Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 3:55 pm on 24th October 2018.

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Photo of Owen Smith Owen Smith Labour, Pontypridd 3:55 pm, 24th October 2018

I am not sure that that intervention is entirely pertinent to the point that I was making. However, I will say in response to it that what I heard was a reference to Conor Murphy’s having said that he did not think Ministers would be in place before April 2019, which is broadly in line with the mysterious deadline that the Secretary of State has specified in clause 1.

My view is that no one party in Northern Ireland is blameless in respect of the impasse in which we currently find ourselves. I think that all parties need to get round the table, and that, crucially, the Governments on both sides of the Irish border need to do more to make this a more dynamic process. Torpor, drift and lassitude have characterised the approach of our Government, in particular, to an impasse that has lasted for nearly two years. If this is such an emergency, I think that the real emergency has been the lack of drive and dynamism. We heard from my hon. Friend Tony Lloyd about some of the ideas advanced previously by him and by me about an independent chair, potentially the Prime Minister—maybe not the current Prime Minister, but a Prime Minister—who would have a greater influence in these matters. There are myriad ways in which the Government could be trying to drive this forward, but they are not doing so, and that causes me grave regret.

I shall conclude by making three brief points. This Bill essentially allows civil servants in Northern Ireland to take a very wide-ranging set of decisions and to be given legal and political cover by the Northern Ireland Office to do so, but it does not apparently allow decisions to be taken about the Hart inquiry recommendations on victims of historical institutional abuse, and that is morally indefensible. Hart reported just after the Assembly collapsed, but the inquiry was established by the Assembly and is widely supported across the Assembly. David Sterling, head of the Northern Ireland civil service, has said in terms that he already has the legislation on the books in order to deliver for those victims, and it is a disgrace that this legislation is not going to deal with their case. It should do, and there is no excuse for it not doing so.

Secondly, there are 500 victims of the troubles who have been gravely injured mentally or physically, as a result of no fault of their own in the vast majority of cases. They deserve a victims pension. It is clear that the compensation paid to individuals in the past is insufficient given that those people are living longer, thankfully, than was ever imagined. It is vital that the Government put in place a pension for victims.

Lastly, there is nothing in this Bill that allows for the people of Northern Ireland to have a greater voice than that represented through the DUP on the question of Brexit. The most important issue facing Northern Ireland is the prospect that the Good Friday agreement is in jeopardy right now, as a result of the reckless way in which Northern Ireland is being treated in the Brexit process. It is essential that we get the Assembly back, but if the Assembly cannot deal with it, Ministers in the NIO need to start speaking up, and I say to them, “We need to hear your voices on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland on Brexit, and if you do not speak up, you are letting the people of Northern Ireland down.”