Minister addresses Dáil on British Irish Agreement Bill
A Cheann Comhairle
I am honoured to have this opportunity to join the Taoiseach in commending the British-Irish Agreement Bill to the House. It represents a major step forward in the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, and so in the transformation from conflict and division to peace and co-operation.
The vision of Good Friday is being underpinned and reinforced by the solid, detailed work of institution-building, and this Bill will, when enacted, put many of the key elements on to our statute book. Taken together with the Northern Ireland Act passed at Westminister last autumn, and with the British Order in regard to the Implementation Bodies now going through their legislative process, it will allow for the establishment of the North/South and British-Irish structures envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement.
Yesterday I signed, with Secretary of State Mowlam, four international agreements supplementing the British-Irish Agreement signed on Good Friday. I move that the House approve the terms of these agreements, in accordance with the provisions of Article 29.5.2 of the Constitution.
The most substantial of the agreements signed yesterday is that establishing the Implementation Bodies, which forms the basis of the great bulk of the Bill now before the House. The Good Friday Agreement itself said relatively little about the Bodies. They would have a "clear operational remit" and would "implement on an all island and cross-community basis policies" agreed in the North/South Ministerial Council. They would also be funded on the basis that they "constitute a necessary public function." An indicative list of twelve possible areas for North/South co-operation and implementation was set out. A key element, from our point of view, was an absolute commitment that the two Governments would make the necessary legislative and other enabling preparations to ensure that the bodies, once agreed, would function at the time of the entry into force of the British-Irish Agreement and the transfer of powers to the Assembly.
The essential compromise made on Good Friday in relation to the Bodies was that all of the detail - including even the areas in which they were to operate - was deferred to later negotiation. In return, there was a commitment that the Bodies would have to be established, and be ready to function alongside all of the other structures as a key part of the overall institutional balance.
The first phase of that later negotiation - in which we were heavily involved - culminated in the agreement reached on 18 December among the Northern Ireland parties which identified the areas in which the six Bodies would be established, and gave a broad description of their functions. It was significant that three of the agreed areas weren't in the earlier indicative list. Trade and Business Development, and Language, were both priorities of ours, and of the nationalist parties. Food Safety was a UUP proposal, the attractiveness and potential value of which was immediately apparent, and to which we were very happy to accede. Indeed the importance of the food safety issue, and the logic of treating it on an all-island basis, has become more and more obvious, in the light of growing public interest and concern.
Immediately after the Christmas break the two Governments began to work intensively to put flesh on the bones of what had been agreed in December. In broad terms, we had to do five things. First, we had to work out, in greater detail, how the agreed functions would be exercised - in the terms of Good Friday, we had to give the Bodies "a clear operational remit." Secondly, we had to agree a whole range of common provisions in regard to accountability and reporting, financial and personnel principles, and the rights of citizens in respect of the Bodies. Thirdly, we had to agree how the individual Bodies would be structured. Fourthly, we had to work out, in broad terms, what the Bodies would require in terms of funding and staffing, both in the start-up phase and later on. Finally, we had to agree a legal framework which would give us sufficient certainty that the agreements reached on all these issues would be maintained and delivered.
While the primary role was for the two Governments to play, it was politically essential that the Northern Ireland parties were broadly satisfied.
I am satisfied that all of these objectives were adequately, indeed amply, realised in the supplementary agreement signed yesterday, as reflected in the Bill. The Taoiseach has outlined the essential elements of what was agreed. I would stress the particular importance, from our viewpoint, in ensuring that all of these elements were contained within the text of an international agreement, which offers the maximum possible confidence that what has been agreed will be followed through.
The annexes to the agreement contain a great deal of detail, while its main Articles set out the guiding principles. Article 1 of the agreement establishes and names the Bodies. Article 2 provides a link to the detailed annexes. Article 3 restates the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement in relation to funding and to the accountability of the Bodies to the North/South Ministerial Council (the chain will lead through the Council back to the Houses of the Oireachtas and the Assembly). Article 5 relates to future amendment of the functions and detailed arrangements: while this will be formally for the two Governments, we envisage that in practice any changes will be on the basis of a decision of the North/South Ministerial Council.
An important additional safeguard put in place yesterday was that, in an exchange of letters between the Secretary of State and myself, we agreed that the two Attorneys-General will consult and co-operate as necessary in order to address any problems which may arise concerning the interpretation and application of our respective domestic legislation in regard to the Bodies. The two Governments are also committed to taking all the appropriate steps should problems arise. I should say, however, that the adoption of an approach under which most of the substantive detail is contained in an agreement between the two Governments, rather than in separate legislation, ought to minimise the risk of divergent judicial interpretation.
None of this was easy. It took a great deal of hard work of a highly technical character, guided at all times by an awareness of the political sensitivity of many of the issues involved. I would wish to join the Taoiseach in paying tribute to the role played by our colleagues in Government and their officials. I want to place on the record of the House that, without exception, the approach of all of the Departments involved has been positive, constructive and imaginative, and that their commitment and determination have been remarkable.
Yesterday at Dublin Castle I also congratulated Secretary of State Mowlam, Paul Murphy and their officials. This was a collaborative venture, as it had to be. British negotiators - most of whom were officials of the Northern Ireland Civil Service - also worked extraordinarily hard and effectively, in a pragmatic and constructive spirit. The contrast with what one reads about the post-Sunningdale experience was striking, but I have to say that it reflected the ever-growing amount of practical co-operation between North and South, within the public sector and beyond, over the past decade or so.
The Northern parties have also approached the matter in a realistic and positive way, and I want to pay tribute to the roles played by David Trimble and Séamus Mallon and their advisors and colleagues, as well as by the Sinn Féin leadership.
All of this bodes well for the future of North/South co-operation under the Agreement. The success of the Bodies themselves will depend not just on what is legally provided for, but on the energy and creativity of their Boards, where these exist, and their staff. But I am satisfied that the arrangements now in place, while they will need to be actively implemented, provide an excellent springboard.
In the longer run, of course, the most significant motor of North/South co-operation will be the North/South Ministerial Council, which will bring our two administrations together in a systematic and structured way and on a regular and frequent basis. It will oversee the Implementation Bodies and take forward co-operation in the other areas agreed in December, but it will also allow for the spotlight to be shone on all sectors and on all issues of mutual interest or having the potential for co-operative action.
The supplementary agreement on the Council signed yesterday was largely of a technical character. The Good Friday Agreement, of course, dealt fully with the role and composition of the Council. However, I am pleased to say that detailed work is continuing at official level both on the practical arrangements for the Council's inaugural meeting, and on future procedural arrangements, including in regard to its Secretariat, which will be headed at a senior level on both sides. While a final decision has yet to be taken, the likely location is Armagh, the historic and symbolic resonance of which is apparent. Naturally, the timing of these developments depends crucially on the formation of an Executive in Northern Ireland, but I can assure the House that all of the necessary preparations are well in hand.
In accordance with the provisions of Strand Two of the Good Friday Agreement the Bill provides for the designation by the Taoiseach of those Ministers or Ministers of State who are to deal with the business of the Council or to attend any particular meeting of it. A parallel provision was made in the British Northern Ireland Act.
Analogous provision is made in respect of participation in the British-Irish Council, about which a similar technical supplementary agreement was signed yesterday. Again, useful work has been proceeding at official level to work out detailed procedural arrangements for this Council, and to prepare a possible work programme, which might include such issues as transport, the environment (including Sellafield), education issues, and cultural and sporting matters. While the future operation of the British-Irish Council will in practice depend heavily on the approach to be taken by its members, including the as-yet unformed administrations in Scotland and Wales, our Consulates in Edinburgh and Cardiff report consistent interest - as indeed is reflected in today's Irish Times.
The final agreement signed yesterday concerns the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, which is to replace the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference established in 1985, and which will promote bilateral co-operation between the two Governments on all matters of mutual interest, including in particular non-devolved Northern Ireland matters (with the discussion of which members of the Northern Ireland Executive will be involved). Again, all of the necessary practical preparations are well in hand.
All in all, therefore, we are putting in place everything which is necessary for the entry into force of the British-Irish Agreement. In parallel, the reorganisation of Northern Ireland Departments, and the adoption of standing orders by the Assembly, will together allow for the Strand One institutions to function as planned.
But, to adapt a mantra of the Talks, nothing will work until everything is working. All of the institutions have to come into place together. That means that the difficulties over the formation of the Executive have to be resolved - and resolved, in accordance with the effective deadline to which we are now working, before Easter. The problems are manifest. We all know what they are, and we realise how little space unionist and republican political leaders have to move through them. It is important that they continue to talk, and that all possible assistance is given to General de Chastelain and his Commission in their work. The two Governments will together make every effort necessary to encourage and achieve a breakthrough.
But the opportunities with which we are presented are also manifest. Those opportunities, and how they are to be realised, have been made more tangible by yesterday's agreements and by this Bill. The day-to-day work of co-operation and partnership may lack the intensity of division and conflict. But it is that steady, painstaking work which will give to all of our people, North and South, nationalist and unionist, the future which they want and deserve. It would be quite literally an outrage against our deepest hopes and aspirations were we now to fail. The tragic absurdity of that possibility is surely the most powerful possible incentive to success.Top