Statement by the Minister for Foreign Affairs to the Seanad, 23 October 2002: Part 1
I am glad of the opportunity to address the Seanad, which has been such a consistent source of encouragement and support for the Government's efforts in the peace process, as we again find ourselves in a period of uncertainty with regard to the ongoing implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Suspension of devolved government in Northern Ireland, which took place on 14 October, is clearly a regression in the peace process, and is not one that anyone here, or indeed any supporter of the Agreement, would wish for. However, as I stated to the Dáil last week, it is important to remember that while the devolved institutions may be suspended, the Agreement itself is not. As the Taoiseach put it, the development is a setback and not a defeat for the process.
As a clear illustration of the continuing commitment of the British and Irish Governments to the Agreement, a meeting of one of its institutions, the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, took place in Hillsborough yesterday. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Dr Reid, and I jointly chaired yesterday's session, and I will provide Senators with a more detailed briefing on our discussions presently.
But for the moment, let me return to the first point that I wish to emphasise here today: the Agreement remains our template for political progress in Northern Ireland. It draws its overriding strength and authority from the sovereign will of the people of Ireland, North and South, and there can be no firmer mandate than that. Our absolute commitment to the Agreement is clear. As the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Blair said in their joint statement last week, the two Governments remain committed to “the full implementation of all aspects of the Agreement that will be within their respective powers to implement”.
The current situation presents us with difficulties, and these difficulties are not easy ones to overcome. Devolved government cannot be made to work effectively in a situation where there has been a breakdown of trust and confidence between the parties. Restoring that trust is the challenge that we now face. It may not be easy and there are no doubt difficult challenges ahead, but I firmly believe that it can be achieved. However, one thing which must now be abundantly clear to all is that the use of force, or indeed the threat of force, does not have any place in the democratic politics of this island and offers nothing but misery and suffering to our people. That imperative applies to all paramilitary groupings, both republican and loyalist. We have all invested too much in this process to contemplate any sort of return to the failures of the past.
Senators will have listened to and absorbed, as I did, Prime Minister Blair's speech in Belfast last week, which gave us a perceptive and candid insight into his personal experience both of the elation of Good Friday and the grind that has followed in making it a reality. I have shared some of the grind of the last four and a half years, and I certainly share the Taoiseach's determination not to countenance any path other than the full implementation of the Agreement.
In the same spirit of constructive candour that characterised the Prime Minister's remarks, I would like to address the point he made about perception difficulties for unionists in terms of Sinn Fein being included in government in Northern Ireland, in contrast to the situation in the South. The Prime Minister is correct in saying that the Government's response to this perception of differential treatment may not be as pithily expressed as the charge. However, that does not make our position any less valid.
The fact of the matter is that the circumstances in Northern Ireland are very different than this jurisdiction. The devolved institutions of the Agreement were specifically designed to operate on an inclusive basis, with automatic representation in the Executive for those parties that achieved the required electoral mandate. All of the parties to the negotiations signed up to this arrangement and it was endorsed by the people of Ireland, North and South. We are in a transition period in Northern Ireland from a destructive and divisive conflict to a more peaceful and democratic society. In our own history in this state, a similar transition was achieved many decades ago.
In the years since the signing of the Agreement in 1998 and its subsequent endorsement by the people of this island, we have only gradually become fully aware of its vast potential to effect transformation. It has greatly improved the situation - not only through the creation of the new institutions of the Agreement, but also through the hands-on experience gained by politicians on all sides in making them work. The Agreement has set a new agenda – an agenda based on partnership, equality and mutual respect.
The last twelve months, in particular, have witnessed changes and developments on a scale which were truly impressive and which, five years ago, might even have been regarded as unrealistically ambitious. We had two acts of arms decommissioning by the IRA duly verified by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning; the second of which involved a substantial and varied quantity of arms being put permanently beyond use. Regrettably, the IRA's initiative in this key area was not matched by parallel moves on the loyalist side.
Significant announcements about the normalisation of security arrangements in Northern Ireland were also taking place at this time. Additionally, the British Government announced in May that a number of military facilities in Northern Ireland would be transferred to the ownership of the Northern Ireland Executive for economic and community use, as a consequence of very effective work by the First and Deputy First Ministers.
I believe that while some welcome progress on security normalization has been made, the scope certainly exists for doing a good deal more. For many nationalists, there is still a far too intrusive security presence with little evidence of visible reductions despite the Agreement and the enormous improvement in the security situation throughout Northern Ireland. In this regard, I welcome the indication by Prime Minister Blair in his speech last week that rapid and total progress on this and other issues was possible in the context of the full implementation of the Agreement.
Over the last few years, the Northern Ireland Executive, under the joint leadership of David Trimble and both Seamus Mallon and, latterly, Mark Durkan, has achieved much success in bringing together political representatives of both communities to work in partnership with common purpose, for the betterment of all of the citizens of Northern Ireland. The work of the Executive has had a substantial impact, with locally accountable Ministers taking decisions of real importance and significance to the lives of the people of Northern Ireland. A full range of matters have been addressed, including Agriculture, Industrial Promotion, Health and Education.
The successful workings of the Executive have shown beyond question that partnership government works to the benefit of both nationalists and unionists alike. Moreover, while some anti-Agreement parties might still have difficulties with the concept of a fully inclusive government, involving participation by Sinn Fein, the political requirement of partnership government – embracing both unionists and nationalists - is now a recognised principle across the full spectrum of political opinion in Northern Ireland.
The Assembly has also been operating successfully, proving itself capable of withstanding robust debate on controversial matters, in line with the best traditions of parliamentary democracy. Assembly members from all traditions have taken on their responsibilities with commendable enthusiasm and sincerity, and their contributions have been marked by commitment and diligence.
Meetings of Ministers from both parts of the island through the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) have become a recognisable feature of Ministerial calendars, North and South. Ministers from both parts of the island, representative of both traditions, have been taking decisions on a regular basis that benefit all of our people in a practical and meaningful way. While North South Ministerial Council meetings have become unremarkable parts of the diary of most Ministers, it is worth recording here that sixty-five full meetings at Ministerial level had taken place prior to suspension.
Similarly, the all-island Implementation Bodies established under the Agreement have now been in successful operation for over three years. They operate in sectors which range from Trade and Business Development, to the maintenance and development of the island's waterways to Food Safety Promotion, and their functional achievements are many. The development of rational co-operation in a sector that is economically vital on both sides of the border is perhaps seen most manifestly in the case of the all-island tourism organisation, Tourism Ireland Limited. The promotional campaigns of Tourism Ireland Limited are undoubtedly crucial to the success and development of the industry throughout the island at a very challenging time in the global tourism market.
I wish to pay tribute to the outstanding effort and commitment which all Ministers, from both parts of the island, displayed in the operation of the North/South structures. While we all came to these meetings from different political cultures and traditions, these were transcended by a common commitment to advance co-operation between both parts of the island to the mutual benefit of our people. In my experience of these meetings, partisan politics was never allowed to undermine sensible and practical work that improved our citizens lives. I wish, therefore, to pay a particular tribute to the UUP Ministers for their honourable and diligent participation in the work of the NSMC. The sooner we can renew that partnership, the better for all of the people on this island.
When we look at what has been achieved in such a relatively short period of time, we gain a renewed sense of the importance of preventing the development of a political vacuum. The seeds of fruitful change have been sown and it would be unthinkable to abandon the Agreement without giving it the necessary time to mature and produce a maximum yield. We must continue to nurture the Agreement, to ensure that the transition from paramilitarism to exclusively democratic means is clearly advanced towards a definitive and unambiguous end-point. We cannot allow the process to descend into deadlock.
We need to re-establish confidence on all sides, to safeguard the Agreement's achievements to date, and to secure progress on the areas which remain outstanding. We are all agreed that the transition from paramilitarism must be demonstrably advanced if the necessary trust and confidence to sustain the institutions is to be refurbished. Equally, however, that transition will not happen if we simply sit back and wait for it. It is clear that the required transition can best be achieved by driving forward the Agreement.
At the core of the Agreement is the partnership of the two Governments, and this strategic relationship continues to provide the underlying stability and support for the redevelopment of trust among the parties. The vibrancy and cohesion of that partnership has been particularly evident in recent weeks, including the recent meeting between the Taoiseach and Prime Minister at Downing Street and their subsequent joint statement of 14 October which laid the basis for the two Governments' management of the current difficulties. The Taoiseach and Prime Minister will have a further opportunity to review developments when they meet tomorrow in Brussels en-marge of the European Council.
One of the ways in which the two Governments will continue to co-operate bilaterally is already provided for under the Agreement itself. The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference was created under Strand Three of the Agreement. The Conference provides a platform for co-operation between both Governments on all matters of mutual interest. However, it particularly recognises the Irish Government's special interest in Northern Ireland and the extent to which issues of mutual concern arise in that regard. The Conference is tasked with meeting on non-devolved Northern Ireland matters, including, inter alia, the areas of rights, justice and policing.
The Conference provides a basis for the ongoing co-operation that will facilitate the two Governments in the management of the process. This will be particularly important during the hiatus in the operation of devolved institutions in Northern Ireland. While co-operating through the Conference, our ultimate aim is directed towards the full operation of all the institutions of the Agreement, including the restoration of the Assembly and the Executive and the reactivation of meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council.
Lest there be fears or misapprehensions, I wish to re-iterate that the British-Irish Conference is not joint authority nor joint authority in waiting nor is that on the agenda of the Irish Government. We want to see a devolved government operating on a fully inclusive basis and we want to have a full partnership with that administration, involving unionists and nationalists, through the North-South Ministerial Council.
At yesterday's meeting of the Conference, at which I was accompanied by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Michael McDowell TD, we reviewed recent political developments with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Dr. John Reid, and Minister of State at the Northern Ireland Office, Jane Kennedy. Both Governments again reiterated our commitment to the Agreement as the only viable future for the people of Northern Ireland, and emphasised our determined wish to see devolved Government restored as soon as possible, and in any event, in advance of the scheduled elections.