Mr Chairman, it’s a great pleasure to serve under your chairmanship and to move the motion before the Grand Committee.
I am delighted that the Committee is meeting in this historic Senate Chamber in Parliament Buildings.
The Grand Committee is an important forum for MPs from across the House to discuss Northern Ireland affairs and specific reference is made to its scrutiny role in the Belfast Agreement. It serves as a reminder that while many matters are now rightly devolved to the Assembly, Parliament continues to take very seriously its responsibilities for Northern Ireland.
One of the criticisms levelled at successive governments during the years of the old Stormont Parliament was that they turned their backs on Northern Ireland. That is not a precedent that should ever be followed and the meeting of the Grand Committee here today (9 September) provides an opportunity to reaffirm the importance the House of Commons places on Northern Ireland matters.
The motion before the Committee deals with peace and progress in Northern Ireland and the next steps in building a prosperous and united community. It is right that we reflect on the progress that’s been made under successive governments since the early 1990s.
As a result of the political settlement, Northern Ireland has levels of peace and stability not seen here for nearly half a century. For the overwhelming majority of people, life has changed for the better. The ending of the main paramilitary campaigns mean that we no longer live in the daily shadow of terrorism and the large scale security apparatus that was necessary to counter it.
The Assembly itself is now approaching in the middle of its second term since devolution was restored in 2007, something that hasn’t happened with devolved institutions since the 1960s. Decisions over all the key public services are now taken by locally elected and accountable politicians rather than direct rule ministers. And for most people in Northern Ireland the debate has now moved on, away from how we deliver devolution to how devolution itself delivers on the issues that really matter to them.
For our part, the government remains firmly committed to supporting the political settlement and the institutions that have been established under it. And we’re determined to work with the Northern Ireland Executive in order to build on the foundations provided by relative peace and stability, to achieve a more prosperous and united community.
In doing this we need to make substantial progress in two key areas - the economy and creating a more cohesive, shared society - and I shall take each of these in turn.
The government inherited the worst deficit in the United Kingdom’s peacetime history and the largest of any country in the G20. There was no alternative to the course the government set out in 2010 and as a result of the difficult decisions we have taken, the economy is now beginning to mend. The deficit is now down by a third. The UK economy is growing. And we have more people in work than ever before.
Here in Northern Ireland there are at last some tentative signs that the economy is recovering. Unemployment is falling and is now back below the UK average. Across a number of sectors, business activity has returned to growth for the first time since 2007. And house prices are up, with an increase in property sales of 10% over the year.
But I’m the first to acknowledge that there’s a long way to go.Times are still very tough for many families. That’s why the government has delivered a £700 tax cut for over 615,000 people in Northern Ireland, taken 30,000 of the lowest paid out of tax altogether and halved the income tax bills of those on the minimum wage
It’s why we’re determined to create the conditions that will enable businesses to grow, by:
- cutting corporation tax to 20p by the end of this Parliament
- taking £2,000 off the employer national insurance bill of every company and charity in the country
- tackling the deficit to keep interest rates at record lows.
At the same time we recognise Northern Ireland’s particular circumstances and are continuing to provide high levels of financial support to the Executive by:
- delivering an additional £900 million since the 2010 spending review
- keeping on track with the commitment to deliver £18billion for capital investment in the period up to 2017
- maintaining public spending in Northern Ireland at 20 per cent per head higher than the UK average.
Northern Ireland has some truly world class businesses. It’s a great place to do business. And the Executive does excellent work to encourage inward investment. Yet the fact remains that the recovery is still slower in Northern Ireland than in any other part of the UK. The property crash has left businesses with a heavy burden of debt. And the economy remains far too dependent on public spending.
So the government has been working with the Executive to look at additional ways to boost the private sector and rebalance the economy. And in June the Prime Minister and I, along with the First and deputy First Ministers, launched our economic package.
We don’t have as many resources at our disposal as might have been available in the past, so we’ve had to look at more imaginative ways of helping other than just spending ever more public money. But despite the budgetary constraints we are under, we’ve managed to secure an additional £42 million in UK funding for PEACE IV and a £154 million top-up for EU structural funds. We’ve also managed to retain Northern Ireland’s assisted area status, which is such an important weapon in the Executive’s armoury for attracting jobs.
There’s £100 million in additional borrowing powers for the Executive, and measures to boost lending to business.
There’s new work on enterprise zones and as well as a joint £20 million investment plan for R&D projects, with a particular focus on aerospace.
Our highly successful start-up loans scheme is now open for business in Northern Ireland - one of the first elements of the package to be up and running.
We are working on a visa waiver pilot to encourage visitors to the Republic of Ireland to extend their holidays and come north of the border.
And we have an agreement on a mechanism to take forward the devolution of corporation tax before the next election, if the government decides to devolve these powers.
As acknowledged in the Assembly, this represents a substantial package and it has been widely welcomed across the political spectrum and by the main business organisations. It will see the government and the Executive working more closely than ever before on our shared goal of equipping Northern Ireland to compete in the global race for investment and jobs.
And we hope to be in a position to make further announcements shortly on the G8 themed investment conference in October, which the Prime Minister is attending.
The other area where we need to make substantial progress is in building a more united community. Regrettably, this year we have seen clear evidence of the deep divisions that remain in some parts of society.
Let me be clear, there can be no justification for the violence we saw during the flag protests and on the streets of Belfast in July. Rioting and attacking the police is serious criminal behaviour. So we give our full support to the PSNI in their efforts to bring the perpetrators before the courts. And where people are convicted they can expect to serve time behind bars.
We also deplore attempts to commemorate and legitimise acts of terrorism. Everyone in Northern Ireland has a clear responsibility to examine the impact their actions could have on all parts of the community. At the same time it is right that the government and the Executive seek to address the issues that help to feed and sustain divisions in society.
While most of the relevant policy responsibilities fall to the Executive, the need to make progress has been a consistent theme of the Prime Minister, my predecessor and me since this government took office.
Put simply, unless these divisions are addressed, Northern Ireland is never going to reach its full economic potential. So in May, the Executive published its strategy, ‘Together: Building a United Community’. It contains some ambitious goals and the real test will come with efforts to see its proposals actually delivered.
But publication in itself represents progress and I welcome the efforts of the First and deputy First Minister to bring it about. The government will continue to support them in taking the difficult decisions which may be needed to move things forward.
We very much welcome the establishment of the All-Party Working Group under the chairmanship of Richard Haass to look at flags, emblems, parading and elements of the past. The government isn’t formally part of the Haass process but we are fully engaged with it and support its important work. And we do have a clear and direct interest in the outcome.
The most obvious reason for our close interest in the outcome of the Haass work is because a successful resolution of these contentious matters would improve life for people across Northern Ireland, assist our efforts to strengthen the economy and reduce the tensions that can help feed support for terrorism.
But it’s also the case that parading and elements of the rules on flags are currently matters for which Westminster has responsibility. So any changes proposed by the Haass group would need the support of Parliament if they are to be implemented. Nobody should underestimate how difficult the task is that Dr Haass and the All-Party Group have ahead of them.
The ability of the Northern Ireland’s political leaders to work together across political boundaries will be crucial here, as it has been in delivering the major break-throughs in the past. I very much hope we’ll see the same determination and willingness to compromise that delivered the series of historic agreements that have done so much to change life in Northern Ireland for the better over the past two decades.
But important as the Haass process undoubtedly is there is a range of other important work that needs to be done to ensure Northern Ireland continues to make progress. This must not be put on hold awaiting the outcome of the Haass Group’s deliberations. In particular, there should be no let up on delivering the proposals in the economic package and shared future programme published by the First and deputy First Minister.
Before concluding I would like to say a few words about security. As we all know, despite the very great progress that’s been made in Northern Ireland there remains a small number of people who still seek to pursue their ambitions by violence.
So far this year there have been 12 national security attacks by so-called dissident republicans and the overall threat level remains Severe. These terrorist groups continue to carry out attack planning and targeting and they have lethal intent. Many of devices they deploy are relatively crude and simplistic but even a simple pipe bomb can have horrific and fatal consequences. I also condemn the shocking threats to catholic primary schools in north Belfast.
Once again I pay the highest tribute to the men and women of the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the Security Service who do so much to protect the whole community from these terrorists.
And I would also like to put on record my sincere thanks to An Garda Síochána for the vital role that they play in combating the dissidents. Relations between the British and Irish Governments have probably never been better. The same can be said of the relationship between the PSNI, the Garda and the Department of Justice.
Cross border police co-operation has undoubtedly saved lives. In recognition of the severity of the continuing threat from terrorism in Northern Ireland, the June spending round confirmed £31 million of funding to help tackle the ongoing terrorist threat. This money is in addition to the PSNI’s core funding provided by the Executive.
It extends the £200 million of support that we provided in 2011.
We will consider carefully the assessment recently carried out by the PSNI on resilience and I am happy to cooperate with the Department of Justice, the Department of Finance and Personnel and the Policing Board on how we respond to the issues raised.
Mr Chairman, this debate takes place against the backdrop of some difficult weeks, when Northern Ireland was back in the headlines for the wrong reasons. Yet this year has also seen an outstandingly successful G8 Summit in Co Fermanagh, something that would have been unthinkable only a few years ago.
The World Police and Fire Games enabled competitors and spectators from all over the world to enjoy Northern Ireland’s legendary hospitality. And we’ve seen some dazzling events in Derry-Londonderry as the first ever UK City of Culture. All of these have shown the best of Northern Ireland.
Great progress has been made, yet we acknowledge that there is still much to do if we are to build on the peace and stability and achieve a more prosperous and united community. That is why the Government has rolled up its sleeves to to get on with the job and I commend the motion to the Committee.