With permission, I would like to make a statement about political developments in Northern Ireland. First, I welcome back Vernon Coaker as shadow Secretary of State. I hope we can continue the constructive working relationship that we had when he last held the post. With that in mind, I would say that the new Labour leader and the shadow Chancellor are on record as having expressed their support many times for a united Ireland. That is an entirely legitimate view, as is the clearly held preference on the Conservative Benches that our country should stay together and that Northern Ireland should remain part of the United Kingdom. It would be helpful for the shadow Secretary of State to confirm when he responds to this statement that, under his party’s new leadership, the consent principle at the heart of the Belfast agreement will remain paramount.
Last week we started a new round of cross-party talks focused on two issues: the continued presence of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland and the pressing need to implement the Stormont House agreement. The talks began on Tuesday with a meeting of all the participants, at which everyone agreed that those two issues needed to be addressed as a matter of urgency, although views differed on the sequence in which they should be considered. On Wednesday morning, the Police Service of Northern Ireland arrested three well-known members of the republican movement, including the northern chairman of Sinn Féin, in connection with their ongoing investigation into the murder of Kevin McGuigan. It would not be appropriate for me to comment on a live police investigation, save to say that all three were subsequently released unconditionally. These developments had dramatic political consequences.
On Thursday evening, Peter Robinson announced that Democratic Unionist party Ministers, with the exception of Finance Minister Arlene Foster, were resigning from the Northern Ireland Executive. The First Minister himself has stepped aside, with Mrs Foster taking over the functions of that office for a period of six weeks. That does not trigger an early Assembly election—that would happen only if either the First Minister or Deputy First Minister were to resign. Nor does it mean suspension of the institutions or a return to direct rule—that would require primary legislation at Westminster, which is not something the Government believe would be justified in the current circumstances. It also does not mean that the Assembly or the Executive cease to function, but the situation is very grave.
A number of Departments are left without ministerial leadership, and relationships between the parties have almost completely broken down. That leaves the devolved institutions looking increasingly dysfunctional. Over recent days, I have been maintaining close contact with the five main Northern Ireland parties and with the Irish Government, and I have kept the Prime Minister constantly updated on the situation. Yesterday, I held a series of bilateral and trilateral meetings at Stormont, aimed at establishing a basis for further intensive talks. I plan to hold further such discussions at Stormont tomorrow and in the days ahead.
The events I have outlined do not alter the fundamental issues that need to be resolved. First, the brutal murders of Gerard Davison and Kevin McGuigan have brought into sharp focus the continuing problems around the existence of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland, and the involvement of some of their members in criminality and organised crime. The Government are clear that paramilitary organisations have no place in a democratic society. They were never justified in the past, they are not justified now and we all need to work together to find a way to bring to an end this continuing blight on Northern Ireland society. The Government are working with the parties in the Northern Ireland Executive on how to achieve that goal. For example, serious consideration needs to be given to whether the time is right to re-establish a body along the lines of the Independent Monitoring Commission. The remit the parties might wish to give to such a body is likely to be different from the matters addressed by the original IMC, reflecting changed circumstances. But there might well be scope for such a body to play a part in providing greater community confidence and repairing working relationships within the Executive. The Government will also actively consider whether there is more that we can do to support efforts to tackle organised crime and cross-border crime in Northern Ireland. In the days to come, we will continue to listen carefully to representations made to us on the best way to ensure that all parties can engage in this process.
The second issue on the agenda is just as important as the first. Resolving the differences that have been blocking the implementation of the Stormont House agreement is crucial if the finances of the Northern Ireland Executive are to be placed on a sustainable footing. Without welfare reform and steps to tackle in-year budget pressures, there is a real danger that Executive Departments could start running out of money, becoming steadily less able to pay their bills, with the serious negative impact that could have on front-line public services. As we have seen in those parts of Europe where Governments are unable to control their debts and live within their means, some of which are supported by the new leader of the Labour party, it is the vulnerable and most disadvantaged who suffer most in such situations. We have therefore made it clear that if these matters are not dealt with by the parties, as a last resort the Government would have to legislate here at Westminster, a position on which I hope we would have the support of the hon. Member for Gedling.
As things stand, every day that passes is likely to see the devolved institutions less and less able to function effectively. We have limited time, so once again I urge all parties to engage intensively and with focus, determination and good will in the talks under way. We on the Government Benches, and I hope those across the whole House, continue to give our full support to the Belfast agreement and the institutions it created. There can be no doubt that power-sharing, inclusive government comes with its frustrations and difficulties—indeed, I hear about them every day—but as my right hon. Friend the Prime Minister often reminds this House, the Northern Ireland political settlement was a huge achievement. It has transformed life in Northern Ireland for the better, and it is an awe-inspiring example of what can be achieved with political leadership and vision. On so many occasions in the past 20 years Northern Ireland’s politicians have come together to achieve the seemingly impossible. It is time to do so again, so that we can continue on the road to a brighter, more secure future for Northern Ireland. I commend this statement to the House.
I thank the Secretary of State for her good wishes and for advance sight of her statement. Let me take this opportunity to thank all the parties in Northern Ireland, as well as many others, for their good wishes.
Let me say straight away to the Secretary of State that it is the Opposition’s intention, as well as my own, to pursue a bipartisan approach based on the agreements reached, in particular the principle of consent. Our policy remains absolutely the same and I emphasise that to the Secretary of State and all those who are listening to or reading this debate.
I take up this post again at a time of real challenge in Northern Ireland. Will the Secretary of State reassure us all that the full authority of the British Government, working with the Irish Government and with Washington, will be used to help resolve these difficulties along with the parties of Northern Ireland. The current problems of political stability revolve around continuing paramilitary activity and the implementation of the Stormont House agreement.
Following the murders of Gerard Davidson and then Kevin McGuigan, the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland said that some Provisional IRA organisational structures still exist, but for a radically different purpose than before, although some members still engage in criminal activity. Does the Secretary of State agree with this assessment? Can she explain what it means and give her assessment of what it means for communities? Will she update the House as far as she can on the investigation by the PSNI into the two murders I mentioned earlier? Does she agree that we need once and for all to end any ambiguity on the issue of paramilitary activity? As she said, paramilitaries have no place whatsoever in Northern Ireland, so will she update us on her assessment of the level of paramilitary activity in all communities, the threat it poses and what is being done to combat it? Does she agree that supporting a more comprehensive approach across all departments and agencies could be beneficial?
The rule of law must be paramount and there can be absolutely no compromise on that principle. The parties in the Northern Ireland Executive are all committed to that, but in the light of the Secretary of State’s statement to the House last week and today about the IMC, will she update us further on the current position, what she is considering and what any of the proposals she has outlined actually mean?
Let me turn to the implementation of the Stormont House agreement, which was a tremendous achievement by all involved. It has clear proposals on finance and welfare, on difficult issues such as flags, identity, culture and tradition, parades and dealing with the past, and on institutional reform—many, if not all, of the hugely challenging and difficult issues that arise in the context of Northern Ireland with its different traditions. However, it was a negotiated agreement to move forward on those matters, not to leave them as being too difficult to resolve, reflecting a desire to tackle them. It showed hugely courageous political leadership from all involved, including many in the Chamber today.
Does the Secretary of State agree that the price of negotiating a way of successfully implementing the agreement would be another historic milestone? Does she agree that it would take forward the peace process by saying that, although we have brought about a substantially better Northern Ireland now is the time to deal with many of the outstanding issues arising from the different traditions and competing narratives as well as legacy issues around victims, mental health, economic insecurity and poverty?
On that basis, how will the Secretary of State play her part in helping to break the impasse, particularly on welfare reform? Are there other ways of supporting vulnerable people with targeted Treasury money to help, for example, mental health or economic insecurity, both of which are significant legacy issues? Does she accept that to break the deadlock the same proposals cannot always be put forward time and time again? Although Northern Ireland should not be treated as a special case, there are in Northern Ireland special circumstances.
Can the Secretary of State also tell us what progress is being made on a Bill to implement the Stormont House agreement? Is there a timescale, and is a legislative slot available? She knows that many people would feel let down if bodies designed to deal with such issues cannot be set up.
These are immensely challenging issues, but let me once again reassure everyone in the House, and in Northern Ireland, that Her Majesty’s Opposition will work hard, in the spirit of bipartisanship, to play our part in helping to make the continuing progress that we all want to see. It is my strong belief that talks, discussion and negotiation, in the end, are the only way forward. Is the Secretary of State hopeful that roundtable talks will be possible in the near future? The prize of a more prosperous, stable and peaceful Northern Ireland is within reach. Let us all play our part in helping to seize it.
I thank the shadow Secretary of State for his clear commitment to a bipartisan approach and his reiteration of the consent principle at the heart of the Belfast agreement, which I am sure will be warmly welcomed across the House. In response to his first question, yes the full authority of the Government will be deployed in our efforts to try to resolve these two very serious issues facing Northern Ireland’s political leaders.
Do I agree with the chief constable’s assessment of the situation in relation to the Provisional IRA? Yes, I do. The shadow Secretary of State asked me to expand on that. I think that we need to be cautious about what information we put into the public domain, but we are giving serious consideration as to whether there is a fuller picture that we could share with the parties and the public.
The shadow Secretary of State asked for an update on the police investigation. I do not think that it would be appropriate, or that it would serve the interests of justice, to provide a running commentary, although I appreciate that interest in the case is high. I think that the important thing is for the police to be able to get on with their job and to follow the evidence wherever it leads them.
I agree that there must be no ambiguity about the fact that there is no role for paramilitaries in Northern Ireland. It is time that all these organisations disbanded. I also agree that we need to work across agencies and Government Departments, with the Government and the Executive working together, and indeed with groups in society, as we develop a broader strategy to deal with the scourge of paramilitarism. There is no easy political fix; we need a range of people making an effort to bring an end to paramilitary presence in Northern Ireland.
With regard to the Independent Monitoring Commission, the important thing is not to prejudge what the parties will put forward during the talks. In my discussions with all the parties in recent days there has been some recognition that an independent body of that sort could play a role in resolving the questions around paramilitaries.
I agree with the shadow Secretary of State’s comments on the importance of implementing the Stormont House agreement. The Bill is being worked on as we speak, and we still hope to be able to present it to Parliament next month, as planned. I agree that it is important to press ahead with creating the institutions on the past that are contained in the Bill in order to give better outcomes and greater support to the victims of the troubles who have suffered most at the hands of terrorists.
Lastly, the shadow Secretary of State mentioned the implications of Northern Ireland’s special circumstances in relation to welfare. We have often said that we will not fund a more expensive welfare system in Northern Ireland than we do elsewhere in the UK, but our settlement with Northern Ireland does reflect the fact that it requires extra help, which is why public spending per head in Northern Ireland is considerably greater than it is anywhere else in the UK. Northern Ireland’s special circumstances are one of the reasons why the Stormont House agreement is accompanied by a package worth £2 billion in additional spending power for the Executive.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement and for the steady manner in which she has reacted to recent events.
I congratulate the newly appointed shadow Secretary of State and thank him for the robust manner in which he stated that Her Majesty’s official Opposition will stand by the Belfast agreement and succeeding agreements that guarantee that Northern Ireland is a fully participating part of the United Kingdom so long as the majority deliver their consent. I am glad that that was delivered in the face of the new shadow Chancellor, John McDonnell, who is no longer in his place.
In the talks, the Secretary of State has the full support of the people of Northern Ireland, who are exasperated and bewildered that the Stormont House agreement has not been delivered. Will she go forward making it very clear that the current generation will be let down if the parties that are being difficult at the moment do not deliver on their responsibilities, and that future generations will be let down, because if powers were taken back to this Parliament, the local politicians could no longer implement corporation tax reduction, which is key to the long-term prosperity of every single citizen in Northern Ireland?
I agree that it is in the interests of the current generation and future generations that the Stormont House agreement is implemented, not least because of the tremendously positive impact that devolution of corporation tax powers could have in rebalancing and transforming the economy in Northern Ireland.
I, too, welcome Vernon Coaker to his place as the new shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I welcome the robust way in which he set out the commitment to maintaining Labour’s approach on support for the principle of consent. I wish him well in holding the line in terms of the position of the Labour party.
Does the Secretary of State accept that we need to be reminded in this House of how we have got to this position: namely, Sinn Féin’s decision to renege on its commitments in the Stormont House agreement; and Sinn Féin’s links to an existing IRA, in the words of the Chief Constable, whose current members carried out a murder on the streets of Belfast? People need to remember how we got to this point today.
So far as the Secretary of State is aware of the First Minister’s discussions with the Government in relation to our concerns about the basis on which talks need to take place, will she commit to continuing to discuss with us in the next number of days how our concerns can be addressed to allow full participation in the talks by us and others? We will then be able to have a proper talks process that will resolve the outstanding issues and not cause any further fudge or putting off of the difficult decisions? We need to move forward, but it can only be on the basis of our concerns being addressed.
It is important for us to recognise the reasons why we have got to where we are on this. I do recognise that Sinn Féin’s change of mind on welfare reform has played an important part in destabilising relations between parties. One cannot have a coalition that works effectively if it is incapable of delivering a workable budget.
In answer to the right hon. Gentleman’s last questions, of course I will continue to engage with his party and others to discuss how we ensure that we have an effective talks process in which all parties can engage with enthusiasm and determination.
The Secretary of State said that she was very reluctant to reintroduce direct rule, and rightly so. I speak as somebody who led for the Conservative party for a number of years when major decisions on Northern Ireland were taken upstairs in a small room with very few Members of Parliament present, even fewer Members from Northern Ireland present, and nobody from the Assembly able to influence the affairs of Northern Ireland. Has she been able to put it to those taking part in the talks that the very stark choice is that either we make the institutions work or we go back to that very unsatisfactory way of governing Northern Ireland?
I firmly believe that no one wants to wind back the clock and go back to direct rule. As I have said, there are difficulties and frustrations with power-sharing and inclusive government, but it is hugely preferable to direct rule. That is one of the reasons why the Government are determined to work as hard as we possibly can with Northern Ireland’s leaders to find a way through to ensure that the Executive and the institutions can continue to work effectively to deliver on their priorities for the people of Northern Ireland.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement. I particularly welcome her view that this is not the time to re-impose direct rule. I must question, however, the need for the party politics in her statement. I hope that we can go forward in a more cohesive and co-operative manner.
The resignation of the First Minister and Ministers at Stormont was an unwelcome development. I understand the political frustration and I appreciate the stresses that politicians in Stormont are working under, but there needs to be leadership now, and the presence of all of them at the negotiating table is needed. A willingness to compromise by all parties to the negotiations is needed as well. No one should be going into these talks with anything but the best intentions and a determination to find a way forward that will allow the resumption of the Executive’s business at Stormont.
Alongside the full engagement of the UK Government, the involvement of the Irish Government would be advantageous. Ireland is not a disinterested party in this affair, and the good offices of her Government may provide an additional channel of opportunity. I understand that the Secretary of State has already been in touch with her Irish counterpart, and I hope that she will bring us up to speed on those discussions.
It is to be hoped that all the concerned parties will go into the negotiating rooms with a positive attitude and a determination to come away with a result that everyone can live with, even if it means that each has to give ground to get there. They have to enter into those negotiations without preconditions and without prejudging the outcome, and come to the table in a spirit of compromise and co-operation. The only real alternative is for them to lay out their case and allow the voters to judge them in an election, but that would leave Northern Ireland without the Assembly for even longer.
I wish the Secretary of State well in her endeavours over the next while, but may I ask her how far she considers us to be from getting all the parties around that table and whether she will update us on her discussions with the Irish Government?
In answer to the hon. Lady’s first point, I make no apologies for holding to account the official Opposition and their new leader. It is useful that they have confirmed today that the consent principle remains paramount for Northern Ireland.
I agree that we are in a serious situation. The hon. Lady talks of the need for Northern Ireland’s leaders to enter talks with a positive attitude and a willingness to compromise. I firmly believe that all the five largest parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly want this to work, are trying to find a way through, and want to resolve these two important questions. They are going to be extremely tricky to get right, but with determination I think it is going to be possible.
The Irish Government have been taking part alongside the UK Government in the round of cross-party talks that we have recently started, in accordance with the three-strand approach. I do recognise that their input can be very positive in trying to find a resolution on these matters.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on her statement and welcome the reassurances of Vernon Coaker in respect of the position of his party under its new leadership.
My right hon. Friend will remember from what happened at Christmas how important it was to engage those within civil society in the talks. I would be grateful to know what efforts have been made to re-engage with them in the light of recent events, and also what efforts have been made to contact the American authorities, who were extremely helpful at Christmas in brokering what we hoped was going to be an agreement.
I agree that it is helpful for civil society to be involved in trying to resolve these questions. As I said in response to the shadow Secretary of State, if we are going to deal with this paramilitary problem we need a response from across society, not solely from politicians. The business community can play a part, not least because they have campaigned long and hard for the devolution of corporation tax and can see it slipping through their fingers unless these matters are resolved.
I agree that the influence of the United States has often been hugely positive and helpful in Northern Ireland’s political history over the past 20 years. I keep in regular touch with the representative of Secretary of State Kerry, Gary Hart, who is following events closely.
The Secretary of State has mentioned dealing with the past. Has she had time to read the harrowing evidence given by the victims of Libyan-imported Semtex? There were strong views on how previous Governments and the current Government have dealt with the issue. The Government could help to sort this out—they really must do something. Will the Secretary of State please assure us that she will read the evidence and take action to make sure that the matter is settled once and for all?
Of course I will read the documents to which the hon. Lady refers. I fully recognise the scale of the suffering caused by the Libyan Semtex. The UK Government have always tried to provide support to the victims of those brutal incidents. It is our policy not to espouse individual claims, but we are doing our best to provide support for victims in their efforts to find a way forward. We will continue to do so, but the reality is that the situation in Libya continues to be very difficult. Of course, however, the interests and needs of the victims of Libyan Semtex are taken into account in our relationship with Libya.
Does my right hon. Friend agree that there will be no peace, security or long-term stability in Northern Ireland until we have dealt with the paramilitaries, and will she confirm that the police and security services are getting all the support and resources they need to do just that?
I believe that the police and security services have the resources they need to properly and appropriately combat the dissident republican threat.
One of the reasons it is crucial that the Stormont House agreement is implemented is that, if the Executive do not have a workable budget and they continue to pay out on a more expensive and flawed welfare system, that will mean fewer resources for the police, which could have worrying consequences for front-line services.
The importance of implementing the Stormont House agreement should not lead to any indifference about its detail. Obviously, some of us have different views on welfare reform, but I will not dwell on that now. Questions about the past are particularly important. The Secretary of State should be aware that many victims and victims groups are expressing suspicion and concern about the burden of the proposals relating to the past and the fact that the Department of Justice in Northern Ireland is declining to have open consultation and hiding behind the fact that negotiations are taking place among party leaders.
Will the Secretary of State assure the House that, if she introduces the proposed legislation, she will not hide behind or rest on the fact that there was no proper consultation, she will meet the victim groups to hear their concerns and suspicions, and she will avoid the sort of misadventure a previous Government got into in 2005 with the Northern Ireland (Offences) Bill? Many of the victims groups view the schemes and language attached to the arrangements on the past as on a par with that misadventure.
The hon. Gentleman and his party do not share my view on welfare, but I emphasise that the agreement they helped to secure at Stormont castle was a good one for welfare in Northern Ireland. It provides a reformed system that is more effective in rewarding work, but it will also top it up from Northern Ireland’s own resources, giving Northern Ireland the most generous welfare system in the United Kingdom and one of the most generous in the world.
On the proposed legislation, there was a discussion about having a consultation in Northern Ireland, but there was not enough consensus to enable that to happen. We will do everything we can to engage with a range of groups and with the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in advance of publishing our Bill, which we propose to do shortly.
The Secretary of State says that the Government will legislate on welfare reform as a last resort. Can she indicate how close we are to that last resort? Can she conceive a situation where we could get to next year’s Assembly elections with no deal, without us having to take over that responsibility?
We have reflected on whether it would be appropriate to set deadlines at this point. I do not think we are at that stage yet, but I reiterate that we cannot let this situation drag out indefinitely. The public finances are at stake. We have a duty to safeguard the interests of the taxpayer and we believe that, if the Northern Ireland parties cannot resolve these questions, ultimately this House will have to do so.
Despite the present crisis, is it not a fact that the Belfast agreement has saved the lives of so many people, certainly compared with what happened previously? May I tell the Secretary of State, since she was not here at the time, that when atrocities and crimes were being committed by the IRA, the overwhelming majority of Labour Members of Parliament denounced such actions, as we did, of course, the murderous crimes of the loyalist gunmen? To describe the actions of the IRA in any way as an armed struggle is absolutely wrong and farcical.
The hon. Gentleman is absolutely right and I welcome the reminder that the vast majority of Labour Members denounced IRA atrocities very vocally at the time. It was right that they did so.
My right hon. Friend has set her face against the reimposition of direct rule at this stage and does not like to set deadlines, but could she tell the House, so that the parties in Northern Ireland can be very clear, what conditions she thinks would make it necessary to bring primary legislation before this House to reintroduce direct rule?
I will reflect on whether we could talk about more specific conditions, but I am really not sure that trying to set them out at the Dispatch Box today would be helpful. All the parties know that we need to find a way through this. They have a deal—all five parties agreed it at Stormont castle. It is a good deal for Northern Ireland, giving it a better welfare system—one of the most generous welfare systems in the world. We need to find a way to get that back on track and get it implemented.
May I join others in welcoming Vernon Coaker to his new position? The maintenance of a bipartisan approach in this House has been enormously useful and necessary at times to keep the peace process on track. I say to the Secretary of State, in the nicest way possible, that that may occasionally mean that she and her colleagues will have to resist the temptation to make the most obvious digs, however tempting that may be.
May I welcome, albeit with a heavy heart, the Secretary of State’s recognition of the possible need to create a future Independent Monitoring Commission-type body? May I encourage her to talk to the parties in Northern Ireland and, indeed, the Irish Government and other interested Governments about the remit and possible membership of that body so that, should its constitution ever be necessary, it can be done as effectively and as quickly as possible?
I am delighted to hear the right hon. Gentleman confirm that the Lib Dems will continue to take a bipartisan approach. He makes fair points about a potential new IMC. This is an urgent matter for Northern Ireland’s political parties to consider, but I agree that the input and thoughts of the Irish Government and contacts in Washington could also be helpful.
I join other Members who have welcomed the remarks of the hon. Member for Gedling, particularly because I remember the necessity, as a young officer, of checking under my car for explosives every time I used it. Will the Secretary of State join me in regarding with the utmost horror the now well-known comments made by the shadow Chancellor, which in particular endorsed armed struggle, bombs and bullets?
It is important for Her Majesty’s Opposition to express very clearly from their Front Bench that they will support the self-determination of the people of Northern Ireland. That is an important confidence-building issue and I welcome the statement made by the shadow Secretary of State and hope that others on Labour’s Front Bench were listening.
Does the Secretary of State agree that at some point the can kicking will have to stop and that the Government will have to start dealing effectively and determinedly with the issues of criminality that go right to the heart of the poison in Northern Ireland society? The sooner that is tackled, the better for everyone—both Catholic and Protestant—in getting these people off their backs.
Like the hon. Gentleman, I welcome Labour’s confirmation of its strong support for the consent principle. His point about criminality has been at the heart of many of my discussions with his party colleagues and others over recent days. I am convinced that the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Garda and their security partners are doing a huge amount of good work in tackling such matters, but I am of course open to seeing whether we as a Government can, with others, do anything further or take any further action to provide confidence that no criminality will be tolerated and that we will do everything we can to combat it.
My right hon. Friend has raised the issue of perhaps creating an independent monitoring commission. What consideration has she given to the terms of reference, the membership and the timetable for the introduction of such a body, and whether any of the political parties in Northern Ireland could veto such an exercise?
We would aim to build consensus across the five main parties. I would hope that we can discuss the terms of reference and membership in due course. As always with such matters, there is a trade-off between time and the perfection of the organisation: some structures may be ideal, but would be problematic if they took a long time to get established. We need to look for a compromise or middle way that provides an effective independent institution in which people can have confidence, but does not take forever to set up and to report.
If I have learned anything from Northern Ireland in 30 years it is, first, do not leave a vacuum, and secondly, choose your words very carefully. The Secretary of State has come to the House today and has quite clearly not chosen her words very carefully in relation to tackling the history of some of my leaders. In the interests of moving things forward, what will her leader do now? I am not asking what my leaders did in the past, but what her leader will do now. Will he engage in a better way than he has during recent impasses in Northern Ireland, when his not being there has been very unhelpful?
I assure the hon. Gentleman that the Prime Minister remains constantly engaged in these matters. He is updated all the time, and he has played a hugely positive role in delivering many things in Northern Ireland recently, not least the legislation on devolving corporation tax, which he championed for many months. We should bear in mind that it is important to scrutinise the new leadership of the Opposition. The track record of the attitude of Jeremy Corbyn and the shadow Chancellor on IRA violence is very worrying, and I make no apologies for challenging them in the House on such matters.
Such matters will clearly have to be discussed in the talks, but whatever process is ultimately set up, we must take into account the point that my hon. Friend has made.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. I, too, welcome back Vernon Coaker as shadow Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I also welcome his comments on the issue of consent in relation to the people of Northern Ireland, and I look forward to that being repeated by his party leader and the shadow Chancellor.
The Secretary of State will be aware that very few cases of criminality have been brought by Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs for fuel laundering and tobacco and alcohol contraband products. Is the Secretary of State willing to engage the National Crime Agency in tackling the issue of criminal and organised paramilitary activity? It is an international issue, because some of those concerned come from the Republic of Ireland jurisdiction. I hope that the Secretary of State will ensure that they are not let off the hook by making sure that the Garda Síochana is also involved in tackling such criminality.
The hon. Gentleman is right to raise matters relating to HMRC and the National Crime Agency, as well as law enforcement bodies south of the border. They all have a hugely important part to play in tackling organised crime, criminality and cross-border crime, and I know that they are making every possible effort. I will engage with my colleagues across government who have responsibility for such bodies to see whether we can do more to ensure that we do everything we can to combat criminality and cross-border crime.
I thank the excellent Secretary of State for coming back to the Commons to update us. I am not sure about the timescale in relation to what is undoubtedly a crisis. Are we talking about having to resolve it within weeks or within months? If it has to be done within weeks, will she undertake to request a recall of Parliament during the conference recess, if necessary?
I do think we must press ahead as a matter of urgency. Last time I stood at the Dispatch Box, I said that we should aim for a period of four to five weeks. These matters are hugely difficult, but as every day passes, the credibility of the institutions is at stake. We do not want them to carry on in a dysfunctional way; we want to find a way to ensure that they are back up and running properly to enable them to deliver on their priorities in achieving a secure Northern Ireland for the future.
I welcome my hon. Friend Vernon Coaker to his position.
When I was Minister for Social Development back in 2007, I had to take action to ensure the protection of the then political institutions in Northern Ireland, because of paramilitarism. That position was supported and substantiated by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, but it was not supported by either Unionist parties or Sinn Féin. In that respect, does the Secretary of State agree that we need all parties in Northern Ireland to commit to round-table talks to discuss and resolve all the issues in order to underpin the political institutions and ensure that there is no further frustration among the wider public? Does she agree that there is a need, as Dr Murrison emphasised, for the active involvement of a member of the American Administration, possibly as the independent chair of the round-table talks?
As I said in my statement, we will only find a way ahead if we can engage all of Northern Ireland’s five parties in the process. I think that the American influence is positive, which is why I am engaging regularly with Senator Hart and keeping him updated. He has provided very helpful influence in relation to previous discussions, and I will continue to work with him.
I thank my right hon. Friend for her statement. She will agree with me that with power comes responsibility. In Wales and Scotland, devolved Administrations agree balanced budgets. Does she agree that it is now important that all, not just some, parties in Northern Ireland are prepared to agree a deal to do the same and to implement and deliver it?
My hon. Friend is absolutely right. It is not possible to function as a Government unless that Government can live within their means. That is the key to everything else. If they do not have a workable budget, they will be plunged into the sort of chaos that we have seen in some parts of Europe. That is why it is imperative to implement the Stormont House agreement. It gives Northern Ireland a good deal, a workable budget and sustainable public finances.
In her statement to the House, the Secretary of State directly quoted the Prime Minister’s description of the political settlement in Northern Ireland as “a huge achievement”. It was, and it is. At what stage does the Secretary of State believe that it would be helpful for the Prime Minister to go to Northern Ireland and become directly involved in finding a resolution to the current difficulties?
The hon. Lady will be aware that the Prime Minister makes regular visits to Northern Ireland. I am sure he will do so again in due course. I assure her that he is in day-to-day contact about events as they unfold. He is hugely supportive of Northern Ireland matters and is taking a great interest in what is a very serious political crisis.
The situation is extremely worrying and getting more dangerous all the time. The ordinary people of Ireland, including families—like mine—who live close to the border, are frankly worried sick over this. Is it not time for the Prime Minister and No. 10 to bother to get themselves involved?
Secretary of State, last week when the Prime Minister spoke in this Chamber, Members listened to his impassioned plea for the institutions in Northern Ireland but felt that he missed the elephant in the room. Given the lack of any content in the statement referring to consequences, will the Secretary of State outline what concrete proposals she has for consequences for those who wish politically to disrupt or dismantle our institutions and our peace?
A number of parties have raised their concerns about the way the rules on exclusion from the Executive work. It is important for the political parties to give thought to that. A number of parties have indicated that they would like to look again at the ministerial code and how it is applied. It is important to look at that in the cross-party talks, in which I hope all parties will take part.
Some people who are listening to this statement might think that the Secretary of State is struggling with her political priorities. She has referred to her various contacts with Senator Hart. Has she asked the parties in Northern Ireland whether they would welcome the assistance of a Senator Mitchell figure to act as an honest broker, in an effort to save the peace and institutions at this worrying time?
The party that has raised that matter, as it has this morning, is the SDLP, so I have discussed it with that party and the Irish Government. It is obviously important that Washington and US figures continue to provide support. There is not a clear case for a Senator Mitchell-type role, but I am open to ideas and discussions on those matters.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. I am pleased to have secured a Back-Bench debate in this Chamber on
I do recognise that point. The hon. Gentleman’s party leader, Mike Nesbitt, has made it very clear. I reiterate that it is essential that both those questions are resolved. Both cause a huge threat to the sustainability and future success of the institutions. Therefore, both must be addressed.
I am sure that the Secretary of State will agree that with all the punishment beatings, the shootings, the murders, the 160 criminal gangs operating on both sides of the border, and a fuel-smuggling organisation run by republicans that is the second best to western Europe, this is an unacceptable society for the people of Northern Ireland. A group of people who have been forgotten about—the wounds are being opened again—is the victims. We saw some of that yesterday on TV. The wounds are being opened again and people are suffering again. That is an intolerable situation to be in.
It is always important to have a reminder of the interests of those who have suffered most as a result of the troubles and the terrorism that took place. The hon. Gentleman is right to highlight the problem in Northern Ireland of so-called paramilitary assaults. These things are utterly unacceptable. For people to seek to take the law into their own hands is just an excuse for violent thuggery. Many people have lost their lives or suffered permanent disability as a result of those assaults. That is one reason why we need to address urgently the role of the continuing paramilitary organisations, so that we can finally see an end to what really is a scourge on Northern Ireland’s society.
I thank the Secretary of State for her statement. I am especially pleased to see the shadow Secretary of State back in his position. I look forward to welcoming him down to Strangford. He said that it was the best constituency in Northern Ireland and I know he will say it again the next time he is there.
Political developments in Northern Ireland are obstructed and held back by criminality. Dissident republicans—who have been involved in maiming and killing—are involved in my constituency of Strangford in illegal fuel smuggling and the disposal of that fuel. The rise in the number of people being intimidated out of their homes by thugs is at an unprecedented level in my constituency and it continues to cause great concern. What discussions has the Secretary of State had with the Chief Constable in relation to those matters, and what steps will be taken to ensure that such criminality right across the Province and in my constituency comes to an end?
I am regularly briefed on the actions that are taken to combat the dissident republican threat. That extends not only to their terrorist activities but to the criminal activities that they engage in to fund those terrorist activities. I am working closely with the PSNI and their security partners to ensure that the UK Government do all they can to combat this menace, whether on the criminal side, the terrorist side or both.