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It is a pleasure to follow John Redwood. I agree with him entirely about the importance of this Queen’s Speech and this Parliament. There is an enormous amount that the Queen’s Speech portends for this Parliament. The work that has now been given to us is far reaching and so important that it will necessarily dominate much of our time and consideration in the months and years ahead.
I join others who have spoken in paying tribute to the Members who sadly passed away in the past year, Gerald Kaufman and Jo Cox. I remember speaking just over a year ago from the Bench below on behalf of all the Northern Ireland Members of Parliament—nationalist, Unionist and independent—and at their request, and voicing our united and heartfelt horror at that terrible event, repeating what so many people have said today about the need to draw good out of such evil and about the tremendous example shown by Jo Cox’s family. Many of those good colleagues from Northern Ireland are no longer with us. They were in other parties, and I have already paid tribute to their contribution in this House. It is now the sad reality that those Members who were elected to represent the nationalist community in Northern Ireland do not take their seats. We disagree fundamentally on many issues, but no matter what their views may be, it is sad for the electorate that they do not take their seats and speak up for their constituents in this House. We are very conscious of that.
I want to welcome the two new Members to our Benches, my hon. Friends the Members for South Antrim (Paul Girvan) and for Belfast South (Emma Little Pengelly). They have joined us after an election that saw the DUP, perhaps uniquely among all the parties in this House, win not only a majority in the area in which it stood, but with the greatest share of the vote ever in its history and with the greatest number of Members of Parliament.
However, the House meets under the shadow of terrible events—lives lost, families destroyed and communities devastated. Our hearts go out to all those who have been bereaved in recent incidents, to the injured and to all who have suffered and are suffering so terribly. Just before the election, many of us were here in the Chamber on
These are indeed dark times for our nation, yet in the midst of such darkness, terror, pain and death, we have seen the love and sheer humanity of hundreds and thousands of people—family, friends, neighbours and communities coming, together simply to help in any way they can. We have witnessed the bravery and selfless courage of our emergency services, stretched beyond belief but dedicated to rescuing and helping others. What examples of love and compassion we have seen in recent days.
The terrible fire at Grenfell Tower must make us absolutely determined to do what is right by the families affected and to take whatever steps are needed as soon as possible to ensure that such a thing can never happen again and to bring reassurance to people who live in such tower blocks.
The acts of terrorism highlight the threats that we face from a variety of sources, each with their own version of hate-filled ideology. United, we can and will defeat the terrorists, just as in Northern Ireland, united, we have defeated the scourge of terrorism to a large extent. There are of course still challenges there, but we have shown a way forward.
Combating the threats posed to innocent life and to our way of life by terrorism must be at the very top of the new Government’s agenda. There is no greater responsibility of Government than the protection of the lives of its citizens and the security and defence of the kingdom. We on the DUP Benches will of course be clear in our support for measures that make people safer and our United Kingdom more secure, and we must always do right by the brave men and women of our security forces, who put their lives on the line to protect and defend us. That is why the commitment to implement the armed forces covenant throughout the United Kingdom, as mentioned in the Gracious Speech today, is so important. We look forward to working with the Government to make that a reality across our land, particularly in Northern Ireland, where there have been problems implementing the armed forces covenant and where there remains a great tradition of service in Her Majesty’s forces. We are of course a Unionist party, as is the Conservative and Unionist party, and I believe that the Labour party—the vast bulk of its members and those who vote for it—are patriotic believers in the United Kingdom as well.
I welcome very warmly these words in the Gracious Speech:
“A priority will be to build a more united country, strengthening the social, economic and cultural bonds between England, Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales.”
Strengthening the Union—our precious Union, as the Prime Minister has rightly called it—must be the overarching aim of this Government. The case for the Union is a positive one. It is one that finds increasing favour in Northern Ireland, across the community divide, as has been illustrated by recent opinion polls and surveys. We will work with Ministers to advance and deepen the ties that bind our constituent countries and regions together. That approach will be needed as we face the greatest political and constitutional challenge of this Parliament, of which other right hon. and hon. Members have, of course, spoken at great length—Brexit.
The country as a whole has voted for Brexit, and this Parliament must now deliver it. Attempts to undermine or subvert the democratic decision made in the referendum would be catastrophic. We must get on with carrying out the people’s wishes. I welcome the priority that has been given by both the United Kingdom Government and European Union negotiators to finding sensible outcomes to the challenges that face Northern Ireland, particularly the issue of the land frontier with the Irish Republic. That shows, I believe, that despite all the rhetoric, people are up for finding sensible and pragmatic solutions.
We have, of course, heard some debate today about membership of the single market and the customs union, and we have heard talk about special status for Northern Ireland within the European Union. Let me make this very clear. I believe that when people voted, in the European Union referendum, to leave the European Union, they voted to leave the single market and the customs union, and I believe that Northern Ireland, along with the rest of the United Kingdom, must do likewise. We must not find ourselves allowing borders to be erected between the island of Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom; that would be totally unacceptable. We must be imaginative, flexible and pragmatic in ensuring that there is an open border, as frictionless as possible, between Northern Ireland and the Irish Republic. There are ways—sensible ways that have already been discussed —of ensuring that that can be made to happen, and it is in the interests of the Irish Republic and the European Union, as well as those of the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland, to make it happen.
The great advantage with which we start is that everyone is saying that—apart from, I have to say, Sinn Féin, which is calling for special status within the EU for Northern Ireland. That has not been adopted or accepted by the new Taoiseach, Leo Varadkar, by any of the parties in the Irish Republic, or by the EU negotiators. Everyone accepts that Northern Ireland’s priorities in relation to the land frontier must also be at the top of the negotiating priorities.