New NI Secretary urges Stormont leaders to form executive ‘as soon as possible’

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The new Northern Ireland Secretary Chris Heaton-Harris has urged Stormont party leaders to form an executive “as soon as possible”.

In his opening remarks to the Commons, Mr Heaton-Harris, who was appointed to the role on Tuesday night, told MPs that he would be speaking to each of the party leaders in Northern Ireland about the current situation.

He told MPs: “I know the House shares my view that Northern Ireland needs a stable, fully functioning devolved government to deliver on the issues that matter to people most.”

The DUP withdrew from the Executive earlier this year in protest over the post-Brexit Northern Ireland Protocol, a special arrangement that keeps Northern Ireland in the EU’s single market for goods, avoiding a hard border with the Republic of Ireland.

But the arrangement is deeply unpopular with unionists because it includes checks on goods moving between Great Britain and Northern Ireland.

The Government is progressing a Bill to give ministers powers to override parts of the agreement.

New Prime Minister Liz Truss told the Commons: “My preference is for a negotiated solution, but it does have to deliver all of the things we set out in the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.

“And what we cannot allow is for this situation to drift because my number one priority is protecting the supremacy of the Belfast Good Friday Agreement.”

Conor Burns, in his final appearance as Northern Ireland minister, also thanked former prime minister Sir Tony Blair and former taoiseach Bertie Ahern “for their assistance in the work that I have done over the summer” in trying to resolve protocol matters.

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Former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers said the protocol was the main barrier to the restoration of Stormont (David Mirzoeff/PA)

Mr Heaton-Harris earlier said he would prefer a negotiated settlement with the European Union, but the UK Government remained committed to progressing the Northern Ireland Protocol Bill.

He also told MPs there is a “fairly obvious landing zone for the negotiations” although did not go into specifics.

Conservative former Northern Ireland secretary Theresa Villiers said: “The main barrier to the resumption of devolved powersharing government is of course the Northern Ireland Protocol.

“So will he undertake to push that legislation through as quickly as possible and use the Parliament Act to get it through if necessary?”

Mr Heaton-Harris replied in the Commons: “We are committed to resolving the problems in the protocol, ideally through a negotiation, but, if not, through legislation, so yes.”

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DUP MP Sammy Wilson said the ‘poison’ of the protocol needed to be removed (Brian Lawless/PA)

Shadow Northern Ireland secretary Peter Kyle sought assurances that the UK Government’s position on getting Stormont up and running was unchanged, with Mr Heaton-Harris replying: “We’re very clear, the protocol negotiation is between the EU and the UK, but yes the position is completely unchanged.”

He later told Mr Kyle: “I am very keen we try and negotiate a solution with the European Union and sort out the issues of the protocol. However, we do have legislation ready, we’ve discussed it in this House and if we do not get a negotiated solution, we will legislate.”

DUP MP Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) told Mr Heaton-Harris: “I hope he will be successful in doing what is necessary to get Stormont restored, namely removing the poison of the protocol.”

Mr Heaton-Harris is expected in Northern Ireland on Thursday for meetings with political leaders.

Sinn Fein vice president Michelle O’Neill tweeted: “I will meet with Chris Heaton-Harris tomorrow and will make it clear that his first priority must be getting an executive up and running.

“Workers, families and small businesses need our help now.

“There can be no more delays.”