David Lidington MP: What my Northern Ireland portfolio entails
My brief includes three key tasks. The first is to hold Ministers to account in Parliament. We agree with the government’s objective of getting devolution and power-sharing restored. But devolution won’t work unless every political party in the Executive is wholeheartedly committed to democratic and peaceful politics. That is why we have constantly repeated the need for Sinn Fein to endorse the police and the courts.
Northern Ireland should not be a topic for partisan point-scoring. But bi-partisanship does not amount to a blank cheque. Conservatives led a cross-party alliance that forced Peter Hain to abandon his Bill to give an amnesty to terrorists on the run and we frequently criticised Government plans for community restorative justice. We shall continue to challenge Ministers over these issues.
The second task is dealing with Northern Ireland legislation. With devolution suspended, not only Northern Ireland Office measures on the peace process and security, but legislation from the eleven Stormont Departments goes through Westminster. The procedure for the latter is undemocratic: a two and a half hour committee debate, with no power to move amendments. Outside Northern Ireland, they go unreported. Yet the subject matter is often important: the budget for public spending in Northern Ireland, local government taxation, changes to education and health, and the re-organisation of the water industry.
What takes most time is the third task: getting the knowledge and understanding of Northern Ireland to enable me to do my job in Parliament and to prepare policies for us to implement in government.
I spend a lot of time in Northern
Ireland, talking to politicians of all persuasions, and people from
different backgrounds: the Orange Order and the Gaelic Athletic Association,
the Chief Constable and the sergeant in charge of Crossmaglen, farmers,
teachers, clergymen, NHS staff, business people, academics, journalists,
voluntary organisations, environmental campaigners and so on.
The scars of the “Troubles”
will take generations to heal. There are about 2,000 unsolved murders
from that time. Every meeting with people disabled or bereaved by terrorism
reminds me of the human tragedies behind that statistic.
At the same time, most people
in Northern Ireland can now live a normal life in the way that the rest
of the UK takes for granted. There is a chance to establish normal politics
in Northern Ireland and a real opportunity for the small but growing
Conservative Party in Northern Ireland to build support.
Northern Ireland can improve failing schools without destroying its successful grammar schools. It can shift powers from NHS head offices to front-line staff. It can rekindle the enterprise culture that first made Belfast an industrial powerhouse and reduce Northern Ireland’s dependence on the public sector. Conservative principles and Conservative policies can help to fulfil those ambitions.