I welcome the opportunity to open this debate on Northern Ireland and the outcome of the political talks in Belfast, which concluded on 23 December last with the Stormont House Agreement.
Since the 1990s, successive Governments have played their parts in supporting and facilitating a series of agreements to establish and underpin the Northern Ireland peace process. The first of these, in 1998, was the Good Friday Agreement, which provided a template for greatly improved relationships across these islands. The St. Andrews Agreement of 2006 and the Hillsborough Agreement of 2010 were critical further steps along this journey.
I am pleased that the Government and I, working closely with our British counterparts, and, of course, with the Northern Ireland parties, have played an important role in helping to broker the latest in this series, with the successful conclusion of the Stormont House Agreement on 23 December 2014. This represents the culmination of many months of negotiation, but also many years of close relationship building. I am proud of the role that I, my Ministerial colleagues, our officials and all concerned have played in helping to deliver it. I would like to record my gratitude, in particular, to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan and Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock for their hard work over recent months. I believe this agreement lays a firm foundation for Northern Ireland, its politicians and its people, to look forward and outward and, more important, to move forward together. Yes, the process will need to deal with the challenges of the past, there will be a need for continuous attention on reconciliation and tough decisions have had to be taken on the budget and the economy, but important as these are in their own right, they are also important steps towards securing a better future, a shared society and greater prosperity.
I recall our last debate in this House on Northern Ireland when I referred to our interdependence on this island. The history, interests and futures of the people across both parts of this island are intricately interwoven. Equally, the lives of all the people on both parts of this island are increasingly influenced by events beyond our shores, be they events in our nearest neighbour, Great Britain, or the continued evolution of the European Union or wider international and geopolitical developments. On both parts of this island, we need to continually look outwards, to pay more attention to events beyond our shores, both to the challenges and to the opportunities. We must collectively be aware of, and be able to respond to, external developments and challenges beyond our direct control. In many instances, we can do this together. Co-operation and collaboration are not just desirable but essential in the reality of the world economy today. We need look no further than across the water to our nearest neighbouring island to understand the dramatic impact that developments beyond this island can have. The recent referendum on Scotland and the consequent debate about devolution of powers within the United Kingdom, Britain's position in the European Union and the prospect of a referendum on EU membership are all issues that can have a profound impact for Northern Ireland and indeed across this island.
I have already made clear that we want the UK to remain a full, integral member of the Union. I believe this to be in Britain's best interest and in Ireland's best interest, but I am also absolutely convinced that it is in Northern Ireland's best interest. We should also remember that the European Union has been an active political and financial supporter of the Northern Ireland peace process. This support continues through EU peace and INTERREG funding programmes, which will see almost €500 million invested in the region for the period to 2020.
In regard to relationships on this island, when the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was concluded, it was described as an historic template for the mutually beneficial development of the totality of relationships among the peoples of these islands. Looking back over the intervening period, I think it is fair to say that it has contributed enormously to a transformation in relationships between the two great traditions of this island. That agreement opened up opportunities for us North and South, east and west, to get to know one another in new ways. Our commitment to that agreement and to partnership, equality and mutual respect, today stands more firm than ever. Ireland and Northern Ireland now work closely together through the North-South Ministerial Council and beyond in areas of common interest that are beneficial to both parts of the island, including the economy, society, peace, reconciliation and prosperity. The Government's commitment to North-South and all-island co-operation remains a priority.
A recent example of how we can co-operate and collaborate more closely is the joint bid to host the Rugby World Cup in 2023. Last month in Armagh, together with the Tánaiste, First Minister Robinson and Deputy First Minister McGuinness, I was particularly pleased to launch and pledge our full, joint support for the IRFU's tournament bid. We have co-operated before to hold cross-Border sporting events but I firmly believe that working together to bring the Rugby World Cup to Ireland can bring North-South co-operation to a whole new level. Ministers in both jurisdictions will be working closely together to ensure the strongest possible bid is submitted.
Looking outwards, the Good Friday Agreement has enabled the development of ever closer relations across these islands, perhaps best symbolised by the highly successful reciprocal State visits of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland in 2011 and President Higgins to the United Kingdom last April. In March 2012, the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, and I signed a joint statement which sought to take our relationship further by setting out a vision of what closer co-operation might look like over the next decade. It also mapped out a unique, structured process of engagement, activity and outcomes between our two Governments, including annual review summits by both of us and underpinned by a programme of engagement by our most senior civil servants. All of this work and ongoing close relations matter deeply. Beyond producing practical outcomes that can benefit both jurisdictions it also helps to build trust and understanding. Oireachtas Members of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and the North-South Inter-Parliamentary Association, are also helping to rebuild trust by continuing to promote and nurture co-operation in British-Irish and North-South relations for the benefit of all the people on these islands. I attended the first Plenary British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly in Westminster in February 1990 and I look forward to opening the 50th plenary and marking the 25th anniversary of BIPA here in the Oireachtas next month.
In the context of the peace process and as co-guarantors of the agreements put in place, the British and Irish Governments worked closely together to support and encourage the Northern Executive in its efforts to overcome the political impasse which appeared to be taking hold in recent times, including through the talks chaired by Dr. Richard Haass and the subsequent attempt to make progress under talks involving the party leaders. The UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, and I have maintained close contact on Northern Ireland over this time and our respective officials have also been in continuous engagement. As a consequence, we and our Governments were in a position to respond quickly, and in unison, last September when it became increasingly clear that intervention and involvement by both Governments was required to avoid the possible collapse of the power-sharing institutions. This led to the announcement on 28 September of the intention to convene a new round of political talks in Northern Ireland, with the direct involvement of both Governments. Our objective in the talks was to ensure that the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement not only continue to function but work to the benefit of all and to conclude a broad agreement that provided a framework for both economic renewal and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan, together with the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, represented the Irish Government at the weekly sessions of the talks over a period of 11 weeks and co-chaired all-party round table talks with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers. I would like to thank the Minister, Deputy Flanagan and Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, for their tireless efforts on behalf of the Irish Government over those three months. I acknowledge the commitment of officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and my own Department, and indeed other Departments and agencies, in supporting the talks process and more generally in working continually to support and promote the peace process and the North-South agenda. I wish also to record my appreciation for the very close co-operation we have had with the British Government throughout the process.
Finally, I acknowledge the leadership shown by the Northern Ireland parties themselves in reaching consensus on an agreement. I am glad they found it within themselves to reach an agreement in the final analysis. The final text, based on the draft agreement tabled when the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, and I travelled to Belfast to participate directly in the talks last month, deals with the key issues comprehensively.
The agreement itself covers a broad range of political, economic and social issues. In particular, it sets out a plan for financial and budgetary reform while proposing a way forward on flags, identity, culture and tradition through the establishment of a commission. It envisages the devolution of responsibility for parades to the Northern Ireland Assembly, with proposals on parading to be brought to the Northern Ireland Executive by June 2015. It will establish a programme of institutional reform at Stormont and progress several outstanding aspects from the Good Friday and St. Andrews Agreements, including the establishment of a civic advisory panel by June 2015. It has a commitment to reporting on new sectorial priorities for North-South co-operation by the end of February 2015 and the further development of the North-West gateway initiative. Significantly, the agreement also establishes a new comprehensive framework and broad-ranging structures for dealing with the legacy of the past. These include a new historical investigations unit to examine the deaths that occurred as a result of the Troubles, an independent commission for information retrieval and an oral history archive.
What people lost through the Troubles no one can return. Nor can we forget the pain and suffering inflicted on victims and their families. However, the new structures can help in some way to lessen the impact of the legacy of the past on everyday politics. The challenge now is to use the opportunity presented to bring a collective effort and focus to bear on building a shared and prosperous future. It is also different to previous agreements, in particular because of the prominence of sound management of budgetary matters and the economy - the cornerstone of government.
Tough choices and tough decisions had to be taken. This is by no means unique to Northern Ireland or to its Executive, however. The recent economic crisis has required tough decisions to be taken right around the globe, across the European Union, in Britain and, as we all know only too well in this House, here in Ireland. None of this is easy. Little of it is popular but we know it is necessary. The Stormont House Agreement sets a roadmap for the Northern Executive to put its finances on a sustainable footing for the future and to move forward with the necessary rebalancing of its economy to promote growth and create jobs. The package of significant financial support amounting to nearly £2 billion of additional spending power will support this process.
Since the conclusion of the agreement last December, legislation to provide for the devolution of responsibility for corporation tax has now been published, a new speaker to the Northern Assembly has been elected and the Executive's budget has been formally adopted for the next financial year. These confidence-building measures represent progress in their own right and will also contribute to a more stable political environment. More importantly, they also show that politics does matter and can make a difference.
The Irish Government will continue to play its part. We will work with the Northern Executive to deliver even closer political, economic and social co-operation. We are committed to working for even greater cross-Border economic co-operation to accelerate growth and secure the creation of jobs on this island. We will continue our close engagement with the British Government, both to promote and develop our wider bilateral interests but also to pursue our common custodianship of the agreements in support of the Northern Ireland peace process, and, above all, in the interests of peaceful, prosperous and harmonious future for all of the peoples of these islands.