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Restoration of Power Sharing

Volume 743: debated on Wednesday 17 January 2024

1. What recent discussions he has had with party leaders on the restoration of power sharing in Northern Ireland. (900948)

5. What recent progress he has made on the restoration of political institutions in Northern Ireland. (900952)

13. What recent discussions he has had with party leaders on the restoration of power sharing in Northern Ireland. (900960)

It will not have escaped your notice, Mr Speaker, that four years ago, on 11 January, the Northern Ireland Assembly reformed. The First Minister effectively collapsed the institutions and power sharing by resigning on 3 February 2022.

Behind these questions is a desire for the return of power sharing and the Northern Ireland Executive—a desire that I very much share, hence my most recent discussions with the leaders of most of the political parties that took place in Hillsborough on Monday, when we discussed the very many matters relating to this goal.

Negotiations with the Democratic Unionist party have been ongoing for quite some time, and they have not yet resulted in the restoration of the Executive. What does the Secretary of State think the DUP is looking for?

I cannot answer for the DUP, and would never seek to do so, but behind all this is the concern that it had about the Northern Ireland protocol as we left the European Union and how, as a consequence, goods were gradually being removed from Northern Ireland’s supermarket shelves—a visible sign that Northern Ireland was being pulled away from the United Kingdom’s sphere of influence and into the European sphere. I believe the Windsor framework set that straight.

I very much welcome the Secretary of State’s commitment to a £3.3 billion financial package. However, we are seemingly at an impasse. He will be aware that there is a groundswell of opinion that believes elements of the package should be released to address the ongoing crisis in our public services and, in particular, public sector pay pressures. Will he consider releasing some of that money to address public sector pay?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and, indeed, for the way in which he and his party have conducted themselves in the talks to try to restore the Executive. The UK Government put an extremely fair and generous package for a restored Executive, worth £3.3 billion, on the table before Christmas. The money that Northern Ireland civil servants and I have available is from the budget passed in this place in the last year.

I was recently in County Kildare with the Minister of State and the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, working to build understanding between the two countries. We heard from Irish Ministers and the ambassador about the impact of the lack of a functioning Northern Ireland Assembly. Bearing that in mind, and the struggles that we know people are having in Northern Ireland with their bills, potential strike action and all kinds of issues, can the Secretary of State say a bit more about what he is doing, and about the meetings and conversations he is having, to work at pace to try to get a solution?

I thank the hon. Lady both for her interest and for the sentiment behind her question. A huge amount is happening, including meetings galore with all the political parties in Northern Ireland, and especially the Democratic Unionist party, because it is the DUP that I need to get on board so that the Executive can be restored. The hon. Lady says “at pace”, and we will happily work at whatever pace we can, but it is slightly determined by our interlocutors.

The current industrial action is due to hard-pressed public servants feeling that they are at the end of their tether. Would it not be better if the Assembly were functioning normally, so that this could be resolved as soon as possible?

Yes, the hon. Lady is exactly right. There is a fair and generous £3.3 billion package on the table for a restored Executive to use for this purpose and many others. As everyone involved in Northern Ireland politics understands, there is a need to transform public services in Northern Ireland, and this package would help to do that too.

I commend my right hon. Friend for his efforts to try to restore the Assembly and the Executive with a big offer. Is it not right that, were direct rule to be contemplated, we would now need primary legislation following the St Andrews agreement? The political reality is that it would mean huge political pressure on all of us here, not only from within our United Kingdom but from outside. Does he agree that the best way to preserve our great United Kingdom is for everyone to get back around the table and to govern Northern Ireland from Stormont?

I thank my right hon. and learned Friend for his question and welcome his election as Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, probably more than some other Members will—I look to a certain Member on the Benches opposite. He is absolutely right in what he says; there is no way this Government want to go down the route of direct rule, which would need primary legislation. We do not want to go down the route of joint authority either and we will not do so. We need to find an appropriate form to allow the Executive to reform, which is what we are working unbelievably hard on with our colleagues in Northern Ireland.

Does my right hon. Friend agree that it is deeply regrettable that the Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, is pandering to his domestic audience, rather than thinking of the greater good of Northern Ireland and the victims of the troubles?

My right hon. Friend makes a very fair point, because in the midst of everything we are trying to do to get the Executive back up and running, the Republic of Ireland’s decision to take an inter-state case out against the UK Government on our Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act 2023, which is designed to bring justice and information recovery to victims of the troubles, is unhelpful and unfortunate. We have made our representations very plain on that matter.

Now that the talks have concluded, with the House having voted overwhelmingly to support the Windsor framework back in March, Labour Members stand by our commitment to implement it if we were to be in government, and we support the efforts the Government are making to restore the institutions. Furthermore, it is worth pointing out that there would be no prospect of negotiating with the European Union further arrangements of benefit to Northern Ireland if the UK were to renege, again, on an international agreement it has signed. Will the Secretary of State confirm that if the Executive are not restored by tomorrow evening, he will need to bring forward legislation to postpone the elections?

I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his question and for his affirmation of the work done on the Windsor framework. Obviously, I will be doing everything I can to ensure that it is not a Labour Government who come in to do any of this in the future. However, he is right to say that as of midnight on Thursday—tomorrow night—I will need to bring in primary legislation, because a duty falls on me to call an election for the Northern Ireland Assembly. I have a number of weeks—I believe it is 12—in which to do that, and I intend to bring in legislation on these matters next week.

I am grateful for that clarification. The absence of the Executive and the failure to sort out the urgent question of public sector pay is going to result in the biggest strike in Northern Ireland for many years tomorrow. Some workers have not had a pay rise for almost three years—that is not sustainable. As we await the restoration of the institutions, the party leaders and indeed the head of the civil service in Northern Ireland have all called on the Secretary of State to release the money for pay, which he has said is available. Will he now do so, so that public sector workers in Northern Ireland can get the pay increase they deserve?

I am acutely aware of the industrial action scheduled for tomorrow and the detrimental impact it will have on public services. I hear the call from the right hon. Gentleman and others to step in, but let me put this into a slightly different context. Public sector pay is devolved to Northern Ireland, and he will know that, as I mentioned earlier, this Parliament set the budget for Northern Ireland this year, with primary legislation. He will also know that decisions on matters such as this are obviously ones that locally elected Ministers should take, as they involve big and fundamental choices; every penny spent on pay is a penny not spent on services. Choices on this are therefore eminently political—indeed, they are as close as we would get to the choices made in the period of direct rule. Direct rule is absolutely not the way forward; these decisions are for the Executive, and a restored Executive have a generous financial package available to them to do exactly as the right hon. Gentleman wishes.

The Secretary of State will know that Northern Ireland can benefit from power sharing arrangements only when those institutions enjoy the support and confidence of both the nationalist and Unionist communities. I think I have previously heard him accept that the Northern Ireland protocol does not enjoy the support of any Unionist in Northern Ireland. Despite references to talks having concluded in December, the Secretary of State helpfully indicated on Monday this week that further progress had been made. Does he accept that the restoration of institutions will be secured only when that confidence within the Unionist community is put where it needs to be?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and for the many, many hours of work that he personally has put into the talks we have been having. They are detailed talks and it is a complex situation. I have said before, because it is absolutely obvious, that the Unionists in Northern Ireland are deeply unhappy with the existing Northern Ireland protocol. I believe we have made excellent progress. I hope that in the coming days and weeks, we can get to a point where his party can come to a conclusion on those talks that leads us to reform the Executive, because I know that he is a democrat and wants it reformed.

I appreciate the Secretary of State’s remarks. He will have heard the concerns around the general strike, which will be called tomorrow. He will know that his Government dismissed our calls when we said that there simply was not sufficient money. He knows we had to battle for sufficient money and that in the run-up to Christmas he personally secured the availability of that money. The release of the funds is called for by the DUP, every political party in Northern Ireland, the head of the Northern Ireland civil service and, this morning, 50 chief executives of public sector agencies across Northern Ireland. I do not believe there is a lack of will on the Secretary of State’s part, but this is a choice—a political choice that the Government can make. Will the Secretary of State use today to encourage his Government colleagues, the Treasury and anyone else who believes that using public sector workers as blackmail or political pawns is beneficial in any way?

I thank the hon. Gentleman for his question and the way that he put it. As I mentioned earlier, public sector pay is devolved and is properly a matter for locally elected politicians who are best placed to take decisions in that space.