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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 31 Jan 1996

Vol. 460 No. 7

Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Northern Ireland Peace Process.

Mary Harney


1 Miss Harney asked the Taoiseach if the Mitchell Commission report provides the basis for ending the impasse that has arisen in the peace process. [1795/96]

Mary Harney


2 Miss Harney asked the Taoiseach if he intends to hold a meeting with the British Prime Minister to discuss the Mitchell Commission report. [1797/96]

Bertie Ahern


3 Mr. B. Ahern asked the Taoiseach if the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party has indicated a willingness to meet with him. [1827/96]

Bertie Ahern


4 Mr. B. Ahern asked the asked the Taoiseach, in view of the response to the Mitchell report whether he and the British Prime Minister are ready to launch all-party talks before the end of February as envisaged in the 28 November 1995 communiqué. [

Mary Harney


5 Miss Harney asked the Taoiseach his views on whether all-party talks will begin before the end of February 1996. [2015/96]

Mary Harney


6 Miss Harney asked the Taoiseach if he will report on any contact he has had with the British Prime Minister. [2016/96]

Bertie Ahern


7 Mr. B. Ahern asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on his conversation with the British Prime Minister prior to his statement in the House of Commons announcing his support for an assembly. [2017/96]

Bertie Ahern


8 Mr. B. Ahern asked the Taoiseach if he was consulted beforehand regarding the proposed British response to the Mitchell report; and the views, if any, that he put forward. [2018/96]

Bertie Ahern


9 Mr. B. Ahern asked the Taoiseach the contact, if any, he has had with President Clinton following the publication of the Mitchell report. [2020/96]

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

The international body produced a report which deals in a particularly effective, succinct and balanced way with the remit given to it. I wish to add to those tributes made in this House last week my appreciation of Senator Mitchell and his colleagues.

As I stated at the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe last week, the body has set out a strikingly clear set of principles. The trust that would be created, through the full and unequivocal acceptance of these principles, could get all parties together in negotiations.

I was particularly struck, in this connection, by the validity and forthright expression of the international body's call for the decommissioning of mindsets, at its demand that we put aside the past inventories of historical recrimination and especially at its call on parties to take effective steps to prevent "punishment" killings and beatings.

As it was such a good report, I was disappointed at the response of the British Prime Minister in the House of Commons on Wednesday last. In all recent contact with the Prime Minister and with the British Government, at both political and official levels, the Irish Government viewpoint has been put clearly and consistently. An elective process in Northern Ireland should flow from all party talks, not vice versa, and it could only work if it had widespread support. As succinctly put in the Mitchell report, the conditions of being broadly acceptable, of having an appropriate mandate and of respecting the three strands are essential.

The British Prime Minister was fully aware of our viewpoint on this matter when he spoke in the House of Commons last Wednesday. Since then I have been in direct contact with him by letter on two occasions. In the first letter I set out the position that I put to him on Tuesday night last week that an elective process should flow from talks and not vice versa and that any such process should be grounded on the Mitchell Report conditions and, furthermore, that the joint firm aim of all party talks by end February remained in place so far as the Irish Government was concerned.

In the second letter I made clear our view that first, both Governments should now use the intensified political track to put the principles of the Mitchell report, and the report's approach to decommissioning, to all the parties, and ask them to agree to accept and to honour them. Acceptance would form the basis of a move to all party talks by end February, which is our joint firm aim as agreed in the communiqué of 28 November; and, second, the issue of a possible elective process should be discussed on an intensive basis in the political track to see if there are any proposals in this area which can meet the Mitchell report's three tests. The Irish Government's position is that it is premature to reach a conclusion on whether such proposals can be arrived at until the discussion in the political track has been brought to a conclusion. If the criterion of broad acceptability is to be met the Unionist parties must persuade the Nationalists parties that their fears are unfounded. The political track is there precisely to allow that sort of exercise to take place.

No further purpose is served by adding to historical recrimination on this matter. The two Governments should resume close co-operation on the basis of steps to be agreed between us — a process which has served us well over time. I will, therefore, meet the British Prime Minister as planned in February to review progress in the preparatory talks for all-party negotiations.

Other important steps in that context will be the meeting between the Tánaiste and the Secretary of State tomorrow and a series of meetings with the Irish Government at party leader level over the next number of weeks to which we have issued invitations to the leaders of the various Northern political parties. One such invitation has been issued to Mr. David Trimble, the Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, with whom there has been contact recently.

I have written to President Clinton to set out our position on the way ahead — as I have given it in this reply — and to ask for his continuing support.

Does the Taoiseach accept that the British strategy changed following the leak of the report to the Irish Independent? Did Irish diplomats attached to the Embassy in London lobby support for the commission's report on Tuesday evening before it was published?

I do not believe that either of those alleged events had anything to do with the position adopted by the British Government in this matter.

I asked the Taoiseach if the Irish Embassy in London lobbied support for the Mitchell Commission report on the Tuesday evening before it was published. Is that the case?

The position is that a lunch took place on Tuesday in the Irish Embassy for a party of British Conservative MPs who are coming to Ireland. In the course of discussions questions were asked by the MPs about the Irish Government's position on the reported content of the Mitchell report. I understand that in replying to those questions our ambassador, quite properly, gave his best assessment of the Irish Government's view on those matters. This is a perfectly normal process of briefing which occurs daily by the Irish Embassy of British MPs and, I have no doubt, by the British Embassy in Ireland of Members of the Dáil. There is nothing unusual about it and any suggestion that it provided a pretext for any change of position on the part of the British Government in this matter is ludicrous.

Does the Taoiseach agree that the Mitchell report represented a real breakthrough and it should have been accepted by both Governments as a way of moving towards all-party talks by the end of February, the firm date set? Does he further agree that the real tragedy of the events which took place last week and the attitude adopted by the British Government was that they prevented all parties taking a careful and considered view of the contents of the Mitchell report, particularly the six principles? In view of the attitude of the British Government and the way in which it betrayed the Taoiseach's trust — he has the full support of Members on this side of the House in rejecting its unilateral action — does he think the opportunity is lost to make early progress on the political talks and decommissioning?

I heartily agree with Deputy Ahern that the entirely unnecessary controversy which has been created by what was said in the House of Commons about an elected body has diverted attention from the detail of the excellent Mitchell report. It is important to stress that the report not only calls for the decommissioning of mindsets and suggests that we should not look in a distrustful way at what others are suggesting but rather in a way which indicates a desire to move forward but it also contains in paragraph 20 the six principles.

All participants in the talks should be satisfied that the other participants are committed, not only verbally but in reality, to those six principles. The only way that Unionists can satisfy themselves of Sinn Féin's commitment to the six principles is if they are willing to sit in the same room with Sinn Féin, go through those principles one by one and put all their questions, doubts and worries about Sinn Féin's commitment to those principles directly to its representatives and get answers. Trust is built through dialogue. It is not achieved by refusing to talk to one another. That is why I laid much stress in my address to the Parliamentary Assembly of the Council of Europe on the need for Unionists to be willing, after 17 months of peace, to sit down with Sinn Féin. They should not cast their worries or suspicions aside or leave them at the door — they should bring them in — but they should put them to Sinn Féin across the table and seek to get satisfactory answers.

There are many challenges in this report which the recent controversy has prevented from being put appropriately to those to whom they should be made. Paragraph 38 of the report sets out detailed views about how decommissioning might take place. It says that decommissioning should have a high priority in talks and take place during talks. All those aspects of the report should be put to those parties associated with those who hold arms and they ought to be asked if they accept each part of the report. Unfortunately, as Deputy Ahern rightly said, the unnecessary and premature controversy generated about the election has prevented those questions from being put to those relevant people who could give the appropriate answers.

The DUP has not cooperated with the twin track approach in any way while the UUP has only partly done so. Does the Taoiseach agree it is strange that the British Government has rewarded their non co-operation by adopting their position hook, line and sinker? Can the Taoiseach explain how the Ulster Unionists believe they can win both his and the Government's support by refusing to talk to him, which they have done since Christmas, especially as no one has explained how an elected body charged with negotiations is compatible with the three strand approach?

The Unionists say the Taoiseach needs a mandate to talk to Sinn Féin. Is the Taoiseach aware of any Unionist commitments to seek an electoral mandate to enter direct all party talks with Sinn Féin without preconditions on a three-stranded basis organised by the two Governments? Even if we tried to understand their logic, which I do not, would he agree that such a commitment is essential if the proposal is even to be discussed in any forum?

It is essential that the Unionist parties should meet with the Government with a view to putting their point of view on these matters and allowing the Government to put its questions and concerns, and there are many of them, about an elective process in terms of the way in which it might be divisive and might not fully or adequately respect the three stranded, and especially the North-South, dimension of the problem. All these questions need to be discussed.

The British and Irish Governments agreed to have a political track for discussing these matters. The British Government is one of the parties to the agreement which set up the political track. An unwillingness by Unionists to participate in that track creates a difficulty in establishing what exactly the Unionist view is in accepting the views of their Government.

The Taoiseach referred in his response to the unnecessary controversy that followed the House of Commons speech and "the premature controversy about the election". I am surprised at those comments. What happened in the House of Commons last week has been very damaging to the process and it will be difficult to get the talks back on the rails again.

Why did the British Government strategy change between the time the Taoiseach spoke to the British Prime Minister and the time the latter spoke in the House of Commons? I am not only talking about who delivered the speech. Is it the case that the British approach to the Mitchell Commission report changed between Tuesday evening and Wednesday afternoon?

Deputy Ahern has asked me to explain the Unionist position. I feel no more qualified to do that than to explain the British Government's position to Deputy Harney. I am required to explain the Irish Government's position.

In so far as the position adopted by the British Prime Minister is concerned, nobody, including myself, would have been surprised at his making in his speech favourable references to the role an election might play in solving the problem. It has been well known for some time that the British Government sees — it is not alone in this — an elective process as being helpful in moving forward. The problem arose at the end of his speech when he said there were only two ways in which all party negotiations could be taken forward — either an election or prior decommissioning. We have not reached the point where we can make categorical and closed statements of that nature.

There are three and a half weeks of the political track still to run and no participant in that track, whether it be a Government or a political party, should say there are only a few ways of going forward at this stage. The whole purpose of the political track is to allow for discussion and above all, listening. If people adopt pre-emptive positions which appear to close off the possibility of further dialogue on other options — unfortunately this seems to have happened with one interpretation of part of the Prime Minister's script — one is not open to the sort of dialogue proper to the political track.

Any initiative taken by Governments should be taken jointly. The approach that has yielded the best results in Anglo-Irish relations under successive Governments in this House and in Britain has been of moving together after proper consultation on the basis of verifiable agreements, not in moving unilaterally.

I now call Deputy Ahern.

It is hard to ask questions if we keep moving from one Member to another because we cannot follow the argument.

I will call the Deputy again.

It will become increasingly difficult when we move onto a different aspect. This is an important point and I would like the opportunity to ask the Taoiseach further questions.

You will be afforded that opportunity, Deputy.

While we are asking questions on the same subject we may be following a different aspect and it becomes difficult to ensure continuity. It would be better, to make Question Time on this and other matters more effective, if there was continuity.

The Chair has always afforded Members an opportunity of intervening, especially when questions are being taken together. The Deputy knows this to be true.

Our difficulties last week were caused by the pre-emptive and unilateral response of the British Government. We, on this side of the House, have always tried to understand our Unionist friends in the North, but they are seeking an election to an assembly without entering into an agreement to take part in all-party talks immediately thereafter. If the British Government supports such a proposal, it is only proper that we should understand what it entails. I have listened to and studied very carefully what Mr. Trimble has said. He is endeavouring to tie people into that proposal.

At Question Time on the day after the communiqué was issued on 28 November I asked the Taoiseach if he would accept that it would be dangerous for the Government to give so much encouragement and credence to the idea of an assembly as a means of securing all-party talks, particularly given Mr. Trimble's apparent rejection of strand II of the talks process, and he replied "not at all". I raised that question because of the changes which had been made between September when its publication was postponed and 28 November when it was finally issued. When was the Taoiseach informed that the British Government would support the proposal that an election to an assembly be held and was he informed of this by the British Prime Minister? Did he explain what the reaction here would be to such a proposal?

At the Forum on the previous Friday Government officials actively suggested to the representatives of this side of the House, Sinn Féin and the SDLP that the idea of an assembly should not be rejected out of hand. Why were they doing so? Was the Taoiseach sympathetic to the idea, as I suggested in the House in early December? I further suggest that he was taken by surprise by the way the British Government so openly and bluntly accepted this proposition.

We set out in the communiqué the content of the political track and acknowledged that there were ideas emanating from the Unionist community, such as the role of an election to an assembly. If the political track is to work, it is important that we do everything possible to encourage them to participate, put forward their ideas and test their acceptability to Nationalists. In order to encourage them to discuss their ideas with a view to reaching agreement, rather than proceed on their own, a specific reference was made in the communiqué to the effect that "both Governments acknowledge that there is space for you here to discuss your ideas within the political track". That was a reasonable approach to adopt. As the Deputy said, we must show that we are willing to give a hearing to and have room for the views of those with whom we may not traditionally have agreed.

As I have said many times, including today in response to both Deputy Harney and the Deputy, there was no surprise on my part nor anywhere in the House at the British Prime Minister making a favourable reference in his contribution in the House of Commons to the role an election might play. It would have been surprising if he had not, given that paragraph 56 of the Mitchell report specifically refers to an election and sets down three conditions upon which an election could be helpful.

As I explained to Deputy Harney, what was unexpected and unhelpful was not the reference to the role an election might play but the statement that there were effectively only two ways forward towards talks, an election before talks, not following from talks, and prior decommissioning. This was both pre-emptive of the political track and unacceptable in the way it was presented to the Nationalist community. I hope that clarifies the matter for the Deputy.

I am intrigued by the Deputy bringing into the House a version of a conversation in which he did not participate. That conversation took place at the initiative of Dr. Martin Mansergh of Fianna Fáil with Mr. Shane Kenny who in the privacy and informality of the Forum expressed views in favour of allowing openness towards the possible role an election might play in the process.

In welcoming the forum I expressed the hope that not only would we benefit from the public sessions but also that there would be an opportunity for those who supported various points of view and parties to have private and informal discussions with one another in the corridors of the Forum. This is not helped if people of the standing of the Leader of Fianna Fáil introduce second-hand accounts of conversations in which they did not take part which are designed to make a political point and, in this instance, are entirely inaccurate as to who initiated the conversation.

I acknowledge the approach the Deputy is adopting in this matter, but I hope he will not pursue every private conversation which might have taken place at the Forum between members of his party and my own because, if we want to create an inventory of conversations, more than one party could participate usefully in that process.

We must have an open mind about every option, but what happened last week in the House of Commons has proved damaging to the process and it will be difficult to put it back on the rails again. There was a selective leaking of information from Washington published in The Irish Times on Tuesday and the Irish Independent on Wednesday. The well-intentioned lobbying of backbenchers in the House of Commons put pressure on the British Prime Minister who was forced to give that response last week. If we do not understand why things happen we will not be able to find a way around them. Will the Taoiseach accept what I am saying and——

Does he accept that the British Government has now effectively and officially relegated the Mitchell Commission and the twin track approach to a secondary role behind the holding of elections?

I do not share the Deputy's assumptions about the reasons for the approach adopted by the Prime Minister and the idea that anybody would react in pique over a matter of that nature. I do not believe the leaks to which the Deputy referred occurred in this jurisdiction; they did not occur in this jurisdiction.

They were from Irish sources.

They did not occur in this jurisdiction and were not, as far as I am concerned, from Irish sources. The Deputy's suggestion whereby she is implicitly accepting that the leaks came from Irish sources — which I do not accept — is not tenable.

It would not be productive for me to engage in speculation about the reasons for what was done in the House of Commons on Wednesday and I do not wish to add to the differences and disagreements over the events of the last week. At this juncture I have an obligation to express my views. However, having done that, it is time to work in a constructive way with the British Government to restore a joint approach to these matters in accordance with our agreements. We have made clear agreements with the British Government. The communiqué of 28 November was not easy to negotiate; it took a long time and much work went into it. It was a finely balanced communiqué. If one makes such an agreement one works with it in conjunction with one's partner.

In so far as the peace process is concerned, we intend to work in partnership with the British Government. That is the best way forward. While we will, occasionally, have differences with the British Government as we had last week, that does not take from my determination or the determination of the Tánaiste and the Government to work in a concerted way to bring the peace process forward in co-operation with the British Government. That is the way we should work henceforth. The approach of both Opposition parties today has been helpful in that regard.

I do not intend to pursue what went on over lunch hour at the forum because it is a useful process for the Taoiseach. However, I cannot leave something that is not factual on the record. During the day two senior officials of the Taoiseach's office canvassed the senior co-ordinators and advisers of three parties on a particular line. That evening we all wondered what the Taoiseach and his advisers were at, as it was not just one question put by somebody in one place. The Taoiseach might tell the House whether he agreed with the version put forward by the named official. Furthermore, the Taoiseach did not answer a more important question. Did the Prime Minister, John Major, inform the Taoiseach that he would tell the House of Commons he was moving towards the Assembly idea?

First, because the Deputy's party chose to introduce this private conversation in the forum into the public arena, I got a full account of these discussions from Mr. Shane Kenny. He was not accompanied by an official of my Department. The Deputy's assistant failed to recognise the person to whom he was speaking. The person in question is not a representative of my Department but an official of the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Nice to know those Departments talk to each other sometimes.

They do not trust each other.

Holding each other's hands.

The thesis the Deputy is trying to advance has little ballast underpinning it because his assistant failed to recognise one of the people to whom he was talking. That said, I have a full report of the conversation from Mr. Shane Kenny.

Mr. Kenny was approached by a member of Sinn Féin and by a Fianna Fáil adviser separately in the course of normal contacts at the forum. During separate conversations, Mr. Kenny gave assurances that the Government's view was that a proposal for an elective body should be considered in the political track under the terms of the November communiqué. He also said that the Government would insist that any such proposal would have to be firmly anchored in the three stranded approach and that the Irish Government would not countenance the return of a Stormont type assembly. He expressed the view that we should be open to discussing the proposal since it was put forward by Unionist parties and this was specifically provided for in the terms of the communiqué.

The Fianna Fáil adviser made it clear that his party would reject the Mitchell body report if it proposed such an elective body as it was outside the international body's remit. These conversations and exchanges of views, for which the forum is most useful, were not based on anything other than publicly known information at that time.

He should stick to communications.

That is that, as far as I am concerned. It is quite unworthy of the Deputy to attempt to present biased and inaccurate versions of conversations that took place in the forum. I have had many conversations, all of them amicable, with the Deputy. If I met him at the forum and he said something to me I would not repeat it in the House.

There is more to it than that.

There is nothing more to it than that. The Deputy should not make such elliptical statements. "There is more to it than that"; that is the sort of——

Tell us about the telephone call.

——innuendo that is a substitute for rational argument.

Dr. Mansergh has a track record.

Dr. Mansergh has a track record which I admire as the public record will show.

What about the telephone call?

I am surprised, not at Dr. Mansergh having this conversation with Mr. Kenny as it was a perfectly reasonable conversation, but that the Fianna Fáil party which employs Dr. Mansergh chose to introduce this private conversation into the public domain. That will cause problems from the point of view of others having conversations with Dr. Mansergh in future because there will be the fear that any such conversations could be introduced into the public domain by Deputy Ahern. That is not good from the point of view of the work of Dr. Mansergh. He has a useful contribution to make to public affairs even though he is employed by the party in Opposition. It is not fair to him that his conversation should be repeated in this manner by Deputy Ahern. I ask the Deputy to repent of the mistake he made in this instance.

The Taoiseach is a real ham actor.

What about the telephone call?

I am sorry personalities were introduced in this matter. The Chair has always taken the view that persons outside the House ought not to be brought into controversy in the House as they do not have redress against accusations made against them in this privileged Assembly.

It is probably due to the fact that the Taoiseach is sitting beside the Minister, Deputy Lowry.

I would have preferred if these people had not been referred to at all.

This side of the House is trying not to make too much of it. I was not seeking to get anybody on the Taoiseach's staff into trouble. However, the Taoiseach's people were talking to Deputy Noel Dempsey and not Dr. Martin Mansergh. I am sorry for the Taoiseach's trouble——

Now he will have to think of another story.

——but if he refers back he will find that it was a Deputy of this House.

How many more conversations does the Deputy want to introduce?

If I did I could cause an awful lot of trouble.

I have no doubt that members of my party have spoken to virtually every Fianna Fáil member of the forum.

Deputy Dempsey can give his own account.

Can the Taoiseach reply to the question?

I do not keep a record of every conversation my officials have so I cannot tell the Deputy exactly who everyone spoke to last Friday or the Friday previously or any other Friday.

The Taoiseach was canvassing the idea.

I do not intend to keep such a record. However, if the Deputy's party wishes to maintain a record of every such conversation, I will ask my people to report on any opportunities they have to talk to Fianna Fáil and report back regularly on what is said.

We should proceed with these important questions——

I have asked a question that has not been answered.

——without further reference to personalities.

If the co-ordinator of my party's group at the forum is approached by a person we believe is close to the Taoiseach and is asked a question which we believe to be a policy question and that member comes to me asking for guidance I do not consider that to be an insignificant matter.

We should proceed.

For the third time, when did the Prime Minister, John Major, tell the Taoiseach he was moving towards the idea of an elected assembly?

I answered that question twice already. As I expected, the Prime Minister indicated that he would make favourable references about the idea of an election, but he did not indicate that he would present it as an alternative precondition, in other words, that it would be a question of decommissioning or an election. Neither did he indicate that the election would come before talks. I specifically told him that talks should come first and that the idea of an election should flow from them, not the other way round. I have now answered the Deputy's question three times and I hope he heard me.

The well intentioned efforts of Irish Government officials put pressure on the British Prime Minister and, unfortunately, for internal British party political reasons, forced a change of tack. Unlike an international agreement, about which the two Governments might be at one and for which Irish officials would lobby support, this is a sensitive issue and the well intentioned efforts were counterproductive.

I support the Taoiseach's remarks about the need for all-party talks. Does he agree that the two Governments have a crucial leadership role to play in that regard and that it is not appropriate that either Government should stand by as helpless onlookers? Rather, they should encourage those over whom they have influence to participate in the talks and not merely wash their hands of their responsibilities.

I agree with the Deputy that the two Governments have a leadership role to play in regard to this matter. Given the divided nature of society in Northern Ireland, most of the initiative must come from the two Governments, but if the leadership is to be effective the two Governments must act together. They cannot act unilaterally and for that reason I put great store on acting in accordance with agreements I have with the British Government. That is the way forward and the way in which we can exercise the type of leadership which the Deputy correctly stated is necessary from the two Governments.

When the Taoiseach was told in a telephone call from the British Prime Minister that he intended to refer to an assembly, did it not occur to him to contact the Prime Minister later that evening about the matter? Did the importance of getting across to the Prime Minister the view of Nationalist Ireland on this matter or the fact that he was reneging on the Mitchell Commission not occur to the Taoiseach? How does this square with the meeting the Taoiseach proposes to have with the Prime Minister in mid-February? Is the Taoiseach not deluding himself in believing that that meeting will be a review of progress towards the aims agreed on 29 November? Those aims have been cynically blown out of the water by the British Prime Minister and the Northern Secretary who stated that they are committed to an elected assembly and do not propose going down the track agreed between the two Governments on 29 November.

In my discussions with the British Prime Minister I made it clear that the question of an election should flow from all-party talks and not vice versa. I outlined to him my informed view that the Nationalist parties in Northern Ireland are strongly opposed to his approach. I also outlined their concern about the need to maintain the three stranded context and their rooted opposition to anything that could be construed as a return to Stormont. I also counselled the Prime Minister against saying anything that would put others on the spot and require them to react negatively in view of their known positions. I asked him to ensure that there would be adequate consultation the following day on the detailed texts of what might be said. That did not occur because the text of what the Prime Minister said was not furnished to us——

In other words, the Taoiseach failed.

——until 2.20 p.m. the following day, less than an hour before the Prime Minister made a statement on the matter.

The Taoiseach was ignored by the British Prime Minister.

The approach that there should be an election or decommissioning as a means of starting talks is unhelpful. It is a mistake and pre-emptive of the twin-track approach. Deputy Burke asked why I did not get back to the Prime Minister on the matter. The conversation took place at 10.30 p.m. after I left the House and we agreed that the texts would be exchanged the following morning.

The Prime Minister did not make his speech until 3 o'clock the following day.

The Deputy should listen to the reply.

Our text was supplied in sufficient time for the British side to make changes if they so desired. However, their text did not arrive until 2.20 p.m. and as I had to be in the House at 2.30 p.m. I did not have an opportunity to examine it. In the brief time available to us, attempts by the Government to have changes made were not successful at that juncture.

It is pointless going back on what we did or did not do last week in order to reinforce negative viewpoints. I have no doubt there are negative viewpoints in some quarters about what the British Government has done in the past. There is little purpose in recitation of this type of inventory of recrimination, to use the term in the Mitchell report. Deputy Burke is not serving any worth-while national purpose by seeking to pursue this matter. Therefore, while I will answer any questions he puts to me, is his line of questioning serving the greater interest?

A serious statement has been made about me.

The rag is out.

I am spokesperson for the Fianna Fáil Party on issues relating to Foreign Affairs matters and Northern Ireland. The Taoiseach had a telephone conversation with the British Prime Minister at 10.30 p.m. on Tuesday night. He had ample time the following morning to reflect on his intention to make a statement about an assembly. If the Taoiseach spoke to the British Prime Minister on the telephone at half past ten on a Tuesday night and could reflect overnight and all the following day on what he had been told by the British Prime Minister as to his intention to make a statement about an assembly, it was his duty to have contacted him and not wait until 2.30 when he was coming into this House. It is my duty to raise the Taoiseach's failure. He failed the Irish people and the Nationalist Irish and I would be failing them if I did not raise it in this House.

Get off your soap box.

On many occasions over recent months the Taoiseach made great play of the fact that he does not see himself as the leader of Nationalist Ireland but as representing a broader view of the traditions on this island. In view of what has happened over the last week or so, does he now accept that was the wrong approach to take?

My view is that, in accordance with Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution, I have a responsibility for all the people who live on this island whatever political ideology or viewpoint they have. That means that I have a responsibility to be concerned about the views and interests of the Irish Unionist people living in Northern Ireland and with those of the Nationalist tradition living in Northern Ireland. I am bound to do that under Articles 1, 2 and 3 of the Constitution. Our Constitution does not say that the only people who are Irish are those who are Catholic or who live in Northern Ireland and happen to be Catholic. Our Constitution is an inclusive Constitution, and it seeks to protect the interests of people of both traditions in Northern Ireland. It is time those who promote the merits of Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution recognised that those Articles require me — it is not an option — to be concerned about Unionist views, because Unionists who live in Northern Ireland, who live on this island, live within the area to which that constitutional provision refers. I do not see myself, therefore, as leader of any part of the Irish people or any section of the Irish people who happen to agree with a particular ideological viewpoint about national development. I have to have a concern for the views and concerns of all who live on this island whether or not they feel any sense of allegiance to this House, because that is what is provided in Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution. That is something to which the Deputy and his party might address their attention.

I thank the Taoiseach for the lecture on Articles 2 and 3, but coming from that side of the House in relation to this side of the House who have been party to all the negotiations on the peace process it is a bit much to take. Mr. Trimble wrote recently to the Tánaiste in fairly trenchant terms saying that the two Governments were distinct parties and could not, with integrity, portray each other as dealing with identical views. That was mirrored in what Mr. Taylor said in the last few days when he refused any offer of talks with the Government on the basis that we were a foreign Government. Can the Taoiseach reconcile that with what he said?

The position is clear. The Irish Government has an obligation under the Anglo-Irish Agreement to look particularly to the interests of the Nationalist community, but under our Constitution we have an obligation to concern ourselves with all the people who live on this island.

It is unrequited love.

That is something the Deputy and his party should reflect upon occasionally. We do have that obligation to be concerned with the viewpoints of both sides in Northern Ireland. Even if the Constitution did not provide that we should, common sense would require that we do, because there will be no settlement unless there is agreement, and there will be no agreement until one side attempts to understand the concerns of the other. If the Irish Government simply sets out to understand the concerns and views of one side of the community in Northern Ireland, there would be no prospect of agreement. Of course the Irish and British Governments have differing perspectives on the matter. That is normal. However, at the same time we are working towards a common objective, and that common objective requires each to be concerned about the views of the other and of both communities. In the case of the British Government, in particular in the last week, it ought perhaps to have paid a little more attention to the concerns and views of the Nationalist community before making proposals that appeared to present just two alternative routes forward towards all-party talks.

They might have listened if the Taoiseach had made the case properly.

The decommissioning issue has caused an impasse in the peace process for some considerable time. The Mitchell Commission, therefore, was brought in to resolve the differences between the two Governments. After his telephone call with the British Prime Minister relating to the Mitchell Commission, was it the Taoiseach's view that the commission's report found favour with the British Government and was generally acceptable to it?

It was my view that the British Prime Minister was of the opinion that the Mitchell Commission produced a good report, well written and clear, that there were certain parts of it that caused him some discomfort but that the report was considered to be a good one and a good basis for moving forward. In particular my understanding was that he fully accepts, and accepted, the six principles contained in the report. We should now return to the six principles and the other recommendations contained in the report, for example, the recommendations that decommissioning should take place during all-party negotiations, that it should receive a high priority in all-party negotiations, that it should suggest neither victory nor defeat, that the decommissioning process should take place to the satisfaction of an independent commission, that it should result in the complete destruction of armaments in a manner that contributes to public safety, that it should be fully verifiable, that it should not expose individuals to prosecution, that it should be mutual and that there should be the early termination of paramilitary activities, including surveillance and targeting. If that happened it would demonstrate a commitment to peaceful methods, build trust among other parties and alleviate the fears of the general population.

Those specific recommendations of the Mitchell body, not just principles but specific and detailed recommendations about how we could go about decommissioning, provide a very valuable agenda. I would like to see the representatives of those who fear that arms might be used against them, namely, the Unionist community, sitting down with Sinn Féin and going through each one of the six principles and then going through each of the seven or eight further recommendations of the body and asking Sinn Féin hard questions. That can only be done if Unionists are willing to sit in the same room with Sinn Féin. Unionists cannot put those questions to Sinn Féin over the airwaves or through a megaphone. They can only put them if they are willing to sit in the same room with Sinn Féin.

After 16 or 17 months of peace, the time has come for Unionists to be willing to sit and ask those hard questions and be as tough as they like in asking them, but to ask those hard questions of Sinn Féin in the same room. Equally, the SDLP and Sinn Féin should be given the opportunity which they, in fairness to them, are willing to take to put those same questions in turn to the two political parties representing the Loyalist paramilitaries. It is only by going through the Mitchell report paragraph by paragraph and putting the questions one by one to the parties associated with paramilitary organisations that we will get the answers which will provide trust. Staying apart is not the way forward. Getting together, asking the hard questions, having arguments and getting answers is the way forward.