That is an incredibly fair point to make, and I intend to address it later on. There has been a dereliction of duty. The opportunity to serve the people is not being taken by one party and one party alone. As it holds out for its purely partisan and narrow agenda, everyone else in Northern Ireland suffers.
No one should be under any illusion about our approach to these issues. In October last year, Arlene Foster, our party leader, indicated that she would seek the establishment of the Executive immediately and that if the Assembly created did not deal satisfactorily with the outstanding issues that had been raised as a stumbling block for progress, it should be brought down again in six months. She said, “Put me to the test.” She said, “Let us maturely and rationally reflect on the outstanding issues that you have; you can consider the outstanding issues that we have, and if we can’t resolve them, then bring it down—but at least try.” Before Arlene Foster sat down from making that speech, Sinn Féin had ruled it out. It had ruled out a restoration of the Executive, where Brexit and every public service that was of interest to the people of Northern Ireland could be considered.
As I reflect on these matters, standing here again to debate a Northern Ireland Bill that should not be necessary, I am reminded that the Secretary of State’s predecessor, James Brokenshire, said in September 2017 that nine months without a Government to steer policy had left the country with “no political direction” and left critical public service reform wanting. He continued:
“In the continuing absence of devolution, the UK government retains ultimate responsibility for good governance and political stability in Northern Ireland as part of the United Kingdom and we will not shirk from the necessary measures to deliver that.”
That was only 13 months ago, yet here we are. He famously talked of a “glide path” to direct rule. Frustratingly, this is a never-ending holding pattern. It is not in the interests of democracy and not in the interests of good government.
The Bill has been described—kindly—as a “limited measure”. It has been described by my constituency predecessor as
“a sticking plaster on a broken leg”.
It has been described as a poor substitute for democratically elected politicians in Northern Ireland making decisions that affect the people they serve. It is through that prism that we have to consider the Bill.
The Bill does not provide certainty. It contains no certainty on decisions. It does not provide compellability. There is no compulsion on civil servants to make decisions that impact the people of Northern Ireland—decisions that need movement—but on key policy areas, there is no compulsion to do so. There is no progress on the 200-plus decisions that have lain in abeyance among the range of Departments since the suspension of the Assembly.