Restoring N Ireland devolution before deadline ‘possible but challenging’

Restoring devolution at Stormont “remains possible but challenging” before the January 13 deadline, a Northern Ireland minister has said.

Robin Walker told MPs that ensuring Stormont is back up and running remains the Government’s “absolute priority”, and that Northern Ireland Secretary Julian Smith is in Belfast to facilitate talks.

He added the Government will “fulfil its legal obligation to form an assembly election” if next week’s deadline passes without the parties in Northern Ireland securing a political agreement.

Addressing MPs in the Commons, Mr Walker said “failure to restore the institutions will raise difficult and urgent decisions about the future governance of Northern Ireland”.

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Tony Lloyd added that he hopes the talks “come to the conclusion we all want to see”.

Mr Walker also said that reforming the legacy system in Northern Ireland “remains a top priority for the UK Government”, and that they “recognise the concerns of the current system”.

He said: “The Government is strongly opposed to our service personnel and veterans being the subject of the threat of vexatious litigations in the form of repeated investigation and potential prosecution arising from military operations many years after the events in questions.

“Any legislation which improves the legacy system in Northern Ireland will need to be agreed by the UK Parliament and have the support of a restored Northern Ireland executive,” he said.

But Mr Lloyd warned the Government to ensure that those guilty of historical crimes “must still face the full force of the law”.

“Whilst the minister uses the word rightly that we want to avoid vexatious prosecutions, let us be absolutely clear as a House that we are not turning our back on the rule of law, that those who are guilty of the most heinous crimes – murder, manslaughter – nevertheless must still face the full force of the law,” he said.

On the issue of abortion, Mr Walker confirmed that the Government is “working towards the laying of regulations for a new legal framework” which will come into force by March 31 2020, but that they are still seeking guidance on two issues: “same-sex religious marriage and the right to convert from a civil partnership and vice versa”.

“The Government hopes to be able to launch a short consultation on these two issues from mid-January and will bring forward regulations as soon as we are able to in 2020,” he told MPs.

Delivering her maiden speech in the Commons, newly elected DUP MP Carla Lockhart (Upper Bann) said abortion was being “foisted on people in Northern Ireland”.

She said: “Abortion was, and should be, a devolved matter, yet this House has imposed on Northern Ireland the most extreme measures of abortion anywhere across Europe.”

SDLP leader Colum Eastwood said the people of Northern Ireland delivered a message to politicians at the recent general election to “get back to work”.