Wednesday, 12 April 2017
35. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the discussions he had with Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Mr. James Brokenshire, about the possibility of the reintroduction of direct rule in Northern Ireland. [16734/17]
47. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he has spoken to Secretary of State Brokenshire since Mr. Brokenshire’s announcement that he would consider a return to direct rule if talks to restore power sharing in Northern Ireland fail. [17915/17]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 35 and 47 together.
I am in regular and direct contact with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland as part of the ongoing discussions to support the political parties in reaching an agreement on the formation of a new Executive in Northern Ireland. Both Governments are agreed on the imperative of continued devolved power sharing Government for Northern Ireland, which is at the core of the political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.
The Secretary of State confirmed in his statement to the House of Commons on 28 March that the British Government does not want to see a return to direct rule in Northern Ireland. I welcome this confirmation and I reiterate today in this House, as I have to the Secretary of State, that this Government does not support the suspension of the institutions and the return of direct rule in Northern Ireland. It is important to note that there is no statutory provision at Westminster for the suspension of the institutions, following its removal, which at the time was supported by the Irish Government, as part of the St. Andrews Agreement, more than ten years ago. The political process in Northern Ireland is founded on the institutions, principles, procedures and practices of the Good Friday Agreement, including the Assembly and the Executive, and it is imperative that both Governments and all the parties work in support of this framework.
In this context I am representing the Government in the intensive talks in Belfast. These talks have two objectives. First, to allow the political parties to reach an agreement on the formation of a new Executive. Second, to address the implementation of the outstanding issues from previous agreements. These discussions are structured around a shared approach put forward by both Governments following on from the talks last month where it did not prove possible for the political parties in Northern Ireland to reach agreement on the setting up of a power-sharing Executive before the statutory deadline of 27 March.
Overall, encouraging progress is being made in this renewed phase but I am under no illusions about the challenge of resolving the core issues that remain outstanding. Serious issues remain to be resolved after the Easter holidays, including those which were to the fore before the collapse of the last Executive and during the election campaign. However, with resolve and determination from all the parties involved in the process, and with the support and encouragement of the two Governments, I believe a successful outcome is possible.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
As part of my engagement with the Secretary of State and with each of the parties in the discussions in recent weeks, I have strongly emphasised the critical importance of forming a new Executive so that Northern Ireland’s interests can be effectively represented as part of the process of the EU-UK negotiations which are about to commence. I very much hope that the necessary agreement between the parties will be reached on formation of the Executive as soon as possible so that it can directly represent the interests of the people of Northern Ireland in these negotiations which are of major significance.
As the formal talks pause briefly for Easter, I encourage everyone to maintain informal contacts and to reflect on what can be achieved if, in the weeks ahead, an Executive is established that operates effectively and sustainably. I am convinced that all parties are willing to play their part in reaching such a sustainable agreement, which will provide for a stable power-sharing Government in Northern Ireland underpinned by the principles of the Good Friday Agreement.
The Irish Government as a co-guarantor of that Agreement and the peace process will continue to play its part in facilitating these ongoing talks, working with the British Government and encouraging all parties to reach agreement on the formation of a new Executive that is demonstrably in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland.
I am very disappointed at the fact that Sinn Féin in particular appears to have called for another election. Does the Minister see any value in another election other than that there would be a certain amount of head counting? I believe that the issues which are outstanding are capable of resolution. This Friday we will attend the anniversary of the Belfast Agreement. Most commentators are saying that there appears to be relatively little energy or appetite on the part of either of the two major parties, the Democratic Unionist Party but particularly Sinn Féin, to make the institutions work, a rather fatalistic approach that it is okay to return to direct rule but that the preference is for further elections. I have no real idea other than head counting what another election might produce. Has the Minister spoken to each of the parties about that? Does he have a sense of what they believe a further election might achieve? Talking to ordinary people from the North who are not particularly political I found that they are completely confused. When we see how life has transformed in the North in terms of peace and security, historically, it seems to be an enormous mistake to run the risk of losing all the progress that has been made.
I share Deputy Burton's concern. I agree with much of what she said and I wish to assure her and other Deputies that, as part of my engagement with the Secretary of State and with each of the parties in the matter of the discussions over recent weeks, I will continue to emphasise strongly the critical importance of forming a new Executive in Northern Ireland so the interests of the people of Northern Ireland can be effectively represented.
There is an added urgency and a greater level of importance on this occasion having regard to the commencement of the negotiations on the proposed withdrawal of the UK from the EU. I very much hope that agreement between the parties will be reached on the formation of the Executive as soon as possible so that this Executive can directly represent the interests of the people of Northern Ireland in the negotiations. As the formal talks pause for Easter, I encourage everybody to maintain informal contacts over the Easter period and to reflect on what can be achieved if in the weeks ahead the Executive is to be established that operates in a sustainable and effective way.
I understand that there are very severe financial penalties regarding the public budget in Northern Ireland and that automatic discounts or penalties apply. There is a general fear, particularly among public sector workers and at local and district council level, that the budgets will come under incredibly severe pressure, which will be very destructive of public services and life in Northern Ireland.
Only yesterday, I had the opportunity to meet a cross-section of civil society leaders in Belfast. Last week, I met in excess of 15 heads of business corporations in Northern Ireland. I share the concern that has been raised by Deputy Burton but I remain convinced that all the parties are willing to play their part in reaching an agreement which will provide for a stable power-sharing government in Northern Ireland. The Irish Government is co-guarantor of the Agreement and the peace process and will continue to play its part. While there will be no formal engagement over the next few days, I appeal for a level of informal engagement between the parties to ensure that when the talks resume after the Easter period, there will be a willingness on the part of everyone involved to ensure the setting up of an Executive and a functioning Assembly at the earliest opportunity for many reasons, including the reasons evidenced by Deputy Burton in respect of budgets, jobs and economic development in Northern Ireland.