I believe that Dáil Éireann should reject the proposal made in this Bill for a number of reasons.
One good reason is that it is unnecessary. Ireland's commitment to the peaceful solution of problems is already contained in the Constitution and in many treaties and international agreements to which we are a party.
Another reason is perhaps a narrow technical one but valid nevertheless. It would surely be absurd for us to set down in our Constitution conditions which people outside our jurisdiction must observe in determining their future. Yet that is actually what this Bill proposes.
Another, in my view totally persuasive, reason for rejecting the proposed Bill is its disastrous timing. The attempt to put the Bill forward at this time, when sensitive and important negotiations are going on in relation to the three sets of relationships in this island, and between Ireland and Britain, must be seen as irresponsible. By the signals it would give to the Nationalist community in Northern Ireland, it could well destroy for some time to come the chances of peaceful progress. It would certainly strengthen the hand of the men of violence who would undoubtedly claim that we had deserted the Nationalist community and that they were now their only protectors. I disagree totally with Deputy Barry on that aspect.
Before I go on to develop these arguments more fully, I would like to take the opportunity to reiterate most strongly the Government's total rejection of violence as a means of attaining our legitimate and democratic claim to unity. I know that I speak for all parties in this House in that regard. Violence does not advance that cause: by dividing communities, it pushes ever further away the time when men and women of Ireland, whatever their political or religious beliefs or affiliations, can live together in peace, with respect and tolerance of each other's views and ideas. Progress can be made only through discussion and negotiation among the constitutionally elected representatives of the people of this island. I know that is common ground between us; nevertheless it is important on this occasion when we are dealing with these issues that I should repeat it.
The Bill is unnecessary because there is already in the Constitution a provision which serves the same purpose as it is apparently intended to advance. Article 29 of the Constitution states:
Ireland affirms its devotion to the ideal of peace and friendly co-operation amongst nations founded on international justice and morality.
Ireland affirms its adherence to the principle of the pacific settlement of international disputes by international arbitration or judicial determination.
The effect of these paragraphs is to make any reference to consent in Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution unnecessary. Under them, the only way in which a dispute could be settled, under the Constitution, is peacefully.
There is, of course, the argument sometimes made that our Constitution can be invoked to justify the use of force in pursuit of the purposes of Articles 2 and 3. I utterly and totally reject the view that our legitimate democratic claim to unity can be construed by any reasonable person as a justification for using violence. There is absolutely nothing in the Constitution which can in any way justify the continuation of the campaign of violence being conducted by the IRA. In fact, those who follow the path of violence are making a travesty of the heritage of this country and our conduct since we gained independence, as well as denying totally the fundamental democratic principles enshrined in our Constitution.
Our allegiance to those same principles, to the ideal of progress by consent, with the will of the people, has been a principle by which the action of successive Irish Governments has been governed. It has determined our attitude to the membership of international organisations. We are, for example, members of the United Nations for almost two generations now. One of the provisions of the Charter of that organisation is that members are required-
...to practice tolerance and live together in peace with one another as good neighbours, and
to unite our strength to maintain international peace and security, and
to ensure ... that armed force should not be used, save in the common interest.
As members of the United Nations, we have held steadfastly to these principles, not only in this country but in the many corners of the world where Irish soldiers have served as part of peacekeeping missions in furtherance of the cause of democracy and peace.
Exactly the same philosophy inspired this country to subscribe to the provisions of the Helsinki Final Act in 1975, in respect of the territorial integrity of each of the participating states. One of the provisions of that Act is:
The participating states regard as inviolable all one another's frontiers as well as the frontiers of all states in Europe and therefore they will refrain now and in the future from assaulting these frontiers.
Again, in that Act, Ireland records its formal adherence to the principle of the peaceful settlement of international disputes.
In 1985, the Anglo-Irish Agreement was signed. That Agreement says that the British and Irish Government:
...affirm that any change in the status of Northern Ireland would only come about with the consent of a majority of the people of Northern Ireland.
This is a formal declaration by the two sovereign States which has been registered with the United Nations in confirmation of the solemn and binding nature of the undertakings it contains. The Agreement recognises the need for continuing efforts to reconcile and acknowledge the rights of the two major traditions in this island, represented on the one hand by those who wish for no change in the present status of Northern Ireland and on the other hand by those who aspire to a sovereign united Ireland achieved by peaceful means and through agreement.
The Agreement was the subject of a Supreme Court judgment in March last. I would remind Deputies of some of the Court's conclusions. It found that Article 2 of the Constitution consists of a declaration of the extent of the national territory as a claim of legal right. It found that Article 3 prohibits, pending the reintegration of the national territory, the enactment of laws applicable in Northern Ireland. The court found that the Anglo-Irish Agreement is not inconsistent and is compatible with the Constitution and in particular with Articles 2, 3 and 29 and that the agreement was not concluded in disregard of the interests of the Unionist community in Northern Ireland.
That in summary was the essence of the judgment of the Supreme Court. There is nothing in these findings which in my view takes from the adherence of the State to the principle of consent, and the peaceful settlement of disputes enshrined in our Constitution and in international agreement after international agreement.
I am quite clear that the constitutional requirement to seek the unity of Ireland by peaceful means is neither aggressive nor offensive, no more indeed than the Unionist desire to maintain the union is on their part. As I have said on other occasions, I have a simple belief that unity on this island is preferable to disunity.
The Supreme Court affirmed the view that within the meaning of the Constitution the Government have complete freedom to pursue and develop peaceful and friendly co-operation. I should point out that the Articles in question in our Constitution are very similar in their intent to the former Article 1 of the German Basic Law, which in its preamble laid down the following constitutional imperative: "the entire German people are called upon to achieve in free selfdetermination the unity and freedom of Germany". This provision never constituted a physical threat to the former East Germany or served as a basis for the use of force. This had led in the fullness of time to the peaceful unification of Germany, East and West, with the consent of the people in both parts of Germany and of all the other parties involved in a general atmosphere of goodwill.
But if the present wording of our Constitution, the Charter of the United Nations, the Helsinki Final Act and the Anglo-Irish Agreement were not enough to record Ireland's acknowledgment of the need for progress by peaceful means, I would draw Deputies' attention to the fact that as recently as last month, in Paris, I affirmed Ireland's continuing adherence to these same principles and, in particular, signed the Paris Charter for a New Europe which we discussed in this House recently. Deputies will recall that that Charter provides:
In accordance with our obligations under the Charter of the United Nations and commitments under the Helsinki Final Act, we renew our pledge to refrain from the threat or the use of force against the territorial integrity or political independence of any State, or from acting in any other manner inconsistent with the principles or purposes of those documents. We recall that non-compliance with obligations under the Charter of the United Nations constitutes a violation of international law.
We reaffirm our commitment to settle disputes by peaceful means.
Deputies will recall also that the Charter reaffirmed the Ten Principles of the Helsinki Final Act, including the provision that allows the possibility of changing frontiers, in accordance with international law, by peaceful means and by agreement. Indeed, the signatories to the Charter welcomed the fact that "the German people have united to become one State in accordance with the principles of the Final Act of the Conference on Security and Co-operation in Europe and in full accord with their neighbours". I do not want to make too much of a corollary in that regard but I think it is a very clear example of what exactly I am talking about — that a constitutional provision seeking unity is not in any way in conradiction with all the international agreements we have signed. Furthermore, in the German case it did, in the end, result in a very happy conclusion.
We have solemnly undertaken, as in these provisions, not to breach frontiers and not to use force but peaceful means only for the settlement of disputes. This is, I believe, a matter of both morality and pragmatism — as shown time and time again in country after country in Eastern Europe — that radical change can only come about and fundamental institutions of Government can be sustained only by the consent of the governed. Governments everywhere only last by the will of the people.
Against this background of national and international obligations entered into and most solemnly registered, and a simple and pragmatic reading of the facts of public life, can anyone genuinely sustain the argument that there is a need now for a referendum in our country on Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution? Such a referendum would certainly be politically divisive and would be totally unproductive. It would open arguments which on all our past experience here with referenda could develop in ways which nobody in this House or anywhere else can predict on questions of the utmost fundamental importance and sensitivity. It would lead to bitterness and dissention at a time when more than ever we need moderation and consensus.
These are not just my views or the Government's views. Let me mention that a regular contributor on Northern Ireland matters, Mary Holland, wrote inThe Irish Times on 21 March of this year in the aftermath of the Supreme Court decision, and warned of the dangers of a divisive referendum on Articles 2 and 3 and made the point that the broader Nationalist community in the North “derives considerable comfort from the knowledge that the Irish Government regards them as its citizens and has a constitutional responsibility to look after their interest”. Even many of the most prominent of those who have argued the case for amplifying Articles 2 and 3 accept the idea that a referendum at the present time could be divisive and even counter-productive. The SDLP have made it clear that they do not believe the Articles should be amended at present. Former party chairman, Mr. Seán Farren, stated in the Irish News on 11 December last year that the time for amendments would be “in the context of a more comprehensive political settlement between both parts of Ireland”. This point of view was clearly expressed at the recent SDLP Conference. The Labour Party in the Seanad debate in March of this year also took a negative attitude to a motion to delete Articles 2 and 3 for the same reasons.
I want to argue very cogently that in many ways this motion is very badly timed — in fact, I would nearly go so far as to say that it is dangerously timed — just as discussions on the current initiatives of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland have been making encouraging progress. A motion like this is almost certainly calculated to damage that progress by seeking to pre-empt something that may very well be raised in the negotiations themselves if they get underway. The timing of the motion is politically inopportune. I am afraid that those who support it — I have to say this — are displaying a lack of political judgment in this area. I do not think they have thought out fully the implications of what they are doing in seeking to pass this legislation and have a referendum on Articles 2 and 3 at this time. I sincerely believe they should not pursue this further. Let us regard this Second Stage debate in Private Members' time as a good up-to-date discussion on these issues and leave it at that because I genuinely believe that if they precipitate us into a referendum on these Articles, which are of fundamental importance to a very large number of people in this country, North and South, and if they start the long process of a referendum at this stage, they will in fact be acting detrimentally and doing damage.
As the House is aware, the Irish Government are at present engaged in a series of discussions and negotiations with the British Government. The aim of those discussions and negotiations is simply to try to reach an agreement or an arrangement which has the prospect of transcending the Anglo-Irish Agreement in a way that can take account of the views of both Nationalists and Unionists in Northern Ireland. That is what the first Anglo-Irish Agreement did not do. Perhaps that is what we will be able to do this time in the course of these discussions with the Unionists present and involved. Perhaps we will bring forward a new type of agreement, arrangement, settlement or whatever, which will have respect for, regard for, and listen to the Unionist point of view. Does anybody seriously argue that in the middle of just such a negotiation, this country should be plunged into a referendum on what could become a major issue in the talks? That is one of the points I want to emphasise. If this initiative succeeds and the talks get under way, we will be running with a referendum in this part of the country on issues which would be pretty centrally raised in the talks we are trying to have. That certainly would lead to total confusion.
More than that it would come at a time, when the people of Northern Ireland are most in need of our understanding and support, and would send them completely the wrong message. That is precisely what we could be doing, whatever about the intention or the actual wording of the Bill itself. As in so many other things that concern Northern Ireland it is not the actual, words, the phraseology or the formulation that counts, but the signals that can and will be read into the words. The signal of this Bill at this time would be totally wrong.
We are repeatedly told that the sensitivities of Northern Ireland should be borne in mind when we are conducting a debate on Articles 2 and 3 and this Government have consistently demonstrated their acknowledgment of and respect for Unionist sensitivities. Our readiness for open-ended dialogue with the Unionist leadership has been signalled time and time again; I personally repeated it frequently. In the current efforts to get talks under way which would embrace all the constitutional parties in Northern Ireland as well as the two Governments, we have consistently shown our flexibility in responding to various Unionist preconditions. Here I would like to refer to something which I am told took place today. Chris McGimpsey, who has been a central figure in this whole matter with regard to the case before the Supreme Court and who is the secretary of the Official Unionist Party, has indicated that he is not interested in this particular proposal. I did not actually hear it myself but some of my colleagues who did, assure me that that is what he said. Therefore, what are we about? I have often said to Deputy De Rossa in this House — when he asked me questions — that I do not want to hear from him what the Unionists think, or what he tells me the Unionists think, or what the Unionists want; I want to hear from the Unionists themselves. That is the only satisfactory way of doing it. If Chris McGimpsey said today on Radio Ulster what I believe he said, that proves my point conclusively.
It is important to remind this House also that we have obligations to the Nationalist community in Northern Ireland, obligations which are not and cannot be secondary to those we owe to any others. For over 50 years Articles 2 and 3 have been of enormous importance to Northern Nationalists. I do not care whether anybody says they were right or wrong in looking at Articles 2 and 3 in that way. I know, from my own knowledge and experience, that that is the position; they do and have looked on Articles 2 and 3 as something of great significance and importance to them. Our Constitution has reassured them that they have a place in the minds and hearts of those who live in the South, that their aspirations are shared and that their claim to be members of the Irish family is not just a hopeless, idle dream.
Northern Nationalists have undergone a great deal over the past 70 years. Their experience as second-class citizens over so many of those years is perhaps sometimes difficult for many in this part of the country to fully understand. I want to say that I fully understand it because I have experienced it and know it at first hand. Indeed, I think there are plenty of people in this House who also know and have experienced it at first hand. Over the past 20 years constitutional nationalism has valiantly struggled to assert the legitimacy of the Nationalist vision while unambigously condemning those who would contaminate that vision by the use of violence. That is something to which we should very definitely have regard.
I am sure all of us here in this House regard ourselves as having a difficult time in expressing our point of view, in promoting our cause in the House and with the public. But we all know that our difficulties, such as they are, as practising politicians, pale into insignificance compared, for instance, with the task of the SDLP over the last 20 years in trying, on the one hand, to maintain their Nationalist position, their tradition and belief and, at the same time, steer clear of the violent expression of that tradition by others. It has been a very difficult job for them; we all know, understand and appreciate that. I do not think we would be doing them any favours, or giving them any help in continuing to uphold that difficult, sensitive position in Northern Ireland by passing this Bill and holding a referendum.
What signal are we to send to those who have struggled to uphold the values of constitutional nationalism? Are we to say that, after all, expressions of nationalism have come to embarrass us in the South, that we no longer feel comfortable with a Constitution which gives full expression to the Nationalist idea? Is that what we want? I would submit that the day we made such an admission will be one not just of disappointment and disillusionment for Northern Nationalists but also, as I said earlier, a day of comfort for the men of violence in Northern Ireland — they will assert that constitutional nationalism has been fatally weakened, that the claim to nationhood has become the exclusive property of them, the men of violence. It behoves all of us, I think, to think long and carefully before we would take any step of that kind, any step which might be interpteted as sending that kind of signal.
I have always stated that new arrangements or structures which might be agreed for Ireland as a whole would clearly require an entirely new Constitution to be brought forward. We should not seek to solve the problem, I think, by making isolated moves or gestures of this kind, the final result of which — unfortunately experience teaches us — has been disappointment and set-backs. Unilateral changes would not result in peace and indeed might have very detrimental consequences.
I agree with Deputy Barry on one point, when he spoke about the Articles which dealt with religion in the Constitution, which were regarded, we are told by some people, as an anathema and that all would be well if they were removed. Of course once removed they would be of no importance; nobody would be interested in their removal.
What I have in mind is not so far from what most other parties in this House have contemplated. Not many years ago all the parties in this House — strangely enough, with the exception of The Workers' Party who are bringing forward this proposal now — sat down together in theNew Ireland Forum. We sat for a long time, worked very hard and produced a set of proposals or recommendations to which all the parties subscribed. I would like to remind Deputies of certain passages in that report of the New Ireland Forum. I might refer them in particular to paragraph 5.7 which was endorsed by all the parties participating in the New Ireland Forum and which states:
The particular structure of political unity which the Forum would wish to see established is a unitary state, achieved by agreement and consent, embracing the whole island of Ireland and providing irrevocable guarantees for the protection and preservation of both the unionist and nationalist identities....
The report of theNew Ireland Forum sets out, at Chapter 5, the requirements which would have to be met to achieve the form of unity wished for by the parties to the Forum. Briefly, those requirements would include: a total cessation of violence which can have no place in the building of the Ireland of the future that we all desire; constructive dialogue with Unionists in Northern Ireland; accommodation of the two traditions, their aspirations and their loyalties and an all round constitutional conference to formulate new structures. That is what was contained in the report of the New Ireland Forum subscribed to by us all and it is as sound today as it was when we signed it.
At this stage I do not think we in this House should now seek to go outside the consensus developed among our parties on these issues by pursuing a road set out in this Bill, of trying to solve one problem of the many that exist, trying to deal with the case of one community to the disadvantage of the other. That is what is involved in this Bill; its promoters are trying to solve a problem perhaps of perception or otherwise of one section of the community to the disadvantage of the other section. I do not think that is a sound way to proceed. I do not think that is the way towards peace or reconciliation.
All the Government's policies and actions are in accordance with the requirements of the report of theNew Ireland Forum. I have made it clear again and again that I would be willing, and indeed anxious, to meet Unionists at any time to discuss their concerns. Such a meeting I believe should take place without any preconditions, without prejudice to anybody's position, Unionists' or anybody else but, in particular, without prejudice to the Unionist position on the Agreement.
To sum up, in my view the proposals contained in this Bill are superfluous and unnecessary, if not constitutionally offensive and could upset the broad consensus here on Northern Ireland that has existed since theNew Ireland Forum. I know we have had differences of opinion and differences of emphasis but there has been that central, broad agreement or consensus since we all signed the report of the New Ireland Forum. I also think that these proposals could send signals of despair to many constitutional Nationalists whose hopes and aspirations some here are inclined to overlook on occasions like this. That is something I would like to emphasise, that we must maintain a balance. We must always have regard in approaching these complicated, tortuous issues of the North, to the position of the Northern Nationalists as well as our attempts to meet the position of the Unionists and to assure them that we respect their traditions and their aspirations.
For these and for many other reasons which I have not time to go into now, I strongly urge the House to reject this Bill and particularly to save us the confusion that the holding of a referendum on Articles 2 and 3 would cause in our community at this stage.