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Theresa Villiers: After our longest unbroken period of devolution for 45 years, politics here has rarely been more stable

By Theresa Villiers

Published 05/04/2016

Secretary of State Theresa Villiers
Secretary of State Theresa Villiers

When a new Assembly gathers after the elections on May 5, it will be Stormont's third term since devolution was restored in 2007. Northern Ireland has now had its longest period of unbroken devolved government since the old Stormont Parliament was dissolved in 1972.

There have certainly been difficult times over those nine years. Last summer the impasse over the Executive's budget and welfare reform seemed intractable. Political relationships were increasingly strained. Then two brutal murders raised the spectre of continuing paramilitary activity and its malign influence on society.

As we entered the autumn there was a real danger of early Assembly elections and potentially the collapse of Stormont and a return to direct rule from Westminster. After everything that has been achieved here, that would have been a severe setback for Northern Ireland.

So in September we acted decisively in convening a fresh round of cross-party talks. Ten weeks later on November 17, following hundreds of meetings, countless hours of negotiations, we reached the Fresh Start Agreement.

To a significant extent our two main objectives - unblocking progress on implementation of the Stormont House Agreement and agreement on measures to tackle paramilitary activity - were fulfilled. The agreement was also underpinned by around half a billion pounds of extra spending power for the Executive on top of the £2bn in the Stormont House Agreement. Implementation is going well. Welfare reform legislation was passed in Westminster within days of the Agreement being reached. A Bill that establishes the new Independent Reporting Commission on paramilitary activity should complete its passage shortly.

Along with the Executive and the Irish government we have set up a Joint Agency Task Force to assist efforts to tackle organised crime. The Executive has been pressing ahead with implementation, for example by passing legislation to cut the number of departments and to reduce the number of MLAs.

The commission on flags and identity is being established. The panel to advise on a strategy for ending paramilitary activity is in place and working hard. We are also much closer now to the final stage of devolution of corporation tax powers.

It is regrettable that the talks were unable to establish the necessary consensus to legislate to set up new bodies to deal with the legacy of the past. The UK Government remains committed to doing this and we have a manifesto pledge to deliver them.

This remains a high priority for me, not least because I believe that these new institutions will create better outcomes for victims and survivors. This should be one of the first issues the new Executive considers.

In the weeks and years ahead we will continue to face sensitive commemorations. The way the Irish government handled the centenary of the Easter rising showed that it is possible to deal with difficult and contested issues in ways that are inclusive and designed to promote reconciliation rather than division. I commend them for that.

Sadly, the appalling murder of Adrian Ismay last month reminded us of the grim threat we continue to face from terrorists. This Government will always give its fullest support to those who work to keep us safe and secure. Terrorism will never succeed. The future of Northern Ireland will only ever be decided by democracy and consent, not by violence.

Overall, as a result of the Stormont House and Fresh Start Agreements, I believe that politics in Northern Ireland is on a more stable footing than it has been for some time.

That should give the new Executive the opportunity to make real progress on their priority issues, such as health, schools and the economy without being held back by so many protracted disputes and lengthy political negotiations.

For our part the UK Government will continue with our long-term economic plan that has helped see 51,000 more people in work in Northern Ireland than in 2010 and this year will see the UK grow faster than any major advanced economy.

We will work with the whole community and the new Executive to deliver our manifesto commitments and build a brighter, more secure future for everyone in Northern Ireland.

Belfast Telegraph

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