Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 4:06 pm on 24th October 2018.

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Photo of Vicky Ford Vicky Ford Conservative, Chelmsford 4:06 pm, 24th October 2018

I will try to be brief, but this is a subject that I hold close to my heart. Let me start by saying how much I wish that we were not here. As someone who grew up in Northern Ireland and was born in Omagh at the beginning of the troubles, I spent my childhood knowing what it was like to live at a time of violence within the United Kingdom. This year marks 20 years since the Omagh bombing and 20 years since the Good Friday agreement, and the peace that we have today is precious, and also very fragile as Gavin Robinson reminded us.

I have said before in this Chamber that we should not jeopardise the Good Friday agreement. We should not jeopardise it with a hard border between Northern Ireland and southern Ireland. We also should not jeopardise the right to self-determination that the people of Northern Ireland made with their clear decision that they wished to be part of the United Kingdom and part of our precious Union here. It is always difficult for someone like me who is no longer living in Northern Ireland but is watching from afar to form a view, but I think that it has partly been having Stormont and having local decision making that has meant that the Good Friday agreement has lasted for so long. Local decision making is key to holding this whole situation together. So that is why I wish we were not here: I wish the Stormont Assembly was meeting and we were not put in the position of trying to pass legislation in this place.

I was back over in Northern Ireland last month, and time and again people outside politics were telling me how frustrated they were by the current situation—not only by the lack of decision making in Stormont, but by what that is doing for key decisions that affect everyday lives. They mentioned many projects—local transport projects, health projects and a particularly beautiful education project. In Omagh, on the site of the old Army barracks, there is a £140 million investment to build the Strule schools project, which will bring all six secondary schools in Omagh on to one site, so instead of the Catholic and Protestant children being in different schools where they never meet, they will still have their own school ethos but they will meet and be together. That will be such a powerful sight, but when I drove past it, the gates were there but there was nothing behind them because the project continues to be delayed. We need to ensure that the civil servants in Northern Ireland can get on with making the key decisions, and we cannot wait forever. That is why I will support Ministers in ensuring that they can get local decision making going.

I want to talk a bit about the subject of abortion, which I know will come up again and again today. I have spoken about it in the Chamber before, and it is an emotional issue on which people have strong personal views. I support the right to choose, and that is something that I believe in very strongly, but I also feel very sensitive about people in one part of the world telling people in another part of the world what they should do on this issue. It is an issue that should be determined locally.

When I spoke about this last time, it was on the eve of the High Court judgment on human rights. I pointed out that if part of the UK was found not to be upholding key human rights, we in this place would have to act. When I was back over in Northern Ireland, I had the opportunity to listen to the testimony of a mother who had had the most hideous experience of being forced to carry a baby to term, even though the baby was never going to live and actually died in the womb.

It is worth having another read of the High Court judgment, because on the one hand it says that we are in breach of our human rights in key areas such as rape, incest and foetal fatal abnormality, but on the other hand the judgment does not stand formally because the Court ruled that the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission did not have the legal power to bring a case in its own name. As I understand it, that is a failure of the legislation that was passed here under the then Labour Government. The language was not clear enough in the Bill that established the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to give the commission the power to bring such cases in its own name. That issue needs to be corrected, and I am told that that would put the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission on a level playing field with its equivalents in other parts of the United Kingdom. If that had already been the case, that legal judgment would have been binding, which would have helped to facilitate the local changes that are needed to ensure that the women of Northern Ireland do not have their human rights breached.

There are many more things that I would like to say. I believe that it is still worth fighting for frictionless trade across the Northern Irish-Irish border and across the Irish sea and the English channel. By finding a solution that keeps the whole Union together, we will find a relationship that works for our ongoing relationship with Europe as well. I will support the Bill this evening, but with a heavy heart, because I wish that we did not have to be here.