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Northern Ireland

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:18 pm on 7th October 2019.

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Photo of Jeffrey M. Donaldson Jeffrey M. Donaldson DUP Chief Whip, Shadow DUP Spokesperson (Business in the House of Commons) 8:18 pm, 7th October 2019

I thank the Minister for his opening remarks. We welcome this statutory instrument, but not the basis on which it has had to be brought forward. Like the Government, we want to see our devolved institutions restored in Northern Ireland—and restored immediately. That is important for us because, as we know, a date is looming on the horizon—21 October—whereby certain laws will be enacted flowing from the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019, which was approved by Parliament. Those measures will fundamentally change the law in Northern Ireland on abortion and marriage in a way that lacks public scrutiny, that has not allowed for consultation with the people of Northern Ireland, and that crucially, has not allowed the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland to have their say on what kind of law we need in both those very important areas.

This is a real challenge. On our part, we want to be clear to the Government—and I want the Minister, if he will, to pass a message to the Secretary of State—that we believe that the Secretary of State should convene a meeting of the Assembly before 21 October, invite the political parties from Northern Ireland to come and nominate their Ministers to form an Executive, and allow the proper functioning of devolved Government once again in Northern Ireland. On our part, we in the Democratic Unionist party will respond positively to such an invitation. We will be at the Assembly. We will appoint Ministers to an Executive and get on with the job that the people of Northern Ireland elected us to do: to govern and deal with legislation that is relevant to Northern Ireland.

As important as this measure is this evening, I say to the Government that it can only be of a temporary nature. It is not a substitute for local Ministers in Northern Ireland taking decisions and making appointments, and crucially, for the Northern Ireland Assembly, as the legislature in these matters, to be attending to the business of making law in Northern Ireland that is relevant to Northern Ireland’s specific needs. That is the whole purpose of devolution.

We want to see a devolved Government restored before 21 October so that, through the Assembly, we can deal with legislation relating to the sensitive matters of abortion and marriage, rather than having a situation prevail whereby we have a vacuum in which the law on abortion is decriminalised, we have no statutory basis for abortion in Northern Ireland beyond that of legislation going back to the 1940s, and we have a regime that would allow for abortion for any reason up to 28 weeks. I do not believe that that would be acceptable in any part of the United Kingdom. We believe, therefore, that the Northern Ireland Assembly should be restored to examine this issue and same-sex marriage. We should have a debate among the elected representatives of the people of Northern Ireland about what is relevant and appropriate for Northern Ireland, having regard to what the people of Northern Ireland want. We want to see that happen. While this statutory instrument is a necessary step by the Government to fulfil certain responsibilities that currently cannot be fulfilled by the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, it is no substitute for devolution.

I want to make a final point: if we cannot get the Assembly restored and if we get a deal on Brexit, as I hope we will, and the United Kingdom leaves the European Union, a multitude of decisions will need to be taken as a consequence, not least in Northern Ireland. In those circumstances and in the absence of a devolved Government, I say to the Government that they need to start planning for the reintroduction of direct rule for a period of time until we get those decisions made. We cannot continue with the current vacuum whereby some decisions are taken and others are not. That will not wash when it comes to the crucial ministerial decisions that flow from Brexit, from the United Kingdom leaving the European Union, and that are particularly relevant to the needs of Northern Ireland. If the other political parties—in particular, Sinn Féin—are not prepared to take responsibility, form a Government and take these decisions, it will fall to this Parliament and the Government at Westminster to start taking more of them. That will be essential. It will not be optional, and when Brexit happens, we—this Parliament—will have to take on that responsibility if the political parties in Northern Ireland are not prepared to.

I say to Sinn Féin, who say that they will not accept direct rule, that they have an opportunity. The Secretary of State should take the opportunity, convene the Assembly, call the parties and see who is prepared to form a Government. If Sinn Féin does not want direct rule, there is one step it must and can take, and that is to join with the other parties in forming an Executive. Then we can deal with the issues and outstanding matters that need to be addressed in Northern Ireland. Whatever they may be, let’s deal with them. The people of Northern Ireland want a Government, and sooner they get it the better.