St Patrick’s Day

Part of the debate – in the House of Commons at 9:37 pm on 17th March 2020.

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Photo of Robin Walker Robin Walker The Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Scotland, The Minister of State, Northern Ireland Office 9:37 pm, 17th March 2020

I thank and warmly congratulate Jim Shannon—who, let us face it, is no stranger to either Adjournment debates or interventions—on his excellent speech on the importance of St Patrick’s day and its support across communities, both within Northern Ireland and across the world. I am grateful for his giving me this opportunity to shine a light on Northern Ireland as a uniquely placed region in the United Kingdom.

The hon. Gentleman was absolutely right to point out the splendid depiction of St Patrick in the Lobby just a few metres from where we stand, with his peers from England, Scotland and Wales. As he said, St Patrick became the patron saint of Ireland but was born and raised in Britain—he was probably a Welshman. He is a strong reflection of the links between our islands, going back centuries.

I am pleased that the hon. Gentleman has brought this debate to the House and I thank Mr Speaker for allowing it on St Patrick’s day. People across the world take part in St Patrick’s day celebrations, although they are muted this year due to the coronavirus outbreak. I am struck by the efforts across the UK and in all the devolved Administrations to tackle the virus in the most efficient way possible, and I want to touch on that in a little more detail as well as on its subsequent impact on national and local economies.

I understand that the Economy Minister Diane Dodds has been in close contact with local industry leaders and that the Executive are working on a stimulus package tailored to Northern Ireland’s unique needs and pressures. Despite those concerted efforts, it is a shame that the annual Belfast St Patrick’s day parade has had to be cancelled; the hon. Gentleman has previously set out its benefits to the local economy.

St Patrick’s day is hugely important for people throughout Northern Ireland as they celebrate the man historically associated with bringing Christianity to the island of Ireland and transcending traditional divides. St Patrick and the arrival of Christianity in Ireland were historically responsible for influencing so much of the learning, writing and arts for which Ireland and Northern Ireland have become so famous. As the hon. Gentleman pointed out, this legendary saint is a significant tourism draw to Northern Ireland.

The hon. Gentleman spoke about the St Patrick’s trail driving route and mentioned the St Patrick centre—a modern complex in Downpatrick Country Down, with an exhibition dedicated to telling St Patrick’s story. In the townland of Saul, a replica of an early church and round tower stand on the spot of his first reputed sermon. When he visited Armagh, St Patrick called it his “sweet hill”, founding his first large stone church in 445 AD. Believed to have died on 17 March in the 5th century, his influence and impact continue to resonate to this day, never more so than with Armagh’s two cathedrals that bear his name: St Patrick’s Church of Ireland cathedral on Sally Hill and the twin-spired Catholic St Patrick’s cathedral on the opposite hill. Both are illuminated in preparation for the feast of St Patrick. Those cathedrals are an embodiment of the rich cultural experience and one of the highlights of the heartland of St Patrick.

While the story of St Patrick is well known and celebrated across the world and is a crucial element of the tourism industry of Northern Ireland, that tourism industry is much more multifaceted and has so much to offer. Northern Ireland’s local tourism sector has been going from strength to strength over recent years, with an increasing number of visitors who stay longer and spend more than ever before, but the hon. Gentleman is right to point out the need to drive forward that dynamic.

We now find ourselves in a dynamic and concerning situation with regard to covid-19. Notwithstanding the great tourism assets and warm hospitality of Northern Ireland, the need for increased social distancing and reduced international travel will make this a difficult time for the tourism and hospitality industries. The Government will continue to do whatever we can, and the Chancellor announced in the Budget last week £30 billion of fiscal stimulus to support the economy in response to the covid-19 outbreak. Northern Ireland will benefit from that package, resulting in a further £260 million for the Northern Ireland Executive on top of the more than £210 million of Barnett consequentials announced on Budget day. Today the Chancellor made a further significant announcement of additional measures to mitigate the impact of covid-19, which will result in further funding for the Executive. Taken together, the Executive will be receiving £900 million of Barnett funding from the Chancellor’s announcements on covid-19.

Northern Ireland will also benefit from the UK-wide measures in the Budget, including new funding for investment and the increased national insurance threshold. I know that the Executive will now be taking steps to build on that additional financial support to do what it can to address the specific needs of the Northern Ireland economy.

The hon. Gentleman mentioned his own connections and conversations with groups celebrating St Patrick’s day in the United States, and I have to say that he taught me something that I did not know before, which is that Elvis was an Ulsterman.