Tuesday, 10 May 2022
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
79. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the discussions that he has had recently with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about affairs in Northern Ireland; if the possibility of transferring additional powers to the Executive was discussed; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22654/22]
This question relates to discussions that have taken place between the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Minister about affairs in Northern Ireland. It also asks if there has been any consideration of giving the Executive additional powers once it is up and running, transferring sovereignty from Westminster to the sovereign people of Ireland.
I thank the Deputy for his question.
As part of the Government’s commitment to supporting the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement and maintaining strong relationships, I remain in regular contact with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and with the parties. I met virtually with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on 5 May, the day of the Assembly elections, to discuss a number of issues in that important context. Following the results of the elections in Northern Ireland, I spoke with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on Saturday to discuss the outcomes of the elections and the need for both Governments to work in support of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. We continue to remain in close contact.
The Secretary of State and I also met in person at the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference on 23 March, where a number of issues relating to Northern Ireland were discussed, including political stability, security co-operation, legacy, and rights and citizenship matters. The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference is an important institution of the Good Friday Agreement, bringing together the British and Irish Governments under strand three of the Good Friday Agreement to promote bilateral co-operation on matters of mutual interest within the competence of both Governments.
I take this opportunity to say that, in many ways, one of the most concerning developments in the last number of days has been the signal of intent from the British Government in the context of resolving the outstanding issues on the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol. The British Prime Minister and the British Government have signalled that they intend to break international law and to introduce legislation of their own to set aside elements of the protocol. That is a complete breach of faith. It will undermine partnership, which is essential for trying to resolve these issues. It is also undemocratic, in my view. Some 53 of the 90 MLAs who were elected in the elections support the protocol and if they were to vote in the morning on the retention of the protocol, they would vote "Yes". Of course, there are issues to be resolved, and there is a large unionist community that is very concerned about the implications of the protocol and its implementation, but the way to resolve those issues is through partnership, not illegal unilateral action.
I am opposed to illegal unilateral action. That is why I was very interested when the Minister spoke about security co-operation. In that regard, there are Irish citizens who are waiting eight years for a trial in the northern part of this island. In the Minister's discussions on security co-operation, did he speak to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland about the total unacceptability of people anywhere having to wait eight years for a trial? Has he raised with him the fact that the security police in Northern Ireland are under Westminster and not under the local authority? If one asks the Minister for Justice there, she will say that security issues are above her pay grade. This has resulted in an inordinate amount of stop and search, people who are tagged and out on bail being searched, woken up in the middle of the night and so forth. I am interested to hear how the Minister's security co-operation discussions have been proceeding.
Generally, the security co-operation discussion revolves around the co-operation between the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI, and An Garda Síochána. If there are cases, and the Deputy has mentioned some to me in the past, of individuals in prison or awaiting trial that he would like me to raise with the Secretary of State to get an answer, I am happy to do that for him. At the last British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference there were no specific cases raised. As I said, the security co-operation focus is primarily on the relationship between the PSNI and An Garda Síochána, which is probably stronger than it has ever been in terms of co-operation. That is a good thing and it is something we should continue to encourage. However, if the Deputy has concerns about specific cases, I can try to inquire about them for him.
I deeply appreciate that. My difficulty is not with the Garda and PSNI relationship, which is Naomi Long's devolved Department of Justice of Northern Ireland relationship with the Department of Justice here. I am more concerned about British security in Northern Ireland, which is a serious problem and a serious impediment to getting rid of violence on this island once and for all. Instead of aiding getting rid of it, it has the opposite effect. It is my view that it is hard for somebody from outside the island to understand the nuances of history and tradition on this island.
On a second issue, Scotland has some powers, particularly powers over taxation, that Northern Ireland does not have. Has there been any discussion about extending powers that are in other devolved jurisdictions to the legislature in Northern Ireland? As I said, it is basically transferring sovereignty from Westminster back to Irish people of all colours in this island.
To be honest, the focus of the conversations has been on trying to get stability and a return to a functioning Executive and Assembly as soon as possible after the election. This has been a divisive election, and that is not a criticism of the parties. At present, there is significant work to do to get the Assembly to elect a Speaker and to function and, importantly, to get an Executive up and running so Northern Ireland can ensure that people from Northern Ireland who are directly elected by people in Northern Ireland are making political decisions on their behalf. There are obstacles to that happening. There is no justification for a refusal to enter those devolved government structures. Certainly, having a functioning Executive in Northern Ireland would assist in trying to resolve some of the outstanding issues linked to the protocol and other issues, such as legacy, that we have to deal with as well. That will be our focus in the days and weeks ahead.