The continuing absence of vital institutions of the Good Friday Agreement is a source of deep concern for the Government, as it is for the British Government. The Government will continue to do everything in its power, in accordance with its responsibilities as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, to secure the effective operation of all of its institutions. Both Governments are determined to find a way beyond the current impasse to get the institutions operating again and I remain in regular contact with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on how this can be pursued.
I visited Belfast on 9 and 10 January last and held discussions with the leaders of all of the Northern Ireland political parties. These were constructive engagements with each of the party leaders and I emphasised that the two-year absence of the devolved institutions must not continue. There are pressing decisions and issues across a range of areas which require a functioning Executive and Assembly. Each of the party leaders confirmed to me their wish to participate in the institutions again and provided views on key concerns and issues for their parties.
Following these latest consultations, I do not underestimate the way to go in achieving a resolution, but I continue to believe that this can be achieved and that there is an increasingly urgent need for talks to begin.
The devolved institutions of the Agreement are urgently needed so that the mandated Assembly and power-sharing Executive can represent the interests of all of the people of Northern Ireland and address issues of concern, including the challenges for Northern Ireland of the UK decision to exit the European Union. The North South Ministerial Council is also essential to oversee and develop North South cooperation on matters of mutual interest, as provided for under the Good Friday Agreement.
The legislation that was brought forward by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, which temporarily suspends the requirement to call an Assembly election, underlines the urgent requirement for all with responsibilities to do everything in their power to get them operating again. The Secretary of State and I are agreed that a new political process is needed. I will continue to work with the Secretary of State and remain in regular contact with the leaders of each of the political parties, to get the necessary political process commenced to secure an agreement for a functioning Executive and Assembly.
I also met in Belfast last week with a range of civil society representatives, including trade unions, business organisations and those working in the education, voluntary and community sectors. In all of these discussions, I heard a clear and unambiguous desire for the Assembly and Executive to operate again, as well as acute concern at the impact of the current impasse for Northern Ireland and for progress with the Peace Process founded on the Good Friday Agreement. There was also serious apprehension on how the challenges raised for Northern Ireland by the UK decision to exit the European Union will be addressed and broad support for the Withdrawal Agreement negotiated between the UK and the European Union, in particular in providing an absolute guarantee that a hard border will be avoided and that the Good Friday Agreement will be fully protected. I also received a clear message in these civil society engagements that the UK exit from the EU is a further and pressing reason for political leaders to work together through the power-sharing Executive and Assembly, to represent and protect Northern Ireland’s unique interests and concerns.
I believe that these calls from across all sections of the community in Northern Ireland for the devolved institutions to operate have to be heeded.