Just in case there was any doubt, during Northern Ireland Questions in the House of Commons today, the NI Secretary of State, Owen Paterson, took the opportunity to set out the new ground rules for the NI First and deputy First Ministers.
Interestingly, it was in response to what appears to have been an attempt by former NI Secretary of State, Shaun Woodward, to provide a false pretext for a meeting between OFMDFM and the Prime Minister – where budgetary concerns could then be raised.
Here are the specific questions and answers [permanent link]
Mr Shaun Woodward (St Helens South and Whiston) (Lab): The Secretary of State and his right hon. Friend the Prime Minister gave an unambiguous undertaking before the Hillsborough Castle agreement that the previous Government’s financial arrangements for the devolution of policing and justice would be upheld. In relation to the security situation, this unequivocally included a commitment that the Northern Ireland Executive would have access to the reserve. Can the Secretary of State confirm that he continues to stand by that commitment, without any new conditions being imposed by the Treasury?
Mr Paterson: I am grateful to the right hon. Gentleman for his question. I have said this already, but I am happy to look him in the eye and repeat it. Should the security situation deteriorate, then—according to the agreement that the previous Government, in which he was Secretary of State, made with the then Executive—the Justice Minister and the Chief Constable have the right to approach the Government with a clear strategy on security grounds in order to call on the national reserve.
Mr Woodward: I am grateful for that reply. We all note the decision to raise the threat level here in Great Britain, and the Secretary of State can be assured that the Opposition fully support the decision to address the problems created by that threat. Given the level of recent attacks in Northern Ireland, including the recent use of a hand grenade, and given the need for the response to be measured, proportionate and joined up, would a request by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to meet the Prime Minister as soon as possible be fully supported by the Secretary of State?
Mr Paterson: The Prime Minister made regular visits to Northern Ireland when he was Leader of the Opposition. He met the First Minister and Deputy First Minister then, to discuss a broad range of issues. He intends to go back to Northern Ireland, and at that time he will have the opportunity to discuss matters with them. If the right hon. Gentleman is referring specifically to the budget settlement, it is appropriate that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister first discuss that with me, having done their utmost to come to an agreement and consensus in the Executive on a budget for the substantial funds that have been allocated to them in this spending round. [added emphasis throughout]
That should clear up any confusion the NI Executive might have had.