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Julian Smith ‘swerves’ questions on snap election impact on Stormont restoration talks

The Northern Ireland Secretary says some “extremely important issues” require attention.

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The Northern Ireland Secretary has refused to answer whether plans for a December general election would jeopardise attempts to restore Stormont.

Julian Smith said he would “swerve” the question when asked by Independent MP Lady Sylvia Hermon, adding some “extremely important issues” require “immediate attention” in Northern Ireland.

Conservative MP Simon Hoare, chairman of the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee, also said an early general election “is not helpful” when dealing with the restoration of power-sharing.

The exchanges came as Mr Smith provided an update to MPs, including on changes to the abortion law in Northern Ireland – which led to calls for him to issue clearer guidance for women.

Speaking in the Commons, Mr Smith expressed disappointment at having to extend the period to enable an executive to form to January 13, 2020.

“Whilst the political parties continue to be unable to reach accommodation, public services in Northern Ireland continue to deteriorate, hospital waiting lists get longer and frustration continues to grow,” he said.

Mr Smith noted he had held discussions with all five main political parties and contact would continue in the coming weeks, adding: “The issues that remain between the parties are few in number and they are soluble in substance.

“It’ll take real commitment for the main parties to reach a compromise on those issues, but just this weekend both of the largest parties said that they want to make and restore the institutions as soon as possible.”

Lady Hermon (North Down) later asked: “Since the Prime Minister seems absolutely hellbent on having an early general election, could the Secretary of State just take a few moments and explain how helpful or not an early general election would be to his efforts, his genuine efforts, to see the institutions of the general assembly and the executive functioning again in Northern Ireland?”

Mr Smith replied: “I think it’s best that I swerve that question, but I do think there are some extremely important issues in Northern Ireland that require immediate attention and I want to focus with colleagues on them over the coming days and weeks.”

Mr Hoare added: “But in the heat and battle of a general election campaign, there is no scope for those discussions to continue, and dare I say it, it slightly prejudges what the outcome might be – were there to be a hung Parliament after that, or the Labour Party in office or whatever, then the whole thing changes again.

“This early general election is not helpful, let us be frank. It is not helpful to the timely restoration of Stormont.”

Mr Smith replied: “All I can say is I will do whatever I can over the coming days and weeks to make sure we do get the executive up and running and we do focus on that as our priority.”

The Northern Ireland (Executive Formation etc) Act 2019 decriminalised abortion in Northern Ireland, with the change coming into effect last week.

Labour’s Stella Creasy (Walthamstow), who campaigned for the law change, said there was a need for Mr Smith to “clarify” the regulations – noting this included about how doctors in Northern Ireland can prescribe abortion pills to women who wish to use them.

In response to Ms Creasy, Mr Smith said: “She is right to raise the issue of the fact we’ve now moved into the shaping phase for the regulations.

“We’re launching the consultation – she’s right, we were a few days later than we’d hoped, but we will be producing that over the next few days.

“We are reflecting on the advice that we are getting from royal colleges and from many others, and I would appreciate the opportunity to talk through with her, once we’ve launched that consultation, how we address the issues that she’s raised on provision and ensuring there is access to services.”

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