I am extremely grateful for the opportunity to update the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly today and I’d like to thank your co-chairs, Laurence Robertson and Kathleen Funchion, for their kind invitation. In a few moments I would like to set out some of the key priorities for the UK Government in Northern Ireland, including the challenges and opportunities presented by the decision to leave the European Union. Before that, however, as this is my first speech to you as Secretary of State, I would like to pay tribute to the work that BIPA has done since you were established in 1990.
You have played a major role in bringing together Parliamentarians together from throughout these islands and in so doing have made a significant contribution to the strength of the UK-Ireland relationship today. So thank you for the work that you have done, and will continue to do, as all of us strive to build a brighter, more secure future for the people we represent.
Fresh Start Agreement – one year on
Just over a week ago, we marked the first anniversary of the Fresh Start Agreement and I am in no doubt that as a result of that Agreement, and the earlier Stormont House Agreement, politics in Northern Ireland looks more stable and more settled than for some time.
Issues that this time last year threatened the very existence of devolution itself have been largely resolved. The Executive’s finances have been placed on a more sustainable footing and legislation passed to implement welfare reform, helping people off benefits and into work while providing a fairer deal for taxpayers. The first tranche of £0.5 billion for shared and integrated education has been released. Reform of the civil service has gone ahead while the number of government departments has been reduced. The Commission on Flags and Identity has been established.
Earlier this year Parliament passed the Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan Act. The Act places new financial obligations on the Executive to help ensure that the Executive has the money to fund its programmes. It includes changes to the devolution settlement to allow for more discussion on the shape of the Programme for Government before the Executive is formed.
On tackling paramilitarism, it included tough new declarations for Assembly members and Executive Ministers to work together on their shared objective of ridding Northern Ireland of all forms of paramilitary activity and groups.
And it puts in place the legislative framework for the new Independent Reporting Commission on paramilitary groups and ending paramilitary activity. In September, Charlie Flanagan and I signed the Treaty to establish it and we hope to see up and running early in the New Year.
New measures were agreed to enhance law enforcement aimed at tackling cross-border organised crime linked to paramilitarism and a Joint Agency Task Force was established to take this forward in December last year.
The same month, a three-person panel was appointed by the Executive with the task of recommending a strategy to disband paramilitary groups. Their report was published in June, and the Executive has now published an action plan based on it. For our part the UK Government has pledged £25 million to support this vital work and we are engaging intensively with the Executive on the detail to take it forward.
All of this amounts to a substantial body of progress in implementing the Fresh Start and Stormont House Agreements and is a solid platform as we seek to build a Northern Ireland that works for everyone but I also recognise that there is much more to be done.
On paramilitary activity the proof of the pudding will be the impact that all the measures we put in place have on the ground, in communities that still suffer and are held back by these criminals who use the cloak of paramilitary activity to line their own pockets. And I’m conscious too that fine sounding words and ringing declarations on their own are not going to see this problem go away. We need to look at how we prevent young people in particular being drawn to paramilitary gangs in the first place.
We need to see how we can help communities stand up to paramilitaries and the control and intimidation that they exert and we need to ensure that the criminal justice system deals with offenders more quickly and puts them behind bars for longer. That is something on which, working with the Justice Minister and the Executive, progress for me is a key priority. There was never any justification for these groups in the first place, there is none today, and all of us need to work together, united and with single handed determination, to help put them out of business for good.
Our efforts to tackle paramilitarism take place alongside those to deal with the continuing threat from dissident republican terrorists. The threat level from these groups remains at Severe in Northern Ireland, meaning an attack is highly likely and Substantial in Great Britain, meaning an attack is probable. Support for these groups remains limited, they are rejected by the overwhelming majority of people who back the peace process and the benefits it has brought to Northern Ireland, yet they retain lethal intent and capability as we sadly saw earlier this year with the murder of prison officer, Adrian Ismay and it is primarily brave police and prison officers, people who are committed to serving the whole community, that continue to be their main targets.
So far this year there have been four national security attacks, compared to 40 in 2010 and as always I pay tribute to the great work of the PSNI, MI5 and An Garda Síochána in disrupting the activities of these terrorists. But while the figures for the numbers of attacks looks encouraging, it does not give anything like the full picture when it comes to the determination of these groups to cause harm, or the underlying level of threat that they pose. The need for vigilance, therefore, remains absolutely vital and that’s why the Government has committed £160 million of additional security funding for the PSNI over the current spending review period. We will always give the fullest possible backing to the security forces and there will be no let-up in our efforts to ensure that terrorism never succeeds.
The other area where I am determined to make progress is in addressing the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past. The current mechanisms for dealing with legacy issues are simply not delivering for victims and survivors of the troubles, the people, we should never forget, who suffered most. They are slow and cumbersome, placing strains on the PSNI budget and also the coronial system with the prospect that they could literally go on for decades. They are also overwhelmingly focused disproportionately on the activities of soldiers and police officers, that in turn is fuelling what my predecessor rightly called a pernicious counter narrative of the troubles that seeks to place the state at the heart of nearly every atrocity.
So this Government remains committed to implementing the Stormont House Agreement, including the new legacy bodies. These bodies will be under legal obligations to act in ways that are balanced, transparent, accountable, and, crucially, proportionate ending the one sided and unfair focus that currently exists on the state. And they will be time limited, allowing us to draw a line under the past and move forward as a society. So I will continue to engage with victims’ groups, political parties and the Executive to build the necessary political consensus to get the Stormont House legacy institutions up and running and I want to move to a public phase, in order to seek wider views and build public confidence.
I believe that with determination it is possible to find a way through and to see these bodies established and hopefully provide those better outcomes for victims and survivors of the troubles that we all want and we have a duty to try and provide.
But, of course, the issue dominating all our agendas is the United Kingdom’s democratic decision to leave the European Union. Let’s be clear - the people of the United Kingdom as a whole voted to leave the European Union and the United Kingdom as a whole will leave. And yes, we have a clear plan.
Article 50 will be triggered according to the timetable we have set out and our negotiation with the EU will begin. In the next session of Parliament we will introduce a Great Repeal Bill to remove the European Communities Act from the statute book on the day we leave, ending the authority of EU law in the United Kingdom. We will then seek a solution that provides the best outcome for the United Kingdom and the EU, an agreement that reflects the kind of mature, cooperative relationship that close friends and allies enjoy. We want a strong EU for the UK’s continued prosperity but I also recognise there are unique challenges facing Northern Ireland and indeed the island of Ireland as a whole.
So let me briefly set out some of the themes that will guide our approach. First, we will take no risks with Northern Ireland’s hard won political stability. That means being faithful to the Belfast Agreement and its successors and I reject emphatically any suggestion that the decision to leave the EU will somehow weaken or imperil the political settlement in Northern Ireland or the peace and stability that we now have.
Second, we will stand by our commitment to working closely with each of the devolved administrations, including the Northern Ireland Executive, as we formulate our negotiating position. Within two weeks of becoming Prime Minister, Theresa May visited Stormont, while a number of senior Cabinet Ministers have visited Northern Ireland. In October, the Prime Minister chaired a meeting of the Joint Ministerial Committee with the heads of each of the devolved administrations and the three territorial Secretaries of State and earlier this month I attended the first meeting of the the Joint Ministerial Committee on EU Negotiations under the chairmanship of David Davis.
Third, we want to give UK businesses, including those from within Northern Ireland, the maximum freedom to trade with and operate in the Single Market and to let European businesses do the same here. So in early September I established my own Business Advisory Group to ensure that the voice of Northern Ireland business is heard loud and clear. Already we have had a number of extremely constructive meetings across different sectors including construction, manufacturing, financial services, agri-foods, retail, energy and the creative industries and as we trigger Article 50 I want to keep that group going as a vital link between business and the UK Government.
Fourth, we want to provide certainty, where we can, to groups and organisations that rely heavily on EU funding.
The Chancellor has already announced that the Treasury will guarantee direct payments to farmers on the same basis as currently paid under the cap until 2020. He has also guaranteed funding for structural and investment fund projects signed before the UK leaves the EU, even where projects continue after we leave. In addition, we will guarantee the payments of any awards won by UK organisations who bid directly to the EU for competitive funding, including infrastructure support, even when specific projects continue beyond the UK’s departure from the EU.
These assurances from the UK Government give confidence that funding applications should continue as normal, and provide more certainty following the country’s decision to leave the European Union.
Fifth, we are determined to maintain and strengthen the bonds between Northern Ireland and the rest of the United Kingdom, and indeed between the UK and the Republic of Ireland.
Finally, the open border between Northern Ireland and Ireland, along with the Common Travel Area, has served us all well and both the UK and Irish governments, along with the Northern Ireland Executive, are determined to maintain these arrangements.
Chairman, I am in no doubt that the United Kingdom will make a success of leaving the EU and for these reasons. We are the same outward-looking, globally-minded, flexible and dynamic country we have always been and I’m confident that we will go out into the world, securing trade deals, winning contracts, generating wealth and creating jobs. In addition, as a result of the difficult decisions we have taken in recent years the fundamentals of the UK economy are sound.
The deficit is down by nearly two thirds and we have record levels of employment. This year the IMF say that the UK is the fastest growing economy in the G7, with growth higher than expected in the three months after the result of the EU referendum. In Northern Ireland too the economy grew by an encouraging 1.6 per cent last year.
There are 60,000 more people in work than in 2010 while unemployment is down 2,000 over the year to stand at 5.6 per cent, the lowest since the start of the great recession in 2008. So the economy is well placed to deal with the challenges, and take advantage of the opportunities, that lie ahead as we make a success of Brexit.
So, yes, I remain optimistic about what the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland, can achieve outside the EU. Of course it won’t all be plain sailing, to use the Prime Minister’s words, but if we continue to approach it in a calm, thoughtful and measured way, under the strong and clear leadership of the Prime Minister, then I am confident that we can achieve our objectives.