireland, why has the British-Irish Inter- governmental Conference not met more regularly? What meetings are planned for the immediate future?
In conclusion, the SNP wants Northern Ireland to benefit from a fully functioning Executive and Assembly. That is in the interests of Northern Ireland, Scotland, the UK and, indeed, Europe. The continued absence of power sharing can no longer be tolerated. The people of Northern Ireland deserve better from all its elected representatives and its Government.
It is now more than two years since there was an Assembly and Executive in Northern Ireland, which now has the proud achievement of holding the world record for the longest time a country has gone without a Government. We members of the Select Committee have heard about the difficulties that has caused. We have listened to the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland tell us about the daily struggles and not knowing whether he has enough money in his budgets to pay his officers, to order equipment or to make sure that the vital work that the PSNI needs to do can be done.
The Select Committee has listened to headteachers across all communities tell us about not only the school funding issues they face but the political reforms that need to happen to enable schools in Northern Ireland to teach the next generation of children. The Salisbury review that was commissioned when the Northern Ireland Assembly was sitting is now gathering dust on tables because there is no one there to take the decisions forward. Northern Ireland potentially faces a teachers’ strike in Northern Ireland because teachers there have not had a pay rise since the Assembly fell and are now being paid 6.6% less than teachers in the rest of the United Kingdom.
Civil servants from various Northern Ireland Departments have told the Select Committee that they are doing their best to keep things going but cannot take the key political decisions that need to be taken by Ministers. The Department of Health’s suicide strategy could be saving lives as we speak, but is still on hold, and there is still no legislation on mental capacity in Northern Ireland, even though not only did the rest of the United Kingdom have the original Mental Capacity Act 2005, but the House passed the Mental Capacity (Amendment) Bill only a few weeks ago.
The MLAs who come before the Select Committee tell us there is no way there is going to be an Assembly any time soon. It is indeed depressing. Although extension after extension seems to be in vogue in this place on a variety of issues, we cannot carry on like that in Northern Ireland—we cannot carry on representing all the communities of the wonderful Northern Ireland in that way. It is ironic that on 22 April 1969, almost 50 years ago to the day, Bernadette Devlin stood in this place to give her maiden speech. It was a controversial maiden speech from a controversial Member of Parliament who, I am sure, would be no fan of me or of Members of the Democratic Unionist party. She stood as a Unity candidate and as a civil rights activist, campaigning for one man, one vote for all communities in Northern Ireland. How sad it is that 50 years later, when everyone in Northern Ireland has the right to vote, there are some communities that do not have representation either in this place or in the Assembly.
None the less, so much has been achieved in Northern Ireland. Despite the terrible incidents over the holiday weekend, we finally have peace. My concern is that, without an Assembly, a vacuum is being created, which paramilitary organisations on all sides are starting to fill. Those organisations are starting to indoctrinate young people who were not around at the time of the Good Friday agreement. Those young people do not have anyone speaking up for them, whether it is on health, education or crime. The vacuum is being filled by people who do not have the best interests of Northern Ireland at heart.
I really would like the Minister to outline what will happen in August if no Assembly has been formed. Will we see another election? Will we have an Assembly of the willing, or will we have an independent chair of talks to get things going? We need to have those answers this evening before we decide on the motion before us.
Northern Ireland is a wonderful place, notwithstanding what we have heard today both in the statement and in the motion before us. Despite not having an Assembly, Northern Ireland has the best performing education system for primary maths in Europe. Belfast is the world’s top destination for FinTech development. Northern Ireland has the highest availability of broadband in the United Kingdom, something that I am personally very envious of, because in Lewes we have multiple notspots so any advice that can be given to East Sussex would be very welcome. There are also beautiful coastlines in Northern Ireland; I visited the Giant’s Causeway over Christmas. The hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) was very generous in recommending hospitality in his constituency.
There is so much good news that comes out of Northern Ireland and so many wonderful people—whether they identify as British or Irish, Protestant or Catholic, of any faith or none, or as nationalist or Unionist, they are the most friendly, hard-working people one could ever wish to meet. Although there are tough decisions to be made, I urge all sides to get back around the table and form an Assembly and an Executive as soon as possible. There are some great stories to tell about Northern Ireland. Without an Assembly, we are missing some of the good news as well as the bad.
It is a real pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) who has spoken very eloquently about the attractions of Northern Ireland. She is right to point out, as we consider the dark news of the weekend’s events, the many tremendous assets that Northern Ireland has going for it, which include, most of all, its people despite everything that has happened in recent days. We have seen the worst of what can happen in Northern Ireland, but we have also seen the very best, with people coming together in a very, very strong way to send a powerful message about the future that we all want for our beloved country. Although we may have our disagreements—our strong disagreements—we all hail from Northern Ireland. We were born there, we live there, and our families grew up there. Our grandchildren, those of us who have them—I am blessed to have two young grandchildren—will live their lives there, and we want to see the very best for them. We are united in that great hope of wanting to see the very best for the future of our country.
Part of the sad fact of what we have to deal with is not just the human tragedy, which we spoke about earlier, and the terrible events in Londonderry, but the fact that we do not have a functioning political Assembly or a functioning Government in Northern Ireland. That is deeply regrettable. I remember the evening when Martin McGuinness came and told Arlene Foster, me and a number of our aides that he was going to resign. Even at that stage, we urged him to think again. We said to him, “If you collapse everything, it will be much, much harder to build it up again.” It was throwing away 10 years of progress over something that, by comparison with all that we have been through in Northern Ireland and have overcome, was a comparatively minor issue—important, but not the sort of issue that we had dealt with previously and had overcome. We urged him to think again, but Sinn Féin was determined to take this course of action. In the full knowledge of what might be at stake, it plunged Northern Ireland into a needless election. We have all seen what unnecessary elections sometimes bring about: very much unintended consequences. These elections have outcomes. Martin McGuinness called that election; Sinn Féin effectively called that election in the belief that it would strengthen its position and things would carry on with it in a more important, dominant position. Of course, it did not work out that way.
We are where we are, and this statutory instrument is a necessary one. Of course, we will not oppose it, but we do not believe that it is at all satisfactory in terms of the government of Northern Ireland. Quite frankly, we cannot go on like this for much longer, and I think the Secretary of State knows that. Indeed, the House needs to be reminded that when the Conservative party manifesto was written in 2017, the Government said that they wanted to
“avoid any return to direct rule, but in the continued absence of a functioning devolved administration, a Conservative government will do all that is necessary to provide the good governance and political stability that Northern Ireland needs, including political decision-making from Westminster”.
That was in the Conservative party manifesto in 2017, and it bears repeating today because what we are being offered in Northern Ireland is the worst form of government that can possibly be imagined anywhere in a modern, civilised, developed, democratic country.
The people who are running the Government in Northern Ireland are effectively senior civil servants. David Sterling, the head of the civil service, made it clear on 23 March last year that it was totally and utterly unacceptable for senior civil servants to be put in this position. Not only is this SI—and the primary legislation that underpins it and give it its locus—wrong in principle by having Northern Ireland governed in this way; it is also a flagrant breach of the Conservative party manifesto, on which this Government stood and on which they are supposed to be proceeding.
I do not disagree with anything that the right hon. Gentleman has said, but he himself said that when the institutions collapsed, he pointed out to the late Martin McGuinness how difficult it would be to rebuild them. Is it not also the case that it would be less likely that the institutions would be capable of being re-established were powers to be brought back to Westminster?
We are now two years into this limboland, which is utterly unacceptable in its own terms, but it is not correct to suggest that this is having the effect of bringing about the restoration of devolution. The people of Northern Ireland deserve proper government, with accountable decisions being made. These are normal, democratic, basic fundamental rights.
Let me give the House a couple of examples. We were talking earlier about violence and paramilitarism in Northern Ireland—about the still pernicious role of paramilitaries on both sides of the community in Northern Ireland. I have experience of that in my constituency of Belfast North, on the loyalist side as well as the republican side. The head of the Organised Crime Task Force says that not having Ministers taking decisions is hampering its pursuit of paramilitary and criminal assets. The unexplained wealth orders, whereby people are forced to provide evidence as to how they have gained their wealth, cannot be implemented in Northern Ireland. These are common-sense measures that would empower the security forces and the agencies of the Government to tackle criminality and paramilitarism in Northern Ireland, but they are simply left to wither on the vine. That is utterly unacceptable. These things are now well past the time when they need to be brought into force, and that has to be done, one way or another, through Ministers.
The Chairman of the Select Committee referred to the impact of Brexit. I have heard the argument that if we leave the European Union, direct rule will have to be implemented in Northern Ireland. I have read reports that apparently this has been considered such a terrible prospect that the UK should remain in the European Union for as long as it takes to avoid direct rule in Northern Ireland. I point out to the House that we had periods—considerable periods—of direct rule after the 2003 Assembly elections when Sinn Féin refused to decommission its weapons. It was in government but it was still murdering people on the streets through the direct action against drugs, I think it was called. It was still holding on to its arms; it had not decommissioned them. So the Government of the day—a Labour Government—had to introduce direct rule in order to deal with the matter. Of course, people accepted that there had to be proper governance. It was not permanent; it was interim. It was not intended to last for ever. It was designed to give some semblance of good governance to Northern Ireland while these issues were resolved.
Arlene Foster, our party leader, has made it clear that she is prepared to form the Executive in Northern Ireland tomorrow, along with the other parties entitled to seats in the Executive, if the Assembly is called. I would agree with what Members have said in the House tonight about calling the Assembly. Let us see who is willing to go into government and who is not. Let us test it with people who talk about wanting to get government in Northern Ireland. Arlene Foster made an offer last year in which she said, “Let’s get the Assembly up and going, to deal with the issues that need to be dealt with—health, education, schools, the environment, roads, infrastructure—and let’s talk about the other issues”, which had suddenly became evident after the elections were called, “in parallel.”
In case anyone thinks that this is an open-ended process designed to lure Sinn Féin into the Executive and the Assembly without any kind of finality or prospect of getting agreement on these issues, we can time-limit it and say, “Well, the Assembly will fall again if we do not get these matters resolved.” That was dismissed within 30 minutes of the offer being made. This week we heard what Sinn Féin’s position was. This was said on Easter Sunday by Mary Lou McDonald: “Let us have a British-Irish partnership—a joint authority between the Irish Government and the British Government—to get things implemented, and then call the Assembly.” Let us be clear in this House tonight about what is happening in terms of the willingness of parties to enter government.
People have talked about what will happen on 25 August. The Secretary of State is clear that under this SI she will be under an obligation to call elections, but then she was under an obligation to call elections in 2017, when nearly a whole year went by and then we introduced retrospective legislation to extend the date to March 2019. So let us not get too excited about what might happen on 25 August. One thing that should certainly happen by then is that good governance should be returned to Northern Ireland in one shape or form.
I am intrigued that the explanatory memorandum, which was prepared by the Northern Ireland Office, says in paragraph 12:
“There is no, or no significant, impact on business, charities or voluntary bodies.
There is no, or no significant, impact on the public sector.
An Impact Assessment has not been prepared for this instrument because there is no, or no significant, impact on business, charities, voluntary bodies or the public sector.”
How can the Northern Ireland Office seriously suggest that there is no impact on business, charities or voluntary bodies? There is a massive impact in Northern Ireland every single day as a result of the failure to do not only what is right but what the Conservative party promised to do in its manifesto.
I am reluctant to see this legislation come forward. Like all my colleagues, I have been out on the doorsteps in my constituency over the last few days and most of the Easter period. I have been in Lisburn, Moira, Hillsborough and Dromore, talking to people about politics in the local government elections and supporting our DUP candidates. At door after door, the message has been clear: “When are we getting Stormont back? When will we have a functioning Assembly and Executive?” At one level, I am encouraged by that, because it clearly demonstrates that the people of Northern Ireland have taken ownership of the devolved institutions, flawed though they may be and difficult though they are to operate. There is no doubt that a strong majority of people in Northern Ireland recognise that governance in Northern Ireland on the day-to-day issues—the bread and butter issues—is best done by local politicians in the Assembly and the Executive. I know that the Secretary of State and the Minister of State agree with that.
That is not to say that when we had direct rule in the past, we did not have a form of government that functioned in Northern Ireland. It was not the preferred form, but I echo the comments of my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds); I disagree that direct rule is somehow undesirable or undemocratic. When I was first elected as a Member of Parliament, Northern Ireland was under direct rule. As my right hon. Friend said, even since the 1998 agreement, we have had periods of direct rule, and government is provided.
At the moment, like all my right hon. and hon. Friends, I am frustrated, because I encounter on a daily basis issues on which decisions need to be taken at ministerial level and are not being taken. The people I represent are being affected in terms of healthcare provision, education funding and a multiplicity of other areas. Justice is another such area—appointments need to be made but cannot, and decisions are required but cannot be taken, and it is having an impact on the people whom my party and I represent. My right hon. Friend is right to point out that there is an impact. We cannot say, as the explanatory memorandum suggests, that there is no discernible impact, because there is.
I thank the hon. Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) for her comments. Despite all this, Northern Ireland is doing well. I am tired of listening to some political commentators who have never done politics talking Northern Ireland down all the time, despite the fact that we have the lowest unemployment we have had for years, that we are still attracting investment and creating jobs and that we have more visitors coming to Northern Ireland than we have for decades. There is a lot of positivity, but we need a functioning Government at Stormont.
I am quite sure the right hon. Gentleman will agree with me when I say, as we watched the leaders of the political parties in Northern Ireland such as the Alliance party, the DUP and Sinn Féin coming to the Creggan at the weekend after Lyra McKee’s murder—and it was murder: it was not an accident; it was murder—that there was an expectation throughout the community that she would not have died in vain, and she cannot be allowed to have died in vain. The people of Northern Ireland would love to see—I am speaking as an independent Member, but I reflect this to the right hon. Gentleman and his colleagues—a genuine, sincere coming together of the political leaders of all the parties in Northern Ireland to get our Assembly back again, which would be a wonderful memorial to Lyra.
I am absolutely happy to reassure the hon. Lady that if the Secretary of State were to convene the Assembly on Thursday, the day after the funeral of Lyra McKee, the Democratic Unionist party from its leader down would be there, and all our MLAs would be there and ready to take up office and to get on with the job of providing good government for Northern Ireland. I say that to the hon. Lady without any preconditions whatsoever.
We are ready to do the job; this party is ready to act; and I long for the day when we see local Ministers back in Stormont again. However, that does require leadership, and when I consider the issues that need to be dealt with, they pale into insignificance compared with the issues that we have dealt with in the past. As I have often said, the mountains in front of us are no higher than the mountains we have already climbed in Northern Ireland. Yes, I agree with the hon. Lady that the best and strongest message we can send—to that masked gunman in the Creggan, to those who cheered him on and to those who walk the streets of Dublin in their paramilitary garb, wanting to drag us back to the dark days of the past—is to get Stormont back up and running. That is absolutely the case, and it is echoed in the Belfast Telegraph editorial this very day.
As my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds), the parliamentary leader of our party, has said, as our party leader said in the Creggan and as we as a party say in unison on these Benches today, we are ready to govern and we are ready to take our places in the Assembly and Executive. We do not want what has been brought before the House this evening; we want to get on with the job and sort out the issues, as we provide good government for Northern Ireland. I hope that day will come before we reach the expiry date in this. Let us not operate on the basis that that is a target date. Let us operate on the basis that we need government back in Northern Ireland tomorrow. The sooner we get it, the better for all the people of Northern Ireland, and we renew our commitment to do that.
I am very pleased to speak in this debate and to follow my colleagues, who have made some very good contributions. I believe we cannot continue to do what we have been doing for the past six months, because here we are, asking for yet another extension—an extension to the indecision, an extension to the miry clay, an extension to the freeze on moving forward, an extension to the cessation of legislation, an extension to the absolute power of unelected civil servants and an extension to the misery of the people of Northern Ireland, who are crying out for leadership, for a working Government and for their appointed—I say that very respectfully—Secretary of State to start making decisions.
Yesterday, I had the privilege and the honour to walk with the Apprentice Boys of Derry in the constituency of my hon. Friend the Member for Belfast East (Gavin Robinson), and we had what I would refer to as a cultural extravaganza. Somewhere in the region of 10,000 people walked and were watching the parade, and there was not one bit of bother. Compare that with the balaclava-ed, military-uniformed marching in parts of Northern Ireland and in Dublin—my right hon. Friend the Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) mentioned that—with complete disregard for the other cultures across the Province, and it is understandable that we get annoyed.
We cannot ignore the issues that are brought to us on the doorsteps. I made it my business, during the time I was off, to be on the doors with my local councillors who worked for me in previous Assembly elections and in Westminster elections. I wanted to return that accolade and support them, and I will continue to do so this week. To be fair, my hon. Friends have done likewise. I say with the greatest respect that the key issue raised with us on the doors is not the Irish language. The key issues for the people I speak to are quite simple: education, health, roads, farming and fishing. Those are the things that the people of my constituency want, so you will understand, Madam Deputy Speaker, why we get ourselves a bit annoyed with Sinn Féin’s intransigence.
The agri-food sector in my constituency contributes greatly to jobs, with more than 2,000-odd in the factories and probably double or triple that on the farms and in the businesses that feed into the process. We cannot ignore the issues of that sector. Because we do not have a working Assembly, opportunities are being held up for those in the sector who want to apply for grants to extend their factories.
I understand that time is of the essence, so I want quickly to give two examples of things that have happened to me in my constituency office over the past two weeks that explain why people are frustrated. While I am saying this, I am aware that I will be trotting through the Lobby with the Secretary of State because we have no option other than to extend the provisions, accept continual stalemate, and sit and watch our people crying out for action to be taken.
Picture this: a young teacher has a baby on 1 July. The baby is four weeks premature, with the little issues that come from that. In England, the child’s parents would be allowed, in co-operation with the health visitor, to hold back the little one for another year so that he was not so far behind. The mother, who just happens to be a teacher, would be able to use her expertise to say, “My son is not far enough caught up, so we will let him do a year in nursery.” That would not be an issue on the UK mainland.
The Northern Ireland Assembly began the legislation process to enable informed parental consent to play a part in the education of premature babies in Northern Ireland as well, but because Sinn Féin has pulled out and consistently been allowed to hold the entire country— every other person in Northern Ireland—to ransom, this mother, who, as a teacher, understands her son’s educational needs, must sit idly by and watch a massive schooling mistake being made, without being able to do anything about it. That is not okay. Will the Minister of State come with me to that lady’s door and take the time to explain to her how his inability to make this hard decision will impact on her child’s experience in school? Will he or the Secretary of State do that? I say to them: “Be ready for a roasting when you get to the doorstep.”
Will the Secretary of State come to the Ulster Hospital and explain to a family why the desire to placate a republican agenda means that their grandmother must lie in a corridor in the Ulster Hospital for 36 hours before she is seen? I say to the Secretary of State with the greatest respect that she was happy to make the trip to Northern Ireland to court businesses for the remain agenda, but nothing has publicly been done, as far as I can see, to make things better in the Ulster Hospital, and my constituents cannot see things getting any better.
Will the Secretary of State, the Minister of State or whoever has the time to do so explain to the people of the Province the justification for this placation of republican terrorism, which has not kept peace intact but has seen the murder of an innocent bystander, Lyra McKee, despite her appeasement of that community? Sinn Féin obviously have no control over dissident republicans in Londonderry or anywhere else.
Will the Secretary of State or the Minister of State do what we need them to do and take control? Will the Secretary of State determine to have her legal advisers find a way to hold a democratic election and allow those who will take their seats with no red lines whatsoever to do so, as my right hon. Friend the Member for Belfast North (Nigel Dodds), the DUP’s leader in Westminster, has said? Will she freeze out those who hold us to ransom and stop decisions being made? People are dying needlessly in our health service due to the lack of decisions. Some of my constituents have been waiting for over two years for operations. I have to say this, Madam Deputy Speaker: some have waited but have never had their operation, because they have passed on in that time.
Will the Secretary of State determine that Northern Ireland is not to be held hostage, and that only those willing to work with other democratically elected Members with no conditions are allowed to stand? It is time we think outside the box. It is time we did something different. It is time we urged our Secretary of State and her Minister of State, who is here to answer the debate, to do just that. I fear that I already know the answer, but please prove me wrong. I will vote for the extension—I will support it, because I must—but for the sake of my people in Strangford and the people of Northern Ireland, please do something to help my nation.
I am delighted that everybody accepts, with a degree of reluctance and frustration, that the statutory instrument, while not wanted, is necessary. I thank everybody for saying, albeit with a heavy heart— I think that goes for all of us—that they will support it. I appreciate and recognise the degree of cross-party support. It is more powerful because it is cross-party.
That is not say that the frustrations are not real, or that those frustrations have not been clearly and effectively expressed this evening. We have heard a whole litany of examples, from all sides of the House, from the lengthening list of decisions not being taken because Stormont is not currently operational. We have heard examples from all sorts of people. The hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon), who just spoke, gave the examples of a lady with a premature baby and a grandmother left waiting on a hospital trolley for too long. There were other examples. My hon. Friend the Member for Lewes (Maria Caulfield) gave a long list of missed opportunities, as did the Select Committee Chair, my hon. Friend the Member for South West Wiltshire (Dr Murrison). The repeated refrain from all sides is that we cannot keep on, in the Chair’s phrase, kicking the can down the road. The right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) said that the mountains in front of us are no higher than those we have scaled in the past, but he also said that bread and butter issues are far better done by locally elected politicians in Stormont.
In light of recent legislation relating to the Buick case and permanent secretaries needing cover to allow them to make decisions, permanent secretaries are still not signing off non-controversial decisions. They are using the frustration of no Assembly as an excuse not to do business.
I am sure everybody here would appreciate that the senior civil servants in the Northern Ireland civil service are faced with a very, very difficult position. They are being required to keep the wheels of good government turning. The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 equips them to do that, but clearly they have to be extremely careful not to take new policy decisions which should rightly and constitutionally be taken by elected politicians in Stormont. That would clearly be wrong and outwith the powers in the 2018 Act.
That perhaps answers the question asked by the hon. Member for Paisley and Renfrewshire North (Gavin Newlands) about the stresses on the Administration. The answer is simply that: people are being asked to operate up to the limits of what they can decently and constitutionally do. It requires a great deal of care and civil service professionalism to ensure they go up to those limits but no further. I do not think we can reasonably ask them to continue doing that for any great deal of time longer, not least because, as people have been rightly pointing out, the list of problems left unsolved because they require a political decision is getting longer every day.
Just to re-emphasise the point that my hon. Friend the Member for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) made, I understand the caution in the Minister’s response and the balance that senior civil servants have to reach in the public interest. There is a matrix in the Act for how those decisions should be made, but the truth is that some permanent secretaries and Departments are more willing to use the powers afforded to them under the Act than others. There needs to be a fair appreciation of that and an encouragement to the head of the civil service to say that for as long as the Act pertains, for as long as we do not have active devolved institutions, and for as long as there is a democratic deficit and decisions can be made, they should be made. I encourage him to meet us to go through that in finer detail, because some permanent secretaries are using it to its full force. Others are not and they should be encouraged to do so.
I share the frustration on both sides about this issue. We need to be extremely careful. It may be clear to one person on one side of the House, or to another person on the other side, that a particular Department in the Northern Ireland civil service is acting to the full extent of its powers or perhaps drawing back a little further from using those full powers, but the point is that at some stage, that becomes a political judgment rather than a professional civil service judgment. When it becomes a political judgment, the answer at that point, of course—as many people on both sides of the debate have rightly said so far this evening—is for there to be an Executive at Stormont and for the devolved Assembly to come back into play. Ultimately, until that happens, the judgment of the civil servants has to be just that—within the scope of the Act. It is very hard for politicians to say that this civil servant is doing a good job and that civil servant is doing a bad job unless we get the politicians in place in Stormont who have the natural legal locus and the democratic mandate to do so.
Although the Minister has stated that this could become a political judgment in terms of civil servants, the reality is that the law is there. There are parameters around the exercise of the powers given within that legislation. We would like to see consistency in the discretion that each of the permanent secretaries or senior civil servants have. I asked the Secretary of State on a previous occasion to consider looking at guidance being issued to permanent secretaries to get that type of consistency. What all of us are finding at the moment is that there is a disparity in the way that permanent secretaries and civil servants are operating the powers that they have been given objectively in the Act.
I accept that there will be different views about whether some Departments are using those powers to their full extent and others are not. To coin the phrase used by the hon. Member for Ealing North (Stephen Pound), who spoke for the Labour party, we are being asked to tread down a primrose path in saying that this particular part of the Northern Ireland civil service is using those powers to its full extent and this one is not. Ultimately, this has to be something that is decided, led and ultimately arbitrated by the devolved Assembly and devolved Ministers. All of us feel this frustration, but it is becoming a rather circular argument if we say that we should be trying to push them one way or the other. We have to set those rules, but ultimately, if people are not happy with the way that they are being applied, provided that they are being used within the rules of the law that we have set in the EFEF Act it is then up to the Northern Ireland Assembly. I am afraid that it is as fundamental, as simple and as difficult a truth as that. The only answer is for the Northern Ireland Assembly to come back.
The Minister has said a number of times that he shares the frustration of what my colleagues have said tonight, but why will the Government not go ahead and call the Assembly? Those who turn up can get it moving and working for the people of Northern Ireland—why will the Government not do that?
I bring the hon. Gentleman good news. My colleague the Secretary of State has many, many talents and powers but one of them is not to “call the Assembly”, to use this sort of portentous phrase, which a number of us have been using so far this evening. In fact, the Assembly is still legally in existence. If MLAs want to turn up tomorrow, or perhaps the day after tomorrow, given the sad and tragic events that are happening tomorrow, nobody needs to call them to do so. They have a legal right to turn up, open the doors and do so. When they do turn up, they will be entitled to select a Speaker and then choose a First Minister and Deputy First Minister. It does not require the Secretary of State to call them. We have heard several calls this evening for a trial to see whether people would turn up and do that. If MLAs from any side of the community and from any political party are so minded, they can do that. I will leave it up them, of course, as directly locally elected politicians, to decide if they wish to do that, but they are legally entitled to do so.
I do not want to detain the House any longer. I am conscious of the passage of time.
I will give way very briefly and then try to answer one more question before sitting down.
I admire the Minister greatly. He is doing a valiant job with the only two paragraphs in the SI, which he mentioned, so I understand that he does not have a lot of material, but he is trying to put everything on to other people, saying it is up to the parties to call the Assembly and so on. Does he not take any responsibility for the state of affairs in Northern Ireland, which his Government are responsible for, in breach of their own manifesto commitments? Will he not answer that point?
The right hon. Gentleman leads me on to my next point, which is a response to the several people who asked for a roadmap. Clearly, it will depend on the actions of the individual parties, but one of the things the Government are responsible for, which we have been trying to do and will continue to try to do, is to get the talks to bring Stormont back together again started, get them continued and get them successfully concluded.
Several people asked about the roadmap. As the Secretary of State set out to the House on 21 March, she has spoken to the Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government several times in recent weeks. In those discussions, all the parties have been consistent in their commitment to restoring a power-sharing executive and the other political institutions set out in the Belfast agreement. We believe that the five main parties are in favour of a short and focused set of roundtable talks to restore devolution at the earliest opportunity, and the Irish Government also support this approach. Any such talks process would involve the UK Government, the five main parties and the Irish Government and would take place in full accordance with the well-established three-stranded approach.
During the statement earlier, several people said, without wishing to prejudge or anticipate anything with the funeral of Lyra McKee due to take place tomorrow, that there might just be a glimmer of light—a change of view and tone in Northern Ireland—which is tremendously important. If it is the case, this kind of approach will be necessary. I completely accept what the right hon. Gentleman said. We need to convene those talks, if we possibly can, and thereby create the breathing space in which that change of tone and approach can flourish and develop.
I was about to sit down. I have one minute, but then I really must conclude.
I am grateful to the Minister for allowing me to take his one minute. Earlier this evening, no one in the Chamber could have been unmoved by the dignified and moving tribute the Secretary of State paid to Lyra McKee. How will she and the Northern Ireland Office translate that tribute into tangible change in Northern Ireland? People have a right to know. We want change in the Northern Ireland—led by the Secretary of State.
I think I just set out the next steps. Clearly, it will then be for the people involved in the talks to bring them to fruition. They have to be led and convened by the Government, but they will require everybody else’s involvement too. I have laid out what the process will be. I agree that no one could have failed to be moved. There is an opportunity here, and we must grasp it if we can. The SI creates the moment—that breathing space—that might allow it to happen. I hope that everybody will grasp the opportunity thus created with both hands.
Question put and agreed to.
That the Northern Ireland (Extension of Period for Executive Formation) Regulations 2019 (S.I., 2019, No. 616), which were laid before this House on 21 March, be approved.