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Northern Ireland Executive

Volume 724: debated on Wednesday 14 December 2022

9. What steps his Department is taking to support the establishment of a Northern Ireland Executive. (902751)

The Government remain committed to the Belfast/Good Friday agreement and will continue to work with the Northern Ireland political parties to restore power sharing. One of the things we have done recently is pass the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019. That provides a window, until 19 January 2023, for the parties to form an Executive. I encourage the parties to use that time productively to restore the devolved institutions and get back to tackling the issues affecting the people who elected them.

Devolution was created to give the people of Northern Ireland, of both traditions, a voice on regional matters that affect them. However, local politicians are failing people in their Province by refusing to return to Stormont. Now, more than ever, in difficult times, local leadership is needed in Northern Ireland. What steps is my right hon. Friend taking to ensure that politicians in Northern Ireland are incentivised to retore power sharing? Will he update the House on the progress of talks to that end?

It is essential that the devolved institutions are restored as soon as possible, and that is what the people of Northern Ireland need and deserve. As my hon. Friend the Minister of State mentioned, the process also requires an extra dimension of trying to get a negotiated settlement on the Northern Ireland protocol. I remain in close contact with all the leaders in the political parties in Northern Ireland, and indeed I am meeting them all this week as part of the efforts to try to make sure we can have a constructive dialogue that means that the institutions can reform.

The Stormont Assembly has been recalled five times since the last election but has failed to elect a new Speaker. It is clear that the Democratic Unionist party will not re-enter power sharing until the Northern Ireland protocol is significantly changed. So does my right hon. Friend agree that the Government must find a balanced solution to the protocol, one that recognises the aspirations of all communities in Northern Ireland, including those of the Unionists? That approach is set out and enshrined in the Good Friday agreement.

I know my hon. Friend’s interest in this is well founded. I am well aware of his strong interest in these matters because I recall that his father was one of the longest serving Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland, having served for a whole Parliament between 1992 and 1997, with his tenure having included the Downing Street declaration. We are nearly at its anniversary, as it took place on 15 December 1993 and paved the way for the Belfast/Good Friday agreement, which we have talked about. Clearly, the protocol has created issues, which we are working urgently to resolve as soon as possible. That is why we created the legislative window until 19 January for talks between the UK and the European Union to develop and for the Northern Ireland parties to work together to restore the devolved institutions. However, we remain of the view that there is no excuse for the Northern Ireland parties not to be in government as soon as possible.

As some Members know, not least the Northern Ireland Members behind me, my wife hails from Northern Ireland. [Hon. Members: “Hear, hear.”] I thank them. Having had recent experience of accident and emergency in Northern Ireland, it was evident to me that, notwithstanding the finest efforts of doctors and nurses, the NHS there needs ministerial guidance. For that reason, we must all strive to see the Executive restored.

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and his point, which is absolutely correct. May I also thank those working in the health service in Northern Ireland for the services they are providing at this time, because they are working extremely hard in trying conditions? He is absolutely right; there are issues within the NHS in Northern Ireland, and they are best solved by ministerial guidance from directly elected, locally elected decision makers who are working for the people there—from the Executive.

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I thank the Secretary of State for that response. On behalf of my constituents, some of whom are sitting in cold houses today and not receiving the energy help that the rest of the UK is receiving from Government, I encourage him and the Government on the establishment of the Northern Ireland Executive. Vulnerable people need the energy help and the aid now, and I urge him to bring that forward. May I also ask him to bring forward and enact the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill, which the people of Northern Ireland want to see, with no more delays?

Based on the questions before us, I am sure we will talk a great deal about the protocol in this questions session. On the hon. Gentleman’s point about people sitting in cold homes in Northern Ireland at this point in time without the energy support they deserve, energy policy is a devolved matter, with responsibility normally resting with the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. These matters would have been best sorted and more quickly sorted had that been in operation now. However, yesterday I met the energy companies. There are significant difficulties in how they could possibly deliver this support, and the Government are now examining other options as well to try to get this money out the door as quickly as we possibly can.

Nurses across Northern Ireland, England and Wales are planning to take strike action tomorrow. That situation has been averted in Scotland because of the active involvement of the Scottish Government in negotiating an acceptable pay deal. What role is the Secretary of State and his Ministers playing in trying to bring a resolution to this situation in Northern Ireland, and what assurances can he give that he and his ministerial team are adopting a more constructive approach to these pay negotiations than appears to be the case elsewhere on these islands?

As the hon. Gentleman will know, we recently set a budget for Northern Ireland, because it had not been set at the beginning of the year, to make sure that the money could be spent. No budget had been set by the Executive, and the projected black hole, as estimated by the Minister of Finance when he was sitting, was £660 million. The negotiations are being facilitated by British Government Ministers of the type the hon. Gentleman mentions, but at the end of the day it is the employers in Northern Ireland who will be making those final negotiations.

At the time of a cost of living crisis, clearly, too many people are feeling the adverse effect of the absence of Stormont. If my right hon. Friend has not seen it, could he look at the BBC’s “Spotlight” programme on Northern Ireland produced by Mandy McAuley? It shows the pernicious activities of loan sharks and the paramilitaries and the effect on the most vulnerable people in Northern Irish society, as they await their money to help with their fuel. I echo the comments of the hon. Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon) and urge my right hon. Friend to give peace of mind to those who are most in need and sort out this pressing issue by Christmas, so that people have that peace of mind and can try to enjoy the festive period.

I thank my hon. Friend, the Chair of the Select Committee, for his question. I am fully aware of the activities of paramilitary lenders. I know of the programme that he mentioned. I did not see it last night, but I was in a meeting last week, or the week before, with the head of Women’s Aid in Northern Ireland who mentioned this very fact to me. There have been dozens of meetings, if not more, between various Secretaries of State, including the Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy and myself, Ministers of State, energy companies and a whole of host of others to try to get this matter solved. I guarantee that the energy of the whole British Government is concentrating on this one issue. We want to crack this nut in the timeframe that my hon. Friend suggests, but it is way more difficult than it should be.