Jim Shannon – 2019 Speech on the Loyal Address

Below is the text of the speech made by Jim Shannon, the DUP MP for Strangford, in the House of Commons on 19 December 2019.

It is a pleasure to follow the hon. Member for Banbury (Victoria Prentis), who I thank for her contribution. I am pleased to see you in your place, Mr Deputy Speaker, and it was nice to see Mr Speaker earlier. He is a worthy gentleman, and I look forward to catching his eye often.

I wish to welcome home some old faces and welcome some new ones. We are able to have a friendship again with some who were in the House from 2015 to 2017 and then were absent for a short time. I am making it my business to learn all the new names and faces, with the help of the wee directory we have, and to introduce myself and take the time to help them, in the way that many Members—especially on the Opposition Benches—helped me when I came here in 2010. It will be an honour to work with them as we attempt to do what the electorate have resoundingly called for us to do in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland: to get this country off her knees and standing firmly on solid ground.

In the early hours of Friday morning after the election, I was very privileged to be re-elected as the Member for Strangford once again. I thanked my God for that victory, and I do so in this House as well, because it is clear to me that my first thanks should be to my God and saviour for giving us victory in Strangford. During the election campaign, I said that the DUP voice of Strangford will be heard, and today in this Chamber, on the first occasion that there is, the voice of the DUP in Strangford will be heard through this Member.​

I congratulate the hon. Member for Foyle (Colum Eastwood) on his contribution. Obviously we have a very different constitutional position. As I have said to him, there will be things that we disagree on, but there will also be many things in this House that we will agree on and work together on. Although we come from a different political background, we will be together on many things in this House on behalf of the constituents of Strangford and Foyle, because both need the same things. Let us see what we can do to make those things happen.

How heartening it is to see the rise of the pound against the dollar, which was at 1.18 during my family holiday in August but was sitting at 1.32 when I last checked. How heartening it is to see that the world is aware that the days of in-fighting and bickering are at an end and that the ability to do something and deliver is now at the Government’s feet. We look to the Government to do that. I want to sow into the mix the most important aspects that Her Majesty so graciously raised today.

I declare an interest, as a former member of the Ulster Defence Regiment and a member of the Territorial Army in the Royal Artillery for some 14 and a half years collectively. I welcome the Government’s commitment to the military covenant, but I ask them for not only words but action. We will see that same commitment in Northern Ireland, because it is so important that those who have served in uniform in Northern Ireland and need the help of the military covenant but are not getting it have that opportunity. I wish to see that happen. It is not words but action that we need. I also welcome the Government’s commitment to spending 2% of GDP on defence, and I urge other NATO countries to see what they can do to match that, because our Government have taken a step in the right direction.

I am pleased to welcome the Government’s commitments to building controls for rental accommodation and to knife control. As I have said in the House before, I very much welcome the Government’s commitment to net zero carbon emissions by 2050 and tackling environmental issues. I am pleased that the National Farmers Union and its sister organisation in Northern Ireland, the Ulster Farmers’ Union, are committed to those same things. If the farming community is committed to the 2050 net zero carbon target, we should welcome that.

The Government mentioned immigration in the Queen’s Speech. I have discussed this matter with the Parliamentary Secretary, Cabinet Office, the hon. Member for Torbay (Kevin Foster), and the hon. Member for Banff and Buchan (David Duguid). We need tier 2 visas for fishermen and the fishing sector, so that those who keep the boats going in Portavogie, Ardglass and Kilkeel can continue to do so. The Minister has indicated that he is willing to consider that, and we look forward to it happening.

In the last Session of the previous Parliament, the Government appointed a special envoy to tackle the persecution of Christians. I am particularly interested in that issue, as I know others in the House are, so I want to ensure that the Government commit to that again; perhaps the Minister who sums up the debate can confirm that.

The Under-Secretary of State for Business, Energy and Industrial Strategy, the hon. Member for Rochester and Strood (Kelly Tolhurst), who has responsibility for retail and the high street, was over in my constituency before the election was called. Like my right hon. Friend ​the Member for East Antrim (Sammy Wilson), I recognise that the Government have some good ideas to help the high street and retail businesses, and we wish to see those implemented.

I am very much a community man in my constituency, and I keep my ear to the ground, so I was not surprised when I went to the doors in Strangford to hear that the main issue was getting a functioning Assembly up and going. Talks are ongoing, and I know that the Secretary of State has been working extremely hard with the parties to begin the journey to bring them together, so that they can do what they have been elected to do but prevented from doing: legislating and running Northern Ireland. We very much hope that those talks will be successful, and we look forward to that happening.

The next issue on the doorstep in Strangford was Brexit—the stalemate, the preservation of the Union and the way forward. The most important thing was not necessarily Brexit; it was the Union. I remind the Government and Conservative Members of the importance of securing the Union. People wondered how Scotland would follow, after the divergence for Northern Ireland. I look to my Scots Nats friends and comrades here in the Chamber. I do not want them to leave the great United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland. I want them to stay. I want the Scottish National party to recognise that the large majority of people in Scotland want to stay within the United Kingdom, and only a minority want to leave. The Government have a job to do, which is to persuade my Scots Nats friends and comrades of the need to stay in the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, and I hope that they can do that.

What will the PM’s aforementioned deal look like in reality? The fishing industry, through Alan McCulla and the Anglo-North Irish Fish Producers Organisation, have posed this interesting scenario, which I feel deserves airing and clarification. It is so important that we look at what the deal the Prime Minister has brought forward will mean to us. They say:

“Brexit offers Northern Ireland’s fishing industry once in a lifetime opportunities”—

that is also what the fisheries Minister says—

“It will end the inequality, hypocrisy and disrespect of Europe’s Common Fisheries Policy, which has damaged the fishing industry in County Down. However, imagine this scenario”.

This is a real scenario because it comes from the withdrawal agreement that the Prime Minister has put forward. They continue:

“A County Down fisherman owns a UK registered trawler. On 1 January 2021 the trawler sails from”—

Portavogie, Ardglass or—

“Kilkeel. For the next few days it fishes in UK territorial waters in the Irish Sea. The trawler complies with the rules of the UK’s new fisheries policy. Its catch is recorded against UK fishing quotas. It then returns to Kilkeel”—

Ardglass or Portavogie—

“to land and sell its catch entirely within the UK. HOWEVER, one interpretation of the latest Northern Ireland Protocol”—

in the withdrawal agreement—

“is that if this UK registered trawler wants to land its catch in Northern Ireland it will be treated as though it is a trawler from a Third Country and will be required to submit a series of documents that although they are not new, are not currently required.”​

There will be tariffs on the fish, so when my fishermen leave Portavogie, go across the harbour and go 1 mile out to sea, what happens? They catch the fish, bring them back in and they are due tariffs. This agreement, indirectly or directly, disadvantages my fishermen in Portavogie. They go on:

“We accept that in the absence of a Free Trade Deal with the EU these documents may well be required for exports to the EU, but they should not be needed if the catch is destined for our most important markets in England, Scotland and Wales—all within the United Kingdom.

The Conservative Party manifesto stated, ‘We will ensure that Northern Ireland’s businesses and producers enjoy unfettered access to the rest of the UK…’ Urgent clarification is needed that the travesty outlined above will not happen.”

On this issue, we need clarification that the fishermen will not face the tariffs or the bureaucracy that has been suggested. It is so important that we do that.

Just today, my fishermen in Portavogie in the constituency of Strangford have been told, after the new fishing discussions that took place in Brussels yesterday and today, that they will face a 50% reduction in our prawn catch quota in the Irish sea. I put on record my dismay that that is happening, because it will impact greatly on those in my constituency who know that the prawn quota is so important for our fishing sector, our economy and the jobs it creates.

May I just say this as well, because this is what it means? Through the Government’s withdrawal agreement, not only will the EU be able to reduce our prawn quota for our trawlermen and for those who work in the Irish sea, but it will be able to continue to do that. We are not just disadvantaged today, but come 31 January, when all the rest of the United Kingdom leaves—Scotland, Wales and England—with free trade, we in Northern Ireland will be disadvantaged. The rules that Brussels has imposed today on the fishermen of Portavogie, Ardglass and Kilkeel in Northern Ireland will be reinforced doubly come 31 January. I look to the Government and to the Minister, and I ask them with all sincerity to look at that.

The phrase “special circumstances” does not come close to answering these questions and the questions raised by many whose trade will be affected by the Irish sea border that has been threatened. The agri-food sector in my constituency told me just last Friday—one of the major meat exporters told me a week ago—that the withdrawal agreement the Prime Minister has put in place will impact greatly on the meat sector. The cost will be immense on food travelling east-west and west-east in the meat sector. If we have that, we have a serious threat to the meat sector in Northern Ireland. Again, I ask what has been done to ensure that this does not happen?

We in Northern Ireland, because of the border down the Irish sea, will be subject to the possibility of a new VAT regime coming from Europe. We will be subject to that, but the rest of the United Kingdom—Scotland, England and Wales—will not be. Again, I suggest to Ministers, given what is on paper and is there, that what has been put forward disadvantages us in Northern Ireland greatly in relation to that possibility and also other tax possibilities, with the real focus changing from Westminster towards the EU and towards Dublin.​

One of the biggest issues for me on the election trail was that of health. My right hon. Friend the Member for East Antrim referred to the Barnett formula, and the Government have made a large commitment on this. I have watched Ministers on TV and heard what they have said, and what was said today is a really good commitment to the health sector, and to listening in relation to jobs, doctors and hospitals, and some of that money will come to us in Northern Ireland under the Barnett formula.

Paul Girvan (South Antrim) (DUP)

I appreciate my hon. Friend’s point about the crisis we are currently facing in our health sector in Northern Ireland, but major reform is required not just in Northern Ireland but in the UK to ensure that we are not spending all our block grant on health and that we are getting a good bang for our buck.

Jim Shannon

I thank my hon. Friend for his intervention, and he is absolutely right. No matter what happens, when the money comes across, we need to have a Minister in place to ensure that the moneys do go to the Department of Health where they are needed, and are not swallowed up in the block budget and therefore do not become as effective as they could be.

We need to address the issue of appropriate staffing pay and working conditions, as well as having acceptable waiting lists. There are waiting lists for occupational therapy referrals, hip replacements or cataract operations. There are massive numbers of people waiting not just to be assessed, but to have such operations, so it is really important that we have this in place so that we can serve the people of Northern Ireland better. I do not blame our current permanent secretary or his senior civil servants, who are attempting to do the job of running the Department that belongs to an elected representative and which they have been asked to oversee without the power of the position of a Minister. They are being asked to run the largest Department with one hand behind their backs, and I believe that that must end.

I spoke to many nurses and families of nurses on the doorsteps in the run-up to and on the day of the election, and they told me that even with the pay rise, the lack of staff on the wards makes their position untenable. We need the Department of Health—this is a devolved matter in Northern Ireland—to employ extra nurses, not to have all the temporary staff they have, which is a large cost on the health budget in Northern Ireland. I support the Government’s desire to raise staffing levels and to put in additional funding to achieve this, but I am asking, in the same way the House believed it appropriate to step in and legislate for abortion and same-sex marriage in Northern Ireland, that it steps in and legislates for life-and-death matters, and sorts out the pay scales in the trusts and the pension issues as a matter of urgency. As I said about the Labour amendment in the last Session, if the House and the Government can rule on this issue, there is a responsibility to continue the interference and to step in for our hospitals and for our schools.

It is very important that we have a system in place that can respond positively to what is happening on universal credit. I see that the hon. Member for Inverness, Nairn, Badenoch and Strathspey (Drew Hendry), who speaks for the Scots Nats on this, has just left the ​Chamber, but he and I have the same opinion on this. Universal credit should be suspended. At the moment, we have a scheme that disadvantages the people of my constituency, and I want to put that on the record. People are losing out on four to five weeks of possible help and of moneys to help them through this process. I am very fortunate to have a very good manageress in the local social security office, but she cannot work miracles with the system she has. I ask the Government to look at this again because it has thrown many into poverty across the whole of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland, especially in my constituency.

In Northern Ireland, we are coming to the end of the welfare supplementary payments and the food banks in Northern Ireland are already oversubscribed. I put on record my thanks to the Trussell Trust food bank in Newtownards, which is run through the Thriving Life church. It does a magnificent job, but it tells me that more and more people are being disadvantaged and are going to the food bank because of the delays in benefit payments. That has to be looked at.

The middle and working classes are about to implode, without intervention, and in the absence of a functioning Assembly, this place must do the right thing by Northern Ireland and get the ball rolling, starting with health and education funding and decision making.