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I thank the Minister for his statement and for the report that has been laid before Parliament under the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019. It gives us another welcome opportunity to interrogate the Minister and the Government on the progress in the negotiations towards establishing a new Northern Ireland Executive. Let me say that I understand absolutely why the Secretary of State is not in his place just now, but, given the monumental significance of the next few days for Northern Ireland, it would surely be helpful for him to bring a further statement to this House in the very near future and to answer further questions.
We are clearly not significantly further forward towards restoration, as we would have liked in the time since the September report was laid before this House. However, we note that it is the view of the Secretary of State, and that of the Tanaiste, that there remains an opportunity over the next few weeks for the parties to reach an accommodation. We are, of course, in complete agreement when the report states that
“a restored Executive Assembly and North South Ministerial Council remain the best way forward for Northern Ireland.”
We have just passed, as we have heard, a landmark 1,000 days from the collapse of the previous Executive, so it is little wonder that there is huge frustration at the absence of an Executive, given the huge number of pressing policy issues—several of which were alluded to by the shadow Minister, Tony Lloyd—that cannot be properly addressed in the absence of a functioning devolved Government. We are talking about issues such as the schools funding crisis that the Northern Ireland Committee recently reported on; the lengthening waiting times and growing frustrations in the NHS; and the workforce issues, including the threat of recession, reported on by the Northern Ireland chamber of commerce just earlier today. In short, it is the bread and butter of normal government that the people of Northern Ireland want to see the politicians able to get on with. Restoring the Executive does not fix all these issues, but it is the only way to start addressing them sustainably.
Looming over all this is Brexit—a process that, on the one hand, complicates the process of negotiations, but that, on the other hand, makes it utterly essential that those negotiations are successful so that devolved government is restored. We are within touching distance of going through the entire article 50 process without a functioning Executive and Assembly to represent all of Northern Ireland, and what a monumental constitutional failure it would be if that were to happen.
In conclusion, I think that I am saying nothing controversial when I say that previous processes and talks have managed to overcome hurdles that are significant—perhaps way more significant—than those that are currently blocking progress today. I simply encourage all parties to ask of themselves whether the negotiating positions that they are holding on to are capable of just a little further compromise—compromise that could finally see the massive problems being caused by the vacuum at the heart of Northern Ireland politics finally being addressed and tackled.
The Secretary of State must continue to work closely with the Tanaiste, the Irish Government and all parties to resolve outstanding issues. For the sake of all the people of Northern Ireland, I wish all involved in the forthcoming talks success in the days ahead, because it is long overdue.