Minister Cowen addresses British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body: Part 1
Thank you for your kind introduction.
As this is the first opportunity for an Irish Government Minister to address this forum since the general election last year, I wish to extend my warmest congratulations to Deputy Brendan Smith on his appointment as Co-Chairman of this distinguished Body. Together with David Winnick, I know that Brendan will do an outstanding job in leading the Body in the years ahead.
When I addressed you last year in Dublin, I took a look in the rear mirror to review the very encouraging progress we had made in British-Irish relations over the preceding 12 years. Members will be relieved to know that I do not intend to be quite so retrospective in my focus today.
And yet our location makes it difficult not to be conscious of the resonance of history. Those of you who had even the briefest opportunity to walk the streets of Kilkenny will have been struck by its rich depth of history, heritage and culture. It is a unique city that harmoniously blends the Gaelic, Norman and Anglo-Irish influences of our past. My delight in the rich heritage of Kilkenny is only slightly diminished by my envy of its contemporary success on the hurling field.
The confluence of historical influences in this city was perhaps personified in one of its most famous citizens, the essayist Hubert Butler. Butler who died in 1991 was of Anglo-Irish background.
Nearly 50 years ago, Butler wrote about the state of relations between both parts of Ireland. He asked why our differences were so unfruitful? He offered the following reason:
Too many people would sooner be silent or untruthful than disloyal to their own side……And so there is always a drift towards crisis, a gentle, persistent pressure towards some simple alignment of Good and Evil, Friend and Enemy.
Through the collective work that we have all been advancing over recent years – the two Governments, the parties in Northern Ireland, the Body and other supportive agencies – this simple alignment is progressively giving way to a more complex, but also more benign, understanding of relationships on this island and between our neighbouring islands. We are increasingly finding ways of making our differences more fruitful.
The Good Friday Agreement was a major mile-stone in this journey. It represented the distillation of years of creative thinking and political experience about what were the fundamental requirements of a just and durable political settlement in Northern Ireland.
The Agreement was both a codification of everything that had been learned in the past about the nature of the Northern Ireland problem and a set of balanced ground rules for the future to justly accommodate the competing constitutional and political aspirations of both communities.
The Agreement was an outstanding political achievement and major departure in Anglo-Irish relations. It would not have happened without the ever closer partnership that developed between both Governments; without the courage and commitment of various party leaders in Northern Ireland; and without the goodwill and support that came from the US, the EU and the international community.
Yet, despite all of its achievements with which you are all very familiar, there were a number of difficult issues that were not finally resolved on Good Friday, 1998. Some issues were remitted to other processes or mechanisms to be taken forward. Issues such as policing, the decommissioning of paramilitary arms, the reform of the criminal justice system and the advancement of the human rights and equality agendas all involved processes of real and substantive progress rather than instant delivery.
Very considerable progress was made in all of these areas over the last 5 years. This Body is very familiar with the important benchmarks for implementation of the Agreement and I do not propose to recite them all to you again today. Notwithstanding these specific advances, there was, however, a wider and deeper problem. It was that, while substantial progress was being made through this process of gradual implementation, its positive impact was being eroded by activities – or allegations of activities – that were corrosive of the trust and confidence that was necessary to sustain workable political institutions.
While important confidence-building steps – such as two acts of IRA decommissioning – did take place, their effect was undermined by other reported events that suggested that the paramilitary option was being kept open. Equally, it could be argued that confidence-building opportunities were not always positively embraced so that anti-Agreement elements were allowed to dismiss or minimise their significance.
Regardless of whether opportunities were wasted or spurned, the fact of the matter was that by the autumn of last year the reservoirs of trust and confidence among the parties were at a low ebb. The October suspension was ultimately a crisis of trust and the deficit of confidence was mutual.
As Mark Durkan puts it, the suspicion was reciprocal: Unionists feared that republicans were congenitally subversive while republicans believed that unionists were innately intransigent. The pithy slogans of “no guns, no government” and “no fenians about the place” were crude mirror images of a common perception of mistrust.
Last autumn, both Governments concluded that, while the incremental implementation of the Agreement had served the process well, it was no longer sufficient if forward momentum was to be maintained. Addressing the deficits of confidence would require the rapid and complete implementation of the Agreement. In the words of the Irish Government, a quantum leap was required. In the now familiar formulation of Prime Minister Blair, acts of completion were needed on all sides to fully implement all aspects of the Agreement.
Over the past 5 months, the two Governments – together with the pro-Agreement parties – have worked intensively to devise an overall agreement that would comprise the acts of completion necessary to fully implement the Agreement and restore the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. That work was progressed in various formats – in ongoing bilateral and trilateral contacts between the two Governments and the parties and in collective discussions in round-table meetings. All of this engagement was helpful and necessary so that the two Governments could arrive at a composite view of what were the essential ingredients for an acts of completion agreement.
All of this intensive work culminated in the discussions held, over two days, at Hillsborough earlier this month. Apart from the substance of the progress made, two things particularly struck me about the discussions at Hillsborough. Firstly, I was impressed by the extent of the commonality, in approach and analysis, of all of the parties. Despite their different political needs and pressures, each of them demonstrated a great commitment to finding a collective way forward through the difficult issues that were being addressed.
Second, I was struck by the truly impressive solidity and solidarity of the partnership between the two Governments. It occurred to me then that Bertie Ahern and Tony Blair had in 1998 negotiated the Agreement as colleagues; they were now delivering it as friends. All of us at Hillsborough were deeply impressed that, despite the pressures of the global crisis that was fast approaching, the Prime Minister devoted over 2 days of his time, energy and wisdom to pursue what has been a constant priority of his Premiership. Likewise, my colleague and friend, Paul Murphy, has been tireless in his efforts to engage with and accommodate all of the parties in Northern Ireland.
Considerable progress was made at Hillsborough on a range of difficult issues – criminal justice, security normalisation, ending paramilitary activity, human rights and equality issues. There now exists a shared understanding about the broad parameters of an overall acts of completion deal, even if all parties are not signed up to every detail of all aspects.
The Taoiseach and the Prime Minister will return to Northern Ireland next month to formally present their proposals. In the meantime, the two Governments have encouraged the parties to use the time and space to reflect on the proposals outlined at Hillsborough and to undertake whatever internal consultations are necessary.
Major steps are required of all sides if we are to achieve the quantum leap that is required to fully consolidate the Agreement. Our collective level of ambition is great. This will require all sides to share the risks, the pain and the gain.
It will have to be clear to all that paramilitary activity and capability is being brought to a definitive end; that the process of security normalisation is rapidly advancing; that the achievement of the new beginning to policing is being fully realised; that the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland is fully reflective of both communities; that the human rights and equality provisions of the Agreement are being entrenched; that the stop-start phase of the operation of the institutions has come to an end and that all parties are committed to fully and enthusiastically participate in them.
Because the two Governments wished to accord a little time and space to the parties to consider these proposals, the British Government judged it appropriate to delay the scheduled elections by a few short weeks. In my view, this deferral was both appropriate and reasonable given the circumstances and the progress that had been made in the discussions.
5 years ago, the people of Northern Ireland voted for an Assembly that was tasked to deliver on the vision of the Agreement. 5 years later, the pro-Agreement parties can point to a record of achievement and progress made that would simply have been unthinkable 10 years ago.