The Government are committed to the resumption of devolved government in Northern Ireland, and I believe that the parties and the Irish Government share this commitment. Later today, I will return to Belfast to continue intensive discussions to establish a partnership Executive within the short timeframe available. Progress has been made but it needs to continue, with urgency, if we are to achieve a positive outcome.
As a nurse, I am acutely aware of the need for the Northern Ireland Executive to set a budget to ensure that public services, particularly health services, are adequately funded. Without an Executive in place, that is almost impossible. Does the Secretary of State share my fear that the failure to restore the Executive is putting Northern Ireland at severe financial risk?
My hon. Friend highlights some of the issues surrounding setting a budget for Northern Ireland, which is a key priority. She highlights the health service, and I pay tribute to all those who work in the health service in Northern Ireland. They do an incredible job. There is a sense of the real potential and opportunity that a new Executive can take forward, and we must equally reflect on the £120 million identified in last week’s Budget that an Executive could invest, through to 2021, to really take Northern Ireland forward.
May I, on behalf of my colleagues, express my condolences and sympathy to the families of the crew of the Irish Coast Guard helicopter that has crashed? I am certain that everyone in Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic will be deeply sympathetic to the families at this time. I also extend my sympathy to the family of George Gilmore, who was murdered in Carrickfergus in recent days. It appears that this appalling and terrible crime was carried out by loyalist paramilitaries. Will the Secretary of State reiterate the determination of all of us to move forward on the Stormont House agreement in relation to the provisions to tackle paramilitarism, both republican and loyalist?
I join the right hon. Gentleman in his comments and thoughts about the crew of the Irish helicopter. That is a terrible tragedy and I know that the whole House will share that view. I also join him in condemning the appalling murder that has taken place. I spoke to the PSNI about the case this morning, and I know that it is actively pursuing lines of inquiry. He also highlights the issue of paramilitarism, and I stand absolutely four-square behind our continuing work to confront that scourge. There is no justification for it at all. We are also providing funding to the tune of £25 million in support of that important work.
Further to that, the Secretary of State will be aware that the DUP is absolutely and totally committed in the current talks to getting devolution back up and running in Northern Ireland. We did not tear down the institutions or create the present crisis; others walked away. We are determined to restore the Executive as quickly as possible. What the Prime Minister said yesterday about ruling out a border poll was good, but will the Secretary of State confirm that the Irish Republic’s involvement in the strand 1, 2 and 3 talks is limited to strands 2 and 3 on the relationships between Northern Ireland and the Republic, and that the Republic also has a role to play in answering questions about legacy issues?
I can certainly confirm that that is the approach that is being taken, which is consistent with the Belfast agreement. The contribution that the Irish Government are making in that context is positive, and we all feel a responsibility to see devolved Government back in place, delivering for Northern Ireland. I know that all the parties recognise that and are working hard to achieve it.
Having been a Member of Parliament for many years prior to devolution, I am acutely aware of the total inadequacy of direct rule. Will my right hon. Friend assure the House that he is undertaking the negotiations with the utmost urgency and intensity to get a deal on devolved government?
I can confirm to my hon. Friend that devolved government is the only thing that I am working towards. That is what the people of Northern Ireland voted for and that is what they want to see delivering change for Northern Ireland and having a positive impact on people’s lives. We are approaching that with urgency.
I am pleased to hear that the Secretary of State rules out the direct rule option, but what contingency planning is he doing? Is he prepared to extend the negotiation period if no agreement is reached?
The UK Government take their responsibilities seriously in providing political stability, but the focus—the real intent—is on securing an outcome and an agreement in that three-week period. I believe that that is doable and achievable, and it is with that approach, and with good will, that I hope the parties will engage to achieve that outcome. Speculating on alternative approaches is not helpful.
I echo the comments of Mr Dodds on those who recently lost their lives.
Hard-working people in Northern Ireland will be staunchly behind the Secretary of State in his efforts to re-establish a new Administration following the elections. However, in order to concentrate minds, if local politicians are unwise enough not to form an Administration, will he consider taking measures to cease paying salaries and expenses to those who have been elected?
My right hon. Friend highlights a report that was published on that issue over the past week or so. My focus and intent is on getting the parties together to reach an agreement within the three weeks. As I said, I think that that is doable with urgency and a sense of good will. That is what we need to focus on.
Today is a rather sombre day in that it marks the Ides of March, but this Friday we will have the opportunity to hail glorious St Patrick. If you will allow me, Mr Speaker, I will wish you and the House the happiest of St Patrick’s days in advance.
Like many Members, I cannot remember a more serious time since the Good Friday agreement was signed, and I say on the behalf of my Opposition colleagues that normal hostilities are suspended. We will be offering unequivocal support to the Secretary of State, the Minister and the Government. The time for internecine dispute in this place is over; the time for constructive engagement and working together is here and now. In that tone, and in reference to the talks the Secretary of State mentioned earlier, has there been a roundtable plenary involving any or all of the parties?
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support. I think we share a cross-party approach on the serious issue of ensuring that we get an Executive back in place, delivering for Northern Ireland and following through on commitments and, indeed, the expectations of the public. I hope he will understand that I will not provide a running narrative on the talks, but I can say that I believe progress is being made. Some significant issues still need to be resolved, but we are none the less approaching this with good will.
I entirely accept that there is good will, but I am slightly concerned about the statement by the leader of one of the Northern Irish parties that some meetings have been cancelled. I wish to give the Secretary of State a fair following wind, as do we all. Has he received any representation from the charitable sector within Northern Ireland about problems it is facing due to the budgetary impasse?
The hon. Gentleman makes an important point, and it goes back to the fact that a budget has not been set, which has created uncertainty. We need to see the Executive in place within the three-week timescale, because there could be implications for a range of different issues within Northern Ireland. That is why the community and voluntary sector, the faith community and the business community have been firmly underlining the clear need to get devolved government working, stable and back, and that is where our focus needs to be.