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.
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.