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

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 5:57 pm on 5th March 2019.

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Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell Shadow DUP Spokesperson (International Development), Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Cabinet Office) 5:57 pm, 5th March 2019

It is a pleasure to follow my right hon. Friend Sammy Wilson. I am afraid, as far as the Northern Ireland Office is concerned, I will continue on the issue of the lack of transparency and scrutiny. At the nub of this—it is felt across the House and I know it is shared in Northern Ireland—is the fact that these are important matters that need to be dissected and examined, but the level of scrutiny we are able to subject them to will be minimal indeed.

I want to begin with the political outlook. Unfortunately, we are in the position we face today only because we do not have a devolved Government in Stormont, and we have now been in this limbo for two years and several months. Part of the reason why we continue to be in this limbo is that Sinn Féin, which brought the Stormont institutions down by the resignation of the then Deputy First Minister, has for some considerable time established a series of red lines in relation to going back into government.

However, as indicated by the Opposition spokesperson on Northern Ireland, Tony Lloyd, Sinn Féin, in the words of its leader, Michelle O’Neill, has now copper-fastened that approach. I have to say that part of the reason why it has copper-fastened that approach is that the lack of decisive action from the Government in this place in confronting its previous intransigence has only emboldened it to be more intransigent.

Not only do those in Sinn Féin say, “Well, we’ve gotten away with two years of saying we’re not going back into government until we have certain unreasonable demands met, and we must have them met, pocketed and banked before we go in”—they have got away with that, and we have simply continued this limbo period—but they have now established yet further red lines in relation to even going in to talk about how we get the Government up and running. I am afraid that a considerable amount of blame can be landed on the desk of the Northern Ireland Office for not confronting the Sinn Féin approach.

We are in a situation that is neither fish nor fowl, with neither direct rule nor local rule, as my right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim put it. Our constituents are talking about education, health and a whole series of local projects that could be delivered and asking what we are doing to try to help deliver them. Our answer is that we can do very little and that we want to get Stormont up and running. I know colleagues of mine met a series of principals in the education sector just a few weeks ago, and the principals were unanimous in their demand that something had to be done to rescue their sector from an impending crisis, as we hear in the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee week after week. Yet my colleagues had to say, “We’re ready to enter Stormont today, tomorrow or next week, but unfortunately others are not.”

We find ourselves in this bind, without either direct rule or devolved government. We are stumbling into a crisis week by week, month by month. Although there are a number of local issues, people are also demanding action on broad, encompassing issues. I know that the Secretary of State made it clear that certain matters of departmental spend were not her prerogative or that of the Minister of State, and I understand that, but nevertheless we are left in a bind with something that cannot deliver and that is inadequate in what it does deliver.

Many parts of Northern Ireland are teetering on the cusp between the crisis that is ahead of us and a remarkable breakthrough. My hon. Friend Jim Shannon, who is not in his place at the moment, talked about his constituency. For the first time in 70 years, the Open golf tournament will return to my constituency and the Royal Portrush golf club. There will be almost 200,000 visitors to that tournament, 30% from outside Northern Ireland and the Republic. A considerable number of that 30% will be high net worth individuals.

I have been pressing Invest Northern Ireland to ensure that when those people arrive, we do what we can to maximise any inward investment potential. At this point, I pay tribute to the outgoing chief executive of Invest Northern Ireland, Mr Alastair Hamilton. He has spent 10 years in his role and has performed a manful, dutiful task over and above what would have been expected of someone in his position. So much more could be achieved in the next few months . The Open golf tournament takes place in July, and I would hope that Invest Northern Ireland would be campaigning and pressing inward investment buttons for opportunities that could be opened up as a result of it.

I have referred in this House to the private sector Heathrow logistics hub process, which is taking a further step forward. If it is a successful operation in the part of the United Kingdom that is Northern Ireland, it will deliver thousands of jobs. Here we are on the cusp of a breakthrough, with a combination of things that could deliver. Others have mentioned connectivity, and I think of the potential at all of our airports. Londonderry airport can expand, and we have a public service obligation that could help deliver additional routes. That can only happen if we have ministerial direction and ministerial cover to ensure that all the possibilities are taken advantage of. We have other rail routes and road routes. All can help to deliver job infrastructure developments, which are there now but cannot be fully developed because of the lack of a devolved Government.

As I said, there are two overarching sectors that pervade the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee week on week—education and health. We hear the messages of complaint. We hear the dire consequences that are ahead of us. I do not want to unduly be a prophet of gloom, but the health sector came through the current winter crises and pressures because of the relatively mild winter. It came through it in a poor state, but not in a crisis. Next winter, however, if emphatic action is not taken either at Stormont or here, I am absolutely certain that we will not come through unscathed in the way that we have in the winter that is hopefully just ending. The overall Bengoa-style review is required to give emphasis and impetus to an overarching exchange and development of our health service to meet the demands of the 21st century. Without taking that into account, we are facing an impending crisis in the health sector.

Every one of us, every week, hears from schools, principals and vice-principals about the escalating catastrophe that is the education sector. That will worsen and deepen in the coming weeks and months unless we have ministerial involvement either in this place or in Stormont. Unfortunately, to date, Sinn Féin’s feet have not been held to the fire. We want to get a devolved Government back up and running. We know and accept that the process for that devolved Government is not ideal. It is not our No. 1 priority in terms of what we would like to see, but it is the only show in town, so either we deliver a mechanism through Stormont or moves will have to be made here in the Westminster Parliament. One thing is for sure: we cannot and we must not—the people will not allow us—allow the position that currently pertains to go on for very much longer.