With permission, Mr Speaker, I shall make a statement about the political process in Northern Ireland.
Last week, I came to the House and delivered a statement in the aftermath of the sickening attack that led to the death of Lyra McKee. The following day, both the Prime Minister and I attended her funeral at St Anne’s Cathedral in Belfast, along with political leaders from across Northern Ireland and Ireland and from across the House. As many Members will know, it was an incredibly emotional and touching event, where I heard moving and powerful testimonies from Lyra’s family and members of the community.
That was a day on which to grieve, and a day on which to reflect on a brilliant young life that was cut down by terrorism. All of us heard a clear message that day, from inside the cathedral, from the powerful testimony of Father Martin Magill, from the streets of Creggan and Londonderry, and from Northern Ireland’s political leaders: no more violence, no more division, and no more delay. Northern Ireland’s political leaders must come together now. They must work together to stand firm against those who oppose peace and the political process, and work to build a genuinely shared future for all the people of Northern Ireland.
Lyra symbolised the new Northern Ireland, and her tragic death cannot be in vain. All of us must take inspiration from what she achieved in her life, and work even harder to make Northern Ireland a brighter, more peaceful and prosperous place for everyone. As Secretary of State, I have always made clear that my absolute priority is to see the restoration of all the political institutions established by the Belfast agreement. That agreement has formed the bedrock of peace and progress in Northern Ireland since it was reached just over 21 years ago. It must be upheld, and it must be defended from those who would seek to undermine it.
Northern Ireland needs its political leaders to stand together and work with each other, now more than ever. That is why, in Belfast last Friday, I, together with the Tanaiste, called formal political talks to restore the Executive, commencing on
There is much to do, and many challenges ahead. It is incumbent on all of us to do all that we can to make these talks a success. Northern Ireland needs its Government back up and delivering for the people of Northern Ireland. From now until the start of talks, my team and I will be working with the parties on an intensive period of preparation for those talks. Both the UK and Irish Governments have been clear that we will do everything in our power to make these talks a success, but we cannot do it alone. No Government can impose an agreement from the outside. We need Northern Ireland’s political leadership to do everything they can to ensure that we emerge with an agreement to restore the Executive and build a better future for the people of Northern Ireland. We have a narrow window in which genuine progress can be made and we must act now.
I hope all Members of this House will appreciate that, to give these talks the best chance of success, there is a responsibility on all of us to give parties some time and some space to talk. While I will of course seek to keep this House updated, I will not provide a running commentary on negotiations. What I will be doing is everything I can to give these talks the best possible chance of success. I know all of us in this House and in the other place want to see these talks succeed.
This week has been a difficult time for us all. The murder of Lyra McKee was an attack not just on Lyra or our police service; it was an attack on all of us. Since that sickening attack in Derry, Northern Ireland’s political leaders have shown great leadership in standing up together to reject violence, but it is now time for us to go further. The best possible way of showing those who oppose peace and democracy is to show that their efforts are futile and for all the political institutions of the Belfast agreement to be fully restored and functioning, as was intended by those who reached that historic agreement 21 years ago.
The stability and safety provided by the agreement have allowed Northern Ireland to thrive. Northern Ireland is now a leading destination for inward investment. Unemployment is at a record low and employment at a record high. Northern Ireland needs a devolved Government to allow for local decision making, to continue to strengthen the economy and to build a united and prosperous community. I will be doing all I can to make that happen, and I commend this statement to the House.
In thanking the Secretary of State for advance notice of the statement, may I also firmly welcome the spirit of that statement? She finished by talking about the things that are happening very positively in Northern Ireland, and she is right to do that. The tragedy of Lyra McKee’s murder is that, once again, Northern Ireland is in the news globally for tragedy, not for the things that we want to hear.
Father Martin Magill commended political leaders for standing together in the Creggan on Good Friday, but he went on to say these words, which echoed around the world:
“Why in God’s name does it take the death of a 29-year-old woman with her whole life in front of her to get us to this point?”
Those words echoed around the world; they struck a very strong chord. We must recognise that they struck a strong chord not simply with the congregation in St Anne’s cathedral, but with people across Northern Ireland. We have to recognise that the politics of relying on the shrinking and narrow base for different political parties in Northern Ireland will lead, and has led, nowhere.
What united the congregation in St Anne’s was the common understanding of the outrage of Lyra McKee’s murder, and the hope that something better had to emerge from that process. Father Magill quoted one of Lyra’s friends, telling us that she or he—I am not sure—said of the younger generation:
“They need jobs… They need a life, not a gun put in their hands.”
So let us work together to take away the temptation of the gun and replace it with education, training and those very jobs which can transform people’s lives. That is the stark challenge—the Secretary of State is right—to the Northern Ireland political parties, and, in particular, I have to say, to the leaders of the Democratic Unionist party and Sinn Féin. They have to choose: do they want the politics of division or will they build the politics of unity of purpose and the politics of change?
Let me also turn to the position of the Governments in London and in Dublin. It was genuinely good to see the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach in Belfast last week. It was good to see the Secretary of State herself and the Tanaiste. It is good that the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, which was, frankly, so long in abeyance or even abandoned, has now met a couple of times—the Secretary of State announced today its next meeting—but nobody believes that either Government have been sufficiently engaged or energetic in the search for the return of Stormont government. That has now to change. Each Government have to be seized with the import of Northern Ireland and the need for power sharing.
I also have to say to the Secretary of State something I have raised with her before: we have not seen the Prime Minister engaged in this process, and cynics in Northern Ireland—this is important—say to me that Downing Street’s main interest in Northern Ireland has been the 10 votes of the DUP Members of Parliament in this House and that, sadly, that prejudices the way that the Secretary of State’s own efforts are seen. That, again, has to change, because the two Governments have to be seen to be both independent and impartial. That is why I have said in the past to the Secretary of State that the consideration of an independent chair might still have to be on the table.
Every Opposition Member of Parliament—I know I speak for them all, in Wales, in Scotland and in England—will support the Secretary of State in bringing these talks to a legitimate conclusion. I commit the Labour party and myself to working with her, where that is appropriate, to bring about that end, but I have to add a note of caution: yes, we want to see the Stormont Executive and the Stormont Assembly back in operation, but that is not enough. Any vision—there are conflicting visions, I know, of the medium and long-term future of Northern Ireland—must have power sharing and devolved government at its core. We cannot any longer have a stop-go Stormont. This time it must endure.
Father Magill’s powerful words were heard around the world, but what perhaps people did not see, from those in the cathedral that day who loved Lyra, were some looks of anger—of contempt—as they looked across at the politicians on the pews where the Secretary of State and I sat. We need to think about that, because the tragedy of Lyra’s death has given a new impetus for the need for action. Let us not have a future in which people look back with that same anger and contempt because politics has once again failed. Let us build a future where the politics of division is replaced by the politics of unity of purpose, the politics of change and the politics of hope.
I thank the hon. Gentleman for his offer of support from all sides of the House in this process. This is not going to be easy—I am realistic about the challenges we face—and it is going to need absolute determination from everybody in this House to help the parties, and to help the leaders of those parties, to do what will be difficult, because there will be difficult accommodations that need to be reached for power sharing to be restored.
However, I agree with the hon. Gentleman that there is no alternative for the people of Northern Ireland to fully devolved inclusive power sharing. That is the way those difficult decisions were taken in 1998 by politicians who made sacrifices personally. The people of Northern Ireland backed the proposals in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement wholeheartedly and overwhelmingly in a referendum, but did so knowing that they were not getting everything they wanted. They were having to give in certain areas, and that was difficult. We cannot let those sacrifices and the leadership that was shown 21 years ago go to waste. We have to see fully inclusive devolved power sharing in Stormont.
The hon. Gentleman made a number of points, and I will address as many of them as I can. He talked about Northern Ireland being in the news for all the wrong reasons. He and I have had a number of private conversations in the past few days, and he knows that I share that view. That beautiful, dynamic and energetic part of the world is too often ignored until something like the tragedy of the death of Lyra McKee happens, and that should not be the case. We want Northern Ireland to be in the news and celebrated for all the right reasons. I take him back to the comments of Councillor John Boyle, the mayor of Derry and Strabane, who knew Lyra personally—he was one of her tutors. He said that she had always wanted her name in lights, but not for this reason. I think we can all agree with that. He is right to say that the words we heard in the cathedral were echoed around the world, and that they showed a real common understanding of the outrage.
I agree with the hon. Gentleman’s point about young people needing a life, not having a gun put in their hands. They need jobs and prosperity. It is not enough to say that unemployment is at a record low and that employment is at an all-time high; we need to keep building on that. We need more investment, and I am working hard to deliver a city deal for Derry and Strabane. Mr Campbell and I met to talk about that on Friday, and we need to deliver it. The city deal for Belfast has already been delivered, and the city deal for Derry and Strabane will provide important opportunities.
I have always said that I wanted to restart the talks, but it was realistic to say that they had to wait until after the local elections. I am sad that it has taken such a tragedy to persuade the political leaders to stand together, but I am hopeful and optimistic that we can build on that in the time we have ahead of us after the local elections, before we move into the next part of the year, when excuses could be used for not having talks. We need no more excuses. The time has come for talks, and we need them to start. I thank the hon. Gentleman for his support.
I very much welcome the resumption of the talks, but of course not the tragic circumstances that have led to them. This morning, my Select Committee took evidence in Belfast on the renewable heat incentive, which, as the Secretary of State well knows, was the touchstone for the collapse of the Executive. Does she agree that it is important to resolve that fiasco? What part will the RHI play in the structure of the talks that she has announced today?
I thank the Chair of the Select Committee again for his support. He and I had private conversations over the weekend, and it is good to know that there is support from all parts of the House for the activities that we are starting. There will come a time when it is right to talk in this House about the process and structure of the talks and the matters that they deal with, as well as about the issue of an independent chair. I hope that Tony Lloyd will forgive me for not addressing that point earlier. I am pragmatic about doing this in the way that has the best chance of success, and I am open to all suggestions and thoughts on that matter, but today is the time to show our encouragement to the political leaders in Northern Ireland and tell them that we want to see power sharing resolved. I will be working with the parties over the next few days, and I would be very happy to come to either the Select Committee or this Chamber when we are further into the process to talk about the structure of the talks and the matters that are being discussed.
I thank the Secretary of State for giving me advance sight of her statement. I share the horror of so many people about the death of Lyra McKee and the events that led up to it, and about the deaths and injuries inflicted on so many people that have had less attention. I really welcome the Government’s acknowledgement of the clear message of the ordinary people of Northern Ireland, as voiced so eloquently by Father Magill. That message calls for politics and peace, rather than violence and aggression. I say to the Secretary of State, however, that that clear message was being delivered long before the recent violence; it has been a constant refrain in Northern Ireland. The people have been asking for this for many long years, but the politicians here and in Stormont have failed to heed those calls. We should of course recognise those who did not fail and who brought hope. Perhaps ironically, they were often old warhorses from opposing sides of the stand-off that was Northern Ireland politics for so long. We all want to see their successors match that achievement.
What are the Government doing to bring civic society into the talks? Surely the people of Northern Ireland who are not involved in party politics should be part of them. Further, will the UK Government make a commitment that nothing will be done, either in these talks or in other proceedings, that might call into question the Good Friday agreement, or the UK’s good faith in protecting it? Will the Government do whatever is necessary to avoid a hard border? Finally, the Secretary of State said that she would not give a running commentary, but while I appreciate the need for space for all the parties to discuss the issues, I must point out that that is almost exactly the wording used during the Brexit negotiations. It strikes me that, in that instance, we would have been in a better place had the Government done more sharing and listened to advice in this Chamber.
I welcome the hon. Lady back to speaking on matters regarding Northern Ireland. It is very nice to see her. I know that this is a temporary move, just for today, but it is nice to have her back. She is absolutely right to say that ordinary people have been giving us this message for a very long time; I have heard it time and again. When we brought forward the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Bill last October, we were clear that it was designed to give the parties space to enable them to come to the accommodation that is needed to get power sharing restored. I am as frustrated as anybody that we have not been able to get to this point before now, and it is a shame that it has taken something so tragic to focus minds, but I repeat what I said to the hon. Member for Rochdale: it has always been the intention that talks would resume after the local elections, and I see a real willingness from the political parties to do that.
The hon. Lady asked questions about the process and structure of the talks, and about civic society. I agree that there is clearly a role for the members of civic society who have done so much to hold things together in the absence of Ministers, but as I said to the Chair of the Select Committee, today is not the day to go into the formal structure of the talks. I will be happy to do that at the appropriate point, but the important thing today is to focus on getting the parties back round the table and getting agreement on the structure and framework of the talks.
The hon. Lady asked about the Government’s commitment to the Belfast agreement. I want to put it clearly on record that this Government are steadfast in their commitment to the agreement and its successors, and to all the institutions established by those agreements. She also asked about the hard border issue. We have made it clear, in the joint report in 2017 and in the withdrawal agreement, that we will not allow there to be a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. The border in Northern Ireland is not just about the completion of customs dockets and the movement of goods; it is about how people feel and the emotional connection that people have with communities on the other side of the border that contain their families, their friends, their schoolmates and their work colleagues. Those communities live side by side and do not see a border between Northern Ireland and Ireland. We need to ensure that that continues.
I wish the Secretary of State the best of luck with these talks. May I ask her what she meant when she said that we have a “narrow window in which genuine progress can be made”? Is she setting a deadline for an outcome from the talks, and if so, what will be the consequences if the talks fail? Might there be another election in Northern Ireland, or a move towards direct rule from here?
I can well understand why my hon. Friend is keen to ensure that contingency plans are in place, but I think that today is the day to look towards getting the talks started and the potential for them succeeding. I mentioned a narrow window because it is clear that, as for everything in Northern Ireland, there are events in the calendar that make it harder for the parties to come together. One such event is the local elections on Thursday; it is harder for parties to talk to each other and work together when they are out on the doorstep campaigning against each other. Once we have got through the local elections, we will have an opportunity for the parties to come together, and I want to use that opportunity.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, and particularly the reference to giving the talks the best possible chance of success. She will remember our discussions on Friday, so does she agree that the talks would be enhanced considerably if all parties, including Sinn Féin, dropped any preconditions and entered the talks with an openness of spirit, endeavouring to try to reach an agreement whereby we all win, instead of it being a win for Sinn Féin and its republican agenda?
It was an honour to be invited to the Unity of Purpose group, of which the hon. Gentleman is a member, in Londonderry on Friday. We are trying to organise a visit with Tony Lloyd as well. It was great to see politicians and members of civic society from all parts of the community in Londonderry sitting around a table and discussing what is right for the people of Derry/Londonderry, so I am determined to revisit with the hon. Gentleman. We can see from that group that it is entirely possible for politicians from opposing parties and from different parts of the community to work together, and that is what we need to see in Stormont.
I understand that one of Sinn Féin’s preconditions is that the talks allow for Irish Gaelic to become an official language in Northern Ireland, and be on the same level as English. What percentage of the people of Northern Ireland actually use Gaelic or Irish at home?
If my hon. and gallant Friend will forgive me, I do not have the exact percentage, but I am happy to write to him. As for the talks and what will happen, if he will forgive me, today is the day for showing our encouragement for the talks starting, and our support for their succeeding. I will be happy to come back to this House later to give a progress report—hopefully with good news for the people of Northern Ireland.
I wish the Secretary of State well. She has a difficult job. Will she look at the lessons that were learned from the establishment of the St Andrews agreement, which restored devolution last time? It was characterised by four key points. The first was prime ministerial and Taoiseach engagement consistently and intensively over a long period in a very short time, if that makes sense. In addition, all the parties, including the smaller ones, were clearly involved, and there was a clear deadline by which decisions had to be made on areas where there was disagreement. If there was no decision, those disagreements were exposed for further discussion with the people of Northern Ireland.
The right hon. Gentleman will have welcomed the fact that the first statement on the talks was a joint statement from the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach. We are looking carefully at all the successful talks processes of the past, and at those that perhaps were not so successful, to learn lessons and ensure the best chance of success this time.
I welcome my right hon. Friend’s statement. We all want peace and power sharing in Northern Ireland. Having served there three times on operational tours, I would certainly welcome that most warmly. When she speaks to the Prime Minister, can my right hon. Friend reassure me that she will encourage her not bring the withdrawal deal back into this House for a fourth time with the backstop, because it threatens the integrity of the United Kingdom and, in doing so, Northern Ireland?
I am obviously here today to talk about starting a talks process to restore devolution in Northern Ireland. Decisions about the withdrawal agreement and so on are probably beyond above my pay grade at this point.
For as long as there has been a peace process, my party has been part of a non-partisan approach to it in this House. In that spirit, may I offer my congratulations and welcome the news that the Secretary of State brings to the House today about the resumption of talks? It is not the case, however, that the whole political process in Northern Ireland has been failing in recent years. My sister party, the Alliance party, has come forward on several occasions with different initiatives, including the appointment of an independent mediator and a review of the petition of concern process. Will the Secretary of State assure me that its voice will be heard in this process, and that the sensible suggestions that it has brought to the table thus far will be given due prominence?
I thank the right hon. Gentleman for his support and assure him that it will be an inclusive five-party talks process. The suggestions, ideas and considerations that have been put forward by all parties will of course form part of the process. We want inclusive power sharing that comprises all five parties that are eligible to be part of the Executive.
The Secretary of State will agree that the Good Friday agreement must be upheld in Northern Ireland if peace is to be sustained and so that we do not have more murders like the tragic death of Lyra McKee. It is essential for progress in Northern Ireland that the Assembly returns. To give one brief example, the children’s food inquiry is going to report to Stormont tomorrow, but there is no one locally—no minister or Executive—who can take that or any of the other matters forward for the people of Northern Ireland, who want to be able to continue to move forward and who want prosperity to be built on.
I agree with the hon. Lady that devolution needs to be restored. She cites one of many examples of why we need Ministers in Stormont taking executive decisions and directing civil servants, and I want to pay tribute to the civil servants, who have acted admirably in the absence of political direction for over two years.
It is important that we continue to make the point that the people who murdered Lyra do not believe in the peace process or in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement. That is unlike people in this House and this Government, who are steadfast in their commitment to the Belfast agreement. There is no excuse for what those people did. It was murder. They should not be doing it and should not have done it. We need to stand up together across this House and across the community in Northern Ireland and say, “No more.”
Does the Secretary of State not agree that the time has passed for talking shops and the time has come for the democratic process to get back into Stormont to debate, vote on and pass legislation? The Northern Ireland Assembly is the only mechanism for getting Northern Ireland back on its feet. There should be no more red lines. We need to get business done, and that can be achieved only by returning to Stormont the elected representatives who want to deliver what our people need: legislative change.
I agree that the time has come for politicians to get back to run the schools, hospitals and infrastructure projects and other matters that cross my desk day in, day out. People are crying out for those decisions to be taken. That is why it is so important that we show such resolve from this House to support those politicians, because it will be difficult. Challenging things need to be done and said over the next few weeks, and that will be hard, so we need to give the leaders, who have shown incredible strength and commitment already, the strength to get through the next few weeks.
Father MaGill spoke for many last week when he called for new urgency on behalf of Lyra McKee’s generation—what we might call the “post-Good Friday agreement generation”. As an observer when the Labour Government was deeply involved in this, my reflection is that this process of bringing the parties together only works if there is real focus, grip and determination on the part of the Prime Minister. That is no reflection on the Secretary of State; it is just a reality of how this works. Can the Secretary of State assure the House that we will now see a step change in the Prime Minister’s involvement in this, and that there really will be that focus, grip, doggedness, and refusal to be defeated, even alongside everything else that the Prime Minister is currently dealing with?
The right hon. Gentleman, if he knows anything about the Prime Minister, will know that she never gives up and is doggedly determined in everything. She has doggedly worked to restore devolution for as long as I have been Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, and the fact that she was at the funeral last week and that she issued the joint statement with the Taoiseach on Friday should give the right hon. Gentleman the reassurance he needs. And I can reassure him that the Prime Minister always shows absolute commitment to me, as Secretary of State, and to the political leaders across Northern Ireland.
I was nine years old when the Good Friday agreement was signed, so I suppose I am part of the post-Good Friday agreement generation. Many of us are bemused and offended by the intransigence we see facing us in this political impasse. Looking to Lyra for inspiration, her frustration at the impasse is important to us now.
In raising my concerns about Saoradh taking part in a parade in Glasgow this weekend—the parade did not take place in the end—I was confronted by people who questioned all sorts of motives. There is a lack of faith and lack of trust on both sides. I call out the Orange Order and the Apprentice Boys of Derry intimidating Catholics at prayer in Glasgow, and I call out organisations like Saoradh bringing their toxic politics and violence to the city of Glasgow. I call out both sides, because they are the only barriers to peace.
Although I wish the Minister well in the negotiations, does she agree that we need more temperate language from both sides and an understanding that, to paraphrase Mo Mowlam, if both sides are willing to compromise, we will get a good outcome? That is the way ahead. We need to understand that no one will get everything they want out of these negotiations.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point well. I meet civic society and other leaders in Northern Ireland on a regular basis, and the point was made to me at one of my meetings with church leaders that politicians—this is true for all of us—need to show restraint and respect. They need to respect the other point of view and they need to show restraint in what they are asking for, because the people of Northern Ireland just want and need to see their politicians making the decisions that they elected them to make. They do not want anything else. They just want their politicians to get on with it.
I welcome the Secretary of State’s statement, and she knows we need to strive not just for an agreement to restore our devolved institutions but to do so in a way that commands support right across Northern Ireland. That means a balanced deal, a fair deal and one that everyone in Northern Ireland can look to as a progressive deal.
In doing that, and recognising that nothing can be delivered through these talks without a restored Assembly, will the Secretary of State keep open the prospect of re-establishing the Assembly as soon as possible and conducting a talks process in parallel, just as we did with the Hillsborough talks and the Stormont House talks?
The hon. Gentleman represents his constituency and his constituents incredibly well, and he is very attuned to the mood of the public. We have had a number of conversations in which he has expressed his frustration about the lack of an Executive and what it means for the people in his constituency, and in which he has spoken about matters he campaigns for passionately—he has been a leading campaigner on the Muckamore Abbey issue.
I want to see the Assembly restored, and it is for the politicians in Northern Ireland to do that. No Government can impose a political settlement on the politicians in Northern Ireland; it has to be an agreement between those politicians. The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation and Exercise of Functions) Act 2018 enables the Executive to be reformed without further action being taken by this House, and I urge politicians to seize this moment. We have a small window, and the public are behind the political leaders and want to see them do the right thing. This is the moment for the political leaders to seize that opportunity, do the right thing and go back into government.
On a point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Just a few moments ago, in criticising—quite rightly, in the view of many, many people—the actions of Saoradh, the political wing of murdering terrorists, Mr Sweeney made an oblique comparison between that group of murdering terrorists and others who walk on the streets such as the Orange Order and the Apprentice Boys. That should not go unanswered, and it should be totally and utterly condemned by all right-thinking people.
The hon. Gentleman makes his point. I understand why he wishes to raise a point of order on the matter, but he will appreciate that it is not the responsibility of the Chair. I am quite sure that any hon. Member in this House, in anything they have said, will have meant well.
Further to that point of order, Madam Deputy Speaker. Thank you for your forbearance.
For the record, it was not my intention in making that statement to conflate the motives of those organisations. I was merely reflecting my constituents’ concerns, as brought to me, about the intimidation, as they see it, that has taken place in the city of Glasgow. I was merely reflecting that. I was not conflating violent acts with anything else.
I abhor the actions of Saoradh, which are a different order of violence from anything that has taken place involving any other organisation in recent times. It was not my intention to cause that degree of offence. If it has been received in that way, I beg the forbearance of Mr Campbell as it was not my intention.
It is important that both sides understand each other if we want to reach a compromise—that was my intention in raising those concerns. I have had dialogue with both sides on this issue.