I am pleased to have the opportunity to appear before the committee to update it on the political talks that were held in Belfast in the final quarter of last year, which resulted in the Stormont House Agreement on the eve of Christmas Eve. I acknowledge the great interest of the committee in the matter, which builds on the foundational work of the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements towards achieving a truly reconciled, peaceful, stable and prosperous island of Ireland. I greatly value the work of the committee and the role of the Chairman in the provision of parliamentary oversight of this important area. This is my first opportunity to appear before the committee to consider these matters.
Shortly after I took office in the summer of last year, it became apparent to me that the Northern Ireland Executive was at a political impasse, for a variety of reasons. The immediate context was the failure to find agreement on reform of the welfare system and on a budget. These difficulties arose in a context where there were a number of other political issues outstanding from the inconclusive but nevertheless important Haass talks of 2013, dealing with the legacy of the past, parades and flags. There had been some political consideration of the Haass issues between January and July 2014, until the party leaders talks were suspended as part of the so-called "graduated response" by Unionists to a parading decision in north Belfast. The North-South Ministerial Council which had been scheduled for the first week of July was subsequently also postponed.
By September last year, the clear message from a number of the parties, including Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, SDLP, and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, was that all-party talks, with the direct involvement of both Governments, were required if the political impasse was to be broken and the Northern Ireland political institutions stabilised. It appeared to me that there was potential for a range of issues to be unlocked if they were addressed in a holistic manner which recognised the sometimes implicit, and sometimes explicit, links between them. For this reason, when the First Minister Peter Robinson wrote an opinion editorial article in the Belfast Telegraph in September calling for Government intervention, our firm position was that the resulting talks must embrace a broader agenda than just welfare and budgetary matters, as important as these were to the Northern Ireland Executive and to the British Government. In particular, the talks presented an important opportunity to address the inconclusive Haass issues, especially the legacy of the past, and outstanding commitments from previous agreements.
This committee needs no lessons in the damaging consequences of a failure to address the legacy of the past. It has visited the North on a number of occasions and meets with key stakeholders on a regular basis. Incidentally, for any future visits, my officials in Armagh and Belfast would be very happy to assist with the arrangements in any way possible. I know the Chairman will avail of that opportunity and I encourage him to do so. During the week last October that the political talks began in Belfast this committee heard a very stark account by the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council of the mood on the ground across communities in Northern Ireland. At that time, the committee expressed grave concerns at the lack of progress in community relations in Northern Ireland and urged both Governments, as guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, to engage proactively to consolidate reconciliation on the ground. The Irish Government entered the talks with this goal in mind. Together with the British Government, we proposed that talks should start with the twin aims of advancing the reconciliation agenda and economic renewal.
These are some of the considerations that informed our position throughout the 11 weeks of talks in Belfast. The talks were intensive and, at times, very challenging.
This was only natural in discussions that addressed what we believe a truly reconciled and prosperous Northern Ireland should look like. There were many voices which did not believe that the talks could deliver an agreement, but Northern Ireland’s political leaders, with the support of the two Governments, ultimately demonstrated the will and the sense of compromise needed to overcome such challenges.
The Stormont House agreement covers a broad range of political, social and economic issues and has the potential to advance significantly its twin aims of reconciliation and economic renewal. Very importantly, the agreement establishes a new comprehensive framework for dealing with the past. These mechanisms have the potential to transform how we address the legacy of the past, by providing us with new and better tools to carry out investigations, to share stories, to retrieve lost information and, above all, to heal wounds.
The agreement sets out a plan for financial and budgetary reform. It proposes a way forward on flags, identity, culture and tradition through the setting up of a commission. It envisages the devolution of responsibility for parades to the Northern Ireland Assembly. It establishes a programme of institutional reform at Stormont and progresses a number of outstanding aspects from the Good Friday and St. Andrews Agreements.
The agreement also made provision for important steps in North-South co-operation, some of which have already been taken. In line with the agreement, a report on new sectoral priorities for North-South co-operation was brought to the North-South Ministerial Council institutional meeting on 25 February in Belfast. This will also be a standing agenda item for future institutional meetings within the North-South Ministerial Council. It was also agreed at that meeting that the relevant Ministers from both the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive will meet in May in the north west to discuss a future strategic approach to that region.
Due to the priority being attached to the talks during the autumn, I was unfortunately not in a position to come before this committee to discuss the outcomes of the two plenary meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council which I attended last year. The first of these was on 3 October in Dublin Castle and the second on 5 December in Armagh. Consistent with the last number of years, the challenging economic environment provided an important context for our discussions at these meetings, as well as efforts that are being made to co-operate to support economic recovery, the creation of jobs, the best use of public funds and the most effective delivery of services for citizens. Another key discussion point was the opportunity for greater collaboration in drawing down EU funding. Other important discussions included the north west and child protection and e-safety. I will be happy to return before the committee following the next plenary meeting, which is scheduled to take place in June, to discuss North-South matters in greater detail.
The Stormont House Agreement is an important achievement, but its true value will be measured by our success in its implementation. In many ways the months we spent negotiating the agreement were only the beginning of the work. Our focus in the period ahead will be to ensure that its potential is fully realised. In this regard, the Stormont House Agreement stands out from some previous agreements in having a very clear, formalised structure to guide its implementation. This includes quarterly review and implementation meetings, six-monthly published progress reports and a collectively agreed implementation timetable that gives us a detailed timeframe to plan our work.
The first two implementation and review meetings have already taken place. I attended the second review meeting last week in Belfast. It was a useful opportunity to take stock of the progress we have made over the last three months. Implementing the agreement requires intensive, complex work but we are making steady progress across a range of areas, not least in setting up the framework on the past. Officials from Dublin, Belfast and London meet regularly to take forward this work, while Northern Ireland’s party leaders meet weekly to consider their responsibilities under the agreement.
The implementation process is not without challenges; such a process never is. In recent weeks, the party leaders have faced their first challenge in this regard, in respect of welfare. In my contacts with them, I have encouraged all parties to stand back and consider the overall potential benefit for the people of Northern Ireland offered by the Stormont House Agreement and to ensure that its potential is fully achieved. I know that work is ongoing by the party leaders in Northern Ireland to resolve the welfare issue. I understand that a measure of progress is being made, albeit not as rapidly as we might all wish. It is very important that the current impasse on welfare does not negatively affect the implementation timetable in other areas and issues.
The success of the agreement is contingent upon the faithful implementation of the totality of its provisions. During the months of January and February, the five parties in the Northern Ireland Executive did very good work in advancing the implementation across a number of strands of the agreement. Our collective objective must be to build on that good work of partnership and to maintain forward momentum.
In the period ahead, the agreement will shape the Government’s approach to Northern Ireland and will dictate much of our work on the matter of that agenda. The Houses of the Oireachtas will have an important role to play regarding the implementation, as legislation will likely be required to set up some of the mechanisms to deal with the legacy of the past as contained in the agreement. The Department of Justice and Equality will take a lead in the first instance in preparing such legislation.
The Irish Government remains fully committed to playing our part in furthering genuine reconciliation and accelerating economic renewal across the island of Ireland. This is our ambition and I believe the Stormont House Agreement provides us with the map to achieve this. I wish to acknowledge the Chairman's work in this regard and the work of the committee. I continue to urge the committee to ensure a positive and active programme in the form of relations between this committee and its colleagues in the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive and the people of Northern Ireland.