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Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 8:54 pm on 8th January 2020.

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Photo of Simon Hoare Simon Hoare Conservative, North Dorset 8:54 pm, 8th January 2020

I congratulate Carla Lockhart on a fluid, cogent and passionate maiden speech. The attention that all quarters of the House gave to her remarks indicated the interest with which she was heard. She spoke with great passion about the issues on which she wishes to campaign in this place, with great warmth about her constituency and in tribute to her predecessor and my friend David Simpson, and with clarity and confidence about what motivates and drives her Unionism. On all those points she is to be congratulated, and I wish her much happiness in her years of service in this place.

A number of colleagues have referenced the deteriorating situation in the arenas of the public policy delivery of health, of welfare and of education and, as the hon. Lady referenced, the intolerably high level of suicides in Northern Ireland. I do not think anybody would suggest that the restitution of Stormont would solve all those problems at the stroke of a pen, but certainly I think all of us should be motivated in this place by the idea that local decisions taken by locally accountable politicians are in the best interests of those we serve, and therefore the imperative underlined by my hon. Friend the Minister, whom I must thank for updating the House, to reventilate on the crucial, pressing and urgent need to get Stormont back up and running is right. It is perhaps tempting fate to suggest that some of the rumours coming from the discussions in which my right hon Friend the Secretary of State is taking part indicate some cause for hope, but let us in our night prayers this evening pray that we do see some success and the restitution of Stormont.

I want to turn, albeit very briefly, to the argument, or conundrum, deployed by my right hon. Friend Mr Harper. I understand entirely that if the talks fail the default position will be a tendency to say, “Enough with deadlines; we can’t have any more deadlines, we now have to cut to the chase.” The easiest chase to cut to is of course direct rule, either officially or unofficially, to try to address the pressing issues.

While I understand the ease, and for some indeed the desirability, of that, it would in my judgment be a retrograde step. The devolution genie in this kingdom is very firmly out of the bottle and it would be both undesirable and possibly impossible to put that genie back.

I also think it would be the easiest thing to do for the politicians of Northern Ireland, where in essence it would effectively put the imperative to try to find some workable solutions and accommodations to overcome the historical tensions on the back burner—there would be no need for that because decisions would be taken in this place. That would not, in my assessment, just lead to a maintenance of the status quo; it would actually be a very significant step backwards to decades and years of acrimony, bitterness and the blame game.

I therefore suggest that if the talks ultimately fail—let us all repeat that we pray they will not—the default position will have to be fresh elections. They may very well throw up broadly similar results to previous elections, but we are in incredibly interesting times electorally, as last month’s general election illustrated. The stark and indeed startling fact that for the first time in its history Northern Ireland elected, albeit by a slim margin, a majority of non-Unionist representatives to this place shows that things can change, and change very rapidly.

The hon. Member for Upper Bann spoke about her determination to serve her community. I know that that determination will be shared by all her colleagues from Northern Ireland, whether they are from the Alliance party, the Social Democratic and Labour party, the Democratic Unionist party and, while they do not take their seats, Sinn Féin. I think the challenge from the electorate to all the political parties who hold true in their repetition of that motivation will effectively be, “Put your money where your mouth is. If that is what motivates you in public service, you will have to find a way to resolve whatever the outstanding hurdle is without defaulting to the easy get-out-of-jail-free option of direct rule.”

New elections may very well produce a continuance of the stalemate, but they could also act as the engine to break the logjam. While wishing the talks success, I urge my hon. Friend the Minister to resolve not to do the easy thing in those circumstances and to trigger fresh elections and say to the electorate, “You are concerned about deteriorating standards in education, health and welfare, high levels of suicide, and other areas of public life. This is now your opportunity to force your politicians to find a way of dealing with them through restoring Stormont. If they can’t, you may very well start to choose new politicians.”