I welcome the ongoing engagement of the Seanad on matters related to Northern Ireland, which is a key priority for all of us in both Houses. I look forward to listening to the contributions of Senators. As they will appreciate, this is a critical time for Northern Ireland which is again in election mode less than a year after the previous election. In the weeks before the election was called I was in close contact with the Secretary of State, Mr. James Brokenshire, and the leaders of the political parties in Northern Ireland. I travelled to Belfast on a number of occasions to meet in person the Secretary of State and the then First Minister and deputy First Minister. Both Governments pursued all appropriate avenues to encourage the Executive parties to find a way beyond their difficulties. However, an agreement could not be found and the Secretary of State, as required under statute when the joint office of First and deputy First Minister cannot be filled, called an election, which is scheduled to take place on 2 March.
The circumstances that contributed to the breakdown in trust between the two parties in the Executive gave rise to a good deal of public acrimony and risk a divisive election campaign. As the campaign gets under way, I have urged the parties to remain measured and respectful in their electoral rhetoric in order that the political institutions will not be damaged in the longer term. The people of Northern Ireland expect nothing less than an effective Assembly and Executive at Stormont underpinned by a genuine spirit of partnership. In my discussions with party leaders I have strongly emphasised the imperative of the swift resumption of the power-sharing institutions after the election period. In support of this, I will remain closely engaged with the political parties and the British Government in the weeks ahead.
In the time leading up to the dissolution of the Assembly the question of compliance with the terms of the Good Friday Agreement was a key focus of debate and discourse. The interlocking political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement are at the heart of the Agreement and the delivery vehicle for many of its commitments. Within this framework, the devolved power-sharing institutions are vital, both for effective government in Northern Ireland and the overall functioning of the Agreement. For instance, without the devolved institutions, the North-South Ministerial Council cannot operate and North-South co-operation on a wide range of matters is somewhat compromised. This has tangible and serious impacts on all people across the island of Ireland. It is, therefore, of vital importance that the institutions of the Agreement return quickly to full operation after the election. In that regard, the relevant legislation provides a narrow window of three weeks from the date of election to when a new First Minister and deputy First Minister must be nominated.
If the institutions are the heart of the Good Friday Agreement, the principles of the Agreement are its lifeblood and vital to the success and sustainability of any power-sharing administration in Northern Ireland. These principles were articulated in the Agreement and are worth recalling today: "full respect for, and equality of civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities". They constitute the essential template for political and civic relations on this island and between Ireland and the United Kingdom. There has been discussion of deficits and shortcomings in upholding these principles and the need for parties that comprise the Executive to fully live up to the commitments made in the Good Friday Agreement and successor agreements. I fully understand the rightful insistence on the principles of equality and parity of esteem being respected at all times. I also understand the frustration in the Nationalist community when these principles are disrespected. It is a great pity that the spirit of friendship Mr. Martin McGuinness sought to espouse as deputy First Minister was not at all times reciprocated in equal measure. While acknowledging the deficits, we also need to find solutions. I hope, therefore, that in the weeks ahead specific proposals to address the deficits in the respect agenda will be brought forward for consideration and discussion.
As typically occurs at moments of challenge in Northern Ireland, there have in recent days been calls on the two Governments to discharge their obligations in the peace process. Neither I nor the Government need any encouragement to fulfil our responsibilities as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. That serious and solemn responsibility is hard-wired into the performance of my duties as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. The Taoiseach and I have been steadfast in acting to pursue full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. I may touch on this issue in more detail in my closing remarks.
Looking beyond the Assembly election, Northern Ireland will still have to manage the challenges of the United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union. The Government will be fully supportive in that regard. In the upcoming negotiations protecting the gains of the peace process and upholding the Good Friday Agreement is one of the four major priorities on the part of the Government. We are continuing our comprehensive preparations for the negotiations, including through the all-island civic dialogue. The Taoiseach and I will co-host a second plenary meeting of the dialogue on 17 February and a series of sectoral consultations are under way. On 13 February, I will convene a sectoral consultation on human rights under the Good Friday Agreement to look at how they will be fully upheld and sustained following the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. All-island consultation through the dialogue and engagement with the Northern Ireland Executive through the North-South Ministerial Council are essential in addressing the challenges of withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. In that regard, the Northern Ireland Executive is primarily responsible for politically representing the interests of Northern Ireland. It is very important that this direct representation can quickly resume following the election to the Assembly on 2 March.
The risks posed by Brexit are not the only considerations facing Northern Ireland, but they are an example of why fully functioning and effective political institutions are needed. Northern Ireland requires these institutions to protect what has been built and secure a peaceful and prosperous future for all of its citizens. In the coming days the Taoiseach will welcome the British Prime Minister to Dublin. At the top of their agenda will be the welfare of Northern Ireland and its people and the related need to protect the interests of the island of Ireland in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. None of their discussions will be easy, but no two issues are receiving as much priority attention in government. Our commitment, as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, is a constant one, in good times and, as now, when they are more challenging.
I expressly acknowledge the commitment of all parties in this House to the Agreement. That spirit of co-operation, from those in all parties and none, has been an enormous support to successive Governments in the past three decades in achieving and sustaining peace and stability on the island. I look forward to hearing the perspectives and analysis of Members.