I am sorry, but I will not give way, because Mr Deputy Speaker has already made it clear that a number of speakers are waiting to speak—we have not heard from the Democratic Unionist party yet—and we have only about half an hour left for the debate. So, apologies, but I will not be taking interventions.
It was revealed last week that the Prime Minister did not even consult the new Secretary of State before his decision to prorogue Parliament. That decision will have significant consequences for implementing the Northern Ireland budget, which is key to delivering essential public services. The new Secretary of State has also strongly indicated that, in the continued absence of a Government at Stormont and with Brexit requiring significant Executive direction, a return to some form of direct rule will be required. This expectation was confirmed by Mr Lidington, who has advocated the return of some form of direct rule in the context of a no-deal Brexit.
This year marks 50 years since the beginning of the troubles, and it would be reckless beyond belief to undermine that progress with a return of direct control and decisions on Northern Ireland being taken in Westminster. This is particularly true given the current absence of any Irish nationalist voice in this Chamber. A return to direct rule would also undermine previous political and peace agreements made between the two Governments and the political parties. As part of the St Andrews agreement, which paved the way to restoring devolved government in 2007, it was agreed that the Northern Ireland Act 2000, which returned direct rule, would be repealed. Therefore, to suspend devolution and impose direct rule again will require new primary legislation. It is clear that, to protect the delicate balance of relationships that exists in Northern Ireland, the UK Government must fully consult and agree a joint strategy with the Irish Government before taking any steps that would further undermine stability. As joint guarantors of the peace agreements since the Good Friday agreement in 1998, this is their joint responsibility, and unilateral approaches must not be initiated.
On Brexit, the progress report fails even to mention the impact that Brexit has had on efforts to restore Stormont, yet it is blindingly obvious that the threat of Brexit and the disruption it has caused and will cause to the carefully crafted equilibrium in Northern Ireland is undermining efforts to restore a Government. That has been exacerbated by this Government’s pursuit of a devastating no-deal Brexit, as was confirmed only yesterday by the former Work and Pensions Secretary. Already, we are seeing that impact. The Northern Ireland economy
“has entered or is entering recession”,
according to a survey by Ulster Bank. It suggests that Brexit-related uncertainty underpinned the fall in private sector output in August and that this is just a taste of things to come.
A leaked document from the Department of Health has outlined the potentially devastating consequences of a no-deal Brexit on the NHS in Northern Ireland. Among the issues included in the list of “reasonable worst case” scenarios are shortages of vaccines and medication, including some cancer therapies; difficulties running the children’s heart surgery service; and more than 1,000 NHS employees being unable to get to work or quitting their jobs.
The Taoiseach revealed last week that checks would be required close to the border if a no-deal Brexit were to happen. Both the European Union and the American Congress have indicated that such a development would undermine the peace process, which they were major players in bringing about and supporting since the early ’90s. A leaked analysis and summary produced by the alternative arrangements groups established to figure out a replacement for the backstop protocol confirmed that at present there is no deliverable alternative available. Furthermore, the Taoiseach discussed the issue of a Northern Ireland-only backstop with the Prime Minister at their meeting this morning. If a differentiated deal can be reached that enables Northern Ireland in effect to remain in the single market and customs union, the same deal must be available for Scotland.
The Taoiseach did not miss and hit the wall in his exchange with the Prime Minister today. Most cutting was his promise to be the UK’s friend—its Athena—as it faced the Herculean challenge ahead. It is unclear whether the Prime Minister actually understood the reference that the Taoiseach was making, but it is clear that the lack of government and political direction is inevitably deepening the crisis in Northern Ireland’s public service budgets and their capacity to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. New Institute for Fiscal Studies analysis shows that, amid a worsening crisis in education, Northern Ireland has seen an 11% real-terms cut per pupil in school spending since 2009, and the latest hospital waiting times reveal that 300,000 people in Northern Ireland are waiting for a first appointment with a consultant.
Only a functioning devolved Government are capable of tackling such crises. They cannot be left to a dysfunctional and uninterested UK Government. That prospect should and must give a renewed impetus to the parties involved in the talks to come to a compromise that rewards all the communities in Northern Ireland through the return of a local Government. Previous talks have overcome divisions much greater than the issues currently blocking progress, so coming to a quick and sustainable agreement in the time ahead must not be viewed as impossible.