Extension of period for forming an Executive

Part of Northern Ireland (Executive Formation) Bill – in the House of Commons at 4:45 pm on 9th July 2019.

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Photo of Dominic Grieve Dominic Grieve Conservative, Beaconsfield 4:45 pm, 9th July 2019

Thank you, Dame Rosie; it is a pleasure to participate in this debate and to raise with the House, at this stage, potential amendments to the legislation that I think are capable of improving it for Northern Ireland, as well as for our country as a whole.

I was a little bit startled when I read a tweet by my hon. Friend Maria Caulfield in which she, first, described the amendments as “Shameful”, which is of course a matter of her opinion, and secondly, went on to say that I had no interest in Northern Ireland. All I can say is that, having been in the House for 22 years, I have acted as a spokesman on Northern Ireland matters when we were in opposition; I served for six years, I think, on the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body; I was chair of the Conservative Back-Bench committee on Northern Ireland in my early years in the House; I participate actively in the British-Irish Association annual conference; and I try to make myself as frequent a visitor to Northern Ireland as I can, sometimes to give talks and lectures, or, indeed, to visit people, and on a number of occasions I have been there on holiday. Whatever my views may be and however much my hon. Friend may think that they are erroneous, I can absolutely assure her that I have Northern Ireland at heart. I am a Unionist and it matters to me very much indeed.

The position on the amendments is fairly straightforward. There is provision in the Bill for a report to be made to the House on how progress is being made on setting up the Executive. I greatly welcome this measure. I apologise to my hon. Friend for the fact that I was not able to be present for the debate yesterday, but it was a debate on a principle that I entirely supported. However, the measure on the report does not go far enough. Quite apart from anything else, we are at the eleventh hour when it comes to the possibility of setting up an Executive, which I believe is massively desirable for the interests of the people of Northern Ireland. It therefore seems to me to be extremely desirable for Members to provide some further impetus and scrutiny for that process, which is why I chose in amendments 14, 15, 16 and 17, along with my right hon. and hon. Friends who support the amendments, to try to move and accelerate the process forward.

For example, amendment 14 would mean that, rather than the report coming back on 21 October, it would come back on 4 September. In addition, I chose to try to make provision for the close monitoring of the process thereafter by the House, by ensuring with amendment 15 that the Secretary of State would make

“a further report under subsection 1 on or before 9 October 2019”,

which is when we come back from the conference recess, and

“at least every fourteen calendar days thereafter until either an Executive is formed or until 18 December 2019, whichever is the sooner.”

Amendment 16 is consequential to that.

Amendment 17 would provide that, in addition to what I have outlined, and so that the House may have an opportunity to indicate how it feels the direction of travel should go and to encourage the Government in their endeavours, there are opportunities within

“two sitting days beginning with the day on which a report under this section is published” for

“a motion to the effect that the House of Commons has approved that report to be moved”.

There is a similar provision for the House of Lords, which their lordships will of course wish to consider in due course. I believe the amendments provide a sensible package that can help to facilitate the setting up of a Northern Ireland Executive, which I dearly want to see.

It has been raised with me, and I entirely accept, that Brexit also features in this matter, and so it should. Brexit threatens Northern Ireland more than almost any other part of the United Kingdom. It threatens it economically; it threatens it in terms of its security; and it threatens it in terms of its cohesion. For all those reasons, we should as a House—particularly, I might add, those of us who consider ourselves to be Unionists—be exceptionally troubled by the current direction of travel. In particular, I cannot escape the fact that I have listened with astonishment to a number of references from people who may be holding high office in the near future, one of whom appears to think that proroguing Parliament to achieve Brexit is an acceptable form of activity for the leader of the Executive, when in fact it is a constitutional enormity and a gross undermining of democracy.

I freely admit that one of the purposes of these amendments is to try to ensure that this extraordinary threat of really an unprecedented character made against this House that we should be prorogued can be banged on the head. Furthermore, the fact that we should be sitting in October to consider these grave matters in relation to Northern Ireland is, in my view, a good reason why these amendments should be supported. I am mindful of the fact that a further amendment, new clause 14, has, for perfectly understandable reasons, not been selected at this stage of the proceedings because of the nature of its scope. It would have effectively provided—I want to make this point very briefly—that Prorogation could not take place, because when these statements and motions should be made and passed, the House would have to be sitting. That is desirable, because as we approach the crisis that is impending on 31 October, if this House wishes to approve a no-deal Brexit, then so be it, but it should be here to do just that, and not pushed into the margins, as some have suggested in this entirely unconstitutional fashion.