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MS: British-Irish Negotiations on Northern Ireland

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Mr. Speaker,

With your leave I wish to make a statement to the House on my negotiations with the Irish Foreign Minister pertaining an agreed route forwards on Northern Ireland.

I understand many in the House have not wanted us to reach this stage. I know some in the House will argue that in the recent Westminster election, nationalists have more seats in the House of Commons than Unionists do and that the SDLP won the highest share of vote. In Stormont, it would additionally be argued that nationalists won the plurality of the vote and this makes the case for a border poll. I know many others would make the counterargument that both in Westminster and in Stormont the nationalists did not win an overall majority and that in Stormont the UUP has won the most seats, so a border poll would be premature and rushed.

Personally, my views will be known to this House. I am a member of the Conservative and Unionist Party. I am the Foreign Secretary in a Conservative and Unionist government, Mr. Speaker. But I am also a representative of the British government. A British government that is a signatory of the Good Friday Agreement. A government that has agreed to be a neutral arbiter between nationalist and unionist communities in Northern Ireland. A government that takes its responsibility to promote peace and to protect all citizens and communities in Northern Ireland seriously. 

To that end, the government has had no choice but to confront that fundamental truth that there is rising Nationalist sentiment in the United Kingdom that cannot be ignored. This government has chosen to address that sentiment and to pave a path forwards in response to it that Northern Irish communities can unite behind. It is important that path forward is agreed with the Irish government, which is what the government aimed to do in its discussions.

Mr. Speaker, before I continue I would like to pay credit to the Irish Foreign Minister Micheál Martin, who was as committed as I was in putting forward a reasonable, sustainable and peaceful path forwards that would unite both of Northern Ireland's communities.

We came to an agreed path forwards and have set the conditions on which the Republic of Ireland and United Kingdom would agree a border poll would be necessary.

If Nationalist parties win a majority in Westminster and Stormont, a process will be triggered in which the governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland will establish an intergovernmental group which will comprise of civil servants, statisticians and pollsters to measure public opinion in Northern Ireland over the following year. If public opinion shows that 45% of the Northern Irish population support reunification on average through the year, a border poll will be held.

There are some points both I and the Irish Government wish to clarify throughout that process, Mr. Speaker:

Firstly, it will be the mean throughout the year which will be determinant on if a border poll is held. One month of bad polling for those who want reunification will not disqualify the prospect of a border poll completely. By ensuring we measure it over a year, we'll ensure we capture long term opinion on the matter without the process being derailed by 'flash in the pan' political reactions.

Further, we will ensure any outliers of more than 5% will be disqualified from the polling. This ensures that any extreme outliers which may not be representative of political opinion in Northern Ireland disqualify or spur on the prospect of a border poll unfairly.

We will ensure four pollsters take two polls a month each in Northern Ireland, so that a representative average can be captured and the Northern Irish public will be polled frequently. Recognising our sovereignty over Northern Ireland, we have agreed to pay three quarters of the cost to fund this polling and the intergovernmental body overseeing the polling. The Irish government, as fellow custodians of the Good Friday Agreement and as fellow participants of the body, will pay a quarter. 

Finally, to ensure the process has the support of all signatories and communities going forwards we have agreed that collected data will be checked in Dublin, London and in Belfast for any discrepancies being publication with the relevant bodies being able to object to any discrepancies. To ensure any political influence from Stormont is removed, we will ensure the body responsible for checking such data in Stormont has representatives from nationalist, unionist and non-sectarian opinion - and that two of the three would need to object to the data for it to be noted and delayed. 

Mr. Speaker, the path forwards put by the British and Irish governments represent a way forwards that is fair, measured and democratic. It is crucial we are sure that support for reunification is significant enough in Northern Ireland so that a potentially contentious border poll is not unnecessarily held, but ensures that clear criteria are met so that the democratic will of Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland's right to self determination is still exercised. It comprises of an electoral test in Northern Ireland, but ensures the question of reunification is also put directly to the people of Northern Ireland before any border poll is to be held. 

However, I wish to stress this agreement is a preliminary path forward put by the governments of the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland. Further discussions will follow with the relevant political parties in Northern Ireland, the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister so Northern Ireland can continue with that agreed path forwards. Further, Mr. Speaker, the government of the United Kingdom is all too aware that it is only the first hurdle that has been passed - an agreed route to a border poll. What happens should the electoral tests set by the governments of the Republic Ireland and the United Kingdom be met will also require discussion, and will be approached by those respective stakeholder in successive discussions.

But the agreement we have is still a significant victory for the peace process and for democracy. Today, the British and Irish governments have shown the world that deeply contentious issues can be resolved through democratic means and the ballot box than by violence, and that the British people are better off for it. The political process in Northern Ireland is clearly fluid and perhaps even unpredictable, but through these discussions I have every confidence that peace and diplomacy will prevail. 

Ruth Murphy.

Labour Member of Parliament for Liverpool Walton (1974-).

Opposition Whip (1982-).

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