Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Bill

Published date : 29 November, 2022
As I said in response to the Secretary of State’s statement on 9 November, my party has made clear its view that the best place for Members of the Legislative Assembly to be, and where we believe that the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland would expect them to be, is at work in Stormont holding a functioning Executive to account as they get on with overseeing the delivery of vital public services. As I also said, and still firmly believe, although it certainly does not serve the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland for an Executive not to be in place, it would also not serve their interests to hold another election at this point that would further embed already entrenched positions. We therefore welcome the Bill as a means of postponing an election that nobody wants and that would serve no purpose, and as a means of allowing the essential functions of Government to proceed in the interim, pending, we hope, the formation of an Executive.

Northern Ireland has, of course, been in the unfortunate position of both its Governments being paralysed by inaction in the last few months, albeit for different reasons. We hope that the Bill will allow for some long-overdue negotiations to take place about amending the terms on which the UK Government chose to leave the EU. We are all clear about why we are here, and that sits at the back of it, because that is what led the DUP to refuse to form an Administration based on the Northern Ireland protocol, which it considers to represent the undermining of Northern Ireland’s place in the Union.

We are clear, as other hon. Members have been in previous debates on the subject, that the protocol was not anybody’s favoured option. It was certainly not the Scottish National party’s preferred way; we saw considerable advantages in remaining aligned with the single market and the customs union, which would have meant that these problems simply did not arise. The protocol was, however, an unloved solution to protect the people of Northern Ireland from the consequences of the form of Brexit that was chosen by the UK Government in line with their negotiating objectives at the time.

Things froze at that point, but I was pleased to note at the British-Irish Association conference in Oxford that some fruitful discussions appeared to happen behind the scenes that started to melt some of that ice. Some of the Minister of State’s public reflections and observations on how we have got to where we are have been particularly helpful in re-establishing a basis for discussions. We welcome that and wish the UK Government well in their attempts to renegotiate the protocol; we have never at any point criticised them for having that objective, but it is now time to get on and do it.

I certainly understand the desire to dock MLA salaries, but it seems to be little more than a gesture. It is not going to provide the motive force that puts anyone back to work, because we can all see the political issues at the back of this. It might be more productive if Ministers proposed an amendment to their own salaries if they are unable to negotiate a suitable agreement within the time they have now allowed themselves. [Interruption.] That seems to have started a discussion; I will let it rattle around and see where it ends up.

Our views on Brexit and the diminished position it has left not just Scotland but all parts of the UK in are unchanged, but any new settlement on the protocol cannot only be about Northern Ireland: a revised settlement will only be a better one if it resolves issues in trade both between Great Britain and Northern Ireland and between the UK and the European Union. In that regard, while supporting this Bill, we urge the UK Government to move at pace.

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