Full text of Northern Secretary’s leaked briefings on crunch NI issues
Issues include Billy Caldwell case, Grenfell Tower fire, abortion and restoring Stormont
Charlotte Caldwell, and her son Billy, from Co Tyrone, stand outside the Home Office during a break in a meeting with officials to discuss how Billy can have his severe epilepsy treated with cannabis oil, a banned substance in Britain, in London, June 11th, 2018. File photograph: Peter Nicholls/Reuters
A document sent to outlets on Sunday night about a media opportunity with Northern Secretary Karen Bradley today, contains briefing lines for her to use in response to reporters’ questions on the British government’s position on issues affecting the North, as well as further detail “if pressed”.
CURRENT NI MEDIA STORIES
‘Fears growing’ over post-Brexit border and Brexit votes: Border issues ‘not given enough time’
Context: Concern over the Irish border in the event of a hard Brexit is growing, according to a university study. The report on the views of those living on both sides of the border was completed by researchers at Queen’s University Belfast. It indicated that half of residents are against a technological solution to custom checks.
The government has been criticised for not allowing time to debate the Irish border during a series of key Brexit votes at Westminster. Only 15 minutes was set aside for debating changes to devolved powers proposed by the Lords in the EU Withdrawal bill.
SNP MPs walked out of the House of Commons chamber during PMQs on 13 June 2018, after their Westminster leader Ian Blackford was removed by the Speaker.
Not giving Blackford the opportunity to speak?
Not true. The SNP was about to be granted a debate on how the devolution aspects of the EU Withdrawal Bill.
Disappointing that they chose not to take this opportunity to take this forward.
Will their debate be granted?
Understand a debate under SO24 has been granted. Entirely a matter for the Speaker of the House.
Almost no debate yesterday on the important issue of the role devolved administrations will play in the Brexit process?
The House agreed to the Programme Motion which allocated enough time to discuss devolved matters in the Bill. However, due to the number of divisions pushed to a vote this time was restricted. This was not a decision or choice by the Government.
On further engagement with DAs:
Our amendment respects the devolution settlement – as agreed with the Welsh Government.
We spent the last year negotiating with the Welsh and Scottish Governments and the amendment we have put forward sees the vast majority of EU powers with devolved responsibilities automatically flow to Belfast, Cardiff and Edinburgh.
We look forward to continuing to work closely with the Scottish Government to create the UK-wide legal frameworks we need to protect the UK internal market – a market which is vital for business and jobs in Scotland.
Digital Registration and the electoral consultation response
Context: Electoral digital registration which has been available in GB since 2014 is being rolled out to NI on Monday 18th by the Chief Electoral Officer. Digital registration is not replacing the paper application system which remains in place for those that wish to use it but we expect that as in the rest of the UK the majority of people will chose to use the new online system to register. All the parties have welcomed the introduction of the system.
The consultation response, although containing no decisions, will be more controversial. It will be interpreted as opening the door to the closure of regional electoral offices. It is important to be clear that decisions on the future structure of the Electoral Office are and operational matter for the CEO not matters for ministers.
I would like to take this opportunity welcome today’s launch of digital registration. This is an exciting step forward for NI. People will be able to register to vote quickly and easily on their phone, tablet or computer anywhere that is convenient for them. It provides for NI the same element of choice that is already available to the rest of the UK.
[On consultation response - if raised]
I am aware that the response to the consultation on the future of electoral delivery in NI has been published today. It will now be for the Chief Electoral Officer to consider how she wishes to move forward.
The Electoral Office is independent. Decisions on the structure and makeup of the Electoral Office are operational matters for the CEO.
Digital registration will be an additional option to paper registration – it won’t replace it, so those who wish to continue to register by post/ in person can do so.
Further delay in MLA pay
Context: The News Letter’s Sam McBride wrote on 15 June 2018 that the Secretary of State has “declined to explain what has cause months of delay in cutting the pay of MLAs while Stormont lies empty”.
The Secretary of State has made clear that she is minded to reduce MLA pay in line with the recommendations of Trevor Reaney. This remains her position.
Billy Caldwell Case
Context: A 12-year-old boy from County Tyrone has suffered an epileptic seizure hours after cannabis oil brought from Canada was confiscated at Heathrow Airport, his mother has said. Charlotte Caldwell said her son Billy had suffered a “small 30 second seizure”, the first in almost a year, on Tuesday morning. The cannabis oil was removed from Ms Caldwell at the airport on Monday. She has called on Home Office minister Nick Hurd to return the medication. Ms Caldwell posted a video of her son having the seizure on social media. Nick Hurd met Ms Caldwell on Monday and advised her that despite these extremely difficult circumstances, it is unlawful to possess Schedule 1 drugs such as those seized at the border on Monday morning, without a licence. The Minister urged the family to explore licensing options with the Department of Health Northern Ireland.
This is a Home Office lead, but we can provide the following lines should we be asked for comment:
Any parent will want to do whatever they can to alleviate the symptoms of their child when suffering from a debilitating illness.
Nevertheless, it is important that medicines are thoroughly tested to ensure they meet rigorous standards so that doctors and patients are assured of their efficacy, quality and safety.
In Northern Ireland licensing decisions are devolved and any applications would be considered by the Department of Health Northern Ireland. In the case of import or export licensing, the Home Office discharges this function for Northern Ireland and is the appropriate issuing authority for the UK.
Whilst we recognise that people with debilitating illnesses are looking to alleviate their symptoms, it is important that medicines are thoroughly tested to ensure they meet rigorous standards so that doctors and patients are assured of their efficacy, quality and safety.
Cannabis is listed as a Schedule 1 drug as in its raw form it is not recognised in the UK as having any medicinal benefit and is therefore subject to strict control restrictions.
It is unlawful to import, possess, supply or produce products containing, or consisting of, cannabis except under licence.
Grenfell/Belfast Towerblock fire safety issues
Context: One year on from the Grenfell Towerblock tragedy, sixty people, many of them elderly and vulnerable, have been told they must leave their homes in Block B, Russell Court, on Belfast’s Lisburn Road. The tower block is owned by Radius Housing who took the decision to close it after a group of experts reported a significant shortfall in fire safety measures at the building. All of the residents will be moved out within four weeks. In the meantime, marshals are on duty 24 hours per day to ensure that everyone remains safe. The fire alarm system in the building has been enhanced and water services and emergency procedures have been checked.
Nothing is more important than ensuring people are safe in their homes.
The safety of residents is absolutely paramount but this will undoubtedly cause huge disruption and concern for residents in Russell Court.
Fire safety marshals will be on alert around the clock while residents move out over the next four weeks
The NI Department for Communities is working closely with Radius Housing and the Northern Ireland Housing Executive to ensure that affected individuals are rehoused.
My Department will continue to keep close contact with officials from the Northern Ireland Civil Service on how residents are being rehoused and supported through this process.
DUP ‘fines politicians for media interviews’
Context: The DUP has declined to comment on claims it fines its politicians if they talk to the media without permission. A DUP insider told the BBC’s Nolan Show politicians are forced to pay as much as £1,000 if they break internal protocol on dealing with the press. The DUP said it operated under a constitution and a code of conduct, passed by its executive. The BBC has seen a letter signed by the DUP’s chief executive imposing a fine on an elected representative. While the politician was asked to pay a £100 fine, the BBC understands repeat offenders might face higher charges of £500 or £1,000. The other main Stormont parties all told the BBC they do not impose similar penalties.
This is unlikely to be something that you will wish to comment on beyond noting that it is a matter for the DUP.
Departmental core narrative
Restoration of an Executive
The Government’s top priority remains the restoration of devolved government in Northern Ireland.
My focus remains on redoubling efforts to restore a locally elected, democratically accountable devolved government in Northern Ireland. Engaging closely with the political parties, and the Irish Government as appropriate, to encourage and support work towards an accommodation to restore the Executive.
The UK Government also has a responsibility to ensure good governance and the continued delivery of public services. That’s why, with great reluctance, we intervened to set budget allocations for NI departments for 2018-19.
I continue to keep available a range of options for supporting the process and encouraging the parties to achieve the positive outcome we all deeply want.
I continue to keep under review my statutory obligation to call an Assembly Election.
We will take those decisions which are necessary to provide good governance and political stability for Northern Ireland - consistent always with restoring the Executive and local decision-making at the earliest possible opportunity.
We will continue to implement our obligations under the Agreement and its successors where possible - always working for the good of the community as a whole.
We will continue to work with all the Northern Ireland parties - and with the Irish Government as appropriate - to remove the barriers to restoring the Executive and a fully functioning Assembly.
As we have made repeatedly clear, we continue to believe that a majority in Northern Ireland are committed to the Union, and therefore the tests for a border poll have not been met. On this basis, UKG has no plans to hold a border poll.
As the Taoiseach himself acknowledged, continued discussion about a border poll at this time is unhelpful and unnecessary.
Considering the importance of this judgment and the questions of law involved, I understand and welcome the NICS decision to appeal. It will be valuable to have these issues fully tested by the Courts so that there is clarity about the implications of the judgment. As these legal proceedings are ongoing it would not be appropriate to comment further at this time.
I recognise, however, that in the ongoing absence of locally appointed Ministers from the elected NI political parties, the civil servants in Northern Ireland have been left with the responsibility of ensuring governance in Northern Ireland. Since January last year, the NI Civil Service has continued to manage and maintain the delivery of vital public services in Northern Ireland in very difficult circumstances. The NICS and are to be commended for the work they have and continue to do in the public interest.
But, I remain firm in my view that it is absolutely crucial that we secure the return of a functioning, effective, devolved government in Northern Ireland, to get back to the business of governing and to take the strategic decisions that affect the long-term future of Northern Ireland and its people.
EU exit negotiations
We welcome the progress we made at March European Council, including progress on the Withdrawal Agreement and agreeing the Implementation Period. We want to get onto the future relationship as quickly as possible - both on the economic and the security partnership.
We recognise the need to address the remaining areas on the withdrawal. On Northern Ireland / Ireland, we need to come up with a solution which works for communities on both sides, recognising the unique social, political and economic circumstances of the border. We are clear in our objectives of protecting the Belfast Agreement, avoiding a hard border (with no physical infrastructure or related checks and controls) and protecting the economic and constitutional integrity of the UK.
We have been undertaking an intensive work programme with the Commission and Irish on solutions since the March Council. We have engaged in a detailed process and schedule of meetings that look at the issues and solutions covering the areas in their draft protocol (with solutions going no further than the PM’s Mansion House speech). This covers a range of issues from customs and SPS through to citizenship rights under the Belfast Agreement. As the PM set out in her letter to Donald Tusk, we are committed to translating plan C into legal text in the Withdrawal Agreement.
In our view, we need to address the border through discussions on our future trading relationship with the EU - that’s why we’re keen to get on with discussing the future.
Future Economic Partnership
The UK is seeking the broadest and deepest possible agreement that covers more sectors and co-operates more fully than any other Free Trade Agreement. We want an economic partnership that delivers the maximum benefits for our economies while respecting the integrity of each other’s institutions. We start from a unique position - on day one we will have exactly the same rules and regulations. A new trading agreement should reflect this starting point.
Temporary Customs Arrangement (‘the backstop’)
The UK has been clear that we are committed to turning all of the commitments made under the Joint Report into legally binding text. There are some aspects of the Commission’s proposals which we agree with, particularly the preservation of the Common Travel Area.
However, the PM has made our position on the other elements of the draft text clear, and said that we could never accept this. That remains our position, and that is why those parts are marked as not agreed in the Withdrawal treaty text.
While the UK believes that these commitments can be fulfilled through the overall UK-EU future partnership, it is also necessary to ensure there is a backstop solution for the Northern Ireland border that both avoids a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland and protects the constitutional integrity of the UK internal market.
We have agreed that, at least, the so called ‘backstop’ option should be translated in legally binding form in to the Withdrawal Agreement.
The UK’s proposal on the customs elements of a temporary backstop is that a Temporary Customs Arrangement should exist between the UK and the EU. This will ensure that if a customs arrangement with the EU is not in place by the end of the Implementation Period there will be no hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, or between Northern Ireland and the rest of the UK. We are clear this would only be used in very specific circumstances and that it will be strictly time-limited. It is not our preferred option.
The Prime Minister set out, on 7 June, that we are committed to making sure that the future arrangements are in place by the end of December 2021 at the very latest. She also set out that we will not sign up for anything which means the EU can hold the UK in this temporary backstop against its will. At the point that the new customs arrangement is ready the backstop will end.
We look forward to discussing this further with the EU.
Abortion in Northern Ireland
Context: On 12 June 2018, Amnesty International criticised Karen Bradley’s claim that parliament was not qualified to change Northern Ireland’s abortion regime and her further contention that people in Northern Ireland did not want Westminster to take responsibility for the issue. The Government is facing mounting pressure to reform the strict abortion laws in Northern Ireland after Supreme Court judges expressed the view that the law is incompatible with human rights legislation insofar as it prohibits abortion on the grounds of fatal fetal abnormality; rape and incest (though no formal declaration of incompatibility was made by the Court, given the standing issues of the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission)
The Government believes this is a matter for the people of Northern Ireland and Northern Ireland politicians.
Abortion is an extremely sensitive issue, and we recognise the strongly held views on all sides of the debate in Northern Ireland.
The Government thinks it is absolutely essential that a devolved government in Northern Ireland is restored, so that locally elected, democratically accountable politicians can debate fundamental changes to policy on abortion, and the people of Northern Ireland have a direct say in the process.
Our key priority is to redouble our efforts to restore power-sharing, so that the people of Northern Ireland can decide what is right for Northern Ireland, rather than Westminster speaking on their behalf. .
If asked about the Supreme Court judgment
The Government is carefully considering the full judgment.
This is clearly a complex area of law, and an extremely sensitive subject matter, which raises a number of different issues to consider.
Does the abortion referendum result in Ireland not change things?
The referendum in Ireland has not changed the UK Government’s successive approach to how abortion is dealt with in Northern Ireland.
It is important to be clear. The referendum was not a vote on how the law should be reformed. In Ireland, a change of constitution requires a referendum before introducing new legislation.
The Irish Government and Dail will now debate and pass the legislation to put in place in Ireland.
What will the UK Government do to recognise the fact that Northern Ireland will soon have the most restrictive abortion law of any part of the British Isles?
We are committed to restoring locally elected, democratically accountable devolved government in Northern Ireland, so that fundamental changes can be made in Northern Ireland.
And action has already been taken in this area. We have put in place arrangements that mean women from Northern Ireland will not be charged for termination of pregnancy services in England, with travel support available for those women who find themselves in a financial hardship situation.
We believe this approach strikes an appropriate balance between the devolved position of abortion in Northern Ireland, and allowing women normally resident in Northern Ireland to have access to abortion services in England within the bounds of the law.
If the Irish Government extends provision of abortion services to women normally resident in Northern Ireland, won’t this increase pressure for Northern Ireland to update its abortion law?
It would not be appropriate to speculate on what approach may or may not be adopted following the referendum. That is a matter for the Irish Government and the Irish Parliament.
The UK Government has already put in place arrangements to allow women normally resident in Northern Ireland to have access to safe abortion services in England within the bounds of the law.
Since the 29th June last year no Northern Irish women have been charged for abortion procedures performed in England.
But this decision does not change the fact that abortion is a devolved issue, and therefore rightly one for the Northern Ireland Assembly to debate.
If asked whether the Government agrees that abortion is a human rights issue:
The UK has a longstanding tradition of ensuring our rights and liberties are protected domestically and of fulfilling our international human rights obligations.
Rights are protected domestically through the Human Rights Act 1998 – and through the devolution statutes, as well as other key pieces of legislation and the common law.
Abortion raises complex human rights issues, as has been recognised by the courts when considering these matters.
The Government is carefully considering the recent Supreme Court full judgment.
If asked why the Government will not just repeal sections 58 and 59 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 to legalise abortion in NI
We have no plans to amend the law on abortion in either England and Wales or Northern Ireland.
This is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland, and ultimately this is an issue for a restored Assembly to consider, where the decision can be taken by locally elected, locally accountable politicians.
[If pressed: repealing those sections do not solve the issue, and without any new provisions, offer no safeguards for women. It is not appropriate to leave a gap in the law. A new legal framework would be needed to replace those provisions, which is rightly a matter for locally accountable politicians in Northern Ireland to decide its policy on.]
Is the Government against extending abortion rights to Northern Ireland?
We are very clear that abortion is a devolved issue and the Assembly is the proper place for such legislation for Northern Ireland to be considered.
The Government therefore has no plans to introduce legislation changing Northern Ireland’s abortion law. We are committed to restoring locally elected, democratically accountable devolved government in Northern Ireland.
But that does not prevent others from introducing such legislation if they so wish.
In such circumstances, it is worth reiterating two important considerations:
One, the power of Westminster, as the sovereign Parliament, to legislate remains; and
Two, the Government’s policy is to allow a free vote on matters of conscience such as abortion.
Building on the good progress made on proposals to address the legacy of the past, this Government believes that now is the time to seek wider views. That is why on 11 May, the Secretary of State launched a consultation to provide everyone who has an interest, with the opportunity to see the proposed way forward and contribute to the discussion on the issues.
This is an open consultation and we want everyone to have their say on how the new legacy institutions would work in practice.
There is broad agreement amongst victims and survivors that the legacy institutions as they are currently set up are not working well for anyone.
As our Northern Ireland manifesto at the last Election made clear the Government remains committed to the implementation of the legacy institutions in the 2014 Stormont House Agreement.
We believe that the legacy institutions have the potential to provide better outcomes for victims and survivors and for all those affected by the Troubles. The new institutions will be under legal obligations to operate in ways that are fair, balanced and proportionate.
The HIU will deal with deaths in chronological order and ensure that unresolved deaths - including hundreds of murders caused by terrorists - are investigated.
[IF RAISED]: accusations that PM was wrong and the legacy system is balanced
A number of terrorist murders from the Troubles are actively under investigation by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and other police forces. I am clear that under current mechanisms for investigating the past there is a disproportionate focus on former members of the armed forces and the Police. The Government is committed to ensuring that all outstanding deaths in Northern Ireland should be investigated in ways that are fair, balanced and proportionate
The point the Prime Minister was making was that we want to see all outstanding deaths in Northern Ireland investigated in a fair, balanced and proportionate way to ensure the system does not focus disproportionately on the security forces.
We want the HIU set up to look at all outstanding cases, and to investigate in chronological order, so that there is no unfair focus.
Statute of Limitations
Our Northern Ireland manifesto made clear, any approach to the past must be consistent with the rule of law. Any amnesty or statute of limitations would need to apply to all those involved in Troubles-related incidents, including former terrorists, if the UK is to comply with international law. To imply otherwise would be to mislead veterans.
A statute of limitations does not remove the need to have Article 2 compliant investigation where individuals have been killed as a result of the use of force by the state.
We must remember that in Northern Ireland, our soldiers put their lives on the line to uphold the rule of law. Many people in Northern Ireland still cling to the hope that the law will see justice done for the many terrible crimes that took place during the Troubles. For that reason, we need to be aware that within Northern Ireland there is widespread opposition to any form of statute of limitations - from victims and survivors from all parts of the community; from political parties; from many veterans who live in Northern Ireland; and from former and serving police officers.
It is better to have the HIU, a carefully designed Article 2 compliant mechanism which would only re-investigate in specific circumstances set out in the legislation. The HIU will have a duty to act in a manner which is fair, balanced and proportionate.
Treating veterans fairly
The current mechanisms for investigating the past are not delivering for victims. Right now too many cases are not being investigated, including hundreds of murders by terrorists.
Implementing the consultation proposals will create the Historical Investigations Unit (HIU) which will be under a statutory duty to aim to complete its work within 5 years and to deal with deaths in chronological order.
The HIU will be under a legal duty to be fair, balanced and proportionate, to ensure that our veterans are not unfairly treated or disproportionately investigated.
The HIU cannot unnecessarily duplicate any investigation or part of it. It will look at more deaths of security forces than deaths by security forces.
Support for veterans
Where veterans face allegations in connection with events arising from their duties, they receive full legal support and representation (including the services of a barrister, where this is appropriate) for as long as is necessary. This applies regardless of how long the veteran served, the duration of any proceedings, or how long ago the events occurred.
In addition to legal support, a range of welfare and pastoral support is available, depending on the needs of the individual veteran. Sometimes this is delivered through the MOD’s ‘Veterans UK’, and the Regimental Association or equivalent organisation can also be involved, as can appropriate charities, depending on circumstances.
Inquest reform is essential if the inquest system is to work effectively. The Government continues to support reform of the legacy inquest system.
However, this is a devolved matter and it will be for the devolved administration to make a decision on inquest funding.
[if pressed on whether it will consider the any business case on legacy funding] The UK Government will continue to ensure that it meets all its legal obligations in respect of legacy inquests
I have been deeply moved listening to the victims and survivors I have met in recent months, including those living with severe injuries as a result of the Troubles.
Work on a pension is properly for the Executive to take forward. It is one of the many reasons why it is so important to have an Executive restored. However, the Government is aware of how deeply upsetting and frustrating this delay is for those who suffered so much during the Troubles.
That is why I have commissioned advice from the Victims Commissioner in Northern Ireland on a victims’ pension. This is an important issue for the UK Government and we want to ensure that progress is made.
The Government believes that once updated advice is received, consideration must be given to agrees how a pension could be brought forward in a way that has the support of, and meets the needs of, victims and survivors in Northern Ireland.
In the continued absence of an Executive, I set out a NI Budget for the 2018-19 financial year in a Statement to Parliament on 8 March.
I am planning now to take forward a Budget Bill to put this budget position on a legal footing, providing certainty on finances, in order to protect delivery of public services and ensure good governance.
The Government is committed to a comprehensive and ambitious set of city deals across Northern Ireland to boost investment and help unlock Northern Ireland’s full potential.
I understand that the Belfast City Regions has now presented its initial proposals to officials from the NICS and UK Government, and that work is ongoing to refine projects and develop the appropriate business cases.
I welcome this progress, and officials from UKG will continue to support the development of a set of city deal. There remains more work to be done, but it is important that progress continues.
Local Government Services Review
I understand your calls for a review of local government services, however, you will understand that this is a devolved matter and not one for the UK Government.
This is one of many areas which show just how important it is to have a restored Executive back in place and making the strategic decisions required in the interests of the whole community. And that is why restoring devolution remains our overriding priority.