Statement in the Dail on the IICD Report by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Brian Cowen, T.D., PART 1
Ceann Comhairle, on behalf of the Government, I have the honour to make this opening statement on what has been another very good day for the peace process in our country. The fact that the House has scheduled this debate at such short notice is reflective of the exceptional interest and support which all parties here have demonstrated in the progress of the peace process. Without that constant support over many years, and through successive Governments, it would not have been possible to achieve the progress that has been made. On behalf of the Taoiseach and my other colleagues in Government, I wish to express our deep appreciation for that consensus support which sustained us on the bad days and encouraged us on the good.
The events of yesterday were enormously significant. 23 October 2001 will now rank among the seminal moments of the peace process over the last decade. It joins other milestones of hope such as the Downing Street Declaration, the Framework Documents, the negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement and the establishment of its institutions in December 1999. Many of these occasions were marked by debates and statements in this House and it is entirely appropriate that we should accord similar respect to yesterday's developments. I know that party leaders have already issued public statements welcoming the IICD report and I thank them for their generous and gracious recognition of the importance of what has been achieved.
Yesterday the IICD confirmed that it had witnessed an event, which it regarded as significant, in which the IRA had put a quantity of arms completely beyond use, including arms, ammunition and explosives. As the Government statement indicated, this represents unprecedented progress in the resolution of the arms issue. In order to fully appreciate the shift involved, we need to bear in mind that the IRA did not consider itself to be party to the Good Friday Agreement and, in the immediate aftermath of those negotiations, issued a statement to the effect that there would be no decommissioning. That statement received pithy expression in the murals which appeared in the republican areas - "not a bullet, not an ounce". We should, therefore, not underestimate the enormity of the move made yesterday by the IRA. It required vision and courage to take that step - particularly, against a back-drop of a sustained campaign of violence directed against nationalists in North Belfast, Larne, Coleraine and other areas in Northern Ireland. As Prime Minister Blair said yesterday, this step was taken not of weakness but from the strength that comes from recognising that there is now a new dispensation in Northern Ireland which allows political differences to be addressed and resolved through democratic and peaceful debate. I commend Gerry Adams, Martin McGuinness and the Sinn Féin leadership for the influential role they have played in bringing militant republicanism to this new departure.
The issue of decommissioning has long been an obstacle in the peace process. It nearly frustrated the establishment of multi-party talks in 1996, it was one of the most difficult issues on the agenda of those talks and, even after agreement had been achieved, it proved to be one of the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement which was most difficult to implement. All of this is perfectly understandable since the issue of decommissioning goes to the heart of the deficit of trust and confidence which has existed in Northern Ireland. Both sides regarded the issue as the litmus test for the bona fides of the other; if the war was over, you did not need a private army and, conversely, if the guns are silent why are you insisting on handing them in?
As we have grappled with this issue over the last few years, the wisdom and prescience of Senator Mitchell's words in 1996 have been continuously validated - the decommissioning of mindsets is as important as the decommissioning of weapons. What we have been patiently and incrementally doing over several years is creating a context which allows us to decommission the mindsets of those who regarded violence as a legitimate instrument for pursuing ones political objectives, on the one hand, and on the other, those who sought to maintain supremacy under a guise of partnership. The decommissioning of the mindsets was a prior condition of the decommissioning of the weapons. The necessary context was, of course, the Good Friday Agreement and its full and total implementation. Over the past few years, the Governments and the pro-Agreement parties have devoted literally thousands of hours of dialogue and negotiation to achieve that context. The Taoiseach and Prime Minister Blair have made a huge personal investment of time and energy in pursuing the task. The Secretary of State, Dr. Reid, has done herculean work in advancing matters, particularly on the policing issue where great progress has been made in recent weeks. The leaders of all of the pro-Agreement parties have stretched themselves and their constituencies again and again in order to facilitate progress. John Hume, Seamus Mallon, Mark Durkan, David Trimble, Reg Empey, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness all deserve immense credit for their political courage and stamina. The leaders of the smaller parties in the Assembly, including the Alliance, the Northern Ireland Womens Coalition and the PUP were also very helpful in creating a climate of support for the context we were seeking to achieve.
The required context was, I believe, finally brought to fruition with the publication on 1 August, following the talks at Weston Park, of the two Governments' proposals on addressing the outstanding issues from the Good Friday Agreement - putting arms beyond use, normalising security arrangements on the ground in Northern Ireland, establishing a policing service that attracts and sustains cross-community support and ensuring the stability and inclusive operation of the Agreement's political institutions. Yesterday's developments provides the catalyst which allows us to fully deliver on all of those outstanding dimensions to the Agreement.
Ceann Comhairle, as I have indicated the events of yesterday would not have been possible without militant republicanism acquiring the vision and the generosity to stretch itself for the public good, without the creation of a political context which enabled that shift and without the various political leaders on these islands who repeatedly took risks. Neither would it have been possible without the professionalism, integrity and endurance of General John de Chastelain and his colleagues on the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. The international community has been an immense resource to the peace process over the last decade. In the IICD, we have been able to draw on the best and the brightest from Canada, the US and Finland to break the impasse on the most difficult issue in the process.