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.