Statement by Minister Dermot Ahern to Dáil Éireann
The confirmation by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning on Monday that the IRA has put all its weapons beyond use has been acknowledged in this House as a momentous development.
This act of decommissioning took place in the context of the IRA statement of 28 July last, committing it to use exclusively peaceful means from now onwards.
We have always said that decommissioning had to be complete and credible. On Monday we had a comprehensive and unambiguous statement from General De Chastelain and his team that “the totality of the IRA's arsenal” has been decommissioned.
We had a statement from two fair-minded and independent clergymen, highly respected in their own communities and beyond who witnessed every stage of the process and confirmed that they were “certain, utterly certain, about the exactitude of this report”. Their participation in the process should provide assurance to both communities that IRA decommissioning has taken place in a comprehensive and irreversible manner.
In short, we have crossed an historic threshold. Throughout the history of the peoples of this island, violence and politics have mingled. Only now can we believe they have truly parted company.
The decommissioning of Provisional weaponry is a triumph for constitutional Republicanism.
A triumph for those of us whose main personal, and political, goal is the unity of Ireland and her people.
Who find it simply wrong that our neighbours in places like Faughert and Drumintee should live in separate States.
Whose towns and communities have suffered firsthand from the partition of our Island.
And who have seen the Provisional campaign bolster that partition and drive unity further and further into the future.
The Peace Process was built on our conviction that Irish unity could never be built on the hatred of ages.
It is built on our efforts to convert others to our democratic analysis and assessment of partition.
With decommissioning, the veracity of that analysis is clear.
The redundancy of Provisionalism is equally clear.
In the battle of ideas we have clearly won.
The question remains – why did over 3,000 people have to die to get us here?
While the decommissioning of IRA weapons marks a major step forward, it is not an end in itself. It is a means to an end. We should not lose sight of that.
Our democratic tradition, embodied and practiced in this chamber, is a strong one. We are elected to exercise responsibility on behalf of the communities we serve and we are directly accountable for the decisions we take. Our democratic institutions have been challenged by those who pursued their political objectives through violence and the gun. They have faced down that challenge and emerged stronger. We are right to take pride in this.
Our main objective is the consolidation of truly democratic institutions in Northern Ireland too. That means the restoration of devolved government with locally elected Ministers working in partnership for the benefit of all. We should not lose sight of that.
However, I know that in order to rebuild institutions, we must first rebuild confidence. The loss of confidence was too evident in some of the reaction to this week's developments.
Many will rightly need to take time to reflect on Monday's developments. They will look for assurance that the IRA is true to its commitment of 28th July to use exclusively peaceful means and to abandon all paramilitary and criminal activity. They will want to “check against delivery” on decommissioning and on the ending of all IRA paramilitary and criminal activity.
Monday's developments represent a promising start towards the rehabilitation of trust in the peace process. The reports of the International Monitoring Commission in October and again in January next year will be fundamental in building this confidence. I believe that the necessary elements can be in place by January.
Confidence in itself will not be enough. We will need more. We will need courageous political leadership – from both communities.
Unionism cannot and should not show any toleration of the street violence, sectarian attacks and intimidation of recent weeks.
I visited Antrim and Belfast last week to meet some of those directly affected by sectarian attacks and street violence this Summer. These people and many like them are under pressure as they have not been for many years past. I assured them of my own and the Government's commitment to challenge sectarianism at every opportunity.
Sectarianism eats away at the fabric of society. It strangles the economy. It inhibits investment, saps business confidence, and costs jobs. It traps people in a cycle of poverty and hopelessness. I have said before that the scenes of violence on the streets do great damage to the image of Northern Ireland abroad. If we are to see the new beginning for the people of Northern Ireland envisioned in the Good Friday Agreement, we need to tackle sectarianism once and for all.
Sinn Fein too must show courageous leadership in support of the new policing arrangements. This would be a critical and decisive step towards peace and political stability. No police force is perfect. However, the PSNI has clearly staked a claim to the trust of all communities. If it is held back, that is due in no small measure to want of support in the communities it seeks to serve. It has earned that support. A vacuum in policing is in nobody's interest. It is certainly not in the interest of the communities most affected by the violence we have seen in recent weeks.
We need an end too to loyalist paramilitary activity and a start to decommissioning loyalist arms. Both Governments have consistently said that there is no place for any illegally held weapons in the new society that is emerging in Northern Ireland. It is time now for loyalist groups to reengage with the IICD.
We are conscious of the challenges that still remain to be resolved. But we are conscious too of the real opportunity to fulfil the promise of the Good Friday Agreement. The Government is determined to seize that opportunity.
We have been lucky in our friends.
From the earliest days of the peace process, our efforts have been enriched by the talent, support, patience and encouragement of many remarkable people – from Tip O'Neill to George Mitchell; from Harry Holkeri to Cyril Ramaphosa. These and others have left their stamp on the process. All have played a role in bringing these events about.
I want to conclude by acknowledging a debt of gratitude in particular to John De Chastelain and his two colleagues. They have been generous with their time and unstinting in their professionalism. Though their work is not yet complete it already has produced remarkable results. We owe them a debt of gratitude.
28th September 2005