With permission, Mr Deputy Speaker, I would like to make a statement to update the House on the recent disorder in Northern Ireland.
The main areas of unrest have been specific parts of Belfast, Newtownabbey, Carrickfergus, Ballymena, Cookstown, Coleraine and Londonderry. The 7 and 8 April saw an escalation in the violence at an interface area, commonly referred to as a peace wall, in west Belfast, with missiles being thrown by large numbers of mainly young people over interface gates, and police coming under attack. As a result of the unrest, a total of 88 police officers have been injured, 18 arrests have been made and 15 individuals have been charged. My thoughts and, I am sure, the best wishes of everybody in this House are with those police officers.
On Friday 9 April, the incidents of public disorder were significantly reduced compared with previous evenings. There was, however, localised disorder in north Belfast. The remainder of the weekend and since has been much calmer, with only a few isolated incidents of disorder.
The violence witnessed last week was totally unacceptable. Attacks on police officers are utterly reprehensible. Those engaged in this destruction and disorder do not represent the people of Northern Ireland. It is tragic and deeply concerning that young people have been engaged in, and encouraged into, this violence, and, as a result, will now end up with criminal records.
It can be easy to look for a simplistic explanation for the recent disorder, but it is clear that the factors behind it are, in fact, complex and multi-faceted. People are frustrated after a year in which coronavirus has challenged all of us, and I do recognise how frustrating it has been, especially for young people in Northern Ireland facing the uncertainty around the lifting of lockdown restrictions without having the clear road map in Northern Ireland. There is also a perception that the rules and restrictions have not been enforced equally in Northern Ireland, and we all know that there are strongly held political views within and between communities that can be in tension with each other. I recognise that there are concerns about the implications of the Northern Ireland protocol—concerns that overlap with wider questions about national identity and political allegiance—and this comes at a time of economic uncertainty caused by the pandemic.
Northern Ireland has made huge strides over the past two decades, but it is a post-conflict society and there do remain elements of fragility. Some sections of the community feel that their concerns are not understood. The reconciliation, equality and mutual understanding between the communities and traditions envisioned in the Belfast/ Good Friday agreement are not recognised or experienced by all. There is still work to do.
The Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which was signed 23 years ago, highlighted the importance of progress in areas of social development, such as integrated education. These will be a vital part of Northern Ireland’s future, enabling even more young people to grow up in the reality of a shared society and able to effect positive change in their communities. The answer to all these issues and any others lies in dialogue, engagement and the democratic process, not through violence or disorder. It is incumbent on all of us engaged in political discourse to support Northern Ireland in leaving its divisive past behind and continuing instead to look ahead to all the opportunities of the future.
Policing and justice matters are devolved under strand 1 issues under the Belfast/ Good Friday agreement. Despite this being a devolved matter, though, the Government have an important role to play in supporting the Executive to ensure that calm prevails and in offering the Police Service of Northern Ireland and all those committed to dialogue and democracy our fullest possible support. I have continued to meet with Northern Ireland’s party leaders and the Police Service of Northern Ireland over recent days to discuss the unrest. Our collective priority is to work together to ensure public safety.
I very much welcome the statement from the Northern Ireland Executive on 8 April that set out a common position from all Executive parties against the violence and declares their support for law and order and policing. I want to express my gratitude to them for their efforts and to the PSNI for continuing to work to keep people safe.
I also welcome recent statements from many across the community and beyond condemning the violence and appealing for calm. The Government respect the right to protest, but it must be done in a peaceful manner that fully respects the rule of law. On 10 April, we marked 23 years since the signing of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, an achievement of which the people of Northern Ireland are justifiably proud and on which we can continue, and must continue, to work closely with the Irish Government as co-guarantors of that agreement. In that time there has been a transformative change in Northern Ireland. Peace has brought stability and opportunity. It has enabled Northern Ireland to develop into the vibrant, exciting place that it is today.
The Government are resolutely committed to peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland. We have invested significantly in a wide range of programmes and initiatives to that end. The Belfast/Good Friday agreement provided the foundation for peace and a framework for prosperity and we are committed to it, as, I think, everyone in this House is. All of us across this House have a duty to support the people of Northern Ireland in shaping a peaceful and prosperous society for the future—a future that they can shape.I have seen at first hand an inclusive, prosperous and hopeful society that continues to build on that hard-won peace.
We must all work together to resolve the tensions that are currently being faced. I know from my ongoing engagement with stakeholders, including the Irish Government, that that is a shared view. The only way to resolve differences is through dialogue, and in that regard we must all lead by example. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement.
Twenty-three years ago this week, the Belfast Good Friday agreement was signed. The violence in recent days, some of it carried out by children with no memory of the dark days of the past, has been painful to witness. Our thoughts are with those injured, and our deep gratitude belongs with the police, community workers and leaders on the ground who have helped to restore some sense of calm in recent days.
The violence was unjustified and unjustifiable. Those adults cheering on youngsters showed a sickening disregard for their children’s futures. But recent months have shown just how fragile the peace is, and that it requires responsible and careful leadership to safeguard. As the Secretary of State has outlined, there are complex and varied factors behind the causes of the rioting—disrupted paramilitaries lashing out at the police; anger at the way in which the Bobby Storey funeral was handled last year—but there is also a very deep sense of hurt and anger among the Unionist and loyalist communities, which has been building for months and must not be ignored.
The Prime Minister made promises to the people of Northern Ireland that there would be no border with Great Britain, knowing full well that his Brexit deal would introduce barriers across the Irish sea. He made those promises because he knew that economic separation would be unacceptable to the Unionist community, and the growing political instability we are seeing has its roots in the loss of trust that that caused. Trust matters. It is what secured and has always sustained the Belfast Good Friday agreement.
In moments of instability, what Sir John Major and Tony Blair, Mo Mowlam and the right hon. Member for Skipton and Ripon (Julian Smith)—Labour and Conservative—understood was that trust, leadership and partnership are paramount to finding a way forward in Northern Ireland. As a co-guarantor to the Belfast Good Friday agreement, the Prime Minister owes it to the people of Northern Ireland to restore the trust he has squandered. He is not a casual observer to these events. He must step up and urgently convene talks with the political parties in Northern Ireland and all parties to the protocol to find solutions and political agreement.
Can the Secretary of State outline when the Prime Minister is planning to travel to Belfast to convene talks and show the leadership this moment demands? What is the strategy for addressing the loss of trust among the Unionist and loyalist communities to demonstrate that legitimate grievances are being heard? How are representatives of Northern Ireland being brought into the negotiations on huge decisions affecting their future? And can the Secretary of State detail—I have asked him this many times from this Dispatch Box—what practical solutions the Government are seeking with the EU to reduce checks and requirements between Britain and Northern Ireland? Fundamentally, the people of Northern Ireland must see that politics can work, and that the word of politicians can be trusted again.
Recent weeks have demonstrated starkly that peace is an ongoing process. It is no coincidence that violence has flared in areas of profound deprivation, where educational attainment is too low, paramilitary activity 23 years on from the agreement is still criminally high, and children are educated in segregated schools and grow up in segregated communities. For them, the promise of peace has not arrived. A toxic combination of deprivation and disregard has fuelled deep disillusionment. But we must believe that there is still a deep urge for a future where reconciliation walks hand in hand with social justice. We saw that in the courage of communities along the interface in Belfast this past week. We must now see political leaders match that courage.
This moment must mark the end of an era in which Northern Ireland has been relegated to little more than an afterthought and the promise of peace allowed to stall. It demands a collective renewal of our commitment to the agreement and the principles that secured it. It demands that the vacuum of leadership and strategy in Northern Ireland is now filled. The Prime Minister must face up to the consequences of his own actions and show the leadership that the communities are crying out for.
I welcome the hon. Lady’s condemnation of the violence and her support for the PSNI and others, as well as her words about the social fabric structure issues in Northern Ireland. It sounds like we have a shared view on that, particularly when we think about the failure to see the delivery of integrated education, for example, which was outlined back in 1998. That is one of the areas we need to work on. That is why the Government’s programme of work on levelling up and investing in city and growth deals and other areas is so important: to make sure that people can see the benefits of what is happening and can take the opportunities and move forward in a positive way.
The hon. Lady is absolutely right—I agree with her—in her comments about the Unionist and loyalist communities. It is so important to ensure that our friends and partners in the EU come to fully understand the issue around identity that people feel so passionately about—rightly so—in Northern Ireland in the Unionist community, and the impact that the decision on article 16 has had for people in that community. I welcome the fact that Vice-President Maroš Šefčovič met with civic society and business leaders some weeks ago now. I encourage him to do as he has pledged to and to do more of that work to fully understand.
The hon. Lady referenced the protocol. As I have just noted, issues on that protocol have played a part in tensions in the loyalist and Unionist communities. That is why I and the Prime Minister have been very clear about our determination to deal with those issues and to find a way forward. We all remember that the protocol is there and in place because of the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland. We have got to make sure it works in a good, fluid and flexible way, so that it works for the people of Northern Ireland, because ultimately it only works if it is working for everybody across the community. It has to be something that is acceptable to the Unionist and loyalist communities as well.
The hon. Lady mentioned talks. Obviously, I have met leaders in the Executive, as well as party leaders. I do that regularly and will continue to do so. The Prime Minister has met with people from civil society and the business community on the protocol. We support the established bodies that have been set up—the Joint Committee and so on—and there is the work we are doing there to resolve the issues.
I am glad to hear that the hon. Lady wants to see reduced checks. I assume that she supports retrospectively the unilateral action that we took just a few weeks ago and will support the work that the Government are doing to ensure that we reduce the checks so that the protocol works in the pragmatic way that was always envisaged. Ultimately, we come back to being united on the fact that, wherever we agree or disagree, the way forward is always through dialogue, never through violence.
I thank my right hon. Friend for his statement. I echo the comments of the shadow Secretary of State. Our thoughts and prayers are with the injured PSNI officers and the vast majority of law-abiding residents who have been caught up in the recent thuggish, criminal behaviour.
Peace and prosperity are, as my right hon. Friend knows, two sides of the Good Friday agreement coin. We know that there can be no prosperity without peace. I urge him to turbo-charge, with the Executive, the prosperity agenda, so to bring back into the fold those who might say, like those fictional Judeans in the film, “What has the GFA ever done for us?” We must focus on prosperity as much as peace.
My hon. Friend, who chairs the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, makes a very good point. He is absolutely right, not just in his admiration for cinema, but in his recognition that there is work that we need to do. I share his view of cinema in that respect.
One of the things I am looking forward to working through is the delivery of the new deal programme, the £400 million investment we have secured on top of the city and growth deals and the investment through “New Decade, New Approach”. That is looking very specifically at how we help Northern Ireland benefit from and take forward opportunities in the years ahead, as well as working with the Executive through the £15 billion block grant, to make sure that we are creating opportunity. That includes skills for the future. The social fabric is part of that. I passionately feel that integrated education has to be an integral part of that future, to bring people together and make sure that people are getting a really good education and the economy is growing and thriving.
One thing that those of us who spend time in Northern Ireland always see is the entrepreneurial spirit and the ability to see opportunities and drive forward in a positive way, which is great for the economy and creates jobs. As we come out of covid, Northern Ireland’s economy can have a really bright future.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. I associate myself with the remarks of both Front Benchers in their condemnation of the violence we have sadly seen. My thoughts are with those injured in the disturbances, and in particular with those in the emergency services who have been working hard to keep their communities safe.
The disorder we have seen in recent days represents, for those of us who grew up with strong memories of the troubles, scenes we thought we had left behind for good. We do not strengthen communities by encouraging criminality and disorder within them. We can all agree how sickening it was to see young children being encouraged in acts of violence by their elders who lived through that cycle of violence themselves.
Moving on from where we are will require a number of things. It will require respect for the law and those who enforce it, whether that is the officers of the PSNI, the leadership of the PSNI or the prosecution service. All must be supported fully in dealing with criminality and maintaining public order in a way that is consistent, fair and proportionate across all sections of Northern Ireland. Above all, it will require leadership, integrity, honesty and respect from politicians. There has, sadly, to date been a dearth of some of those qualities on show in the way that the protocol has been negotiated and implemented. The price being paid for that is sadly all too clear. The protocol was entered into freely by the UK Government and it is here to stay. Surely we can agree that the only route to amending it is through trust and good will on all sides.
The great success of the Good Friday agreement was in ensuring that the symbols of a border in the island of Ireland disappeared. If we can all agree that there is now a trade border, we can surely agree that the symbolism of that matters. One practical step, which I have raised with the Secretary of State before, would be to introduce a realignment of sanitary and phytosanitary checks between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. That would remove some of the more snagging aspects of the current protocol and the difficulties with symbolism that it causes. Will the Secretary of State, in his discussions with all partners in this process, continue discussions on whether that is something we can do to smooth the passage of the protocol? Will he agree to work with other devolved Governments, which that would also impact upon?
I certainly agree with and appreciate the hon. Gentleman’s remarks in the first part of his statement.
The hon. Gentleman spent a fair part of his question referring to the protocol. We have to be very cautious when talking about the intentions, issues and views people have about the Northern Ireland protocol. As valid as they may be, they do not—it should never be argued that they do—in any way legitimise what we saw the other week. As others have said, it is right that we work through any disagreement in a political and democratic way. We also have to be very wary of the simplicity of thinking that what happened the other week was over one particular issue. As I think I outlined, and as the hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) outlined, it was a multifaceted set of issues.
I recognise the issues that are there from the outworking on the protocol as we have seen it in the first part of this year. We are committed to wanting to deal with that. We are very clear that Northern Ireland is an integral part of the UK and an integral part of the UK customs territory. The protocol was put in place primarily because the EU has a clear focus on protecting its single market. Our focus is on ensuring that the Belfast Good Friday agreement is respected in all of its strands, and that includes east-west. That is why we are very clear that while we want to ensure that goods moving into the EU through the Republic of Ireland are properly dealt with, goods that are moving from Northern Ireland to Great Britain are unfettered, as they are, and goods moving from Great Britain into Northern Ireland can do so freely and flexibly in a pragmatic approach.
I associate myself with the preceding comments made about the sad passing of our friend and colleague Dame Cheryl Gillan. I also associate myself with the support expressed for the Police Service of Northern Ireland and those affected in the troubles in recent days. In view of the serious events in Northern Ireland and the underlying causes, does my right hon. Friend agree that there is a need for the European Union, the Republic of Ireland and the UK to be pragmatic and practical in coming to an agreement on the Northern Ireland protocol? Furthermore, does the Secretary of State believe that the European Union fully understood the potential implications and risks, when it invoked article 16 of that protocol?
I hope you will excuse me, Mr Deputy Speaker, if I join my right hon. Friend in his comments about the late Cheryl Gillan. This is the first chance I have had at the Dispatch Box to say that she became a very, very good friend to me over a period a short while ago, as I think you know full well, Mr Deputy Speaker, and she will be very, very sorely missed by all.
My right hon. Friend is absolutely right about this situation, as I said earlier. I am encouraging our friends and colleagues in the European Union, particularly Maroš Šefčovič as vice-president, and his team, to take the opportunity, as restrictions allow—whether it is virtually at the moment or, as restrictions ease, by being present in Northern Ireland—to understand the implications of the outworking of the protocol, including the practical supply line issues that we took action on recently, and also to understand the real issue of identity that the loyalist-Unionist community feel. The outworking of the protocol affects everybody in Northern Ireland. It is not a constitutional issue, in that sense. Whatever part of the community somebody is from, some of the outworkings for consumers and businesses have an impact. The issue of identity for Unionist and loyalist people in Northern Ireland is very real, and there is no doubt that that was intensified after the action the EU took around article 16. While the EU recognises that that was a mistake, it is important that it fully takes the time to understand the long-term implications of it and why it is so important that we work together to find pragmatic, proper solutions.
We condemn the violence. It is not justified. Attacking police officers in this way is wrong. Our thoughts and prayers are with the police officers who have been injured, and we thank them and their colleagues for their courage and determination in impartially applying the rule of law.
The hon. Member for Sheffield, Heeley (Louise Haigh) put her finger on it when she said that the issue is trust. Taking the peace process forward has to be built on trust. That trust was broken in relation to the findings on the Bobby Storey funeral, undermining people’s trust and confidence in policing and justice in Northern Ireland. There is a two-tier policing system in the eyes of some, and that needs to be addressed. Importantly, there was also a breach of trust in relation to the Northern Ireland protocol and creating barriers to trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland that we were told would not happen and have happened, undermining the sense of identity and the place of Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom. What is the Secretary of State going to do, with the Northern Ireland political parties, to address the issues around policing and justice, and, crucially, to replace this protocol with something better that restores Northern Ireland’s place fully within the internal market of the United Kingdom?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, we took unilateral action just a few weeks ago to ease some of these issues—issues that would have made matters even more difficult, as I suggested at the time. I think it is now very clear that that was the right action to take and that, through that, people can see that we are determined to deal with some of the problems and the issues in the protocol. My right hon. Friend the noble Lord Frost is working through the correct established bodies—the Joint Committee and so on—with our partners in the EU to come to and work out a proper, long-lasting solution in terms of the challenges around the protocol.
The right hon. Gentleman is also absolutely right about—as I mentioned in my opening remarks—people perceiving that not everybody has been treated equally in terms of the implications of the rules around coronavirus. The Bobby Storey funeral is a very clear example of that, with the decision that came through just a few days before the violence got to the point that it did. There is a very important role for the PSNI and the Northern Ireland Policing Board in working with communities to restore and build trust. I have been talking to the Chief Constable about that, and to the parties on the Executive, as the right hon. Gentleman knows. I think everybody is very alert to the very real fact that, whatever anybody’s view of what happened around the funeral, the decision that was made has had a very substantial impact. There is work that the various agencies and bodies, including the PSNI and the Policing Board, need to do to reconnect with communities to show them that the PSNI is there for the safety and protection of everybody across the entire community of Northern Ireland.
I strongly support all that the Government and the Opposition have said about the violence. As the Northern Ireland protocol stresses the need to maintain Northern Ireland’s integrated place in the United Kingdom’s internal market, will the UK Government now ensure the easy and free movement of all goods from GB to Northern Ireland that are not at risk of going to the Republic? Should a good not be able to move as easily from Liverpool to Belfast as from Liverpool to Birmingham, and should that not be under the direct control of the UK authorities?
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s comments on the violence, and he is absolutely right. The position that he has outlined that we need to get to is exactly where we want to get to. Obviously we want to do that in partnership and agreement with our friends and partners in the EU, and that work is what we are doing at this very moment.
For years, the Government have been warned that peace in Northern Ireland was a delicate and fragile thing that was not to be taken for granted. The fact that we have reached this point illustrates sadly only too well the recklessness of the Prime Minister in particular with regard to the position of Northern Ireland and our departure from the European Union. This is not the first time in the past 23 years that we have found ourselves in peril. On previous occasions, it has taken the Prime Minister of the day to step up to the plate. The symbolism and demonstrating leadership are what is necessary. His predecessors have done it; will he do it now?
For my part, that is absolutely the work that we are doing with the parties, civic society and business leaders in Northern Ireland. The Prime Minister and I have been involved in that all the way through. He has had a consistent focus on ensuring that we are delivering for the people of Northern Ireland over the entire period, and not just the past few days, although obviously he has been involved in the past few days and had conversations with the Taoiseach, rather like my conversations with the Irish Foreign Minister.
The right hon. Gentleman makes a good point about the Good Friday agreement. We always need to remind ourselves that the Good Friday agreement has three strands, and we must resist the temptation that some people have to see the Good Friday agreement through simply one strand of north-south. The east-west and Northern Ireland strands are hugely important. One of the things we have to do is make sure we are delivering on the east-west part of the Good Friday agreement, so that the agreement is applied and working in all its strands.
May I add my condolences to those expressed earlier and send them to Cheryl Gillan’s family, following her sad death last week? She was seen on our Benches as the mother of our side of the Chamber. She was a generous lady. She was kind, and we will really miss her.
People will be listening to these exchanges today concerned that this unacceptable violence and disorder could mean yet more delay to the implementation of the laws that we agreed in this place over a year ago on access to abortion and abortion aftercare in Northern Ireland—healthcare that is routinely available in the rest of the UK. Can my right hon. Friend assure the House that he will not be distracted from the steps he set out a few weeks ago, and that there will be no more delay in giving women and girls in Northern Ireland the same rights as women and girls throughout the rest of the UK when it comes to access to abortion and abortion aftercare?
Yes, I can give that assurance. I would go a little bit further: even in the conversations I was having in Belfast yesterday with community groups and political leaders, everybody was very determined to continue to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland in the widest sense through the “New Decade, New Approach” agreement. We will not be distracted from delivering on our promises and the actions we took on abortion, as we outlined just a few weeks ago. It comes back to remembering that, with what we saw last week for those few days—hopefully we do not see a recurrence of it—we all have a part to play in encouraging a calm approach to disagreements, but we must not be deterred from the wider work to deliver for Northern Ireland by the actions of criminals, thugs and hooligans.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement and particularly his comments on integrated education, but may I press him on strand 3 of the Good Friday agreement, which he has talked about? Has he had discussions with the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster and the Irish Government about holding another British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference? Such conferences are so crucial to the relationship across these islands and we have not had one for nearly two years.
The hon. Lady makes a fair point. The British-Irish Council has met regularly and continues to do so—it met in November last year and has met regularly, annually. The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, which did not meet between February 2007 and July 2018, has met three times since then. We will of course look for the appropriate time for the next meeting of the BIIGC, especially in the context of ensuring the strengthening of the bilateral relationship between the UK and Ireland now that we have left the EU—I have spoken to the Irish Foreign Minister about that—but we also need to be clear that policing is a devolved matter so falls outside the remit of the BIIGC.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement and his continuing commitment to resolving the issues thrown up by the Northern Ireland protocol. Given that one of the many reasons for the recent unacceptable disorder is that one side of the community undoubtedly feels their concerns are not being listened to, not least by those in the European Union, what representations will my right hon. Friend make to those outside Northern Ireland such that they listen more carefully to the concerns of all communities in Northern Ireland?
My hon. Friend raises a really important point. Colleagues from all parties are speaking about this issue in the House today and they have influence and relationships throughout the EU, and it is incumbent on us all to make the case widely that it is important that the EU understands the issue of identity and why the tensions that we are seeing in the loyalist and Unionist community are there in respect of some of the things that happened earlier this year, as we have already outlined. As I say, there is a fundamentally multifaceted, complex set of reasons behind what happened last week, and there is work for all of us to do in moving things forward. My hon. Friend is absolutely right that we all have a part to play to ensure that people understand the complications, nuances and sensitivities in Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State deserves the support of the whole House and, indeed, of the people across these two islands for every effort he makes to bring together politicians in Northern Ireland, in Dublin and here in Great Britain, but the right hon. Member for Lagan Valley (Sir Jeffrey M. Donaldson) is right to point out that at the moment the lack of trust is palpable. If the Secretary of State wants to make sure that the European Union understands the situation in Northern Ireland and if he wants to bring people together, it would not be just symbolism for him to tell the Prime Minister that he has to be visible at this time if he is to provide the kind of leadership that we have expected from Prime Ministers in the past. We need brave decisions; it is now up to the Prime Minister to step forward and provide that kind of leadership.
The hon. Gentleman has a long-held and strong passion for Northern Ireland and has always worked in a collegiate way to ensure that the people of Northern Ireland are well supported. He is absolutely right about bringing people together, which is what we have been doing. As I have outlined, it is important that we encourage our friends and partners around the world, including the EU, to do that. The Prime Minister has been integrally involved in Northern Ireland and was actually there just a couple of weeks ago.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement, but I have to say that I am disappointed by the lack of any acceptance of culpability from his Government in respect of how they have dealt with the Brexit issue from the start and how they have not been honest with the Unionist population in Northern Ireland. Church leaders have asked us to come together to deal with this crisis in our peace process. Despite what the Secretary of State has said, policing may be devolved but peace is not devolved. We all have a responsibility to deal with this situation. Why will the Secretary of State and his Government not convene the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference?
On the hon. Gentleman’s last comment, he might want to have a look through Hansard later and reread my remarks, because that is not what I said. It is actually quite the opposite—I have spoken to the Irish Government—so I suggest he has a look at what I actually said.
It is very misleading to try, as I said earlier, to legitimise or even to simplify—I appreciate that the hon. Gentleman is not legitimising it, to be fair—what we have seen over the past few weeks and the tensions around Brexit. As many of us know—I know the hon. Gentleman knows this because it was outlined to him and me by the Chief Constable at the end of last week—there is a multifaceted set of issues, not least some of the brilliant work that the PSNI has done to crack down on crime. Some of that has been rehearsed today.
I have faith in the Northern Ireland Executive and Ministers, one of whom is a member of the hon. Gentleman’s party, to do their work to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. The Executive came together just a few weeks before covid came upon us all last year. The way in which they have worked through the last year—staying together and working together for the people of Northern Ireland—has been a phenomenal achievement and huge credit goes to all those involved. I have faith in them to do the work that is devolved to them. I will continue to support them in that and to support the PSNI to do the job that it is focused on doing: keeping everybody in Northern Ireland safe.
As my right hon. Friend said, the reason for the scenes that we have seen over recent weeks are multifaceted and that means that there is not a single solution to the problems; there will have to be a holistic approach. Will he confirm that he is finding ways to bring together all partners—not just the PSNI and the Northern Ireland Executive, but the Irish Government, the European Union and civil society—to come up with a holistic strategy for bringing peace back to the streets of Belfast?
My hon. Friend is right about the multifaceted situation. There is work that we have to do. We have touched on integrated education. We also have to ensure that there is a stronger and more connected relationship in some communities with the police and political parties in Northern Ireland—across the communities. That has come through very clearly in the engagement that I have had—not just in the last few days, but over a period of time—with people across various community and civic groups. As I said earlier, we will of course look for an appropriate time for a future meeting of the BIIGC, particularly in the light of the redevelopment and strengthening of the bilateral relationship between ourselves and the Irish Government now that we have left the EU.
May I say at the outset that my thoughts and prayers are with the officers injured in recent days? Although all right-minded people will condemn any violence or threat of violence in Northern Ireland—now and in the past—does the Secretary of State accept that the anger in the Unionist community goes far beyond those who have taken to the streets in recent days? Will he take any opportunity to point out to his Irish or European colleagues, whose belligerent approach has exacerbated the difficulties, that the rigorous implementation of the protocol is not only inconsistent with the Belfast agreement—it is also, even before it has been implemented in full, causing societal difficulties in Northern Ireland? Will he also confirm that, with or without necessary flexibility being shown by the European Commission, the Government will fulfil the Prime Minister’s assurance in December 2019 that there would be “no checks” on goods going from Northern Ireland to GB or from GB to Northern Ireland?
The hon. Lady has strongly and passionately outlined the sense of frustration and tension in Northern Ireland. I have talked to businesses, and whether somebody is nationalist or Unionist, they have seen an impact from the outworkings of the protocol, such as some of the issues that we saw earlier this year. We are working with the business community and civic society across the whole community of Northern Ireland to find sensible solutions.
We would like to work on this with our European partners, but the hon. Lady is right that the actions that we saw, particularly those around article 16, had an acute impact on the sense of frustration, tension and anger across the Unionist community. Thankfully—she is absolutely right about this and we need to be clear about it—the vast majority of people who have that anger are expressing it in the right way: through their politicians, to move things forward in a democratic sense, with dialogue; and through peaceful protests. That is absolutely right. We defend their right to do that and we will continue to engage on that. As she rightly says, that does not at any point ever excuse violence; we need to be very clear about that. We are determined to work through these issues and ensure that the protocol can work for everybody in a sense that is pragmatic and flexible, with free-flowing trade for GB into NI.
I also express my full support for the PSNI, including the Chief Constable. The Secretary of State well knows my views on the importance of a UK-EU veterinary agreement to take the heat out of the protocol. He also directly referred to the need to address deprivation and segregation. In that regard, may I invite him to consider extending his Government’s Fresh Start funding, which is so important for the expansion of integrated education, and to work with his ministerial colleagues to provide urgent clarity on the shared prosperity fund, which is so important for local employability schemes?
I am very happy to do that. In fact, we organised a meeting just recently for Executive Ministers and Ministers and officials from Government, including the Ministry of Housing, Communities and Local Government, to talk through the schemes—not just the shared prosperity fund but the community renewal fund and others—because there are substantial extra funds available this year for Northern Ireland as we move towards the shared prosperity fund. As I set out earlier, part of the £400 million of new deal money will be focused on work around social fabric and potentially integrated education, and I am really keen to engage to make sure that that money is put into areas where it has the most beneficial impact and is positive for people on the ground in Northern Ireland.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the democratic institutions in Northern Ireland have a key role to play in ending this violence? Will he therefore urge all the parties not to take the step of suspending the institutions, as we have seen in recent years, and to keep talking to find a solution to take Northern Ireland forward?
The short answer is yes, but I want to stress that the main political parties that form the Executive in Northern Ireland are all in the place that my hon. Friend outlined—working together. That is why it was really good to see them come together last week with a joint statement on this. There are five different political parties in a power-sharing arrangement in a devolved authority. Obviously, they will disagree on things from time to time. What they absolutely agree on is their right to disagree and to do so in a democratic and peaceful way, which they have worked together on very well since the re-formation after the New Decade, New Approach agreement last year, and I hope they will continue to do that. From my engagement with them all at the moment, I am confident that they will, and it is the right thing to do—it is certainly what the people of Northern Ireland want to see.
I associate myself with the shadow Secretary of State’s remarks on the complex situation in Northern Ireland. Notwithstanding that, just five weeks ago, the Prime Minister said that the Northern Irish protocol must not place “barriers of any kind” down the Irish sea. Can the Secretary of State explain to the House why the Prime Minister negotiated an agreement that did exactly that? Does he accept that the gap between what the Prime Minister says on Northern Ireland and what he does has contributed to a serious collapse in trust that now requires urgent prime ministerial attention?
It is interesting that, in talking about a complex and multifaceted situation, the hon. Lady goes straight to talking about Brexit, which again highlights that Labour is so far behind where the general public are on finding a way to move forward to deliver on this. We have been clear from the beginning that the protocol is there because of the unique circumstances in Northern Ireland. It has to work in a way that works for people across the communities in Northern Ireland and for the whole of Northern Ireland—in a flexible, pragmatic way.
The hon. Lady talks about the Prime Minister’s involvement. Obviously, he has been involved, not just in the last few days but consistently through this process. He has been very clear about our determination and his determination—this is exactly what Lord Frost is working on at the moment through the Joint Committee and with my Department—to ensure that we deliver an outcome that means that these products flow in a flexible manner, because the protocol is there. As I said earlier, we understand that the EU has that great concern about protecting its single market. We have to make sure that the protocol respects the Good Friday agreement in all three strands, including east-west.
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. Obviously, we need to understand all the issues that have come together to lead people to think that violence is the solution, completely unacceptably, and work through that with the political parties and the community groups in Northern Ireland. She is absolutely right: there is no excuse for what we saw the other week. It was utterly reprehensible. As I have said before and as others have rightly said, our thoughts are with the police, whose focus is on keeping people safe.
The abdication of any responsibility for the scenes that we have seen on the streets of Northern Ireland by this Government and this Secretary of State is shameful. The Prime Minister made consistent promises that there would be no border down the Irish sea. The Prime Minister also persistently threatened to break international law, repeatedly undermining the Good Friday agreement. The nature of politics towards the north of Ireland under this Government as a consequence of Brexit has been, at best, regretful. Does the Secretary of State understand the complexities—I have my concerns—and will he take responsibility for the repeated failures of his party in government?
If the hon. Gentleman looks at what I have said this afternoon, I think he will see that I have proven quite the opposite in acknowledging the multifaceted issues that led to the violence we saw the other week, not that that excuses or legitimises in any way the reprehensible behaviour we saw from some and the encouragement of young people, which I find particularly despicable. It is good to see, if I heard his question correctly, that he now fully supports us in ensuring that there are no borders. I therefore look forward to his support if we have to take further action and for any further action we take to deliver on that in the way we promised people in Northern Ireland: with a pragmatic and flexible approach to the Northern Ireland protocol.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that the Belfast/Good Friday agreement has brought untold benefits to Northern Ireland over the past 23 years and that it is therefore the Belfast/Good Friday agreement that must be the basis for future co-operation and political engagement?
Absolutely. We now see a vibrant, exciting economy. Whether it is FinTech, renewable energy, cyber, the creative arts or advanced engineering and manufacturing, wherever people go in Northern Ireland, they will see entrepreneurship and opportunity, which is a testament to the phenomenal success of the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. I want that to continue to live on. I am absolutely passionate about ensuring that we deliver on that for the people of Northern Ireland. We do so by respecting, delivering on and working with everything and every part of the Good Friday agreement.
May I convey my thoughts for those PSNI officers who have been injured in the last week? They serve our community valiantly and often become the casualty when politics does not work. I also commend the leadership shown by my colleagues in my constituency of Belfast East and community leaders who have ensured that our part of the city has remained calm.
The Secretary of State is right to caution against legitimising violence. It should not happen. Violence is wrong. But when we talk of dialogue, I hope he will agree that the serious issues that have been raised should not be ignored. I hope he will appreciate that there are still too many politicians in Northern Ireland who not only dismiss the concerns but denigrate those in our community who voice them. If we want to see politics work, and I do, and we want to see constitutional politics work, and it should, we need to see the tangible results of all the flexibilities and resolutions for the injurious imposition we are facing in Northern Ireland.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right. I commend him and his colleagues in the area who have been working closely with their communities and giving the support that the community groups, communities themselves and indeed the PSNI have benefited from. He is also right that we all need to ensure that we are engaging properly across the entire community of Northern Ireland. We should be engaging with anybody looking to find a peaceful solution and to use dialogue to condemn violence, and wanting to be part of taking Northern Ireland forward in a positive way. It is absolutely right that we take the time to have those difficult conversations sometimes, when they are there, even on issues where we disagree, to ensure that we can understand and look at how we can deliver on things in a way that works for everybody. In short, he is absolutely right.
Further to what my hon. Friends have said about the Northern Ireland protocol, does my right hon. Friend agree that the reckless invocation of article 16 by the EU, for however short a period, without thought for the consequences, has contributed to the political tensions we now see in Northern Ireland?
My hon. Friend is correct. To be fair, the EU has recognised the mistake, acknowledged the mistake, apologised for it and stepped back from the brink, but that action definitely had an impact. That is something that representatives from civic society made clear to the vice-president. That is why it is important that our colleagues and friends in the EU take some time to really understand some of the nuances and complexities of the communities in Northern Ireland and in particular the sense of identity of the Unionist and loyalist community and why that action not just had an impact that night but has had a lasting effect on people’s sense of identity.
Given that the Government are committed to seeking an agreement with the EU on veterinary standards, which has been repeated by the Secretary of State for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, can the Secretary of State confirm that that is something that Ministers are pursuing in the Joint Committee? Does he support such an agreement, which would reduce checks and red tape and lower tension in the long term?
The hon. Lady is right. The Joint Committee, Lord Frost, my colleague the Secretary of State for the Environment, Food and Rural Affairs and other relevant Departments have, across Government, been working on the various issues, to iron out the challenges and some of the problems that we have seen with the outworking of the protocol in the first few months of this year. We must get those things resolved, and our intention, aim and focus is on doing so by agreement, and in agreement with our friends and partners in the EU.
Social media has been used to lure young people to interfaces between communities, inflaming the crisis with provocative messages and fake news. Will the Secretary of State make clear that social media giants such as Facebook and WhatsApp cannot wash their hands of responsibility, and they have a duty to act to prevent their platforms from being used to incite violence?
The hon. Lady makes a good point, and it is another example of how, even in an extended discussion such as this one, many more issues have been involved over the past few weeks. She is right to mention social media and people being subject to fake news, bot accounts and so on, and all those things have played a part. The PSNI and, more widely, the Executive and the UK Government are working with social media companies, and people should be cautious and aware of these things. That kind of activity on social media does not help anybody, and the social and digital media companies have a part to play in helping to ensure that such messaging does not spread and risk more violence anywhere on the streets of the United Kingdom.
The Secretary of State indicated that there was widespread condemnation of the violence of the past week or so, and he is right. That was not always the case, but thankfully it is now. Two outstanding problems need to be resolved with the utmost urgency. One is the Northern Ireland protocol, which he alluded to, and the other is the position of the Chief Constable. Will the Secretary of State recommit himself to ensuring that those two obstacles to progress can be dealt with in a satisfactory way, so as to take us forward peacefully and democratically?
As I have outlined this afternoon and previously in the House, we have a clear focus on the work to move things forward on the protocol in a pragmatic and flexible way, so that it works and delivers for people in Northern Ireland, without hindrance or problem. The entire focus of the Chief Constable is on the safety and security of people in Northern Ireland, and I support him in that work.
I am of the generation that remembers what discord in Ireland meant for people here on the mainland. I remember my mum being scared to go to work in London because of the bombs that were going off. Scared to go to work in London! What would the Secretary of State say today to those like my mum who would not understand how the Government have allowed the current situation to arise?
As the hon. Gentleman will know, sadly and inexcusably we have seen pockets of violence across the UK over the last few months, in London, Bristol and elsewhere. None of that is acceptable, and we should see none of it. We should all be working, wherever we are in the UK, to support the local police and communities to bring an end to such things and return to calm and proper dialogue. I caution the hon. Gentleman against comparing what we saw the other week with what was seen some decades ago. Nobody should return to that, and the people of Northern Ireland deserve better. That is not what we saw last week, and it is not what anybody wants to return to in the future. We all have a job to ensure that the calmness that is there now remains, and that we work together with a proper, democratic dialogue.
It is a denial, Sir, not to acknowledge the consequences of decisions taken by those on both Front Benches, and imposed on Northern Ireland, which have caused seismic societal, economic and community breakdown. That is the Northern Ireland protocol, and we are witnessing that breakdown today. I condemn the violence, but all the condemnation in the world will not make the violence go away if action is not taken. The cause is not covid-19. Seriously? The cause is not Bobby Storey’s funeral, although that was the straw that broke the camel’s back. The Secretary of State knows that the protocol lies at the heart of this, because the identity of Ulster is at stake as a result of the protocol. I fear a continuing downward spiral unless the Secretary of State takes action, and the key action he can take is to invoke article 16, take control of the situation, and address—[Inaudible.]
Yes, I understand the point the hon. Gentleman was making. He referenced a few of the things I outlined in my opening remarks about the challenges, the straw that broke the camel’s back and the issues around the protocol earlier this year. That is why we took unilateral action a few weeks ago, which he supported. We have been clear that we will take the action needed to make sure this works for Northern Ireland. Our focus is on working through the proper channels with our friends and partners in the EU to get an agreeable solution that works for those EU friends and partners we trade with as well as people across the United Kingdom, and enables the GB-NI trade that we all want to take place.
As the hon. Member for North Antrim (Ian Paisley) said, the protocol is at the heart of this issue. The Secretary of State knows that there were only three options: all-UK alignment with the customs union and the single market, a land border between north and south, or a border in the Irish sea. The Prime Minister chose the sea border, but then he promised that it would not involve the checks that he signed up to in the protocol. I think he either did not understand the agreement he signed, or did not care about telling the truth. Which was it?
Given that this was outlined earlier today, it is interesting that Opposition Members continue to want to talk about nothing else but leaving the EU. I think that highlights their lack of connection with people who want to move forward.
As we have said, we want to make sure that the arrangements work for the people of Northern Ireland. It is clear—it is one of the things the Prime Minister has consistently outlined—that the protocol is there for the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland. It is there because it recognises that the EU wants to protect its single market. We respect that position. That is about protecting the EU goods from goods that move through Northern Ireland and into the Republic of Ireland, and therefore the EU. We are determined to deliver on all strands of the Good Friday agreement, not just one of them, and that means recognising, as the protocol itself says, that not only will it not disrupt the everyday lives of people and communities, but respect and recognise the integrity of the market of the United Kingdom. Northern Ireland is an integral and fixed part of the United Kingdom customs territory. We are determined to ensure that it remains so and to get trade flows moving freely. We recognise the EU’s desire to make sure that goods moving into the EU via the Republic of Ireland are properly dealt with, but that is very different from the challenges we are seeing for all the goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. We have been clear that we will fix that.
The wholly unacceptable disorder was in part driven by the non-tariff barriers on exports from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. I understand the Government are planning the full implementation of border checks on imports from the European Union from October. Will that include non-tariff barriers on exports from Northern Ireland to Great Britain?
The hon. Gentleman could look at the legislation we passed last year that ensures that Northern Ireland businesses have unfettered access to markets in the rest of the UK. We legislated for that, we have delivered on that, and we will continue to work to ensure equally flexible and free flow of trade from GB to NI, as I have outlined this afternoon.
I thank and agree with the Secretary of State. We all agree that violence is unjustified and unjustifiable. It will break lives and homes, but it will not fix the problems. Democratic politics is the only solution, and politics must be seen to work. The overwhelming majority of good, law-abiding folks in Northern Ireland will never pick up a stone or throw a petrol bomb. We support the police and the rule of law.
However, the Northern Ireland protocol has disrupted business and has created problems on the streets. People are dismayed, there is anger and the frustration is boiling over. Some of them feel they are—indeed, we probably all feel we are—second-class citizens. At the same time, 2,000 people attended the Bobby Storey funeral; we buried my mother-in-law last October, with 25 at the funeral. Will the Secretary of State join me in rejecting two-tier policing where there is one rule for us, but another rule for Sinn Féin, and will he recognise that the flawed Northern Ireland protocol is disrupting peace, rather than cementing stability?
I agree in large part with what the hon. Gentleman has said. It is why it is important for us to be working to find solutions for the impact of the outworking of the protocol on the ground and—he is absolutely right, and I absolutely understand this—the impact on people’s sense of identity. I welcome his condemnation of the violence we saw the other week.
On policing, it is important that people are clear that the PSNI’s work is to be there to support, keep safe and protect people of all communities on an equal basis. People need to have trust and faith in that, and I know the PSNI is focused on looking at what it can do to make sure it is delivering it. It is simply unacceptable, particularly with such a set of regulations, that any one community should be in a position where it believes it can see there has been a difference in treatment from one part of the community to another, especially with something so sensitive as family funerals over the last year or so. I absolutely understand people’s frustration, and I know the PSNI does as well. It is working to ensure that people are clear and can have confidence and trust that it is there to work for people across the whole community of Northern Ireland—equally, fairly and properly—to keep us all safe.
I thank the Secretary of State for his statement and for responding to 31 questions in just over an hour. We are going to suspend now for three minutes for cleaning the Dispatch Boxes, so that after the ten-minute rule Bill we can go straight into the Finance (No.2) Bill.