With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement about the political situation in Northern Ireland.
As the House will be aware, yesterday Martin McGuinness submitted his resignation as Deputy First Minister of Northern Ireland. This also means that the First Minister, Arlene Foster, also ceases to hold office, although she is able to carry out some limited functions. Under the terms of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 as amended by the Northern Ireland (St Andrews Agreement) Act 2007, the position is clear: should the offices of First and Deputy First Minister not be filled within seven days from Mr McGuinness’s resignation, it falls to me as Secretary of State to set a date for an Assembly election. Although there is no fixed timetable in the legislation for me to do that, it needs to be within a reasonable period.
In his resignation letter, Mr McGuinness said:
“In the available period Sinn Féin will not nominate to the position of deputy First Minister.”
I am very clear that in the event of the offices not being filled, I have an obligation to follow the legislation. As things stand, therefore, an early Assembly election looks highly likely. I should add that the rules state that, once an election has been held, the Assembly must meet again within one week, with a further two-week period to form a new Executive. Should that not be achieved, as things currently stand I am obliged to call another election. So right hon. and hon. Members should be in no doubt: the situation we face in Northern Ireland today is grave and the Government treat it with the utmost seriousness.
It is worth reflecting on how we have reached this point. The immediate cause of the situation we now face is the fallout from the development and operation of the Northern Ireland renewable heat incentive scheme. Under the scheme launched by the Northern Ireland Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment in 2012, which is equivalent to a scheme in Great Britain, businesses and other non-domestic users were offered a financial incentive to install renewable heat systems on their premises. The scheme was finally shut to new applicants in February last year, when it became clear that the lack of an upper limit on payments, unlike in the GB equivalent, meant that the scheme was open to serious abuse. In recent weeks there has been sustained media focus and widespread public concern about how this situation developed.
The renewable heat incentive scheme was, and remains, an entirely devolved matter in which the UK Government have no direct role. It is primarily the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly to take the necessary action to address the concerns that have been expressed about it. However, I believe that it is imperative that a comprehensive, transparent and impartial inquiry into the development and implementation of the scheme is established as quickly as possible. In addition, effective action needs to be taken by the Executive and the Assembly to control costs. The RHI scheme has been the catalyst for the situation we now face, but it has also exposed a number of deeper tensions in the relationship between the parties in the Northern Ireland Executive. This has led to a breakdown in the trust and co-operation that are necessary for the power-sharing institutions to function effectively.
Over the coming hours and days I will continue to explore whether any basis exists for resolving these issues prior to my having to fulfil my statutory duty to call an election. I have been in regular contact with the leadership of the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin, and also with the Justice Minister, Claire Sugden, an Independent Unionist. Yesterday evening I had a round of calls with the main Opposition parties at Stormont. I am also in close touch with the Irish Foreign Minister, Charlie Flanagan. Immediately after this statement I will return to Northern Ireland, where I will continue to do whatever I can to find a way forward. The UK and the Irish Governments will continue to provide every possible support and assistance to the Executive parties. However, we have to be realistic. The clock is ticking, and an election is inevitable if there is no resolution, despite the widely held view that an election would deepen divisions and threaten the continuity of the devolved institutions.
Over recent decades, Northern Ireland’s politicians have rightly earned plaudits from across the globe for their ability to overcome difference and to work together for the good of the whole community. That has required courage and risk on all sides. We are currently in the longest period of unbroken devolved government since the 1960s. This political stability has been hard gained, and it should not be lightly thrown away. In the 14 months since the “Fresh Start” agreement, significant advances have been made in areas such as addressing paramilitarism, supporting shared and integrated education and putting the Executive’s finances on a sustainable footing. This summer’s parading season passed off peacefully, and the long-running dispute in north Belfast has been resolved. We have also been working intensively to build the necessary consensus to bring forward the bodies to address the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past, as set out in the Stormont House agreement.
I am in no doubt that what Northern Ireland needs at this time is strong stable devolved government, not a collapse of the institution. Northern Ireland deserves fair, accountable, stable and effective government. It needs to continue to implement the Belfast agreement and its successors. It also needs to strengthen the economy and to ensure that Northern Ireland responds to the challenges and opportunities presented by EU exit; it needs to build a stronger, shared society in which there is respect for everyone; and it needs to address the legacy of the past in a way that enables Northern Ireland to move forward. We must not put all that at risk without making every effort to resolve differences. We must continue to do all we can to continue building a brighter, more secure Northern Ireland that works for everyone. I therefore urge Northern Ireland’s political leaders to come together and to work together to find a way forward that will be in the best interests of Northern Ireland. I commend this statement to the House.
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.
I am grateful for the support of 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.
Order. Unsurprisingly, a very significant number of colleagues are seeking to catch my eye. I would like to accommodate most, if not all, of them. My prospects of doing so will be greatly enhanced if colleagues who are customarily addicted to long or multifaceted questions are today able to content themselves with minimal preamble and a simple, pithy inquiry, which I know will enjoy a pithy response from the Secretary of State.
I thank the Secretary of State for advance sight of his statement. Given that new elections would probably return the parties more or less in the same numbers as they have now, does he agree that repeated callings of elections will not really address the fundamental issue? Do we not therefore need to look closely at how the institutions are actually constructed and formulated so that we can move away from this constant threat of those institutions collapsing or being collapsed?
I welcome the comments of the Chair of the Select Committee on Northern Ireland Affairs on the need to focus on the issues at hand and on the extent to which an election will change things. Between now and next week, our immediate focus and attention has to be on seeking to establish whether there is a way forward between the parties and on encouraging that. Obviously, various points and questions have been raised, but my responsibility at this time is to seek some form of resolution, to see whether a resolution is possible and to take stock as circumstances develop.
As the Secretary of State alluded to in his statement, this has been coming down the line for a couple of months. Although it is deeply regrettable to see the Assembly stumble, it may need a serious jolt to get it going again. People will have differing opinions about the circumstances of Mr McGuinness’s resignation, but it leaves the Secretary of State with limited room to manoeuvre and leaves Northern Ireland stuck on pause. Can he clarify what steps he is taking to ensures that public confidence remains in the future of the institutions in Northern Ireland?
Can the Secretary of State also assure us that he is taking steps to ensure that democracy remains at the centre of the debate in Northern Ireland? As it seems clear that the relationship in the Executive has broken down and, as he said in his statement, the clock is ticking, and unfortunately it appears unlikely that the parties will get back around the table, is he prepared to face that fact, act quickly and let the people of Northern Ireland get on with choosing who they want to sit in Stormont?
Furthermore, the Secretary of State’s opportunities to affect the direction of Brexit negotiations appear as limited as those of the Scottish Secretary, given that neither is regularly invited into the room. Now that there is no effective Administration at Stormont who can speak up for Northern Ireland in the Joint Ministerial Committee, and remembering that Northern Ireland voted to remain, can he tell us what he is doing to ensure that the interests of the people of Northern Ireland are being looked after when Brexit negotiations are considered?
Finally, will the Secretary of State tell us of his discussion with the leader of the Ulster Unionist party regarding the possibility of suspending the Stormont Assembly until an inquiry into the RHI is concluded? Is he seriously considering that course of action?
One of the primary roles of the UK Government is to provide political stability, and we take those responsibilities very seriously. As I have already indicated to the House, if the time period elapses and the First and Deputy First Ministers are not in place, I have a duty and obligation to move in an appropriate way to call an election. As I have indicated to the House, that is my intent. We will take that approach. The hon. Lady highlights the issue of confidence in Northern Ireland’s political institutions, and those institutions are why it is incumbent on me to use this period to work with the different parties to see how confidence can be injected. Finding a resolution still remains the best outcome, if such a resolution can be found in the days ahead. That is where my focus will be.
The hon. Lady also highlights the issue of Brexit and speaking up for Northern Ireland. I assure her that that is precisely what I have done and will continue to do. I have regular meetings across Northern Ireland, and I continued to do so even earlier this week, to ensure that that voice is heard. Obviously, having a strong Executive in place and remaining in place is important, and therefore the Executive’s ability to make points to the UK Government underlines the need for us to find a way forward at this time. That will ensure that Northern Ireland’s voice is heard through that mechanism, as well as through the strong voice that I will continue to give.
Does the Secretary of State agree that, although an election looks highly likely, it should be possible to come up with a rigorous, transparent and comprehensive way to investigate the overspend of the RHI that does not have to involve the break-up of the coalition, an early election or the First Minister standing down?
I certainly believe there should be opportunities to find a way forward. I intend to use the days ahead precisely to see whether we can find an agreement. There is a sense of establishing some form of inquiry—I think there are indications from all the parties on ways in which that could happen—and of giving a sense of accountability and confidence in what happens next. I will certainly be using my influence to see what can be done to achieve that.
Does the Secretary of State, and indeed the whole House, accept that we share the deep regret about the highly irresponsible decision of Sinn Féin singlehandedly to cause the collapse of the present Executive and precipitate what he has rightly called a threat to the continuity of the devolved institutions? It is clear from what Sinn Féin have said in their resignation letter that it is not about RHI, because had this continued we would have had an investigation and proposals to mitigate costs. It has happened because, according to them, they are not getting their own way on a whole series of demands, including on rewriting the past and putting more soldiers and security forces in the dock, despite our having just agreed a programme for government in Northern Ireland.
The Secretary of State and the whole House need to be assured that we want a full investigation into RHI and have proposals to mitigate costs. This must continue and it must not be blocked by Sinn Féin’s actions, which are the ironic outcome of what they are planning to do. Overall, he can be assured that we in the Democratic Unionist party will continue to work with him and other parties to ensure a stable Northern Ireland, moving forward, based on good government. We want to see the institutions continue, and we will do everything in our power to make this process work. We deeply regret that Sinn Féin have decided to walk away.
I welcome any indication of the parties working together, and we need to take this opportunity to establish what arrangements can be put in place. I will therefore continue my discussions with all the political parties in the days ahead. The right hon. Gentleman highlights the issues that are at stake, including the need for continued strong government within Northern Ireland so that those issues can be taken forward. That is certainly what I want to see, and I think it is what the whole House would like to see. We must establish whether there is a way forward to be able to achieve that end.
Many hard-working people across Northern Ireland who just want to get on with their lives will be exasperated by recent events and will welcome the Secretary of State’s measured tone, and indeed the comments of the shadow Secretary of State. In his discussions, will the Secretary of State remind all parties of the huge effort and immensely difficult compromises that brought about the current settlement? Will he stress that the enormously valued long-term benefits must not be jeopardised for short-term political motives?
Again, I thank my right hon. Friend and my right hon. Friend Mrs Villiers for all their work over many years to provide stability and security. Hard effort has gone into achieving the gains that we see today, and we need to approach the days ahead with that focus to see what resolution can be found.
If there were to be an election, how does the Secretary of State expect a Government to be formed afterwards? Can he confirm that it is the Government’s intention that under no circumstances will emergency legislation be introduced in this House to introduce or reintroduce direct rule?
It is unhelpful to talk about either the suspension of devolution or direct rule—that is entirely premature—as the tone of the hon. Gentleman’s point and the way in which he made it suggests. If we are not able to reach a resolution in these next seven days, the next stage is for an election to be called. As I have indicated, it is likely that that election will be divisive, difficult and tough, and therefore the ability to reach a resolution at the end of it may be very challenging. That is why we need to use the time we have now to address a number of the points raised.
Ultimately, that will depend on the Executive and the parties in Northern Ireland reaching a resolution on it. As I have said, this is entirely within the devolved space, so it is right and proper that a solution should be created within that environment. Equally, this underlines the need for us to get on with it, where possible, to give that sense of assurance, to respond to the concerns that have been raised and to show where accountability may or may not rest, depending on the evidence that emerges.
Dr T.K. Whitaker was one of the constant voices for peace and reconciliation in Ireland, between north and south, and between Ireland and Britain, over his outstanding lifetime in public service. Dr Whitaker died last night, four weeks after his 100th birthday. Will the Secretary of State join me in offering our sympathy and condolences to the family and friends of Rostrevor, County Down-born Dr T.K Whitaker, who was a major driver in the creation of modern Ireland? I am reminded of the tribute of Marc Antony to Julius Caesar that he did
“bestride the narrow world
Like a Colossus”.
May I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, and his reference to the view that a comprehensive inquiry is needed urgently and that there are deep tensions there in the Government? Does he accept that although RHI may have been the last straw, the major factor in the current crisis was the UK vote for Brexit, against the wishes of the people of Northern Ireland and Scotland, which has led to considerable political confusion and damage to the Northern Ireland economy? That, in turn, has played a significant part in compounding political difficulties.
I admire the hon. Gentleman enormously, but I hope he will not take it amiss if I say that he really is an incorrigible fellow; I thought that his question had concluded, but I had heard only the first third at that point.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for highlighting the news of the sad passing of T.K. Whitaker. At this time, it is worth reflecting on those who have contributed so much to the advancement of political stability and strength in the economy, which is why I pass on my condolences to all who will mourn his passing and join the hon. Gentleman in that way.
I differ from the hon. Gentleman in not sharing his analysis about Brexit, as there are opportunities for Northern Ireland in terms of what it can be and will be following the UK’s departure from the European Union. I am in no doubt about the special circumstances and factors that are very relevant in this, which is why I will continue to advocate strongly in Northern Ireland’s best interests to get the best possible outcome from these negotiations.
I was going to ask you to grant an urgent question today, Mr Speaker, on the investigations into and prosecutions of Operation Banner veterans, but I withdrew it because of the events of last night. Will the Secretary of State inform the House as to what measures will be taken as a result of this situation to stop this very one-sided judicial process?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for his point. I am absolutely clear as to the huge contribution that our armed forces and the Royal Ulster Constabulary made in seeing the gains within Northern Ireland over recent years. He makes a point about some of the ways in which the system operates at the moment. There is a need for greater proportionality and balance within the system, which is precisely what the Stormont House agreement and the Stormont House bodies will provide. Notwithstanding current events, I remain committed to taking that forward, leading to a public phase in relation to that work. I judge that to be the right next step.
Of course there has to be an independent, transparent investigation into the failings of RHI, but is this not a symptom of a wider problem: a breakdown of mutual trust and respect between the majority parties in Northern Ireland? Leaders do not have to be friends, but given the nature of the constitutional arrangements in Northern Ireland there has to be mutual respect and trust. Is this situation not purely a symptom of a breakdown of that? Do we not need to see leaders who are committed to putting personal differences aside in the interests of the institutions?
The hon. Gentleman may have noted that I said in my statement that, obviously, the focus has been on RHI, but other issues have come through from this. Indeed, the letter that Mr McGuinness published yesterday highlighted a number of those themes. That is why I make the point at this time about parties coming together and working together in the best interests of Northern Ireland, given so much opportunity that resides there. There needs to be that focus on the big issues at hand and the best interests of Northern Ireland.
As I have indicated, the law is clear about the seven-day period and I must act within a reasonable period following that. Obviously, if the time period elapses, I will need to consider the position carefully, but I am under that statutory duty and I will follow through on it.
This is not the first time that the institutions have been brought to the brink, and each time leadership is required to bring them back. Principally, that leadership has to come from the parties in Northern Ireland, but there is a leadership role for the Government and the Secretary of State. He has the power under the Inquiries Act 2005 to constitute a public inquiry into the handling of RHI, so will he do so? As he finds his way through this, will he undertake to speak to all parties in Northern Ireland, not just to the DUP and Sinn Féin?
On the last point, I say to the right hon. Gentleman that I had a round of calls yesterday evening to the main opposition parties in Northern Ireland, and I will continue to maintain that contact with parties at Stormont. On his point about RHI and the nature of an inquiry, I remain of the view that the best solution is that a way forward should be found within Northern Ireland, taking his point about issues of leadership and showing that the devolved institutions are able to deal with the challenges that exist. That is where my focus will be in the days ahead.
My hon. and gallant Friend Richard Benyon ably expressed the dismay at the grotesquely partisan and inequitable decision to instruct the Police Service of Northern Ireland to start pursuing retired British service personnel, while amnestied former terrorists freely walk the streets. Will the Government introduce legislation urgently to offer them at least the same protection as the amnestied terrorists undeservedly enjoy?
There are no amnesties. We have been clear on that in relation to the “on-the-runs” scheme, and Lady Justice Hallett’s report concluded in 2014 that these things never amounted to an immunity from prosecution. But my right hon. Friend makes a broader point about the need for a proportionate and balanced approach to legacy to ensure that all aspects are investigated properly, rather than by looking at one side rather than the other. That is precisely the approach that can be taken forward through the Stormont House agreement.
We will have a debate later in Westminster Hall on this very subject. May I say to the Secretary of State that if we are going to have more talks, let us deal with this issue once and for all? It is unacceptable that veterans of the armed forces who served the Crown are waiting on the knock at the door, while the terrorists walk free.
I know the interest that the right hon. Gentleman has taken in this issue of legacy over many, many years. I agree that it is totally unfair that the alleged misdeeds of soldiers and former police officers should be investigated, while perpetrators of terrorist atrocities are ignored and their victims forgotten. It is precisely that part that was reflected in the proportionate, balanced, fair and equitable stance taken in relation to the Stormont House agreement; this is why we have been continuing discussions on that very issue and why I am determined that we will move to a public phase so that we can take that forward.
Had the historical investigations unit not been structured as it was, the Stormont House agreement would have failed and, in all likelihood, so would have the Executive in 2014. Now that the Executive have apparently failed, does the Secretary of State share my sadness that the unit was set up as it was and had to investigate chronologically, meaning that servicemen were bound to be the subject of most of its investigations as terrorists sadly do not keep any records, and they certainly do not respond to letters from the Ministry of Defence inviting them to unburden themselves?
The historical investigations unit has not yet been established and the chronological approach that he highlights—that proportionate approach—is not in place. The need for reform and change was reflected in the Stormont House agreement, which is precisely why it is necessary to take this matter forward. Notwithstanding recent events, there is still the opportunity for us to move forward with the parties to ensure that we get the political stability required for these issues to be taken forward, precisely for the cross-community interests that reside around this issue.
Does the Secretary of State not recognise that it is the hubris of the outgoing First Minister that has brought about the humiliation for our institutions of his now having to contemplate the options he has discussed today? Does he also note that Sinn Féin is saying it has called timeon the “DUP status quo”, which seems to be how it is now describing the “Fresh Start” agreement? Would not a future real fresh start involve a return to a key precept of the Good Friday agreement: that the First and Deputy First Minister should be jointly elected by the Assembly? They might then both act as though they were accountable to the Assembly that appointed them, which would have avoided these difficulties.
We need to focus on using the time available over the coming days to see what resolution can be found and how people can work together in the best interests of Northern Ireland, because so many issues are at stake. Part of that is about how we move forward and get an inquiry into place so that questions can be answered and so that appropriate accountability, based on the information that comes from that inquiry, is allowed to happen. That is where the focus needs to be.
Like so many Members in the House, I have grave concerns about what seems to be a disproportionate and politically motivated investigation of those who believed that they were just doing their job during Operation Banner. I am sure my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is aware of those concerns, but he should know that, as an MP representing many serving members of the British Army, I know that this issue is having a measurable effect on current recruitment for our armed forces. Does he agree that this period of uncertainty provides us with an opportunity to set the record straight about what is and is not within the scope of the inquiry?
I am grateful to my hon. Friend for making that point, and for the way in which she makes it. I certainly am struck by the strength of feeling, which is why I underline the points I have made about how we need to see a change in the system. The attention of the state is focused in such a way that there are cases in which people have been murdered as a consequence of terrorist activity but are not being pursued. There are mechanisms that provide for that, and I am intent on taking that forward. Notwithstanding the current issues, that remains a priority.
Will the Secretary of State confirm that other Ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive remain in post and can continue to govern the Northern Ireland Assembly, as now? Will he therefore exercise maximum discretion to ensure that the objectives of the Stormont House agreement—to secure devolved administration and stop people like me running Northern Ireland as direct rule Ministers—are met?
I appreciate the right hon. Gentleman’s viewpoint; he has direct experience from the time he served as a Minister in Northern Ireland. He is right that the relevant Northern Ireland Ministers remain in place in the Executive. Yes, we find ourselves in the current situation, but stability can be maintained through this period. The actions of Ministers in the Executive will clearly be limited, but none the less that stability remains, and we need to continue to work with the Executive at this time to find the solution.
I served twice in Northern Ireland during my time in the Army, so I know a little of the challenge faced by my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State in meeting the expectations of all sides of the community. However, I must echo colleagues who have discouraged him from allowing investigations of British troops. No matter how well designed the investigatory process is, such investigations break the covenant with those who are serving and have served in our armed forces. I encourage my right hon. Friend to block the investigations straightway.
I am not able to intervene; my hon. Friend will understand the rule-of-law issues, the related prosecutorial issues and the other aspects that sit around all this. Nevertheless, I am concerned about the balance of effort and the need to ensure that there are proper investigations that follow the evidence rather than anything else. Reform is needed. The situation as it is at the moment is wrong and has to change, and that is what I am committed to achieving.
I remind the Secretary of State that a previous Prime Minister intervened by writing letters, which got a lot of people off the hook. In the absence of a Northern Ireland Executive—probably for a period of months—will he confirm that he will assume all responsibilities for and powers over how the Brexit negotiations apply to Northern Ireland, and that he will not allow Northern Ireland to be prejudiced in any way by the petulance of those who have walked away from the table?
As I have already indicated, I am very clear about my role and responsibilities in relation to preparations for the triggering of article 50. I have worked over many months to engage with all aspects of society in Northern Ireland, and I continue to do so. I will continue to articulate firmly and clearly, in Whitehall and elsewhere, the best interests of Northern Ireland throughout the Brexit negotiations. That process is strengthened by having a functioning, capable Executive who can support that, and work with the UK Government to ensure that we get the best possible deal for Northern Ireland from the negotiations.
The Secretary of State will have received correspondence from me regarding my concerns about the investigation of personnel involved in Operation Banner. On the RHI, he said in the House today, “The scheme was finally shut down to new applicants in February last year, when it became clear that the lack of an upper limit on payments, unlike in the GB equivalent, meant the scheme was open to serious abuse.” That is not a clear indication of when his predecessor was first made aware of the abuse. When was that?
The point is that this was a devolved decision. It sits in the devolved space, so the UK Government have not had that sort of direct role, which was why I made the point that I did. The hon. Gentleman’s question is perhaps directed more at some of the points that have been made about an ongoing inquiry and the need to get answers about the decisions that have been made around the RHI scheme. It is that focus that needs to be given.
I am sure the Secretary of State will agree that over the past 24 hours the real picture has been emerging. This is about a political wish list from Sinn Féin. The whole issue of a conflict of interest for the First Minister is a red herring. When it comes to the legacy issue, will members of Sinn Fein stand aside and resign when we are investigating things from their past?
The hon. Gentleman will know that the Stormont House agreement provides an important framework, agreed by all the parties, for how best to respond to issues from the past. My focus remains on seeking to give effect to that in accordance with the terms of the Stormont House agreement. I will continue to encourage parties to work together so that we can establish the political consensus required to achieve that, because of all the really important reasons that have been identified in the House today.
The Secretary of State will be aware of the list of issues that the Deputy First Minister included in his resignation letter yesterday. Will the Secretary of State confirm to the House that he and Her Majesty’s Government will not be weak in any negotiations with Sinn Fein and will not allow the rewriting of history?
I will certainly not be party to any rewriting of history—I have said that on several occasions in relation to the issues of the past. We need to focus on the time at hand and find a way forward from the very difficult situation we are now presented with so that we can see Northern Ireland moving forward. We need to use this time to bring people together, rather than looking at things that separate and divide. We must use these days to focus on how trust and confidence can be re-established, and work with the parties to do that.
Fundamental to the political institutions in Northern Ireland were the principles of power sharing, partnership and respect for political difference. In the past weeks, we have seen the disappearance and the withering away of the principle of power sharing, foremost by the Democratic Unionist party. Will the Secretary of State ensure in his discussions with the political parties in Northern Ireland that those principles are adhered to and that everybody comes back to the principle of power sharing?
The important part of the political settlement is the fact that it works for all communities across Northern Ireland. That is very much at the heart of the agreements that have been reached and, indeed, of the work that needs to continue. That is why I make the point about the need to look at those things that bind people together and how we use this time at hand, rather than taking the risk of what may be a divisive election that seeks to create more difference, which makes that job harder.
The Secretary of State mentioned legacy issues in his statement, so will he give the House some practical details on how he will proceed on that in the hiatus? Will he also answer the point made by the shadow Secretary of State about a roundtable meeting, as that is something to which we all look forward?
On the last point, the most effective thing for me to do is to engage with the relevant political parties and establish the appropriate way in which we can facilitate further discussions to establish whether a way forward can be achieved without the need to call an election. As I have said, I stand absolutely by my commitments under the Northern Ireland Act 1998 as to what may be required if we do not fill the positions. On the hon. Gentleman’s point about legacy, I have underlined that I want to establish the necessary political consensus to move forward. The next step is a more public phase of that—I am talking about enabling all the public in Northern Ireland to have their say about the proposals. That is the next step I wish to take.
Does the Secretary of State recall that, just two years ago, Sinn Féin plunged the institutions into crisis over the implementation of welfare reform and cost the Northern Ireland Executive £174 million—not in a projected or an estimated way, but in an actual way? None the less, in a bizarre irony, the decision to resign and to walk out of the Northern Ireland Executive means that there will be no Assembly to pass the mitigation measures that were due from the Stormont House Agreement. Therefore, Sinn Féin will be delivering the bedroom tax in Northern Ireland in six weeks’ time.
I am not sure that I detected a question in that stream of consciousness from the hon. Gentleman—[Interruption.] I hear him now chuntering from a sedentary position, “Does he agree?”
I am in no doubt about the tensions that exist at the moment but, in relation to welfare, I do look back to those days when there were differences. There were very strongly held views, yet a way forward was established. At this time, I call on the parties to reflect on that experience, to work together and to use this time now to find a solution.
May I welcome the Secretary of State’s comment that we want to build a stronger shared society in which there is respect for everyone? We all want to see that but, in line with what the Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, Mr Robertson, said, we need to have a completely new look at this. We need to get back to the Belfast agreement so that we do not go round and round in circles, but we must remember that Einstein said that
“insanity is doing the same thing over and over again, but expecting different results.”
I know that the hon. Gentleman has put down some thoughts and I read his article at the weekend. The primary focus now is to see how we can use this short time ahead to work and build together to determine whether we can get through this current difficulty and ensure that we can look to a bright, positive and prosperous Northern Ireland. Ultimately, that is what we are about. That is what is at stake, and it is why I will be doing all that I can to establish whether a way forward can found and a solution created.