Mr Bertie Ahern, TD on "Northern Ireland:Political Situation and Developments" at 42 Plenary
Our distinguished Chairperson, whom I would like to congratulate on her appointment to the High Court since the Forum last met, has correctly identified some of the major changes that have occurred in the interval. I find myself as Taoiseach and Tony Blair and the British Labour Party in Government in London. But the most important thing is that we again have peace
in this island of Ireland and that we have a multi-party talks process that is open to all and that has surmounted distrust and logjams to a point where there is the beginning of a real and, I believe, potentially fruitful engagement.
Among those represented at the talks, in addition to parties that were with us before in this Forum, are the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition and Labour in Northern Ireland and I thought it appropriate to invite them to participate here. I am glad that they have accepted my invitation. I also thought it desirable, in view of his wide experience and his acknowledged wisdom in this field, to invite Senator Maurice Hayes to take up an individual seat, such as was held by our late, deeply regretted colleague, Gordon Wilson. I am glad that Senator Hayes, too, is now a participant here. Soundings were also taken with the PUP and UDP but it emerged that they would not envisage taking up membership of the Forum. It is clear that this also remains the position of other Unionist parties.
The Government will make every possible effort to reach a fair and balanced settlement on Northern Ireland, a settlement that, as the Chairperson has said, will succeed and will be sustained, as our top priority. Like our predecessors, whose contribution I acknowledge, we have devoted a great deal of time and energy to the peace and political processes. Within weeks of taking office, our efforts had contributed to the restoration of the IRA ceasefire. The next step was the entry of Sinn Fein to the talks. In parallel with that, we focused on breaking the stalemate in regard to decommissioning and getting substantive negotiations under way in the three strands. I acknowledge that progress in the talks has not been as rapid as we all would have wished. But,again, the Government and I took a series of initiatives with the aim of generating momentum in the talks. Following a series of crucial meetings, I believe we have now achieved that aim, with the establishment of a restricted sub-group of the Plenary, charged with preparing by 15 December an agreed statement of the key issues to be resolved and the formats and processes for consideration of those issues. Bilateral and other contacts among delegations will continue during the period of the work of the sub-group which has two representatives per delegation.
Among the sources of inspiration for this approach is the former Drafting Committee of this Forum. As you have said, Chairperson, this is not the only way in which the earlier work of this Forum helped to lay the ground for the stage we have reached today. I take this opportunity to say how greatly successive Governments have, I know, valued the qualities you brought to your
role here and the way in which you steered the Forum. I have no doubt that it is largely to these that the Forum and its earlier work owed the excellent reputation they acquired.
I referred to steps the Government took to help generate momentum. Today's meeting is another step in that programme. But, as you acknowledged, Chairperson, the multi-party negotiations are now, and must remain, the primary focus of all our efforts. That is why I proposed that meetings of the reconvened Forum should be occasional, say every two or three months. The
talks process is necessarily confidential but I believe that meetings of the Forum, with the involvement of the parties which are not participating in the talks, will help in the development of the public debate, particularly here in the Republic, that is necessary as we move hopefully towards being able to validate an agreement by referendums.
There will be further steps in building momentum next week, when I visit the talks and later, when I again meet Prime Minister Blair in Luxembourg. In the following week, I shall have a meeting with President Clinton in Washington. I may add that while the previous Governments here and in London had an intensity of contact on the telephone that considerably exceeded previous benchmarks, the frequency with which Tony Blair and I and also our officials talk together on Northern Ireland matters is also unprecedented. I venture to say that he and I
have developed an excellent relationship which, I hope, will stand us all in good stead as the two Governments, with the Independent Chairmen, try to give leadership and focus to the talks.
As part of that, I recently met the leadership of the Ulster Unionist Party. We had an excellent meeting which, I believe, helped considerably in the task of building mutual trust and confidence. I hope to meet the Unionist leadership again next week.
I know that some will say that there was a setback earlier this week. I have said in the Dail that certain language used in an interview by the Minister for Foreign Affairs went somewhat beyond what is the Irish Government's position on a North-South Body but that was quickly corrected by the Minster himself. I am glad that the clarification was speedily accepted and that people did not dwell on it but, on the contrary, came into the review plenary and reached a positive
agreement on a fresh approach to taking the negotiations forward constructively.
It may, however, be helpful, if, with the parties from Northern Ireland present here today, I repeat what I said on our position in the Dail on Tuesday last.
In regard to Strand II, the North-South body is critical to any agreement to which Nationalists could give their allegiance. Of course, for such an agreement to be reached there would have to be Unionist agreement to the Body and its functions. That is self-evident. The Body is not perceived by us as a vehicle for taking over the government of Northern Ireland against the wishes of a majority there. That was the wrong interpretation put by some on the Minister's comments. Rather, it would provide a focus for practical action at island level, for which there is ample scope, as well as for the necessary institutional expression of the Irish identity of Northern Nationalists.
The agreement will have to be based on the three strand process. The Government is focused on the practicalities involved in North-South co-operation. These will largely shape the functions to be exercised by a North-South body and functional agencies that would report to it and the ways in which they will operate. I discussed this matter at some length with Mr. Trimble ten days ago.
The Government believe that such co-operation inherently makes sense in many areas. We believe that arrangements can be put in place which will advantage all of the island, both in practical terms and in securing that acceptance of the agreement on the part of Nationalists which will ensure its stability. These issues and arrangements will be considered fully in the negotiations, and I believe that we can get an outcome that will have the support and agreement
of all sides.
The Government are, of course, conscious of the emphasis that is laid on the East-West dimension by Unionists, and we are, ourselves, very mindful of the unique relationships that exist within these islands - islands of the North Atlantic or IONA as some have termed them. Reflecting that, we are open to innovative approaches to the institutional expression of the East-West relationships that are the focus, in part, of Strand Three in the Talks. But we have to take account of the totality of relationships and, for Nationalists, North-South institutions have an importance in their own right, independent of any wider "these islands" framework. That is not to say that there may not be scope for a constructive interaction and cross-fertilisation between the North-South and the East-West dimensions, so long as there is a clear recognition of the economic and political realities that determine the respective intensity of relations on the two axes.
Time limits prevent me from elaborating further on our approach in the negotiations, so far as it would be appropriate to do so. But let me say this much. The Government in Dublin stand fully over the commitments we made in regard to balanced constitutional change - I emphasise that word "balanced" - in the Joint Framework Document. We have been re-examining how best to carry those commitments into effect, and we will be prepared to discuss these matters fully and openly in the negotiations, recognising the legitimate interests of other parties in both jurisdictions in this subject.
Fianna Fail and the Government I lead are committed to achieving an agreement from these talks. We want a settlement. There is an unprecedented opportunity which we cannot allow to slip away from us.
I welcome the return of the Forum, Madam Chairperson, and I hope that our deliberations today will play their part in moving us towards the objectives I have just mentioned.