Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): May I wish all my friends in Northern Ireland the very best for the future? People often take for granted the peace and stability that has been secured in Northern Ireland since the 2007 agreement, but that was won only after conflict, terror and hatred going back centuries, through very difficult negotiations. It took dedicated skill and constant strong leadership by the Labour Government to achieve it. Does the Secretary of State accept that maintaining that progress requires nurturing by this Government and also by any Governments to follow?
Mrs Villiers: I do accept that. This Government will continue to do all they can to support and nurture that political settlement. That is a message that all parties need to hear, including Sinn Fein—that we should not take risks with political stability in Northern Ireland, because the consequences could be very grave.
Former Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Peter Hain has described the on the run scheme as “indispensable to the historic peace process we achieved in 2007.”
Writing in Progress Mr Hain said; “I was part of a government in which I am proud to have served as secretary of state for Northern Ireland that had the lead responsibility along with colleagues in the Irish government to negotiate and deliver a political settlement following, not decades but centuries, of division and, at times deadly, conflict.”
Echoing former Prime Minister Tony Blair who gave evidence to the Northern Ireland select committee on Tuesday, Mr Hain continued: “It [the peace process] often involved taking difficult decisions in real time, but what I am absolutely certain of is that at all times those were decisions taken honourably and within the law.”
“And we can unpick and pick at aspects of that process as much as we like.”
“But if we analyse them in isolation as if the world is other than it was then, I am not sure where that will take us.”
Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): I congratulate the Secretary of State and all the party leaders on reaching an agreement, not least in view of the Prime Minister’s astonishingly premature exit from the previous summit, and his lack of engagement, which has been greater than that of any Prime Minister for more than 20 years. How can the Secretary of State be sure that this process will not long-grass the key flashpoint issues of parade and flags? On corporation tax, is she aware of Sir David Varney’s 2007 report to the Treasury, which showed that 95% of businesses in Northern Ireland do not pay corporation tax? That is not a silver bullet; it will leave a £300 million hole, or 3%, in the block grant, if there is equalisation with the Republic of Ireland.
Mrs Villiers: I assure the right hon. Gentleman that the Prime Minister has been closely engaged with this process, and the visit he made along with the Taoiseach was significant in moving things forward. The financial package that he was able to agree with the Treasury was a crucial part of our progress. This Government have delivered significant achievements on some of the most difficult issues that Northern Ireland faces, and that is in large part due to work done by the Prime Minister.
I have acknowledged that there is more work to be done on the difficult issues of parades and flags, and no one would say for a moment that this agreement is the last word. I will be working, as will my officials and colleagues in government, to find a way forward on those matters, and ensure that they are not long-grassed and that we make real progress. As the right hon. Gentleman pointed out, those issues can cause huge disruption in Northern Ireland and poison the political relationships that are crucial to making the Executive work effectively. He says that corporation tax devolution is not a silver bullet. I agree that on its own it will not transform the Northern Ireland economy, but combined with other economic reform, a focus on skills and competitiveness, and economic reform across the board, it can have a significant and transformative effect. That is why I am disappointed that Labour is not supporting it.
Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): May I offer a critical observation, not for some partisan motive, but out of experience of negotiating at such summits alongside Tony Blair, when he was Prime Minister? I was both troubled and astonished that the current Prime Minister left the summit prematurely in the way that he did. My experience is that any Prime Minister has to coax and progress the discussions and negotiations, and there is a chemistry about those and a momentum that it is possible to develop. Walking away as he did leaves a kind of political paralysis which I suspect and fear may continue. That is extremely damaging and I am extremely worried about the situation.
Mrs Villiers: I can provide the right hon. Gentleman with reassurance that the Prime Minister has not walked away; he continues to follow these matters with the greatest of attention, because he cares about Northern Ireland and wishes to see a successful conclusion to this process. The reality is that both he and the Taoiseach made a realistic assessment on Friday morning that the parties were still far apart on a number of issues, and there was an indication that on some key issues some parties were simply not prepared to move. In particular, it was very difficult to see that Sinn Fein was prepared to move on matters relating to welfare reform.
Mr Peter Hain (Neath) (Lab): On parading, does the Secretary of State agree that the current political paralysis in Northern Ireland is undermining already shaky local faith in its elected politicians? Although I wish the Secretary of State well, I do not believe that the Prime Minister has been engaging closely or energetically enough with the parties to ensure that the 2007 settlement remains in good faith. I make no party point on this: from experience, I know that Northern Ireland needs constant care and attention from No. 10 and I hope it will now get that.
Mrs Villiers: I assure the right hon. Gentleman that Northern Ireland does get constant care and attention from the Prime Minister, not just with his decision to bring the G8 to Northern Ireland, but everyday in focusing on the security situation and repairing the Northern Ireland economy and, of course, by closely following these talks. I agree that it is vital that we do not let disputes about parades, painful though they are, get in the way of the need to reach resolution on important issues such as the budget, flags and reform of parading decisions.