To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he will report on his recent meeting with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr James Brokenshire; and if he will make a statement on the matter.
- Darragh O'Brien.
I am in regular contact with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire. We held a bilateral meeting most recently in Dublin on 14 February.
On Brexit, I reminded the Secretary of State of the particular impact on Northern Ireland of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union and of the entirely unique circumstances that pertain to Northern Ireland, given the political and constitutional settlement of the Good Friday Agreement, which is the foundation of the peace process. I emphasised the Government’s priority to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement is not in any way disturbed by the UK’s exit from the European Union and of course to maintain the open border on the island and the Common Travel Area. I underlined that the hard-won peace on the island must be protected, by both Governments as co-Guarantors of the Agreement.
In relation to the question on a special status for Northern Ireland, I outlined to the Secretary of State, that the Government’s focus in relation to Northern Ireland is the substantive outcome on each of the key issues, rather than the label ascribed to the overall package. I emphasised that the Government will maintain its focus on pursuit of specific, effective, and realisable measures that address each of the issues of concern under Brexit.
In relation to the border, I noted that while Prime Minister May’s commitment to work to retain an open border on the island is welcome, if this was to be achieved, significant flexibility would need to be shown by the British Government once the EU-UK negotiations begin. I also outlined to the Secretary of State the discussions that had taken place the previous day at the All-Island Civic Dialogue on Human Rights under the Good Friday Agreement.
On the current political situation in Northern Ireland, the Secretary of State and I shared the view that it was of the utmost importance that the conditions would be in place for a power sharing Executive to be established as soon as possible following the Assembly election next month. I emphasised to the Secretary of State that as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, both Governments had a role to play in supporting the effective operation of the devolved institutions, and in upholding both the letter and the spirit of the Agreement as a whole.
I also discussed with the Secretary of State last week the imperative of dealing with the range of issues related to the legacy of the Troubles, in a way that met the needs and expectations of victims and survivors, and of wider society, through the comprehensive legacy framework provided for under the Stormont House Agreement. I reiterated my determination that this be established at the earliest opportunity.
Regarding engagement with the political parties in Northern Ireland, I have in recent months been in regular contact with the leaders of each of the main parties as the crisis in the Executive has deepened. I met last month with the DUP leader Arlene Foster, and a Sinn Féin delegation led by Martin McGuinness and spoke by phone with the leaders of the SDLP, UUP and Alliance Party. I also had the chance to hear from and engage with members of Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Alliance Party at last week’s Civic Dialogue Plenary meeting in Dublin Castle.
The Taoiseach has also been actively engaged and was in direct contact with the British Prime Minister, as well as with the leaders of both the DUP and Sinn Féin.
I have agreed with the Secretary of State that both Governments should continue to work closely together in the weeks to come, looking ahead to the post-election period, when a new power-sharing Executive will need to be formed. We have also urged the parties to conduct their election campaigns in calm and respectful terms, conscious that polarising rhetoric and frayed relationships will damage the prospects of forming an Executive after the votes have been counted.
We must all be mindful that effective devolved Government, underpinned by a genuine spirit of partnership, is what the people of Northern Ireland voted for in 1998 and what they expect their politicians to deliver. After the election, it will therefore fall to the parties to form a power-sharing Executive and this will require the parties to find a way forward on issues which contributed to the calling of the election. The Government is of course always ready to support and assist the parties in any way we can. Our commitment as a co-guarantor of the Agreement is a constant one – in good times and bad.