I sincerely thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of her statement, and I would like to apologise to the Secretary of State and the House for the absence of my hon. Friend Mr Lewis,the shadow Secretary of State, who has asked me to relay his apologies for not being in attendance today. He has to be in Belfast for the launch of the Heenan-Anderson commission report.
The official Opposition strongly support the UK and Irish Governments’ decision to convene all-party talks this week in an attempt to secure a positive way forward on the challenging issues raised by the murder of Kevin McGuigan Sr and its aftermath, together with implementation of the Stormont House agreement. There is no doubt that a combination of real concerns following the Chief Constable’s assessment in relation to the status of the Provisional IRA and the failure to agree a sustainable budget pose the biggest threat to political stability in Northern Ireland for many years.
We urge all parties to seek the necessary compromises and confidence-building measures that can avert the collapse of the institutions. The people of Northern Ireland have had their faith in politicians and political institutions badly damaged by the perpetual crises of the past few years. There should be no doubt that the vast majority want to see progress, and a return to a focus on issues such as jobs, education, health and opportunities for young people. It is also the case that business confidence, and therefore investment, are now being put at risk by political uncertainty. All parties in Northern Ireland must take responsibility for stepping back from the brink, and for finding a way forward.
I have some questions for the Secretary of State. In the aftermath of Kevin McGuigan’s murder, she said that the Government had always been aware of the continued existence of the Provisional IRA. Will she make clear exactly what she meant by that statement? Some have proposed the reintroduction of the Independent Monitoring Commission. What is the Secretary of State’s assessment of the feasibility, or the desirability, of such a measure? At what precise stage of the current financial year will the Northern Ireland budget cease to be sustainable? Are the Government now actively considering introducing emergency legislation to suspend the political institutions and return to direct rule if the current round of talks should fail? Finally, what further detail can the Secretary of State provide following her statement yesterday that the Government would now consider legislating for welfare reform and releasing funds for the civil service voluntary redundancy scheme, and what will the timeline be?
Having asked those questions, I want to place on the record the support of Opposition Members for the talks that will take place this evening, and stress our continuing and undiluted endorsement of the bipartisan approach in which we both believe.
The Secretary of State has rightly listed the challenges that face the people and the politicians of Northern Ireland, but we must never ignore the progress that has been made. These may be dark and dangerous times, but I profoundly hope, and I believe, that the good sense of all in Northern Ireland will prevail. It may be too late to hope that Kyle Lafferty’s last-minute goal in the match against Hungary last night has imbued Northern Ireland with a feelgood factor that will permeate every aspect, but surely this must be the time to reroute the march to the cliff edge and head back to sanity—and forward to the peaceful and prosperous future that we all know Northern Ireland deserves.