Belfast Telegraph

Julian Smith: Getting Assembly back and creating thriving Northern Ireland my top priorities

Mr Smith meets players at Ballymena Showgrounds before the SuperCup NI game between Co Antrim and NC Elite
Mr Smith meets players at Ballymena Showgrounds before the SuperCup NI game between Co Antrim and NC Elite
Secretary of State Julian Smith and Minister of State Nick Hurd listen to young people during a visit to Cooperation Ireland in Belfast yesterday

By Julian Smith

Our new Prime Minister will make his first official visit to Northern Ireland today, a real indication of how important this part of the United Kingdom is to this Government.

I am pleased that within the first week of his premiership, the Prime Minister sees coming to Northern Ireland as one of his foremost engagements and I am equally delighted to be welcoming the Prime Minister to Belfast as Secretary of State.

This Government is fully committed to the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement, so our first priority in Northern Ireland is the restoration of the power-sharing Executive and the other institutions. It has been far too long since MLAs have taken their seats in the Assembly, and I am determined to renew the pace and vigour in the talks process.

During his visit, the Prime Minister will meet with all of the main local political parties to deliver that message in person. The people of Northern Ireland deserve better. It is of critical importance that new momentum is now introduced to the ongoing talks process, and that all of the parties work collectively to reach agreement.

The outstanding issues are difficult but are not insurmountable. I have detected a willingness from the parties to come to reach an accommodation, and I have been pleased with the open and frank manner in which they have approached their meetings with me.

The Prime Minister will demonstrate our shared commitment to restore devolution in his meetings today and, as Secretary of State, I will be doing my utmost to ensure the ongoing negotiations reach a successful and timely outcome. Agreement can only come from the parties, however. This talks process has being running for 14 weeks and, as we face into the Autumn, the leaders of Northern Ireland's parties owe it to the public to reach an agreement quickly.

Simultaneously, I am also acutely aware of the challenges facing Northern Ireland as the United Kingdom prepares to leave the European Union.

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In my first week as Secretary of State, I have already met, and will continue to meet with, businesses and individuals across NI who will be affected not just by the challenges, but also the many opportunities, as we leave the EU as promised on October 31.

I am of course aware that many businesses in Northern Ireland supported the withdrawal agreement and have raised concerns about leaving without a deal. The Prime Minister and I have pledged to do everything in our power to reach a deal with the EU that will pass through Parliament in Westminster.

In case it proves impossible to agree with the EU something that meets the conditions the Prime Minister has set out, we are doing everything we can to ensure the UK is prepared to leave without a deal on October 31 with minimum disruption, and it will be a priority for me to make sure that the best possible plans are in place for the particular needs of Northern Ireland.

The durability and success of the local economy is a prerequisite for any government, so I was delighted by the Prime Minister's timely announcement of the expansion of growth deals across the UK, backed by £300 million of new funding.

I am looking forward to working with our partners locally on how we make the most of this, building on the success we have had agreeing a city deal for Belfast, and the progress we have made on a deal for Derry-Londonderry.

I have already seen for myself the famous hospitality here during my first visit to Derry-Londonderry last week. That visit also opened my eyes to the great potential all across Northern Ireland, exemplified by the booming tourism industry.

Yesterday, along with my colleague and Minister of State Nick Hurd, we visited Co-operation Ireland's Belfast offices, learning more about its peace-building work, particularly within marginalised communities. There, we met with young people and heard directly from them about their aspirations for the future.

Later, I attended the long-established SuperCupNI youth football tournament in Ballymena. This international sporting event, just like the recent spectacular Open golf tournament in Portrush, showcases the very best of Northern Ireland to a wider audience, bringing unrealised tourism and economic benefits.

I want to ensure Northern Ireland continues to thrive and intend to work alongside the PM to build a prosperous, secure Northern Ireland for everyone.

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