I am very pleased to participate, on behalf of the Government, in the making of statements in the Seanad on Northern Ireland. The discussion is timely, as this is perhaps the most critical phase for the devolved institutions under the Good Friday Agreement since their restoration just over ten years ago. Ten months have passed since they were last fully operational. That is a source of deep concern for the Government as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, as I believe it is for Members of this House. That is why we are having this debate. Most directly, it means that the people of Northern Ireland who provided a fresh mandate for a new Assembly and power-sharing Executive in elections in March are not being served by an elected and accountable devolved government, to which they are entitled under the Good Friday Agreement.
The Executive is responsible for taking what are very pressing budgetary and other decisions on public services and investments. A host of other important devolved matters and issues which impact on people's daily lives in Northern Ireland await attention, debate and decisions through the devolved institutions under the Good Friday Agreement. In the absence of an Executive, the North-South Ministerial Council is also unable to progress its essential work, as an integral part of the Good Friday Agreement, to deliver all-island co-operation across the sectors to the practical benefit of people living on the island, North and South. In addition, as we all know, the United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union presents unprecedented challenges for Northern Ireland and the island as a whole. Phase one of the Article 50 negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom is well under way, dealing with the separation issues, including the Irish-specific concerns. There was further discussion of that issue as recently as yesterday. The Government is playing its role in the Article 50 negotiating process as a committed EU member state, working with all of our continuing EU partners and the EU institutions and with intensive and positive engagement with Mr. Michel Barnier and the Article 50 commission task force. However, absent this year has been a formal Executive voice to represent Northern Ireland's interests in the UK-EU exit process, as necessary, in Belfast, London, Brussels and elsewhere. That is also a cause of deep concern for the Government, given the breadth of shared interests on the island that need to be defended.
The Government is keen and ready to continue the very valuable work that was commenced last year on a partnership basis with the Northern Ireland Executive through the North-South Ministerial Council, NSMC, to identify shared interests and a shared approach to seeking solutions to the challenges raised by the United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union. At the highest level, our shared interest, North and South, is to protect the gains of the peace process founded on the Good Friday Agreement, including the open border. The Government is continuing to pursue that issue with the support and solidarity of our EU partners. It believes both Administrations on the island should work in a co-ordinated way, whenever possible, to address the generational challenge of Brexit for the island and for the peace process founded on the Good Friday Agreement. The fact is that without the Executive and the Assembly which are at the institutional heart of the Agreement the process will not be able to move forward as it should and must in order to deepen reconciliation, as the Agreement commits all parties to doing.
It is in pursuit of a deeper peace and full reconciliation that successive Governments have worked for full implementation of all provisions of the Good Friday Agreement and the later agreements. This goal and duty is reflected in A Programme for a Partnership Government. It is something that I as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade will continue to pursue as a matter of the highest political priority, as did my predecessor. However, an Executive and an Assembly are necessary if critical outstanding issues from the agreements, including the Irish language, rights and legacy, are to be fully realised on an agreed basis. These are the major difficulties we face with the continuing absence of the Executive, the Assembly and the North-South Ministerial Council. Devolved government in Northern Ireland cannot move forward, nor can all-island co-operation take place through the NSMC. Northern Ireland's interests in dealing with Brexit cannot be fully represented and the peace process cannot move fully forward as it should. That position is not sustainable for much longer. As I have said, this is a most critical point for the devolved institutions under the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process as a whole. As co-guarantor of the Agreement, the Government has a responsibility to give every support and encouragement it can for the effective operation of all institutions, including the Assembly, the Executive and, of course, the North-South Ministerial Council.
We have worked to this end throughout this year, with the British Government and the political parties, including in the discussions that took place between March and June at Stormont Castle, on outstanding commitments arising from previous agreements. As the Government has reported to the Houses of the Oireachtas over the course of the year, encouraging progress has been made on a number of the key issues. For instance, in dealing with the difficult legacy of the Troubles, something envisaged under the Good Friday Agreement and provided for within the framework of the Stormont House Agreement, there were intensive further discussions at Stormont Castle. Progress was made in dealing with a number of key difficulties with the legacy framework, from the time of the 2014 and 2015 discussions in Stormont House. The Government believes it is critical that we build on the momentum and we will continue to do so in the weeks and months ahead in order that the agreed legacy bodies can finally be fully established. That, alongside other essential legacy services such as inquests, will allow work to start to meet the legitimate needs and expectations of victims and survivors who have been left waiting for far too long.
The political parties in Northern Ireland have been taking forward the discussions on forming a new Executive. Discussions on Executive formation took place between all parties at Stormont Castle between March and June. Following some further consultations between the parties over the summer, there has been intensified and sustained engagement in recent weeks between the DUP and Sinn Féin in order to resolve key differences which have proved to be an obstacle to the formation of an Executive. That is to be strongly welcomed. As the two parties mandated to lead the next Executive, they will need to establish a basis on which a new Administration can work, consistent with their mandates but also in accordance with the principles of the Good Friday Agreement of mutual respect, parity of esteem and genuine partnership. In my ongoing contacts with the parties I have underlined the risks that attach to a prolonged absence of the devolved institutions in the context of Brexit and the peace process overall. I have urged them to continue their engagement and seek routes to achieve the bigger goal of getting all institutions of the Good Friday Agreement operating fully again. I continue to work closely with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. James Brokenshire, in this engagement with the parties. On 25 September the Taoiseach discussed in London with the Prime Minister, Mrs. May, the imperative of ensuring a way forward for the devolved institutions. The two Governments are at one in the view that all possible efforts must be made to support and encourage the parties to achieve the essential objective and form a new Executive, making good on the mandate given by the public in the Assembly elections in March. I welcome the statement made in this regard by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the House of Commons on Monday and his continued readiness to bring forward legislation to enable an Executive to be formed once an agreement has been reached. That needs to be supported.
The parties in Northern Ireland are continuing their discussions this week. I suspect they are meeting as we speak. I do not underestimate the real differences that still remain to be bridged if a new Executive is to be agreed. However, I believe they can be resolved if both parties are willing to work with one another. Time is now a very real factor with budgetary and other necessary decisions on public services building up, creating genuine pressures in Northern Ireland.
These need to be addressed by elected and effective devolved government in Northern Ireland, as provided for in the agreement. The time to deliver that for the public in Northern Ireland and for the wider peace process is now.
At this point, I believe that with a further step forward by the two main political parties there can be a basis for the necessary resetting of political relationships, including by addressing outstanding issues from previous agreements, which would get the devolved institutions of the Good Friday Agreement operating fully again on a sustainable basis, which is important for both parties. I am hopeful that the political parties will urgently and successfully conclude their discussions to open the way for a new Executive within the mandate of the current Assembly. That needs to happen sooner rather than later.
I would like to see a fully inclusive Executive, with all parties involved, including the SDLP, the Alliance Party and the UUP. That would be a much more balanced Executive than the previous one. The larger parties would accept that.
I want to affirm to the House that I and the Government will continue to do everything possible to support that outcome. It should, in turn, open the way for the important next steps in the peace process which I am anxious to pursue on behalf of the Government.
It is unusual for me to come to the House and read a speech as I have today. I am normally somewhat more engaging, but sensitive discussions are happening today. I urge people to be somewhat cautious in terms of how they approach this debate. We need to recognise that we are at a sensitive point.
The DUP and Sinn Féin want to make the current negotiations work, but they face real challenges which are very political and difficult. We spent a long time facilitating bilateral discussions between the two parties over the summer. We want to see those conclude successfully sooner rather than later. That is why I am somewhat cautious in terms of what I am saying about the detail of what is being discussed because I do not think it would be helpful for me to be offering a running commentary today when we are trying to make progress with the two parties in Belfast.
With that in mind, I will try to respond to any statements and suggestions for constructive questions from Senators. I look forward to hearing what they have to say.