Mr. Dave Anderson (Blaydon): I wish we did not have to be here for this statement today, but we are. I thank the Secretary of State for giving me notice of his ?statement. I want to make it clear from the start that we in the Labour party will support him in his endeavours to maintain the political stability in Northern Ireland. Those of us with long memories can remember a time in which people across Northern Ireland did not know the peace that we can see today, and any damage to this peace on our watch should rightly be to our shame. The issues facing Northern Ireland are many. They include the questions of how we deal with Northern Ireland's past and its legacy; how we help the many people living in poverty; and how we handle our impending exit from the European Union, bearing in mind that Northern Ireland has the UK's only land border with the EU. That will be a huge issue in any Brexit negotiation, and we are going into this election period just weeks before the Government sign off on article 50.
Any divisions now will be most damaging for Northern Ireland, when we should all be focusing on coming together to combat the common problems facing us all. This impasse does not help victims or families, and it does not help the economy. For those reasons, all of us in this House must come together, put aside partisan concerns and try to support those in Northern Ireland in order to maintain an enduring and peaceful devolution settlement.
The issues surrounding the RHI scheme have reached an impasse after many weeks of developments and, as the Secretary of State said, we might now be moving towards an election. That election would see constituencies reduced from six to five seats, and as we deal with the many challenges facing Northern Ireland, we could see the loss of many diverse voices that could have benefited the Assembly, which has been together only since the beginning of last year. The election could even deliver a similar result to that seen in 2016, and we would then be back at square one with the underlying issue unresolved. That could result in an even more polarised position than the one we face now.
If we have an election, what will it be fought on? Will it be fought on who can deliver the best outcome for the Northern Ireland economy and for its schools and hospitals? Will it look forward to progress or look backwards to division? With so much at stake, not least the institutions themselves, surely it is time for moderation. Lines in the sand are not what are needed. From the feedback that we are getting from people on the ground in Northern Ireland, I do not believe that the population there want an election, and certainly not so soon after the last one. Is that really what people want?
This is not just about us; it is about the world. The world is watching this. There is a huge amount of good will towards Northern Ireland and huge admiration for the success we have seen after decades of despair. People look to the Assembly for a lead, and that is a huge responsibility for the Assembly and for us in this House. People do not want us to fail. They want us all to rise to the hard challenges and work through them. They do not want us just to walk away when things get tough. We know from sad experience that the worst thing that we can do in Northern Ireland is to leave a vacuum. Six weeks of polarised election campaigning will not move the RHI issue forward one inch, but it could push back the real agenda that matters to the people of Northern Ireland on a day-to-day basis. For these reasons, we call ?on the Secretary of State today to convene a round-table in Northern Ireland to discuss ways to end this impasse and to help the discussions. I am glad to say that he has engaged with his counterparts in the Irish Government and with politicians in Northern Ireland. Let us all keep at it. Let us not give in to despair.
On the RHI scheme, can the Secretary of State tell us what assessment he has made of the effect the projected overspend will have on the Northern Ireland budget? I thank him again for coming to the House today, and I reiterate that we in the Labour party will do all we can to ensure that the devolved institutions remain, not just for six weeks or six months but for the many years to follow.
James Brokenshire, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland: I am grateful for the support of the hon. Member for Blaydon (Mr Anderson) and for his comments. He underlines the significance of the issues and highlights the importance of having a strong, working, functioning Executive that can take Northern Ireland forward. There is much to be positive about when we look at the jobs that are being created and the incredible businesses that have been established. I always get a really positive sense of that spirit and the belief in what Northern Ireland can and will be. It has a bright future to look forward to.
Clearly we need the parties to come together and to work together, as I have said. The hon. Gentleman underlined that message in his comments. My intent, over this short period, is to continue to engage with the parties and determine what support the UK Government can provide in finding a solution and whether there is a way of pulling back from the current situation if things do not change. I commit to doing everything I can in my role to support that activity.
The hon. Gentleman asked about the costs to the Northern Ireland budget. I know that the Executive have made an estimate of around £490 million over a 20-year period if no mitigation takes place. One of the key issues is to determine what mitigation could be put in place. We need to support any proposals to mitigate the situation in the best interests of taxpayers in Northern Ireland. Certainly we stand ready to work with the Executive to play a role and to assist if necessary, but obviously we must focus, as time is short before I have to consider my responsibility to call an election. Again, that is why we need to work together.
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