Last week, the Government reached an agreement to restore the Executive in Northern Ireland. I am proud to have been a part of the work which went into the agreement, and I am in no doubt that effective devolved government is the surest way to safeguard the Union and deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.

Last week also marked the 4th anniversary of Brexit, which afforded the British people opportunities to cut burdensome red tape, build new trading relationships with new friends and old allies, enabled us the fastest vaccine roll out in Europe during the pandemic, and has delivered record-high services exports of £472 billion.

I know that many in our community disagreed with these significant changes. I have always been acutely aware of the scale of the division that pervaded our country during and after Brexit, as well as the strain it put on relations with our European allies. While I am proud to have played a part in transforming our relationship with Ireland and the EU – enabling the Prime Minister to deliver the Windsor Framework last year – challenges remain. These challenges could be felt acutely in Northern Ireland. For those who may be unaware, Northern Ireland has been without a devolved Government since 2022. This means the people of Northern Ireland have been without locally elected politicians taking the decisions needed to tackle the pressing issues facing people and businesses. The last two years without an Executive have seen the deterioration of public services, with lengthening NHS waiting lists and an increasing deficit in public finances. The absence of the Executive and Assembly has also prevented important legislation being passed, such as the ban on XL bullies and legislation to raise the legal age for marriage and civil partnership to 18. Crucial decisions on infrastructure and the environment have also been held back, including on rail connectivity, and managing water quality.

I was proud to play my part in helping the Prime Minister deliver the Windsor Framework last year to address issues that had been caused by the Northern Ireland Protocol. No trade agreement is perfect, and I had always stated that we could build on the original Brexit withdrawal agreement for a brighter future. The Framework promised a solution by ensuring the smooth flow of trade within the UK, ending bureaucracy such as the need for traders to have full international customs documentation, and enabling goods to move on the basis of UK standards – removing prohibitions on goods like steel and sausages.

The Framework also disapplied a range of EU law to ensure that Northern Ireland benefits from the same VAT and alcohol tax regime as the rest of the UK, ensuring more than 98% of Northern Ireland subsidies will be able to be granted without EU notification, and ensuring medicines available in Northern Ireland are those approved by UK authorities.

Finally, the Framework ends the automatic application of EU law in Northern Ireland – with a powerful new Stormont Brake that would end the automatic presumption of dynamic alignment of EU rules in the very narrow range of areas where they are applied there. However, it was always clear that the Framework’s full benefits could not be felt without a functioning Executive in Northern Ireland. Nor could the challenges facing public services be addressed. The powerful new democratic mechanisms in the Windsor Framework including the Stormont Brake require an Assembly to be up and running, and a First and Deputy First Minister in office, to function. Thank goodness, the Assembly and Executive are now back.

Without that, the NI institutions would not have a say – nor will they be able to address crucial issues like how best to support the NHS, schools, and hospitals. It is for this reason that the UK Government has pursued negotiations to enable power-sharing to return, to ensure the people of Northern Ireland have locally elected representatives addressing the issues that matter to them.

The proposed deal will not commit any part of the United Kingdom to any new form of alignment. There is nothing in the deal that would result in British laws becoming aligned with EU law. There is also nothing in the deal preventing British law from diverging from any retained EU law.

Alignment between the law which applies in NI and EU law – which remains strictly limited to what is necessary to retain market access in the special circumstances prevailing on the island of Ireland, and subject to the democratic consent and safeguards Parliament has agreed and ratified – will not increase either. It will remain for Ministers, Parliament and the Northern Ireland Assembly to decide on any future divergence – rightly in line with Parliamentary sovereignty as a cornerstone of our constitution.

This is a deal which strengthens the UK Internal Market and the Union in the long term, while ensuring the whole of the UK can benefit from the freedoms delivered by Brexit. It builds on the progress under the Windsor Framework and offers a brighter future not only for Northern Ireland, but for the rest of the country. This deal is fundamental to the progress of the Windsor Framework, and represents a moment where, finally, a chapter of our national story can close, and a new can begin, in a spirit of friendship across the United Kingdom, with Ireland, and with the European Union.

More information can be found in the Safegaurding the Union Command Paper:

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