Sir Mike Penning speaks in a debate on Northern Ireland’s budget and calls on the Secretary of State to set a date for the reintroduction of direct rule to put pressure on Sinn Fein who are effectively holding the Northern Ireland Assembly ransom. He also calls for a provision to protect army veterans who served in Northern Ireland from being dragged through the courts on matters that have already been dealt with.
I say this with all due respect: I enjoyed the passionate speech of the hon. Member for Walthamstow (Stella Creasy). I may not have agreed with every word, but frankly I agreed with the vast majority, even though I am a passionate believer in devolution.
I have sat in the Chamber for nearly five hours today, apart from the odd trip to powder my nose. I have intervened on a few Members, but I have made no speeches—I turned up five minutes into Second Reading, too late to speak. That is my fault and no one else’s, but I will try to make up for it now.
I have several points to make about the Bill, but there is one in particular that the hon. Lady might agree with. The first page of the Bill includes a compatibility statement:
“Secretary Karen Bradley has made the following statement under section 19(1)(a) of the Human Rights Act 1998:
In my view the provisions of the Northern Ireland Budget (Anticipation and Adjustments) (No. 2) Bill are compatible with the Convention rights.”
I am not convinced that the provisions are compatible with convention rights, nor am I convinced that the Bill will do what we were sent here to do. Representation through taxation, the principle that Parliament stands for in this democracy of ours, was set out 900 years ago: we are supposed to look at how the taxpayer’s money is being spent. In passing a Bill because there is no devolved Assembly in Stormont, frankly we are offering a sop to Sinn Féin, which will not participate either in this Chamber or in the Stormont Assembly—that is why it has collapsed.
We cannot say that on the one hand we are willing to pass the Bill, but that on the other hand this is a devolved matter; I think that that is the hon. Lady’s point. This type of Bill will keep coming back—she certainly will. If we believe in devolution, in the Union of this country and in the rights of the people of Northern Ireland to be represented not only here but in their Assembly in Stormont, at some stage we will have to bite the bullet and say that enough is enough. If a political party is not willing to participate, we—the Parliament of the Union of this great nation of ours—will have to step up to the plate and do something about it.
Will the right hon. Gentleman give way?
Will the right hon. Gentleman give me two seconds? I am in a flow.
I have raised the issue with shadow Front Benchers and my own—I was a Northern Ireland Minister for a considerable period—because we have to address it. Perhaps I will come back to that point after the right hon. Gentleman’s intervention.
The right hon. Gentleman puts forward the proposition that the only longer-term alternative to the current stalemate is direct rule. One understands that, but it has been argued today that the provisions of the Good Friday agreement and the concept of devolution are not sacrosanct and that they can be overridden. That is an interesting comment, but surely there is another solution. Of the five parties in a position to form a Government in Northern Ireland, four are prepared, on a cross-community basis, to form a Government without precondition. Might this Parliament stepping up to the mark finally lead us to recognise the need for democracy to move on in Northern Ireland, instead of a single faction being allowed to veto the people of Northern Ireland having their own Government?
I cannot disagree with a single word that my right hon. Friend has said. This cannot continue; we cannot sit in a situation where there is no way of looking properly at how civil servants are spending taxpayers’ money. That is not the principle of this democracy, and it is not the principle on which I was elected to this House. We must have a methodology. If this House voted to go forward with four parties instead of the five, somewhere along the line Sinn Féin would suddenly wake up and smell the coffee. But at the moment we are not challenging Sinn Féin. We are accepting that they have this veto. We are accepting that this House, in this great Union of ours, is not going to challenge the convention whereby Sinn Féin can say, “No, there is no devolved Assembly in Northern Ireland.”
The aspect that fascinated me even more when I was a Minister was that, even when we had the Administration up and running, any party could veto decisions anyhow. We have to make sure that democracy thrives in the same way that we try to teach the rest of world. At the moment, we are shirking that responsibility, if we are being really honest. The shadow Secretary of State was kind in offering that he would turn up to an Adjournment debate to explain Labour party policy, but I do not think that is quite where we are. I am more than happy to have an Adjournment debate, but I think that I would be outnumbered in that I want us to progress.
Do I want direct rule? No. But it may be one of the only threats, which is why I keep saying “when”, not “if”. Unless we set a date, we are going to be back here in September and next spring. At that time, the fantastic, brave work that happened to give us the Good Friday agreement will be lost and Northern Ireland will go backwards. We saw the bombs in Londonderry the other day. The New IRA—as they like to call themselves—are there, although there is nothing new about them; they are old-fashioned terrorists. The people of Northern Ireland want something tangible to hold on to. It cannot be right that their health service and education system are in decline, and we have heard about many other problems today, although it was a very short list from my hon. Friend the Member for Strangford (Jim Shannon). I have heard much longer lists from him on many an occasion, and quite rightly so.
Let me tell the Secretary of State that I voted against these measures on Third Reading the last time they came before the House. I hope that the Whip is also listening, because this is important. I voted against the Bill—only the second time that I have ever voted against my Government—because there was no provision to protect the veterans who served this country so brilliantly in the police, in the other emergency services and particularly in the armed forces that I am so proud to have served with. There is now again the threat of our veterans—some of them much older than me—being dragged through a judicial process when these matters have already been addressed on many occasions. Double jeopardy seems completely unfair in these circumstances.
Terrorists who murdered people are walking free now because of agreements that came through with the Good Friday agreement, yet there is absolutely nothing at all from my Government for veterans in this legislation or in any other measure. There is lots of talk from the Government that they are trying to address this or that, but these veterans served this country of ours. If they have done something fundamentally wrong, I think that we might actually have had them in court and sorted it out over the last 40 years.
As the shadow Secretary of State said, some victims are dying off now and they need to get their compensation, quite rightly. I do not think the British taxpayer would ever understand if we gave victim’s compensation to a terrorist—not just an alleged terrorist but a convicted terrorist—when our own veterans are being dragged through the courts, paid for by the taxpayer. Am I missing something here?
This budget is a substantial one. It is basically the same budget as last year, as we have heard—and why? Because no one is there to make decisions. I was sent to this place to make decisions not only for my constituency but for the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I lost colleagues in Northern Ireland. I cannot sit back and say we are just going to carry on while there is a devolved Assembly out there that for two years has just been sitting there gathering dust, and then say that we are going to push this budget through but not take on the responsibility, or a version of responsibility, for direct rule. The Minister of State and that Secretary of State have a massively important role. It is a balancing act—a balancing act that is leaning too far towards Sinn Féin, in my opinion, and that is why we do not have an Assembly in Northern Ireland.