Today in the Dail I questioned the Minister for Foreign Affairs about the possible re-imposition of direct rule in Northern Ireland.
The office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister remain vacant and due to political posturing a the extremes in Stormont want to re-run the election held in February. Below is the transcript of the debate:
Deputy Joan Burton:
I ask the Minister if he has had discussions with the Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Mr. Brokenshire, about the possibility of the reintroduction of direct rule in Northern Ireland.
Minister Charlie Flanagan:
I propose to take Questions Nos. 35 and 47 together.
I am in regular and direct contact with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland as part of the ongoing discussions to support the political parties in reaching an agreement on the formation of a new Executive in Northern Ireland. Both Governments are agreed on the imperative of continued devolved power sharing Government for Northern Ireland, which is at the core of the political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.
The Secretary of State confirmed in his statement to the House of Commons on 28 March that the British Government does not want to see a return to direct rule in Northern Ireland. I welcome this confirmation and I reiterate today in this House, as I have to the Secretary of State, that this Government does not support the suspension of the institutions and the return of direct rule in Northern Ireland. It is important to note that there is no statutory provision at Westminster for the suspension of the institutions, following its removal, which at the time was supported by the Irish Government, as part of the St. Andrews Agreement, more than ten years ago. The political process in Northern Ireland is founded on the institutions, principles, procedures and practices of the Good Friday Agreement, including the Assembly and the Executive, and it is imperative that both Governments and all the parties work in support of this framework.
In this context I am representing the Government in the intensive talks in Belfast. These talks have two objectives. First, to allow the political parties to reach an agreement on the formation of a new Executive. Second, to address the implementation of the outstanding issues from previous agreements. These discussions are structured around a shared approach put forward by both Governments following on from the talks last month where it did not prove possible for the political parties in Northern Ireland to reach agreement on the setting up of a power-sharing Executive before the statutory deadline of 27 March.
Overall, encouraging progress is being made in this renewed phase but I am under no illusions about the challenge of resolving the core issues that remain outstanding. Serious issues remain to be resolved after the Easter holidays, including those which were to the fore before the collapse of the last Executive and during the election campaign. However, with resolve and determination from all the parties involved in the process, and with the support and encouragement of the two Governments, I believe a successful outcome is possible.
As part of my engagement with the Secretary of State and with each of the parties in the discussions in recent weeks, I have strongly emphasised the critical importance of forming a new Executive so that Northern Ireland’s interests can be effectively represented as part of the process of the EU-UK negotiations which are about to commence. I very much hope that the necessary agreement between the parties will be reached on formation of the Executive as soon as possible so that it can directly represent the interests of the people of Northern Ireland in these negotiations which are of major significance.
As the formal talks pause briefly for Easter, I encourage everyone to maintain informal contacts and to reflect on what can be achieved if, in the weeks ahead, an Executive is established that operates effectively and sustainably. I am convinced that all parties are willing to play their part in reaching such a sustainable agreement, which will provide for a stable power-sharing Government in Northern Ireland underpinned by the principles of the Good Friday Agreement.
The Irish Government as a co-guarantor of that Agreement and the peace process will continue to play its part in facilitating these ongoing talks, working with the British Government and encouraging all parties to reach agreement on the formation of a new Executive that is demonstrably in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland.
Deputy Joan Burton:
I am very disappointed at the fact that Sinn Féin in particular appears to have called for another election. Does the Minister see any value in another election other than that there would be a certain amount of head counting? I believe that the issues which are outstanding are capable of resolution. This Friday, we will attend the anniversary of the Belfast Agreement. Most commentators are saying that there appears to be relatively little energy or appetite on the part of either of the two major parties, the Democratic Unionist Party but particularly Sinn Féin, to make the institutions work, a rather fatalistic approach that it is okay to return to direct rule but that the preference is for further elections. I have no real idea other than head counting what another election might produce. Has the Minister spoken to each of the parties about that? Does he have a sense of what they believe a further election might achieve? Talking to ordinary people from the North who are not particularly political I found that they are completely confused. When we see how life has transformed in the North in terms of peace and security, historically, it seems to be an enormous mistake to run the risk of losing all the progress that has been made.
Minister for Foreign Affairs Charlie Flanagan:
I share Deputy Burton’s concern. I agree with much of what she said and I wish to assure her and other Deputies that, as part of my engagement with the Secretary of State and with each of the parties in the matter of the discussions over recent weeks, I will continue to strongly emphasise the critical importance of forming a new Executive in Northern Ireland so that the interests of the people of Northern Ireland can be effectively represented.