St Patrick's Day Washington speech

Theresa Villiers briefs a US audience on the current political situation in NI, focusing on the importance of the Stormont House Agreement and the consequences of failing to implement it.

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

SofS speaking at the Ambassador's Residence

It’s a great pleasure to be with you in Washington today, and to be among so many distinguished guests.

The interest and support that Northern Ireland has received from the United States over many years has been greatly appreciated by successive UK governments and played an invaluable role in the peace process.

And many of you here have contributed to that.

So I’d like to thank our Ambassador, Peter Westmacott, for hosting this reception to mark St Patrick’s Day and thank all of you for coming.

And I’d also like to welcome my opposite number from the House of Commons, Ivan Lewis.

This afternoon I’d like briefly to update you on the political situation in Northern Ireland, in particular on the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement and the consequences of failing to implement it.

Last September the UK Government made a realistic assessment that the time had come to convene a fresh round of cross party talks in Northern Ireland.

There were two overriding reasons that led us to that conclusion.

First, issues such as flags, parading and the past were continuing to damage political relations within the Northern Ireland Executive and fuel community division and there seemed little prospect of any kind of resolution.

Second, an impending budget crisis had emerged, which left unresolved would have led to increasing chaos at Stormont, jeopardising the ability of the devolved institutions to continue to function effectively.

So the talks began at Stormont House - the HQ of the Northern Ireland Office - on 16 October with the five parties represented in the Executive.

And of course as a signatory to the Belfast or Good Friday Agreement, the Irish Government participated fully in matters falling within their responsibility.

Throughout the talks I worked very closely with the Irish Foreign Minister, Charlie Flanagan, who made a huge contribution to the final outcome.

We also benefited greatly from the support of Secretary Kerry’s representative, Gary Hart, and the US Consul General in Belfast, Greg Burton.

But at all times we fully observed the constitutional boundaries by sticking to the well-established three stranded approach, which provides that Northern Ireland’s internal matters are for the parties there and the UK Government to decide.

The talks themselves lasted just over 11 weeks and included around 150 hours of negotiation.

At times we were close to despair, and as the Christmas deadline loomed we did seriously contemplate winding them up.

But after a final push, including a marathon session lasting just under 30 hours, the process finally reached a successful conclusion at around lunchtime on 23 December in the form of the Stormont House Agreement.

The Agreement covers some of the most difficult issues Northern Ireland faces.

First, it sets a path to putting the finances of the Northern Ireland Executive back on a sustainable footing, including agreement on a budget for 2015-16, public sector reform, and welfare reform.

This is boosted by a package of support from the UK Government amounting to around £2 billion of extra spending power. Second, a Commission on Flags, Identity and Culture is to be established by June.

And based on the party leader discussions that took place last summer, proposals are set out by the UK Government which open the way for a devolved system of adjudicating parades.

Third, the Agreement also sets out broad-ranging new structures to address the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past with a duty to be fair, balanced, proportionate and accountable written into them.

Progress on this issue has eluded successive Governments since 1998, so the significance of what has been achieved should not be underestimated.

Fourth, the Agreement contains measures to improve the way the devolved institutions work, including a reduction in the number of government departments and measures to facilitate the establishment of an official opposition.

And of course the Agreement paved the way for the UK Government to introduce legislation that will enable the Northern Ireland Executive to vary the rate of Corporation Tax.

That legislation is expected to complete its Parliamentary stages in the House of Lords tomorrow, thereby fulfilling our pledge to have this on the statute book by the General Election.

With its land border with a low corporation tax jurisdiction, this crucial piece of legislation has the potential to be a game changer for Northern Ireland when it comes to attracting investment and jobs.

The Government’s support for this change reflects our determination to underpin the political settlement by building greater prosperity for the whole community.

So I’m in no doubt that the Stormont House Agreement was a major step forward and the Northern Ireland parties can be proud of the role they played in achieving it.

Since the New Year we’ve also seen a number of further positive developments.

A new speaker of the Assembly has been elected - the first from the republican tradition, symbolic of the power sharing which is such a key principle of the political settlement.

The National Crime Agency’s full powers are to be extended to Northern Ireland.

And First Minister Peter Robinson gave a landmark speech to a business breakfast in the heart of west Belfast.

In fact in the weeks since the Stormont House Agreement we’ve seen some examples of just how well politics in Northern Ireland could work.

But as Senator George Mitchell reminded me when I saw him in New York last month, getting an agreement is only about 20% of the job done.

The other 80% of the job is actual implementation.

I said in a speech at Queen’s University just a few weeks ago that there are bound to be bumps in the road.

And so it has proved in the past week.

There can be no doubt that the decision of Sinn Fein and others to block the final stage of the welfare reform bill in the Assembly was a major setback.

I’m afraid there’s no room for ambiguity.

Implementation of the welfare reform package is a key part of the Stormont House Agreement.

Failure to resolve this could have profound implications.

Without welfare reform the Executive will enter the new financial year in a few weeks’ time with a budget that simply doesn’t add up. We would be right back in the same crisis position we were last autumn, with the prospect of the Executive starting to run out of money and facing an existential crisis.

Ultimately, all the other elements of the Stormont House Agreement would fall if the welfare aspects are not implemented, including the structures on the past, the financial package and corporation tax devolution.

The consequences could be dire and should that prove inconclusive, even see the collapse of devolution altogether. But I want to reassure you today that we’re not at that crisis point yet.

Last Thursday I chaired a meeting of Executive Party leaders and I believe that all sides accept we need to find a way through this and see the Stormont House Agreement fully and faithfully implemented.

Over the last three days, the Executive parties have been involved in intensive discussions on this and I hope to chair another leaders’ meeting this week to assess progress.

Be in no doubt.

The UK Government remains totally committed to building a stable, peaceful and prosperous Northern Ireland for all sections of the community.

We have demonstrated that in a wide range of ways, not just through our commitment to the Stormont House talks, but through the economic pact we signed with the Executive in 2013 on the eve of the hugely successful Fermanagh G8 summit.

Through levels of public spending per head, which continue to exceed any other part of the UK.

And through delivering a long term economic plan which is securing economic recovery in Northern Ireland.

We want to see a Northern Ireland where politics works, the economy grows and society is stronger and more united.

The Stormont House Agreement is crucial in delivering those objectives.

So it’s vital that we overcome the current blockage and see the Agreement implemented.

This latest dispute is certainly a bump on the road but it doesn’t have to be the end of the road.

Everyone needs to continue to work to resolve this and I hope that’s the message that Sinn Fein and others hear this week in Washington, because that is the way we will once again stave off disaster and keep moving forward to a more stable, secure and united future for Northern Ireland.

Thank you

Published 16 March 2015