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Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:22 pm on 8th January 2020.

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Photo of Mark Harper Mark Harper Conservative, Forest of Dean 8:22 pm, 8th January 2020

I agree with the hon. Gentleman. As I said, I have looked at the balance of opinion on the political parties and it seems to me that although the exact number of seats they have would differ, the broad order of ranking would not change. It also seems to me that there is a danger that an election would cause people to dig in further on the contentious issues—on which I shall not elaborate—that are preventing the coming together of the political parties to form an Executive and get the Assembly up and running. People would be less capable of the necessary compromises because parties would have staked out positions in an election campaign.

To the Minister and my valued colleagues from Northern Ireland, all I can say is that we are approaching a decision point at which, if the parties in Northern Ireland are unable to re-establish an Executive and an Assembly, I fear that the Government, at least in the short term, are going to have to come to the House with a proposition on the necessity of some level of direct rule by Westminster Ministers. I completely agree that that is not the right long-term solution for Northern Ireland but, for the reasons I have set out—even if for no reason other than the performance of the health service, which is close to falling over—we cannot in good conscience allow that situation to continue. The shadow Secretary of State set out some other relevant issues.

My second and final point is to ask the Minister whether he is able to furnish the House with any further details about progress on the legacy prosecution issues. I noticed in the report that, during the general election campaign, officials were continuing to work through options. I recognise from what he said earlier that what he can say is probably limited because obviously we would want to make progress only with the agreement of a re-established Executive and Assembly. Therefore, I accept that he will not be able to set out any details, but I was hoping that he could at least set out the progress that had been made in exploring the options. I would also like some hint of a timetable so that, if we were able to establish devolved Government again, we could learn how quickly the Government could make progress on bringing forward a scheme to resolve those legacy issues around prosecutions. Clearly, for those individuals who are directly affected—whether in live cases or in their worry about the future—some understanding of how quickly those issues can be brought to a conclusion would be welcomed.

Those are the two issues that I wanted to bring in front of the Minister and the House. I also wanted to set them out in front of colleagues from Northern Ireland, because we are approaching a very grave point where I fear that we may have to take decisions with some very significant consequences for the future.