Northern Ireland: Statements

I welcome the opportunity to have this debate on Northern Ireland. The current situation is most regrettable. We are heading into a potentially very divisive election at a time when we face one of the gravest challenges on these island in the form of Brexit. The absence of a fully functioning Northern Ireland Executive at any time is regrettable. That it should occur at precisely the moment when everyone should be focused on preparing for the Brexit negotiations and managing the impact of Brexit is particularly troubling.

I certainly regret the circumstances which led to the decision of deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness to resign his office and the subsequent impasse between the parties in the Executive, which gave rise to yesterday's announcement of Assembly elections by Secretary of State James Brokenshire. It is clear that the dispute within the Executive over the renewable heat incentive scheme was a significant factor in the breakdown of relations in the Executive. The detail of that scheme is essentially a devolved matter and, as such, it is not for comment by me or the Government.

It is also clear that it was not the only factor in the breakdown and the need to protect the integrity of the Good Friday Agreement is a matter of grave concern to us. The effective functioning of the institutions established under the Agreement is vital and the principles of partnership and equality which underpin them must be respected by all parties. My Government maintains its deep commitment to the Good Friday Agreement. As co-guarantor of the Agreement, we have worked assiduously, together with the British Government and the political parties, to advance political stability, reconciliation and economic prosperity in Northern Ireland. We have engaged fully and constructively in the North-South Ministerial Council, ensured full participation in the British-Irish Council and worked intensively on a bilateral basis with the various parties in the North.

Last Tuesday, following Martin McGuinness's resignation, I met Deputies Adams and MacDonald of Sinn Féin to explore how the difficulties might be addressed. I also spoke by telephone with Martin McGuinness and Arlene Foster. I wish the former deputy First Minister a full recovery. Later that evening, I spoke with Prime Minister Theresa May. We agreed that our two Governments would do what we could to help the parties over the coming period and keep in close contact. Since then, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charlie Flanagan, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, worked together to see If a way forward could be found. In parallel, there have been very close contacts at official and diplomatic level. Unfortunately, a way forward could not be found before yesterday’s deadline and the date for Assembly elections has now been set for 2 March.

I spoke with Prime Minister May again yesterday evening and we repeated our desire to see the institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement operating effectively and, in particular, to have a fully functioning Executive in place as soon as possible after the election. As that election campaign gets under way, I call on all parties to enter into it in a calm and respectful manner and avoid the type of rhetoric which has, in the past, proved so divisive and an obstacle to setting up an Executive with ease subsequently. More than ever, this is a time for responsible and positive leadership. When these elections are over, whatever the results, the parties will be required to work together and with the two Governments to chart a way forward for Northern Ireland.

In their work, it is vital that all parties recall and adhere to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and its express commitment to "partnership, equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between these islands." We should not forget or cast aside the enormous progress that has been made. It has not been easy and has required courage, commitment and compromise.

Last year, we marked the 18th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. We welcomed the coming of age of an agreement that has underpinned a process of significant positive change in Northern Ireland and has provided a framework for peace and reconciliation. There have been many challenges and frustrations which we have faced collectively. At all times, the Government has worked with the British Government and the parties to ensure the political process could move forward on the basis of the institutions, principles and procedures of the Agreement.

In more recent years, again in a spirit of overcoming challenges, setbacks and disagreement, we collectively put in place the Stormont House Agreement in 2014 and the Fresh Start Agreement in 2015. In 2016, following the last Assembly elections and in the wake of the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements, the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly were entering into a new era of maturity in devolved administration. I am also very well aware that there are significant aspects of the Good Friday Agreement that have yet to be implemented. We have at all times striven to move these forward, including in our engagements with the British Government and the parties. I have regularly raised these concerns with my British counterparts and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has worked tirelessly, including, in particular, on legacy matters and establishing the key institutions for dealing with the past, as agreed at Stormont House in 2014.

The Stormont House Agreement also directly addressed commitments outstanding from previous agreements. Specifically, the British and Irish Governments endorsed "the need for respect for and recognition of the Irish language in Northern Ireland". There is clearly unfinished business, both in delivering on specific commitments under the agreements and in ensuring that the spirit and principles of the agreements are not just written on paper but are lived and breathed throughout the work of their implementation and in addressing the challenges faced by Northern Ireland.

There is currently no greater economic and social challenge for this island, North and South, than that of Brexit. Its scale and complexity underline the importance of the existing institutions as mechanisms for working together. My Government has made clear that Northern Ireland and the peace process are among our top priorities for the negotiations on the United Kingdom's departure from the European Union. The last thing we want to see is further instability in Northern Ireland.

We want to maintain the common travel area, avoid any return to a hard Border, continue to facilitate North-South business and trade and sustain EU support for the peace process. I have emphasised these points in all of my meetings with EU leaders, including Prime Minister May, but also with Chancellor Merkel, President Hollande, Prime Minister Muscat of Malta, which currently holds the EU Presidency, and just last week with Prime Minister Rajoy of Spain. I have also emphasised them in meetings with the President of the European Council, Mr. Donald Tusk, the President of the European Commission, Mr. Jean-Claude Juncker, and the European Union's chief negotiator, Mr. Michel Barnier. These engagements are part of a broader Government programme of engagement with all member states and the EU institutions in which we constantly emphasise our specific Brexit related concerns and issues. This programme is being intensified over the coming weeks.

As the UK's date for triggering Article 50 moves ever closer, the greater the need for us to work together on issues of major concern becomes, particularly where they have a North-South dimension. For this reason, we sought to use the North-South Ministerial Council to forge a common approach to Brexit related issues. At the plenary meeting in July, we agreed to work together to fully analyse the sectoral implications of Brexit for Ireland, North and South. At the plenary meeting in November, we agreed common principles and undertook to continue our discussions both through the North-South Ministerial Council and bilaterally. Given the current political uncertainty, it remains to be seen whether the progress made so far via the North-South Ministerial Council can be sustained. It is deeply regrettable that the dissolution of the Northern Ireland Executive leaves the people of Northern Ireland without political leadership at this key moment in the evolution of Brexit.

Today's speech by the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, reaffirms the scale of the challenge involved. I welcome that the Prime Minister's speech provides greater clarity on the proposed approach of the British Government to the Brexit negotiation process. The speech focused largely on the type of future relationship the United Kingdom wishes to have with the European Union from the perspective of a country that itself is no longer in the EU. While this will inevitably be seen by many as a hard exit, the analysis across government has covered all possible models for the future UK relationship with the EU.

I note that the Prime Minister made clear that the UK wishes to secure the closest possible future economic relationship with the EU. That is an objective we share.

From our perspective, our overall negotiation priorities remain unchanged. These are our economy and trade, Northern Ireland, including the peace process and Border issues, the common travel area and the future of the European Union. The Prime Minister highlighted the specific and historic relationship between Britain and Ireland. In this context she made clear that her priorities include maintaining the common travel area and avoiding a return to a hard border with Northern Ireland, both of which I welcome and were referred to at our first meeting in Downing Street. I recognise the alignment between our economic and trading concerns and the objective of the UK to have a close and friction-free economic and trading relationship with the EU, including with Ireland. However, I am under no illusions about the challenges that remain to be addressed. Government Ministers and I will continue to meet and engage with our EU counterparts over coming weeks to emphasise Ireland's concerns and to ensure they are fully reflected in the EU position once negotiations commence. This activity is reinforced by extensive engagement at diplomatic and official levels. The Government is acutely aware of the potential risks and challenges for the Irish economy and will remain fully engaged on this aspect as the negotiations proceed.

These challenges can only be greater as we await the outcome of the election in Northern Ireland. Against this background, it is even more essential that the Government continues its process of Brexit analysis and engagement on the key issues. We will continue our contacts with other EU member states and will promote North-South co-operation to the greatest extent possible. At all times our focus will be on supporting and protecting the peace process in the forthcoming negotiations. Our ongoing preparations will stand to us as we move closer to the triggering of Article 50 and the commencement of negotiations. A key part of this is the Government’s initiative, the all-island civic dialogue which commenced on 2 November last. This plenary session was followed with a series of sectoral civic dialogue events. Led by Ministers, these events offer an invaluable opportunity to hear directly about the aIl-island implications of Brexit from a variety of stakeholders and across a range of sectors. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, and I will host a second plenary session of the all-island civic dialogue in Dublin Castle on Friday, 17 February, by which time 12 sectoral events will have taken place. This will be a further important element of our overall engagement and consultation on the challenges of Brexit.

This is a critical time for Ireland and Northern Ireland. It is a time when effective political leadership has never been more necessary. Now that a date has been set for the elections in the North, the political parties must ensure that the campaign is conducted in a respectful and responsible manner, engage in good faith and make every possible effort to form a new Executive and get the institutions back on track. For its part, the Irish Government will work in partnership with the British Government and all parties to support this process and ensure that Northern Ireland, through the Northern Ireland Executive, the assembly and all of the institutions is in a position to work and to meet the many challenges that we face.

Before addressing political issues, on behalf of the Fianna Fáil Party and on my own behalf I extend our best wishes to Mr. Martin McGuinness and our sincere hope that he will be able to overcome his serious health situation. I do not pretend to agree with many of the positions he has taken over the past 40 years but I do believe he sought to be a constructive force in making the post-Belfast Agreement institutions work. I have no doubt he will agree that during our time as Ministers with responsibility for education we had a positive and active working relationship focused on delivering for all communities. Most of this work was done far away from the spotlight, with my then departmental officials providing a great deal of expertise in the early stages of the review of the deeply unfair 11-plus exam. In addition, as Minister for Foreign Affairs, I worked constructively with Martin McGuinness, leading to the devolution of justice following fairly prolonged negotiations. If we are to believe even a fraction of reports, it would appear that the current political mess is one in which Mr. McGuinness advocated a different policy but others intervened to impose their will. It has not been said whether Mr. McGuinness is withdrawing from politics. If he is, we wish him well and hope that those assuming leadership roles have a yet unrevealed strategy which goes beyond pulling everything down.

Earlier today, the British Prime Minister outlined her Government's core objectives for the Brexit negotiations. It is now clear that the United Kingdom will not be in the Single Market or the customs union and will not accept arrangements which require freedom of movement, or the jurisdiction of the independent European Court of Justice. The Prime Minister's speech was laced with the threat that if Britain is not given what it wants, it will launch an immediate trade war and a race to the bottom in regulation and employment conditions. Even more significant is that whatever arrangements are finalised will be applied unilaterally to all jurisdictions subject to Westminster, irrespective of how they voted in last year's referendum. Nobody is seeking and, therefore, there will not be any special treatment for Northern Ireland. This car crash Brexit is the worst possible news for Northern Ireland, which has the highest unemployment levels, the highest poverty rates and weakest budget of any part of these islands. It is also the most exposed to the impact of the UK exiting the Single Market and customs union. The only independent study of the impact of Brexit on Northern Ireland has shown a major reduction in growth and employment, combined with pressure on already struggling public finances.

By any definition, this is a critical moment in shaping the future for everybody who lives on this island, and none more so than people in Northern Ireland. Fundamental decisions about the economy and society are being taken now and in the weeks ahead, yet, for at least the next ten weeks, the people of Northern Ireland will have no one working for them. They will have no presence at the already too weak consultative committee established in Downing Street. They will have no one to challenge the dismissive attitude of the Tory Government to Northern Ireland. They will have no one demanding that the full and continued rights of EU citizens in Northern Ireland be respected. Let no one be in any doubt that the decision to cause an election at this moment has dramatically increased the risk of Northern Ireland, and by extension the rest of this island, suffering due to the Brexit decisions being taken now. The decision to reject any further discussions or to find a means of at least delaying the collapse of the Executive until after this critical period is deeply damaging. The absence of an assembly or executive for an extended period delays rather than brings forward an inquiry into the heating scheme or the introduction of any measure to reduce its cost. It also means that there is no budget for 2017 and the urgently needed plan for tackling a crisis in accident and emergency departments has been shelved.

The fact that the DUP and Sinn Féin have caused the collapse of the executive and the need for assembly elections should come as no surprise to anyone who has been following politics in Northern Ireland in recent years. Unfortunately, much of the Dublin media has adopted an approach of ignoring the North unless there is a crisis. It is because of this that the long procession of events and bad behaviour that led to this breakdown received almost no attention. Fianna Fáil has repeatedly said over the past five years that the dysfunctional behaviour of the DUP-Sinn Féin tandem was causing real damage. There has been a clear and consistent growth in public detachment from politics in the North and a falling belief that the institutions were focused on the concerns of real people. The rising dominance of the DUP and Sinn Féin has not been based on a rising tide of support but on falling turnout driven by communities losing hope that their interests will be heard in the Executive.

The RHI scheme is not the first scandal; it is the latest of many. The BBC "Spotlight" programme has played a particularly important role in exposing the regular partisan abuse of public funding in the North. Those with the votes at the Executive and assembly have combined to ensure that nothing has been done. We saw a whitewash when an MLA, who cannot drive, received £5,000 in a claim for petrol which he says he did not sign. No concern was expressed when £700,000 was given by Sinn Féin Ministers to a company in return for no identifiable service. Crass sectarian abuse by senior DUP personnel has been met with a shrug and, on occasion, applause but never censure. Public outrage in relation to Project Eagle and other controversies has been met with the mantra of "do as little as possible". At the same time, a long list of solemn agreements has been ignored by the parties. They have worked together to prevent the re-establishment of the civic forum, because it might lessen their influence. They have allowed many policy areas to stagnate. They have also allowed our Government to be frozen out of basic discussions about the future of the North.

For example, the DUP and Sinn Féin went to Downing Street to launch a development plan that made no mention of any cross-Border dimension and about which our Government was not informed. This was a clear breach of accepted principles and previous practice.

Sinn Féin is absolutely correct that the DUP's behaviour in regard to handling of the heating scheme has been arrogant and unacceptable. The DUP has misused the office of First Minister to block and delay further entirely justified investigations into how the scheme was drafted and left in place at such unacceptable cost to the people of Northern Ireland. Its abuse of the petitions-of-concern process is a disgrace. What Sinn Féin has absolutely not done is established why it needed to collapse the assembly in order to challenge this behaviour by the DUP. More important, it has failed to set out any serious proposal for reforming how the Executive works or to acknowledge its own role in creating an arrogant and unaccountable joint office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

The complaint about failing to share information or to allow proper discussion at Executive level that we are today hearing from Sinn Féin is nearly word for word what was said by the SDLP, UUP and the Alliance Party when they were in the Executive. For years, they pointed out that the DUP and Sinn Féin refused to circulate information, stitched up decisions before Executive meetings and operated towards them what they called the "mushroom policy" of "Keep them in the dark and cover them with dirt". When today we hear Sinn Féin complaining about an arrogant and non-transparent Executive, it is impossible not to look back at how these other parties were treated and realise the incredible double standards applied by Sinn Féin. I recall that at the time of the devolution of responsibility for justice, in a manoeuvre by the DUP and Sinn Féin to prevent the SDLP from getting the relevant position, they nominated Mr. David Ford of the Alliance Party without even consulting him. He read about his impending appointment in the media. That was the level of transparency and consultation with other political parties. We heard it all the time from the other parties.

This behaviour by the DUP and Sinn Féin led those three parties to leave the Executive and create a functioning Opposition in the assembly. The pressure this has placed on Ministers has been demonstrated by the growing aggression and arrogance with which they respond to tough questions in the assembly. It is worth looking back over the past five years, in particular, at the angry response from Sinn Féin every time my party and others have called the Executive dysfunctional. On countless occasions, its leaders have accused us of undermining the peace process through pointing out that the behaviour of the Executive's leaders threatened the continued operation of the Executive.

The core facts of the RHI scheme and its disastrous financial implications have been known for over a year. They were known before the last assembly election and they have been pursued doggedly by the Opposition in Stormont. What exactly is supposed to be changed by this election other than the relative strength of parties? Neither of the two big parties has proposed to make the Executive more open, inclusive or effective. No objective has been offered beyond the short-term one of putting manners on the other side. Instead, the only demand is that we have the verdict before the trial is held. Now that the election is happening, we must hope that once we get through the initial bluster, we hear some concrete commitments to ending the dysfunction and focusing on the people's concerns.

Each party needs to be asked what it is willing to do to remove the roadblocks to action on health, employment, poverty and sectarianism. What exactly are they proposing in regard to reducing the potentially disastrous impact of Brexit? How are they going to make Ministers and the Executive accountable and reduce the abuse of government by the larger parties? They must also be challenged on what they are going to do to implement clear agreements to tackle the causes of sectarian conflict.

The equality agenda has become a partisan weapon in the hands of the two largest parties. The DUP has blocked action in order to keep alive the idea of it being a defender of the Protestant interest. The petty and often nasty behaviour of DUP politicians to implementing basic equality measures has been corrosive. For its part, Sinn Féin has failed to give it priority other than rhetorical priority. Deputy Adams caused deep damage when he referred to it as "the Trojan horse of the entire republican strategy" while also referring to opponents in Unionist parties as "these bastards". At the same time, it has sought to project ownership of the relevant measures rather than to join a cross-party consensus. The equality agenda is not a Trojan horse or a political strategy; it is a fundamental pillar of building a society focused on common welfare, not partisan manoeuvring. It is also contained in solemn and legally binding agreements.

As we have said many times before, the dysfunction in the Executive and assembly has been enabled by a policy of disengagement by the Governments. The policy of saying "It's about time you sorted it out by yourselves" has failed for six years and it continues to fail. The objective has never been for the Governments to be able to step back from engagement; it has always been for them to remain active in helping the institutions to work and to support a spirit of effective and inclusive co-operation. No doubt Sinn Féin has decided it can gain electorally by having an election now. It perhaps feels that campaigning on this issue will help it push back challenges from the new SDLP leadership and People Before Profit candidates, whose encroachment in west Belfast has obviously destabilised the party establishment in its previous electoral fortress. Whatever the reasons for the cause of this election, we need it to allow some progress rather than just rearranging the chairs. It has started badly but I hope that in the next seven weeks there will be a debate on issues that should dominate, on proposals to end the cycle of disputes and deliver an Executive and assembly that spend more time fighting problems than fighting each other. One has only to look back over the past two or three years to note the stop-start trend. It is unacceptable.

Let this be an end to the policy of disengagement. Northern Ireland must not be an issue that returns to our debates and to the media only when there is a deep crisis. We need Ministers to step up their levels of engagement and to understand that building connections with Northern Ireland is a core part of their responsibilities. Most of all, we need to move beyond this fight and proceed to tackling a Brexit process that has gone from hard Brexit to destructive Brexit and seems intent on ignoring the special status of Northern Ireland and its EU citizens, as revealed in today's speech by the British Prime Minister, Ms Theresa May, whose references to the island of Ireland were very sparse. It was regrettable that there was no serious commitment to the objective of seeking special status for Northern Ireland in her speech today, rather it was about strengthening the union as the core mission of the British Government. There are very serious issues for the North down the line, notwithstanding the efforts of the Irish Government in consultation with other European Governments. These Governments get the importance of the peace process and the special dispensation for Northern Ireland, and they have said that to us. It is extremely important that all the energy of all political parties on this island be focused on Brexit and preparing for it. This election is a luxury that we can ill afford on this island at this time.

Tá mé sásta go bhfuil an díospóireacht seo ag dul ar aghaidh inniu. Ba mhaith liom dea-mhéin a chur in iúl do Mr. Martin McGuinness. The Leas-Cheann Comhairle will know that since the good people of Louth and east Meath sent me into this Chamber, I have been asking for regular, structured debates on the North as part of the normal business of the Dáil. I have made the case that we should be discussing these issues consistently and in an informed way, not only during controversies and crises. I have formally raised this with the Ceann Comhairle and I understand he has referred it to the Business Committee. I hope that other parties and Independents will support this proposition.

Since the Good Friday Agreement was achieved in April 1998, Sinn Féin has kept faith with the political institutions and all elements of that agreement and subsequent agreements. In 2007, Sinn Féin and the DUP agreed to go into the power-sharing institutions together. Le deich mbliana ó shin, tháinig Martin McGuiness agus foireann Shinn Féin sa Tionóil slán as sraith fhada de ghéarchéimeanna.

Much good work has been done by the Executive and the assembly and significant progress has been made on many issues. On some fundamental issues, however, progress has been prevented or delayed by the DUP or the two Governments. Is beag an dul chun cinn a rinneadh maidir le cúrsaí eile. Even before the emergence of the renewable heat incentive scandal, the behaviour of the DUP had led to a considerable lack of public confidence in the institutions. The RHI scheme and the serious allegations from a former DUP Minister at the then Department of Enterprise, Trade and Investment of corruption, fraud and bad governance also brought the political institutions to a defining point. In fact, to a tipping point.

Neither the public nor Sinn Féin could continue to countenance the manner in which the DUP conducted business within the Executive and the assembly. No other administration could tolerate such a scandal. Spokespersons for the other parties in the Dáil, and particularly Fianna Fáil's leader, are saying that this is an unnecessary election. Deputy Micheál Martin blames Sinn Féin and the DUP for everything negative that has happened. He stated: "Whatever the reasons for the cause of this election". That says more about his leadership's historical tolerance of corruption than anything else.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

For example, Deputy Micheál Martin sat at the Cabinet table for 14 years. While I have no doubt there were good people at that table, the Fianna Fáil leader did nothing about the corruption and waste of public money that characterised that period. He did nothing about the brown envelope culture.

What corruption?

"What corruption?"

Sinn Féin takes a different view.

Deputy Martin should take his head out of the sand.

I was named specifically.

What about Owen O'Callaghan?

We will not tolerate behaviour of this kind and we believe that all such allegations must be-----

There are lots of bank robbers over there.

Owen O'Callaghan.

Deputy Adams without interruption, please.

That is the Northern Bank money party.

We will not tolerate behaviour of this kind and all such allegations must be rigorously and independently investigated.

What about the €80 million-----

However, the refusal of Arlene Foster to step aside, without prejudice, until a preliminary report on the RHI allegations is published, and her refusal to set up such a process, blocked any possibility of a robust and comprehensive investigation. As a consequence of that and not the spurious half-truths that An Teachta Martin peddles, Martin McGuinness resigned as deputy First Minister last week. Mar is eol dúinn, beidh toghchán don tionól ar siúl ar 2 Márta.

In the ten years that Martin McGuinness was in that position and beforehand as Minister for Education, we faced deliberate provocation, arrogance and disrespect, but we put up with them for the common good. When so-called dissidents killed British soldiers, PSNI officers and prison officers, Martin McGuinness stood firm and resolutely opposed their actions on our behalf. As a result, his family home in Derry has been attacked and his life has been threatened. There are some, especially in the DUP, who have seen Sinn Féin's attempts to promote reconciliation, defend the peace process and be generous and patient as a sign of weakness. It is not. Rather, it is a sign of strength.

The political institutions established by the Good Friday Agreement can only function effectively and deliver if they have the confidence and support of the people, if agreements made are honoured and if there is zero tolerance for corruption. To achieve this, the political institutions must be built on foundations of equality and partnership. Regrettably, DUP intransigence has prevented this. For example, there has been no progress on a bill of rights. That is also the responsibility of both Governments. Léirigh an DUP dímheas uafásach ar an nGaeilge agus ar na saoránaigh sin gur mhaith leo a saoil a chaitheamh trí mheán na Gaeilge. Masla amach is amach don Ghaeilge a bhí sa chinneadh chun maoiniú don scéim Líofa a ghearradh roimh an Nollaig. There are serious allegations of sectarian bias about the allocation of money for community centres. I suppose that Fianna Fáil would just have put up with all of that.

There have been other significant issues of contention, for example, the decision to renege on the programme for Government commitment on the Long Kesh site, the DUP's resistance to legacy and truth recovery mechanisms, the Red Sky scandal, the Project Eagle debacle and, more recently, the RHI scandal. For the record, Sinn Féin first became aware of concerns around the RHI scheme when the deputy First Minister was informed by the head of the civil service early last year that there were serious problems. On 2 February of 2016, the deputy First Minister was provided with a briefing on this matter. He immediately asked for urgent action to close down the scheme. That closure was formally agreed by an urgent procedural decision on 5 February and the issue was then passed to the assembly. During the assembly debate on 15 February, Conor Murphy raised his concerns about allegations of fraud within the scheme. At the end of the debate, the SDLP voted to keep the flawed scheme open. So did the UUP. Sinn Féin voted to close it. It was closed on 29 February. Conor Murphy also spoke to the Comptroller and Auditor General and raised with him his concerns about the RHI scheme. The Comptroller and Auditor General produced a damning report in the summer of 2016.

The scandal around the RHI is a scandal created by the DUP. It has been made worse by bad governance. Despite the opportunistic attacks on Sinn Féin from the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP and others, and despite the understandable concerns in sections of our own electorate, Sinn Féin offered space and time to the DUP. We made recommendations to get to the truth of the scandal. We used the commission of investigation approach that has been used in the South following tribunals that cost millions of euro, lasted for years and mostly looked into corruption by those on the benches across from me. We suggested another model for dealing with this matter, but there was no legislation to allow for the compellability of witnesses and evidence. We said that that would not be good enough and that we needed the ability for such an investigation to compel witnesses and documentation. That is what we proposed. The DUP refused.

Despite our best efforts, the institutions are now gone and an election will be held. I invite Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and Labour to contest it.

What about the Independents?

And Deputy Mattie McGrath, of course. He would be welcome.

The Tipperary team will be in west Belfast in a week or so. Come up with it.

As the Leas-Cheann Comhairle knows, there is no easier job than that of the hurler on the ditch. Let us go up, contest and ask the people of the Six Counties to vote for Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or any other party.

The DUP will try to sectarianise these matters. Even though it would not be Deputies' intention, the DUP may be aided in this by some of the utterances from this Chamber. However, this is not an orange and green issue. Like all right-thinking people, many Unionists have contacted me to say that they are appalled by what has been happening, for example, the scandals of NAMA, Red Sky and the RHI scheme. The actions of the DUP in the RHI scandal have the potential to cost the taxpayers £500 million over the next 20 years. That will be paid for by Unionist and Nationalist citizens.

Beyond the election, there will still be a need for negotiations to establish the institutions, but we do not want to renegotiate what we have already agreed. Much of what is at fault lies in past agreements not being implemented.

Deputy Micheál Martin does not understand Martin McGuinness if he thinks that anyone in Sinn Féin is outflanking him on these issues. As Martin McGuinness made clear, we will not agree to a return to the status quo. There must be a step change in the behaviour and attitude of the DUP to its partners in government and to the working of the institutions. We also need to see a step change in the approach of the Irish and British Governments. Successive British Governments have refused to live up to their responsibilities.

Their actions have hollowed out the agreements. There is a responsibility on the Irish Government to ensure the agreements are upheld and implemented. This is not an attack on Fine Gael. In recent years, apart from the brilliant work done by Albert Reynolds and the work done by Bertie Ahern on the Good Friday Agreement, successive Governments have consigned themselves to the role of spectator and occasional commentator.

That is not true.

Sinn Féin was okay when it was confined to the North. It is only when we began to win political support in this State that we started to get the type of hostility we now see. That is a grave mistake. It is also a fact that when the North is raised in this Dáil it is usually for the sole purpose of attacking Sinn Féin. I am not against Sinn Féin being attacked. People can attack all they want. That is their entitlement. That is especially true of the Fianna Fáil leader-----

-----who sometimes behaves in a hysterical manner. He cited the transfer of justice and policing powers but he did not say anything about the role of his Government. Seamus Mallon of the SDLP told us we would not get the transfer of policing and justice powers. They said we could not get it but we persisted and we got the powers transferred from London to Belfast, with no thanks to the Government of the day.

I remind the Taoiseach that over the past six years I have regularly appealed to him and the Government to take up its leadership responsibilities and challenge the British Government as an equal. I make the same appeal today. I also make that appeal to an Teachta Micheál Martin.

We also heard talk about the equality agenda. An Teachta Micheál Martin said that under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement the responsibility for equality does not rest with the parties in the North but with each of the Governments in their respective jurisdictions. If people in the North are not being treated equally, and we are not, then that responsibility rests with the Governments. We do not want the Governments to patronise the people in the North or to tell us we should have a very civil election. We want the Governments to fulfil their governmental responsibilities-----

-----do their job and deal with our friends in Britain.

It must also be remembered that the British Government imposed cuts to the Northern Ireland budget that have been felt right across public services. The imposition of Brexit is against the will of the people in the North. The people in the North voted to remain within the European Union. The notions that are being peddled that the British want the devolved administration to be part of those negotiations are pure nonsense. One should listen to what the Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, has to say on that.

Caithfidh mé críoch a chur le mo chúpla focal anois. The DUP's refusal to accept the Brexit vote in the North is a betrayal of the electorate there. That is why the Government here has to play an all-island role.

On the very date the first Dáil met, and in the very venue it met, the Mansion House, next Saturday at 1 p.m. we are holding a conference on a united Ireland. I invite all Members to come and be part of it.

I will begin, if I may a Leas-Cheann Comhairle, like other speakers in wishing Martin McGuinness a speedy recovery to full health and acknowledge the role he has played in recent times.

Last evening, the assembly in Northern Ireland fell, and elections are now under way. The political crisis over cash for ash has driven a wedge between the two governing parties in Northern Ireland. Over recent weeks, we have seen a scandal caused by the DUP bring Stormont to a shuddering halt. Sinn Féin, which was initially happy to stand back and let the rot fester, belatedly realised that Colum Eastwood was right to call for public accountability into a scandalous misuse of taxpayers' money. The increasing tension unleashed a number of other issues and has now brought about an election. I acknowledge the invitation of the leader of Sinn Féin to travel to the North. I have pledged the support of my party to my colleagues in the SDLP, our sister party in the Party of European Socialists, and look forward to campaigning with them in the coming weeks.

That is them hammered now.

It is worth putting on the record that the commentary down here which says that an election will change nothing in the North is misguided. It is true that an election that does not deliver political change and puts the same crowd back is unlikely to change much, but as is the case with elections in every jurisdiction, change is always an option for voters. We should not take the people for granted. A change in government will always lead to other changes – for good or for ill. The parties in the North will obviously campaign night and day over the coming weeks and for my part, I have made clear my party's determination to support the SDLP in the campaign.

Despite that, and despite the clear possibility of change that exists if people vote in a certain way, there is at least a possibility that it will not be immediately possible to form a cross-community coalition in the aftermath of the coming election. Such an outcome would leave us facing, once again, the prospect of direct rule from Westminster, this time in the midst of the Brexit debate - the most crucial and critical time for the peoples of this island, North and South. This morning, Theresa May made abundantly clear that her Brexit will be a hard Brexit. Talk of staying within the Single Market is dead in the water and a British exit from the European Union customs union also seems inevitable. No assurances about avoiding a return of the borders of the past can be in any way reassuring in that context and reality. As Denis Staunton noted this morning, even along the border between Norway and Sweden, one of the most technologically advanced and co-operatively managed borders, goods must be cleared for customs and lorries are checked as they cross from one country into another. Such an arrangement would amount to a hard border, no matter how one describes it and would constitute a significant change from the current situation.

We now know that cutting taxes and diminishing workplace standards and workers' rights will be the weapons the British Government will threaten to deploy in negotiations. I remain to be convinced that such threats will be persuasive to the EU negotiators but from experience, I doubt very much that they will. However, at least we now have some idea of how the British Government is going to approach the issue. Having listened very carefully to Theresa May's speech, it should give us all serious food for thought. The prospect of another hung assembly, leading to the suspension of devolved government and a return to direct rule, recreates a set of uniquely difficult issues in terms of how we in this State should respond. Indeed, it causes us to consider whether we have a constitutional capacity to respond adequately to that unique set of challenges.

This is because the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement within Northern Ireland, North-South and east-west are interlocking and inter-dependent. The package as a whole has been endorsed by the Irish people and enshrined in the Constitution.

Fourteen years ago, the British-Irish Agreement (Amendment) Act 2002 was passed. It did not deal with the most significant consequence of the suspension of the assembly and Executive but with lesser matters. It was simply providing an interim mechanism to ensure the continued operation of six all-island implementation bodies, important and all as they were. However, that Act demonstrated that the suspension of the institutions has serious constitutional as well as political implications and it underlined that the Constitution restricts the response available to this Government. The Act provided that it would expire on the earliest practicable day after the termination of the interim arrangements "on the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly". The word "temporary" was used 11 times in the legislation. Anything other than strictly temporary legislation would have raised serious constitutional questions about the abandonment or variation of the terms of the original British-Irish Agreement of April 1998 - part of the Good Friday package incorporated into Article 29.7 of the Constitution.

In November 2004, the then Taoiseach told the Dáil:

As the Deputy is aware, it was to operate for six months, or a maximum of nine months. Ultimately, if somebody was to challenge these issues, the present arrangements probably would not stand up and we are all aware of that. If it were to happen that we did not have an Executive or an Assembly, I do not doubt that it would be argued, by one side or the other, that we should not have the North-South body structures.

The problem is that constitutional cover is not given to bodies that do not have their origins in the terms of the original Good Friday Agreement or are not operating in accordance with those original terms hence the stress on the temporary nature of the arrangement.

In November 2004, when the institutions were still suspended, Deputy Adams gave a speech demanding that in the absence of a deal, the two Governments bring forward proposals rooted in the Agreement to see its full implementation. He warned that direct rule was not sustainable in the long term and suggested that the two Governments look to formal institutionalised power sharing at Government level. He seems to have forgotten that contribution now that the SDLP is making this case. This is not an easy solution to propose. Any Irish Government will be limited by the extent to which it can depart from the terms of the original Good Friday package endorsed by the people in a referendum in this State. Even on an interim basis and with a view to keeping institutions and bodies ticking over pending full restoration, this would not be unproblematic. That being said, we clearly need the Government to consider what actions it might take if no coalition arrangement is possible in the aftermath of the impending election. At a time when we are moving towards the triggering of Article 50, we cannot under any circumstances allow the voice of the people of Northern Ireland to be suppressed or excluded.

Northern Ireland must have special status when the UK exits the EU due to the fact that every person there can apply and become an Irish citizen. This morning we saw Theresa May move further not only from the concept and the embracing of the Single Market but even from membership of the customs union. For the people of Northern Ireland and for all of us on this island, there is a cold wind blowing and we do not seem to have fully grasped that. If there was any doubt about what was coming, listening to and carefully analysing what was said by the British Prime Minister this morning should be the wake-up call for all of us. Frankly, I do not think even this House has grasped this issue with the urgency it requires. More than two months have passed since the Taoiseach committed to providing weekly updates to the parties in this House on the evolution of Government thinking about Brexit but this has not yet happened. I raised it again before Christmas. We need to get on with these things. If we are to act in a collective way and with common purpose, we need to know exactly what is happening week by week. We need to be marshalled to have our own influence within our own political groupings week by week. When Theresa May refers to the family ties and bonds of affection that unite our two countries, she is referring to something all of us in this House know to be the truth. It would be nice if our actions, commitment and unity of purpose made that sentiment seem like more than just a sound bite.

I am sharing time with Deputy Paul Murphy - seven and a half minutes each.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

As a Thirty-two County party, People Before Profit welcomes the fact that there will be an election in Northern Ireland. We do not regret the fall of this Executive and we think this election offers an historic opportunity for the people of Northern Ireland to punish the political establishment there and the institutions of Stormont for what our comrades in Northern Ireland are describing as the endemic corruption of Stormont and the total bankruptcy of those institutions which the renewable heat incentive, RHI, scheme has exposed in the starkest light. It is worth saying that this is only the latest and largest in a succession of scandals such as the NAMA scandal, the Red Sky scandal and the scandal around the social investment fund, to name a few.

I was and am somewhat bemused by some of the debate in this House today, including the exchanges between the Taoiseach and Deputy Adams and some of the other contributions we heard. While there are lingering issues relating to equality that need to be seriously addressed, what screams out about the scandal around RHI is the rotten corruption at the heart of the political institutions in Northern Ireland. The scale of it is staggering. In respect of ordinary working people, regardless of whether they are Catholic or Protestant, Unionist or Nationalist or orange or green, as we always seem to wish to categorise them, the institutions of Stormont have institutionalised those sectarian divisions. What emerges from RHI is a corrupt elite that has effectively robbed the people of Northern Ireland of nearly £500 million - the figure is considerably more in euro - in a rotten scandal.

I am proud that People Before Profit was the first, bar none, in the Northern Assembly to call for Arlene Foster not to step aside, not to have negotiations, but to resign because whatever comes out of any investigation that finally happens, she should be sacked for at the very least gross incompetence and more likely than not much more than that.

Everything about this suggests corruption at an extraordinary level. We can contrast the hand-wringing and delay in calling an election and calling for Arlene Foster to resign when we are talking about £500 million burnt or planned to be burnt by an elite who are in the know with what was agreed by both the DUP and Sinn Féin in terms of the Stormont House Agreement, with 20,000 public sector jobs to go, plans to sell off state assets and plans to cut corporation tax. It is worth saying that the amount of moneys involved in RHI are about the same as the savings planned from axing 20,000 public sector jobs in the Stormont House Agreement which both the DUP and Sinn Féin supported as did parties down in the South in an austerity programme remarkably similar to, indeed almost exactly the same as, the rotten austerity programme that was inflicted on working people down here.

We absolutely welcome this election and the fall of the Executive. It represents an historic opportunity for a different type of politics to emerge, to challenge the institutions, to challenge the failed orange and green politics and to put class issues and the economic and social issues affecting working people at the heart of Northern Ireland politics in a way that can break through the rotten sectarianism and offer a genuine alternative to working people.

There is one practical thing we should all be calling for right now and not after the election. We should demand that all the beneficiaries of the RHI scheme should be named now. We want to see their names and see all the documentation now so that the people of the North, not in some inside so-called independent investigation carried out by Stormont, as has been proposed, but in a fully public inquiry which involves the publication of all documents, can make the decision in the context of the election as to who they believe is responsible for the scandal of RHI and who benefited.

We know some of the people who have already benefited and they are certainly not ordinary Catholic or Protestant working people. Viscount Brookeborough, one of the very richest people in the North, was one of the major beneficiaries and a whole network of patronage. It really has exposed the reality of modern-day Unionism that seems to have operated through a network of rotten patronage that did not benefit ordinary Protestant working people, but benefited an elite around the DUP.

I see Deputy McDonald nodding absolutely. We should not shilly-shally around; Arlene Foster should go. The problem is that with the way the institutions have been set up in the North, there is a sort of desire to keep these institutions going rather than challenge the rotten set-up that has been institutionalised by the Stormont Assembly and which essentially creates the conditions for this kind of corruption.

As a 32-county party, we do not need an invitation to go to the North; we will be up there. Buses have been booked to go up and canvass in the North. This will be the biggest electoral intervention by People Before Profit ever in the Northern elections. We hope to win a second seat in West Belfast and hold our seat in Derry, and run in a number of new constituencies. I urge people here who want to see a genuine challenge to the failed sectarian politics of the North to support us in that project to give left-wing politics and opposition to corruption and failed austerity policies a chance in the forthcoming election.

The RHI scandal and the subsequent crisis sum up everything that is wrong with politics at Stormont: corruption, cronyism and sectarian sabre rattling. It is summed up by the two coinciding facts that in Belfast the Charles Hurst Ferrari showroom will be heated using public money for the next 20 years while at the same time 42% of people live in fuel poverty.

In Arlene Foster's own rural constituency, 75% of GP surgeries face closure and school children will be hit by plans to end free school buses. Yet, as Deputy Boyd Barrett mentioned, Viscount Brookeborough, the so-called Lord Lieutenant of Fermanagh, will receive £1.6 million to heat his 1,000-acre estate from this botched scheme. Those are just two examples of those who will gain from the scheme at a cost of almost £500 million which will see wealthy recipients mostly get £1.60 back for every £1 spent.

The whistleblower who made this scandal public had approached Arlene Foster in 2013 but was ignored. Mrs. Foster's ministerial successor, Jonathan Bell, alleged that when he moved to close applications to the scheme, he was blocked from doing so by Mrs. Foster and other senior figures in the party. He has since claimed that the reason the scheme was not closed was that DUP advisers or their families would gain as they had interests in the poultry business. The scheme was backed by all the main parties and the scale of the financial black hole in the scheme was known at Stormont from early last year but was not brought to the public by any of them.

It is no wonder that people in the North are angry with politicians getting away with wasting millions on a botched scheme yet when it comes to children's education or a bed in hospital they are told there is no money. This is what teachers, who tomorrow will take further strike action, were told. They were offered a 0% pay increase even though since 2010-11, teachers' salaries have decreased in real terms by 15% as a result of austerity implemented by successive Sinn Féin and DUP education Ministers and yet they were told there was no money.

This cash for ash scandal is not a once off. It is part of a long list of scandals which expose the DUP's cosy relationships with bosses and property developers. Those scandals are a symptom of a wider political culture in Stormont which is about giving handouts to the wealthy while imposing more and more austerity on working class people.

All the main parties, be it Sinn Féin and the DUP in government or the UUP and SDLP in the misnamed official opposition, support a drastic cut to corporation tax which will be the equivalent of an RHI scandal every year, transferring hundreds of millions from public services, which are being cut, to companies' profit.

A number of weeks ago, the DUP and Sinn Féin were supposedly bosom buddies, happily working together to implement cuts. In fact, political commentators argued after the last assembly election which was only eight months ago that we were in a new stage of the peace process where politics in Northern Ireland would be normalised.

Last week we had Martin McGuinness's resignation, where he claimed that he was calling a halt to the DUP's arrogance. In truth, Sinn Féin was slow to take such a stand. In December, it abstained on a motion in the assembly calling for Mrs. Foster's resignation and has been nervous about calling for an independent, public inquiry. It was only pressure from the public and its base which has pushed Sinn Féin to take a harder position.

Politicians from the orange and green parties are now engaged in a sectarian pantomime, cynically banging the drum on the divisive issues in order to secure their vote. Since Mr. McGuinness's resignation, Mrs. Foster has claimed to have done nothing wrong and that this is really about attacking the leader of so-called strong Unionism who will not roll over to Sinn Féin.

We have had the disgraceful decision by Paul Givan to cut the Líofa bursary scheme for young people to attend the Gaeltacht in summer by £50,000. He has been forced subsequently to do a U-turn. There is no doubt that decision was a sectarian decision by the DUP. However, Sinn Féin has also been cynical in using this issue when their own Ministers have overseen cuts to Irish language funding in the past.

Meanwhile, the Minister, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, has suddenly decided to remove the Union flag from his Department's buildings, an emotive issue and a move clearly aimed at whipping up sectarianism.

Some politicians have claimed that there will be no return to the status quo but that is precisely what any agreement between the right-wing parties of sectarian division will mean, whatever superficial changes are made. Neither will direct rule by the Tories or the proposal of a joint authority between right wing governments result in any solution.

Even before the cash-for-ash scandal, people in the North had a cynical attitude to the Stormont institutions. They saw them as ineffective and the politicians within them as aloof and self-interested. A recent poll conducted before the scandal broke showed that only 28% trusted Stormont politicians. In particular, young people are turned off by the sectarian and backward politics which dominate Northern Ireland. Marriage equality and a woman's right to choose have been denied, despite the wishes of the majority in society. The right to choose and marriage equality have been denied by the DUP which is itself a backward, sexist party. On the issue of abortion, however, the DUP is not alone. Sinn Féin has tried to present itself as a party that stands up for equality, respect and integrity but, like the DUP, it does not offer equality, respect or integrity to those women who wish to have an abortion. All of the main political parties in the North oppose a woman's right to choose, despite this being the 50th anniversary of the passing of the Abortion Act 1967 in Britain which gave access to abortion. They all offer a return to the status quo of backward politics. The status quo means the politics of sectarian divisions.

Historically, it is the labour and trade union movement which has been the key force in bringing together ordinary working people in Northern Ireland to fight for their common interests and challenge sectarianism. Only that movement recognises that ordinary people, Catholic or Protestant, have more in common and more that unites than divides them; they face the common misery of unemployment, low pay and attacks on public services and they need a common struggle together to improve their lot. The Socialist Party stands for the rebuilding of that tradition. The only lasting solution to the problems facing people in the North can come from such a movement of working people. Socialist Party members will be standing as part of Labour Alternative and the latter will be putting forward candidates right across the community. We also want to work with others who are serious about building a cross-community labour movement to mount the most credible challenge possible.

Is maith liom an seanfhocal "ní neart go cur le chéile". Ceapaim go bhfuil sé oiriúnach don díospóireacht seo ós rud é go bhfuil sé ciallmhar, praiticiúil agus ag baint le fealsúnacht. Tá sé soiléir nach raibh an seanfhocal sin i gceist ag na daoine sa Tuaisceart, go háirithe na polaiteoirí, nach raibh ag "cur le chéile". It is obvious that there has not been the level of working together that is vital for Northern Ireland and especially for the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. This can be seen from the number of issues that have been outstanding for many years since the signing of that Agreement. Regardless of whether one agrees with the terms of the Agreement, it is a binding accord, signed in April 1998 and approved in referenda in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, by 71% and 94% respectively. There was a record turnout in the North for the referendum.

We all know of the strands of the framework which provide for the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive at Stormont as well as the principle of power sharing. They also provide for the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council. Since the Good Friday Agreement there has been a series of other agreements including St. Andrew's, Hillsborough, Stormont House and the most recent, the Fresh Start agreement. We have a lot of agreements on paper but in practical terms, do we see individuals and parties working together to implement all that has been agreed and to tackle those issues that are still outstanding? Unfortunately, we have various glaring examples of this not happening. Regardless of what the British and Irish Governments say, the main players in the North are the ones who must pull together, implement all that has been agreed and tackle those areas on which agreement has been reached but little progress has been made. The reintroduction of direct rule a number of years ago was most unfortunate in the context of devolved government and another return to direct rule would be very regressive and a serious blow to democracy.

It is rather ironic that the North is facing into an election because of an issue that is not obviously or glaringly sectarian as was the case in the past. The election has been caused by an economic issue, the so-called cash-for-ash scheme. That said, there is a sectarian aspect to the issue which is really astonishing because one would have thought that everybody would be on the same page with regard to public funds and the importance of transparency and value for money. One would have thought that all individuals and parties would agree on such criteria, regardless of whether they are Unionist, Nationalist, capitalist or socialist. The scandal led to the deputy First Minister's resignation and the calling of an election, both of which were avoidable if the parties and individuals had been working together for the common good and were focused on the principle of the best use of public funds.

The renewable heat incentive, RHI, scheme was positive in the sense that its aim was to encourage businesses and farmers to switch from fossil fuel to biomass heating systems. However, the subsidies provided under the scheme were extremely generous and had no limits. The scheme has been dubbed "cash for ash" because the more fuel that scheme participants burn, the more they earn. We know, thanks to information provided by a whistleblower, that the scheme has been and is being abused. The latest information in that regard has been provided by the Northern Ireland Audit Office which estimates that over the next 20 years there will be an overspend of £400 million or more on the scheme. Who is paying for this? The answer is the Northern Ireland Executive and the taxpayers. The turmoil has resulted from the fact that the former First Minister, Ms Arlene Foster, was the responsible Minister when the scheme was introduced. While there are departmental officials who must be held to account, ultimately responsibility lies with the Minister. There are questions arising with regard to the whistleblower, why it took the Department so long to realise the seriousness of the issue and the legal implications of the scheme. All of these questions could have been answered by an investigation. Such an investigation was needed and the former First Minister should have stood aside while it took place. It is quite incredible that Ms Foster could not have done that and spared the North a second election in the space of a year. More importantly, such an investigation could have gotten to the crux of the scheme, determined what could be done to address the problems with it and ensured that the cost to the taxpayer would be limited.

The situation has become petty. This pettiness is particularly evident in the withdrawal of funding for an Irish language scheme. Even though that funding has now been reinstated, the damage has been done. This was a childish move that was insulting to all Irish speakers, not just those in the North, and to those who want to learn Irish. The current situation, with an election on the horizon, represents a failure on the part of the main parties and politicians in the North. If sense had prevailed, if there had been an atmosphere of mutual respect and if there had been an acceptance that the cash-for-ash scheme needed investigation in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland, they would not be facing into an election now. This is particularly serious in the context of the uncertainty surrounding Brexit. The election is to be held on 2 March which leaves a very short timeframe before Brexit is triggered. In the meantime, it will be the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. James Brokenshire, who will be looking after Northern Ireland's interests instead of those who were directly elected by the people of the North. This is a real cause for concern because the majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU although the majority in Britain voted to leave. It is very concerning that it is not the elected members of the Northern Ireland Assembly who will deal with these issues. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that after the elections there will be a functioning government in Northern Ireland. The comments of some Northern politicians speaking in the media last night do not augur well for the formation, by mid-March, of a fully functioning government that can work in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland.

I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. That committee has had quite a number of meetings since the Brexit vote with various groups, all of whom have expressed concern, if not consternation, at the difficulties they are facing because of the outcome of the referendum. Last week, the committee discussed some of the very practical concerns of farmers in the North. The committee was told that farms in the Republic will be €20,000 better off than their similar-sized counterparts in the North. There is concern about the possible adverse effects of a hard Brexit, including an increase in smuggling. The committee also heard about the Geopark cross-Border project in south Fermanagh which is dependent on EU funding. There are many more examples of such projects and participants are very concerned about the future.

An all-Ireland civic dialogue on Brexit took place on 2 November 2016. While a broad range of groups and individuals participated including NGOs, business organisations, trade unions, civil society representatives and politicians, one could not but note the glaring absence of Unionist representatives from the UUP and the DUP. What sort of message did that send out?

Recently a positive report was prepared and published by the House of Lords EU committee on the impact of Brexit on British-Irish relations. The report agreed that the unique nature of those relations requires a "unique structure". The committee called on the UK and Irish Governments to negotiate a draft bilateral agreement which would incorporate the views and the interests of the Northern Ireland Executive and to put this to the EU as part of the final Brexit negotiations. However, there will be no Northern Ireland Executive in the near or foreseeable future. I believe that those who are pro-Brexit gambled with the stability and future of Northern Ireland and recent events are a similar gamble.

I listened to the British Prime Minister's Brexit speech today and noted a glaring lack of concern for Northern Ireland. It hardly featured in her speech at all.

I was doubtful before I heard her speech as to where Northern Ireland would be on the British agenda regarding Brexit, but today we know exactly what the position is.

Another concern discussed by the committee last week was that at different stages the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, and others in her Government called for the UK's withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights. This convention is so important for peace and stability. The Children's Rights Alliance was very clear when it met us last week that this should be non-negotiable and that the convention and human rights instruments in the Good Friday Agreement would not be a casualty of Brexit. It also has concerns about child protection, children's rights and the issue of child abduction and the implications regarding the common travel area. I know the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, has a conference coming up at the end of the month on these issues.

We also have legacy issues. We have had the third all-party Dáil motion on the Dublin and Monaghan bombings but there are still outstanding issues and families are still waiting, more than 40 years on. There is constant stalling on this. The Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland's proposal to establish a legacy unit to process 56 outstanding legacy inquests relating to the Troubles received support from victims and survivors, but there was a delay with the funding, and this was before the events yesterday. The report to the UN of its special rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence included a series of recommendations on the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement and on the bill of rights for Northern Ireland but we see more delays now. There are continuing issues regarding prisoners and the revocation of licences, and a significant lack of progress in ensuring justice and due process.

The cash for ash has proven to be very costly not only in terms of the particular funds but in the ensuing fallout which sees Northern Ireland without a government or a parliament at a very critical time. We all live on this small island and there is significant movement of people and business back and forth across the Border. There are also institutions, projects and considerable co-operation between North and South. Brexit is a major challenge and Northern Ireland and the Republic must be seen as special cases. At this stage, Northern Ireland is depending on the Secretary of State, Mr. Brokenshire, and I hope the elections will see politicians directly elected by the people of Ireland taking it up.

For the foreseeable future, the situation in Northern Ireland will need the closest attention and care from the Irish and British Governments. With an unwelcome election pending, we are suddenly asking ourselves how relations between the DUP and Sinn Féin were allowed to deteriorate so rapidly. There was a reasonable expectation here, in the United Kingdom, throughout Europe and in the US that since so much time, effort and money had been invested in establishing an agreed government structure the parties in Northern Ireland would get on with power sharing. We might have expected the norms of western democracy would kick in and deliver good government and services to the people of Northern Ireland rather than calling an unnecessary election on financial irregularities, an election which risks being very divisive.

The success of the peace process needs to be acknowledged and celebrated. The killing and maiming has stopped. The guns and bombs have been decommissioned for the most part and the hard men have come into the political fold and seem intent on staying there. We are all well aware of our history and when we look across Europe we see how historical differences and deep animosities have been acknowledged and reconciled, leading to a European Union which has led to almost universal peace, stability and increased prosperity.

Power sharing in Northern Ireland is a fragile political system which has grown from the Good Friday Agreement, but it requires co-operation and compromise from all shades of political opinion in Northern Ireland to make it work. The common good must trump party politics. Having emerged from 30 years of sectarian conflict and having developed devolved government and democratic self-rule, it is the responsibility of all elected representatives in Northern Ireland to value co-operation above conflict and not to allow sectarian ideology to damage progress in creating a tolerant peaceful society.

No country can stand alone in the global structures that have formed our modern world. Northern Ireland faces huge external challenges, not least from Brexit. Having voted by a substantial majority to remain in the European Union in last year's referendum, Northern Ireland faces the certainty of being forced to leave the European Union and have a Border not only with Southern Ireland but also a border between the European Union and the United Kingdom. This will have serious and unknown consequences. To manage these changes it is paramount that Northern Ireland has a stable government which can have a strong voice in the United Kingdom so it can influence its own future.

One way or another we face an election which promises to be a torrid affair. While appealing to parties in Northern Ireland to turn down the heat, we also have a responsibility not to inflame an already difficult situation with our commentary. The former President, Mary McAleese, and her husband, Martin, made a great contribution in solidifying the peace process with their building bridges initiative. This work is often replicated throughout the country by community groups and organisations. An example in my constituency each year is the Scariff Harbour Festival, which invites personalities from Northern Ireland to discuss their experiences in conflict resolution. Over the years many youth groups from both sides of the divide have travelled to Scariff to participate in the festival. The ongoing process of building bridges must be supported at local and national levels.

The restoration of power sharing is essential. The prospect of returning to direct rule from London should an election produce a stalemate would be a seriously damaging retrograde step which would lead to further political and civil instability. This would not be in anybody's interests. Politicians need to break from their rigid roles and recast themselves in a new progressive form, which will lead Northern Ireland to a bright new future. We must always be reminded that Northern Ireland remains a national issue of supreme importance and that we must continually promote the end of sectarianism and develop an inclusive tolerant society.

I appreciate the opportunity to speak in this very important debate. We are facing into an election in Northern Ireland at a most unfortunate time because of the issues relating to Brexit. Instability at this time is most unwelcome, but we must be respectful of the rights of political parties and politicians to call an election if they see fit to do so. We are where we are. Could anybody believe that a cash-for-ash situation would lead to us facing into an unwanted election? But this is it and we must get on with it.

From working with my colleagues on the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs in recent months, I know the challenges Brexit has put upon us here and in the North will be enormous and we are facing into the unknown. I welcome the Prime Minister's speech today which, to a certain degree, brought some clarity but also brought its own concerns. It was the case we were waiting a long time for it and I welcome the fact the speech was made today.

When the election is over we want the parties to work together. We want there to be a government and to have co-operation as we had in the past because of the serious economic and trading concerns we have in the South and the worries we have about how Brexit will affect the farming community and our tourism sector at a time when our economy is very vulnerable. We are only coming out of the depths of the recession. There is a lot of road to cover before we can say we are really on a road to recovery, because every day of the week in my constituency I see many issues and problems, which is why I am so worried about the effect of Brexit and what is happening at present.

It would be neglectful not to acknowledge the contribution of the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, and his hard work. He is operating well in his portfolio and I commend him.

At this time we do not want other politicians to knock him for the sake of knocking him. He needs support because of what we are facing into.

I send my best wishes to former deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness. I was upset when I heard of his illness and I hope he will make a complete recovery and gets back up on his feet again in the near future because his contribution, as is the case with other people on all sides, can never be forgotten. It is because of the work people on all sides did on the peace process that people are no longer dying on the streets in the North and that is to be welcomed.

I wish the former deputy First Minister a speedy recovery I have met him a few times and I have always enjoyed my engagement with him. I ask an Teachta Adams to bring the good wishes of all of us back to him this evening.

We are in a very dicey situation and we cannot go back to the past as it is not an option. We have to be positive and look forward. The elections are in place but it is a pity they are happening. I have enjoyed many trips to Northern Ireland over the years and I have worked with different people up there.

We have to salute Colum Eastwood for bringing out the cash-for-ash scandal. It is a pity the scandal has resulted in a dash for votes. We cannot lecture the people in the North on how to conduct their elections but I hope it will not be too divisive. I remember standing on the wall outside Glaslough in County Monaghan looking into Lord Caledon's estate and the estate of Lord Brookeborough, now Viceroy Brookeborough, was mentioned here. I do not know who gained from this but there should be an inquiry as we do not want to see scandals which hurt the economy. We do not want sectarian decisions but the cuts to the Irish language programmes were very sad. We can all rub our hands here but it is only two or three months ago that I raised the cuts to the cursaí Gaeilge. There have been huge cuts ansan. Thankfully the Government has listened and given back some funding for Irish language here but we cannot say the elections are for suas an bóthar - we have to look into our own hearts and Sinn Féin have to do so as well because they have implemented cuts in the North while coming down here to play a different card.

I have respect for an Teachta Adams but he would do better to take a leaf out of Martin McGuinness's book by admitting his past. There is no shame in it and it is part of the past of all of us. My late father was involved in the same struggle and there is no point in continually denying it. Martin McGuinness said he was involved and he tried very hard with Dr. Paisley. History has been too kind to Dr. Paisley because I remember being up there as a young man ag lorg bean cheile. I found one and she is still with me after 34 years but I remember Dr. Paisley's bellowing voice from 300 yards away where he was giving one of his bullish sectarian speeches. I do not want to speak ill of the dead and I have a good enough relationship with his son but history has been too kind to him.

I have enjoyed my time on the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and a lot of progress was made. I pay tribute to Bertie Ahern in this respect. He left his own mother's graveside to keep the Good Friday Agreement together. I do not want to be critical of the Taoiseach but someone like that is missing today. My former colleague, Dr. Martin Mansergh, had a huge role as he was able to get in doors, behind the walls of houses and have tea in kitchens with people whom it was very important to meet. He told me some of the stories of his encounters and he was a tremendous asset. I am sure his offices remain open for these purposes.

After the shouting and the rumpus of the election, which will be a long campaign by any standards, and after 3 March cad a dhéanfaimidh ansin? It will be back to a polarised situation. The last thing we want is direct rule, especially after Brexit and listening to the Prime Minister, Mrs. May, this morning. She does not give a hoot about Northern Ireland, or Southern Ireland, and it is time our Taoiseach sat up and listened and accepted that. All the nice platitudes, the fancy talk and the telephone calls have been ignored. It is time we tell our colleagues in Europe, who were supposed to have been good to us but never were as far as I am concerned, to stand up and let us know that Northern Ireland is going to be out on a limb, in spite of the democratic deficit given that the majority voted to remain in Europe. I could never understand how the former First Minister, Arlene Foster, and the DUP campaigned on this as they were cutting off their nose to spite their face but people voted in that way as well.

I want to go back to the Dublin-Monaghan bombings. I was in Dublin on the day of the bombings. There has been a lack of justice and truth in the lack of an inquiry into the bombings. I want to go back to Gordon Wilson and Enniskillen and to the Omagh bomb in particular. I was on my way to Omagh with my family that day but we did not arrive because the young chap was unwell and did not want to travel so we arrived the morning after. I met Mo Mowlam and Prince Charles on that day around the streets outside the cordon. Michael Gallagher and his organisation have been abandoned by the Government, and by the Taoiseach especially, who pointed to him at a Fine Gael Ard-Fheis and told him he would get justice from him, having not got it from Fianna Fáil. He has had no justice and has met the Taoiseach just once here in the corridor after hours of waiting.

Those families need justice, as do all the 39 people including an unborn child who lost their lives. It is sad because the family of John White from Tipperary are friends of mine. There need to be no more cover-ups and that bomb should never have got to Omagh that day. Anybody who is in politics here knows what went on. I have visited the centre of the organisation many times and have invited its members to the Gallery. I asked the Taoiseach, on Leaders' Questions, to look up and wave at people he could not meet for two years despite his so-called open door policy. We need to be honest and straight and have a bothar díreach. We need to do some soul-searching and we cannot be selective. I listened to an Teachta Adams inviting us all up to take part. It is not a day for scoring points but we all have to be careful of what we say. I hope the election will be calm and cool and that there will be a lot of reflection so that we can have power sharing after 3 March. If we do not we are facing into the abyss.

The next section is to be shared between the Social Democrats and the Green Party. Are the Members dividing their seven and a half minutes equally?

Yes. I am sharing with Deputy Eamon Ryan.

There has rarely been such upheaval and uncertainty about the future relationships between the United Kingdom and Ireland, with Northern Ireland in the middle of it. I am sure we all agree that this election could not have come at a worse time. Hardly anything has challenged the Good Friday Agreement as much as the current uncertainty and the combination of Brexit and political unrest in Northern Ireland across a range of different matters. The election of 2 March is crucial and not just for those north of the Border - it has significant repercussions for us in the South in the context of protecting the progress that has been made under the Good Friday Agreement and ensuring we continue on the path of peace. It may seem we have come a long way from the awful times of the Troubles and the Border patrols of the past but these were not that long ago and we must recognise that we are still in a very fragile situation. I reiterate the comments, in this House and outside, calling for a respectful campaign that takes account of the precarious nature of peace in Northern Ireland and the need to constantly foster the progress that has been made. It is a very long campaign and it has already started.

That is double the length of time for the election campaign we had last year. We know that election campaigns can be bruising and fierce. In the context of a power-sharing arrangement, one requires people who have been polar opposites to sit down and work out an agreement within two weeks. That is a huge challenge, as we know.

We must remember that the Good Friday Agreement is an internationally recognised treaty. Its terms are embedded in the Treaty of Vienna. It was negotiated in the context of both the UK and Ireland being part of the EU, and it has been supported by the EU. That agreement obliges both Ireland the UK to do certain things, but it also obliges them not to do certain things. Chief among the latter is that neither the UK nor the Republic of Ireland will close a border between them. Obviously there are fears connected to Brexit over whether we might face a hard border between both jurisdictions on this island. It is welcome that the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, said today that she intends to safeguard the common travel area between the UK and Ireland. It is interesting that she immediately followed that by saying it was Britain's wish to control its borders, but one cannot separate those two things.

The simple reality is that the UK cannot control its borders if there is to be a common travel area between Ireland and the UK. This gives weight to newspaper speculation that the Department of Justice and Equality has been considering proposals which would allow the UK to run joint border controls across the island of Ireland in order to protect the UK's borders. It would seem that is the only way one could have an open border with Northern Ireland and a hard Brexit with the limitations on freedom of movement to the UK.

Essentially what would happen is that the Border would potentially be pushed out to the island of Ireland and not between Northern Ireland and the Republic. Put simply, it would mean that people at ports and airports would be greeted by UK and Irish border controls. Imagine a situation where people arrive at Dublin Airport to be vetted both by UK and Irish personnel. Is that going to be considered? There is newspaper speculation about it, so we need to know what the practical reality of that would be. One can imagine a relative who has been in the UK for 50 years arriving back here to find such vetting. Someone arriving from Denmark, for example, is perfectly entitled to be in this country. However, personnel at our ports and airports will decide whether they are happy to accept them. One can see the confusion that would cause. We cannot therefore welcome only the possibility of movement because we must also consider the kind of movement and controls being considered.

I have grave concerns that the Department of Justice and Equality may be forging ahead with arrangements without recourse to the Oireachtas and that we might be presented with a fait accompli, given that there is so much happening in this regard. I would like the Tánaiste to address the questions that have been raised regarding those proposed arrangements and the possibility, for example, of the UK funding shared border controls and being positioned here on our borders. How would that work in reality?

This is the backdrop against which the election will be fought. It would be ridiculous for either party, North or South, to think that this election can happen in isolation. There are several contexts to it. There is the cash-for-ash scandal, but the one context we both share is that of Brexit. Long after the scandal has abated, the impact of Brexit will dominate lives, north and south of the Border. We must ensure that the impact on the Good Friday Agreement is limited to the greatest extent. That is why we cannot say often enough how important it is for this campaign to be respectful. After what will be a fairly robust election campaign, there is a huge challenge to put together a power-sharing arrangement in a short space of time with potentially the same people leading the discussions. We cannot underestimate that challenge.

I begin by wishing Martin McGuinness well for a full recovery. He is someone we have always found very fair and friendly to deal with and we send our best wishes to Martin and his family.

The message from the Green Party, North and South, is that we do not think this election is necessary or should have been called. It will do damage, or will certainly create risks of real damage, to the peace process that has developed over previous decades. We do not see that it will necessarily advance the cause of people, North or South.

The scandal erupted around the renewable heating incentive and my colleague, Stephen Agnew MLA, has called it as well as anyone. He was one of the first to raise concerns about the nature of the scheme and the fact that it created the potential for a massive loss to the public. He has set out practical proposals to deal with the return of the potential loss, which our party has said could be even larger than some commentators have said, by the introduction of a windfall tax system whereby any excess pricing above what the actual price of delivering the fuel subsidy should be could be recovered. I do not know why we are not examining such practical measures to address the underlying scandal which is the potential loss of public funding, rather than just resorting to an electoral contest which risks bringing about political instability to the detriment of people in the North.

We do not know, and it is hard to call, what is the real reasoning behind the election. Is it purely a breakdown in personal relationships with the likes of Arlene Foster and, if so, can it be recovered? That would seem to be highly unlikely if, as Deputy Catherine Murphy has said, we go through a deeply contentious and divisive electoral campaign.

We should also be aware that this election will take place at a time when the Brexit negotiations will be at their height. As the Taoiseach has said, it will be a difficult, tense and combative negotiation process. Is the election instability or the possible non-return of the assembly a way of giving every party a certain freedom to address the Brexit issue as they see fit, rather than trying to work in co-operation on a difficult negotiation process?

After the election, if talks on a power-sharing executive fail, there is a real risk that the Secretary of State will be required to call another election. Some people might see the DUP being overturned by the UUP, or will the SDLP seek to do that to Sinn Féin? It is impossible to call but it is unlikely.

Every time there is a crisis in the North of Ireland in terms of implementing the Good Friday Agreement, our fear is that the response is to chip away at the constitutional provisions, thus creating a democratic deficit that has opened up in the nature of the political process as it evolved. We do not believe, as some parties seem to think, that the response should be a return to what the Good Friday Agreement provided for. We need to look forward, start improving and consider other evolutions or developments of the political process. For example, the creation of a constitutional convention in the North, along the lines of the one held here, on the future development of relationships on this island could well allow us to start thinking beyond the Good Friday Agreement and examine where we go next. It could consider how one could introduce a constitutional solution not just on an issue-specific basis, but by creating a mechanism whereby independent investigations could take place, so that we would not be stuck in the current rut.

Whatever the case, we in the Green Party are ready for the election. We will be running candidates in every constituency and will be seeking to return at least our two MLAs. I hope that within a smaller assembly they and any other colleagues could be far more effective.

We will work with all parties as we have always done. We are not sectarian and we do not believe in this political divide. We believe it is time for the North to move to a new and better politics where we are not dividing each other on the basis of old historical lines. We believe we provide a real alternative which connects the South of the island but also the east. We are very close to our colleagues in England, Wales and in the Scottish Green Party as well as in a wider European context.

It is important that all parties on the island, in particular those which argued against the Brexit process, are active, ready and prepared to take on the challenge we see arising today as Prime Minister May steers her country towards what looks like a hard Brexit and a deeply damaging process to all the people of this island and Great Britain. This is not the time for us to be fighting internally and wrangling over issues that could or should have been resolved by the political system had it not steered itself into a cul-de-sac. That is a democratic deficit that needs to be amended, which will best be done by looking forward and picking up where the Good Friday Agreement set us, going forward with new, innovative measures. Hopefully, some thinking like that may come out of the election. That may be one of the benefits of an electoral process. There should be positive, forward looking ideas around how the constitutional arrangements in the North can work best. It will be very difficult to do that at the same time as we are looking at how Brexit is going to work and affect all the people of the island. Nevertheless, it is what the Green Party will seek to do.

I acknowledge the importance of this debate and thank all Members for their contributions. I want once again to agree with Deputy Adams about having regular and frequent debates on Northern Ireland in the House. That is a matter, of course, for the Business Committee, but it has the support of myself and my party. It is not the first time I have said that on the basis that Northern Ireland is a shared concern and priority for all sides of the House. This has long been the case and was very much reflected in the very strong consensus this afternoon on the imperative to proceed on the basis of the Good Friday Agreement. The Government views as a solemn responsibility its role and mandate as co-guarantor of the Agreement. As provided for in the programme for Government, we have been unstinting in our efforts to uphold the principles of the Good Friday Agreement and to advance the full implementation of all its provisions. This we will continue to do working closely with the British Government and all the other parties to the peace process. The Government's engagement and commitment has been constant in times of stability and of crisis.

Obviously, there have been intensified contacts with the parties and the British Government by the Taoiseach and me recently. It has been increasingly clear in recent weeks that the situation was extremely serious. The circumstances which led to the resignation of the deputy First Minister on 9 January are to be regretted. Elections will now take place on Thursday, 2 March. In my conversation yesterday with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland we agreed that both Governments should continue to work closely together in the weeks ahead. Looking to the post-election period, a new power-sharing Executive will need to be formed within the limited statutory timeframe. The assembly election campaign is now under way. On behalf of the Government, I have urged all parties in the election to be measured and responsible in their rhetoric so that the political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement will not be damaged in any way, in particular in the longer term. I will continue to underline this imperative in the weeks ahead in support of the institutions of the Agreement and the principles on which it stands. We must never forget that the Good Friday Agreement and the political institutions for which it provides - the power-sharing Executive, the assembly, the North-South institutions and the east-west institutions - were finally achieved in 1998 following decades of horrendous violence, murder, fear and a breakdown in social fabric suffered by both communities across Northern Ireland. Following the assembly election, it is critical that each of the institutions of the Agreement can operate, deliver and deal again with the issues of concern to people and that this should happen smoothly and in a prompt manner. I acknowledge in this regard the contribution of the former deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, to the cause of peace and reconciliation in recent years. I wish him well in his time of illness and hope he experiences a full recovery.

I report from my discussions with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that both Governments are agreed that there must be a singular focus on supporting the devolved institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. Indeed, Deputies have mentioned this in the course of this debate. I say in the clearest terms that alternatives to devolved government such as direct rule are not being contemplated. This provides very important reassurance to all communities in Northern Ireland that they can rely on the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement and, rightly, expect their elected representatives to work together in these institutions to address the issues faced by citizens.

A number of Deputies have rightly raised a concern about the impact of the current situation on preparing for and dealing with Brexit. The interests of the island as a whole and protecting the gains of the peace process have been and will remain as two of the four major priorities for the Government in the upcoming Brexit negotiations. As the Taoiseach has already outlined, the all-island civic dialogue is a valuable part of our Brexit preparations. The ongoing sectorals and the plenary which he and I will co-host on 17 February are crucial opportunities for people across the island to contribute their perspectives, experience and ideas as to how we might best deal with the challenges of the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. I am pleased to announce that on 13 February I will convene a sectoral consultation on the human rights aspects of the Good Friday Agreement which are so central to the peace process and which must be protected and sustained regardless of the UK's status in the European Union.

This civic dialogue does not, of course, replace the need for devolved institutions which allow Northern Ireland's particular interests and concerns to be represented by those with a direct local mandate. The Northern Ireland Executive has a crucial role to play, not least in the engagement with both Governments. While we have heard some further detail from the British Prime Minister, Mrs. May, today, Brexit, however it proceeds, presents some of the most fundamental and challenging questions our island has seen in a generation or more. Citizens in Northern Ireland would be understandably aggrieved if their elected representatives could not deal with the critical responsibility of representing and pursuing Northern Ireland's unique circumstances and interests in this seismic negotiation. The formation of the Executive after the election and the related re-starting of the work of the North-South Ministerial Council is therefore not only a political imperative for both Governments, it is also an onerous obligation on the parties in Northern Ireland.

Another responsibility that weighs heavily on all of us is dealing with the legacy of the past. Like many others, I am concerned and frustrated that we have still not reached an outcome on the Stormont House legacy institutions more than two years on. I acknowledge that while there has been positive work and discussions ongoing over the last number of months, the victims and survivors deserve that the two Governments and the Northern Ireland political parties finish this job on a collective basis. Whatever happens in the weeks ahead, I assure all with a stake and an interest in this that the Irish Government will remain steadfast in its determination and effort to ensure that the legacy institutions are set up and established at the earliest opportunity.

The issue of the unimplemented elements of the Good Friday Agreement and successor agreements has rightly been raised by a number of speakers. As Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I was to the fore in the negotiations in 2014 which led to the Stormont House Agreement. During those negotiations, the Government advocated for progress on outstanding commitments from previous agreements. Several of these are referenced in the Stormont House Agreement, including provisions on the Irish language, the obligation to promote a culture of tolerance, mutual respect and mutual understanding at every level of society, and new priorities for North-South co-operation in this regard. Unfortunately, as the Taoiseach has already said, these new commitments have not been adequately demonstrated which is something that must be addressed if the devolved institutions are to flourish and thrive. In the two years since Stormont House, I have engaged with the Executive parties and the British Government as appropriate to support progress on the outstanding commitments from previous agreements. Indeed, at the last two meetings of the review, most recently before Christmas, I specifically raised these issues so that the outstanding commitments which go to the heart of the Good Friday Agreement remain firmly on the political agenda. At the review meeting of 14 December last, there was a very positive discussion involving the former First Minister, the former deputy First Minister, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and me.

The constructive quality of the discussion provided no hint of the speed with which matters subsequently unravelled within the Executive. Now, as voters in Northern Ireland are being asked to go to the polls for the second time in eight months, the parties need to be mindful of their heavy responsibility to re-establish the devolved institutions on the far side of polling day. A scorched-earth approach to campaigning that agitates and divides for partisan political purposes will only hamper the essential task of all parties re-engaging in a spirit of partnership and mutual respect in the democratic institutions as contained, evidenced and witnessed in the content of the Good Friday Agreement. In this regard, as co-guarantor of that Agreement, the Irish Government will continue to work with the British Government and political parties in Northern Ireland to fulfil the promise of the Agreement and advance political stability, reconciliation and economic prosperity in Northern Ireland.

I, too, would like to ask Deputy Adams to pass on my good wishes to Martin McGuinness, along with all other Members who expressed genuine concerns about his health. We hope he makes a full recovery.