Theresa Villiers is Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and MP for Chipping Barnet.
Last December, eleven weeks of cross party talks at Stormont led to the publication of the Stormont House Agreement (SHA). This was a landmark agreement and sought to tackle some of the most difficult challenges facing Northern Ireland, including the finances of the devolved executive and welfare reform, flags, parading, and the legacy of the past. But as that great Peace Process veteran, Senator George Mitchell, reminded me in February, reaching an agreement is about 20 per cent of the job; implementation is the other 80 per cent.
So it proved. What began as a disagreement over the details of implementing the welfare reform aspects of the SHA, developed into a full blown crisis. By July we were facing a deadlock which, left unresolved, would have made early Assembly elections more and more likely, with an ever increasing risk that collapse of devolution would follow. In August, the gravity of the situation intensified when the suspected involvement of members of the Provisional IRA in a murder in east Belfast raised the spectre of paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland and its malign impact on society.
Against this very difficult background, we convened a fresh round of talks with the five largest Northern Ireland parties and the Irish Government (applying the well-established three-stranded approach in relation to the involvement of the Irish Government). They began in September and ran for ten weeks. Against expectations and against the odds, this second round of talks also concluded successfully with the publication of an agreement on 17 November.
Learning from experience with the SHA, action was taken to commence the implementation of this new Fresh Start Agreement as swiftly as possible. It was endorsed by the Northern Ireland Executive on the same day it was finalised. The following day, the Assembly passed a Legislative Consent Motion asking Westminster to legislate to implement the Government’s 2012 and 2015 welfare reforms and the Northern Ireland (Welfare Reform) Act passed all its Parliamentary stages the following week.
So a bitter four year dispute over welfare reform in Northern Ireland has finally been settled, with the two largest parties in the Executive, DUP and Sinn Fein, agreeing to the implementation of the Government’s 2012 and 2015 reforms, with a top-up payments funded from the NI block grant. This means that the financial package offered by the Government under the SHA can now be released, as well as further funding to support a surge in police activity against paramilitary groups. New funding is also being provided for efforts to see an end to the interface barriers (or so-called ‘peace walls’) which are such a visible reminder of the continuing divisions in Northern Ireland society.
The new agreement paves the way for completion of the devolution of corporation tax powers to the Northern Ireland Executive. This is something which could have a genuinely transformative effect in rebalancing the Northern Ireland economy and reducing its dependence on the public sector.
The SHA measures to address issues around flags and parades will now go ahead, as will reforms to the Executive and Assembly to make devolution work better. These include reducing the size of the Assembly and the number of ministers, reform to the use of the petition of concern (which is used to veto legislation), and provision for an official opposition, something which Conservatives have long supported.
On paramilitary activity, the Fresh Start agreement takes Northern Ireland’s leaders further than ever before. It strongly reaffirms commitments to upholding the rule of law and makes it absolutely clear that in no circumstances will paramilitary activity be tolerated. The Ministerial Pledge of Office and the declaration made by Assembly Members will be strengthened to reflect this. New shared obligations are to be taken on by Executive Ministers to work together towards ridding society of all paramilitary groups and actively challenging paramilitary activity in all its forms.
Unfortunately it did not prove possible to reach agreement on legislation to establish new bodies proposed in the SHA for dealing with the legacy of the past. We are now reflecting on how we can take this forward to build the broader consensus needed for legislation to go ahead. I met the Northern Ireland Victims’ Commissioner to discuss this crucial issue last week.
I appreciate that some have concerns expressed about the new structures proposed. So let me reiterate that these bodies will not be one-sided – they will be under a legal obligation to be fair, balanced, impartial and crucially proportionate, in recognition of the fact that 90 per cent of killings during the troubles were carried out by terrorists. We will not accept any process that allows for a re-write of history. There will be no amnesties, something that will be written into legislation. In addition, we will never accept any suggestion of equivalence between police officers and the paramilitary groupings which waged a 30 year campaign of terror in Northern Ireland.
In the Government’s view, the agreement reached just under three weeks ago does genuinely offer a fresh start for Northern Ireland’s devolved institutions. Of course it is not perfect; no agreement ever is. The alternative, however, was an almost inexorable slide towards collapse of devolution and direct rule. After all that has been achieved in Northern Ireland over recent years, a return to direct rule from Westminster would have been a severe setback. What we agreed on 17 November offers the best chance to build a brighter, more secure future for everyone in Northern Ireland.