Northern Ireland Assembly Election

Commons Hansard
17 Jan 2017

Mr. Dave Anderson (Blaydon): I thank the Secretary of State for his statement.

Like most of us, I am saddened that we are here today, and I know that so many good people in Northern Ireland will feel exactly the same, with deep regret that we have reached this impasse. I have personally been involved for almost three decades in Northern Ireland-related issues, and if I have learnt one thing it is that political vacuums should be avoided at all costs. So I say to the Secretary of State today that he must make sure that he is not only willing to fill that vacuum, but he must work with all parties to try to seek a way forward so that we avoid the nightmare scenario of six weeks of increasingly bitter campaigning which leaves us in the same place as when it started, with no solution in place to heal the huge divide and to bring together those elected to represent all the people of Northern Ireland.

I realise that the tension of an election dominates people's minds and the news agenda may well be focused on other issues, but I suggest that for the sake of all of us on these islands we highlight the critical importance of maintaining devolved and functioning government in Northern Ireland. I want to see young men and women from Blaydon continuing to go to Belfast with rucksacks on their backs; I do not want to go back to the days when they went there with rifles over their shoulders. Anyone who thinks that this is some form of local difficulty in Northern Ireland should think again.

I want to see the continuing peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland that is helping to grow the economy and the life chances of all who live there. I want the world to look at Northern Ireland and rightly applaud the success we have witnessed over the past decades. I hope none of us wants to see a divided Northern Ireland that turns in on itself, as, sadly, we have seen so often in the past.

There are huge issues facing the people of Northern Ireland: our exit from the European Union and the real changes this will bring to everybody's everyday lives; the uncertain position from the Government on the UK's only land border with Europe; how to keep improving economic performance; and, critically, how we deal with Northern Ireland's unique and painful past. Without a stable, workable Government, all these issues will be much harder to progress.

Last week, the Secretary of State and the Prime Minister assured me and the House that there would be scope for the Northern Ireland voice to be heard in the run-up to our negotiations on the EU, via a Joint Ministerial Council. If that is the case, there is no reason for the Secretary of State not to engage with the parties and communities over the next eight weeks, in order to resolve the issues that have led to this breakdown. He must not let the election be an excuse for not getting people together.

Let us be clear: what is happening in Northern Ireland is not just about who is or is not the First Minister or Deputy First Minister, or the debacle that is the renewable heat incentive scheme. There are other real underlying issues, including how we support victims of the troubles; women's rights; equality for LGBT communities; the treatment of ethnic minorities and migrant groups; and, above all, how we deal with Northern Ireland's past and the crucial issue of trust and mutual respect. The Secretary of State has a responsibility to ensure that the Government deal with all parties in Northern Ireland on an equal basis. That is clearly a matter of huge concern to a number of the parties there.

I give due credit to the Secretary of State for the calm and measured tone that he has adopted so far, and I will not deny myself the optimism that those of us who love Northern Ireland still feel. To that end, I can assure the House that we in Labour will do everything we can to help, but all the parties need to look at what they can do to prevent the present impasse from degenerating into total collapse. Let me make it clear that we need to avoid a return to direct rule if at all possible. We need Northern Ireland politicians to stand up and be counted, to recognise their responsibility and to accept that the vehicle for addressing the concerns and needs of their communities is the Assembly and its Executive. The need for the continuation of the Assembly should be the No. 1 priority for them all, and for us in Westminster. The imposition of direct rule will serve no one. In the weeks to come, we should not let any personal political positioning, posturing or differences get in the way of the return of a working Government in Northern Ireland.

James Brokenshire, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland: I welcome the hon. Gentleman's comments and his emphasis on the need to return to shared government in Northern Ireland at the earliest possible opportunity. I welcome his support and his comments underlining the shared responsibility that we all keenly feel in seeking to achieve that outcome by using the time ahead as effectively as possible. He is aware that there is a relatively short period of time following an election - around three weeks - in which ?to form an Executive. We need to use all the time, up to polling day and beyond, to try to bring people together and to retain the sense of dialogue, difficult and challenging though that might be during an election period. It is important that we continue to do that.

We recognise that political stability is the primary responsibility of Governments. I have had discussions with all the parties since my last statement, and I have focused on engaging widely in order to encourage and promote a way forward. That is absolutely what I will continue to do in the time ahead. No one should prejudge the outcome of the election. We should be absolutely focused on seeking to get the right outcome, which is the continuation of devolved government in Northern Ireland. That is in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland as it will allow things to move forward. As the hon. Gentleman said, we must work collectively to that end and approach this in a positive way if we are to achieve that outcome.

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