THERESA Villiers pledged to “solve” the problem of parades in the North of Ireland this year while fielding cross-party criticism of the Stormont House Agreement in Westminster.
The Tory MP for Chipping Barnet set out the raft of “new structures” which are due to be put in place under the SHA to her colleagues in the House of Commons this month.
But while she claimed the plans offer real resolutions to issues which have “eluded successive Governments”, MPs tackled her on the commitments during the debate.
Welfare reform, the reduction of corporation tax, a new institution to replace the Parades Commission and the formation of a new commission to deal with the contentious issues of flags, identity and culture, are all due under the new agreement — which is supported by a £150million Government fund.
“The agreement sets a path for the [NI] Executive to put their finances on a sustainable footing for the future, averting the impending budget crisis that was threatening the stability and credibility of the institutions,” Ms Villiers explained.
“Measures to improve the way the devolved institutions work, including provision for an official Opposition, a reduction in the number of Government Departments and a cut in the number of Members of the Legislative Assembly by 2021 are also part of the agreement,” she added.
“A commission on flags, identity and culture is to be established by June and, based on the party leader discussions in the summer, proposals set out by the Government will open the way for a devolved system of adjudicating on parades, to replace the Parades Commission.”
But while Ms Villiers continued to report back on the conclusions of the pre-Christmas Stormont meetings, which resulted in the signing of the SHA on December 23, cross party MPs called for more details and further action on some of the most important issues concerning the future of the region.
While Shadow NI Secretary Ivan Lewis welcomed most of the SHA proposals, he suggested the “rush” to implement a corporation tax reduction could have a negative impact on the region.
“We welcome the adoption of a viable budget for the next financial year,” the Labour MP said.
“It is right that it includes some elements of welfare reform while excluding the pernicious bedroom tax, which an incoming Labour Government will scrap. However, we remain concerned by the Government’s rush to introduce legislation on corporation tax devolution, a decision that will have profound implications for Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom.”
He added: “We believe that there should be a proper consultation process, including an analysis of the financial impact of significant reductions in corporation tax on Northern Ireland’s block grant, before legislation is introduced in this House.”
Mr Lewis was also quick to point out that the Conservatives’ current contribution to the SHA comes after years of disengagement with the region, claiming “the agreement is not perfect, but it is a genuine advance on the stalemate of the past two years”.
He added: “Throughout the political impassé of the past two years, we have repeatedly called for the Government to play a more active role. We hope that the right lessons have now been learned about the consequences of disengagement for political stability and momentum in Northern Ireland.”
Former NI Secretary Peter Hain reinforced that message, adding: “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.”
Even Villiers’ Tory colleagues were quick to offer criticism during the debate, claiming the attention being given to the North was costing too much.
“I welcome the fact that an agreement was reached, but will the Secretary of State set out exactly how much extra money has been given to the Northern Ireland Assembly to make the deal happen?” asked Nigel Mills, the Tory MP for Amber Valley in Derbyshire.
“Does she regret that, yet again, we have shown that if the parties of Northern Ireland hold out for long enough, Westminster will eventually cave in and send more money over?” he added.
In response, Ms Villiers claimed the financial package was “fair” but “not a blank cheque”.
She said: “It recognises that Northern Ireland faces specific problems that the rest of the United Kingdom does not. In outline, it involves £150million over five years to help to fund work on the past; flexibility to use £700million of capital borrowing to fund a voluntary exit scheme for four years; a contribution of up to £500million over 10 years of capital funding for shared and integrated education; £350million of borrowing for capital infrastructure projects; and the flexibility to use the receipts from asset sales and capital funding to repay the welfare shortfall payments.”
But it was the issue of flags and parades that remained the hot topics of the debate, with Liberal Democrat MP Stephen Lloyd claiming the proposal to implement a replacement to the Parades Commission should be undertaken as a matter of urgency.
“I am disappointed that there was not more progress on the Parades Commission [in the SHA]. We have kicked it back to June and to the middle of the marching season, which is going to be rather difficult,” he said.
MP Naomi Long added: “On many issues, the Stormont House Agreement provides a road map for Northern Ireland, particularly around finances, but much deeper reform is needed than simply filling the holes. On other key and volatile issues, such as parading and flags, this has simply become a parking garage where things will be left to sit until the difficult period over the summer.”
The Alliance Party representative for Belfast East asked Villiers “what will you do personally to remain engaged on those key issues?” claiming: “It is clear that there is not the will across all parties to come to a mature resolution on them.”
In response, Ms Villiers said: “As ever with agreements in Northern Ireland’s history, this is a further staging post, and the next journey along the road will be implementation. Of course, I will be directly involved in keeping everything moving on implementation. Given the comments we have heard, I will no doubt be spending a lot of time on parading matters over the coming weeks.”
Regarding various questions from MPs about the issue of flags during the debate, the NI Secretary explained: “The agreement sets out provision for a commission on flags to be established by June, and it is important that we press ahead with that.”
She added: “There is clearly more work to be done on that issue and on parades, and the agreement provides for further work by the Office of the Legislative Counsel of the Executive, bringing forth options that can then be consulted on for reform of the parading system.
“The process for monitoring will start with its first meeting between the Executive and the Government by the end of January. The final paragraphs of the main part of the agreement set out a system for monitoring implementation, and that will be taken seriously by the Government.
“It will, of course, involve the Irish Government, where appropriate and consistent with a three-stranded approach, and we look forward to getting down to work with the Executive on those matters.”