Select Committee on Foreign Affairs: Opening statement by Minister for Foreign Affairs, 2
In the area of human rights, Ireland is firmly committed to the principles of the UN Charter. Human rights concerns play a central role in our foreign policy and are recognised as such in the Programme for Government.
In this context, we attach considerable importance to the Commission on Human Rights, which is the primary forum within the United Nations for the discussion of human rights matters. Ireland became a member of the Commission on Human Rights for a three year period beginning on 1 January last. Ireland will play an active and constructive role in the Commission, with the aim of ensuring that human rights are effectively promoted and protected at the international level.
I know that the Committee continues to take a keen interest in developments relating to Northern Ireland and, I am sure, will share my frustration at the events of recent months, and my assessment that, nonetheless, the past year has seen a good deal of progress on a number of important fronts.
Until the suspension of the institutions last October, the Executive and its Ministers were working actively and making a positive difference to the lives of the people of Northern Ireland. Their contributions were also valued in developing the all-island dimension of the Good Friday Agreement.
The underlying aim of all the work undertaken by the two Governments and the parties in Northern Ireland since October has been to address the need for a complete commitment on all sides to the full and inclusive operation of all aspects of the Agreement, including an end to paramilitarism. After much detailed work, an audit of the areas where the full implementation of the Agreement had not yet been achieved was published last month as the Joint Declaration by the British and Irish Governments. The Joint Declaration requires a renewed and clear commitment to a definitive end to all paramilitary activity. It also requires an unequivocal commitment to the full and inclusive operation of all of the institutions of the Agreement.
I do not intend to repeat the reasons why the agreement which we sought was not arrived at. Suffice it to say that, as was made clear in the recent Dáil debate on Northern Ireland issues, there is a broad degree of consensus that the end to paramilitarism must be clear, as must the commitment from unionism to the full operation of the institutions.
It was in this context that the decision was taken by the British Government not to proceed with the Assembly Elections which had been scheduled for 29 May. As was made clear both in public and in private at the time, the Government disagreed with the British Government on the postponement of these elections.
However, in moving the process forward at this point, we are in full agreement with the British Government that those aspects of the Joint Declaration which are not contingent on acts of completion by others will now be taken forward. The majority of these relate to the basic building blocks of a just society – criminal justice, equality and human rights, and should be implemented forthwith.
In the medium term, all of the parties and the Governments should work together to create a credible context in which the elections will proceed in the Autumn. Elections cannot be a shifting scenario contingent on the achievement of some subjective condition. The Government believes that elections should take place no later than the Autumn, regardless of any other considerations.
While the North/South Ministerial Council cannot meet during suspension, the important work of the North/South Bodies continues. Interim arrangements have been put in place to ensure that British and Irish Ministers are able to take the required decisions to ensure that these Bodies are able to discharge their important public functions.
In parallel with the ongoing political process, work is continuing in communities and organisations on both sides of the border to further reconciliation between the two traditions on the island. The Department assists and advances this work by administering the operation of the Government's Reconciliation Fund.
My Department is also continuing to support the important work done by the International Fund for Ireland in addressing social and economic disadvantage in Northern Ireland and the border counties in the South.
At the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference last month, I re-stated the Irish Government's concern in regard to ongoing issues of collusion both in relation to matters arising from the Stevens Report and on the recent Stakeknife affair. On the latter we are very concerned about the substance, context and timing of these recent unauthorised reports.
On the six cases of public concern identified at Weston Park, Judge Cory is continuing his work and the Governments are committed to implementing his recommendations, including any recommendations for public inquiries.
The Good Friday Agreement is based on a vision of what society in Northern Ireland can be, based on the principles of partnership and equality. The vision of the Agreement can only be achieved with the constant and ongoing dedication of all sides to its principles and values. In its work the Government has been supported by all parties represented in the Oireachtas This is deeply appreciated.
Alongside the many policy challenges facing my Department, we are continuing to improve the services we provide directly to the public, through issuing passports and providing consular services to Irish citizens, and through issuing visas to non-nationals coming to Ireland. I would highlight in particular a major project that is underway to modernise the entire passport issuing system. This project will enable us to provide a more efficient and reliable service to the public and to improve the security of the Irish passport. It will also lead in time to the availability of some passport services across the Internet as part of the e-Government programme. The new Irish passport will be introduced next year.
We are also taking steps to improve the visa service we provide to non-nationals, in close cooperation with the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform. I would like to take this opportunity to thank the Members of both Houses who have expressed their appreciation to me for the consular assistance provided by officers of my Department at home and abroad. I can assure Members that my Department will continue to do everything in our power to help Irish citizens abroad who require special assistance.