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There has been significant engagement over the past nine weeks with the political parties in Northern Ireland, considering a range of important and difficult issues. Progress has been made, but there are a number of areas of disagreement between the political parties.
The Secretary of State’s mapping exercise on the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland revealed 96 areas directly underpinned by or linked to EU law. After Brexit, obviously, these will need to be replaced and shaped by the institutions of Stormont. Given that, does she believe that it would be irresponsible to pursue a no-deal Brexit while the devolved Administration is not in place?
My focus is on getting the devolved Administration back together and getting all the institutions that were agreed in the Belfast/Good Friday agreement working—in particular, the north-south institutions, which are incredibly important. Having those, and also having representation of the Northern Ireland Executive on the Joint Ministerial Committee, are both very important points in making sure that Northern Ireland’s voice is heard in the Brexit debate.
Both sides of the border are willing and praying for success in the talks in which my right hon. Friend is involved. The absence of devolution is now tangibly and negatively impacting upon the lives of too many people in Northern Ireland. Will she commit to ensure that the summer recess is not an excuse for pausing the talks and keep parties in the room—by force, if necessary—to ensure that, by the time we come back in September, we are on the cusp of seeing devolution return?
May I start by congratulating my hon. Friend on his appointment to the role of Chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee? I have not had an opportunity to do so in the Chamber before now. I am sure he will make an excellent Chair, following his predecessor, my right hon. Friend Dr Murrison, who is now a Minister in the Foreign and Commonwealth Office.
I want to reassure my hon. Friend that I am doing everything in my power to ensure that the parties continue to talk. They are all still in the room. I will be returning to Northern Ireland straight after questions, to continue talks over the rest of the week. I want the talks to succeed and will do whatever I can to ensure that they do.
I obviously hope that the devolved Administration is restored as soon as possible but, in the absence of devolution, can the Secretary of State examine how this House can scrutinise the decisions of officials in the Northern Ireland Departments—for example, by tabling parliamentary questions on the key issues that affect people in Northern Ireland?
As the right hon. Gentleman knows, he was the last direct rule Minister in Northern Ireland, and I very much hope that he continues to be. He will understand the constitutional implications of the independence of the civil service in Northern Ireland and the fact that it reports to the Executive Office, not to this House. I am determined to get the institutions restored because then the question that he asked will become irrelevant.
We have, of course, ensured that all parties are in the room. These have been talks with the five main parties in Northern Ireland—those that are eligible to form an Executive and the Alliance party—and they have all made a valuable contribution to the discussions. We have done so through working groups, chaired by five independent facilitators. Good progress has been made, but we have not had any institutions in place for two and a half years because of some very difficult issues, and those difficult issues remain.
With no governance in Northern Ireland accountable to the public, what steps will the Secretary of State take to improve this?
I am trying to get the institutions restored. It is vital for the people of Northern Ireland that the politicians they elected make decisions on their behalf, so I am doing everything I can to ensure that those politicians are able to do what will be very difficult for all of them to find a compromise and an accommodation and go back into Stormont.
I congratulate my right hon. Friend on the measures she has taken thus far. There is clearly a need to compromise on all sides in order to bring the talks to fruition. What compromises is she prepared to make?
My role is to help the parties but, clearly, if they are able to reach an agreement, I am sure that they will want things from the UK Government, and I will consider those when we are at that stage. If my hon. Friend will forgive me, we are at a delicate stage in the negotiations and I would not want to compromise anybody’s position at this point.
One of the issues that has to be addressed in the talks is justice for victims. The Secretary of State will be aware that the late William Frazer, who was laid to rest this Monday, devoted his life to fighting for victims; I pay tribute to him and his work. Does the Secretary of State agree that one of the biggest issues must be addressing the definition of a victim, so that innocent victims are entitled to the pension they need?
The right hon. Gentleman refers to a number of issues, and he is right to do so. He refers to dealing with the legacy of the past. He will know that we have consulted on the institutions agreed at Stormont House and will publish a response to the consultation in due course. He also mentioned pensions for severely injured victims, which have been promised to them for far too long. I am determined to make progress on that matter.
Another issue that is causing real problems across the community in Northern Ireland, in the absence of devolved government, is the atrocious waiting lists in the health service, with cancer victims being made to wait a horrendously long time and targets being missed. Surely in the last days of the Prime Minister’s tenure, she will address that point and ensure that something is done to bring waiting lists under control. It is not good enough that the Government sit on their hands while this is happening.
I do not accept the right hon. Gentleman’s comment that the Government are sitting on their hands; the Government are absolutely determined to see these matters addressed and the best way to do that, as he knows, is through devolved government in Stormont. I pay tribute to him and his party for the willingness that has been shown and their determination to engage in the talks very constructively and to make progress. I very much welcome that, particularly from the leader of the Democratic Unionist party, Arlene Foster, whose attitude has been exemplary throughout.