Statement by Mr Brian Cowen, TD, Minister for Foreign Affairs, in Seanad debate on Northern Ireland, 24 February 2000
I am very pleased to participate in this House's debate on the peace process. I do so deeply conscious that it is an issue to which the Seanad has attached the highest priority, as you are demonstrating again with this debate today. By the same token, it will come as no surprise to you that, as Minister for Foreign Affairs, there is no issue among my responsibilities to which I attach greater importance.
These are undoubtedly difficult times in the process. The problems which gave rise to the suspension of the Executive and the Assembly have served as a sharp reminder that conflict resolution is a long haul business. Mutual mistrust, suspicion and recrimination continue to have a major impact on relations between all sides. The pessimists who have long argued that our problems are insoluble appear to have been given more evidence in support of their case.
But the strong message that I and the Government want to leave with this House today is that the problems we face can and will be resolved. The bottom line is that the fundamentals in this process are sound. We are quantum leaps ahead of where we have ever been before. Quite simply, we are not going to let this go. All of us involved, whether at the level of the two Governments, the parties and indeed the people, North and South, have invested too much to let that happen. I am certain that this is a view very much shared by the Members of this House.
At the heart of our optimism is the Good Friday Agreement. No matter what way you look at it, the Good Friday Agreement got it right. I am thinking in terms of its comprehensiveness. I am thinking of the honourable accommodation that it has charted in terms of the core constitutional questions which have dogged relations in and between these islands since the 1920s. Very particularly, I am thinking of the imaginative new institutions reflecting the three central sets of relationships, institutions which the Taoiseach very rightly recently described as the heart-beat of the Agreement, and about which I want to say more in a moment. I am thinking of the valuable arrangements on the equality agenda, which, quite properly, put a human rights culture at the heart of the new dispensation. I am thinking of the provision that has been made for issues which I could broadly describe as part of the transition from conflict to peace - the normalisation of security, reform of the policing and criminal justice systems, prisoners and the decommissioning of arms. And finally, and very crucially, there is the Agreement's provision, first mooted by John Hume, that its terms should be validated by simultaneous referendum, North and South.
The Good Friday Agreement is the template for the future, and has been massively endorsed as such by the people of this island, North and South. The fact that we have such a template profoundly distinguishes the difficulties we currently face from crises we have faced in the past. Then, we had nothing to go back to. Each time, we had to begin again. And all the while, violence continued on a daily basis. On this occasion, we have undoubtedly suffered a setback. But it is no more than that. What is hugely significant is that all of the parties remain totally committed to the Good Friday Agreement as the only way forward. Opinion polls consistently make clear that this approach continues to be endorsed by the overwhelming majority of the people, North and South. And, thankfully, despite the difficulties, peace has held and held strongly.
A Chathaoirligh, I referred a moment ago to the importance of the new institutions.
Their record in the brief period since 2 December is further very real comfort to us as we address our current difficulties. It will be recalled that before the institutions went live, the sceptics were arguing that the new structures were too complex and too complicated and that they would never work. In particular, they argued that an involuntary four-party coalition was a guaranteed recipe for paralysis. Well, one of the new pieces of information that we now have which we did not have three months ago is that the sceptics were wrong. This process works. And the people like it. They like that local politicians, accountable to them, should take decisions on matters of critical importance to their daily lives. And decisions were taken by that Executive and Assembly. About hospitals, about schools, about roads. Sure, not everybody would have agreed with every decision. But they liked the new dispensation and the potential that it held. And they want it back.
Tremendous strides were also taken in that brief period in terms of the new North/South institutions. The North/South Ministerial Council met five times, beginning with the historic Inaugural Plenary Meeting, which I had the privilege to attend in Armagh on 13 December last. This has been followed in the New Year by four meetings of the North/South Council in what is called its Sectoral Format. These meetings covered Trade and Business Development, Education, Health and Food Safety matters and the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission. Serviced by the new North/South Joint Secretariat based in Armagh, Council meetings in several more Sectors were planned for the coming weeks. The six North/South Implementation Bodies are up and running and pressing on with their important remits. In the cases of all the areas covered by the Council, major programmes of work are being planned. On the basis of the work and the meetings to date, we can rightly have high hopes about the potential which the new institutions have in terms of tangible benefits for all the people of this island.
The new North/South structures will also bring tremendous benefits in terms of deepening bonds and mutual understanding between the traditions on the island. Already, in the short period since 2 December, John Hume's prediction that it is in the working together on issues of common concern that the real healing process will take place has been shown to have been absolutely correct. In that regard, I want to acknowledge the very positive approach that the unionist Ministers have brought to their engagement in the North/South Ministerial Council to date. They have made clear that they recognise the potential that exists for very real mutual benefit by the North/South process and want to develop that potential to the maximum. It is an approach which bodes very positively for the future.
Meanwhile, in East-West terms, the Inaugural Meetings of the British/Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference have taken place and there is a strong determination on all sides to ensure that the undoubted potential which exists in this axis is also realised to the full. I am confident that, through these institutions, and through fora such as the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body, whose membership includes some distinguished Members of this House, we are on the threshold of a hugely positive new era in relations between these islands.
A Chathaoirligh, all of these factors seem to me powerful arguments for the case that
in seeking to break the current impasse, we are building on extremely solid and stable foundations.
The impasse, of course, is, once more, centred on the inter-action between the institutions and decommissioning. It is a conundrum which we had hoped we had cracked in the Mitchell Review. The Government still believe that in that Review process much progress was made, particularly in terms of deepening mutual understanding, and while there is clearly some further way to go before a definitive resolution has been found, the Mitchell process undoubtedly moved us forward.
For one thing, it underlined again the central role of the de Chastelain Commission in resolving the decommissioning crux. The importance of that factor cannot be over-stated in terms of resolving our latest difficulties. The Good Friday Agreement, and the Mitchell Review, make abundantly clear that primacy on the question of decommissioning rests with General de Chastelain and his colleagues in the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning.
A Chathoirligh, that is why the Taoiseach and the Government attach such importance to the Commission's Report of Friday the 11th of February. That statement changes the context. It is the floor from which we can now build a resolution of this problem. In it, the Commission state in categorical terms that they believe that the new commitment that they have received from the IRA "holds out the real prospect of an agreement which would enable it to fulfill the substance of its mandate". Think about those words. In the welter of charge and counter-charge that followed the suspension of the institutions, their import has been lost. They are in my view profoundly important. What we have is the body charged by the Good Friday Agreement with resolving the issue of arms formally stating its assessment that it will be able to fulfill its mandate. It did so on the basis of detailed inter-action with the representative of the IRA and with those of the loyalist paramilitaries.
What is now essential, and what the Government is seeking actively to do in tandem with the British Government and the parties, is to build on the critical progress that has been reported by the Commission.
The role of the two Governments in the next phase will be central. I think this House will agree with me that the close co-operation between the two Governments has been essential to the securing of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process as a whole. In particular, there has rightly been huge praise for the dedication and commitment to the process demonstrated by the Taoiseach and by Prime Minister Blair. Certainly from my short few weeks as Minister for Foreign Affairs, I can testify to this House to the enormous energy and time which the Taoiseach (Bertie Ahern) puts into this process. I am sure that the same is true in the case of Prime Minister Blair. Nobody denies that there were some differences of emphasis between the two Governments on the issue of the suspension of the Executive and the Assembly a couple of weeks ago, but as the Taoiseach has made clear, we have put those differences behind us and we are moving forward together. It is another sign of the new maturity in Anglo-Irish relations that we have been able to do so quickly. I have and will remain in close touch with Secretary of State Mandelson and the Taoiseach remains in the closest contact with Prime Minister Blair.
Of course, this can't be done without the parties. Their commitment to this process has been immense and it is right in this debate in this House that we should acknowledge that again today. I believe that history will judge the leaderships of the pro-Agreement parties in very positive terms.
As the largest party in the Assembly, a special debt of gratitude is owed to the SDLP, under the leadership of John Hume and Séamus Mallon. In many respects, the vision of the Good Friday Agreement is their vision. John Hume's wisdom and clarity of thought have been profoundly important to the charting of a new way forward on this island. They will continue to be so. Séamus Mallon has been outstanding as Deputy First Minister and has demonstrated in that office a breadth of qualities that we always knew was there, but that simply did not have the opportunity to be expressed until now. Similarly, Mark Durkan, Seán Farren, Bríd Rodgers and Denis Haughey as Ministers in the Executive have underlined the tremendous contribution to wider society that the SDLP can make and which they will bring to bear again once the institutions are re-instated. It is a contribution which has been deeply valued by every Irish Government of the last 30 years, none more so than that of which I am a member.
As leader of the UUP, David Trimble has shown vision and courage in the most trying of circumstances, with the active assistance of senior colleagues such as John Taylor, Reg Empey and Ken Maginnis. David Trimble had brought those same qualities to the position of First Minister and his relationship with Séamus Mallon in the Office of the First and Deputy First Ministers was a tangible manifestation in personal terms of the positive power of the new dispensation. Might I add that we value also the new positive spirit which has developed between the UUP and the parties in the Houses of the Oireachtas under the current leadership of the party.
Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness have ensured, by their skilled leadership, a central place in the process for Sinn Féin. The party's Ministers, Martin McGuinness and Bairbre de Brún, have played a very positive and constructive role in the Executive and the North/South Ministerial Council. The commitment of the party to the ending of conflict and to exclusively peaceful politics is beyond doubt and, despite the huge demands that this will make on those involved in personal terms, the leadership will have a critical role to play in the breaking of the current impasse.
Similarly, great credit is owed to Seán Neeson and Séamus Close of the Alliance Party, David Ervine and Billy Hutchinson of the PUP, Monica McWilliams and Jane Morrice of the Women's Coalition and Gary McMichael and David Adams of the UDP, for the strengths and qualities they have brought to the process; separately and collectively, they are making a truly critical contribution to the ending of conflict and the building of a better future.
I have deliberately paid express tribute to the leaderships of each of the pro-Agreement parties, because I believe that in the hurly-burly of politics it is easy to overlook that, in the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland, there are enormous personal demands made on these people. That personal dimension is often overlooked and it is only right in this debate that we should mark it. I have had but a brief glimpse of the pace of Northern politics in the last few weeks and I am here to tell you that it is indeed intense! Many of these people have operated at this pace for decades, and at great personal risk and cost. They deserve our very real gratitude and admiration.
Last week I met with all of the pro-Agreement parties in the Assembly, including during my visit to Belfast. Our discussions were positive and frank. Inevitably, I encountered a wide range of views. I also found many of the parties frustrated with the fact that they are caught up in a situation not of their own making. But I was deeply impressed by the commitment on all sides to finding a way forward out of the present situation and to making the Agreement work. Furthermore, the parties all appreciate that the resolution of our difficulties can only be found on an inclusive basis, and that the institutions too must operate inclusively.
A Chathaoirligh, it is the business of Governments to solve problems and to find solutions. I am confident that, given the rock that we are building on, the rock that is the Good Friday Agreement, and given the commitment and determination of the parties, the two Governments will ensure that a way through our current difficulties is found. Our objective was, and firmly remains, the crafting of a future of peace, prosperity, and partnership for all the people of this island. I know that the Government have the full support of the Seanad for this noble and achievable objective. Top