Northern IrelandSpeeches

Chris Heaton-Harris – 2023 Speech at Conservative Party Conference

The speech made by Chris Heaton-Harris, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, in Manchester on 1 October 2023.

Hello Conference!

For the last 391 days I’ve had the best job in Government – being Secretary of State for Northern Ireland.

In that time I’ve travelled the length and breadth of Northern Ireland and it has truly been an honour to see and meet so many amazing people, social enterprises, businesses, and voluntary organisations.

I’ve been to places like Harland and Wolff – world-leaders in ship building, where, thanks to a Ministry of Defence contract, ship building is returning to Belfast.

Places like the Game of Thrones Studios – the TV series that has generated huge amounts of money for the Northern Ireland economy.

Places like Hinch Distillery – the home of some of Northern Ireland’s finest whiskey and gin. As my SpAds will know, that was a really tough visit., I can tell you…

Northern Ireland has so much to offer – not just to the 1.9 million people that live there, or the 5 million tourists who visit every year, but to us all as an integral part of the United Kingdom.

This was demonstrated to me yesterday, down the road in Leigh where I had an excellent visit with our MP there, the brilliant James Grundy, to a company called O’Neills, a sportswear company with a factory in Northern Ireland, and a design centre in Leigh that employs 40 people.

You will no doubt have seen their name emblazoned on rugby and football kits of teams across the United Kingdom, including the brilliant Leigh Rugby Union Football Club who I also met yesterday.

O’Neills is just one example of how Northern Ireland contributes to our economy and the Union.

And I’m proud it’s my job to represent Northern Ireland and I’m proud it’s the job of my great Ministerial team too and I have superb support from Steve Baker and Lord Caine and our amazing PPS Tom Hunt and our brilliant Whips, Rob Largan, Lord Courtown and Lord Mott.

And it’s our job to bang the drum for that small, bustling, proud part of our country and that’s what we do day in and day out and I thank you all for it.

Conference, I don’t need to remind you we are the Conservative AND Unionist Party. This party and this government will never shy away from our support for the Union.

Northern Ireland is stronger for it, its future is strengthened by it and the United Kingdom is and will be greater for it.

I didn’t mention Harland and Wolff earlier by accident – no, those 900 jobs are being created by the United Kingdom’s Ministry of Defence for ships that will protect the United Kingdom – a contract that is an obvious and direct benefit of our Union.

And let’s not forget, it wasn’t too long ago that Sir Keir Starmer loyally served under a Labour Leader who wanted to break up our precious Union.

Under Starmer Labour have flipped from saying they’d campaign for the Union in a border poll to bravely failing to pick a side.

But we know all too well that Starmer’s positions on all sorts of policies change more than a weather vane.

It is only our Party that will relentlessly advocate for the Union, because we know just how important Northern Ireland is to it.

When I started in the role of Secretary of State many in Northern Ireland were unbelievably frustrated with the Northern Ireland Protocol.

Agreed with the best of intentions, its flaws became quickly apparent.

Too many businesses based in Great Britain, unsure of the regulatory environment they found themselves in, decided to pull back from servicing consumers in Northern Ireland.

There were problems that affected everyday lives regarding the movement of pets, plants and parcels – and with even medicine supplies coming under threat.

The Prime Minister recognised this too and sought to change it, focusing on the practical concerns that had been raised and always, always, keeping the protection of the Union as his priority.

And so we agreed the Windsor Framework.

After months of negotiations we reached a deal with the European Union that:

– Removes trade barriers

– Allows goods available on shelves in Great Britain to move freely into Northern Ireland

– Ensures Northern Ireland benefits from the same VAT and alcohol taxes as the rest of the United Kingdom

– Safeguards Northern Ireland’s place in the United Kingdom internal market through agreements on medicine and state aid

– Protects the economic rights of the people of Northern Ireland and provides a basis to move forward as one United country

Now I know concerns remain in Northern Ireland about the Windsor Framework and we will continue to work to address them. There is scope to do so, based on the principle that the UK internal market must be promoted as well as protected.

But let us also remind ourselves of the fundamental truth – the vast majority of Northern Ireland’s economic life is dependent on its connection with the rest of the United Kingdom and that reality will not change.

It’s time to get on with business.

So today Conference I can tell you that the first stage of implementing the Windsor Framework agreement has commenced – removing barriers that existed for Great Britain based businesses to trade with Northern Ireland.

This morning bright and early I visited Peel Port in Birkenhead to see the smooth flow of trade goods able to travel between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I am also actively exploring how we can support a new ferry route between Larne and Liverpool so we can seize the moment to increase trade within the UK further.

And let me give you just one stat to demonstrate how the Windsor Framework is a major improvement on the Protocol, and how it will be noticed by people in Northern Ireland itself.

Over 1,600 new businesses have signed up to our new internal market scheme meaning more traders than ever want to do business in Northern Ireland.

And Conference, I want to say something else about the future of Northern Ireland. There has always been a lot of doom and gloom around this subject for too long. In reality, Northern Ireland’s economic prospects are unbelievably promising.

A couple of weeks ago, I, alongside the Secretary of State for Business and Trade, Kemi, hosted an Investment Summit in Northern Ireland.

160 international businesses came along – some visiting Northern Ireland for the first time. They came because business truly recognises the opportunities that exist.

Nothing could be more important to the strength of the Union than a thriving local economy, underpinned by political stability.

It is this Government that takes as you know the long-term decisions in the national interest.

If Labour were in charge, we would have a very different situation.

Remember Keir Starmer he backed Remain. Then he said he accepted Brexit. But as Shadow Brexit Secretary, he worked to block Brexit 48 times.

He and his newly appointed Shadow Northern Ireland Secretary called for a second referendum…

In May, Starmer said Britain’s future is outside the European Union, but only two weeks ago he said he didn’t want to diverge from EU rules.

That’s more flips flops than you’d see on a beach in Mallorca. And obviously you can buy some of those outside as well.

Short-Termist Starmer only offers endless instability which would not just weaken the Brexit dividends we are seeing but also take a sledgehammer to our Union.

Conference, for 605 days there has been no functioning devolved government in Northern Ireland.

That means the people of Northern Ireland have been without a government – no new policies developed and no Ministers taking decisions on the issues that matter to voters.

Since starting this job, I have been working to get politicians back to Stormont because I believe that the people of Northern Ireland are best served by the MLAs they elected to take positions for them.

People in Northern Ireland need their locally-elected politicians to take action to make Northern Ireland’s finances more sustainable; and to improve the health service there, where 22% of the population are on a waiting list – and there is, I’m afraid, a very long list of other things that need to be sorted.

So I say to my friends in the unionist community we will continue working to answer your remaining concerns.

You know and we know progress has been made and we are working in a constructive spirit. And it is clear that the vast majority of people and their political leaders want to get this done.

Conference, it is the 25th anniversary year of the signing of the Belfast (Good Friday) Agreement.

Since then Northern Ireland has come a tremendously long way.

But for those 25 years victims, families, survivors, some of them, have been left without answers about what happened during the 30 years of The Troubles.

This Conservative Government recently passed the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Act.

And whilst it delivers on a manifesto commitment we made to our Veterans – it’s also of genuine help to all those affected by the Troubles.

It sets up a body that aims to provide answers and accountability to those who want it and is open to all victims of the Troubles.

Conference, if I may, I’d very much like to thank Lord Caine sitting here at the front for steering this piece of legislation through – it’s massively changed over the course of the last year and it needed all of his immense skill and diplomacy throughout that time to get it over the line so thank you Jonathan.

Keir Starmer wants to repeal this Act altogether but offers absolutely no alternative. Labour have flip-flopped on this issue going back to the days of Tony Blair and Peter Hain.

Yet again it is a Conservative Government that’s made a hard but long-term decision to solve a problem that had been left unaddressed by Labour and would be undone by Starmer.

Conference, Northern Ireland has come a long way and I know it can go even further.

It’s thriving as a centre of creativity, innovation and entrepreneurship.

Those 160 investors from across the globe who descended on Northern Ireland last month for our Investment Summit did so because they know that Northern Ireland has a very bright future.

A bright future that’s brighter as being part of the United Kingdom.

With its troubled past behind it;

with its Executive back up and running – the opportunities available to the people of Northern Ireland are endless

and the Union of the United Kingdom will be strengthened for decades to come.

And this Conservative and Unionist Party

And this Conservative Government will do all it can to help Northern Ireland on its journey to a brighter, prosperous future as an integral part of our United Kingdom.

Thank you Conference.