Labour urges maintaining of Northern Ireland Assembly as top priority

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Labour has said maintaining the Northern Ireland Assembly should be the number one priority as the party warned against a return to direct rule.

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Dave Anderson said imposing direct control of the country from Westminster will serve no-one.

He urged Northern Ireland politicians to stand up and be counted amid the ongoing political crisis.

His calls were echoed by Northern Ireland Secretary James Brokenshire, who told MPs this would serve the best interests of the people in Northern Ireland.

Speaking during an urgent statement in the Commons on the situation in Northern Ireland, Mr Anderson said: "All parties need to look at what they can do to prevent the present impasse generating into total collapse.

"Let me be very clear. We need to avoid, if at all possible, a return to direct rule.

"We need Northern Ireland politicians to stand up and be counted, recognise their responsibility and accept that the vehicle for addressing their concerns and needs of their communities is the assembly and its executive.

"The need for continuing with the assembly should be the number one priority for them, and all of us in Westminster.

"The imposition of direct rule will serve no-one."

Mr Brokenshire was forced to announce a snap election on Monday a week after Sinn Fein's Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy first minister, in a feud with coalition partners the Democratic Unionists over an overspending eco-boiler scheme.

Mr Anderson added: "A political vacuum should be avoided at all costs.

"So I say this to the secretary of state today - you must make sure that you are not only willing to fill that vacuum, but you must work with all parties to try and seek a way forward, so we avoid the nightmare scenario of six weeks of increasingly bitter campaigning which leaves us in the same place as where it started, with no solution in place to heal the huge divide, and to bring together those elected to represent all the people of Northern Ireland.

"I realise the tension of an election dominates people's minds and the news agenda may well be focused on other issues.

"But I would suggest for the sake of all us on these islands, we highlight the critical importance of maintaining devolved and functioning government in Northern Ireland."

Mr Anderson told the Commons he wanted to see peace and prosperity continue in the country, and avoid "a divided Northern Ireland that turns on itself, as we've seen so often and so sadly in the past".

The shadow Northern Ireland secretary also warned about the need for a functioning government in Northern Ireland in the midst of Brexit negotiations, to ensure the country has its say.

In reply, Mr Brokenshire said: "I don't think anybody should prejudge this outcome of this election and therefore I think it is right that we are absolutely focused on seeking to get the right outcome, which is absolutely the continuation of devolved government in Northern Ireland.

"That is what I think is in the absolute best interests of the people of Northern Ireland, that allows things to move forward.

"We must all work collectively to that end, and approach this in a positive way as to what we can achieve."

The Northern Ireland Secretary also said he was keen to ensure dialogue continued between the different parties right up to polling day.

Laurence Robertson, the Conservative chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee, said the Government should prepare for the possibility that the election could return a similar political situation to what there is now.

He said: "Does the Secretary of State therefore agree with me and indeed the proposal made by the shadow secretary of state that the coming weeks should perhaps be used to explore all possibilities because none of us do want to see a return to direct rule.

"But the worry is that we are holding elections, as the Secretary of State is indeed required to do, and the possibility, the strong possibility, must be that those elections deliver the parties back to Stormont in roughly the same numbers as they are now.

"So what is indeed the likelihood of making progress under the present arrangements?

"Surely we should use the coming weeks to put in place a plan B where we can continue with some form of devolved government and not bring powers back to this House because direct rule is not a satisfactory way of running Northern Ireland."

Mr Brokenshire agreed that the "key issue is the maintenance of devolved government in Northern Ireland".

He said: "You are right also, I think, to see how we ensure that we use the time available to us that communication lines, that dialogue remains open during an election period however difficult that may appear.

"But equally knowing that the issues that have been highlighted in terms of trust and confidence in the institutions, the ability for parties to be able to work together in that shared governance arrangement will still need to be resolved, and therefore I think it is with that sense of how we can use this time to bring people together that must be at the forefront of our minds."

In the Lords, Labour former Northern Ireland secretary Lord Hain warned the situation was very serious and there could be an "unravelling of the consensus so painfully established over decades of negotiation" if progress was not made on key issues.

Northern Ireland minister Lord Dunlop said the Government was very alive to the seriousness of the situation due to a breakdown in the relationship between the two main governing parties.

He said "lines of communication" must be maintained so that in the weeks ahead "we can create the conditions in which we stand the best chance of putting together the fully functioning executive".

Independent crossbencher Baroness O'Loan asked if ministers were aware of the "deep distrust and dysfunction" which had marked politics in recent years.

She said since the last election, the Assembly had not been functioning and managed to pass only one Act, leaving schools and the health service in a "parlous state".

Lord Dunlop said he recognised the tensions that existed but on many occasions in the past when the parties had faced seemingly "insuperable challenges" they had overcome them and found a way forward.

"That is what the people of Northern Ireland now expect," he said.

"It is for their political leaders to show leadership and to work through the many difficult issues that have to be worked through."