Statement by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Mícheal Martin T.D. to Seanad Eireann on Northern Ireland
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Statement by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr. Mícheal Martin T.D. to Seanad Eireann
17 February 2010
Motion: “Seanad Éireann commends the Government for its role in brokering the recent power sharing agreement in Northern Ireland.”
I welcome today’s opportunity to speak to you on the peace process in Northern Ireland and the agreement reached in Hillsborough on 5 February.
As you know, that agreement represented the culmination of many hours of intensive negotiation and engagement on all sides. I believe it provides the basis for the future stability and success of the democratic institutions which we have all worked so hard to create and maintain.
When we most recently discussed Northern Ireland in this House on November 3rd, I began by recalling that many of the breakdowns, delays and loss of momentum in the peace process over the last decade were caused by a failure to fully implement the Good Friday Agreement.
The St. Andrews Agreement, and now the Hillsborough Agreement, are essentially further implementation agreements building on the framework and the vision contained in the Good Friday Agreement.
I want to use this opportunity this evening, to call on all of the parties in Northern Ireland to seize this opportunity to break the cycle of stop-start implementation of these agreements.
I am confident that the public consultation process that the First and deputy first Minister have just launched will demonstrate that the vast majority of people in the North want their political leaders to take forward, with confidence and determination, this latest agreement and implement it in full and on time. If I can add to Sammy Wilson’s phrase, this needs to be a “Made and Implemented in Ulster” deal.
The Taoiseach was right when he said in Hillsborough that what was needed was to get back to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. I also agree with the Rev.Ian Paisley who wrote in the Belfast Newsletter last week that:
“What is important now is that the deal is enacted….If the deal is worthy, own it, don’t ambush it.”
The motion this evening commends the Government for its role in brokering this agreement. I want to take a few moments to explain what the role of the Irish Government and the role of the two governments were in helping to facilitate the Hillsborough Agreement.
It was clear from early September last year that the Northern Ireland parties, in particular, the DUP and Sinn Féin, were having increasing difficulty in agreeing how to move ahead with the devolution of policing and justice powers, which was long overdue. This was partly caused by, and at the same time contributed to, a wider breakdown in the good functioning of the Executive.
Secretary of State Shaun Woodward and I began to meet more regularly through out the autumn as both governments intensified our efforts to encourage and assist the parties to resolve, between them, outstanding issues that would enable the devolution of policing and justice to proceed, and in the process, restore the working relationships at the heart of the power-sharing Executive.
The Taoiseach and Prime Minster Brown were also in frequent contact throughout this period and both governments were in regular contact with the main parties.
Widespread public awareness of the impending breakdown only emerged in December, but by then the two governments had further intensified our efforts to assist the parties, with a meeting between the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Brown on 17 December, where they set out clearly the firm view of the two governments that a reasonable agreement on the early devolution of policing and justice powers and related outstanding issues from St Andrew’s was achievable. It was clear to the two governments at that point, that there was only a matter of weeks at the most for the parties to come to an agreement or else the institutions would be under threat of collapse.
The aim of the two governments throughout this phase was to encourage and assist the parties themselves to reach agreement, but also to be prepared to intervene if the point arrived when it was clear that the parties no longer had the capacity to resolve their differences on their own.
When the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister, accompanied by myself and the Secretary of State met in Downing Street on the morning of January 25th, we had anticipated that the moment to intervene had arrived and we proceeded to Hillsborough to convene all party talks. Our role was not to impose or dictate solutions. Our role was to facilitate and encourage the parties to reach agreement. Of course, the point of departure for us was the need to continue to deliver full implementation of the Good Friday and St Andrew’s Agreements.
Over the first three intensive days the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister worked with the parties to begin to restore trust between them, to focus on the reasonable basis that the governments knew existed for an agreement on the way forward, and to encourage the parties to re-engage directly with each other on the core issues. Progress was slow in this first phase, but it provided the basis for the Taoiseach and Prime Minster to release their statement on the afternoon of 27 January, setting out what they believed to be a fair and reasonable basis for agreement and setting a deadline of Friday 29 January for the parties to reach agreement or the two governments would publish their own proposals.
The second phase of the talks, led by myself and Secretary of State Shaun Woodward, built on the progress that had been made. We focussed on facilitating the parties to re-establish trust and increase their confidence that both sides had the political will to do the deal, which the two governments believed was achievable; and on that basis to increasingly take forward the serious discussions directly with each other. Once we were confident that serious progress was being made, the two governments deferred the publication of our proposals to allow the parties the time and space to take forward their negotiations.
What I might call the third phase was very much about Sinn Féin and the DUP negotiating and concluding the text that was published with the full support and encouragement of the two governments at Hillsborough on February 5th.
It is very important to realize that the political context for the recent talks was very different to any that have gone before. While these talks were convened and facilitated by the two Governments, in the end they were primarily conducted between the parties in Northern Ireland, because, unlike on previous occasions, we have had fully functioning democratic institutions throughout this recent period of political turbulence.
Indeed, the members of the current Northern Ireland Executive have now held office for longer than any of their predecessors since Good Friday of 1998.
While the two Governments have an essential role in upholding the Agreements, and a continuing role in supporting the institutions and the parties as they move forward, it is the parties themselves who had to come to an agreement on this occasion. Both the DUP and Sinn Féin attached significant importance to the fact that it was their deal, done, in the end, between the two main parties. This is how it had to be. The political reality – determined by the electorate at the last Assembly elections – is that the DUP and Sinn Féin are the leading parties. Based on the democratic judgement of the electorate, they provide the First and deputy First Minister and between them can command cross-community support in the Assembly.
However, both Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness acknowledged that it was important that there was broad support for the deal in particular from the other political parties in the Assembly. In the final plenary co-chaired by the Prime Minister and Taoiseach on February 5th, they made clear their willingness to discuss all the elements of the deal with the other parties.
I urge them to continue to work more closely with the other parties in future. In that regard, I welcome the proposals for improving the workings of the Executive and for greater discussion with the other parties, which are part of the agreement. I very much welcome the decision by Sir Reg Empey and Margaret Ritchie to chair the Working Group provided for in the Hillsborough Agreement to review the functioning of the Executive and to come up with proposals for improvement.
I want to congratulate all of the parties around the table that contributed to the positive outcome that was reached on 5 February.
The leadership displayed by the First and deputy First Minister, and their respective party colleagues, was instrumental in achieving the agreement that has been reached.
It still takes considerable political will and leadership to reach out beyond the comfort zones on either side to occupy the shared space where progress and accommodation is to be found. That political will and leadership re-emerged during the long hours we all spent in Hillsborough, and I pay tribute and give full credit to the Sinn Féin and DUP negotiating teams for that achievement.
The DUP and Sinn Féin occupy a joint office which is at the heart of devolved government in the North and thus their capacity to engage with each other and reach accommodations is crucial to the stability of the Institutions. The fact that they, facilitated by the Governments, have been able to conclude this comprehensive agreement around a number of contentious and sensitive issues in therefore a major step forward.
I also want to acknowledge the wisdom and leadership of all of the other party leaders – Sir Reg Empey, Mark Durkan, David Ford and Dawn Purvis, and their teams – in the part that they played. It is very important now that all of the Assembly parties get behind this deal, contribute to its delivery and make the devolved institutions work for all of the people they represent.
I would like to take this opportunity to place on the record of this House my special appreciation to the former SDLP Leader Mark Durkan for all that he has done to help build peace, prosperity and reconciliation in this country.
I know that he has much more to contribute to political life in the future.
I also wish to congratulate Margaret Ritchie on her election and to wish her every success in her new role as SDLP leader. The Taoiseach and I met with Margaret Ritchie and the new deputy leader Patsy McGlone in Dublin last week, and we look forward to working with them in the future.
Everyone on these islands owes a debt of gratitude to the UUP and SDLP for their courage and leadership in concluding the Good Friday Agreement. This process is very much their creation and I would encourage them to continue their support for this current phase of delivery.
I want, in the time available, to review briefly the main elements of the Hillsborough Agreement and to note the progress that has already been made in its implementation.
The Hillsborough Agreement provides for a cross community vote in the Assembly to request the devolution of policing and justice powers on March 9th and the completion of the devolution of policing and justice by 12 April. This will be an essential step for peace, stability and security in Northern Ireland. It will consolidate the operation of devolved government and close the circle in the transformation of policing and justice structures in Northern Ireland. The appointment of a Minister for Justice, accountable to the Northern Ireland Assembly, will signal a strong vote of confidence in the robustness and sustainability of the devolved institutions.
The agreement also provides for a way forward on parades based on cross community support for an enhanced framework. This offers the prospect of respecting, and equitably balancing the rights of everybody. While most parades pass off peacefully each year, there remain a handful of contentious parades and another small few which retain the potential for difficulty.
The core point is that any enhanced framework would have at its core the principles of local people providing local solutions and respect for the rights of those who parade and those who live in the areas through which parades pass. This includes the right for everyone to be free from sectarian harassment. Until new arrangements have been agreed and put in place, the Parades Commission will continue to do its valuable work.
An ambitious timeframe has been set for this work. The First and deputy First Minister have appointed representatives to the working group provided for in the Hillsborough Agreement. This working group is now meeting on a daily basis and will report back with agreed outcomes within two weeks. These outcomes will, in turn, provide the basis for widespread public consultation, leading to responsibility for parading being devolved to the northern institutions and Assembly legislation before the end of the year. The agreement between the parties to move forward on an agreed basis has the potential to transform the situation, lifting the stresses and pressure on communities arising from parades.
Realising this potential will require generosity of spirit and respect for others on the part of all stakeholders. There is also a duty of care on those who take this work forward to ensure that the rights of all are equitably accommodated. The Government will remain close to this process as it progresses through the various stages.
The Hillsborough Agreement also provides for a working group to be established on outstanding commitments from the St Andrews Agreement. One commitment of particular interest to this House is that of the Irish language.
The Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement recognised the importance of respect, tolerance and understanding of the linguistic diversity and culture of Northern Ireland.
The Irish Government is committed to assisting the development of the Irish language in Northern Ireland and the implementation of outstanding commitments made in the St Andrews Agreement including an Irish Language Act.
We also look forward to early agreement on an Irish language strategy. Since language issues are a devolved matter, this is an area where the Government works directly with the Northern Ireland Executive including through the North/south body, Foras na Gaeilge.
Engagement continues with the British Government on relevant non-devolved areas such as broadcasting and through the British Irish Council. I am pleased that Minister Ryan and his British counterpart recently signed a Memorandum of Understanding which will facilitate the continued availability of Irish television services, including TG4, in Northern Ireland after digital switchover.
As the House will be aware, the promotion and protection of the Irish Language is a key priority for the Irish Government in this jurisdiction and our work in this area can have a positive effect on the island as a whole. I know that the 20 year Strategy for the Irish Language (2010-2030) will have a beneficial impact on speakers of the Irish language on the whole island and the Irish Government will look at how these synergies can be optimised.
I also want to reiterate the need for tolerance and respect for both the Irish language and Ulster Scots language and culture in Northern Ireland. I have previously urged a more open approach to the Irish language by those who erroneously see it as something threatening. Far from being feared, the languages and cultures of this island ought to be shared and celebrated. I look forward to a more mature and less politicised discussion about the Irish language, building on the improved dynamic and mutual respect that enabled agreement to be reached in Hillsborough last week.
In moving forward, we need to build and consolidate trust between communities, in a spirit of equality and tolerance for each others political aspirations, cultural expression and inheritance. Much has already been achieved in building sustainable relationships where once there was mistrust. However, more needs to be done to knock down the barriers which physically and metaphorically separate too many in the North.
The Hillsborough Agreement provides a new platform upon which we can build stronger and deeper North/South cooperation over the months and years to come. There have been more than fifty meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council since the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly in May 2007. Every single one of those meetings has included Ministers from the unionist and nationalist traditions in Northern Ireland, as well as their Irish Government counterparts.
This is a hugely significant level of engagement between elected representatives in both parts of the island on the economic and social issues of most concern to those we represent. The era of ‘back-to-back’ development has truly been consigned to the past. Ministers, North and South, no longer hesitate to pick up the phone or meet in person, discuss common challenges, argue options and agree shared approaches to the difficulties we face. That is politics as it should be. The political compromises reached at Hillsborough will free up time and space to tackle the bread-and-butter issues of most concern to ordinary people. And the Government is determined to work closely with our Northern Ireland Executive colleagues to tackle those issues on an all-island basis, wherever possible and helpful.
We will continue to take a North/South approach to meeting the infrastructural needs of the island, as evidenced by our support for the upgrading to dual-carriageway status of the new A5 road to Derry and Letterkenny.
And we are stepping up our efforts as well to build a smart and dynamic ‘Innovation Island’ by increasing our collaboration through the US-Ireland Research and Development Partnership and under the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme.
We are intensifying our cooperation in areas like health and education, with North/South studies completed or in train on how we can achieve economies of scale and deliver improved services. And we are looking forward to examining closely with our Northern Ireland Executive colleagues ways in which both our administrations can save money by eliminating duplication on the island. It is simple common sense that we can do more together, for less, if we pool our talents, our resources and our time in the many areas in which we have shared ambitions and targets.
We are looking forward to completing the St. Andrew’s Review of North/South Bodies and Areas of Cooperation as soon as possible; ensuring Ministers can address issues of most pressing concern through the North/South Ministerial Council. We are also determined to bring into being the North/South Consultative Forum and the North/South Parliamentary Forum, which will each have a valuable role in advising the Government and Northern Ireland Executive on socio-economic and cultural issues with a North-South dimension. The time is now right to make progress on all these outstanding issues and we look forward to doing just that over the months ahead.
In moving forward on these critical matters I believe that the parties have recovered the spirit of the Good Friday and St Andrews Agreements - that vision of a better future for the all the people of these islands. It is about people coming to the table with a sense of generosity, understanding and accommodating the views and opinions of others, and doing so in a way that best serves everyone in the community and promotes security and stability and support for democracy.
The devolved institutions can now move on to focus on the day-to-day issues that concern everyone – issues such the economy, jobs, health, education, infrastructure, social services, community safety and the quality of life.
That better future must be built on mutual respect for people of different traditions, equality and tolerance, and respect for each others political aspirations and cultural expression and inheritance.
As we mark this month’s deadline for paramilitary decommissioning it is worth taking stock of the great degree of success there has been in taking the gun out of politics in Northern Ireland.
Recent acts of decommissioning remind us all of the great benefits that the peace process can bring and the confidence it generates in communities.
This Government has expressed its appreciation for those who worked so hard to bring about the de-commissioning by the UDA.
I also welcome the recent confirmation by the INLA and other groups that they have put their weapons beyond use.
Their recognition that politics is the only way forward is to be welcomed.
Sadly, the evil, criminal attack on PSNI Constable Peadar Heffron in recent weeks is a stark reminder that there remain a tiny, unrepresentative few whose aim is to destroy all that has been achieved.
I pay tribute to Constable Heffron for all that he has done for this country, and for his bravery in dealing with what I know are significant injuries.
It is very important that we place our deep appreciation and our best wishes for Constable Peadar Heffron and his family firmly on the record of this House. Such attacks by so-called dissident republicans do not represent the democratic will of the people on this island. They offer nothing but pain and suffering to the Irish people
The best response to give to such people is to complete the devolution of policing and justice powers, to secure the stability of the democratic institutions and to show that politics is delivering for all of the people of Northern Ireland.
All of the people of these islands greatly value what has been achieved in the North in recent years. They have no wish to see a return to the bad old days. It is the duty of all of the political leaders on this island to continue working together in trust and partnership to ensure that we continue on the path of peace.
In concluding, I want to pay tribute to my counterpart – Secretary of State Shaun Woodward. He and I have worked together to secure the devolution of policing and justice not just for the past two weeks but for the past 18 months. His commitment has been extraordinary and I thank him for it.
On the proposed amendement to the Motion, I have already set out our position on the North South Consultative Forum. On reports to the Seanad on the work of the North South Ministerial Council, I and my colleagues in the Government are always available to participate in the proceedings of Seanad Éireann and I very much welcome the discussion here this evening. I would agree with you fully on the importance of discussing the North/South Ministerial Council and North/South issues generally in the Oireachtas. The support of elected representatives is essential to ensure broad public understanding of our efforts to promote all-island approaches and deliver shared services in border areas.
I was happy to have had the opportunity to brief members of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement last July on the discussions which had taken place at the NSMC plenary meeting on 6 July. As I said on that occasion, I would be glad to address the Joint Committee after each NSMC plenary meeting at the convenience of the Committee. It is of course also open to Committees to invite my Ministerial colleagues to discuss NSMC activities in their areas of responsibility. North South issues have also been the subject of useful debate on the adjournment of the House. Similarly, it is open to the Seanad to discuss any aspect of North South cooperation including meetings of the NSMC.
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