I propose to take Questions Nos. 45 and 46 together.
It is disappointing that the Party Leaders have not made more progress in their discussions, following the substantial work done under the chairmanship of Dr. Richard Haass and Dr. Meghan O'Sullivan prior to the new year. It is regrettable also that the UUP is not participating currently in these discussions which are focussed on issues of genuine concern to so many people.
I met with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland last Thursday to discuss the talks and the support which both Governments are giving to the process. We are both firmly of the view that Northern Ireland urgently requires a new way forward on dealing with the past that can command public confidence. We agreed also that the early successful conclusion of the political talks represents the best opportunity to make progress across all three important areas of parades, flag and identity issues and dealing with the past. Maintaining the status quo in relation to these issues is not a feasible or satisfactory option for anyone. The Secretary of State made clear her Government’s support for the talks in a speech in Belfast yesterday and also confirmed that the British government would play their part in working with any new institutions that may arise in the implementation of the architecture proposed by Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan.
I spoke recently with the First and deputy First Ministers and with the leaders of the SDLP and the Alliance Party. All have confirmed to me their commitment to reaching a deal. I encourage all leaders to aim for an early agreement, not in the coming months but in the coming weeks. The groundwork has largely been laid by the party leaders over the past few months. I applaud that – and urge them to recognise the opportunity that is now in sight and to take it.
We witnessed last year how some are only too willing to decry and reject politics altogether or take politics into their own hands and out onto the streets. Those individuals and groups must be given the clearest message that progress is made only through dialogue and negotiation by those elected to lead. Those political leaders can count on the full support of this government as they work through the talks process to reach a comprehensive agreement.
The Government wants to see an early agreement as we believe it is in the best interests of Northern Ireland and I will continue to engage closely with the British Government and the NI parties over the coming weeks towards that end.