Since the Northern Ireland Assembly election on 2 March I have been engaged in talks with the political parties and the Irish Government, in accordance with the well-established three-stranded approach. These talks have had one clear purpose: to re-establish an inclusive, devolved Administration in line with the 1998 Belfast Agreement and its successors. Throughout this process the UK Government have played an active role in working with the parties and putting forward proposals to build consensus.
The first phase of talks, led by the parties, concluded without an agreement on 27 March. Following consultation with the parties and the Irish Government, I then invited the parties to a further phase of intensive roundtable talks to help resolve the key outstanding issues. The second phase of talks were paused shortly before Easter. All the parties were actively engaged and some further progress was made, including on the formation of an Executive and on legacy. There are, however, a defined number of outstanding issues where there is a lack of agreement between the parties particularly those surrounding culture and identity. Work also remains to be done to address issues of trust and confidence in Executive working. The Prime Minister has spoken to the leaders of the two main parties and I have been keeping her updated throughout.
While recent discussions have not resolved these matters, they have helped to distil them and identify possible areas for consensus. The parties will now have a final opportunity to reach agreement, building on the discussions which have taken place over the past six weeks. On 2 March, the people of Northern Ireland voted clearly for devolved government. The parties mandated by that election still have a duty to provide the government for which they campaigned. Discussions between the parties, and the UK and Irish Governments, will continue, in accordance with the three-stranded approach. The prospect of a forthcoming UK general election does not change this approach.
It remains my intention to introduce legislation into Parliament to address immediate requirements. I have already indicated that I will legislate to set this year’s regional rate to address the urgent need for rates bills to be issued by councils. In addition, I believe it is also right to introduce provisions that would enable an Executive to be formed in early May should agreement be reached. To have this legislation in force in time, I will be requesting that its progress through Parliament be fast-tracked.