Thursday, 23 November 2006
Northern Ireland Issues.
Question 5: To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he is confident that the St. Andrews timetable will deliver functioning political institutions by March 2007; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [39806/06]
The St. Andrews Agreement underpins the Good Friday Agreement, setting out a clear way forward for all parties to commit themselves to the full operation of stable power-sharing government in Northern Ireland and to full support for the policing board. It sets out the practical changes proposed to the operation of the institutions. It also sets out specific commitments in areas such as human rights and equality, arrangements for a financial package and a timetable for implementation.
Consistent with that schedule, the British Government has brought forward draft legislation to make the necessary provisions to allow devolved government to be restored in March 2007. That legislation yesterday completed its passage through the Westminster Parliament.
The legislation provides for a transitional assembly to meet from 24 November to allow the parties to prepare for restoration of the devolved institutions. It includes amendments to the Northern Ireland Act 1998 to implement, on restoration, the practical changes to the operation of the institutions agreed at St. Andrews.
It also provides for the electoral endorsement of the St. Andrews Agreement by way of elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly on 7 March 2007. The British Government has made clear, however, that an election will only take place if the parties are working constructively towards participation in a power-sharing executive by 26 March next year. The legislation explicitly makes provision for the Northern Ireland Assembly to be dissolved at any time before 25 March 2007 if it is considered that there is no reasonable prospect of establishing a power-sharing government. In those circumstances, the governments would move immediately to implement new British-Irish partnership arrangements.
The St. Andrews timetable also envisages regular meetings of the new programme for government committee to enable the parties to agree priorities for the new executive. I was encouraged that the committee met for the first time earlier this week and that it has now begun to address some of the most pressing practical issues that will face the restored executive. We expect those preparations to intensify from tomorrow, once the transitional assembly gets down to business, and we will be working with the parties in the incoming executive over the coming months to assist them in their preparations.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House.
The Government firmly believes that the St. Andrews Agreement, implemented in good faith, will clear the way for the restoration of the devolved institutions of the Good Friday Agreement on 26 March next year. The process will of course continue to require careful management over the coming weeks and months to bring it to a successful completion. All parties will have to play their part in ensuring that the timetable is met. For its part, the Government will continue to work in close partnership with the British Government, as well as with the parties, to secure our over-riding priority, the restoration of power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland and full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.
Is the Minister aware that, we hope, between 10.30 a.m. and 2.30 p.m. tomorrow, Sinn Féin president Gerry Adams will nominate Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister of the Six Counties Assembly? Does he agree that it is important for the DUP to put forward its nominee, Ian Paisley, for the position of First Minister in line with proposals outlined at St. Andrews and that it is the minimum required by the peace process? Does he also share Sinn Féin's hope that the DUP will come on board the Good Friday Agreement and play a full role in the shared future that it has with the rest of us on the island? Is the Minister aware of the difficulties faced by republicans in sharing power with the DUP, given its violent, sectarian, paramilitary past and anti-republican, anti-Nationalist and anti-equality agenda for nearly four decades? In the event that the DUP once again fails to sign up to share power with Nationalists and republicans on the basis of the agreement, will the two governments move ahead in implementing joint partnership arrangements thereunder? Will he commit himself to standing by the Good Friday Agreement, making it clear that further stalling is unacceptable?
There is greater need than ever for leadership on both sides regarding this issue, and we hope that we will see that tomorrow and in the coming weeks. If we fall at any hurdle, we will move to the situation indicated, namely, plan B. However, that is not the preferred option of either Government. We want devolved government to be restored to Northern Ireland.
Leadership is required on the part of the DUP to show that it is quite prepared to share power with Nationalists under the arrangements laid down in the Good Friday Agreement. Equally, movement is needed on the part of the Deputy's party on policing. We have heard it stated time and time again that it is prepared to move on policing, and now we would like to see the colour of its money in that respect. We would like to see Sinn Féin propose an Ard-Fheis to discuss the issue, one hopes moving positively towards acceptance of policing. That sooner that it happens, the better.
The two Governments have always believed, from the time of their move regarding the culmination of discussions in St. Andrews, that 24 November would be a significant date. On the one hand, it would show clearly that the DUP is willing to sit in government with Nationalists on a power-sharing basis under the Good Friday Agreement. Second, it would show that the Deputy's party was prepared to move on the policing issue.