Mr Speaker, with your permission, I would like to make a statement.
This Saturday would mark two years without a fully functioning devolved government in Northern Ireland.
That’s two years without locally-elected Ministers able to take important decisions on Northern Ireland’s schools, hospitals and the broader economy.
And, above all Mr Speaker, it’s two years that Northern Ireland has been held back from achieving the massive potential of this unique part of the United Kingdom.
It was nearly two years ago that the then-First Minister resigned over the old Northern Ireland Protocol.
The Government recognised that the Protocol did not deliver to the people of Northern Ireland the same freedoms that leaving the European Union delivered to the rest of the United Kingdom.
As the Party of the Union, this Conservative Government sought to address these concerns by replacing the Protocol with the Windsor Framework.
I maintain that the Windsor Framework was and is a good deal for Northern Ireland that addresses the issues around the old Protocol and sets out a new way forward.
But it alone did not prove sufficient to allow the devolved institutions to function with the cross-community support that is such an essential bedrock of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.
So, for the last few months, my team and I have been holding discussions with the Northern Ireland political parties on how we could see the return of the devolved institutions.
Those discussions have been long and, necessarily, tough.
But this is a testament to the patience of all Northern Ireland’s political leaders who, as I have seen first hand, work tirelessly to make sure that Northern Ireland is the most prosperous and safe society that it can be.
One of the people I have been talking to most is the Hon Member for Belfast East. It has been a pleasure to work with him on these matters and also a pleasure to confirm recently that the Government will support his Bill that seeks to create a dedicated route for eligible Irish nationals who wish to apply for British citizenship.
If passed, this legislation would support the close historical and geographical ties between Ireland and the UK and I commend him for championing this cause.
I am also pleased now to be able to outline today the package of measures we are announcing, which has four core key elements
First, it further protects Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom- by demonstrating our commitment to restoring power sharing so that it has the broadest support from across the community in Northern Ireland.
I know that I am not alone in believing firmly that the long term interests of the Union are served by persuading those who might not vote for unionist parties, or even think of themselves as unionist, that Northern Ireland within the United Kingdom offers the best solution for them and their children.
I have always believed that making Northern Ireland work – indeed, making Northern Ireland thrive – is the surest way to safeguard the Union, and I commend all unionists for taking bold steps to make that case for the Union too.
We will also legislate to reaffirm Northern Ireland’s constitutional status, including as reflected in the Acts of Union.
So too will we recognise in domestic law that, through the vital democratic safeguard of the Stormont Brake that a new Assembly would wield, the idea of automatic and permanent dynamic alignment of EU law no longer applies.
We will also future-proof Northern Ireland’s position within the UK’s internal market against any future Protocol that would create a new EU law alignment for Northern Ireland, and with it barriers between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK.
Second, this deal promotes and strengthens the UK internal market – delivering new legislation to guarantee and future-proof unfettered access for Northern Ireland goods to the whole of the UK internal market; and ensuring that internal trade within the United Kingdom takes place under a new UK internal market system.
Only yesterday we saw how quickly progress has been made, with a joint legal solution reached with the European Union on Tariff Rate Quotas.
This solution, to be taken forward at the next UK-EU Joint Committee, would ensure Northern Ireland traders can benefit from the UK’s independent free trade policy when importing agri-food goods, reflecting Northern Ireland’s integral place in the UK’s customs territory.
And, to maintain that focus on delivering in the interests of businesses for the future, we will put in place new structures, such as a new Independent Monitoring Panel, to ensure a practical and pragmatic approach – without gold-plating.
Third, this deal will recognise the importance of the connections across the United Kingdom now and in the future.
A new UK East-West economic Council will bring businesses and Ministers together to identify the opportunities that unite us across all parts of the UK.
And a new public body, InterTrade UK will promote and facilitate trade within the United Kingdom, recognising that whilst international trade is important, so too is the vital trade that occurs within our internal market.
Finally, this deal will help put public services on a sustainable footing – with funding totalling over £3bn to support Northern Ireland’s public services in Northern Ireland, providing a solid foundation for the Executive to deliver better outcomes in the day to day lives of the people in Northern Ireland.
This is part of a financial package I announced before Christmas that will help address public sector pay pressures, provide an updated Barnett formula for Northern Ireland now and into the future, reflecting the needs and unique circumstances of the people of Northern Ireland, and give the Executive significant funding to stabilise public finances.
Much of what I am announcing today was the result of a significant period of negotiations between the Government and the Democratic Unionist Party, led by the Rt Hon Member for Lagan Valley.
Many of us in this Chamber last week could not fail to have been struck by his unshakeable advocacy on behalf of the unionist cause. This same determination, fortitude and tact was at the heart of his approach in those detailed discussions.
And, further to his comments in this place last week, I’m absolutely sure the whole House will join me in expressing support for the Rt Hon Member for Lagan Valley in utterly condemning those shameless figures who have tried to threaten and intimidate him for simply doing his job.
The Rt Hon Member is a man who is truly committed to Northern Ireland, he is truly committed to the Union – and is someone who has always worked hard to find solutions and improvements, where others have taken the far easier path of simply criticising and heckling from the sidelines.
The result, as I hope Honourable Members will agree, is a deal that, taken as a whole, is the right one for Northern Ireland and for the Union.
With this package, it is now time for elected representatives in Northern Ireland to come together to end the two years of impasse and start to work again in the interests of the people who elected them.
The Rt Hon Member for Lagan Valley was clear this week that this depended on this Government demonstrating its commitment to the Union in not just word but in deed.
And that is just what we will do. Today I am publishing the details of this deal. But I am also laying the statutory instruments that enshrine several of its commitments in law.
Those instruments will be debated in this House tomorrow – subject to a change in business in the future with the House – an immediate show of good faith.
And once, as I hope they will be, they are passed by this House, I trust we will have the conditions to move onwards to see Ministers back in post in Stormont swiftly.
As they take their places, they will face massive challenges. But so do they have the tools to grasp them – not least in moving to resolve the public sector pay issues that have been so disruptive.
And as well as that they will be able to grasp the opportunities offered by its unique economic position and the goodwill Northern Ireland enjoys across the world.
And, Mr Speaker, it is only right that I acknowledge that for many in the community an important part of this will be seeing Michelle O’Neill take her place as First Minister, following the democratic mandate she won at the May 2022 Assembly election – recognising that the First and deputy First Ministers remain equal in law.
I look forward to working with the new First Minister, deputy First Minister, all their colleagues in the Northern Ireland Executive to improve the lives of people from all backgrounds, whether unionist, nationalist or other.
As we move forward swiftly to give effect to our commitments, I now urge the Parties to do the same in notifying the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly to recall Stormont, electing a First and deputy First Minister and appoint new Ministers to the Executive.
Mr Speaker, it is time to build on the progress of the last 25 years. Today we have presented a plan which will deliver the long term change that Northern Ireland needs.
It will strengthen Northern Ireland’s place in the Union and guarantee the free flow of goods across the entire United Kingdom.
And it is only by sticking to this plan that we will become a more united and prosperous country.
And I commend this statement to the House.