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Finding consensus on the way forward in dealing with the past is a key priority, by Secretary of State for Northern Ireland James Brokenshire

Published 17/11/2016

Northern Ireland Secretary of State James Brokenshire
Northern Ireland Secretary of State James Brokenshire

One year ago today the UK Government, the Northern Ireland Executive parties and the Irish Government completed 10 weeks of intensive talks at Stormont House.

Their aim was the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement, as well as how to deal with the legacy of paramilitarism. The result was the Fresh Start Agreement.

While the 2014 Stormont House Agreement had been a major step forward by the summer of 2015 there was political deadlock within the Northern Ireland Executive, particularly around finance and welfare.

The sense of crisis deepened with two murders once again raising the spectre of paramilitarism in Northern Ireland society.

As a result of the Fresh Start Agreement, the Assembly asked Westminster to legislate on welfare reform, while the Executive's finances were put on a more sustainable footing. The collapse of devolution and a return to direct rule, both of which looked increasing likely in autumn of 2015, were avoided. Today the political institutions look more stable than for some years.

There has been significant progress in the past year, too, in combating paramilitarism. Just a month after Fresh Start new measures were agreed to enhance law enforcement aimed at tackling cross-border organised crime linked to paramilitarism. A Joint Agency Task Force was established to take this forward.

The same month a three-person panel was appointed by the Executive with the task of recommending a strategy to disband paramilitary groups. Their report was published in June, and the Executive has now published an action plan based on it. There's also now an obligation on Assembly Members to pledge to tackle organised crime and paramilitary activity.

The UK Government has also signed a treaty with the Irish Government to establish an Independent Reporting Commission. This is an international body established to promote progress towards ending paramilitary activity. It is due to be in place by the end of the year.

Fresh Start also means there is greater transparency in the process of setting the Northern Ireland Executive's budget. An Independent Fiscal Council will further increase the transparency of the public finances in Northern Ireland. The Government remains committed to the devolution of corporation tax powers in Northern Ireland in accordance with the conditions set out in the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements. The number of Executive departments was also reduced, from 12 to nine, and the number of MLAs will be reduced at the next Assembly election.

We've also seen the release of the first tranche of half-a-billion pounds funding for shared and integrated education projects.

There is, of course, still much work to be done. That is why since becoming Secretary of State for Northern Ireland I have made finding consensus on the way forward in dealing with Northern Ireland's past a key priority.

The Government is committed to the implementation of the legacy bodies set out in the Stormont House Agreement.

I have had numerous meetings with victims' groups and Northern Ireland's political parties to try and build the necessary consensus to take this forward. I believe this issue would benefit from a more public phase, too, and I am determined to make progress on this vital issue.

Political stability is vital in Northern Ireland. I know it is a great place to live, to work, to visit, to invest and do business, in no small part thanks to the firm foundations of Fresh Start and the Stormont House Agreement before it. They are a solid platform as we continue to build a Northern Ireland that works for everyone.

Belfast Telegraph

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