Northern Ireland: Political Developments

With Sen. George Mitchell recently, a key architect of the Good Friday Agreement & peace in Northern Ireland.
With Sen. George Mitchell recently, a key architect of the Good Friday Agreement & peace in Northern Ireland.

Commons Hansard
28 Mar 2017

Mr. Dave Anderson (Blaydon): I would like to take this opportunity to send my condolences to the family of PC Keith Palmer who gave his life in the protection of all who work in this building.

I thank the Secretary of State for advance notice of his statement. Things have changed dramatically since he last gave a statement to this House and called an election. The result of that election reflects the real worry on the ground that the political institutions - not just at Stormont, but at Westminster and the Dáil - have not delivered in the way that the public expect. We need a significant change in direction that includes both Governments as well as the parties on the ground. The Irish Government must have more direct engagement. They are not just interested observers, but the co-guarantors of an internationally endorsed agreement that brought to an end the sad episode in the story of these islands. We need direct and continuing intervention from representatives of the Irish Government.

This House must end the hands-off, "Let them get on with it", "It's all done and dusted" attitude that prevailed under the Cameron-led Governments. We need the Prime Minister to show greater leadership and encouragement in the process, and to show all in Northern Ireland that the Government want to make this work. The people of Northern Ireland have spoken, and they have said very clearly that there are no longer any minorities in the place that they call home. They want to be treated fairly and equitably. They demand that we - the political classes - get our act together now, and move forward on things pledged to them many years ago. Failure to do so is fraught with danger.

As the Secretary of State said, the budget has not been signed off, and that could soon start to have an impact on the day-to-day lives of businesses and the general public. It is not fair to expect the Northern Ireland Office to run Northern Ireland again. Brexit negotiations in Northern Ireland are the most sensitive of all parts of the United Kingdom. Michel Barnier, the European Commission's lead negotiator, has identified the implications for the peace process as one of the three main priorities for him entering these negotiations, but we do not even have properly elected spokespeople attending the talks under the Joint Ministerial Committee.

In the background to all this is the worry that any vacuum could be filled by those who prefer the bullet to the ballot box. We all have a stake in this process. We cannot turn our backs on the situation, as many advocated through the dark days of the 1970s and 1980s. Our collective future is at stake, and nothing should get in the way. The parties on the ground need to take a long, hard look at themselves, and stop saying, "This is what we want" - no matter how legitimate they believe those demands to be - and start saying, "What can we give to move forwards?" It is not easy, but it is the only chance we have to resolve this.

I have not even mentioned the farce that was the final straw in Northern Ireland: the debacle of the renewable heat initiative. Will the Secretary of State look at whether the financial burden placed on the people of Northern Ireland by this failure is limited and reasonable? None of us envies him, or the job he faces. We all want this to succeed and we should use all avenues to reach that goal. To that end, I have some questions. Will the Secretary of State consider whether external support would help to reach an agreement? History tells us that this is sometimes necessary. I can assure him that recent talks with good friends of the peace process from the USA show that they remain ready to help at any time. Will he ensure that the Irish Government have hands-on involvement in the talks, and that the Prime Minister is fully engaged in the process? History has shown us the real difference that that can make. Will he ensure that, unlike so far, multilateral all-party talks are set up as soon as possible in the coming days?

I said earlier that no one wants this to fail, and that is especially true of my party. We have a great deal invested in this process and we do not want it to collapse. Hopefully, we can all use all our efforts to reach a deal as soon as possible. This process has to be built on partnership, genuine compromise and consensus if we are to build up faith and confidence not just in the institutions, but, much more importantly, across the whole the population of Northern Ireland. That cannot be done unless politicians on all sides are prepared to move from their entrenched positions.

This is not just abstract debate for me. For the 12 years from 1993, I had the great privilege to represent 30,000 public sector workers in Northern Ireland. Many had spent years cleaning up the fallout of the actions of failed politicians and terrorists: the ambulance personnel ignoring the risks to their lives to save the lives of others; the nurses dealing with the mutilated, traumatised and dying; the porters dealing, at the sharp end, with the follow-through from yet another sectarian shooting; the social workers dealing with the bereaved, those suffering from addiction and those who were simply lost; the housing officers trying desperately to find homes for those who were burned or bombed out simply because of their religion; and the community workers trying to convince young men and women facing a life on the dole that putting on a balaclava and picking up a gun was not the way forward. It is these people and their kids who we are letting down. Every time we say, "No", "We can't" or "We won't", we betray the trust they put in us that we had put all that behind us. These people did their duty. It is time for us all to do ours.

James Brokenshire, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland: I am grateful to the hon. Gentleman for his clear comments on what is at stake. Yes, this is about those very individuals he spoke to in the last part of his contribution - those in the health service and in education - and the progress in Northern Ireland that we have seen in such a positive and constructive way. We all have that shared determination and commitment to ensure that that progress continues, and that young people growing up in Northern Ireland can look to that future with a strong, positive intent of fulfilling their dreams, ambitions, aspirations and hopes. We can all agree on that message as we look to the days ahead.

The hon. Gentleman asked a number of questions on the process, but I should tell him that there is no hands-off role for the Government in relation to Northern Ireland. We take our responsibilities very seriously in relation to political stability and governance, and fundamentally to that sense of devolved government serving the people of Northern Ireland. That is profoundly what we want to be restored at the earliest opportunity.

On the various different roles of people and organisations, I can say to the hon. Gentleman that the Irish Government have been actively involved over the last days. I pay tribute to the work of Charlie Flanagan, the Irish Foreign Minister, who has worked alongside me, consistent with the three-stranded approach that governs these discussions and the framework. He has played an extremely important part, and has underlined the Irish Government's continued support for the restoration of the devolved Administration, and for the broader institutions set out in the Belfast agreement and its successors functioning effectively and properly - the devolved Government sit at the heart of seeing that structure fulfilling its intent.

The Prime Minister has been fully engaged in the process and remains so. She has had a number of conversations with the Taoiseach. I have kept her very ?closely informed and she has very much been there, understanding the need to see progress and supporting the process. She will continue to do so.

The hon. Gentleman highlighted the issue of others providing support. The important thing to recognise is that, fundamentally, this is about the parties themselves coming together and devolved elements of agreement. Therefore, the scope for what outside partners can support and achieve is limited. It is important in that context to consider the issues, and how best we can find that way forward and that positive outcome.

Yes, we are considering the intensification and the strengthening of the process, working with the parties. I will continue to discuss that with the parties in the immediate hours and days ahead to ensure that we have the process in place to get the positive outcome that they have said they want - they want that return to devolved government, and they want an Executive performing for the people of Northern Ireland. We need to support and galvanise them in that work and give them all assistance to achieve that outcome. That is what the House would endorse, and that is the work that the Government intend to bring about.

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