With permission I would like to make a statement on the agreement reached this week in the cross party talks at Stormont.
But first I would like to pay tribute to Peter Robinson who announced this morning that he will very soon be standing down as First Minister and leader of the DUP.
Peter has been a central figure in Northern Ireland politics for over four decades. In his long and distinguished record of public service both in this House and the Assembly, he has championed the interests of Northern Ireland with unparalleled effectiveness, determination and dedication.
Peter was key to the Agreement reached this week and he can be rightly proud of his contribution. I am sure the whole House will join me in wishing him a long and happy retirement.
Mr Speaker, last December, the Stormont House Agreement was reached after 11 weeks of negotiations between the five largest Northern Ireland parties and the UK and Irish Governments.
That Agreement addressed some of the most difficult challenges facing Northern Ireland including the finances of the devolved Executive, welfare reform, flags and parades, the legacy of the past, and reform of the Assembly to make devolution work better.
All of this was underpinned by a financial package from the UK Government that would give the Executive £2 billion in extra spending power.
In the Government’s view the Stormont House Agreement was, and remains, a good deal for Northern Ireland.
By the summer, however, it was clear that implementation had stalled.
There were very strong differences of opinion within the Executive over the budget and the implementation of the welfare aspects of the Agreement, and these were preventing other elements of the Agreement from going ahead.
We were facing a deadlock which, left unresolved, would have made early Assembly elections more and more likely, with an ever increasing risk that collapse of devolution would follow.
After all that has been achieved in Northern Ireland over recent years, a return to direct rule from Westminster would have been a severe setback, and it is an outcome which I have been striving to avoid.
In August, a second issue arose to threaten the stability and survival of devolution.
The suspected involvement of members of the Provisional IRA in a murder in Belfast raised once again the spectre of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland and its malign and totally unacceptable impact on society.
Faced with these circumstances, we concluded it was necessary to convene a fresh round of cross party talks with the five main Northern Ireland parties, and the Irish Government on matters for which they have responsibility, observing the well established three strand approach.
The talks began on 8 September and ran for ten weeks.
The objectives we set were twofold:
I believe that the document published on Tuesday entitle ‘A Fresh Start: The Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan’ makes real progress towards fulfilling both of these objectives.
Crucially it tackles the two issues that have posed the greatest threat to the stability and survival of devolution in Northern Ireland.
First, on the Stormont House Agreement. The new agreement will help give the Executive a stable and sustainable budget, assisted by further financial support of around £500 million from the UK Government. These funds are to help the Executive tackle issues unique to Northern Ireland.
They include support for their programme of removing so-called ‘peace walls’ and an additional £160 million to assist the Police Service of Northern Ireland in their crucial work to combat the threat from dissident republican terrorists.
And the package also paves the way for completion of the devolution of corporation tax powers to the Northern Ireland Executive, something which could have a genuinely transformative effect on the Northern Ireland economy.
The measures in the Stormont House Agreement designed to address issues around flags and parades will now go ahead.
And there’s agreement on reforms to the Executive and Assembly to make devolution work better, including on the size of the Assembly, the number of government departments, use of the petition of concern, and provision for an official opposition.
Secondly, on paramilitary activity. The agreement takes Northern Ireland’s leaders further than ever before on this issue.
It strongly reaffirms the commitment to upholding the rule of law and makes it absolutely clear that in no circumstances will paramilitary activity ever be tolerated.
The Agreement places new shared obligations on Executive Ministers to work together towards ridding society of all paramilitary groups and actively challenging paramilitary activity in all its forms.
And it commits all participants to a concerted and enhanced effort to combat organised and cross border crime, which the UK Government will help to fund.
A key element of the Stormont House Agreement on which we were unable to agree a way forward was the establishment of new bodies to deal with the legacy of the past.
We did establish common ground between the parties on a range of significant questions on how to establish those important new structures, but sadly not enough to enable legislation to go forward as yet.
The Government continues to support these provisions because of the pressing need to provide better outcomes for victims and survivors, the people who we must never forget have suffered more than anyone else as a result of the Troubles.
So it is crucial that we all now reflect on what needs to be done to achieve the wider consensus needed to get the new legacy bodies set up. I want to emphasise that in very large part, the Agreement takes on board a wide range of points made by all five Northern Ireland parties during the 10 weeks of talks just concluded.
As the overwhelming majority of issues were in devolved area, this agreement has rightly been driven by Northern Ireland’s elected leaders in particular the First and deputy First Ministers. And I would like to reiterate my sincere thanks to them and to all the five Northern Ireland parties who worked with determination and commitment in the talks.
Thanks too to my Hon Friend the Northern Ireland Minister, and to Ministers Charlie Flanagan and Sean Sherlock from the Irish Government, all of whom devoted many long hours to this process and who made an invaluable contribution to its successful outcome.
Mr Speaker, implementation of this week’s Agreement is already underway.
On Tuesday, the Executive voted to support it. Yesterday the Assembly passed an LCM on welfare legislation at Westminster and the Northern Ireland (Welfare Reform) Bill will be introduced to Parliament later today. I believe this package as a whole gives us the opportunity for a fresh start for devolution.
It’s a further stage in delivering the Government’s manifesto commitment to implement the Stormont House Agreement, and it’s another step forward towards a brighter, more secure future for everyone in Northern Ireland.
And I commend this statement to the House.