Address to Seanad Éireann, 4th April 2007 - Political Developments in Northern Ireland
Remarks by the Minister for Foreign Affairs
Private Members - Seanad Éireann
4 April 2007
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Thank You Cathaoirleach,
It is my pleasure to be here this evening to participate in this timely debate on Northern Ireland.
The Seanad has given consistent encouragement and support for the Government’s efforts in the peace process.
Many Senators present have played distinguished roles in bringing us to where we are today. I know that nobody will object if I acknowledge the particular contributions of Senators Martin Mansergh and Maurice Hayes.
It is just over a year – February 2006 - since I participated in a comprehensive debate on Northern Ireland issues in this House.
Now, just a little over a year later, we have come a long, long way.
The meeting last week between the DUP and Sinn Féin at Stormont achieved what few believed possible even a few short months ago – a solid basis for genuine, sustainable power sharing Government in Northern Ireland.
No one could see the pictures we saw that morning and hear the words that were spoken without feeling real hope for the future.
It is worth standing back a little this evening to reflect on the path to that moment.
The path to restoration
When I spoke in this House in February 2006, the two Governments were about to embark on a concerted effort to achieve restoration of the institutions, following developments in 2005 which saw the Provisional IRA declare an end to their armed campaign and subsequent confirmation of decommissioning.
Those developments changed the context within which we had been working to restore trust and confidence in a political process which had been hampered by a series of events over a number of years.
They gave us a basis on which we could begin to re-engage with the parties to rebuild political momentum.
I said to you last February that the Governments’ job was to convince all sides of their political responsibility, as leaders of society, to complete the journey to a fully inclusive, stable and peaceful Northern Ireland.
And so, later that month, Peter Hain and I began intensive discussions with the parties to try and build the confidence needed to move the politics forward.
2006 was punctuated by formal talks and informal contacts with the parties, ultimately culminating in the talks in Scotland last October which led to the St Andrews Agreement.
The St Andrews Agreement underpins the Good Friday Agreement. It set out a clear way forward for all parties to commit to the full operation of stable power-sharing government in Northern Ireland and to full support for policing and the criminal justice institutions.
All-party support for policing and the criminal justice institutions came earlier this year with the decision at the Sinn Féin special Ard Fheis in January to support policing as set out in the St. Andrews Agreement and subsequent delivery on the ground on that commitment.
Then on 7 March – less than four weeks ago – elections were held to the Northern Ireland Assembly. The results showed overwhelming support for power-sharing among the people. Political parties who campaigned against progress simply did not get votes. The mandate for Northern Ireland’s politicians was clear.
In the days that followed the election and in the run up to 26 March, intensive negotiations took place involving parties and governments.
And on 26 March we saw Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams sit down together and agree to share power from 8 May onwards in the devolved institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. They also agreed to carry out important advance preparatory work for Government.
The Governments agreed to accommodate this new requested date for restoration in view of the absolute commitment to the restoration of the Good Friday Agreement institutions by 8 May, and the intensive preparations for government about to commence.
Those preparations are now well underway.
Ministries have already been informally allocated among the parties. Ian Paisley and Martin McGuinness have been meeting as future First and Deputy First Ministers.
This initial work is very encouraging. It augurs well for the future stability of the power-sharing Government.
More fundamentally, it heralds a new chapter in the history of this island.
A new partnership
A further important signal of emerging positive political relationships on this island was the meeting I attended this morning at Farmleigh with Ian Paisley, future First Minister.
The Taoiseach and I had a very friendly and a very businesslike discussion with him on a range of matters of mutual interest.
Dr. Paisley accepted the Taoiseach’s invitation to make an early visit to the Battle of the Boyne site to review the excellent work being done there to preserve and enhance our shared history and heritage.
We assured Dr. Paisley that we stand ready to work with the new Executive in a spirit of sincere and genuine friendship.
We also underlined our commitment to invest in infrastructure projects, benefiting North and South, under the National Development Plan.
For it is clear that a major challenge we both face, North and South, is securing prosperity and economic growth. By working together on an all-island basis we can better deliver for all of our citizens.
For the first time, the Irish Government is making a major investment in infrastructure development in Northern Ireland, announced together with the Chancellor’s financial package on 22 March.
We will invest over €580 million to address the major infrastructure deficit in the North West. The agreement to develop a dual carriageway standard road to Derry and Donegal removes the single greatest impediment to the future development of the North West and the border counties.
In the National Development Plan the Government has set out proposals for a number of further initiatives including restoration of the Ulster Canal, the bridge at Narrow Water between Co. Louth and Co. Down, co-operation in the provision of public services and further all-island development funds in areas such as tourism and regional development.
I look forward to working with the incoming Northern Ireland Executive to bring all these proposals to fruition and to an open dialogue on practical, mutually-beneficial co-operation.
Restoration will mean that the North-South Ministerial Council will be active once again, with Ministers from both parts of the island engaging on important issues for the mutual benefit of our people. When the Council met in the past Ministers from both parts of the island made outstanding efforts to pursue the common commitment to advance cooperation. A functioning Executive will also be able to play its full part in the work of the British-Irish Council.
Restoration will also mean that the North/South Bodies can once again function fully. There is significant work for them to do.
8 May next will therefore stimulate a new level of North/South engagement and cooperation. I know that Senators will be interested in the development of the North-South Parliamentary Forum as envisaged at St Andrews. There will also be further discussion on the establishment of an East-West Inter-Parliamentary Framework following appropriate consultation with the British-Irish Inter Parliamentary Body.
I know many of you here are committed and active members of the Body, which has played such a valuable role in developing mutual understanding and good relations between Ireland and Britain.
As we move into this new phase, we are committed to developing an enduring partnership between the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive. A partnership founded on prosperity as well as peace.
We could not have come this far without the consistent political and practical support of our friends around the world, particularly in the United States.
Our friends in the US Administration, in Congress and across Irish America – made the search for lasting peace in Northern Ireland their concern.
Successive American Presidents have stood firm with the British and Irish Governments as they sought to bring this process to conclusion.
Our friends in Congress have helped keep international focus on developments in Northern Ireland. Their views and input have been critical. Earlier today I was delighted to host a lunch for a Congressional delegation led by Richie Neal, Chairman of the Friends of Ireland. Indeed, I understand the delegation was here in the Chamber this morning to observe your discussions. I want to record my special thanks to Richie and to his predecessor, Congressman Jim Walsh, for their tireless work for peace in Northern Ireland.
The American Government and people have also shown their support and their generosity through their contributions to the International Fund for Ireland, the American Ireland Fund and other programmes.
Our partners in the EU too have been with us all the way. Their concrete assistance through the PEACE programme and the International Fund for Ireland has successfully promoted economic development, reconciliation and cross border collaboration.
We look now at a Northern Ireland where peace and democracy has triumphed and where partnership Government will be restored on 8 May. This is a success for the international community which has been so steadfast in its support for the peace process and it is a powerful message of hope for others across the globe who are struggling with violence and division in their societies.
While this is undoubtedly a time full of hope and expectation for Northern Ireland, it is also a time to ponder some of the challenges ahead in achieving lasting reconciliation.
Notwithstanding progress on the political front, dealing with the legacy of division remains one of our greatest tests.
We have seen this played out around contentious parades in the past. Although last year saw the quietest Marching Season in decades, the issue continues to evoke high emotions which can all too readily lead to sharper tensions, instability and violence.
However, the progress made in recent months and in particular since St Andrews has surely taught us that no problem, however intractable it may appear, is beyond resolution.
I would urge all those involved around parading on both sides to reflect on the new beginning at the political level and to renew their determination to find workable agreed solutions locally, leaving behind the politics of confrontation and negativity.
In moving forward, we also recognise that there is an ongoing need to address the needs of victims and to deal with the painful legacy of the past.
In the Good Friday Agreement, the two Governments recognised that it “is essential to acknowledge and address the suffering of the victims of violence as a necessary element of reconciliation.”
Since that time, the Government’s work on implementation of the Agreement has been informed by the needs of the victims of the conflict. It is true that all of Irish society, north and south, has been affected by that conflict. But it is the victims, and their families, who have carried the biggest burden of personal loss and injury.
In their respective statements of 26 March last, Ian Paisley and Gerry Adams acknowledged this. They both spoke of those who have suffered and they evoked a collective responsibility to build the best future possible as the only fitting testimony to the tragic past. The Government wholeheartedly agrees with these sentiments.
It is fair to say that, as progress has been made on the political front, issues from the past have continued to emerge. This is as a result of several factors, including an increased expectation that victims from both sides will be heard, and listened to, in an atmosphere where cooperation and dialogue have improved to an unprecedented degree.
In addition to the improved political climate, the work of the Interim Victims’ Commissioner, the Historical Enquiries Team and the Police Ombudsman - as well as other non-governmental initiatives such as “Healing Through Remembering” - have contributed a better understanding of how to deal with the past.
Inquiries have also played and continue to play an important role in addressing deeply troubling aspects of the Northern Ireland conflict. Regrettably however, we still await the setting-up of an independent public inquiry into the murder of Patrick Finucane, which all parties represented in the Oireachtas have called for.
In our own jurisdiction, we have had a number of reports by Justices Hamilton and Barron, and follow-up Oireachtas Reports, into deeply troubling incidents in the 1970s.
Most recently, the MacEntee Commission of Investigation has been examining aspects of the Dublin and Monaghan Bombings of 1974. The Commission’s report has been shown to the families today and is being published this evening. I know that members of the Oireachtas will want to read the Commission report and consider its findings in detail.
I can assure you that the Government takes any allegations of collusion seriously. It is an issue which will remain on the agenda of our meetings with the British Government at the highest levels and which we will continue to address.
I want to restate this evening the Government’s commitment to working with victims and to facilitating them in resolving issues which remain fresh in their minds many years after the events concerned.
Those who have suffered in the past deserve a legacy which is as positive as possible. Their personal stories have inspired us and they have reminded us, when progress was slow, of the reason why we had to keep working towards a political resolution.
The achievement of a peaceful and just society will be the true memorial to the victims of violence. This was explicitly recognised in the Good Friday Agreement. Today we are another step closer to that achievement.
In conclusion Cathaoirleach, let me reiterate my thanks to this House for supporting the Government’s efforts thus far.
In partnership and cooperation with the British Government and the parties in the North, we are determined to ensure that the final steps of the peace process are successfully completed.