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Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:31 pm on 8th January 2020.

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Photo of Kirsten Oswald Kirsten Oswald Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Northern Ireland), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Wales), Shadow SNP Spokesperson (Work, Pensions and Inclusion) 8:31 pm, 8th January 2020

People in Northern Ireland and further afield will be watching this closely with great hopes for progress. It seems that there is the potential for progress, but time is running very short. There is no doubt that people in Northern Ireland, as we have heard, have paid the price of an absence of devolved government. This is now the best and perhaps the final opportunity to restore these institutions, so it is critical that every effort is made to secure a deal.

That deal will not come without significant effort and without compromise from all of those involved. There is an indication that a joint paper will be published by the two Governments later in the week. The movements of the Secretary of State are welcome, because we need to be clear that the consequences of not securing a deal before 13 January could be much more profound than simply another Stormont election. We know that the Secretary of State previously suggested 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. We have heard from the Opposition spokesperson who has expressed similar thoughts. Any return of direct rule would undermine previous political and peace agreements, and that would be most regrettable.

The Scottish Government are absolutely committed to all the institutions of the Good Friday agreement and to making sure that their stability and the stability of the peace process is not undermined amidst the Brexit chaos. I am sure that the Minister knows that both the EU and the US Congress have said that there will not be a free trade agreement with the UK if Brexit in any way undermines the integrity of the peace process.

Just like in Scotland, the recent general election has again reinforced the Northern Ireland electorate’s choice to back parties that wish to retain EU membership. It is wrong and undemocratic that Brexit is being imposed on Scotland and Northern Ireland. It is absolutely crucial that the UK Government respect the wishes of the people in Northern Ireland and the pillars of the peace process. They must find ways to avoid interfering with the delicate balance of these relationships, which have been so hard won.

As part of a deal to restore Stormont, it has been widely speculated that Northern Ireland businesses would receive Brexit mitigation and, indeed, Northern Ireland business organisations have said that they will seek more than £100 million to mitigate the effects on the economy. We do not begrudge that financial help, but if there is to be a Brexit mitigation package for Northern Ireland, that is an admission of the costs to business and communities, so such a fund must also be replicated in Scotland.

Indeed, as part of the Prime Minister’s deal, Northern Ireland firms will already have access to the European single market, which is denied to Scottish businesses, and that risks placing them at a major competitive disadvantage. If we reflect briefly on the last Parliament, the UK Government failed to ensure that the funds handed to the DUP were subject to the Barnett formula, which again meant that Scotland’s budget was denied more than £3 billion.

This debate will be of interest to viewers in Northern Ireland in particular. As has been discussed, some of those viewers may well be nurses, who perhaps would usually be on shift, but today are on strike. That strike of nurses in Northern Ireland today is absolutely testament to the need for decisions to be made locally. People in other places might be unaware of the strike, or they might be unaware of the unprecedented nature of the strike, which is in protest against pay and staffing levels that the nurses say are unsafe. There is no doubt at all that the lack of government and political direction is deepening the crisis in Northern Ireland’s public services and their capacity to deliver for people. For example, the latest hospital waiting time figures show that nearly 300,000 people in Northern Ireland are waiting for a first appointment with a consultant; that represents a sixth of the whole population. On average, there is a four-year wait for knee and hip operations.

These issues are incredibly serious, and only a functioning and devolved Government are capable of tackling them. It cannot be left to a dysfunctional and disinterested UK Government to do so. That prospect in itself must give renewed impetus to all the parties involved in the talks to do everything they can to ensure that they come to a compromise, so that everyone in Northern Ireland can be rewarded through the return of their own Government. Previous talks have overcome divisions much more significant than the issues currently blocking progress, so we know that this can be done, and it really must.