Ceisteanna-Questions. Oral Answers. - Northern Ireland Talks.

Jim O'Keeffe

Question:

7 Mr. J. O'Keeffe asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs whether he expects the Northern Ireland talks to continue after 16 November, 1992; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

Pat Rabbitte

Question:

14 Mr. Rabbitte asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the progress, if any, made to date at the Northern Ireland talks; his views on the prospects of the talks succeeding; if it is intended to proceed with the meeting of the Anglo-Irish conference on 16 November, 1992; the implications, if any, of this for the talks; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

Bernard J. Durkan

Question:

95 Mr. Durkan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the current position with regard to the all party talks on Northern Ireland; if he expects to introduce any new proposals; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7, 14 and 95 together.

Discussions in the talks process are continuing. Consultations are currently taking place between delegations on a bilateral basis. A further plenary session under the chairmanship of Sir Ninian Stephen is scheduled for Friday of this week.

The Government attach the highest importance to the continuation of these talks, which aim to bring about a new beginning for relationships within Northern Ireland, within the island of Ireland and between the peoples of these islands. As signatories of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Irish and British Governments have made clear that they would be prepared to consider a new and more broadly based agreement or structure if such an arrangement can be arrived at through direct discussion and negotiation between all of the parties concerned.

We have at the same time confirmed our continuing commitment to the full implementation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, including the principle of regular and frequent ministerial meetings in the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. At their meeting in London on 25 September, the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister agreed to a second and final extension of the interval between intergovernmental conferences and decided that the next meeting of the conference would take place on Monday, 16 November.

The Government are strongly of the view that the holding of this meeting of the conference should not be treated as grounds for an abandonment of the talks process. We have demonstrated considerable generosity and flexibility in the provision of intervals between conference meetings with a view to facilitating political dialogue. We agreed to one interval last year and to an initial three month interval followed by two extensions this year. Between 1991 and 1992 the two Governments have made available a total period of some nine months for the purpose of facilitating political talks.

It is surely reasonable to expect that those participants who have imposed preconditions relating to the Anglo-Irish Agreement on the talks should now reciprocate by showing a similar commitment to the process and a modicum of flexiblity in turn, so as to enable dialogue to continue.

To withdraw from the talks on grounds that the Governments may not hold even a single meeting over this long period to dispose of a backlog of conference business would not be reasonable. It would be to demand that the Governments disregard the present agreement, which they are committed to uphold unless or until it is transcended by new and agreed arrangements. Such a position would not be consistent with the spirit of mutual accommodation necessary for progress, and I sincerely hope it can be avoided.

I should make clear that the Governments, for their part, are ready to agree a further suitable interval after the forthcoming meeting, so that talks can continue on the same basis as heretofore.

The Government are determined to do all in their power to bring these talks to a satisfactory conclusion. The positions of the participants on key issues are being elucidated in detail at present and valuable exchanges are taking place. It is important that the potential which this process offers for a lasting and equitable settlement should be carefully safeguarded. The Government regard this as a continuing process which can best realise its potential if it is not subject to artificial deadlines or to constraints of any other description.

Would the Minister accept that a new situation has arisen in the light of political developments in Dublin? Can he ensure that as far as possible the collapse of the Government will not have an adverse effect on the talks? Can he make arrangements to ensure, so far as he can, that the talks will continue after the election? Finally — and this is of relevance in the light of the new situation here — will he agree, if it is necessary to defer the meeting of the Anglo-Irish Conference of 16 November that such a move would facilitate the positive continuance of the talks after the election?

The answer to that question is simply no. I would not be prepared to facilitate such a move on the grounds that the Anglo-Irish Conference has been postponed on a number of occasions. The longer the Anglo-Irish Conference is postponed the more likely it is that the Anglo-Irish Agreement will be undermined. As the Deputy is aware, the Anglo-Irish Conference is one of the central pillars of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. On 16 November in the Anglo-Irish Conference there are many important issues to be addressed, issues which have been left on the long finger considering the reasonable number of postponements which have taken place. This is not in any way to gainsay the continuing process and the hoped for bridge which might be seen at the conclusion of the present process on either Friday or Tuesday next. This is based on the fact that the Unionist parties, once the secretariat get back into a work mode, will remove themselves from the talks. We do not want that to happen. They will do so on the basis that the Anglo-Irish Conference is going ahead on 16 November. We would like to see them return to the talks as soon as possible after the Anglo-Irish Conference.

I would also make one last point in relation to the talks process generally. Myself and the Leader in the delegation, the Tánaiste — who is now present in the House — the Minister for Justice and either the Minister for Energy or the Minister for Industry and Commerce, who have interchanged, have committed ourselves almost full time to those talks during the past number of months. It is proper that I should pay tribute to the other parties to the talks, more particularly to the SDLP — my spiritual home in the context of my national identity — to the British Government and to the Unionist parties who participated actively in the talks. I refer particularly to the Official Unionist Party and the Alliance who are genuine and committed to the support of their own positions but who see us as being genuine and sincere and dedicated to our position. It is a matter of bridging those positions which are still some distance apart. For that reason I would like to think there would be an intermission between now, the Intergovernmental Conference and thereafter — in other words, that there would be a bridge over the Intergovernmental Conference and that the present process would be seen in a pause mode.

A Deputy

I hope the Minister is right.

There are a number of Deputies offering. I call Deputy Garrett FitzGerald.

I recognise that if there is a possibility of such a bridge and that is agreed, then the point we are making does not arise. If that does not look like being the case I would like to say, as the Irish author of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, while I would agree with the Minister in the ordinary way and if there was not an election pending that the date should be adhered to, for obvious reasons, which need not be gone into, to preserve the integrity of the agreement in the particular circumstances of an election being called now before the end of the talks, I would urge that there be reconsideration of the deadline of 16 November, if maintaining it would prevent the talks from continuing successfully thereafter under other circumstances. In the national interest, I think that to now insist on the date of 16 November if that would prejudice the outcome would be something which would be very difficult to stand over.

I realise the Deputy is the author if not one of the authors, of the Anglo-Irish Agreement and I pay tribute to him in that regard. I do not doubt the competence he has in that area. In relation to the ongoing process and the talks continuing apace, the Irish Government continues in being until the next Government takes over, whenever that may be. It may be the same Government——

A Deputy

That is highly unlikely.

—or it may be an new Government. I would like to think in the national interest that it will be the same Government.

Of course, it will.

And the same parties?

In relation to the Deputy's very serious question, I should say we are having a number of bilateral meetings on Friday next with the various parties. I want to assure the Deputy that the bridge over the Intergovernmental Conference is something that will be pressed very hard. The Intergovernmental Conference is going ahead. The Deputy will recall that the most recent meeting of the conference took place on 27 April. The two Governments agreed that the conference would not meet again before the week beginning 27 July. Since then two successive extensions of this gap between conference meetings have been agreed to by the two Governments, one until the end of September and the other until 16 November. That means that a total of six and a half months will have been made available this year for the purpose of the talks. At their meeting in London on 25 September the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister, Mr. John Major, confirmed their commitment to the full implementation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, including the principle of regular and frequent meetings of the conference. For this reason the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister decided that the next meeting of the conference should take place on 16 November.

I regret the Minister appears to be uncharacteristically hardline in relation to the date for the conference. Would he not accept that the talks are underway precisely because it was agreed that the conferences under the Anglo-Irish Agreement would be deferred and that extensions were applied in order to keep the talks underway? Does he not accept, given that we will be into a general election around this time tomorrow, that the Government have no way of knowing, no more than any of us, who will be in Government in a month or six weeks' time and therefore that it would make sense to defer holding this conference until the new Government make a decision as to when it should be held, even if it is the existing Government personnel, in order to ensue that the talks, which are crucial to finding a peaceful way forward in Northern Ireland, can continue?

I am sorry the Deputy thinks I am being hardline. The one thing that has permeated the talks has been a spirit of friendliness and a concern as between most of the delegations to these talks. It is in that atmosphere that this Government would like to see the talks process continue. If the talks are brought to an end by a decision on the part of individual delegations to withdraw, of course the Government would regret this. The Government are ready to facilitate political dialogue in every way possible. As I indicated at the beginning of my response to this question, we have worked tirelessly to enable these talks to take place and we will be equally determined to facilitate their resumption at the earliest possible date should they be brought to an end next week. There is no alternative to this political dialogue. I hope this is accepted by all participants in the talks and that those who may be contemplating leaving the process will reflect very carefully before doing so.

I see no reason that the holding of a single one day meeting of this conference should be a pretext for parties to withdraw from this dialogue. The conference meeting has been delayed for over six months and a significant backlog of very serious and fundamental items within the context of the remit of the Intergovernmental Conference must be addressed as a measure of some urgency. The British and Irish Governments have shown considerable patience in delaying the conference for so long. It is reasonable to ask other delegations to show the flexibility shown by the two Governments.

Deputies Burke and Currie rose.

Noiméad amháin. We have passed the time allowed for questions. On the other hand, with the agreement of the House and bearing in mind the day that is in it, I suggest that I invite a question from Deputy Currie and Deputy Burke to which the Minister will reply. The Ceann Comhairle had indicated to Deputy Connor that he would, with the agreement of the Minister, take his Question No. 8.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for his generosity; I intend to emphasise the word "generosity". I wish to say to the Minister that when the present phase of the talks process — I use that phrase advisedly — comes to a close one of the judgments I will use in relation to the usefulness of the talks will be the amount of generosity which has been shown by the Government, the SDLP and others towards those representatives in the talks of the other tradition on this island. I hope we can all be pleased by that element of generosity which has been displayed and will be obvious.

Even at this late stage when obvious difficulties are in the way, may I ask the Minister if he will give an assurance on behalf of the Government that in circumstances where the Irish and British Governments, together with representatives of the constitutional parties in the North of both traditions, reach agreement on a package that that package of agreement will be put by way of a referendum to the people on this island, North and South? I am not asking him if he could or would give his assurance; rather I am asking him if he will give it. Such an assurance might be helpful in the two or three days which lies ahead and would be extremely helpful when these talks inevitably must recommence.

I might say, Deputy Currie, that that was a long question interspersed with certain statements. I ask the Minister to give a short reply.

As the Deputy can appreciate, generosity is a two-way process.

There is a particular responsibility on us as the majority tradition.

There is also a particular responsibility on others. The Deputy must realise that generosity is a two-way process; it is not one-sided——

True generosity by its nature is a one-way process; otherwise it is not generosity.

The Deputy should not lecture me on generosity. There should be no argument about this very serious matter.

Bearing in mind that we are in breach of the order — I appreciate that Deputy De Rossa and Deputy McCartan are waiting to apply themselves, as is their entitlement to the Committee Stage of legislation — if the questioning and answering is going to be of the standard I have just heard it would be better for us to proceed to do what is ordered of us. We are not going to have a debate on this question. I ask Deputy Burke to put his question.

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for allowing me to put my question. Having been a participant in putting the talks process together, and recalling the tortuous negotiations on the framing of the talks, I was heartened to hear the emphasis placed by the Minister on the word "intermission". The Minister and Government are correct to have called the intergovernmental conference, having postponed it from April. I ask the Minister to appeal to all those who attend the meeting on Friday for sanity to prevail and the generosity of spirit which has prevailed so far to be continued after this intermission, which is vitally important for peace on this island. We are all sick and saddened at the spectacle of the murders carried out in the name of Irish people. The sooner these activities are brought to a halt the better. I hope these talks reach a satisfactory conclusion.

I acknowledge the role played by Deputy Burke as a former Minister in these talks. He has served the country well in the portfolios he has held. We will address the points he has made in a serious manner next Friday. These talks are about peace and reconciliation and sidelining the gunmen, both Orange and Green. It is very important that these talks are not seen to conclude but rather are seen as building a bridge in the interest of achieving what Deputy Burke has correctly referred to.