Remarks by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Brian Cowen T.D., Dáil Eireann, 27 May 2003 (Part 2)
The entrenchment of equality, human rights and effective, fair and impartial policing and criminal justice systems is necessary, but not sufficient, for the achievement of a just society. These fundamental entitlements also need to be complemented by a political process that offers the right of democratic participation and the prospect of effective government.
Elections are the key interface between democratic politics and government. The recent postponement of Assembly elections not only closed off the route to the formation of the next devolved administration in Northern Ireland, it also drained a great deal of energy from the operation of day to day politics.
The restoration of that political momentum requires that there now be a credible prospect of the elections taking place as early as possible and, in any event, no later than the autumn. The holding of elections should not be contingent on some subjective judgement that a particular party or community now has sufficient trust and confidence to proceed with the democratic process. The elections should proceed as of right and, in a positive context, as part of the process of renewing that trust and confidence.
The holding of elections will not, of course, guarantee the formation of an inclusive administration. Unionist participation in government, like that of nationalists, is a voluntary engagement. Securing such unionist participation will be dependent on achieving an end to paramilitarism in a way which everyone accepts and believes.
Equally, the ability of the republican movement to undertake these final steps will be influenced by whether unionism is willing to embrace the agenda of change represented by the Good Friday Agreement. Both sides have fundamental choices to make but will only make them in the context of a vibrant political process – not within one which is stagnant and where the prospect of elections is a receding target.
In terms of these fundamental choices that the parties have to make, it seems to me that there are two clear realities that need to be confronted. The first reality, for unionism, must be that devolved government in Northern Ireland will only be available in the context of the kind of balanced political arrangements contained in the Agreement, including a Northern Ireland administration constructed on an inclusive basis. The alternative is the Good Friday Agreement without devolved institutions but with the inter-governmental dimension, as provided for in the Agreement. That is not the preferred option of any partner in the process.
The second reality, for nationalism, is that sustainable participation by republicans in such an inclusive administration requires the cessation of all paramilitary activity, as outlined in the Joint Declaration itself. In the absence of that, there is little prospect of unionist partnership in government on a stable and sustainable basis.
The two Governments have made it very clear that the Good Friday Agreement is not negotiable. I want to state firmly that its core values must be at the heart of any stable dispensation for the future. I cannot imagine any nationalist of any persuasion or, indeed, any Irish Government, being willing to dilute the key protections and principles at the heart of the Agreement. Those who argue that the Agreement must be re-negotiated to secure the majority support of unionists, which they allege is in deficit, have never clarified who they expect their negotiating partners to be or why a solemn referendum, in both parts of the island, should be over-turned.
Despite all the difficulties, contact between the political parties should be maintained. It is important that we have a calm summer so that the autumn elections can be held in as positive a context as possible.
We need to find reasons to do things rather than excuses not to move things forward. I have just returned this evening from a Euro-Med meeting in Greece where we sat down and talked with Palestinians, Arabs and Israelis to discuss the resuscitation of the Middle East peace process. My words were ones of encouragement and of the need to maintain partnership, regardless of the inevitable ups and downs of the peace process there.
I recently visited the Balkans where less than a decade ago ethnic tensions erupted and 400,000 people lost their lives and 4 million were displaced from their homes. They are now seeking to chart a way forward and build a future based on one point of departure.
That point of departure is that they don't agree on the past. Each party to the conflict in those areas will tell you that theirs is a legitimate story and, of course, the cause of the tragedy that enveloped them was that each party had, indeed, a legitimate story to tell.
We in Ireland, therefore, must not predicate our future on the basis of getting prior agreement on the past. A lesson in our history is that we cannot fashion a future exclusively through our experience of the past.
Our primary responsibilities are in the present and in the future.
After 25 years of conflict, the Downing Street Declaration set out where we were politically in 1993. The Framework Document produced parameters within which political dialogue and discussion could take place. The Good Friday Agreement is the culmination of painstaking negotiations that addressed the three strands of the relationships that need to be addressed for political and economic stability.
It is a formula that provides inclusive partnership government in Northern Ireland with cross-border institutions to facilitate progress on an all-island basis for our mutual benefit. The British-Irish Council was established to reflect the more mature partnership that now exists between two neighbouring EU countries.
The people having voted for it in both parts of the island concurrently, the Good Friday Agreement now represents the democratic imperative that governs our political life and has brought peace and, ultimately, will bring reconciliation to our country.
The process of reconciliation and outreach also applies to republicans. In this regard, I welcome the recent remarks by the Sinn Féin President, Gerry Adams directed to the unionist community. I endorse his view that nationalists and unionists, republicans and loyalists have to recognise each other's integrity and must provide the required mutual reassurance about their future intentions.
In this regard, our collective task is to create the confidence that Northern Ireland is irreversibly on course to become a society where paramilitary violence plays no part and where democratic institutions, open to all who have an electoral mandate, will operate on a stable and sustainable basis. These are the two sides of the same coin of trust and confidence and were the core objectives of the acts of completion process pursued by both Governments over recent months. They remain to be fully achieved and must be secured if we are to provide a sustainable basis for future political stability and partnership.
It is clear now that the peace we are all seeking must involve the ending of all paramilitary activity as set out in the Joint Declaration. That peace is best achieved and consolidated when elected representatives of all sides in the community recommit themselves to work together for the betterment of all, as the letter and spirit of the Agreement demands.
The Northern Ireland Executive does not work to its full potential if it is regarded simply as a coalition of necessity, protecting one's own political interests at the expense of the other. Real political engagement in an inclusive partnership Executive will bring win-win situations to Northern Ireland's divided society. Hesitancy, mistrust and a refusal to engage in an agenda of real and lasting change for the better provides simply a no-score draw.
Part of the more difficult agenda of reconciliation will also involve bringing closure to the conflict. Ceasing activities inimical to the peace process is but one confidence-building measure. In that respect, the victims of the conflict, and they were many, far too many, on both sides, will, of course, not be forgotten by their families, friends and communities. The terrible legacy left by that hurt and pain should remind us all of the need to put ourselves in the other person's position and understand their point of view when we confront difficult issues that remain to be addressed in the aftermath of conflict.
Bearing this in mind, and also the fact that there were some 1500 unsolved murder cases in Northern Ireland during the course of the conflict, it would appear that, for many, closure will not come by way of resolving these murders through police investigations and subsequent and successful prosecutions in a court.
The Governments have sought to make their contribution to achieving closure in respect of a number of cases which are presently being examined by the eminent international jurist Judge Peter Cory. The cases of Pat Finucane, Robert Hamill, Rosemary Nelson, Judge Gibson, RUC Superintendent Harry Breen and Superintendent Robert Buchanan and loyalist Billy Wright are being investigated by Judge Cory. Both Governments are committed to respectively implementing Judge Cory's recommendations on these cases. We also have here the Barron Inquiry into the Dublin-Monaghan Bombings, which reflects the Government's commitment to pursue matters that have given rise to public concern. In dealing with these matters from the past it is important that they not become preconditions for the necessary political developments to secure our future. They must be dealt with on their own merits. Accountability and confidence in the future must mean that the recommendations of the Stevens Investigation and the Crompton Report are fully and transparently implemented through the Policing Board.
The Good Friday Agreement is about a new beginning, it's about turning a bloody page in our history, it's about insisting on the primacy of politics so that we can create a just society without victims. It's about reforming the institutions so that all political persuasions can participate in the democratic life of the society. We need to end the public psyche of victimhood, not perpetuate it into the future. We need, in short, to come to terms with a past that can have no place in our future and we must do so in a way that gives hope, optimism, to all our people that we are finally on the road to reconciliation, recognising the wrongs and violence that were visited on far too many for far too long.
This Government will work with others, in good faith, to achieve full implementation of this Agreement in a way that is sustainable and permanent. We have come too far to resile from our collective responsibilities now. Given the recent past and present that we have helped to shape, we simply owe it to this and future generations on this island. We should make our own history and I firmly believe that we must work in the coming weeks and months to shape an enabling context that will provide us with the ability to confront these responsibilities courageously.
While mindful of the requirement to justly deal with the painful legacies of the past, we must also be conscious of the need to protect and conserve the gains of recent years. In working with the British Government, we are determined to protect and develop the achievements of the Good Friday Agreement despite the suspension of the Assembly.
In this connection, the importance of the continued operation of the North/South Bodies was re-stated by the two Governments at the meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in London last week. For our own part, we have consistently emphasised the importance of maintaining the programme of North/South co-operation agreed by the North/South Ministerial Council prior to suspension, and ensuring that the North/South Bodies continue, throughout this period, to operate successfully and perform their essential public functions.
We have repeatedly stated our determination that the progress we have made in North/South co-operation since the establishment of the North/South Ministerial Council and the founding of the North/South Bodies over three years ago will not fall victim to the difficulties in the wider process.
This determination is shared by the British Government. The two Governments jointly take any decisions necessary to ensure the continued effective operation of the North/South Bodies, on a care and maintenance basis. This arrangement will continue until the Assembly is restored and we can once again come together with Northern Ministers to agree ways in which we can move forward to fully develop and enhance our relationship of partnership and co-operation for the benefit of all. I look forward to that time.
A Cheann Comhairle:
Recharged with the original spirit and energy of the Good Friday Agreement, and not allowing ourselves to be distracted by the negative fall-out of the divisive legacies of the past, we must press on with the outstanding tasks of fully implementing the Agreement, ridding ourselves of paramilitarism and sectarianism, and consolidating the achievement of a just society, including in the areas of policing and criminal justice. Above all, we must assert the primacy of politics because it is only through renewed political engagement and momentum that we will close the remaining gaps and finish the job of securing the new beginning envisaged by the Agreement for the benefit of all of the people on this island.
A Cheann Comhairle:
I recognise the constructive purposes underlying the motion tabled by Sinn Féin. Likewise, I also recognise the helpful and constructive elements of the motions tabled by the Fine Gael and Labour parties. The differences between all of the motions are more questions of emphasis and nuance than major substance. Nevertheless, I believe that the Government counter-motion represents a more balanced and comprehensive reflection of the overall sentiment in this House and I therefore commend it to Dáil Éireann.Top