I propose to share my time with the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
The two Governments and the Northern Ireland political parties met last week between 11 and 13 October at St. Andrews in Scotland. Following intensive and complex negotiations, Prime Minister Blair and I published what we believe represents a way forward for the restoration of the political institutions in March 2007. A copy of the agreement at St. Andrews has been placed in the Oireachtas Library.
We appreciate the commitment and engagement of all the parties at St. Andrews. In particular, I acknowledge the ongoing commitment of the Prime Minister and his determination to push for a conclusion of this process. I also appreciate the support and involvement of the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Minister for Foreign Affairs during these negotiations. Let me also express my appreciation to this House for its support for the progress we sought to achieve at St. Andrews. Our position derives enormous strength from the overall approach shared across parties in this Chamber. This bipartisan policy serves the country, and the peace process to which we are all committed, in a very real way.
Since the devolved institutions were suspended in October 2002, three previous sets of intensive negotiations have been aimed at restoring the devolved institutions. Each of these negotiations encountered its own difficulties and, ultimately, failed to bring about the restoration of the institutions. Earlier this year, when we met at Farmleigh, Prime Minister Blair and I decided that we should re-engage in a fresh effort to reach agreement this year. When we met in April in Armagh, we announced that we would work with the parties to have the institutions back in place by 24 November. We were firmly of the view that this push for completion was essential. The vacuum and overall sense of stalemate was not acceptable.
The meeting at St. Andrews took place against the background of the ending of the IRA campaign, the decommissioning of its weapons and the recent IMC report, which confirms the IRA is honouring its commitments. This summer was also among the most peaceful for many decades. All these developments, together with the engagement between the parties in recent months, represent real progress. The situation has, thus, never been more favourable for securing overall agreement.
At St. Andrews, Prime Minister Blair and I had a clear focus on what was needed. We were also very determined that the deadline of 24 November should be respected. Throughout the negotiations at St. Andrews, both Governments worked at an intensive level and in a spirit of partnership to bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion. These negotiations involved the inevitable highs and lows but, ultimately, the two Governments took upon themselves the responsibility of bringing forward a document for agreement.
The agreement which Prime Minister Blair and I presented to the parties at St. Andrews is balanced and fair. It addresses the reasonable concerns of all relating to the outstanding issues. If implemented, it will bring the peace process to a successful conclusion and assure a fair basis for government in Northern Ireland. In particular, it envisages wholehearted commitment by all to the full operation of stable power-sharing government and the North-South and east-west arrangements. It envisages full support for policing and the criminal justice institutions, including the policing board. It also addresses a number of other key issues in the areas of human rights, equality and victims and the question of a financial package for the newly restored Executive.
All the issues the Governments addressed at St Andrews are important. However, everyone in the House will recognise the importance of full support by all for the policing and criminal justice institutions. I welcome the indications from Sinn Féin of a willingness to see this matter resolved. If that can be achieved — I believe it can — then trust and confidence will follow and the devolution of policing and justice to the Executive can be achieved by May 2008. All of this would be profoundly beneficial for the process and help guarantee the stability and security that Northern Ireland so badly needs.
We have set out a fixed timetable for the implementation of this agreement and have asked the parties to confirm their acceptance by 10 November. Following endorsement of the St. Andrews Agreement by the parties, legislation will be passed at Westminster to address a number of practical changes to the operation of the Good Friday Agreement arising out of the 2004 review and more recent detailed engagement between the parties. The Attorney General will advise the Government on any constitutional implications that may arise as a consequence of these changes.
Many of these changes respond in a number of areas to the need for greater efficiency and transparency. They should enable all the institutions to operate in an effective and stable manner, with all parties engaging in good faith and in a spirit of genuine partnership. However, the key fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement — consent for constitutional change, commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, stable inclusive partnership government, respect for equality and human rights and a balanced institutional accommodation of the key relationships on and between these islands — remain unchanged.
A particularly contentious issue surrounding the mechanisms for the appointment of the First and Deputy First Minister was addressed to the satisfaction of the parties. Proposed amendments to the pledge of office would require that Ministers fully participate in the Executive, North-South Ministerial Council and British-Irish Council and would observe the joint nature of the office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Further discussions in the new programme for government committee regarding policing and the rule of law in the context of the pledge of office are also envisaged.
There is provision for the establishment, consistent with the Good Friday Agreement, of a North-South parliamentary forum bringing members of the Seanad and this House together with members of the Assembly. The agreement at St. Andrews also envisages an independent consultative forum which would bring together representatives of civil society North and South, the establishment of an east-west interparliamentary framework as well as the establishment of a standing British-Irish Council secretariat.
The Assembly is expected to meet to nominate the First and Deputy First Minister on 24 November. This has always been a key date for the Governments, and it remains so. All going well, in less that six weeks, the people of Northern Ireland will have a First and Deputy First Minister for the first time in four years. This would clearly be of landmark significance. It will signal in a very real way that a shared and agreed future for Northern Ireland is in prospect. There will be an IMC report in January 2007.
In the light of our discussions with the parties, it is clear that some form of electoral endorsement of the agreement as a whole will be required in the new year. As of yet, the form of this endorsement is not decided. The Executive is due to be nominated on 14 March. Over the coming period, the new programme for government committee, at leadership level, will have the responsibility of agreeing all issues relevant to the work of the new Executive, thus ensuring that it operates immediately with effect from 26 March.
There is an enormous responsibility on all the parties to walk through the door opened at St. Andrews. The conditions for concluding this process have never been more promising. As usual, issues will arise and clarifications will be sought. I strongly urge parties not to walk away at the first challenge. Despite yesterday's setback, I hope the new programme for government committee will be able to convene without too much further delay.
It is essential that the momentum out of St. Andrews is maintained. The opportunity is there for everybody to engage and to agree. It is the belief of the two Governments that all of the parties should be able to endorse this agreement and to implement it in good faith, building the trust and confidence necessary for a stable and lasting settlement. The overwhelming response out of St. Andrews since last Friday is positive. There is a new impatience for progress. People can now see that agreement and a shared future is achievable. I urge the parties to work together and to hold their nerve in the face of those who will want to frustrate agreement.
Both Governments will remain in active contact with one another, as well as with the parties, as we seek to give effect to our work at St. Andrews. The process will continue to demand careful management to bring it to a successful completion. We are also clear that in the event of failure to reach agreement by 24 November, we will proceed on the basis of the new British-Irish partnership arrangements to implement the agreement.