Karen Bradley: Bridging gap between parties will be hard, but I believe it can be done
It is both a great honour and a huge responsibility to be Secretary of State for Northern Ireland at this time.
The Belfast Agreement was a landmark in the history of Northern Ireland and I feel particularly honoured to be part of celebrating its 20th anniversary.
It helped to bring an end to decades of terrorist violence and misery. It offered the hope of a new beginning - a chance to put past divisions behind us and build a stronger and brighter future for everyone.
So much has been achieved since 1998. Northern Ireland has become a more stable, peaceful and settled place. The economy has grown stronger. The security situation has been transformed.
Northern Ireland is a hugely popular tourist destination, recognised worldwide for its beauty and ability to stage major international events, such as The Open, which is coming again to Royal Portrush in 2019. An inclusive power-sharing devolved government was at the heart of the Belfast Agreement in 1998, and that is what the UK Government remains steadfastly determined to restore.
Without it, none of the other institutions set up by the Agreement can function in the ways that were intended. And neither can the day-to-day running of Northern Ireland.
This is why today we will begin a new round of cross-party talks aimed at restoring a power-sharing government.
I will work closely with the main parties here in Northern Ireland and alongside the Irish Government, respecting the well-established three-stranded approach to Northern Ireland affairs. I believe that all of us are committed to working intensively to find a way through the current blockage.
Much progress has been made between the parties to date, and I am clear that we cannot allow that progress to go to waste. Bridging the remaining gap between the parties will require effort, focus and leadership. I am determined to do everything that I can to support these talks, but it is the parties who must ultimately come to the table to agree a deal which restores a strong devolved government to Northern Ireland.
If the parties approach these talks with the same spirit and determination that they have shown in discussions with me this week, then I believe that we can achieve a successful outcome.
Time, though, is not on our side. Last November the UK Government had to intervene to set a budget for the current financial year.
And it will not be long before decisions have to be taken about the budget for next year. I do not want to have to take those decisions. I want them to be taken by local ministers representing local interests and answerable to the Assembly.
The UK Government is clear that it is only a power-sharing Executive and all the institutions established under the Belfast Agreement which serve the interests of Northern Ireland. But we are also clear the UK Government has a responsibility to ensure the delivery of public services on which people rely. We must and we will do whatever is necessary to provide political certainty and good governance in the interests of the whole community.
I want to see the devolved institutions back up and running. I want to see local ministers working for local interests - delivering the shared society that we all want to see; securing a stronger economy with more investment and more jobs; addressing the legacy of the past, and ensuring Northern Ireland's voice is heard as the UK leaves the EU. Above all, I want to build a Northern Ireland that's fit for the future.
I believe this is what the people of Northern Ireland want and I believe this is what we can achieve, realising the hopes and aspirations of those who made that historic Agreement 20 years ago.