Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Government Meetings with Northern Parties.

Dermot Ahern

Question:

1 Mr. D. Ahern asked the Taoiseach the responses by the northern political parties to his recent invitation to talks with the Irish Government; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [12875/95]

Mary Harney

Question:

2 Miss Harney asked the Taoiseach the plans, if any, he has to meet with the new leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Mr. David Trimble. [13109/95]

Mary Harney

Question:

3 Miss Harney asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the meeting between Government representatives and representatives of the Progressive Unionist Party which took place on 20 September 1995. [13363/95]

Mary Harney

Question:

4 Miss Harney asked the Taoiseach the contact, if any, he has had with the new leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Mr. David Trimble. [13369/95]

Mary Harney

Question:

5 Miss Harney asked the Taoiseach if he will report on any meetings he has had with the SDLP during the summer; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13375/95]

Mary Harney

Question:

6 Miss Harney asked the Taoiseach if he will report on any meetings he has had with the Alliance Party during the summer; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13376/95]

Mary Harney

Question:

7 Miss Harney asked the Taoiseach if he will report on any meetings he has had with Sinn Féin during the summer; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [13377/95]

Mary Harney

Question:

8 Miss Harney asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the meeting between Government representatives and representatives of the Ulster Democratic Party which took place on 19 September 1995. [13379/95]

Bertie Ahern

Question:

9 Mr. B. Ahern asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on the informal rounds of talks that he has held with the northern parties. [13408/95]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 9, inclusive, together.

Since I last reported to the House, the Government has continued to engage in dialogue with the Northern Ireland parties. We have held further meetings with the SDLP, the Alliance Party and Sinn Féin. We have also held our first formal meetings with the Ulster Democratic Party and the Progressive Unionist Party. We greatly value all these meetings.

The common theme of these meetings has been the peace process and the way forward. Such meetings serve two very useful purposes. First, they enable the Government to explain our position. Second, they ensure that we are informed of the positions and concerns of the parties, so that these can be taken fully into account in the formulation of our policy.

The Government will continue with its programme of dialogue with the relevant parties in the weeks and months ahead. I am looking forward to meeting the new Ulster Unionist Party leader, Mr. David Trimble, MP next Monday, 2 October. It is obviously of critical importance that we should hear the voice of the largest party in Northern Ireland and that we should have its input into the peace process.

In all the meetings held to date, I have been greatly impressed by the obvious sincerity and commitment of all the participants.

I believe that, provided the key question of trust is resolved to everyone's satisfaction, we will be able to move from bilaterals to a situation where, in due course, all the political parties and the two Governments can talk to each other, around the same table. As I have already said both inside and outside the House, everybody has a role to play in building that trust.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. Regarding his meetings with the PUP and the UDP, did he raise the issue of the decommissioning of loyalist arms with them and, if so, what response did he receive? Did those parties give a commitment that they would use their influence regarding that aspect?

Of course, I raised the matter with them. The response was to draw my attention to the fact that they have indicated in a formal declaration that the organisations with which they are associated would not be the first and would make a formal agreement not to be the first to initiate any use of arms.

Regarding the meetings the Taoiseach had with the UDP and the PUP, did he notice any difference between their approach to decommissioning and that of Sinn Féin?

The matter to which I referred in response to Deputy Ahern is an area where there is some difference. There is probably a greater willingness on the part of those parties to participate in structures being put forward to deal with the issue, but I do not see much benefit in getting involved in minute parsing and analysis of slight or significant differences of position between various parties on this matter. We need to create trust and to do that we need to take the threat of the use of arms out of the political equation. This is not, therefore, solely a question of decommissioning existing stocks of arms, it is also one of creating a degree of confidence that even if all the arms were disposed of the organisations in question will not contemplate ever acquiring new ones. That is just as important an aspect of the issue. We are talking about the creation of a trust that violence will never be resorted to or its use threatened directly or indirectly. That will not happen overnight. It will be developed as part of a process over a period of time.

We have all noticed that there has been far more openness to dialogue during the past two or three weeks, especially from the Ulster Unionist Party, loyalist parties, and leaders from the loyalist community who have invited this House to be more involved in their meetings and dialogue during the winter months. When speaking to the loyalist parties did the Taoiseach make any attempt to persuade them that the proposals in the Framework Document have much merit?

I have, but it is important to persuade them of the validity of the ideas in the document rather than to get them to accept any particular document in which those ideas may be present — if the Deputy accepts the distinction I am making. The Framework Document contains a comprehensive, realistic and balanced outline of a possible settlement of the issue, but the Governments have said from the day the Framework Document was announced that we were not asking anybody to accept this document as a blueprint, that we wanted to hear other people's ideas, proposals and suggestions and that the Government's proposals were being put forward as a challenge to other parties to deal with the range of issues in the Framework Document. By putting them together in one document we hope we are able to ensure that none of the relevant issues others have to deal with will be left out.

In the Taoiseach's meetings with those parties associated with terrorist organisations or paramilitaries, did he raise the question of punishment beatings and, if so, what response did he get?

I did raise the question of punishment beatings. The parties concerned condemn punishment beatings and regard them as wrong, as I do. The law should be enforced by duly constituted authorities, not by anybody else.

It is important also to recognise that in Northern Ireland we are dealing with a society which has emerged from the trauma of 25 years of violence, where the culture of violence continues to have some adherents and where direct action, rather than the painstaking process of normal administration of law, has some historic precedents. Obviously it will be a slow but essential process to wean people away from those types of reflex actions in regard to local problems. It is very important that all who have influence in areas where punishment beatings are taking place, including particularly parties associated with organisations formerly using violence, should use their political influence, and should be seen publicly to do so, to stop these punishment beatings.

I thank the Taoiseach for his response in relation to what he said was the use of arms by the loyalist paramilitaries. Because the two former paramilitary groups have a similar attitude in relation to the decommissioning of arms — I believe they both have the same attitude in relation to the use of arms — will the Taoiseach not accept that in that event it is extremely difficult to build up the trust he is referring to in the absence of talks, whether they be bilateral or all party?

One should not underestimate the great significance of the talks that took place between the Irish Government and the Progressive Unionist Party and the Ulster Democratic Party. The fact that they, as Unionist parties, were willing to come to Dublin and have these meetings is, in itself, a major confidence building measure in their own communities and it should be seen in that context. It is a clear indication by them of a commitment to political dialogue with people with whom they would traditionally have had an antagonistic relationship, and that is of great importance. It is important also to recognise the fact that the parties concerned, and the people they represent, have expressed remorse for what happened during their campaign of violence, specifically that word was used. It is important also to recognise the validity of what they have said in regard to not being the first to use arms. It is important that one should push them further along that road but also that others who hold arms should be willing to travel that road too.

When the Taoiseach met the UDP and the PUP, did they raise with him the whole question of the prisoners issue? I was part of a Fianna Fáil delegation which met their representatives in Belfast some months ago and they asked our party to intervene with the Government and the British Government and to use our influence in respect of the prisoners issue which they saw as a key to the loyalist ceasefire. Did they raise that issue with the Taoiseach and what was his response in relation to same?

They certainly did raise the issue with us and indeed we raised it with them also. The Tánaiste outlined to them the work he has been doing over many months in the context of the Anglo-Irish Conference to deal with the problem of both loyalist and republican prisoners imprisoned in different parts of the United Kingdom. We assured them that we would continue to work on that subject, as I have done since that meeting and as I will be indicating in response to the next set of parliamentary questions. The Deputy is quite right; the question of prisoners is an important issue in the minds of both the loyalist and republican communities. It is very important that people should see that their commitment to peace is recognised by reasonably early release of prisoners once a fair share of their sentence has been served and also that, in so far as is possible and practicable, those who remain in prison should be able to serve their prison sentences as close as possible to home so that they can have the maximum reasonable relationship with their family members and friends outside, thereby facilitating their reintegration into the community on release.

The Taoiseach said here last week that if the parties associated with terrorist organisations were not happy with the Government's approach on decommissioning they should put forward their own suggestions. How many of those parties have put forward their own suggestions to the Government in this area?

I am hoping that they will because it is very important they should do so. I did not expect to see a response within a week, and one has not been forthcoming, but it is important that the Taoiseach in Dáil Éireann be seen clearly to appeal to the entire community, which gives support to those who hold arms politically, to recognise that the community has a responsibility to allay the fears of the other community in regard to the possible use of those arms, and that there is a clear responsibility on those who hold arms to recognise that their first duty is not to reassure their own community but to reassure the other community which fears that those arms might be used against them. It was in that context, and in the spirit of the Downing Street Joint Declaration, which is very clear on this in paragraph 6, that I made the request last week.

In regard to what the Taoiseach has just said about the attitude of the loyalist parties with regard to prisoners, has he passed on their comments to the British Government? In regard to the Framework Document, I accept that from the outset the Government stated that the Framework Document, though negotiated between the Irish and British Governments, may not be written in stone and that the Taoiseach would accept submissions from others. Has the Taoiseach received any submissions during the past six months from others that would amend or be an addendum to the Framework Document? A number of the parties have recently talked about assembly elections and other internal solutions. Will the Taoiseach reiterate his commitment to the centre piece of the Framework Document, that of the Irish dimension?

As far as the Framework Document is concerned, the invitation issued to all of the parties to meet me was stated not to be around any particular agenda item but rather an open agenda. Therefore, I did not invite the parties concerned to meet me to discuss the Framework Document; I invited them to meet me to discuss the matters they wished to raise. The Deputy will recollect that I made that point when he previously questioned me about these invitations. In any of our discussions we did not go into that document line by line; it was discussed in a general way as part of the overall discussion but not in a particular way.

With respect to the concept of any settlement in regard to Northern Ireland being one that must involve three strands, that is not just the policy of the Irish and British Governments, it is also the policy of all those who participated in the talks between 1991 and 1992. All of the parties who participated, including the Unionist parties, accepted the three standed nature of the required settlement and that the settlement must have an all Irish dimension just as it must have a British-Irish dimension. The approach one should have to any suggestions put forward, like those canvassed by Mr. David Trimble on behalf of the Ulster Unionist Party, is one of listening constructively to the proposal before trying to find any deficiencies that may or may not be contained in it. During many years of Irish history there has been a tendency to reject proposals because of the quarter from which they came rather than on their merits, having examined them.

I appeal to everybody who is considering proposals, whether they be made by the SDLP, Sinn Féin, the Ulster Unionist Party, the DUP or anybody else, to look at what is good in those proposals first and seek to see how it is possible to integrate one's own ideas within the structure proposed by somebody else rather than insisting on the structure that oneself is proposing. However, at this juncture, I will not go into any detail on the proposal made by Mr. David Trimble for the very good reason that I will be meeting him in person shortly and I would prefer to hear from him, face to face, the thinking behind this proposal and to tease out any difficulties or misunderstandings there may be about it. I would urge anybody else who is interested, particularly those of the Nationalist community in Northern Ireland who have reservations about the proposal, to discuss them with Mr. Trimble just as I would urge Unionists to discuss, in the same way, any proposals that might be put forward by the SDLP or Sinn Féin directly with them.

I assume the Taoiseach — I do not wish to misinterpret him — would not in any way listen to proposals based on an internal solution.

Has the Deputy read the proposal?

I have read the proposal but I am not only talking about Mr. Trimble's proposal. I was thinking of somebody else.

There has been an effort in recent weeks to try to say the Framework Document is dead. What I am seeking is the Taoiseach's commitment — forget about amendments and addendums — to the central section of the Framework Document which is that there will be no internal solution, no old tricks and that the Irish dimension of a North/South framework will be sacrosanct.

We do not have to go to the Framework Document to find the first statement that there has to be an all Irish dimension and that it is a three stranded approach. The idea that a solely internal settlement would work was one that was off the agenda long before the Framework Document. It has been off the agenda for quite some time. It has been accepted by all the parties, including the Unionists, that it is not a purely one stranded internal settlement approach that we are looking for. Anybody who studies, for example, Mr. Trimble's proposals will see that he recognises the need for a Strand II or all Ireland dimension. He might have a different view from the Deputy or myself about what that might be but that is something that is legitimate and reasonable for us to discuss. It is very important, however, — and this is what I want to stress very strongly — that if parties with whom one might have traditionally been in disagreement come up with ideas that in their view are intended to be constructive, that they should be received in a constructive way, that one should not look for the flaw in them, that one should look for what is good in them and try, in the process of building on them, to remove the flaws rather than simply reject them on the grounds of the flaws.

Is it the Taoiseach's view as a result of meeting with parties of the Unionist tradition that they are committed to an Irish dimension as well?

Yes, of course I think it is an indication of the recognition of an Irish dimension that people are willing to talk to us. That is not to say, however, there is agreement about the nature of that dimension or how it might be expressed. One of the purposes of discussion in an all party talks context is to work out the nature of the Irish dimension that will be acceptable all round. That means a lot of work because the subject of the Irish dimension is one upon which there is much general conversation but not a sufficient degree of specific practical work.

The whole North-South Irish dimension is a central plank in the Framework Document. All we are seeking to clarify is that the Taoiseach stands over that particular dimension.

I negotiated it.

The Taoiseach came in and signed it at the end. He is exaggerating slightly if he talks about negotiating it. However, my question relates to the meetings with the UDP and the PUP. I welcome the announcement — which has been reiterated by the Taoiseach — by the loyalist paramilitaries in relation to not using arms. Did the Taoiseach ask them, during the course of his discussions with them, to use their influence with the loyalist paramilitaries to go one step further and to take the step of decommissioning their arms as a gesture to take the peace process one step further and, if so, what was their response?

I did and their response was quite favourable. The position in regard to the approach to the Government is absolutely clear. I am replying now to the first half of Deputy Dempsey's question or, perhaps, to his preamble. The position, as I have said to various other Deputies of his party, is absolutely clear. The final negotiation of the Framework Document was done by the Government of which I am the Taoiseach. It is a document to which I am committed fully, but committed on the basis that it is put forward for discussion with others and on the basis of a willingness to listen to the viewpoints and concerns of others. I would hope I would not be asked to put it in any other way because if I did I would be foreclosing discussion and that is not desirable.

We have been talking much about loyalist parties. Will the Taoiseach accept the importance of remaining in close consultation with the Nationalist parties in the North and that in any initiatives he may undertake he needs to assure himself of, at least, the support of the SDLP?

One of the questions tabled relates to the meeting I held with the SDLP in the last two weeks. It was a good and useful discussion. We are in almost daily contact with representatives of the SDLP and, indeed, of other parties. We are anxious to ensure and we recognise that a settlement can only work if all of the relevant parties are going along with it, Nationalist and Unionist. It is very important that the Irish Government should, of course, concern itself with the fears and the worries of the Nationalist community. To give the Nationalist community the reassurance they need and to make the breakthroughs on their behalf that they need, we have also got to have a very constructive, close and trusting relationship with the Unionist parties in Northern Ireland too. I am glad to say that that is in the process of being established. It has taken a long time and much work by many people to get to the point we got to last week and that we hope to reach next week where we are now opening dialogue with the majority of the Unionist parties. It is something I have been strongly committed to personally. I recognise there are many others in the House, including the Deputy, who are equally concerned with it and have made efforts in that direction also. I am very glad we have reached that point and let us build on that.

Will the Taoiseach say if the Unionist parties he met expressed concern that the Government was too preoccupied with what they call the "Sinn Féin agenda"?

As the Deputy is aware that concern was expressed before they ever came to the meeting in various media interviews they gave before coming to see me. It is a concern which is understandable but it is without foundation.