Minister's Interview with Mark Simpson, Belfast Telegraph
Minister's Interview with Mark Simpson, Belfast Telegraph, 5 September 1997
What does the Government hope to get out of the talks?
With cease-fires in place, Northern Ireland now enjoys peace. It needs a political settlement that can reconcile the two traditions within a framework that accommodates their respective identities which, in the past, have come into conflict.
The only way to ensure that there is no future return to conflict is to secure a settlement acceptable to all sides. These negotiations are a gateway to such a settlement. The Government wants all parties to go through that gate. The two governments are doing everything in their power to encourage inclusive participation in the negotiations. What we want is a negotiated settlement which can be put to the people for approval in referenda, North and South.
The two Governments set out the purpose of the talks in the Ground Rules. We want to achieve a new beginning for relations within Northern Ireland, within the island of Ireland and between the peoples of these islands, and to agree new institutions and structures to take account of the totality of relationships.
We want to build a lasting peace and to banish the gun from the politics of these islands.
We are determined to achieve peace and economic prosperity for all the people on this island. That is the challenge to, and the duty of, all politicians, whether their names be Ahern, Blair, Burke, Trimble, Hume or that of any other party leader.
For any agreement to work, it must have widespread support among the people. Neither Government is interested in imposing a solution. There has been enough of that in the history of this island. Both Governments are fully committed to the principle of consent.
There is absolutely no ambiguity about the consent principle, which was set out clearly in the Downing Street Declaration of 1993. It is clear that there can be no change in the status of Northern Ireland other than with the consent of a majority of the people there. The consent principle is not a recipe for one community to assert its rights at the expense of others. In a society such as Northern Ireland, where the minority community comprises 43% of the population, both communities need to consent to the arrangements for their government. In the negotiations, we must search for solutions to our divisions that can secure the consent of both traditions.
Successive Irish Governments have affirmed their commitment to this principle in the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Downing Street Declaration and the Framework Document. The consent principle commands the support, not just of the Irish Government, but of all the main political parties in Dáil Eireann. The Joint Declaration expresses it very clearly - "it would be wrong to attempt to impose a united Ireland in the absence of the freely given consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland".
The Governments recognised the two-sided nature of the principle of consent by building into the present negotiations the mechanism of sufficient consensus, whereby agreement within the negotiations would require the support of both Governments and of parties representing a majority in both the unionist and nationalist communities.
Also, by undertaking that any agreement must be approved by referendums, North and South, the Governments have done all they can to reassure both communities that no outcome will be imposed.
Would the Government settle for less that the Framework Document, i.e. less than a cross-border body with executive powers
It is important to be clear about the precise status of the Framework Document. It represents a shared understanding of the two governments of the parameters of a possible outcome of the negotiations. It does not represent the preferred outcome of any participant at the talks, rather our assessment of where a viable compromise might lay. If someone has a better proposal, we will welcome it being placed on the table.
There is no preconceived outcome to the negotiations. The parties will bring their respective concerns to the table. It is obvious that there will have to be compromise all round. The settlement will have to respect the aspirations of all sides.
I have no intention of setting out in detail and in advance the Irish Government's negotiating approach, but I would say quite emphatically that I cannot see any agreement emerging which does not adequately address all three relationships.
If pressed on Strand 2
The Irish government will be arguing for a new structured relationship between North and South, involving substantial North-South bodies. We can achieve much by working together, particularly in terms of generating mutual economic development leading to shared prosperity. It is common sense that on a small island such as this we should pool executive power where in respect of certain specific functions this can be seen to benefit the people of the whole island - North and South.
Neither can we ignore the symbolic importance of meaningful North-South links to the nationalist community. North-South bodies will allow nationalists to have the sense that their identity and aspirations are reflected in the governance and administration of this island.
In terms of satisfying nationalist aspirations, an acceptance of their Irishness is crucial. I note that in a recent interview David Trimble recognises the need to give expression to the nationalist identity, and I warmly welcome this. North-South bodies are a key instrument for achieving this expression. The work of these will, I believe, have great practical value. I might add that it cannot be in anybody's interest to set up a talking shop in which energies would be endlessly dissipated in fruitless debate.
What, if any, input would Dublin want to a devolved administration in Northern Ireland?
The Irish Government is not involved in the negotiations on strand 1.
In fact, I might point out that the rights which the Irish Government has under the Anglo-Irish Agreement to put forward views and proposals on certain matters relating to Northern Ireland apply only to the extent that those matters are not the responsibility of a devolved administration in Northern Ireland.
The Framework Document makes clear that this broad principle would continue to apply under any new agreement.
What ideas does the Government have on the East-West front?
Despite our troubled history, the people of these islands have a unique relationship, based on family ties, friendships, and shared experience. We are fellow members of the European Union, pooling sovereignty and working together over a wide range of political and economic activity. The public reaction here to the death of Princess Diana represents the most recent illustration of the shared experience that so often unites the peoples of Britain and Ireland.
We will be seeking in the negotiations to make provision for developing cooperation between the governments and both islands on a range of "East--West issues and bilateral matters of mutual interest.
....on the reworking of Articles 2 and 3
In the Downing Street Declaration, the Irish Government confirmed that "in the event of an overall settlement, we will, as part of a balanced constitutional accommodation, put forward and support proposals for change in the Irish constitution which would fully reflect the principle of consent in Northern Ireland".
We will honour that commitment.
If asked about Prime Minister Blair's statement that it would be a useful confidence building measure to amend Articles 2 and 3 before the negotiations.
The Downing Street Declaration was agreed between the two Governments after lengthy negotiations. Obviously, there are ideas in it, which if acted upon in isolation would please one community or the other. The whole thrust of the document, however, points to the need for a balanced approach. This is the approach which informs our attitude to Articles 2 & 3, and constitutional change generally.
If asked about the existence of agreed text for revised Arts. 2&3
Obviously, various texts have been worked on over the years, but I am not aware of any final agreed text. Neither am I going to speculate on what might constitute an acceptable text, other than to say that it would need to reflect the aspirations of the majority of Irish people to unity and the principle of consent in Northern Ireland.
....on the Anglo-Irish Agreement?
The Anglo-Irish Agreement has been in force for more than a decade and has proven its worth as an instrument for effective intergovernmental cooperation. It remains to be seen what the outcome of the political negotiations will be, and the extent to which this might require the provisions of the Anglo-Irish Agreement to be adjusted. But we are talking about a new Agreement between the people on this island and the British Government, which will transcend any previous agreement in existence.
Where are the talks going and can they succeed?
The Talks resume next week when Sinn Fein will be asked to subscribe to the Mitchell Principles. This commitment to a set of democratic principles, following the unequivocal restoration of the 1994 cease-fire, is a major landmark on the road to a peaceful, negotiated settlement.
The Governments are determined that substantive talks should commence on 15 September.
They have done everything in their power to pave the way for successful negotiations. The political parties have an indispensable role to play and I hope they will rise to the challenge involved.
I do not underestimate the difficulties involved for the parties in embarking on this new and challenging path. I am conscious that they will be braking new ground and that is always a difficult thing to do. I very much hope that no party will allow the interests it represents to go by default. With a full range of political interests represented around the table, I am confident that the political process can prove its worth and deliver a viable settlement.
Success in the negotiations will demand the exercise of courage, imagination and compromise on all sides. I believe that these are qualities that the people of Northern Ireland will expect their political representatives to exhibit. With these qualities, I am satisfied that we will be able to achieve a new beginning for relationships within Northern Ireland, within the island of Ireland and between the peoples of these islands.
What message for the UUP and the people of Northern Ireland?
All parties have a responsibility to work together to demonstrate the power of political dialogue. As the biggest party there, the UUP has a major stake in the future of Northern Ireland. It has nothing to fear from the negotiating process. The prize of a peaceful political settlement, capable of winning the consent of unionists and nationalists alike, is a compelling one. I hope that the UUP will grasp this opportunity to play a central part in shaping the future through dialogue. It is only through negotiation that the differences that divide the parties can be addressed and bridged. Some weeks ago, I called for a leap of faith. I repeat that call today. We want the Unionist community fully represented at the table; we would warmly welcome them; they have a central and enormously important and valuable contribution to make, on behalf of their people.
For the people of Northern Ireland, the next year has the potential to be the most productive in their history. We now have a political process with the capability of banishing the bomb and the bullet forever from political life. In the run up to a new century, there is a chance to resolve a centuries-old conflict to the satisfaction of both sides and without the threat of any further loss of life. It cannot serve anyone's interest for this chance to be passed up. Top