Political news

MPs support Northern Ireland powersharing legislation

MPs gave the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill an unopposed second reading in the House of Commons. Picture by Tim Ireland/PA Wire
Richard Wheeler, Elizabeth Arnold and Caitlin Doherty, PA

Attempts to protect powersharing in Northern Ireland have cleared their first parliamentary hurdle, amid claims Westminster has “caved in” to demands from Sinn Féin.

MPs gave the Northern Ireland (Ministers, Elections and Petitions of Concern) Bill an unopposed second reading in the House of Commons.

The legislation relates to undertakings the UK Government made in the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) deal, such as extending the time period within which a snap election must be called if devolution collapses again.

It would also lengthen the time allowed to appoint Northern Ireland ministers after an election, and also allow ministers to stay in office for up to 24 weeks or for up to 48 weeks if the first minister or deputy first minister resign.

Northern Ireland Secretary Brandon Lewis said the Bill will ensure the institutions will be “more sustainable, more resilient and for the benefit of the people of Northern Ireland”.

Mr Lewis also said: “The events of last week also highlight how important it is for everyone to deliver on their commitments under the New Decade, New Approach agreement.

“It is disappointing to see that a way forward has not yet been found to implement all of the parts in full.

“That is why the government has promised to deliver the balanced culture package for example that was agreed in NDNA through Parliament if it’s not been taken forward by the Northern Ireland Executive by the end of September, but I want to reiterate and be very clear that our strong preference and desire is for this to be delivered in the appropriate place by the devolved institutions.”

The DUP’s Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) later accused Sinn Féin of focusing on “niche” demands linked to cultural aspects of the NDNA – which include protections for Irish speakers – rather than looking at the wider issues linked to the Covid-19 pandemic.

He said: “Pathetically those threats have been caved into again by the Secretary of State with the commitments he made to Sinn Fein – if it is not done in the assembly by the end of September, I will take on the devolution powers and do it in Westminster.

“Either he wants parties in Northern Ireland to work together or he doesn’t. Either he wants to try and take the poison out of the system which there is in Northern Ireland or he doesn’t.

“I can tell this House one thing: that if this one-sided pandering to Sinn Féin, setting aside the devolved powers, continues then all he is doing is allowing Sinn Fein to come back time and time and time again.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood, explaining why he would support the Bill, said: “I don’t want this place at all legislating in the devolved space, but if parties like the DUP and Sinn Fein can’t deliver in government this is what’s going to keep happening time and time again.

“If you want to stop Westminster going over the heads of devolved government, actually do the things you agreed to do in the first place.”

For Labour, shadow Northern Ireland secretary Louise Haigh said: “We welcome attempts to safeguard powersharing and improve the sustainability of the executive and the assembly.”

She accused the government of treating Northern Ireland as an “afterthought”, adding: “It is simply not credible that this was the first moment that parliamentary time allowed for this legislation to be considered.”

The Bill will undergo further scrutiny at a later date.

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