Karen Bradley: Northern Ireland politicians must work across divides to build a future that works for all
I have no doubt that people across Northern Ireland want to see their elected politicians back to work at Stormont. That is a view that I have heard constantly since being appointed Secretary of State just over a year ago.
As we are all acutely aware, it has now been two years since there has been a functioning devolved government in Northern Ireland. This is a source of great regret to me and I am doing everything possible to see a restored Executive at the earliest opportunity.
Northern Ireland has made huge strides forward in recent years and come so far.
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Since 2010 unemployment has fallen to near record lows; employment is at near record highs. There are now over 900 international companies investing in Northern Ireland. The number of tourists has nearly doubled. I believe strongly that a restored Executive, working closely with the UK Government, would help unlock even more of the huge potential that Northern Ireland has to offer.
The people of Northern Ireland quite rightly expect the politicians who represent them to come together and build a future where politics works, the economy grows and society is more united.
A great symbol of working together and uniting society is the success of the PEACE programme. This supports peace and reconciliation and helps promote economic and social progress in Northern Ireland and the border region of Ireland. I am a strong believer in the mutual benefits that peace, stability and economic prosperity bring and I am delighted that the UK Government has committed up to £300m of funding for the successor to this programme, PEACE Plus.
This funding flows from our joint commitment within the EU in the Withdrawal Agreement to maintain funding for vital work on reconciliation and a shared future for Northern Ireland until at least 2027. It is a clear example of the certainty that the Withdrawal Agreement provides to the people of Northern Ireland and why it should be supported.
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Youth Action NI in Belfast is one organisation which benefits from PEACE funding to support their fantastic work, such as the Youth Network for Peace. This is a youth-led regional project involving 10,000 young people in a range of participative social action projects on a cross-community and cross-border basis.
This is just one real-life example of the benefits of politicians working together to help deliver a bright future for the people of Northern Ireland.
The great task at hand now is to ensure an orderly exit from the European Union that hon ours the commitments we have given to people in Northern Ireland and ensures continued stability. I remain convinced that the deal on the table is the best and only way to avoid leaving with no deal, which would be particularly difficult for the people and businesses of Northern Ireland.
I know that a lot of people in Northern Ireland share this view. Only this week I was joined in Westminster by a number of businesses and civil society leaders, all of whom wanted to discuss with MPs from all parties why this deal is in the interests of Northern Ireland. At the same time, there are real concerns about Northern Ireland's relationship with the rest of the UK in the unlikely event that we enter the backstop.
As this Government has said repeatedly, we will never be neutral on the Union. We believe that the best and brightest future for Northern Ireland is within a stronger UK - while always upholding the rights and aspirations of the whole community.
My hope is that politicians will take inspiration from the cross-community projects delivered through successive PEACE programmes and work across divides to help build a future that truly works for everyone in Northern Ireland.
Karen Bradley is Secretary of State for Northern Ireland