Oral statement to Parliament

Statement on Northern Ireland political developments

Rt Hon Theresa Villiers provides oral statement to Parliament on political developments in Northern Ireland

HofC

With permission, I would like to make a statement about political developments in Northern Ireland.

Firstly, can I welcome back the HM for Gedling as Shadow Secretary of State. I hope we can continue the constructive working relationship we had when he last held the post.

With that in mind I’d say this. The new Labour leader and the Shadow Chancellor are on record many times expressing their support for a united Ireland.

That is an entirely legitimate view, as is the clearly held preference on these Conservative benches that our country stays together and Northern Ireland remains part of the United Kingdom.

But it would be helpful for the Shadow Secretary of State to confirm when he responds that under his party’s new leadership, the consent principle, at the heart of the Belfast Agreement, will remain paramount.

Mr Speaker

Last week we started a new round of cross party talks focused on two issues - the continued presence of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland and the pressing need to implement the Stormont House Agreement.

The talks began on Tuesday with a meeting with all participants at which everyone agreed that these two issues needed to be addressed as a matter of urgency. Though views differed on the sequence in which they should be considered.

On Wednesday morning, the Police Service of Northern Ireland arrested three well known members of the republican movement, including the Northern Chairman of Sinn Fein, in connection with their ongoing investigation into the murder of Kevin McGuigan.

It would not be appropriate to comment on a live police investigation. Though I should say that all three were subsequently released unconditionally.

These developments had dramatic political consequences.

On Thursday evening, Peter Robinson announced that DUP ministers, with the exception of Finance Minister, Arlene Foster, were resigning from the Northern Ireland Executive.

The First Minister has himself has stepped aside, with Mrs Foster taking over the functions of that office for a period of six weeks. That does not trigger an early Assembly election.

That would only happen if either the First or deputy First Minister resigned.

Nor does it mean suspension of the institutions and a return to direct rule.

This would require primary legislation at Westminster which is not something that the Government believes would be justified in current circumstances.

And it does not mean that the Assembly and the Executive cease to function.

But the situation is very grave.

A number of departments are left without ministerial leadership and relationships between the parties have almost completely broken down.

That leaves the devolved institutions looking increasingly dysfunctional.

I have been maintaining close contact with the five main Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government … and I’ve kept the Prime Minister constantly updated with developments.

Yesterday I held a series of bilateral and trilateral meetings at Stormont aimed at establishing a basis for further intensive talks.

I plan to hold further such discussions at Stormont tomorrow and in the days ahead.

The events I have outlined do not alter the fundamental issues that need to be resolved.

First, the brutal murders of Gerard Davison and Kevin McGuigan have brought into sharp focus the continuing problems around the existence of paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland and the involvement of some of their members in criminality and organised crime.

The Government is clear that paramilitary organisations have no place in a democratic society.

They were never justified in the past, they are not justified now, and we all need to work together to find a way to bring to an end this continuing blight on Northern Ireland society.

The Government is working with the parties on how to achieve that goal.

For example, serious consideration needs to be given to whether the time is right to re-establish a body along the lines of the Independent Monitoring Commission.

The remit the parties might wish to give to such a body is likely to be different from those addressed by the original IMC, reflecting changed circumstances.

But there might well be scope for such a body to play a part in providing greater community confidence and repairing working relationships within the Executive.

The Government will also actively consider whether there is more that we can do to support efforts to tackle organised crime and cross border crime in Northern Ireland.

In the days to come, we will continue to listen carefully to representations made to us on the best way to ensure all parties can engage in the process.

The second issue on the agenda is just as important as the first.

Resolving the differences which have been blocking the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement is crucial if the finances of the Executive are to be placed on a sustainable footing.

Without welfare reform and steps to tackle in-year budget pressures, there is a real danger that Executive departments could start running out of money, becoming steadily less able to pay their bills, with the serious negative impact that could have on front line public services.

And as we have seen in those parts of Europe where governments are unable to control their debts and live within their means, some of which are supported by the new leader of the Labour party, it is the vulnerable and most disadvantaged who suffer most in such situations.

So we have made clear that if these matters are not dealt with by the parties, then as a last resort the Government would have to legislate here at Westminster, a position on which I hope we would have we would have the support of the HM for Gedling.

Mr Speaker, as things stand, every day that passes is likely to see the devolved institutions become less and less able to function effectively.

We have limited time, so once again I urge all parties to engage intensively and with focus, determination, and goodwill in the talks which are underway.

We on these benches, and I hope across the whole house, continue to give our full support to the Belfast Agreement and the institutions it created.

There can be no doubt that power sharing, inclusive government comes with its frustrations and difficulties. Indeed, I hear about them every day.

But as my Rt Hon Friend the Prime Minister often reminds this House, the Northern Ireland political settlement was a huge achievement.

It has transformed life in Northern Ireland for the better and it is an awe inspiring example of what can be achieved with political leadership and vision.

On so many occasions in the past twenty years Northern Ireland’s politicians have come together to achieve the seemingly impossible.

It is time to do so again, so that we can continue on the road to a brighter, more secure future for Northern Ireland.

And I commend this statement to the House.

Published 15 September 2015