Statement by Minister Cowen in Seanad Eireann - Part 1
May I begin by thanking you and the Members of this House for affording me the opportunity to participate in this most timely and important debate.
When I addressed this House last year, I observed that implementing the Good Friday Agreement was like climbing a particularly frustrating mountain. Just as you think you're reaching the top a new and steeper slope appears. There have been numerous occasions during the process when it seemed as though the hard work had been done, only for new issues - or old ones in new guises - to appear. Experience has made us all a little more cautious, a little more reluctant to celebrate fully each step forward.
But this week is different. I am very hopeful that the landscape has finally and fundamentally changed. If we collectively and urgently seize the opportunity which we are now presented, we can and we will see the Agreement implemented in full.
In recent days, genuinely historic steps have been taken. IRA weapons - arms, ammunition, explosives - have been permanently put beyond use to the satisfaction of the International Commission on Decommissioning. This is a momentous achievement. The Government always believed that the Commission was the mechanism through which this most difficult of issues would be resolved. There were many who said it would never happen. Many who doubted our ability to overcome the serious obstacle the question of arms represented in the process. They were wrong.
There were also those who said that Unionism was not committed to the process, didn't want to share power. But they too were wrong. We have seen this profoundly important step receive a positive and generous response from the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party. We welcome the return of Unionist Ministers to office. We appreciate the difficulties that David Trimble faces in securing his own return. But I know that he is working flat out to achieve it. When he succeeds, the door to renewed partnership in Government and on this island will have been unlocked.
It has taken considerable courage and leadership on all sides to bring us this far. People have taken personal risks and endured great strain. I readily and warmly pay tribute to all who have made it possible - especially to those Republicans who have been prepared to grapple with issues of deep significance to their movement and to their wider community, and to those Unionists who have been committed to making the Agreement work.
I also extend the sincere gratitude of the Government and the people to General de Chastelain and his colleagues. The question of arms has been one of the most sensitive and difficult issues we have had to address. Because they were not in a position to resolve the question themselves, the parties and Governments tasked the Commission with taking the matter forward. We deeply appreciate the conscientious and professional way in which they have gone about their work to fulfill their important mandate.
As guns are put beyond use, it is appropriate that we also remember those for whom this has been a week of very mixed emotions. The existence and use of guns and explosives has brought great suffering and enormous sadness into far too many lives on all sides. People are still grieving and waiting for closure. For some the wounds - physical and psychological - will never heal. We do not forget them.
But, as we said in the Agreement, we can best honour them through a fresh start and to dedicating ourselves to the achievement of lasting peace and reconciliation. As a result of this week's events, we now have a renewed opportunity to show that politics can be made to work, and to work effectively, for all of the people. We cannot afford to let it pass.
We recently saw the remains of ten volunteers from a different era and a different circumstance finally laid to rest with decency and honour and with the full respect of the people for whom they gave their lives. Separated from them by many decades, we can never fully know the thoughts and convictions that individually motivated them. However, we can be certain that they shared a commitment to the right of Irish people to self-determination.
It has been argued, and many would agree, that partition prevented the full exercise of that right - that the people never had the opportunity to decide our own future together, and to speak on fundamental and vitally important aspects of how we see ourselves and how we would wish to conduct our relationships with each other on this island.
Throughout the peace process, and under successive Irish Governments, it was a firmly held conviction that, if the lessons of Irish history were to be learned and if the process of healing and reconciliation was to begin, any agreement emerging from a process of negotiation would have to right that historical wrong. That, if it was to succeed, any settlement would require the unassailable democratic authority and legitimacy that only endorsement by the people, North and South, voting together, could confer.
In May 1998, the people of Ireland, North and South, exercising together their right to determine their future and voting overwhelmingly in favour of the Good Friday Agreement, brought a chapter in our history to a close. The people were sovereign and they spoke, embracing the principles that underpin the Agreement and pledging themselves to work to secure its implementation. It was a watershed.
In voting for the Agreement, the people recognised the equal legitimacy of our differing political identities and aspirations, and put in place a political framework that would enable us to work together, in partnership and peace, to build a better future together.
They committed themselves to the principle that constitutional change could only be brought about peacefully and with the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.
They pledged themselves to raising up new institutions. To creating a new dispensation in human rights and equality. To normalising society. To bringing about a new beginning in policing and justice, and in relationships on this island.
After decades of conflict, the people voted for the absolute primacy of politics and for creating the context in which the gun would, forever, be taken out of Irish politics.
In implementing the Agreement - including in resolving the question of arms - we are carrying out the people's democratic will. It is the solemn and bounden duty of all concerned to see it through to a successful conclusion.
As we know all too well, the task has not always been an easy one. Throughout the peace process, the question of arms, in particular, has been a thorn in our sides. It has provoked emotions and polarised attitudes on all sides.
For Unionism it became a litmus test of commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. On the other hand, Republicans suspected it was being used to mask a deeper reluctance to embrace change, to share power and to make politics work.
It dogged our efforts to move from ceasefires to talks - it is now almost six years since the Governments established an International Body, under Senator George Mitchell, to seek an agreed basis for progress on the negotiations and on decommissioning.
It stalled progress in the talks - it is over four years since the Governments put legislation in place and established the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, as the mechanism through which the issue could be handled and resolved.
It seriously hampered our efforts to secure full implementation of the Agreement.
Rightly or wrongly, the question of decommissioning became so entangled with question of devolution that, for over eighteen months, we struggled to find an agreed basis on which the institutions could be established. And, just as the institutions were beginning to demonstrate their immense potential to deliver real change on the ground, another crisis on decommissioning in February last year saw them brought them down for over three months.
In working to achieve their restoration at Hillsborough in May last year, the Governments realised that we could not continue in this manner. We needed to broaden the context and to focus on all areas where implementation had not been achieved, rather than on any one issue. We identified the outstanding elements of the Agreement and mapped out how they could be progressed.
In response, the IRA took a significant step forward, identifying the context within which it would initiate a process to put arms completely and verifiably beyond use and opening its dumps to independent inspection. On that basis, the institutions were restored at the end of May 2000. They operated effectively until last October when, in the absence of further tangible progress, the Ulster Unionist Party moved to prevent Sinn Féin Ministers from attending meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council.
In July of this year, following the resignation of David Trimble as First Minister, the Governments and parties worked intensively together at Weston Park to find a way forward to allow the four last pieces of the jigsaw - policing, demilitarisation, decommissioning and the stability of the institutions - to slot into place.
At the start of August, we put a package to parties. We made particular proposals on policing, demilitarisation and the stability of the institutions and we said that decommissioning was indispensable. We looked to others to respond and, on 6 August, the IICD reported that it had reached agreement with the IRA on a scheme for putting its weapons beyond use.
That the IRA's engagement with the Commission has now resulted in that scheme being implemented is a cause of the greatest satisfaction to all who have walked this long road together, and who have worked hard to achieve full implementation of the Agreement.
A profoundly important decision has been taken by the Republican Movement. We have always acknowledged that decommissioning is a voluntary act. But equally, we have always said that it is indispensable, a necessary contribution to the consolidation of peace and democracy and to the creation of mutual trust. In taking the step that it now has, the IRA has greatly enhanced the prospects for peace and for the full implementation of the Agreement. It is a vindication for all those who have argued for a political way forward.
We need to move quickly now to capitalise this opportunity. The institutions are the democratic core of the Agreement. We need to see them fully back in business. David Trimble has reappointed his Ministers and has made it clear that, subject to the views of his Party's Executive, he will seek re-election as First Minister. I know that every one in this House wishes him success.
Now that Ministers are back in place, we need to see each party reaffirming its commitment to playing it full part in all of the institutions and enabling the other parties to do likewise. The days of stop-start in the institutions must be finally and permanently put behind us. There will, of course, be those who will seek to play a disruptive and negative role - refusing to engage fully with the new dispensation as mandated by the people. They cannot be allowed to hold up our work.
We need to see renewed programmes of work and meetings in the institutions - the North/South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Council -with Ministers participating fully in all meetings relevant to their responsibilities.
In particular, I look forward to early dates being set for outstanding meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council in plenary format, as well as meetings on education, health and food safety. These sectors, have been particularly disrupted by the impasse, they urgently need to be able to press forward now.
At Weston Park, we also suggested to the parties that, to enable planning and preparation to proceed, meetings and Ministerial attendance should, as far as possible be agreed six months in advance. I hope that this is a matter which the parties will implement in the period ahead.
I very much welcome the speed with which the British Government has moved to reflect the significant reduction in the level of threat that the putting of arms beyond use represents. The removal of installations in Newtownhamiliton and Magherafelt and on Sturgan and Camlough Mountains is an important demonstration to people on the ground that things are moving forward and that politics delivers change.
The British Government has promised a rolling process of demilitarisation, ultimately to a situation where normal levels of security prevail. I look forward to that work progressing quickly. It is critically important that the people of South Armagh, West Tyrone and all such areas benefit to the full from the implementation of theTop