Northern Ireland Peace Process — Joint British-Irish Communiqué: Statements.

I thank the House for the sos that was agreed to allow me to get ready to make my presentation. The script of my speech is not available for circulation immediately, but as I will cover the text of the document which is already in the public domain Members probably will be familiar with the main points.

Before I refer to the text I would like to avail of this opportunity to pay particular tribute to the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs for his advice and very active participation in this entire process. I also pay tribute to the officials of his Department, the Department of Justice and my Department who worked at all hours of the day and night, including weekends, to bring about the agreement we have now achieved. The Minister for Social Welfare has been involved on a daily basis in recent weeks in reaching the present stage. The Minister for Justice has also played a vital role at critical junctures in the process leading to last night's agreement.

I wish to convey my thanks to the House, particularly to Deputies Ahern and Harney for the general support they have given the Government in this process, which they acknowledged was a difficult process at all times.

I express my appreciation that I was not pressed for answers to questions which Members knew I might be able to answer, but which would not necessarily be prudent for me to answer in the national interest.

The agreement would have been impossible without the concentrated engagement, mastery of detail and willingness to set time aside at short notice shown by the British Prime Minister, Mr. John Major. What the British and Irish Governments launched yesterday evening by way of a comminiqué was a twin track process, a means of bringing the two Governments and the Northern Ireland parties together for constructive negotiations at the earliest possible date and in the best possible atmosphere. Both Governments have the firm aim of launching these all-party negotiations by the end of February 1996.

If our timetable is to be achieved, we must have the fullest and the earliest co-operation from all parties. Some parties will need time to study the communiqué. It is not a simple document, although it is comparatively short. The two Governments have been working on it and the concepts in it for many months. It is not unreasonable to give the Northern Ireland parties the time necessary to analyse it and to reflect on its contents. Representatives of both Governments will be available to provide the parties with any elaboration or explanation of the detail of the document which may be required. I ask parties considering their definitive responses at this point to accept our offer or the offer of the British Government of more detailed briefing if they feel that would help them.

Time is not on our side. Events will not and do not stand still. We are either moving forward or running the risk of going backwards. Yesterday evening the two Governments gave the peace process a renewed momentum, but everyone must stand ready to make the compromises necessary to take advantage of that. A willingness to compromise is a sign of strength; an unwillingness to do so is often a sign of weakness or uncertainty.

I want to discuss the text of the communiqué which sets out the agreement between the two Governments on the twin track process. The tracks will work in parallel and simultaneously. I emphasise that progress in one track will facilitate progress in the other. For this twin track approach to work, the work in both tracks must be mutually reinforcing.

The first track will be an intensive series of discussions, which we intend to begin almost immediately, involving all the political parties in Northern Ireland which are working on an equal basis with the Governments to lay the ground work and to build up the trust necessary to ensure that all-party negotiations, to which we are committed, will be a success. In this political track, the two Governments will have intensive preparatory talks with the Northern Ireland political parties with the remit to reach widespread agreement on the basis for participation, structure, format and agenda necessary to bring all the parties together for substantive negotiations aimed at a political settlement based on consent. These talks will have an open agenda allowing any party in the political track to raise any relevant matter. As the communiqué states:

These matters could include how best the structure and format of all-party negotiations, involving in appropriate strands both governments and all the relevant Northern Ireland parties, directed to addressing in a comprehensive manner all the relevant relationships in an interlocking three stranded process can properly take account of democratic mandates and principles, including whether and how an elected body could play a part.

It continues:

In managing the process of preparatory talks, each government will build on existing exchanges and bilateral contacts, treating each party on an equal basis; they will encourage other formats for meetings with the parties and among the parties, including meetings between the two governments together with one or more parties, with their agreement, which might further the objective of the preparatory talks.

I do not wish to say much more at this stage about the political track. We have set out a comprehensive and open agenda for it and it is not the intention of this Government or the British Government to be prescriptive about the nature of the political talks track.

It is important to make the point that this success is one where the Governments are giving the parties an opportunity to make a response. The Governments are not laying down what the parties must do. We are providing them with a channel or a means whereby they can be masters of their own future. It is important to recognise that we are talking about giving people an opportunity to be masters of their own future. Part of the problem in Northern Ireland for years has been a sense that someone else has responsibility for whatever is wrong and for finding the solution to it. What we are providing in this twin track process is an opportunity for the people of Northern Ireland and their political representatives to become that someone else; to become the ones who find the solutions, make the compromises and the deals necessary.

I hope the British Prime Minister, his team and our team have shown in recent hours an example of how it is possible, if one wants to, to make an agreement. I hope that example will be shown to be useful and will be followed in the more complex and wider process involved in the political track about which I have spoken.

The Governments have set out their joint position in the communiqué, but we are only two of the parties in a negotiation which, I hope, will, if it is to work to full effect, involve both Governments and all political parties in Northern Ireland. It is not for us to impose an agenda, a format, a location or anything else. These things must emerge by agreement. If we are to achieve the objective of all-party negotiations by the end of February 1996, all concerned must show flexibility and a willingness to take fully into account the concerns and difficulties of other parties.

Obviously the work done by both Governments and by the Northern Ireland parties in recent times may facilitate progress as we move along the political track. For example, last February the two Governments jointly publishedA New Framework for Agreement, a shared understanding between London and Dublin to assist discussion and negotiation involving the Northern Ireland parties. At about the same time a number of Northern Ireland parties published their proposals. There is an opportunity now in the political track announced last night, for the first time, for all those participants to see how best they might interact with one another regarding the various proposals tabled jointly by the Governments and by the parties.

In the nature of media presentation of issues, conflict rather than agreement is more the stuff of headlines. Up to now the public focus has tended to be on the differences between the various proposals made, particularly those made earlier this year, the framework document and proposals made by others. These various documents have many common features. I hope that in the work that will be done now in the political track the emphasis will be more on what is in common between the proposals of the various parties and less on the areas where undoubtedly there is disagreement as one would expect in a society riven by division in the matter of allegiance for the past 300 years.

While the task ahead is daunting, the available documents, along with much other work done, including that done in the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, provide a fruitful ground for preparatory talks.

I move to deal with the second of the two tracks, the decommissioning track. In parallel with the political track the two Governments have agreed to establish an international body to provide an independent assessment of the decommissioning issue. The background to this decision is well known. One of the obstacles on the road to inclusive all-party talks is the lack of trust deriving from the fact that even though we have had 15 months of peace frightening quantities of explosives, arms and ammunition are known to be held in both jurisdictions. Given the events of the past 25 years, they are a threat to the peace and are clearly seen as such. For many people it is not enough that the arms have been silent for 15 months — important though that achievement is — and parties associated with their use have said they are committed to achieving their objectives through peaceful and democratic means. While parties in this House may be prepared, as we are, to take the republican movement at its word, it is obvious that to date at least Unionists and the British Government are not. That is a reality we must face.

Against that background for some time the British Government has been of the view that all-party talks could not usefully commence until a start, at least, had been made on decommissioning. The Irish Government has accepted, albeit reluctantly, that this will not happen before the commencement of such talks. Our reluctance should not be taken in any way as a weakening of our resolve to rid this country, North and South, of all bombs, guns and bullets. As Taoiseach, I find it abhorrent that weapons should be in the hands of anyone in this jurisdiction other than those of the lawfully constituted security forces or people licensed by lawfully constituted authorities. The use or threatened use of violence in the achievement of political objectives has no place in a democratic society, nor is it sufficient in this day and age to refer to the precedent of pikes in the thatch or guns in the bog.

Sadly, nowadays, we live in a much more complex and crime ridden society. Within a few miles of this House one day recently there were three murders involving the use of guns. While there is no suggestion that those murders involved paramilitaries or weapons controlled by them, we cannot take the risk that guns originally brought into this country by paramilitaries may end up in the hands of criminals. Total and verifiable removal of those arms at the earliest possible date is the only outcome that will ultimately be acceptable to the people of Ireland, North and South.

The twin track process is an effort to overcome the disagreement that has existed between the British and Irish Governments regarding the timing of the commencement of decommissioning relative to the issue of the commencement of talks. We have not attempted to hide our differences in this matter. It is better to be open if there is a disagreement while, at the same time, emphasising the much larger area of ground in which there is agreement.

In particular, both Governments have agreed to establish an international body to provide an independent assessment of the decommissioning issue. We invited the distinguished US Senator, George Mitchell, to chair the body and we are inviting two other eminent people, one Canadian and one Finnish, to serve as other members of the body. We expect to be in a position to announce their names within a matter of days. I am delighted to be able to confirm to the House that Senator George Mitchell has accepted the invitation and is ready to start work almost immediately. He will be arriving in Belfast tomorrow as a member of President Clinton's party and I look forward to seeing him here on Friday. I wish to express my deepest gratitude to Senator Mitchell and I know I speak on behalf of all Members of this House and all people in this country in wishing him success in his endeavours. He has already shown his extraordinary friendship and support for all the people of this island, North and South, Unionist and Nationalist, republican and loyalist in the work he has done as special adviser to the US President on economic initiatives in Ireland and through his role in the organisation of the White House conference on trade and investment in Ireland in Washington last May. He is about to tackle a problem which, in the long history of our country, has never before been successfully tackled. Despite the depth, complexity and known current difficulties Senator Mitchell unhesitatingly agreed to tackle it. His knowledge, experience and his personal qualities uniquely fit him for the task.

The Governments, in particular, have asked the body to provide an independent assessment of the decommissioning issue. I want to emphasise paragraph five of the communiqué. It is broadly phrased and is the governing paragraph. The assessment to be carried out is of the decommissioning issue — that is not qualified in any way — and it is to be independent. I emphasise those important words in that paragraph.

In paragraph seven of the communiqué the Governments, in particular, have asked the body to identify and advise on suitable and acceptable methods for full and verifiable decommissioning and to report on whether there is clear commitment on the part of those in possession of such arms to work constructively to achieve that. We have asked the body to submit its report to the two Governments by mid-January 1996. Again, the time frame is an indication of the pace at which we expect the twin track mechanism to work.

I hope the relevant parties will recognise that if the overall timetable we have set is to work, it is important that they complete their analysis of the communiqué as quickly as possible. It is expected that the international body will consult widely, invite relevant parties to submit their analysis of matters relevant to the decommissioning issue and in reaching its conclusions within its remit to consider such evidence as it receives on its merits. The body will be capable of operating in both jurisdictions and will have offices in Dublin and Belfast. It will be for the body to decide who to meet.

The Governments will place no restrictions on the body in regard to whom it may talk to in order to fulfil its mandate and it will be able to receive information about matters falling within its remit in confidence. While we would expect details of the body's consultations with the two Governments and the parties to be confidential, it will be a matter for the body itself to decide on a day to day basis how much publicity to give to its work.

The Governments considered in detail the critical issue of what attitude the body and the Governments will take to the various submissions which both Governments expect will be made to the body. We agreed a specific response which recognises the differences between the Governments in relation to the Washington 3 criterion. This response crucially includes the following agreed text:

But as the communiqué makes clear, the Governments are not setting limits to the scope of the submissions which may be made to the body or in the preparatory talks. As paragraph 8 makes clear, it will be for the body in reaching conclusions within its remit to consider such evidence on its merits. Both Governments will consider constructively any practicable suggestion that could bring all parties into negotiation on the basis of the Downing Street Declaration and would do so in the light of discussions in the political track.

I believe the use of the terms "consider constructively" is particularly important here, but those making submissions to the body should also approach their part of the task in an equally constructive spirit and I wish to emphasise that.

The costs of the body will be met by both Governments. It will be serviced by a secretariat, the arrangements in regard to which will be a matter for discussion between the Governments and the body itself. Obviously since the body is independent it will be free to choose its own staff. As the communiqué makes clear the Governments are not setting limits to the scope of the submissions which may be made to the body and, as paragraph 8 makes clear, it will be for the body, in reaching conclusions within its remit, to consider such evidence on its merits. Neither Government nor any other party cooperating with the work of the body is asked to abandon their well-known or stated position nor are they bound in advance to accept the recommendations of the body. These recommendations will be advisory. What is important is that the two Governments have agreed that they will consider carefully any recommendation made by the body and give it due weight on its merits. I have no doubt that both Governments will consider constructively any practicable suggestion that could help all parties into negotiations as quickly as possible.

We have embarked, a Cheann Comhairle, on the twin track approach to clear obstacles to all party negotiations. It is important to recognise that it is all party negotiations that we are seeking. The two Governments, acting separately or jointly, cannot clear these obstacles on our own. These obstacles can only be cleared by all of us, all the parties, working together in a spirit of trust, goodwill and harmony.

Many parties have already taken major risks for peace. I salute them for that. They, we and others may have to show even greater courage as we move into the next critical phase of this process. The peace process, a Cheann Comhairle, has now become a political process. That is why I look forward to the future with such optimism and confidence.

I thank the Taoiseach for his introductory remarks. I acknowledge the assistance of the Government last night, through the Minister for Social Welfare, Deputy Proinsias De Rossa, in providing an advance copy of the communiqué to the Fianna Fáil Party and his briefing on any questions we raised.

The Fianna Fáil Party welcomes the resumption of forward movement in the peace process, which is long overdue, on the eve of President Clinton's visit. Whatever reservations or queries we have about some of the outstanding difficulties and the detail, we believe that all parties should try to work and co-operate with what is there to achieve the results we all want. These results are consolidation of the peace, the commencement of all-party negotiations and confirmation in every sense that the gun has been taken out of Irish politics forever.

As Deputy President de Klerk said last week, any peace process vitally needs pace and momentum. The peace process has been in increasing difficulty for many months, since the launch of the Framework Document last February. Many of us were becoming seriously concerned about the future of the peace if the impasse continued and if confidence in the process were further eroded. That is why the visit of President Clinton was seen by many as perhaps a last chance to secure the future of the peace process.

The period of stagnation has, unfortunately, seen a hardening of positions all round. There has in our view been an unjustified attempt by the British Government to impose a precondition prior to talks, which was not mentioned in the Downing Street Declaration, the British Government's formal clarification or the many appeals to Sinn Féin made by the British Prime Minister and Secretary of State prior to the ceasefire. Fianna Fáil has protested forcefully on that subject for a number of months and against Britain's upping of the ante.

Continued British insistence on maintaining that precondition in September caused the collapse of the planned summit. When the Nationalist parties in Northern Ireland were not prepared to accept the proposed outcome, the Government rightly decided to cancel the summit rather than break the consensus which underpinned the peace. The Government has not succeeded in securing at this stage any obvious softening of the British position. Perhaps it is better to have the disagreement out in the open rather than have a pretence of agreement which tries to paper over the cracks and quickly falls asunder.

We are fortunate that the visit of President Clinton has served as a catalyst for agreement. I have no doubt that there have been intensive, official and political contacts with Washington on all sides in the past few weeks. Once again we must be grateful to the US Administration for providing a pressing reason for both Governments to move forward now, on the basis of whatever level of agreement they could achieve, however incomplete that might be. We cannot expect President Clinton to come to Ireland every time there is an impasse in the peace process.

It was correct that the Government should not proceed until it had a reasonable expectation of widespread acceptance and co-operation with the summit outcome. I accept that ultimately Governments have to evaluate and decide on their own responsibility as to when they have a good chance of making the process work. It is not always realistic to expect explicit prior support or even formal acceptance at any stage. That was Fianna Fáil's experience in the lead up to and the aftermath of the Downing Street Declaration. I am glad that in recent weeks the Taoiseach and the Government have tried to the best of their ability to maximise the prospect of Nationalist consensus behind the best agreement that could be reached at this time. I equally acknowledge that in important negotiations it is sometimes necessary to proceed on a basis that may be far from ideal in the interests of the greater good. In this regard, I am glad of the positive welcome by the SDLP and the measured response by Sinn Féin to last night's outcome.

Because of the unresolved difficulties and open disagreement between the two Governments on the central issue, I do not believe that the summit communiqué falls into the same category of achievement as the Downing Street Declaration or the Framework Document, though it is nonetheless important. We hope that it will be the basis for a major step forward and not just a moving of the road block ten yards up the road. The active and constructive engagement and interaction of all parties and both Governments in the preparatory talks and with the International Commission can move the peace process forward greatly. There is much sense inThe Irish Times editorial this morning, which quotes Churchill, who said in 1942 of a turning point in the Second World War: “This is not the end. It is not even the beginning of the end. But it is, perhaps, the end of the beginning”.

The communiqué launches the twin track approach. The most positive feature of it is the firm aim of launching all-party talks by the end of February, and the establishment of the international commission to find a way round the arms decommissioning problem. "Firm aim" is not quite the same as a fixed date, particularly as it is heavily conditional on the progress in the preparatory talks. To get all-party talks started on time will be a formidable achievement and we hope that no one will attempt the tactic of endless delay.

With regard to the launch of all-party talks, the two Governments are right to ask for co-operation from all parties and we welcome what is, on the face of it, a renewed commitment by the British and Irish Governments to achieving it. It must seem extraordinary to the outside world, and especially to the American President's party, that after 15 months' cessation of violence the parties are still not sitting round the table. That is quite an extraordinary situation.

I am glad there is a clear confirmation by both Governments that they remain committed to the three strand process. The Ulster Unionist Party has sought in recent days to expunge Strand II in a manner that is unacceptable and in clear conflict with the position of both Governments. A substantial section of the Northern business community are very interested in the concept of the single island economy, where it can be of advantage. It would be absurd, for instance, to place tourism promotion in a so-called British Isles context which would do nothing for Northern Ireland tourism. We have tried to adopt a pragmatic approach to North-South co-operation based on mutual benefit. Others should not allow ideological blinkers to interfere with economic logic.

I am not entirely happy with the inclusion of a reference to an elected body in the communiqué in a way that does not refer, even implicitly, to long standing Nationalist objections to it. I do not see the public debating Assembly, with all its acrimonious division, as a suitable body for discreet and sensitive negotiations, and I do not think we should be diverted from the challenge of organising all-party talks, for three reasons. First, meetings of Belfast City Council, where in the past the DUP has hurdled insults at Sinn Féin, will do nothing to advance the cause of peace. Second, there is no evidence that the parties on their own, without the active involvement of the two Governments, are capable of reaching agreement. The whole point of the Framework Document was that the two Governments would help to set the agenda and continue driving it forward. Third, there is no reason to question the electoral mandate of the parties involved or to believe there has been any drastic change in the level of support of any of them.

I am disturbed that the Irish Government should have agreed to the last sentence of paragraph 3 which reads: "These preparatory talks may also extend to all steps required to establish the necessary circumstances to bring the parties together at the negotiating table, in accordance with paragraph 10 of the Downing Street Declaration".

Paragraph 10 of the Downing Street Declaration originally referred to conditions for participation in the forum, but in the early December 1993 summit in Dublin Castle, the British Government suggested that it should apply more generally to full participation in democratic politics and freedom to join in dialogue in due course between the Governments and the political parties on the way forward. This was for democratically mandated parties which establish a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods and which have shown that they abide by the democratic process. The view taken by the two Irish Governments since the IRA ceasefire is that Sinn Féin fulfils the requirement of paragraph 10, as otherwise it could not be a member of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation.

I am a little surprised to see the Government apparently subscribing to a sentence which appears to call this into doubt and which provides backing for the extremely tendentious interpretation by the British Government and the Ulster Unionist Party of paragraph 10.

I support paragraph 4 which says that each Government will treat the parties on an equal basis and encourage meetings among the parties but I was a little disconcerted that at the press conference immediately afterwards, John Major ruled out for the present a meeting with Gerry Adams. How is that treating all parties equally? That attitude also makes it more difficult for the British Government to encourage Unionists to engage in bilateral dialogue with Sinn Féin, which theBelfast Telegraph has been consistently urging them to do.

We are happy that an international commission has been set up under the chairmanship of Senator George Mitchell to find a solution to the contentious arms decommissioning issue. I agree with everything the Taoiseach said about Senator Mitchell. The work he did with the Tánaiste in May this year on the economic conference demonstrated his commitment and the effort he was prepared to put into this process. I have no doubt that Senator Mitchell will do all he possibly can to make this work and we wish him well.

Hear, hear.

We thank him warmly for his willingness to take on this task so quickly. On the basis that he apparently has only until mid January, every day will count but the Senator is a good negotiator from times past. This is essentially international arbitration under American chairmanship and another example of the US Administration, under President Clinton, being willing to take on, in certain instances at least, the role of the ultimate guarantor of fair play. I hope the commission will receive full co-operation from both republicans and loyalists so that when the commission reports, people will see a clear prospect of full scale arms decommissioning when negotiations are complete, or on a phased basis while they are in progress if that can be agreed.

There seems to be differences between the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister as to whether the international commission can provide a way around the Washington 3 condition. Last night, John Major said: "We won't be asking the international body to question our position on the Washington 3 criteria", whereas the Taoiseach said that the aim of the process is problem-solving, that the international body is independent and that people will be able to make submissions on absolutely any matter that is relevant. We have to hope that the international commission will provide a clear way forward on all aspects of the issue, including a way around the road block of Washington 3.

In Cannes last June, John Major suggested the international commission should look at "the how, the when and the who". I am sorry that he now appears to have excluded "the when" from the remit. I regret also that the Irish Government, despite strenuous efforts which we acknowledge, did not succeed in getting Washington 3 explicitly included in the remit of the commission.

The British Government seems to have hardened its position on the description of the arms to be removed, clearly identifying them as solely related to paramilitary weapons. A separate paragraph speaks of the two Governments continuing to take responsive measures, advised by their respective security authorities, as the threat reduces. It is ironic, and a great pity, that the British Government should not take the advice of its security authorities that a gesture on decommissioning is irrelevant in security terms.

We note the British Government has succeeded in introducing the whole decommissioning issue into the preparatory talks, partially shifting the onus for maintaining the Washington 3 demands towards the Unionists. Both have not slammed the doors. If peace is to progress, the way must be left open for confidence-building by means other than a demand for surrender and we support the Government's position on that.

In conclusion, we support the advance that last night's communiqué represents. Indeed, we hope it represents a substantial advance. We believe it creates challenges and opportunities for all parties, including Sinn Féin. I will thank President Clinton for his continuing valuable role, and for the help his visit will provide to this country, when he arrives here. I would like to compliment the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and their respective civil servants for the work, commitment, time and effort they put in over the past number of weeks and for bringing the peace process forward and, more importantly, bringing it back from the brink of disaster. I hope their efforts have proved successful. There will be a sense of relief everywhere that the peace process is back on the road, mingled with few illusions about the difficulties of the way ahead but we will watch that as it develops. We congratulate the efforts of yesterday and will watch matters develop as the weeks move on.

I warmly welcome the launch of the twin track initiative. I believe it represents a genuine effort to revive and advance the peace process. I congratulate the Taoiseach and commend his efforts, and those of the Tánaiste, and their respective officials for bringing us to this stage. I also compliment the British Prime Minister and his officials. Without them we could not have seen this initiative launched.

It would be wrong not to single out for praise President Clinton, not just for the catalyst role he played in the run up to last night's communiqué, but for the consistent and thorough interest he has taken in the peace process. On St. Patrick's Day last year he said that Ireland had a true friend in the White House; I certainly think we have.

If one wanted to be sceptical or cynical about the twin track initiative, one could be. Many will ask what has changed since last September. Already today, several Unionist and Sinn Féin politicians have described it as a fudge. If one wanted to be pessimistic, carp and adopt a begrudging attitude one could certainly find flaws. I want to pose a challenge to the sceptics and the cynics. Do they want to see a complete breakdown in the peace process? Do they want to see troops back on the street in Northern Ireland? Do they want to see a renewal of the violence we had for 25 of the past 26 years? There is no doubt in my mind that violence will ensue if there is not an all-inclusive political settlement.

In all the circumstances, the twin track initiative launched last night is the best available option. At a minimum it keeps the peace process going, it maintains it. It revives the process at many levels and adds a new momentum and dynamic to it, which was essential. It does not resolve the deadlock in relation to illegal arms and it does not allow for the commencement of all-inclusive talks but it provides a mechanism which can, with a little courage and sacrifice, provide us with a formula, a way out of the current stalemate. If there is goodwill, courage and sacrifice — I emphasise those words — then it will not be impossible to resolve the current deadlock.

I emphasise the words "courage" and "sacrifice" because the politicians from both communities in Northern Ireland in particular will need these qualities in abundance over the next few weeks. They can choose to remain in their respective political bunkers, reassuring each other of the integrity of their position, hurling political abuse at each other and telling the Governments to get lost. However, they know that this will be a recipe for a disaster. Instead they can look at what has happened in South Africa, the Middle East and the Balkans and ask, why not us too? Why can we not build peace? Why can we not move away from our entrenched positions? Why can we not create in Northern Ireland a partnership, a genuinely shared society where Unionist and Nationalist may not have to love each other but can respect each other and feel at home there?

Unionism and Nationalism are incompatible but we have to find in Northern Ireland, as in so many conflicts throughout the world, a structure which can accommodate the different identities and aspirations of both communities. The twin track initiative throws down that challenge to the protagonists on each side. If they show courage and vision they can rise to that challenge.

Many would say that Senator Mitchell's commission will need the wisdom of Solomon if it is to chart its way out of the arms logjam. I do not intend today, nor do I believe it is correct, to be prescriptive or dismissive about its role. Senator Mitchell and his colleagues will bring an experience to the commission and if they can summon up the expertise used in the resolution of so many other conflicts throughout the world then they will have the capacity to succeed. The commission will acquire its own dynamic and while neither the Government nor anyone else is saying it will be bound by its recommendations — it is merely an advisory commission — we would be foolish not to take them very seriously.

There is a strange paradox surrounding the impasse in the peace process. The immediate protagonists are very wary, suspicious, ungenerous and unyielding of each other. On the other hand, there is extraordinary commitment and goodwill from people far beyond our shores who want to genuinely help us to resolve the problem which has bedevilled this island and Anglo-Irish relations for many years. The central task of constitutional politics is to create in Northern Ireland a workable foundation of trust which will be sufficient to support all-inclusive dialogue aimed at bringing about a political settlement. There is no point in calling talks if everyone will not be present. In the talks about talks process it is important for everything to be on the agenda. We cannot rule out anybody's preferred option. This is not desirable, generous or workable in the present circumstances.

What we need in Northern Ireland is some level of trust. We will not achieve total trust in a matter of weeks or months nor do we need to. The problem at the moment is the absence of any trust in some of the key relationships. The arms issue is a key for building trust at one level. Those who want to be treated equally and who want their electoral mandates to be respected must know that their association with paramilitary organisations places them in a self-imposed handicap. Total disarmament is not necessary to create trust. In the first instance it would not be possible to verify it and, second, it is always possible to manufacture more explosives and to get more arms. Those who are committed to democratic politics must show a willingness to travel down the road of disarmament. Many ordinary people wonder why those who are committed to peace want to hold on to every ounce of semtex and every weapon. What we need is a willingness to travel down the road of making a gesture, which they alone can make.

Equally on the Unionist side, the "no surrender", "not an inch" and other remarks we heard today are no longer acceptable in the context of the problem that is Northern Ireland. The Deputy President of South Africa said majoritarianism had to be ruled out if they wanted to resolve the problem in South Africa. There is no room for majoritarism in Northern Ireland either. People have to be generous and agree to share Northern Ireland on an equal basis, respecting each other's identify and aspirations. The late President Rabin said. "You make peace with your enemies, not your friends." The Unionist politicians in particular should remember that as they have much to gain from a political settlement in Northern Ireland. Their community has suffered enormously. They showed great fortitude during the 25 years of violence and I hope they bring that same fortitude to the political process which is now required.

What is needed in Northern Ireland is a new, normal society where everybody can feel at home. The three sets of relationships must be appreciated and respected. Regardless of how the geography or numbers change, there will always be a role for North-South and British-Irish relations. Even if the numbers go the other way the then minority are entitled to maintain a link with Britain. In the context of Northern Ireland the three sets of relationships are the key and contact and respect between those relationships has to be the order of the day.

We need a new political order, not a Unionist or a provisional veto. We need to ensure that everybody is treated equally and that the courage and vision shown in the Balkans, South Africa and the Middle East becomes the norm in Ireland. Shakespeare and Henry VIII spoke about the tender leaves of hope blossoming. I hope Senator Mitchell's commission and the talks about talks which offer tender leaves of hope will blossom and that people will give it a chance. As we approach the second Christmas of peace in Northern Ireland in almost a quarter of a century the onus is on us all to play our part and to be generous. Many of us who participated in the forum did not find it easy to work with those whoseraison d'être, methods and pure existence we had questioned over many years. Yet that presented us with a challenge. Many of us have found the experience to be extremely beneficial and as we have spoken to people and got to know them we have discovered we have much more in common than that which divides us.

The politicians in Northern Ireland are the only ones who can solve their problems. No matter how much the two Governments do, at the end of the day it will be John Alderdice, John Hume, Gerry Adams, David Trimble and hopefully, Ian Paisley who will decide the future of Northern Ireland.

Regardless of what we or the Governments do, any deal agreed by them will be unbeatable. I wish the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the others involved in this delicate process well. I hope for all our sakes that it succeeds.

I join the other party Leaders in warmly welcoming the communiqué agreed by the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister last night. It is a very significant breakthrough, the importance of which should not be underestimated. In many respects the communiqué is on a par with the Downing Street Declaration and the Framework Document. The Downing Street Declaration was a truly mould-breaking set of political principles which set out a new approach to the problems of Northern Ireland. The Framework Document provided a framework for the good governance of Northern Ireland and the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic. The communiqué provides a mechanism which will facilitate the continuing journey from the aspirations of the Downing Street Declaration to the proposals of the Framework Document.

The communiqué ends an impasse in the process which had gone on for far too long. The whole nature of this process from the very beginning has been that it has almost always taken us longer than anyone envisaged to get from points A to B. There have been other difficulties that have taken great time and effort to overcome, but it is fair to say that the impasse over the past few months had gone on so long and seemed so intractable that some of the protagonists began to seriously wonder if the whole process was running into a dead end.

It was not a prospect that the Government was prepared to contemplate and the Taoiseach, the Government in general and a wide range of officials have put enormous time and effort into finding a way out of the deadlock. As a result of last night's agreement we can now all face the future with renewed hope and new optimism.

The agreement has secured a number of the Government's key political objectives in regard to moving the process forward. The two Governments have publicly stated their commitment to the early launch of all-party negotiations with the firm aim of achieving this by the end of February. The two Governments have agreed to invite the parties to intensive preparatory talks which will have an open agenda, allowing any party to raise a relevant matter. The two Governments are committed to treating each party on an equal basis.

The decommissioning issue clearly has not been solved, but the agreement to establish the international body means that the problem can be examined and progress made on it, without the continued political gridlock of the past few months. This agreement provides a challenge for everyone. For Sinn Féin it clearly offers the prospect of involvement in early all party talks, but it provides for them also the challenge of seriously addressing the weapons issue. For the Unionist parties and the Alliance party it provides the opportunity to bring forward proposals for a new elected body, but presents them with the challenge of entering into serious dialogue with those who have different aspirations and proposals.

There should be no rush to judgment on the communiqué and I am glad there has been none. Apart from the negative reaction of the Democratic Unionist Party, the reactions of Sinn Féin, the Ulster Unionist Party and the loyalist parties have been cautious, but generally positive. In many respects this mirrors the reaction to the Downing Street Declaration in December 1993.

Let us see what the communiqué offers. All parties, North and South, are committed to talks, although some set preconditions. All parties, North and South, are committed to removing the gun from Irish politics, although some differ from others as to how and when this can be achieved. Last night's agreement provides a mechanism for progress on these issues.

Some people are describing it as a fudge but that is too easy and does no credit to those who may seek to opt out on that basis. However, I do not accept that anything that breaks the long running impasse and moves us from the crisis of which people have been warning for months, deserves to be dismissed as a fudge. The agreement should be considered on its merits. It warrants the most serious consideration by all parties and by some more than others. The issues in question are too serious for knee-jerk reaction. This is not a time for flag waving or camp following. It is a time to consider the future, to consolidate the peace and to lay the foundations for political progress in Northern Ireland.

Before any party is tempted to rush to judgment and dismiss the agreement out of hand, let them contemplate the alternative. Institutionalised stalemate will simply reinforce existing divisions, making political progress impossible. Inflexibility masquerading as principle will yield the same result. Before any party rejects this agreement, let us hear their proposals for the inclusive political progress and civilianisation of Northern Ireland society, which are capable of winning the same broad political support that the communiqué has already received.

It is important to emphasise that in the past 24 hours this agreement has received the full backing of the democratically elected Governments of this State and of the United Kingdom. It has been warmly welcomed by the government of the United States. The reaction of the SDLP has been most positive and the Opposition parties in this House and in Westminister have been generous in their response. There are no proposals for moving the process on being put forward by any individual party in Northern Ireland which on their own have the potential of winning the same widespread support.

As I said earlier, last night's communiqué does not attempt to provide a political solution to the problems of Northern Ireland, but rather provides a mechanism for moving the process forward. It provides a structure to enable people to get into discussions and to start building the trust that is essential if a political solution is to be found but it will work only if it is used and particularly if it is used by the parties in Northern Ireland.

The two Governments can provide the framework, but only the parties within Northern Ireland can deliver the solution because the problem of Northern Ireland is not a conflict between Britain and Ireland, it is rather a conflict between two communities in Northern Ireland with conflicting national allegiances. I hope that all parties in Northern Ireland will seize the opportunity to achieve political progress and copperfasten the peace.

I hope, in particular, that the agreement that so many people have worked so hard to achieve will bring an end to dangerous and foolish talk by those who should know better that the peace process is in crisis or at an end. The peace will end only if those who put down their guns and put away their explosives last year, decide to take them out again. These comments not only cause unnecessary worry and concern to those who last year breathed a collective sigh of relief at the ending of the 25 year campaign of violence, but are also music to the ears of those who want to believe that the IRA ceasefire is simply a tactic and that a return to violence is inevitable.

While not underestimating the problems that still remain to be addressed, we must not lose sight of what has been achieved as a result of the cessation of violence by the paramilitary organisations. Without doubt the single most important achievement is that scores — perhaps hundreds — of people who might otherwise have died violently are still alive.

This period of peace has allowed the two Governments to respond in a number of ways. The State of Emergency has been lifted in the Republic and around half of IRA prisoners have benefited from the Government's policy of early release. Sinn Féin has regular access to Government at the highest level. In Northern Ireland security measures have been scaled down; broadcasting restrictions have been ended; there is now no British Army presence on the streets of most areas of Northern Ireland; 50 per cent remission has been restored and almost 100 prisoners released. Most significantly of all, Sinn Féin leaders are now able to meet British ministers at the highest level.

People who lived for years behind barricaded doors are once again able to leave their front doors open. The towns and cities of Northern Ireland, many of which for so long looked like a cross between a bomb site and a prison camp, have come alive again and are buzzing with excitement. We cannot afford to jeopardise what has been achieved.

As a result of the ceasefires and what has been achieved since, it is now possible to conceive of a purely political settlement. This will take time — not only to copperfasten peace but also to address the legacy of 25 years of violence and generations of discrimination. Emotions are still extremely raw, as was evident in the ugly confrontations and spate of church and hall burnings that were a feature of this summer. The people of Northern Ireland require a period of recovery from 25 years of sectarian savagery. Time is needed to build trust. Time will also provide the opportunity to develop and devise a new political culture in Northern Ireland, a political culture that is accommodating and inclusive, not just of the different national allegiances and moral viewpoints, but which also advances the equality of men and women, which is committed to sustainable economic development and to a participative democracy in place of the rigid and sectarian thinking that has held sway for so long.

This has been a good week for this country. Last Friday the people showed compassion for those families affected by marital breakdown and indicated their preference for continued movement towards a more tolerant and inclusive society. Last night the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister dispelled the gloom surrounding the Northern Ireland situation and provided grounds for new hope and optimism. In his opening remarks the Taoiseach acknowledged the critical role played by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister for Justice, the officials and myself but I would like to pay a tribute to the Taoiseach's handling of the very difficult situation during the past few weeks. It is without doubt his drive, energy, vision, determination and commitment and his refusal to throw in the towel that made last night's agreement possible. It is that kind of commitment, drive and refusal to accept defeat that will eventually bring a settlement to the troubled people of Northern Ireland.

On behalf of the Government I express appreciation for the words of welcome from the Opposition parties for last night's agreement. We appreciate their support. In the early days of the peace process none of us expected that the path ahead would be easy. We did not imagine that agreement would be smoothly and quickly achieved. When I spoke in this House after the publication of the Joint Declaration, I foresaw lengthy and careful negotiations involving both Governments and all those in Northern Ireland committed to the democratic process. Inevitably, progress has been uneven, sometimes unexpectedly rapid and sometimes frustratingly slow, but the key point is that there must be a momentum, an impulse towards the achievement of a lasting and comprehensive settlement founded on the principle of consent. Hope is the essential motor of the process.

The fundamental objective of the communiqué which the Irish and British Governments issued last night, and of the twin-track approach we have launched, is to restore momentum to the peace process and to set in motion a fresh dynamic. As President Clinton said in his most welcome statement of support this morning, it gives us "an opportunity to begin a dialogue in which all views are represented and all voices can be heard.

Since 1980, the consistent assessment of successive Irish Governments has been that the close co-operation of the two sovereign authorities is an essential enabling factor for progress. This strategic analysis underlay our approach to the negotiation of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Joint Declaration and the Framework Document. As in all such relationships, there can be disagreements and phases of hard and difficult discussion, but it is necessary constantly to bear in mind the fundamental necessity of our partnershp. That in turn derives from the reality of the Northern situation. The two communities there define themselves in terms which transcend Northern Ireland, which thus imply, and require, the involvement of the two Governments. There can be no internal settlement, and it is therefore for the Governments to shape the framework where a settlement becomes possible.

The cessation of violence is an unprecedented opportunity which we must seize. For too long we have had a dangerous stand-off. This involved the deeply held position of the British Government, as set out by Sir Patrick Mayhew in Washington, that a start of actual decommissioning was a necessary precondition for Sinn Féin participation in negotiations and an equally firm conviction in the republican movement that any attempt to meet such a precondition would precipitate a reaction which would be deeply destabilising in terms of the really crucial goal, namely, maintenance of the ceasefires. We worked long and hard with the British Government from June onwards, and with particular intensity from the start of this month, to reach agreement on a way to move forward to all-party talks.

It is easy to misunderstand — or misrepresent — the position of the Irish Government. We want decommissioning as soon as possible. All the weapons must be got rid of. Talks must be based on a genuine commitment to peaceful and democratic values. There can be no "try it and see" approach to the democratic process or to political negotiations. None of this means that decommissioning must necessarily be a precondition for negotiations. It means rather that it should be a vital goal in negotiations. If we really want to achieve that goal, it makes sense to situate it in a context where it is realistically attainble, rather than one where the symbolism and history weight strongly against it.

Inevitably, what has emerged from a period of particularly arduous negotiation is a compromise. Neither Government would claim that everything in the communiqué is exactly as it would have wished. Likewise, some of the Northern parties will no doubt find elements of the approach now agreed not immediatley to their taste. Some doubts have already been expressed. Nevertheless, the essence of negotiation is compromise. In a situation such as exists in Northern Ireland, where the divisions are so deep and have been exacerbated by the experience of many years of conflict, compromise is bound to be painful. It will be painful when we come to discuss fundamental issues of substance. Inevitably, that is also the case even at this preliminary stage.

To all those who may cavil about one aspect or another of the twin-track approach, there are two simple questions to be asked. Would an alternative genuinely have a better chance of advancing the situation? Are the objections so powerful as to justify standing aloof from this stage of the peace process and increasing the risk that, unimaginably, it could fail, with all the terrible consequences that would entail? The answer to both questions must surely be no.

Moreover, as a careful reading of this communiqué makes abundantly clear, it does not involve any sacrifice of fundamental principles. What is involved is a pragmatic and reasonable attempt to find a way of advancing matters to a point where we are able to talk seriously on an agreed basis about the key substantive issues. I cannot see how this could be represented as a threat to cherished values or as an invitation to surrender.

The communiqué makes clear that the two Governments are firmly committed to the early launch of all-party negotiations. It puts in operational terms the position set out in the joint framework document and repeated on many occasions since then. Peace has lasted for well over a year. It has already transformed the daily lives of many people in Northern Ireland and has opened up new vistas for social and economic progress on the island as a whole. It is vital that it is now underpinned by a political settlement addressing all the relationships involved.

That settlement, which must ultimately be democratically ratified by the people, North and South, has to be negotiated by the two Governments and by the parties in Northern Ireland. As I have already said, comprehensive negotiations on matters of substance will inevitably be lengthy and complex. That is why it is important that they get started as soon as possible. The basic questions which will have to be addressed are well-known. They will not change with the passage of time, nor will the essential character of the identities and aspirations which must be accommodated. There is no point in hoping that if matters are put off long enough Unionists will have turned into Nationalists, orvice versa. On the contrary, delaying the start of serious all-party talks would simply allow for the build-up of resentments and frustrations, calling into question the seriousness and good faith of those responsible.

Accordingly, we have indicated that it is our firm aim that all-party negotiations be launched by the end of February next year. Some will claim this date is unrealistically close, that we will never succeed in reaching agreement on the numerous procedural and other questions by that time. I would merely point to the experience of the last few days, and say that where there is a will, there is a way. The end of February is a firm objective. It is the considered view of the two Governments that the objective should prove achievable.

Our resolve not to let it slip reflected in the commitment by the two Governments to meet to review progress before that date. We hope and expect a similar level of commitment from the political parties.

As the communiqué says, the preparatory talks will be intensive. Their remit will be to reach widespread agreement on the basis, participation, structure, format and agenda to bring all parties together for substantive negotiations aimed at a political settlement based on consent. Of course, we are not starting from scratch. The 1991-92 Talks were based on a very carefully prepared and agreed formula. It is our belief and expectation that the principles and methodology set out in the former Secretary of State's statement of 26 March 1991 to the House of Commons offer a solid basis for discussion on this occasion too. In particular, it is essential that all the relevant relationships be addressed comprehensively and in an interlocking three-stranded process — as yesterday's communiqué made very clear. We could not envisage a process whereby one set of relationships, or one dimension of the situation, was given priority over the others, whether explicitly or implicitly.

Nevertheless, new participants — Sinn Féin and the two loyalist parties — are now in the equation. There has been a change of leader in the largest Northern party, the Ulster Unionist Party. Those who were involved in the 1991-92 talks will in the light of experience perhaps have views on possible changes to, or improvements in, the procedures which were followed then. We stated that the preparatory talks will have an open agenda, allowing any party to raise relevant matters. One issue which we have mentioned as a possible topic for consideration is the question of some form of elected body, variants of which have been suggested by the UUP, DUP, Alliance Party and the PUP.

The two Governments have placed this possibility firmly within the context of all-party negotiations, involving in appropriate strands both Governments and all the relevant Northern Ireland parties and directed to addressing in a comprehensive manner the relevant relationships in an interlocking three-stranded process. In other words, what might be discussed is whether and how an elected body could be incorporated into or could contribute to that wider framework. Within those parameters, we owe it to those who wish to propose some form of body a fair hearing, as we do to all serious proposals.

By the same token, they will have to listen carefully to the answers they receive, and will have to be prepared to respond in their turn. Dialogue and trust go hand-in-hand. But those who insist on the need for trust must open themselves to its creation. This must be a two-way street.

The two Governments will in the next day or two write to the relevant Northern parties inviting them to initial meetings with the two Governments jointly. It is an explicit principle of our approach that each Government will in the course of preparatory talks treat each party on an equal basis. Each will rely on the persuasiveness of its arguments and on its democratic mandate. We are also open to approaches from any other democratically mandated parties or individuals. As we have said in the communiqué, we will encourage formats for meetings with and among the parties which might further the objective of the preparatory talks. As both Governments manage the process of political talks, we will of course be building on existing exchanges and bilateral contacts. In general, we intend to be flexible and creative in our approach. However, the Government's view is that the more we manage to meet multilaterally, the better, and this is the approach we will be adopting. This will make it easier to reach agreement on knotty points. Moreover, it would allow parties which wish to put forward their own distinctive proposals — for example an elected assembly — to argue their case directly and to reply directly to counter-arguments.

As I have made clear, it is the unswerving ambition of the Irish Government, as of the British Government, to see all arms removed from the Irish political equation for once and for all. Moreover, we share the desire that this should occur as rapidly as possible. What, however, we have disagreed about is our assessment of when the decommissioning process might realistically be expected to begin. Our analysis, as the Taoiseach and I have repeatedly said, is that this is regrettably not attainable in advance of substantive all-party talks. We wish it were otherwise. We have stated that no threat or hint of coercion, however remote, would be acceptable in a talks process. And we have said, disarmament, though not a pre-condition for entry into dialogue, would be a reasonable pre-condition for the achievement of a settlement. As is common knowledge, the British Government does not share this view, despite our best efforts, and those of the parties with the best insight into the mindset of the republican movement, to convince it. This disagreement, which of course also extends to the political parties, has paralysed the peace process for several months. Accordingly it was vital to find a way out of the stalemate in which we all found ourselves. We had to find a way of throwing new light on the issue, of looking at it afresh.

Parallel with the political track of preparatory talks, the two Governments have agreed to establish an international body to provide an independent assessment of the decommissioning issue. It is to be chaired by a most eminent American, Senator George Mitchell, whose commitment to Ireland and to the cause of peace is already evident to us all through his work as an adviser to the President on economic issues. He will be assisted by two other figures of international standing, whose names will be announced very shortly, when the necessary formalities and courtesies are completed.

I stress that that is an independent and, by virtue of its membership, a most authoritative body. Specific requirements for its report have been set down in the communiqué. It is concerned in particular with illegal arms, between which arms and the arms of the legitimately-constituted security forces we seen no equivalence.

But, as is made clear, the Governments are not setting limits to the scope of the submissions which may be made to the body. It has a wide remit. It is envisaged that it will consult widely, and that parties will submit their analysis on matters relevant to decommissioning. It will be for the body, in reaching conclusions within its remit, to consider such evidence on its merits. Thus it will be open to all of the political parties in the North to submit their own analyses of matters relevant to the decommissioning issue, including all aspects of the so-called Washington conditions. No artificial constraints will be imposed on any party as it seeks to put forward the views of its supporters or the community it represents.

The body is to submit its report to the two Governments by mid-January next. Neither Government, nor indeed any other party co-operating with the work of the body, is bound in advance to accept its recommendations. But we and the British are committed to considering carefully any recommendations it makes, and to give them due weight on their merits. Both Governments are committed to consider constructively any practicable suggestions that could help bring all parties into negotiations.

There is no point in denying that there is continued disagreement on the relationship between decommissioning and political negotiations. I am hopeful that, by virtue of its independence and its authority, the body's analysis of the situation will compel the serious consideration of all involved, and that by standing back and looking anew at the issue it will be possible for a fresh perspective to emerge. The body will be working in parallel with the political track. Its findings will not be looked at in isolation: all of us will have to take into account developments on both fronts. We hope there will be a positive interaction between the two tracks, and it is our expectation that, taken together, they will help to build the confidence which is required for early movement into all-party talks, which all of us on this island wish so feverently to see in progress.

As President Clinton said in London this morning, the twin-track process is a framework where a solution can be found. The capital point is that there is now a fresh dynamic, a new opportunity for discussion and dialogue. The prospect of all-party negotiations is now closer than before. The way forward to such negotiations has been charted and over the coming weeks it will be possible for the parties to engage in intensive discussion on how they should be organised. The two Governments are firmly committed to moving ahead by the end of February. Not to grasp this chance would be a tragic error, and the potential benefits of participating in the twin-track approach greatly outweigh any possible risks to any party.

I would like to express my gratitude for the expressions of support and encouragement which we have already received from our friends abroad. My Department and our embassies are today engaged in comprehensively briefing foreign governments and their embassies here. I should of course place on record our particularly deep appreciation for the support and encouragement of President Clinton and his administration, whose committed and even-handed involvement has been an important factor for progress and has helped the two Governments. We all look forward to making this clear to him in person during his imminent and very welcome visit to this island.

I wish to pay particular thanks to the Taoiseach for his enormous effort and energy in recent weeks during difficult negotiations, and to other members of the Government. Without that support and strength I do not believe we would have arrived at the stage we are now.

I would also like to thank the Opposition parties for the constructive approach they have taken in relation to Northern Ireland. At a difficult and sensitive time it is important that, while not surrendering the right to offer sincere criticism, we do not play politics with the situation. I hope that the bipartisan spirit which has been so important at other crucial moments will continue to dominate our efforts in relation to Northern Ireland.