Brandon Lewis: Stormont's faults are obvious, but it is still a good thing it is back
Secretary of State Brandon Lewis on the Executive's failings during the Covid pandemic, and why he remains adamant there is not an Irish Sea border despite the early, obvious disruption caused by the Brexit protocol
A new, if disputed, border in the Irish Sea, bringing delays in deliveries and complicating our food supplies, is not the rosiest environment for marking a year on from the New Decade, New Approach agreement.
But 12 months after the deal that restored power-sharing following a three-year hiatus, Secretary of State Brandon Lewis insists the very fact we still have an Executive at all is to be cheered.
"From several years of having no Executive at Stormont, I think having the Executive back up and running is a very good thing," he said.
"There are a range of things in the New Decade, New Approach agreement that over the last 12 months we've been focused on delivering. We've got a fair bit done, even despite the challenges of Covid."
One of its aims was to "restore public confidence in devolved government". But Executive shenanigans during the pandemic have tested that.
These included nearly four days of delay in November on key lockdown decisions on which livelihoods and businesses were dependent, and the attendance of senior Sinn Fein figures including Deputy First Minister Michelle O'Neill at the large funeral of senior IRA man Bobby Storey in June.
Mr Lewis said: "The reality is when you've got five different parties making up an Executive, who have very different political views as well as their different constitutional views, you're always going to get points where they disagree on things on any given issue, let alone on something like Covid, which of course creates so many nuances and challenges for us to deal with across the UK. I think most people understand that there are those times where there are disagreements.
"I'm not going to pretend that there are times when I think the Executive didn't cover itself in glory when it had the issues shortly before Christmas of taking three-and-a-half days for an agreement, and you can't shy away from that."
On the Executive: ‘It didn’t cover itself in glory by taking over three days to come to an agreement (on restrictions in the hospitality sector), and you can’t shy away from that’
He is keen to see an independent fiscal council set up by the Department of Finance to account for spending. "The department needs to get on and deliver that," he added.
The Great Yarmouth MP says business has reported to him that money that has come direct from the Treasury - for example, in the form of the furlough scheme - has arrived promptly.
But he says nearly £3bn given to the Executive in Barnett consequentials - money for devolved regions based on spending in England - had taken longer to be distributed.
"Something like an independent fiscal council would give people confidence around where the money is being spent, how it's being spent, and ensuring it is being spent on what it's supposed to be spent on."
While "it would never be appropriate for a SoS to be telling elected members of the Executive what to do outside of a formal directive, which isn't applicable during Covid", he says the Storey affair was a pinch-point.
"Obviously the issues in the summer around the Bobby Storey funeral, (also) where we had the issues with the Executive taking three-and-a-half days before Christmas to come to an agreement, there were times where the Executive has not always covered itself in glory, I can't deny that.
"But, ultimately, they managed to work through and got into a position where they could have a common agreed position on that issue just before Christmas, which is a good thing."
Another ambition of the agreement was to tackle paramilitarism. But it's debatable how successful that strategy has been. Only this week a UDA faction issued a death threat against the First Minister, not long after a death threat against a Belfast Telegraph journalist.
He says cash bribes aren't the answer: "It's definitely not that."
A community transition fund to help shake off the influence of paramilitaries recently lost financing.
He says he is working with Justice Minister Naomi Long, as well as tackling the issue at a UK Government level, and stresses that paramilitary threats are "completely unacceptable".
He answers a question about whether he is in favour of an amnesty for British soldiers for crimes committed during the Troubles by commenting on legacy more broadly, saying he's been engaging with victims' groups on legacy in remote online meetings via Zoom or Teams.
Asked again about an amnesty for soldiers, he said: "I'm not sure amnesty is the right thing.
"What we did in the Overseas Operation Bill in the Government's party election manifesto was around vexatious claims. I don't think anybody can rightly disagree that we need to end vexatious claims against people, that is not a good use of the legal system or taxpayers' or individuals' money.
"We've got to bear in mind, of 3,500 murders, the majority of those do not relate in any form to the Armed Forces, and we owe it to people across communities to get to the bottom of understanding what happened so that we can get that ability to have reconciliation."
He insists the new arrangements under the Brexit protocol do not amount to a border in the Irish Sea despite the requirements for checks on some food products, and for pre-notification in Britain's ports to our Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.
It's fair to say that the early days of the protocol haven't been straightforward, with parcels delayed and Sainsbury's adapting to uncertainty by stocking Spar products. Guidance on parcels wasn't issued until December 31.
"I'm not denying there has been any disruption on parcels," he said. "But some of these companies made decisions around their parcel processes before Christmas, before the deal was done and before the guidance went out. The guidance went out on December 31, so understandably they already made plans.
"My point was that flow is starting to come through and people will start to see throughout January, I'm confident, that they'll get their parcels in the same way they would have done in November or December."
He insists Brexit has not affected some deliveries. While Peloton has put local orders on hold as it adapts to the new arrangements, Mr Lewis said: "A friend of mine has ordered one and he has been told March delivery, and he lives in the Midlands. It's because there's such high demand and issues around that. It's not necessarily because of anything about leaving the EU.
On parcel disruption: ‘If Peloton has put its deliveries on hold, I will take it up with them, as there’s no reason for them in terms of parcel deliveries to have any issue’
"If Peloton has said that, I will take it up with them, as there's no reason for them in terms of parcel deliveries to have any issue."
He said the situation at Dover before Christmas, when large numbers of lorry drivers were stuck as France refused to allow them entry after a new Covid-variant emerged, had also created problems.
Mr Lewis was asked if people here could rightly feel hard done by due to the protocol's effects.
"I fully appreciate how people have a view, and people's views have been from what they've seen and what they've experienced over this period. So what I say to you is that I would expect people will start to see the reality and the positive outcomes from this over the next few weeks and the next few months.
"In terms of things like Spar and Sainsbury's, there was no reason and no need for Sainsbury's to do what they did, that was a commercial decision for them. Other supermarkets like M&S have had no problems at all, they use one of the biggest hauliers there is and they've no issues with supply.
"There's a real competitive opportunity for NI over anywhere else in the world because it has that ability as part of the UK, part of the UK customs union and single market, and has the ability to trade with the EU.
"Before the end of the year I'd be hoping to see some of the real benefits of that in terms of inward investment and business growth."
He predicts that "the parcels issue will become a non-issue", and sticks by his view that the new arrangements are not an Irish Sea border, but instead building on existing checks which had applied to livestock.
"All this has come together to make it perception-wise more challenging," he added.
"But in reality, I think that once things settle down people will see that it works."
He attended the House of Commons remotely during the Covid crisis, including a period where he was self-isolating.
Some eyebrows were raised this week when East Antrim MP Sammy Wilson travelled to the House of Commons instead of taking part remotely.
On DUP MP at Commons: ‘I don’t know if Sammy Wilson had a particular reason to come over, but it’s fair to say most MPs are able to take part remotely’
"I don't know if Sammy had any particular personal reason to come over, and you don't know the ins and outs of why an individual may take a particular decision, but I think it's fair to say most MPs yesterday were able to, and did, take part in a remote way. That worked for them.
"Sammy may have felt particular reasons or he may have had a particular constituent and wanted to go and personally represent their views, but most MPs are able to get involved in a remote way," he said.
Responding to the Secretary of State’s comments about spending, and the prospect of an independent fiscal council, the Department of Finance said: “To date more than £2.8bn of Covid-funding has been allocated to the health service and other public services, vulnerable people, and businesses.
“An additional £200m was announced by Treasury on December 23 and the Executive will decide where this additional funding is directed.
“The focus of the Department since March has been on responding to Covid-19.
“However the Finance Minister remains committed to the establishment of a fiscal council and will be putting arrangements in place for this shortly.”