Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) (No. 2) Bill

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:11 pm on 5th March 2019.

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Photo of Gavin Newlands Gavin Newlands Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Sport), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales) 5:11 pm, 5th March 2019

I could not agree more. The Secretary of State for Scotland’s promises to resign in defence of Scotland have become like white noise, which just highlights how Westminster does not work for Scotland. If the Scottish Secretary is actually arguing for us in Cabinet, he is not being listened to. The alternative is that he is not bothering at all, which is even more troubling. If ever there were proof that the Scottish Secretary is the Tory Cabinet’s voice in Scotland rather than Scotland’s voice in Cabinet, it is now.

The SNP believes that new talks should be established immediately to restore the Executive and the Assembly. However, with the UK Government rather distracted by internal Tory party infighting, I say again that an independent mediator could and should be brought in to speed up progress. It has been over two years since Northern Ireland had a functioning Assembly, which is far too long. The people of Northern Ireland deserve reassurances that they will have a responsive and functional devolved Assembly and Executive as they face Brexit—one of the biggest policy challenges that any of us will ever face. Nothing must be done that would undermine the Good Friday agreement. Therefore this, in my opinion, must be the last budget to be delivered in this manner. A paralysing political vacuum in Northern Ireland must not become the new normal state of affairs.

The UK Government, in this Parliament, to a degree are in chaos, but that absolutely cannot be used as an excuse for the lacklustre attempts since last February to re-establish Northern Ireland’s political institutions. The Government are consumed by their own civil war, but that should not distract from all of our duties to steadfastly defend and protect the peace process. The SNP understands that decisions are badly needed to direct and fund public services in Northern Ireland, but the absence of political decision making, amidst ongoing austerity, has placed an intolerable burden on the health and education systems, and on the Northern Ireland civil service and the people of Northern Ireland.

The broader instability caused by Brexit is a central reason why it is proving to be so difficult to restore the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. The Executive and Assembly may have collapsed for various reasons, but Brexit and the threat of new borders or regulations have prolonged the dangerous political vacuum. The threat of new borders can, however, be removed. There would be no need for new economic borders in the Irish sea or across the island of Ireland if the whole of the UK pursues the SNP policy of staying in the European single market and customs union. It is important to remember that Northern Ireland, like Scotland, voted to remain in the EU by 56%.

Since the 2016 referendum, we in the SNP have engaged with businesses and civic leaders across Northern Ireland, all of whom have consistently made the point that the people of Northern Ireland voted to remain, and that their future economic prosperity will be put at risk by Brexit in any form. According to the Government’s own figures, a no-deal Brexit could end up resulting in a 12% GDP decline in the Northern Ireland economy. The UK Government’s analysis states that a no-deal Brexit

“would affect the viability of many businesses across Northern Ireland”,

and would therefore be tantamount to economic vandalism.

We in the SNP want to see Northern Ireland flourish. We want to see political and economic stability, partnered with strong, inclusive economic growth. We want to see that so that our neighbours—only a few miles across the Irish sea—will have effective public services, growing businesses and better livelihoods for their families. A prosperous Northern Ireland is in Scotland’s interests. A prosperous Northern Ireland is in the interests of England, Wales, the Irish Republic and our friends across the European Union.

We in the SNP fully support the Good Friday agreement and the maintenance of an invisible border that people from all over Ireland can freely cross, whether that be to visit family, to work, to study or to conduct business. Let me be clear: we would never stand in the way of Northern Ireland achieving a special relationship with the European Union, if that was what was required. All that we ask is that correct, and equitable, budget procedures are followed, and that any increases in spending across the UK result in the rightful Barnett consequentials for Scotland.

The final point that I want to make about the budget is on the Hart recommendations. I appreciate that those are sensitive topics and have been raised already, and I concede that the Secretary of State’s position has softened somewhat of late, but the Scottish Government have already announced that they are taking action in this area. The Secretary of State and the Minister will be aware of the victims’ group SAVIA—Survivors and Victims of Institutional Abuse. The group was pleased that the Scottish Government confirmed that they would be making advance payments to elderly and infirm victims and survivors prior to the passing of legislation, and is calling for that model to be adopted for Northern Ireland. So many of those who would have been entitled to compensation are now deceased, and SAVIA believes that the initiative shown by the SNP and the Scottish Government shows that where there is a will, there is a way. The group asks that the Secretary of State follows the leadership, courage and compassion shown by the Scottish Government to make compensation payments to elderly and infirm victims before it is too late.

In conclusion, the Government must give Northern Ireland and restoring its Assembly the attention that it requires. Delays in establishing effective talks can no longer be accepted. The institutions of the Good Friday agreement must be championed by all across this House, for the sake of the peace process and for the people of Northern Ireland. The people of Northern Ireland deserve better than this. However, if the Prime Minister’s promises about governing in all our interests are to ring true, she must respect the agreed devolved settlement for the Scottish Parliament and the Welsh Assembly. The people of Scotland and Wales deserve better than this and, believe me, Madam Deputy Speaker: they are watching closely.