I propose to take Questions Nos. 35 and 47 together.
I am in regular and direct contact with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland as part of the ongoing discussions to support the political parties in reaching an agreement on the formation of a new Executive in Northern Ireland. Both Governments are agreed on the imperative of continued devolved power sharing Government for Northern Ireland, which is at the core of the political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.
The Secretary of State confirmed in his statement to the House of Commons on 28 March that the British Government does not want to see a return to direct rule in Northern Ireland. I welcome this confirmation and I reiterate today in this House, as I have to the Secretary of State, that this Government does not support the suspension of the institutions and the return of direct rule in Northern Ireland. It is important to note that there is no statutory provision at Westminster for the suspension of the institutions, following its removal, which at the time was supported by the Irish Government, as part of the St. Andrews Agreement, more than ten years ago. The political process in Northern Ireland is founded on the institutions, principles, procedures and practices of the Good Friday Agreement, including the Assembly and the Executive, and it is imperative that both Governments and all the parties work in support of this framework.
In this context I am representing the Government in the intensive talks in Belfast. These talks have two objectives. First, to allow the political parties to reach an agreement on the formation of a new Executive. Second, to address the implementation of the outstanding issues from previous agreements. These discussions are structured around a shared approach put forward by both Governments following on from the talks last month where it did not prove possible for the political parties in Northern Ireland to reach agreement on the setting up of a power-sharing Executive before the statutory deadline of 27 March.
Overall, encouraging progress is being made in this renewed phase but I am under no illusions about the challenge of resolving the core issues that remain outstanding. Serious issues remain to be resolved after the Easter holidays, including those which were to the fore before the collapse of the last Executive and during the election campaign. However, with resolve and determination from all the parties involved in the process, and with the support and encouragement of the two Governments, I believe a successful outcome is possible.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
As part of my engagement with the Secretary of State and with each of the parties in the discussions in recent weeks, I have strongly emphasised the critical importance of forming a new Executive so that Northern Ireland’s interests can be effectively represented as part of the process of the EU-UK negotiations which are about to commence. I very much hope that the necessary agreement between the parties will be reached on formation of the Executive as soon as possible so that it can directly represent the interests of the people of Northern Ireland in these negotiations which are of major significance.
As the formal talks pause briefly for Easter, I encourage everyone to maintain informal contacts and to reflect on what can be achieved if, in the weeks ahead, an Executive is established that operates effectively and sustainably. I am convinced that all parties are willing to play their part in reaching such a sustainable agreement, which will provide for a stable power-sharing Government in Northern Ireland underpinned by the principles of the Good Friday Agreement.
The Irish Government as a co-guarantor of that Agreement and the peace process will continue to play its part in facilitating these ongoing talks, working with the British Government and encouraging all parties to reach agreement on the formation of a new Executive that is demonstrably in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland.