I am glad to commence the statements on Northern Ireland this evening on behalf of the Government and in place of the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, who is participating in the talks at Stormont as we commence this debate. It is of course very important that we all take account of this ongoing process in our contributions this evening and refrain from making comments on very specific issues on which the two Governments are working with the parties to seek, in a very short timeframe, fair and workable compromises to secure an agreement to get the devolved institutions and the North-South Ministerial Council operating again.
The absence of these vital institutions of the Good Friday Agreement since the collapse of the Executive in January 2017 is of grave concern to the Government, as it is to the British Government. As the House is aware, since the Assembly election of March 2017 the Government has, as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement with the British Government, worked through successive phases of talks in a number of different formats to seek to support the political parties in Northern Ireland in reaching an agreement to operate the devolved institutions again. Unfortunately, earlier phases of talks did not produce the necessary agreement between the parties, and the people of Northern Ireland have had no devolved institutions to represent their interests and to make decisions on issues that are of importance to people’s lives and livelihoods across the range of areas of devolved government in Northern Ireland.
While there is no Executive in place, the North-South Ministerial Council also cannot meet and deliver on its vital role under the Good Friday Agreement to oversee and develop North-South co-operation on matters of mutual interest on the island of Ireland. The challenges raised by the UK decision to exit from the European Union have made the absence of the devolved institutions and the North-South Ministerial Council even more serious, leaving Northern Ireland without a formal voice to represent the interests of all sections of the community there on this most fundamental and difficult issue. The Government has continually sought to support engagement and a way forward between the political parties in Northern Ireland on the outstanding issues that need to be resolved to get all of the institutions of the agreement working again, as they must.
In addition to the successive phases of talks, in July last year, the Government and the UK Government convened again the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference as the institution of the agreement that serves to promote bilateral co-operation on all matters of mutual interest within the competence of both Governments. The conference has met on three occasions - in July and October last year and again last month - with participation for the Government by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Minister for Justice and Equality. The conference is a valuable setting for the two Governments to discuss supporting political stability in Northern Ireland and other issues within the framework of the Good Friday Agreement including east-west co-operation, security matters, rights and citizenship issues, and legacy issues, and it has been agreed that it will meet again in the coming months.
Specifically on the issue of dealing with the legacy of the past, I confirm to the House the Government’s continuing commitment to getting the comprehensive framework provided for under the Stormont House Agreement implemented as soon as possible. Victims and survivors have waited for far too long already for a system that is fit for purpose and that can meet their legitimate needs and expectations. The Tánaiste has emphasised to the Secretary of State the urgency of definitively moving ahead to legislating to get the Stormont House bodies established and up and running. Legislation will also be required in this jurisdiction to provide for co-operation with the legacy bodies. The drafting of legislative proposals for consideration by the Government and Oireachtas is advancing, led by the Minister for Justice and Equality.
In April, the talented young journalist Lyra McKee was callously killed as she was going about her work in Derry. I take this opportunity to acknowledge, on behalf of the Government, the life and career of Lyra McKee, whose life was cut short so brutally and needlessly. Our thoughts remain with Lyra’s partner, Sara Canning, her family and friends, and those who dearly loved her. Lyra was a brave, bright and brilliant person who exemplified the spirit we need today.
Her ambition to change her society for the better through her career, through telling her story and supporting others to do the same must be the example and the inspiration that political leaders call on in the days ahead in Northern Ireland so that we can collectively implement again the principles and the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.
Unfortunately, we also saw last week the attempted murder of an off-duty PSNI officer in Belfast, with responsibility claimed by a tiny number of people who would seek to drag us back to the violence of the past. The police investigation into this attempted murder is ongoing and will receive the full support and co-operation of An Garda Síochána. Like the awful killing of Lyra McKee, this attack on the PSNI was an attack on the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement itself which has been endorsed by the people of Ireland, North and South. Such mindless violence has been repeatedly rejected by the people of this island. That is why it is so incumbent on all political leaders in Northern Ireland to ensure that the mandate they have been given to operate the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement is implemented in accordance with the principles of partnership, mutual respect and parity of esteem at the core of the agreement.
The outpouring of public feeling that rightly followed Lyra McKee’s death saw a very clear demand from people in Northern Ireland for their political representatives to engage and get the political institutions working again. On 26 April, to try again to secure a way forward, the Taoiseach and the UK Prime Minister announced a new phase of political talks in Northern Ireland, involving the five main parties, together with the British and Irish Governments. On 7 May, the Tánaiste and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Karen Bradley, convened these talks in Belfast. This is a short process, focused on the key issues that are central to restoring the institutions and with the aim of achieving rapid progress.
During May, a series of working groups were convened to discuss in detail the key issues central to making progress: the programme for government for a new Executive; greater transparency and accountability in the institutions; the reform of the petition of concern; measures to increase the sustainability and stability of the institutions; and issues of rights, language and identity. The work of these groups was steered through leadership-level round-table discussions, with the participation of the Secretary of State and the Tánaiste on behalf of the two governments.
There has been constructive engagement by political parties in the process since it commenced and it is clear that all of the parties want to see the institutions of the agreement operating again on a sustainable basis. There has been broad consensus on some issues, but key issues still remain to be resolved. The Tánaiste and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland believe that there is a genuine but narrow window of opportunity to reach agreement in the period immediately ahead and that it is essential to continue and intensify talks to this end.
In a further joint statement on 2 June, the Taoiseach and the UK Prime Minister welcomed the constructive engagement in the process so far and underlined that it is imperative that the parties move without delay to engaging substantively on the shape of a final agreement. Accordingly, the two governments last week supported an intensification of the talks and there was direct engagement on outstanding issues by the leaders of the five political parties. The Tánaiste and Secretary of State, Ms Bradley, are intensively engaging on behalf of the two governments in the talks at Stormont again this week and as I speak are encouraging the party leaders to move towards a final agreement.
People want to see real progress made. There is no patience for anything except urgent and determined progress and openness to new thinking. Ultimately, it will be for the parties to rise to the challenge of finding an agreement. This will be difficult, but the two governments believe that this can and must be achieved in the period immediately ahead to get the devolved, power-sharing Assembly and Executive and the North-South Ministerial Council functioning again. The Government will continue to do everything in its power, in accordance with its responsibilities as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, to secure the effective operation of all of its institutions. I look forward to hearing the views of colleagues in the House.