Washington 2016 speech
The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland has delivered a speech at the HM ambassador's residence in Washington
It’s a great pleasure for me to be back here in Washington and to participate in my fourth St Patrick’s celebrations since becoming Secretary of State in 2012.
And on behalf of Her Majesty’s Government I’d like to wish you all a very happy St Patrick’s Day tomorrow.
I’m delighted to be addressing you in happier political circumstances for Northern Ireland than I was this time last year.
When I spoke here to this reception twelve months ago, the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement was stalling.
Matters deteriorated over the summer.
The impasse over the Northern Ireland Executive’s budget and welfare reform seemed intractable.
This was putting increasing pressure on funding for public services and was also preventing other aspects of the Stormont House Agreement from going ahead.
Political relationships within the Executive became increasingly strained and by early autumn the position looked perilous.
There was a real danger of ministerial resignations and early elections.
That could have led to the collapse of the devolved institutions and a return to direct rule from Westminster.
I need hardly point out that after everything that’s been achieved what a serious setback this would have been … and I was determined to do everything I could to avoid it.
Around the same time two murders in Belfast raised the spectre of continuing paramilitary activity and its malign influence on society.
Against this difficult backdrop we acted decisively.
First I made it clear that if the budget issues remained unresolved, Westminster would be left with no option but to legislate for welfare reform, even without Assembly consent.
We could not stand by indefinitely and see the finances of the Executive become increasing dysfunctional with the corresponding damage to public services and political relationships that would have involved.
Secondly, we called a fresh round of cross party talks with the five main Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government.
Two objectives were set; implementation of the Stormont House Agreement and dealing with continuing paramilitary activity.
Those talks lasted ten week, with hundreds of meetings, countless hours of negotiations, and some late nights.
Finally, on 17 November we were able to announce the Fresh Start – Stormont Agreement and Implementation Plan.
And I’d like to thank all those who contributed to a successful outcome; including Senator Gary Hart and US Consul General in Belfast, Dan Lawton.
The Agreement makes real progress on both our two objectives, including taking the Northern Ireland political parties further before in their determination to see a complete end to paramilitary activity.
The Fresh Start Agreement was underpinned by up to half a billion pounds of extra spending power on top of the £2 billion in the Stormont House Agreement.
I’m happy to report that implementation is going well.
At the Executive’s request, primary legislation was passed at Westminster on welfare reform within 10 days of the Agreement being reached. And intensive work is underway on the package of secondary legislation needed to bring the changes into operation.
Last week, a further Bill went through the House of Commons on other key parts of the Agreement … including measures to tackle paramilitary activity.
The Executive is taking steps to cut the number of government departments and reduce the size of the Assembly.
The Commission on Flags and Identity is being established.
In December the UK and Irish Governments, along with the Executive, established a Joint Agency Task Force to tackle cross jurisdictional organised crime.
And of course the Agreement takes us a big step closer to the final stage of the devolution of corporation tax powers, with the Executive committed to a date and a rate of 12.5 per cent by 2018.
I’m delighted that it was the Conservatives who put this issue back on the agenda, convinced Whitehall that it was the right thing for Northern Ireland and legislated for it this time last year.
Northern Ireland is already a great place to invest and do business, as many US companies know to their advantage, but I believe that further reductions in corporation tax can provide a major boost to Northern Ireland economy.
And that in turn will help us tackle other long-term problems of economic and social disadvantage, underpinning our efforts to embed security and political stability through prosperity.
So the Fresh Start Agreement was a really positive step forward.
I’m very conscious, of course, that some important issues are not covered by the Agreement. In particular the new bodies designed to deal with the legacy of the past.
We came very close - the differences really were down to a few quite narrow areas - but in the end there just wasn’t quite enough consensus to bring forward the legislation.
But the UK Government remains determined to resolve the outstanding differences. Not least because we believe these new institutions would deliver better outcomes for victims and survivors of the Troubles than existing mechanisms.
So working with Northern Ireland’s leaders and with victims groups that is what we’ll continue striving to achieve.
Amongst the other challenges we face in the weeks and months to come are further commemorations in this decade of centenaries now well underway
Events such as the Somme and the Easter Rising will always have contrasting meaning and significance for different people, shaped in many cases by their community background.
But I believe that handled with good sense and mutual respect, these centenaries can be marked in a way which promotes greater shared understanding and reconciliation, rather than division.
I know that’s what the Irish Government are seeking to do as we get closer to the centenary of the Easter Rising next week, and I also welcome that same constructive approach from groups organising events north of the border as well.
We also know there’s more to do to build a genuinely shared society and I look forward to working with the Executive to deliver our respective commitments towards achieving that goal.
And we never forget the continuing lethal threat from terrorism, an illustration of which took place just days ago with the attack on prison officer Adrian Ismay.
I would like to take this opportunity to reiterate my sympathy and condolences to the family of Mr Ismay.
He had a long and distinguished record of public service in a role which is crucial to protecting the whole community.
His loss is a tragedy and I know that the attack will only strengthen the resolve of the people of Northern Ireland to ensure their future is only ever determined by peaceful and democratic means, and never by violence.
I pay tribute to the Chief Constable, George Hamilton, and the brave men and women of the PSNI.
Working with partners like An Garda Siochana - they do an incredible job in keeping people safe.
As they set out last week, they foil plots to murder by Dissident Republicans on a regular basis.
But despite this, I believe that the outlook for Northern Ireland looks bright.
As a result of the Fresh Start and Stormont House Agreements politics in Northern Ireland is now on a more stable footing than since before the flag protests of just over three years ago.
And the working relationship between the new First Minister, Arlene Foster and the deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, has begun very positively.
In May Northern Ireland will go to the polls giving us a third Assembly term since devolution was restored in 2007 … and the longest period of continuous devolved government since the 60s.
In this political climate, there is a real chance for the new Executive to make significant progress on their priority issues such as health and schools and the economy, without being held back by disputes over identity, culture and the past.
On the economy too things are looking up - with 51,000 more people in work than in 2010 and the unemployment register down by over 40 per cent since its peak.
And Northern Ireland will continue to benefit from the UK Government’s long term economic plan which in 2015 helped make the UK along with the United States, one of the two fastest growing major advanced economies.
At the end of the Fresh Start talks I reflected with my team that we’d spent five of the previous twelve months in political negotiations.
It certainly wasn’t an easy process, but I believe that collectively with the parties and the Irish Government we have managed to move things on, avoiding possible collapse of devolution and helping to make the institutions stronger and more stable.
I welcome your continuing support for our efforts and for your determination to see the political process in Northern Ireland work for the benefit of the whole community.
And for our part be assured that as a One Nation Government we will continue to play our full role in delivering our manifesto commitments to build a brighter, more secure future for everyone in Northern Ireland.