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Failure must not sink system that maintains our precarious peace


Happy days: members of the Stormont Executive post for a picture after the 2016 election

Happy days: members of the Stormont Executive post for a picture after the 2016 election

Happy days: members of the Stormont Executive post for a picture after the 2016 election

I started to take an interest in Northern Ireland when I was 14 years of age, which was in 1972 - the height of the Troubles. I remember one day a 15-year-old girl being killed due to being caught in crossfire. I thought, "What a tragedy, what a waste. And for what?" That sparked my interest and was the seed of my involvement in the province.

To coin a phrase, I have no selfish interests in Northern Ireland. I am just interested because I care - about the people, the province and, yes, the Union.

Since entering Parliament in 1997, I have served as a Shadow Minister for Northern Ireland for five years and have been the chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee since 2010.

In 1998, I carefully considered the legislation which followed the Good Friday/Belfast Agreement and voted against some, though not all, of it.

Today, as in September 2015, when the institutions almost collapsed, I find myself taking positions intended to help preserve the devolution settlement, which, 19 years ago, I was critical of parts of.

I would, though, be the first to recognise that Northern Ireland has come a long way in those years, and I think our challenge now is to help ensure that the institutions - the Assembly, the Executive, the criminal justice system and so on - perform well enough to justify their existence in the eyes of the people of Northern Ireland.

The excesses of the Renewable Heat Incentive are regrettable, and I'm pleased that Arlene Foster and Simon Hamilton are proposing redress which will neutralise the cost to Northern Ireland.

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But the failure of this scheme should not even come close to threatening to bring the institutions down.

Nor, in my view, should it lead to the resignation, or even temporary stepping down, of Arlene Foster as First Minister.

I have known Arlene for about 20 years and know her to be a caring, competent person. In my assessment, she has been a very good minister and First Minister.

What would her resignation achieve? Who would take over? Would this stabilise the workings of the Assembly and the Executive, or throw it into turmoil?

If some parties want an inquiry held into the RHI, then fine. But by way of an analogy, if an inquiry were held into, say, the reason for UK immigration levels over the last six years, would Theresa May (as then Home Secretary) have to step down as Prime Minister while it took place? Of course not.

The whole issue has, unfortunately, become party political, with some seemingly threatening to force Assembly elections.

But if elections were held, would the state of the parties be significantly different, or would they be approximate to how they are now? If the latter, what would have been achieved by holding those elections, apart from extra expense to the electorate?

I have been alarmed by the force of some of the comments made and the risks some people commenting appear willing to take.

I have even been asked if this issue could lead to the imposition of direct rule.

I, as a Conservative, English MP do not want to see a return to direct rule, and would suggest that those turning up the volume on this issue need to be careful not to throw the baby out with the bathwater.

Yes, the RHI ended up a mess. Yes, it should be sorted out. But I would question whether this is an issue which should lead to new elections being held, or an issue which should threaten to bring down the institutions.

I believe there are bigger issues at stake, and, while ensuring that the RHI is put right, we should be concentrating on those important issues.

Again, I'm not underestimating the importance of correcting the RHI problem, but, looking back to those dark days of 1972 when 15-year-old girls were being killed by crossfire, I do think we need to keep such matters in perspective.

Laurence Robertson is the Conservative Member of Parliament for Tewkesbury and chair of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee at Westminster

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