With support from this Government, Northern Ireland stands among the UK’s most popular inward investment destinations. We have increased the block grant in real terms, proposed a city deal for Belfast, with more to follow, and created business opportunities through our industrial strategy. Ultimately, however, political stability is key to economic growth, and that means a restored Executive delivering for the Northern Ireland economy. That remains my overriding priority.
I am sure that my hon. Friend and the rest of the House welcome the news of Bombardier’s investment in Northern Ireland. My constituency is dominated by small and medium-sized enterprises, and I am sure that the economy of Northern Ireland reflects that. What is his Department doing to ensure that SMEs also benefit from inward investment in Northern Ireland?
My hon. Friend makes an excellent point. He is right to point out the importance of small and medium-sized businesses, which do a fantastic job in Northern Ireland and contribute a huge amount to the local economy. I have met many of those small businesses, and I have nothing but praise for them. They have contributed towards the 52,000 more jobs and 12,300 more businesses since 2010. The Government will continue to engage with organisations such as the Federation of Small Businesses and Invest Northern Ireland so that those small businesses can fulfil their maximum potential.
There is no progress on the border’s status after Brexit, which will crunch inward investment badly unless Northern Ireland remains part of the customs union. The alternative is a border in the Irish sea. Which is more likely: customs union or sea border?
I am afraid that the hon. Lady should deal with facts rather than what analyses say. If she took an interest in what the Belfast Telegraph has to say, she would have read on Wednesday
One of the reasons why there is so much inward investment in Northern Ireland is the peace created by our soldiers, policemen and special forces, with whom I had the honour of serving in the 1970s. If we are to honour the bravery of people such as Robert Nairac and my other colleagues who lost their lives in the Province, the consultation should flatly say, “We are not having a conversation. We will protect our soldiers, putting them first and the terrorists second.”
My right hon. Friend makes some very good points. He will be aware of the ongoing discussion about the consultation, but he will appreciate that I will not make any further commitments at this stage.
If we are to maintain a stable economic environment for inward investment, if we are to have democratic oversight of decisions such as that of the Belfast Health and Social Care Trust to recall neurology patients and, indeed, if we are to have a legislature in Northern Ireland that is capable of changing the law for victims of rape who may fall foul of the UK Government’s foolish two-child policy, we need the Stormont Assembly back in action. Can we have a very clear road map from the Minister today setting out how the Government intend to get that Assembly back in operation?
I welcome the hon. Gentleman to his new position. Both the Secretary of State and I very much look forward to working with him constructively. He raises a good point about the need to have the devolved Assembly up and running again, and I assure him that the Secretary of State, the Prime Minister and I, and all those concerned, are very keen to do so.
We are doing an enormous amount. The hon. Gentleman will be aware there were intensive talks in February, when the two main parties in Northern Ireland got close but not close enough. We are not giving up. Indeed, my right hon. Friend the Secretary of State is having regular conversations with the parties. Only a couple of weeks ago she met the five main parties with a view to seeing how we can make progress and get the Assembly up and running.