Julian Smith says Brexit deal a 'big benefit' for Northern Ireland and MLA £15m salary bill 'a tragedy'
Secretary of State of State Julian Smith has said the Government is working to put in law "protective clauses" to ensure the promised unfettered access for trade between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK is retained.
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He told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee he believed "strongly" Boris Johnson's Brexit deal had no impact on the constitutional position of Northern Ireland, no impact on the Assembly and gave Northern Ireland the "opportunity of both worlds".
He said it would be "scaremongering" to describe any added information business would need to conduct trade across the Irish Sea as a "burden" and any checks would be "minimal".
It was also confirmed the cost of salaries for Northern Ireland's MLAs had almost hit £15million since the collapse of the power-sharing institutions.
He said that was "unacceptable and a tragedy" but pointed to the "good work" of the elected representatives in their constituencies. He said that if it was not looking like efforts to restore local government were not going the way he would hope, he would review the salary issue once again.
Mr Smith said during his short period in the post his priorities had been at restoring power sharing and he had had "good discussions" with the parties but challenges remained.
He said issues persisted around Irish language, the petition of concern and the sustain ability of the institutions which he believed were not insurmountable.
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The healing process around this chapter of Brexit could be helpful for getting the Assembly and Executive up and running. Julian Smith
The Cabinet minister paid tribute to the civil service and its head David Sterling for their work but said they had bore the burden "for too long".
"The other options for Northern Ireland government are significantly worse," he said, "We have to persuade MLAs, political leaders to talk to me... and ensure we get executive up and running."
He said he felt that once "the direction of Brexit was secured" it would become easier to resurrect the Stormont institutions. Although he admitted no party had indicated it was more encouraged to return to power after the PM's agreement last week.
"The healing process around this chapter of Brexit could be helpful for getting the Assembly and Executive up and running," he added.
He said it was a "tragedy" Northern Ireland remained without devolution and said there was a breakdown of trust between the parties.
Lady Sylvia Hermon quizzed the minister on exact levels of pay. She said with hospital and schools under such pressure it was "absolutely unsustainable" MLAs continued to be paid a "handsome" salary.
The proposed Prime Minister's Brexit deal effectively puts a border down the Irish Sea. Northern Ireland would remain aligned with the EU on goods, including certain laws for VAT on goods. EU tariffs would be applied in NI except for goods moving within the UK.
The government's own assessment says it will be detrimental to trade and there have been warnings of a "barrage of bureaucracy" for firms to do business between NI and GB.
The Union flag in Northern Ireland is a wee bit tattered at the moment. Jim Shannon
Prime Minister Boris Johnson, however, said any measures would be "light touch," something DUP deputy leader Nigel Dodds said "no one could believe".
The DUP's Jim Shannon told the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee the deal was worse than that secured by former Prime Minister Theresa May, which his party was also vehemently opposed to. He said the deal alienated unionists.
"The Union flag in Northern Ireland is a wee bit tattered at the moment," he said.
Julian Smith was appearing in front of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee for the first time on Wednesday since he was appointed to the position.
Committee Chairman Simon Hoare described it as his first ever "interrogation" but said they would go easy on him.
Mr Smith and his officials, as well as being engaged in working to avoid a no-deal Brexit they had also prioritised working to save Harland & Wolff and Wrightbus jobs. He also said they had been working on legislative changes on same-sex marriage, abortion and Troubles injury payments.
Mr Paisley said he hoped Translink would be given the resources to be able to place more orders for buses.
It was stressed abortions would be carried out in regulated conditions with Mr Smith saying care was needed in discussing the matter in response to Jim Shannon who said the move paved the way for "back-street abortions".
This is not a threat to business, this is an opportunity. Julian Smith
On the Prime Minister's deal, he said it took Northern Ireland out of the EU, out of freedom of movement rules, its budget requirements, common fisheries and agricultural policies and allowed for free trade deals to be done.
He said they had to look at the positives of the agreement and his government was working to minimise any challenges for business across the Irish Sea.
He said the Prime Minister had had a "big success" in securing a majority in the Commons for his deal which had "big benefits" for Northern Ireland.
He said if the withdrawal agreement bill could get started through parliament he could make "crystal clear" the commitment for unfettered access for business and put "protective clauses" in the legislation.
"This is not a threat to business, this is an opportunity," he said.
He said Theresa May's deal "trapped NI in a backstop" which Prime Minister Boris Johnson had done away with.
Ian Paisley pointed out there was little detail in what was required for business to carry out trade "from one county to another" in terms of trade between NI and the rest of the UK.
"And you want me to vote for this? You can't be serious."
Mr Smith said they were fully committed to making sure the movement of good was as easy as possible and it was in their interests, HMRC's interests and the EU's interests.
"Let's see what is required... we will work to make sure we keep things as minimal and as similar as they are today."
Lady Hermon asked what reassurances could be given to the unionist community to ensure NI's position in UK was guaranteed.
She said it was "deeply unhelpful" the PM and Brexit secretary were unable to give reassurances to the unionist community Northern Ireland's place in the UK was assured when they discussed the deal in parliament on Saturday.
Mr Smith said the arrangements would no be in place until the mid 2020s and there was a lot of work to be done on the detail of those arrangements.
He stressed MLAs would be able to "get out" of the arrangements.
"In terms of the constitutional status of Northern Ireland, that is completely unchanged in this deal," the secretary of state said.
He confirmed any vote on those arrangements in the Assembly would be based on those that were in the Assembly chamber at the time.
"This consent mechanism puts the power back into the elected Assembly on a exception basis to ensure NI is not trapped in a situation it does not want to be part of."
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