I propose to take Questions Nos. 448 to 451, inclusive, and 454 to 458, inclusive, together.
Following ten weeks of intensive discussions involving the five main Northern Ireland parties and the British and Irish Governments, an agreement entitled ‘A Fresh Start: The Stormont House Agreement and Implementation Plan’ was reached on Tuesday 17 November.
I believe that this agreement provides a credible road map for the implementation of many aspects of the Stormont House Agreement as well as ending paramilitarism and tackling associated organized crime and criminality.
With regard to paramilitarism, significantly the parties to the Agreement have made a firm commitment to achieving a society free of paramilitarism, to working for the disbandment of all paramilitary organisations and their structures and to challenging paramilitary attempts to control communities. A strategy to achieve this will be put in place by the Northern Ireland Executive and an international body will be established to report on progress towards ending continuing paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland.
The Irish and British Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive have also committed to reinforce our efforts to tackle organised crime associated with the legacy of paramilitarism. We have agreed to establish a Joint Agency Task Force to identify strategic priorities for combatting cross-border organised crime and to oversee operational co-ordination. This work will be supported by additional resources. In addition, a tri-lateral cross-border Ministerial meeting will take place next month between Minister Fitzgerald and her counterparts from the British Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to agree new measures to further enhance law enforcement cooperation.
The Fresh Start Agreement is also about financial stability and reform. Pursuing economic prosperity and job creation is critical to building a peaceful society in Northern Ireland. In recognition of this, the Irish Government has committed to providing support and funding for important infrastructure projects as well as for investment in the North West Region.
In the Agreement, the Irish Government restated its commitment under the St Andrews Agreement to co-fund the construction of the A5 through Northern Ireland to Derry, which will improve access to Derry and North Donegal. Under the Fresh Start Agreement, the Government specifically reaffirms its existing commitment to providing funding of £50 million for this project and commits to providing an additional £25 million to ensure that Phase 1 of the project can commence as soon as the necessary planning issues have been resolved by the Northern Ireland authorities. In accordance with the revised project timeline, this funding will be provided in three tranches of £25 million in the years 2017, 2018 and 2019 respectively and therefore it has been agreed that the first section of the A5 will commence in 2017 and this will be the route between Newbuildings (outside Derry) to north of Strabane.
Under the Agreement, the Government is committed to continue exploring the development of cross-border Greenways and Blueway cycling-walking-water leisure routes, including the Ulster Canal. In February 2015, the Government announced €2 million for the restoration of the 2.5 km Upper Lough Erne to Castle Saunderson section. This is due to be completed in 2017. We have also agreed with the Northern Ireland Executive to undertake a review to identify options for jointly developing future phases of the Ulster Canal restoration project, which will be considered by the North South Ministerial Council in June 2016.
In the Agreement, the Government has also reiterated our commitment to the concept of the Narrow Water Bridge. We have agreed with the Northern Ireland Executive to undertake a review of the project to identify options for future development which will also be considered at the North South Ministerial Council in June 2016.
In addition the Government has decided to provide funding of €2.5 million to support the North West Gateway Initiative, which will be complemented by matching funding from the Northern Ireland Executive. This is a demonstration of the Government’s commitment to support the regional development work of the North West Gateway Initiative which will be of real benefit to Donegal as well as Derry.
In order to drive these projects forward, a group of senior officials from the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government will meet regularly to maintain a strategic overview of economic and infrastructural investment. Regular progress reports will be provided to the North South Ministerial Council. This group will also consider opportunities for sourcing further investment for all-island infrastructure projects for mutual benefit, including through PPPs, EU funding and other non-Exchequer sources.
I believe that the funding committed by the Irish Government under the Fresh Start Agreement, which amounts to €110 million in total, represents a good investment for the people of Ireland. This investment is aimed at unlocking the full potential of the all island economy. Such targeted investment in cross border economic infrastructure will be key to continued growth of the island’s indigenous enterprise base, boosting tourism and to driving and sustaining overseas investment levels. This is crucial for job creation and all-island prosperity and to ensure that the socio-economic dividend made possible by the Good Friday and subsequent Agreements is fully realised. This funding will therefore benefit all citizens on the island of Ireland. I would add that this financial commitment is predicated on a stable political environment in Northern Ireland, with all the institutions and North South bodies operating to full effect. It is therefore important that the Fresh Start Agreement is fully implemented.
In this Agreement, the British Government has also recognised the importance of underpinning the implementation of its provisions by way of financial support so that Northern Ireland’s public finances can be placed on a sound footing, which is so important for economic stability and development, and to assist with the transition of Northern Ireland from a society emerging from decades of conflict. The Fresh Start Agreement paves the way for the implementation of the financial package committed to the British Government under the Stormont House Agreement which gives the Northern Ireland Executive £2 billion in additional spending. The British Government has now agreed to provide further financial support of around £500 million which is aimed at assisting the Northern Ireland Executive in tackling issues unique to Northern Ireland such as support for programmes to remove peace walls.
The Fresh Start Agreement also agrees a way forward on Welfare reform. While the necessary legislation will be passed at Westminster, the Welfare Bill was, in accordance with the Agreement, debated and approved by the Northern Ireland Assembly by way of a Legislative Consent Motion on 18 November. This approval also covered the draft Order in Council which gives effect in Northern Ireland to the 2012 welfare changes in Britain, the welfare clauses of the Welfare Reform and Work Bill as initially introduced at Westminster and the Northern Ireland Executive’s proposals to enhance payments flowing from the Fresh Start Agreement.
This was agreed by the two main parties in Northern Ireland, working through the power sharing devolved Executive, and endorsed by the Northern Ireland Assembly. The explicit consent given by the Assembly protects the principle of devolved government in Northern Ireland.
Under the Fresh Start Agreement, the Northern Ireland Executive has agreed to allocate a total of £585 million from Executive funds over four years to ‘top-up’ welfare arrangements in Northern Ireland through welfare enhancements and tax credits. The Executive has agreed to establish a small working group under the leadership of Professor Eileen Evason to bring forward proposals within this financial envelope to maximise the use of these additional resources. The Executive has agreed to implement the findings of the working group.
While important progress was made on taking forward aspects of the Stormont House Agreement dealing with the legacy of the past, it did not prove possible to resolve all of the key issues within the timescale of this negotiation. Nevertheless, the two Governments will persist in our efforts to secure an agreed basis for the establishment of the institutions dealing with the past envisaged in the Stormont House Agreement.
I believe that the Fresh Start Agreement presents a very positive result at the end of 10 weeks of intensive and often challenging negotiations. I regret the fact that some of the parties were not in a position to fully sign up to this Agreement. This was not due to a lack of effort by the Government. I consistently urged all participants to work towards an outcome which would be as comprehensive and inclusive as possible throughout the talks process. It was, however, inevitable that the two largest parties needed to take a leading role as without their shared support there would be no agreement. I believe that this demonstrates a maturity in the politics of Northern Ireland and that power-sharing can in fact work as envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement.
That said, I believe that the agreement reflects positive contributions made to the talks process by all of the parties involved, especially when it comes to the measures agreed on ending paramilitarism and tackling criminality. I absolutely accept that each party needs to make their own decision about the content of this agreement and to have the necessary time to do this. Careful consideration will, I hope, enable some of the other parties to get behind elements of the agreement many of which are clearly of great importance to them and to the people they represent.
The Fresh Start Agreement is about protecting the gains delivered by the Good Friday Agreement and placing devolved power-sharing government on a sustainable footing. It is now important that government in Northern Ireland delivers for the people of Northern Ireland. It is for the parties to this agreement, with the support of the two Governments, to ensure that this new opportunity is fully embraced.