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Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:17 pm on 8th January 2020.

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Photo of Stephen Farry Stephen Farry Alliance, North Down 9:17 pm, 8th January 2020

I will try to be brief, given the pressures of time. Let me first refer to the main focus of the debate, Executive formation and, hopefully, the successful return of devolution, and say that I hope that this is the last time we shall have a debate on the Executive formation Act. There is only one way forward for the governing of Northern Ireland—through sharing. That reflects the complex nature of our society, and the need to ensure that all traditions and identities are represented in our governance. While I would not go as far as my colleague Colum Eastwood, who talked of joint rule, any notion of direct rule or direct responsibility from London must take on board some form of Irish dimension, and it is difficult to get that balance right. If the Irish dimension is too strong it will annoy Unionists, and if it is too weak it will annoy nationalists. That is why the careful balance in the Good Friday agreement is so important.

I do not want to see elections in Northern Ireland. We must ensure that devolution is restored as quickly as possible. However, in the event that we do not see talks resolved and a proper outcome, we cannot simply carry on with what we have been doing for the past three years. That is not tenable. Something has to give in the system.

Finally, let me say something about the two social issues that have been raised. While the Northern Ireland parties have presented a united front today in relation to some aspects of Brexit, I fear that it will break down at this point. I want to put on record that while my party has a conscience position on the issue of abortion, like most parties in the House, I personally was content that the House legislated on abortion reform last July. As a then Member of the Northern Ireland Assembly, I was not all offended, because we had not sat for the best part of three years, and even before that, efforts at reform had stalled. Biology does not change when we cross the Irish sea. Women are women, and basic reproductive rights must be recognised as fundamental issues of human rights.

It is also important to bear in mind the rulings of both the UK Supreme Court and the High Court in Belfast. The position has been established, and the guidelines can now be put through either in a restored Northern Ireland Assembly or here in the Houses of Parliament. That is the choice, but reform must take place, and I believe that a majority in Northern Ireland support it.

That is also the case with regard to equal marriage—same-sex marriage—and I think that the model in the rest of the UK is readily transferable to Northern Ireland, with only a few minor tweaks here and there. No one is arguing that the Churches should not be given some sort of opt-out in terms of respect for their doctrines. The issues is how far that should go. We need to be mindful of people’s rights as human beings in employment and other aspects, and not go down a much more extreme form of constraint with this important set of reforms. It is important that we take them over the line in a restored Assembly. If we do not, this House of Parliament should do what is important to recognise people’s rights in Northern Ireland, but fundamentally, we must get the Assembly restored over the coming days.