As Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, my overarching objective is a more secure, stable and prosperous Northern Ireland. Having a fully functioning and effective Executive, delivering for all the people of Northern Ireland is critical to meeting this objective.
Northern Ireland is currently in the midst of a period of political uncertainty. At this time there is no devolved government in place and there has not been one for 10 months. This is not what the people of Northern Ireland voted for last March. They want devolved government in place and expect their elected representatives to make decisions to deliver effective public services for all parts of the community. Moreover, they deserve to have a functioning Government and locally elected voices representing them on key issues, including Brexit.
Over the past weeks and months the Prime Minister and I have sought, working with the Irish Government in accordance with the three stranded approach, to bring the parties together to work towards an agreement.
The DUP and Sinn Féin are seeking to find agreement on the issues between them. Those remaining are small in number but highly difficult and sensitive—notably in relation to language and culture.
The outlook for an imminent resolution is not positive. Time is running out. And without an agreement, we are on a glide path to increasing intervention by the UK Government.
The Northern Ireland civil service has dealt with the lack of an Executive with the utmost professionalism to date—including in the face of Storm Ophelia. But by virtue of the legal spending limits imposed in the absence of formal budget, public services cannot be sustained without further legislation for much longer. Indeed the limits set out by the Northern Ireland Act 1998 are such that it is essential for budget legislation to be in place by no later than the end of November. Working from that deadline, the Northern Ireland civil service has assessed that it would still be possible, with political agreement among the parties in the Assembly, for an Executive formed in the week commencing 6 November to take forward its own budget.
Consequently, the last week I could introduce Executive formation legislation in Parliament for an Executive to take forward its own budget would be the week commencing 30 October.
I have made clear that I will only legislate in this way on the basis of a written agreement between the parties. If this is not forthcoming before 30 October, the only option remaining would be to legislate for a budget at Westminster. This is not a step I wish to take, nor one I would take lightly. My strong preference is for a restored Executive in Northern Ireland to take forward its own budget. Without an Executive, though, it would be grossly remiss for the UK Government not to step in and take action to ensure the continued funding of critical services in Northern Ireland.
I, the UK Government and the Irish Government want the parties to reach an agreement and restore devolved government in Northern Ireland. But my ultimate responsibility is to the people of Northern Ireland. The UK Government will do what is necessary to provide the stability required to ensure communities in Northern Ireland are not disadvantaged by the continued absence of devolved government.
Next year will be the 20th anniversary of the Belfast agreement. It behoves us all to do what we can to ensure that that historic date is not marked by an increasingly hands-on UK Government, but instead by a functioning Northern Ireland Executive.
This remains my overriding priority.