Party leaders in Northern Ireland must “do the right thing for the people”, Julian Smith said ahead of urgent talks to restore powersharing at Stormont.
The Northern Ireland Secretary warned the public has seen the quality of public services “decline” and key decisions “kicked into the long grass” in Northern Ireland without a functioning executive.
He added if an executive cannot be restored then the Government will “pursue the decision-making powers that are needed at the earliest opportunity”, while also highlighting legal requirements on the UK Parliament to extend same-sex marriage and abortion to Northern Ireland.
Speaking in the Commons, Mr Smith told MPs: “The duty to legislate will come into effect if the executive is not back up and running before October 21 and my department will shortly begin an awareness campaign to ensure that women and citizens across Northern Ireland are clear as to how we plan to proceed to regulate for these new legal duties.”
I will this week work urgently with the Northern Ireland parties and the Irish government to do everything I can to break the logjam and to get Stormont up and runningJulian Smith
Mr Smith said the Government’s preference is such issues are taken forward by a restored assembly and executive, adding: “But to those who now lobby me and others in Government to somehow change the law, I say the only way for these laws to change and to be shaped in the best interests of Northern Ireland is for Northern Ireland party leaders to form an executive and to get back into government.
“To that end, following frustratingly slow pace over the summer due to a range of factors, I will this week work urgently with the Northern Ireland parties and the Irish government to do everything I can to break the logjam and to get Stormont up and running because the time for that is now.
“The party leaders need to show leadership and do the right thing for the people of Northern Ireland.”
DUP MP Sammy Wilson (East Antrim) said Mr Smith has “fallen into the trap” by “spreading the blame” across all party leaders for the lack of an executive, adding: “The only party leader who is opposing and stopping the formation of the executive in Northern Ireland is the leader of Sinn Fein.”
Mr Smith also said there is a commitment to introduce a historical institutional abuse bill in Westminster “by the end of the year” in the absence of an executive.
Independent Lady Hermon (North Down) sought assurances on when such legislation would come forward, adding: “They have been enormously patient, they have suffered for too long, they have waited too long and they deserve compensation – when will it be?”
Mr Smith said he is “confident” the legislation can be brought forward in the “coming weeks”.
DUP Westminster leader Nigel Dodds questioned why legislation connected to Brexit and abortion law could be passed within hours, adding on compensating victims: “There’s absolutely no reason why this legislation can’t be passed very, very quickly.”
Tory MP Simon Hoare, chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, said legislation on historical institutional abuse needs to be worked out before Christmas, and warned MPs may not vote in favour of the Queen’s Speech if it is not included.
He said if historical abuse on this scale had taken place anywhere else “it would have been rectified and sorted out by now”.
He said: “Unless there is a bill announced in the Queen’s Speech, my hunch may be that some of us would find grave difficulty voting for the gracious speech when the vote is called.”
On abortion, the DUP’s Mr Wilson said the Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 was “hijacked” by Labour.
He said: “This bill if we were going to give it a name as to its effect would either be the prevention of the formation of the executive in Northern Ireland bill, or some of the people in Northern Ireland who have protested in the streets over recent weeks about the most controversial part of this, see it as the kill babies in Northern Ireland bill, that’s the kind of anger which it has generated.”
Deputy Speaker Dame Rosie Winterton intervened saying: “I do feel the use of inflammatory language is absolutely unacceptable.”
Shadow Northern Ireland minister Karin Smyth asked what discussions are taking place in Brexit negotiations to stop “human traffickers and enslavers” exploiting Northern Ireland’s land border.
Ms Smyth said there needed to be enough police resources to tackle human traffickers, and said it will also be important to make sure there are resources to support victims of human trafficking.
She said: “These are victims and victims, if we do find them and if we are able to support them which in itself is a massive if, they do require a lot of support and resource, particularly around housing, and particularly around health provision and especially, as part of that, around mental health support and counselling.”