It is good to see everyone, particularly those who have taken the time to travel to be here with us.
I thank the Chairman for the invitation to meet the joint committee. The meeting is timely to discuss a full range of issues related to implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process generally. There are a number of issues I would like to address in my opening statement, following which I look forward to a discussion with members. I acknowledge the important and constructive role the committee plays in expressing tangible cross-party support in the Oireachtas for the Good Friday Agreement and working to support its full implementation. Importantly, it engages with stakeholders, North and South, east and west, to consolidate peace and deepen reconciliation. Its members have a deep commitment to the Agreement, as do I, and had countless hours of engagement with those working in communities and at the interface in Northern Ireland. The committee has at all times sought to build understanding across communities and encourage and facilitate steps forward in the process of reconciliation, which is at the heart of the Agreement. As Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I know what this work involves and demands and see the impact and value of the committee's engagement on behalf of both Houses of the Oireachtas in supporting the peace process and the Agreement in whatever challenges arise. With its important facility for MPs representing Northern Ireland constituencies to participate, the committee is a very practical expression of the all-island engagement enabled by the Agreement. It is good to see many Northern representatives here. While they are always welcome, they are particularly welcome today, given some of the challenges with which we are coping.
I turn first to Brexit. While there are many settings within the Oireachtas in which we are addressing the challenges of Brexit, the protection of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process is the Government's fundamental concern in the negotiations, as it is for everyone present. As such, it is the first issue I want to address. The Government remains firmly of the view that the best and only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal by the United Kingdom and to protect the Good Friday Agreement in all of its parts is to ratify the withdrawal agreement agreed to last year between the European Union and the British Government. The Taoiseach's recent joint statement with President Juncker was clear that the backstop was an integral part of the withdrawal agreement. It was also clear that the backstop was not a bilateral issue but a European one. I reaffirmed this with Michel Barnier at our meeting in Brussels on Monday of this week. It is important to be clear at all times that the backstop is intended to constitute an insurance policy for the avoidance of a hard border in all scenarios. We hope it will never be used or, if it is, that it will be replaced quickly by a future relationship agreement. The Government remains convinced that it is absolutely necessary and this view is shared across the joint committee, or at least I hope it is.
The European Union is committed to exploring and seeking to agree to alternative arrangements with the United Kingdom to replace the backstop in the future. We want a comprehensive future relationship agreement in place by the end of 2020 in order that the backstop will never need to be used. We want to get on with that work once the withdrawal agreement is ratified. However, no credible alternative arrangements have been put forward by anyone inside the negotiations or elsewhere which would achieve the shared goal of the United Kingdom and the European Union to avoid a hard border. The backstop is a necessary guarantee based on legal certainty, rather than wishful thinking. As well as ensuring there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland, we believe these arrangements represent a good outcome for Northern Ireland, should they ever be necessary. This view is shared by a number of political parties and business, farming and trade union leaders from both communities in Northern Ireland. Their cross-community engagement to explain the importance of the backstop as the necessary insurance for jobs and the economy is important and welcome.
In November the British Government signed up to the withdrawal agreement, including the backstop, as it stands, and other important provisions to protect the Good Friday Agreement in all of its parts. The European Union has listened to British concerns. In December the European Council and the joint letter from Presidents Tusk and Juncker provided important reassurance. Were the United Kingdom's proposals for the future partnership to evolve, the European Union would be prepared to reconsider its offer and adjust the level of ambition of the political declaration, while respecting its established principles. A no-deal Brexit would, of course, be the worst possible outcome and in no one's interests. In simple terms, everybody would lose, in some cases significantly, in a no-deal, worst case scenario. However, the Government is preparing comprehensively for this scenario, just in case. With the vital co-operation of Opposition parties, we are advancing no-deal legislation which will be published tomorrow. It will ensure we can deal domestically with the undoubted serious challenges of a no-deal exit, should it happen. However, the focus of our engagement at EU level remains on securing the deal which has been reached with the British Government through the withdrawal agreement.
It is important to recall the protections included in the protocol to the Good Friday Agreement in all of its parts. The protocol, expressly and fully, respects the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and the principle of consent as guaranteed by the Good Friday Agreement. It also underpins North-South co-operation and protects the all-island economy, including through the avoidance of a hard border. It provides for the maintenance of a single electricity market on the island. It makes legally binding the United Kingdom's commitment to ensuring there will be no diminution of rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity as set out in the Good Friday Agreement, including through the maintenance of EU directives in the area of non-discrimination. Consistent with the citizenship provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, the protocol confirms the EU citizenship of Irish citizens in Northern Ireland and their continued access to EU rights, opportunities and beliefs. Ensuring the access of those entitled to Irish citizenship in Northern Ireland to specific EU benefits, for example, in the areas of healthcare and education, will be addressed during the transition period in the context of the future relationship.
This is reflected in the preamble of the protocol. The protocol also importantly provides for the maintenance of the common travel area, ensuring that the current bilateral arrangements can continue whereby Irish and British citizens can live, work, study and access healthcare, social security and public services in each jurisdiction. I am glad to say that, in legislation that will be published in the morning, we have arrangements in place to protect many of these important public services should there be a no-deal Brexit. In addition, the protocol confirms the EU and UK commitment to the PEACE and INTERREG programmes, which have contributed in such significant ways to supporting the peace process in all its dimensions over the past 25 years, and which are a major practical expression of the European Union's solidarity and support for peace and reconciliation. The Government warmly welcomes the Commission's proposal for a special new PEACE Plus programme to build on and continue the work of the successive PEACE and INTERREG programmes. The firm commitment of the UK Government to the PEACE Plus programme is also welcome. As the Government, the EU as a whole and the UK have always sought, the protocol protects the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts from the challenges that Brexit undoubtedly poses.
On restoring the Good Friday Agreement institutions to full operation, which everyone in this room wants to see, the commitments and obligations of the Good Friday Agreement remain for both Governments under any scenario. The Government continues to engage with the British Government as co-guarantor to secure the full implementation of the agreement and the effective operation of all of its institutions, including the Northern Ireland Assembly and power-sharing Executive, and the North-South Ministerial Council. The continuing absence of these vital institutions of the agreement is a source of deep concern for the Government and indeed for the British Government. Since the assembly elections in March 2017, the Government has worked tirelessly with the British Government and the political parties in Northern Ireland in successive phases of talks to secure an agreement that would see the devolved institutions fully operational once again. We have also consistently engaged to seek progress with the implementation of outstanding commitments from previous agreements, including an Irish language Act as envisaged under the St. Andrews Agreement. Unfortunately, as everyone here knows, the necessary agreement between the parties has to date not been secured. However, we will continue to work until all the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement are operating effectively again.
The two-year absence of the devolved institutions simply cannot continue. As everyone here is acutely aware, there are pressing decisions and issues across a range of areas, which require a functioning Executive and assembly. These institutions are also urgently needed to represent the interests of all of the people of Northern Ireland, most significantly at present on the challenges raised by Brexit. These institutions are the most powerful symbol and expression of what the Good Friday Agreement has achieved in Northern Ireland, namely, co-operation and power sharing between both communities on the basis of equality, respect and parity of esteem. There could be no more persuasive advocates, in Brussels, London, Dublin, Washington and beyond, for the unique interests and needs of Northern Ireland than a power-sharing Executive working to address the interests of everyone it represents. No one says it is easy, but there is no other available way to address the political and identity divisions in Northern Ireland and to deliver for all the people. We must get the power-sharing institutions back working again. The Government is equally anxious to see the North-South Ministerial Council operating again in order to oversee and develop North-South co-operation on matters of mutual interest, including the resumption of that constructive engagement to address the all-island challenges raised by Brexit that was commenced at the North-South Ministerial Council in the second half of 2016.
The Government will continue to do everything possible, in accordance with our responsibilities as a co-guarantor of the agreement, to secure the effective operation of all of its institutions. To this end, the Secretary of State, Ms Karen Bradley, and I met the leaders of the five main political parties at Stormont last Friday, further to our respective consultations with each of the party leaders in recent weeks and months. This meeting sought the parties' views, at this stage, on how a new talks process could most constructively be commenced in the period ahead. All of the party leaders confirmed their wish to participate in the institutions again and provided views on the necessary basis for an effective talks process. It was not an easy meeting last Friday; that is no secret to anybody. People are sceptical, understandably so. It is up to the Governments in particular to respond to and address that scepticism to move this process forward. It was agreed that the two Governments will engage further with the parties to seek an urgent way forward with a new political process that can secure an agreement for a functioning Executive, assembly and North-South Ministerial Council. Following these further consultations, I do not in any way underestimate the way to go in achieving that resolution. However, I continue to believe that an agreement can be achieved and that there is an increasingly urgent need for talks with a credible basis to commence. I will continue to work with the Secretary of State and each of the party leaders, in some cases North and South, to get the necessary political process under way as soon as possible.
On constitutional issues, I am acutely conscious of a view currently being expressed that because of the ongoing challenges of the peace process, or because Brexit is raising so many challenges for the island as a whole, now is the moment to move ahead with consideration of constitutional status issues as provided for under the Good Friday Agreement. I respect, and the Government respects, the right of everyone on this island to make the case for the constitutional future that he or she wishes to see for Northern Ireland, whether he or she is nationalist, unionist or neither. The Good Friday Agreement and the two sovereign Governments explicitly recognise and validate the legitimacy of both of these constitutional positions, which are deeply held. People have the right to take part in discussion, dialogue and engagement on the kind of future they would like to see. The Government hears, shares and is working to address the real concerns, worry and frustration that people in the North feel about the acute challenges that Brexit raises. However, the Government is also very clear that we cannot and will not seek to use Brexit to advance any kind of constitutional agenda. These are separate and distinct issues. They are big challenges in both cases. At present, the Government does not believe that sufficient support exists for a Border poll that would result in constitutional change. The Government's priorities are therefore, first, to secure the effective functioning of the devolved institutions and the North-South Ministerial Council and, second, to ensure the protection of the Good Friday Agreement and the achievements of the peace process as the UK leaves the EU. That is our only agenda as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, and the Government believes that this is an important message to clearly convey at this time.
One aspect of the Good Friday Agreement that is perhaps less prominent in political exchanges but no less important for the future of everyone on this island is the commitment to the achievement of real reconciliation, following the tragedies and suffering of the past. I recognise that this has always been a major area of focus for the committee's engagement, as it has been a continuing priority for successive Irish Governments. Reflecting this, the Government has provided for a substantial increase of €1 million for my Department's reconciliation fund this year, bringing the total budget to €3.7 million. In 2018, the reconciliation fund made grants to over 150 projects, supporting organisations across the community and voluntary sector. The vast majority of funding goes to projects and organisations in Northern Ireland because this is where the greatest need for reconciliation clearly lies. The groups supported by the fund are building meaningful links across communities, addressing the issues that are impacting on their lives, including sectarianism, and working to create better understanding between people and traditions on this island, and indeed between Ireland and Britain. Reconciliation is a vital component of the peace process and the Government is committed to supporting this work at community level through the reconciliation fund and ministerial engagement with representatives of different community traditions.
I wish to make a few comments on the pressing need to deal with the legacy of the past and address the suffering of victims of violence and their families. This was envisaged under the Good Friday Agreement when it was signed almost 21 years ago, but victims and survivors are still waiting for a system that can deal comprehensively with their legitimate needs and expectations. Addressing the past is also a necessary element of reconciliation, particularly for those individuals and communities that suffered most through the dark days of the Troubles.
The new policing dispensation in Northern Ireland cannot continue to be weighed down with legacy issues, when the PSNI’s focus needs to be on policing for today and in ensuring that cross-community confidence in the new policing arrangements achieved through the Patten reforms is maintained and advanced. We saw once again last week the almost endless difficulties that legacy issues raise with the concerning announcement that the PSNI had discovered significant new material for investigations being conducted by the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. My thoughts are first and foremost with all of the families affected, as they have to wait now for even longer to see the reports of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. This development makes clear once again that the Stormont House Agreement framework, agreed by the two Governments and political parties, is urgently needed to provide a comprehensive process for addressing legacy investigations and issues in Northern Ireland, focused on the needs of victims and survivors. We are still working to get this in place and it must be achieved.
Significant progress was made in the political discussions that took place since 2014 and a public consultation on draft UK legislation was conducted by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the latter part of last year. There was significant engagement with this consultation from individuals and groups across Northern Ireland, and importantly also from victims and survivors in this jurisdiction and indeed in Britain. It was not an easy process but it was a necessary one. The responses to the consultation are now being reviewed by the British Government and I am informed that this process is nearing completion.
The Government’s concern is to see that the process continues to advance to implement the Stormont House legacy framework in full, including moving ahead to legislative phases in both jurisdictions as needed and as soon as possible. We also continue to press for confirmation of the necessary resourcing for legacy inquests to proceed in Northern Ireland, consistent with the Article 2 obligations on the UK Government.
We continue to proactively engage with the Secretary of State and all of the political parties to secure the implementation of the Stormont House legacy framework as speedily as possible. The drafting of legislative proposals in this jurisdiction to support and implement the Stormont House framework is also advancing, led by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Flanagan. The Government has already published a general scheme of a Bill to provide for enhanced co-operation with legacy inquests in Northern Ireland and a draft Bill is being finalised. This legislation will be of immediate relevance for the ongoing inquest into the Kingsmill massacre at the Belfast Coroner's Court. Draft legislation is also being advanced to provide for the establishment of the independent commission on information retrieval, which will conduct its work on an all-island basis.
A number of cases remain of particular concern for the Government and the Dáil. These include the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and other attacks in the South where the Government continues to pursue the request to the British Government, as set out in successive Dáil motions; the Ballymurphy massacre where an inquest is continuing in Belfast; and the case of Pat Finucane, whose 30th anniversary was marked last week. The Government’s position remains that an independent public inquiry should be established into the murder of Pat Finucane, in line with the commitments made at Weston Park in 2001. Today is the 31st anniversary of the shooting of Aidan McAnespie. It is important to raise it today on 21 February. Our concerns, as always, are with his family.
The Taoiseach and I have been glad to have the opportunity to meet many of the victims’ families in these cases in recent months. We have reaffirmed the Government’s unwavering commitment to seeking progress and supporting their right to truth and justice, consistent with the supporting motions adopted by the Dáil in each case. More broadly, the Government will keep working to secure the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement framework, which can provide victims’ families with a way to access whatever truth and justice is possible in their case. Implementation would be an important step towards achieving a truly reconciled society in Northern Ireland. I believe that can be achieved, and I strongly welcome the committee’s ongoing engagement on legacy issues of such importance for people directly affected by the violence and conflict, and integral to the peace process founded on the Good Friday Agreement.
We are at a very sensitive moment with Brexit. I more than appreciate the frustrations in Northern Ireland having to listen to other people debating their issues in many ways. I will try to be as open and free as I can be in that regard, but obviously I am somewhat restricted in what I can say on some things.