Statement on Northern Ireland by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Brian Cowen T.D., Dáil Eireann, 7 May 2003
Check Against Delivery
I would like to thank Deputies for their contributions this evening – I am conscious of and very grateful for the support and encouragement which is forthcoming from all sides of the House for our endeavours in the implementation of the Agreement.
I also value the opportunity to speak on the proposals which the Governments have agreed to take forward at this stage, as indicated by the Taoiseach in his statement. As you know, since I last spoke in the House on Northern Ireland issues, there have been a series of developments, some positive and others less so.
The underlying aim of all the work undertaken by the two Governments and the parties in Northern Ireland since last October has been to address the deficit in confidence which had arisen about the commitment on all sides to the full and inclusive operation of all aspects of the Agreement. We undertook this work in the full awareness that it would be difficult and might not be resolved quickly. Our intensive engagement continued through the months that followed, and, after much painstaking effort and slow grind, a full and complete audit of all areas of the Good Friday Agreement which remained to be fully implemented was developed.
This blueprint, which was published last week as the Joint Declaration by the British and Irish Governments, was part of an overall package which we described as Acts of Completion. This requires an 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.
The last weeks have seen detailed discussions and contacts among the Governments and the parties, and we did, eventually, arrive at a situation which came achingly close to securing a resolution of the problems that have bedevilled progress on repeated occasions. But, to the regret and disappointment of all sides, despite great progress and advances which went far beyond what might have been imagined possible by the nay-sayers and cynics, it was not possible to achieve a final agreement at this point.
The requirement for clarity on the end to all paramilitary inconsistent with the Good Friday Agreement is not a matter of mere semantics or word-games. The Governments did not arbitrarily demand certain words from republicans for our own satisfaction. As I have made clear, our aim from the outset was to address the real deficits of trust and confidence on the ground in Northern Ireland. This can only be done by offering clarity and certainty that all paramilitary activity is coming to an end. In the Dáil last November, the Taoiseach stated that this required immediate, full and permanent cessation of the kind of paramilitary activities now listed in Paragraph 13 of the Joint Declaration.
The clarifications provided throughout the process by the Sinn Féin leadership have been helpful and positive. I also welcome as a positive development the indication in yesterday's IRA statement that the answers provided by the Sinn Féin leadership accurately represented their position.
There remains an ambiguity about whether the full range of activities described in paragraph 13 has been dealt with. Unless this aspect of the issue is addressed to the satisfaction of everyone, the prospect of inclusive partnership government being restored is unlikely to be translated into reality.
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 the Taoiseach made clear in his statements, the Government disagreed with the British Government on the postponement of these elections. This opinion was made clear to the British Government throughout our contacts, and including, inter alia, in my meetings with Secretary of State Paul Murphy in Belfast on 28 April.
However, this disagreement does not reflect any rift in the wider partnership that continues between the two Governments as co-guarantors of the Agreement, which is strong and well able to withstand some differences of view among equal partners. Indeed, during yesterday's meeting at Farmleigh, we discussed the basis on which we propose to move forward together in the new circumstances.
We fully agreed that the task of the two Governments will be to work together to bring about the conditions under which full confidence can be restored on all sides. We also agreed that those aspects of the Joint Declaration which are not contingent on acts of completion by others will now be taken forward.
When the Joint Declaration is fully analysed, I think that most commentators would have to agree that it is broad and ambitious in its scope. From Criminal Justice to Human Rights to the issues relating to victims of the conflict, it is alive with opportunity for real and tangible progress, and we are determined to work closely in the coming period to bring it to full realisation.
As Deputies will be aware, certain aspects of the Joint Declaration are explicitly dependent on acts of completion by paramilitary organisations. But by no means is all progress dependent on those acts of completion. Such conditionality would be at variance with the Agreement which regarded key concepts such as equality and human rights as being automatic entitlements. Instead, a broad range of proposals in the Joint Declaration will be brought forward, for example in the areas of policing, criminal justice, equality, human rights and some aspects of security normalisation.
We are determined that they should be taken forward since they form part of the ongoing implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference will have an important role to play in reviewing progress. I expect that there will be an early meeting of the Conference, which I will co-chair with the Secretary of State, in the latter half of this month.
Significant developments are achievable in the area of criminal justice reform. The Irish Government looks forward to the publication of the Implementation Plan for the Criminal Justice Review which should promote greater confidence in the justice system among all parts of the community. An open competition is currently underway to appoint an independent Oversight Commissioner to provide independent scrutiny of the implementation of the Criminal Justice Review. In addition, statements of ethics will be introduced this year for all criminal justice agencies in Northern Ireland which do not currently have them.
In the Joint Declaration the British Government stated that it will bring forward a second Criminal Justice Bill which will, among a number of detailed measures, allow for the creation of a reflective Judicial Appointments Commission prior to the devolution of responsibility for criminal justice matters. It will also make further provision to promote a human rights culture in the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland as well as other key provisions which have long been sought by representatives of the nationalist community. I look forward to the early publication of this Bill.
The two Governments are committed to working in partnership to develop structures and arrangements for enhanced co-operation on criminal justice matters. The scope of co-operation for our mutual benefit will be wide-ranging and practical. A group of policy makers from both jurisdictions will meet at the end of this month to identify and advise on the opportunities for co-operation at Governmental level and between agencies.
Under the broad heading of policing, the Joint Declaration offers scope for further progress on the elimination of baton rounds, with the confirmation of the British Government's intention that, on the basis that an acceptable and less lethal alternative is available, they should not be used after the end of this year. Also, the legislation necessary for secondments and lateral entry from the Garda Siochana to the PSNI and vice-versa passed all stages in the Seanad on 9 April, and will be introduced before this House in the coming weeks. North-South police co-operation is progressing apace, with the continuing implementation of the Patten recommendations on structured co-operation. The Police Act 2003 will also implement all the recommendations of the revised Implementation Plan, including giving greater powers to the Policing Board.
On the key issue of security normalisation, while there is certainly a direct link in this area to acts of completion by paramilitary groups, there is still scope for some further progress in the direction of the full normalisation of security arrangements. In particular, I hope to see early movement in the dismantling of some of the intrusive towers in South Armagh, in particular, and in the ongoing assessments by the Policing Board of the progress which can be made in the further normalisation of policing structures and patrols.
In the area of Human Rights and Equality, so central to the ethos of the Agreement, the Joint Declaration offers ample scope for further progress. In relation to the Bill of Rights, for example, work has already begun among some of the parties, through the Implementation Group of pro-Agreement parties, on the creation of a round-table forum, inclusive of the parties and civic society, on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.
The work which has already taken place among the parties on this subject is ripe for further development and I look forward to seeing concrete progress on this issue in the near future. At the conclusion of the proposed roundtable process, the British Government is committed to bringing forward legislation at Westminster on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.
Equality is the cornerstone of the Agreement, and I look forward to the continuing work which will be undertaken on a range of measures to combat the unemployment differential. These measures will be aimed at progressively eliminating the differential in unemployment rates between the two communities by targeting objective need. The British Government is also committed to encourage funding to be made available for research for this purpose.
While the detail of issues such as the unemployment differential might seem arcane or obscure to some, it is in the cut and thrust of such areas that the impact of the Agreement on individual lives can be most clearly experienced. The entrenchment of the knowledge that employment is dependent solely on merit, and that the equality provisions of the Agreement are being given tangible expression, are clear manifestations of positive change.
Cooperation between North and South in the economic and social arena has never been stronger and will continue to develop. The institutions of the Good Friday Agreement have provided the opportunity for a strategic and structured approach to cooperation on this island in all of the key policy areas including health, education, environment and agriculture. In addition, two important new players in the commercial field are IntertradeIreland, the all-island trade and business development body charged with improving the traditionally low levels of North/South trade on the island and Tourism Ireland Limited, responsible for marketing the island of Ireland overseas as a single destination. The successful operation of these two North/South Bodies, along with the other Bodies dealing with Special EU Programmes, our Waterways and Loughs, Food Safety and Language, continue to be critical to the economic, cultural and social well-being of the island. North/South cooperation has consistently delivered real, practical results and mutual benefit to both parts of the island. And it has a key role to play in strengthening relationships between and within communities on the island of Ireland.
A Cheann Comhairle,
To draw my remarks to a close, I would like the House to be clear that the Government remains completely committed to the Good Friday Agreement. Not simply as a mantra to be repeated in the current difficulties, but as an active and continually developing commitment which is deep and unshakeable. As the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Blair made clear yesterday, the question of a renegotiation simply does not arise.
Notwithstanding the frustration of the last few weeks, the Good Friday Agreement remains the only workable or acceptable template for progress within Northern Ireland. The Governments are wholeheartedly committed to continuing to make it work.
The Joint Declaration, our template for the full implementation of the Agreement, which was made public last week, is now also the shared agenda for action between the two Governments. We will do all within our power to make rapid progress in the areas it covers.
While the two outstanding issues of paramilitary activity and full operation and stability of the institutions remain to be finally clarified, the two Governments will continue to meet and maintain contact with all parties. We are also committed to encouraging an open and comprehensive dialogue on the outstanding issues between the parties. This dialogue would provide the optimum context, through the facilitation of mutual confidence and trust, in which the elections this Autumn should take place.
We have faced many tests and a number of stumbling blocks in the five years since the Agreement was reached. However, we are determined that that the present difficulties will be overcome, as others have been in the past. The key issues of trust are within the power of the parties to be conclusively dealt with, and we will continue to do all in our power to ensure that they are.