With permission, Mr Speaker, I would like to make a statement on the political talks in Northern Ireland which culminated in the Stormont House Agreement on 23rd December.
When I last updated the House after the visit to Belfast of my RHF the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, I reported that 10 weeks of talks had so far failed to deliver consensus on any of the key issues.
I made clear that the stakes over the coming days were high and that that without an agreement before Christmas, we were unlikely to get so close again for months, or even years.
Further intensive discussions duly took place on Wednesday 17 December and continued on Thursday and Friday of that week.
Resuming on Monday 22 December, negotiations continued overnight, concluding some 30 hours later at around lunch time on the 23rd.
At that stage, we presented the parties with a final heads of agreement, reflecting the many weeks of discussion and with the input of both the UK and Irish Governments, in accordance with the 3-stranded approach.
Key issues covered included the finances of the Stormont Executive, reform of the devolved institutions, and the legacy issues of flags, parading and the past.
Taking each in turn, the Agreement sets a path for the Executive to put its finances on a sustainable footing for the future, averting the impending budget crisis which was threatening the stability and credibility of the devolved institutions.
This includes the implementation of welfare reform, with certain agreed adaptations paid for out of the Northern Ireland block grant, alongside efficiency measures and reforms to the public sector.
Measures to improve the way the devolved institutions work include provision for an official opposition; reduction in the number of government departments; and cutting the number of MLAs by 2021.
A Commission on Flags, Identity and Culture is to be established by June.
And based on the party leader discussions in the summer, proposals are set out by the Government which open the way for a devolved system of adjudicating parades to replace the Parades Commission.
Crucially, the Agreement also sets out broad ranging new structures to deal with the legacy of Northern Ireland’s past.
These include an Oral History Archive; a new Historical Investigations Unit to look at the deaths that occurred as a result of the Troubles; and an Independent Commission for Information Retrieval established by the UK and Irish Governments.
All of these bodies are required to operate in a balanced, proportionate, transparent and accountable way, preventing any group or strand of opinion from being able to subvert the process or re-write history.
The new system puts the needs of victims and survivors centre stage and has reconciliation as a key goal.
Consensus on how to deal with Northern Ireland’s past has eluded successive governments since the Belfast Agreement was signed 17 years ago, so the significance of the progress which has been achieved should not be underestimated.
The Government has agreed to contribute £150m over 5 years to help fund the structures dealing with the past, meaning that the PSNI can devote their efforts to policing the present rather than the past.
This forms part of a wider package of significant financial support from the government amounting to £2 billion of additional spending power.
That is made up of a combination of new funding and important flexibilities in relation to existing resources and it is targeted at Northern Ireland’s specific circumstances: the legacy of its past; its divided society; and its overdependence on the public sector.
Last, but certainly not least, the Agreement paves the way for legislation to devolve the power to set the rate of Corporation Tax for Northern Ireland.
A Bill will be presented to the House shortly for first reading.
If the Stormont parties press ahead on agreeing their final budget and on delivering welfare reform legislation, the Government will use all its best endeavours to get the legislation on to the statute book before dissolution.
The parties in Northern Ireland believe that corporation tax devolution can help them to rebalance the economy and attract investment because of Northern Ireland’s unique position of having a land border with the Republic of Ireland.
I welcome that fact that it is this Government which is delivering this momentous and transformative change, subject to the important conditions contained in the Agreement.
And I call on the Opposition today to commit to supporting the Bill as a key part of the Stormont House Agreement.
The Agreement involves compromise on all sides, and it has been widely welcomed.
First Minister Peter Robinson hailed it as “a monumental step forward.”
Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness described it as “a remarkable achievement” and “a fresh start we need to seize with both hands.”
President Obama said that Northern Ireland’s political leaders have shown that “there is a way to succeed for the benefit of all” and Secretary of State Kerry called their actions “statesmanship, pure and simple”.
But Mr Speaker, securing an Agreement is not the end point, far from it.
There is much work ahead on implementation, for the Executive, for the UK Government and, where appropriate, the Irish Government.
But I give this assurance, if the parties in the Executive press ahead on this, the Government will implement our side of the Agreement and we will do it faithfully and fairly.
There are no side deals.
In closing I pay tribute to Minister Charlie Flanagan, for his crucially important contribution to the process.
I’d like to thank the US Administration, and in particular Secretary Kerry’s special representative, Gary Hart, for their support. And all of the officials at the Northern Ireland Office who worked so hard on this process.
But above all I would like to record my appreciation for leadership provided by the 5 Northern Ireland Executive parties.
Mr Speaker, in the Government’s view the Stormont House Agreement represents a genuine and significant step forward for Northern Ireland, offering the prospect of real progress on some of the most intractable issues faced there, problems that have defied multiple attempts to resolve them over the years.
This Agreement gives the 5 parties in the devolved Executive the chance to refocus and work together with renewed confidence for a more prosperous, more stable, more united and more secure future for the people of Northern Ireland.
I urge them all to seize the opportunities that it presents to build a brighter future for Northern Ireland and I commend this Agreement to the House.