Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 2:36 pm on 24th October 2018.

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Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Sport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales) 2:36 pm, 24th October 2018

I am going to make some progress, and then I will come back to the right hon. Members.

The people of Northern Ireland have spent too long in limbo. As we have heard from both Front Benchers, key decisions have to be made and functionality must be restored. The people of Northern Ireland deserve better than this. The Scottish National party, like most Members of this House, firmly believes that new talks must be established immediately to restore the Executive and Assembly. The Secretary of State has to come off the bench on this and be much more proactive, not in legislative terms—we see that today—but in leadership. Along with Irish Government counterparts, she should be working night and day to initiate a new round of inclusive talks. With the UK Government totally distracted by Brexit and internal party infighting, I say again that an independent mediator could and, if no early progress is made, should be brought in, so that progress can be made for the sake of good governance in Northern Ireland.

Nothing must be done to undermine the Good Friday agreement, so this piece of legislation must be temporary. Given the five-month extension the Government have built into the Bill, and from conversations I have had with Members from all communities, it seems to me that there is consensus that Stormont may not get back up and running until September, following the council elections and the marching season. That is almost another full year from now, and for me and many other Members of this House that is a matter of real regret.

There is also general consensus, on all sides, that this Bill has, sadly, become necessary, but there are also concerns that having to legislate at all is potentially a slippery slope and a situation that must not be allowed to drift or be extended beyond what is absolutely necessary; a political vacuum must not become the new normal in Northern Ireland. I am relieved that the Government have conceded that their Henry VIII powers in clause 4 were not justifiable, and have heeded the concerns of the House of Lords report and tabled amendments so that the affirmative procedure is used instead.

Amid ongoing austerity, the absence of decision making is straining Northern Irish public services. Decisions are urgently required to provide direction and funding to vital services. As we have heard, current conditions are placing particular pressures on health and education, which are among the most important services a Government can deliver. The collapse of the Executive and the subsequent failure to deal with the situation has also placed great stress on the civil service in Northern Ireland. Direct rule can never be countenanced, but as the shambolic Brexit process is a central reason for the ongoing crisis, the UK Government have a responsibility to ensure talks progress swiftly. The chaos within the UK Government must not be used as an excuse for the lacklustre attempts since February to re-establish political institutions in Northern Ireland. After all, this is not just about public services and appointments; it is about protecting and maintaining the peace process.

I do not want to be accused of scaremongering or of attaching more significance to this than it warrants, but yesterday the first report of the Independent Reporting Commission was published and, although there were clearly parts we can all welcome, the commission is clearly concerned about the impact of the ongoing political impasse. The report praises all those in the public, voluntary and community sectors who are working to tackle paramilitarism, but it says that the absence of political leadership has been a significant impediment to that task. It also notes that in the absence of an Assembly, new powers, such as unexplained wealth orders, cannot be introduced, and that any change in the current regime for managing paramilitary prisoners cannot be considered in the absence of a Justice Minister. I sincerely hope that in reading that report the Secretary of State has been given a renewed sense of urgency on talks.

I turn back to Brexit, as it is wreaking havoc on every aspect of politics in these islands. The broader instability caused by Brexit is a central reason why it has proven so difficult to restore the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. There are many reasons why the Executive and the Assembly collapsed, but it is Brexit, the elephant in the room, that is prolonging the concerning political vacuum. I remind colleagues across the House that March is quickly approaching and we still have no confirmation of plans to extend the period for withdrawal. The threat of a new border becomes closer by the minute.

Northern Ireland is the central conversation in the Brexit talks, so it is vital that its voice is heard. As we have heard so eloquently, in June 2016 Northern Ireland voted by 56% to remain in the European Union, as 62% of Scots did. The Government continue to try to ignore Scotland—will they also ignore the people of Northern Ireland? If the UK Government plough on with a no deal hard Brexit, they will wreak further havoc on the businesses, public services and entire economies of all within the UK. That is nothing short of economic vandalism of the highest order.

As we have seen from reports, Northern Ireland will be hit hardest by a disastrous no deal scenario. This month, business leaders in Northern Ireland have warned that a no deal must be avoided at all costs. According to the Government’s own figures, crashing out would shrink the Northern Irish economy by 12%. The Director of CBI Northern Ireland has warned that this would be the equivalent of another financial crisis. This would be a dramatic hit to GDP inflicted upon the people of Northern Ireland despite their vote to remain.

We in the SNP want to see stability, and strong and inclusive economic growth in Northern Ireland. We want to see Northern Ireland grow, so that public services, businesses, families and individuals can prosper. After all, not only is a prosperous Northern Ireland good for all who live there, but it is in the interests of Scotland, and indeed of England, Wales and our friends across the European Union. The twin threats of a new border and massive economic damage can be easily removed if the UK pursues a policy of staying within the European single market and customs union; there would be no need for new economic borders across land or at sea. Trade and relationships, business or personal, would continue to flourish between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and beyond.

In a blatant attempt to wreck any agreed backstop in Northern Ireland, the European Research Group cynically tabled reckless amendments to this legislation. Mr Baker subsequently withdrew them on Monday, saying that it would not be in the “public interest” to attach them to emergency programming. Perhaps for the first time I find myself in agreement with him and his ERG colleagues, but I would go further and suggest to him that his group and its entirely regressive aims are not in the public interest, and the less we hear from them, the better.

I remind Members that in December last year the UK Government agreed the need for a backstop in the first phase of negotiations with the EU, so they must stay true to their word.