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

Ray Burke

Question:

4 Mr. R. Burke asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs the confidence-building measures, if any, he has urged upon the British Government with a view to improving the prospects that all parties will sit round the table in all-party negotiations. [8287/96]

Peadar Clohessy

Question:

6 Mr. Clohessy asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs the discussions, if any, he has had regarding the holding of referenda North and South in conjunction with the proposed elections on 30 May 1996. [7552/96]

Helen Keogh

Question:

8 Ms Keogh asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs the discussions, if any, he has had regarding the consultation paper on the proposed elections and all-party negotiations in Northern Ireland. [7557/96]

Liz O'Donnell

Question:

9 Ms O'Donnell asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs his response to the claims by the Progressive Unionist Party that they had been seriously misled by the Government at their recent meeting in Dublin. [5604/96]

Tom Kitt

Question:

12 Mr. T. Kitt asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will report on his negotiations with the British Government concerning the form of elective process for Northern Ireland which should lead to all-party negotiations beginning on 10 June 1996. [6560/96]

Ivor Callely

Question:

13 Mr. Callely asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs the Government's current understanding of the Nationalist/Republican views for a political settlement in the North of Ireland; if it is clearly understood and if it is accepted that a united Ireland is obligatory; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8271/96]

James McDaid

Question:

19 Dr. McDaid asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs the conditions under which Sinn Féin will be permitted to participate in the all-party talks commencing on 10 June 1996. [8259/96]

Desmond J. O'Malley

Question:

20 Mr. O'Malley asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs the discussions, if any, he has had regarding the relationship between the proposed Northern Ireland Forum and the all-party negotiations due to start on 10 June 1996. [7015/96]

Robert Molloy

Question:

21 Mr. Molloy asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs his views on the agenda for the all-party negotiations on 10 June 1996. [6403/96]

Bertie Ahern

Question:

22 Mr. B. Ahern asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs the agreement, if any, that has been reached regarding the nature of an elective process under discussion between the Irish and British Governments. [4895/96]

Robert Molloy

Question:

24 Mr. Molloy asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs his views on who should chair the all-party negotiations due to begin on 10 June 1996. [6402/96]

Dermot Ahern

Question:

30 Mr. D. Ahern asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs his Government's views regarding the recent statements by Mr. David Ervine of the Progressive Unionist Party who alleged a deterioration in relationships between his party and the Irish Government; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [5751/96]

Bertie Ahern

Question:

34 Mr. B. Ahern asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs if the Irish and British Governments are fully committed to the shared understanding in the Framework Document to assist discussions and negotiation. [7643/96]

Michael McDowell

Question:

36 Mr. M. McDowell asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs the status of the proposed Northern Ireland Forum; and the possible impact of non-participation by some political parties in the forum on the time-table for all-party negotiations. [7550/96]

Michael McDowell

Question:

39 Mr. M. McDowell asked the asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs the discussions, if any, he has had with political parties in Northern Ireland regarding their participation in the forthcoming elections. [

Liam Fitzgerald

Question:

42 Mr. L. Fitzgerald asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs the progress, if any, that has been made in determining the content of an all-Ireland referendum on peace; and the plans, if any, he has to consult with the opposition parties regarding this matter. [4897/96]

Helen Keogh

Question:

43 Ms Keogh asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs if the terms of Paragraph 7 of the Joint Communiqué of 28 February 1996, that the proposed elective process in Northern Ireland will lead immediately and without further preconditions to the convening of all-party negotiations means that Sinn Féin may attend those talks in the absence of a renewed IRA cease-fire. [5599/96]

Peadar Clohessy

Question:

44 Mr. Clohessy asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will report on the contacts between the Government and the Progressive Unionist Party. [6399/96]

Desmond J. O'Malley

Question:

47 Mr. O'Malley asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs his views on the possibility that the proposed Northern Ireland Forum might hear submissions made by political parties in the Republic. [8109/96]

Ivor Callely

Question:

50 Mr. Callely asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs if both the Irish and British Governments recognise and acknowledge the importance of ensuring Sinn Féin's participation in dialogue and, in particular, in substantive all-party talks; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8299/96]

Ivor Callely

Question:

51 Mr. Callely asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs the consideration, if any, that has been given to a resumption of ministerial dialogue with Sinn Féin; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [8300/96]

Trevor Sargent

Question:

53 Mr. Sargent asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs in view of the controversy surrounding the elective process, the consideration, if any, he has given to the merits of combining the systems favoured by the Ulster Unionist Party on the one hand and the Democratic Unionist Party and SDLP on the other, whereby a Proportional Representation Single Transferable Vote constituency based vote will incorporate a topping up list system with a 1 per cent threshold thereby providing for both local democracy and true proportionality. [4952/96]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4, 6, 8, 9, 12, 13, 19, 20, 21, 22, 24, 30, 34, 36, 39, 42, 43, 44, 47, 50, 51 and 53 together.

Since the Tánaiste last answered questions in this House on 7 March, he has had four further meetings with the Secretary for Northern Ireland: on March 8, 14 and 20, and on April 3. At these meetings, the two Governments reviewed our consultations with the Northern parties, and discussed issues related to the launch of all-party negotiations on 10 June.

In particular, as was envisaged in the communiqué of 28 February, we considered the basis, participation, structure, format and agenda of substantive all-party negotiations. A consultation paper was issued to the parties on 15 March, and subsequently, on April 16, we published the Ground Rules for Substantive All-Party Negotiations. This paper sets out the best judgment of the two Governments on the most suitable and broadly acceptable ground rules for the basis, participation, structure, format and agenda of all-party negotiations, beginning on 10 June 1996.

As the House will be aware, the British Government published on the same day, 16 April, the Northern Ireland (Entry to Negotiations etc.) Bill, which provides for elections to be held on 30 May leading directly to the all-party negotiations, and for the creation of a forum in Northern Ireland. This Bill is currently passing through the Houses of Parliament at Westminster and is expected shortly to become law.

As stated in the February communiqué, the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister agreed that details of this particular elective process were for the parties in Northern Ireland, with the British Government, to determine. The Government would not wish, therefore, to pronounce on the precise form of electoral system which is to be employed, although we are of course aware of the divergent views of the different parties, and urged the British Government to do the utmost possible to achieve the criterion of broad acceptability.

As Deputies will be aware, both the SDLP and Sinn Féin yesterday announced that they intended to take part in the elections on 30 May.

The interrelationship between the elective process and the negotiations is of direct concern to the Government. We were determined to ensure that the elections would lead immediately, directly and automatically into all-party negotiations with a comprehensive agenda. The ground rules paper, and the British electoral legislation, reflect this intent.

We were equally determined to ensure that there was a clear and rigorous distinction between the negotiations and the proposed elected forum. Paragraph 7 of the ground rules paper, accordingly, states: "The conduct of the negotiations will be exclusively a matter for those involved in the negotiations. Any reference to, or interaction with, the forum to be convened following the elective process held to determine which parties will participate in the negotiations may take place solely by agreement among the negotiating teams to this effect and only at their formal instigation".

The forum is to discuss issues relevant to promoting dialogue and understanding within Northern Ireland. It will be deliberative only and will have no legislative, executive or administrative functions, or the power to determine the conduct, course or outcome of negotiations. Within these parameters, the activities of the forum will be for its prospective members to decide. The possibility that it might hear submissions made by political parties in this jurisdiction is a matter for it, and those parties which might be interested, to explore in due course. The Government, for its part, would have no objection to the forum taking submissions in this jurisdiction, should the Members consider that this would contribute to dialogue and understanding within Northern Ireland.

As foreshadowed in the February communiqué, the Secretary of State and the Tánaiste considered on a number of occasions whether there might be advantage in holding parallel referendums, North and South, in conjunction with the elections to be held on 30 May. While the Government saw potential value in the proposal, and was prepared to support it, we accept that the electoral package put forward by the British Government changed the context from that envisaged when the proposal was put forward, and a referendum prior to negotiations will not now take place.

In the ground rules paper, however, both Governments reaffirm their intention that the outcome of negotiations will be submitted for public approval by referendums in Ireland North and South — before being submitted to their respective Parliaments for ratification and the earliest possible implementation.

The two Governments have, therefore, in accordance with the terms of the February communiqué, mapped out the route to substantive all-party negotiations starting on 10 June. The Government fully appreciates the concerns and reservations of the Nationalist parties in particular regarding the potential complications inherent both in the elective process and the creation of the forum. The Government will do all in its power to ensure that the safeguards which have been put in place, in particular the separation of the forum from the negotiations, are fully maintained. It is also important that the parties participating in the forum make use of its procedures in a manner consistent with its mandate to promote dialogue and understanding.

It will be for each party to take its own decision as regards participation in the elections and the forum. I would hope that in doing so all parties will consider carefully the wider picture, the overall package which has been achieved, and the need to promote the climate most conducive to the success of the negotiations, which must be the primary objective for all involved.

With regard to the agenda of the negotiations, the ground rules state that "The negotiations will,... in a full and comprehensive fashion, address and seek to reach agreement on relationships and arrangements within Northern Ireland, including the relationship between any new institutions there and the Westminster Parliament; within the whole island of Ireland; and between the two Governments, including their relationship with any new institutions in Northern Ireland." It is envisaged that a comprehensive agenda will be adopted at the opening session of the negotiations and that this should reflect impartially all the key concerns of the participants.

The ground rules also state that "Any participant in the strand in question will be free to raise any aspect of the three relationships, including constitutional issues and any other matter which it considers relevant." I expect that all parties will wish to advance their own analysis of the situation and argue the case for their own preferred outcome.

The ground rules state that it is common ground that any agreement, if it is to command widespread support, will need to give adequate expression to the totality of all three relationships. The paper recalls that the two Governments, for their part, have described a shared understanding of the parameters of a possible outcome of the negotiations inA New Framework for Agreement. We expect and intend that this key intergovernmental document will be on the table and fully considered in the negotiations.

The ground rules for the negotiations make clear that no outcome is either predetermined or excluded in advance. It goes without saying that the parties who aspire to the unity and reconciliation of the Irish people will be free to represent that viewpoint at the negotiating table and can be expected to do so.

The chairpersonship of Strand II of the negotiations remains to be decided. Strand I will be chaired by the British Government and Strand III negotiations are between the two Governments. The two Governments will be consulting with one another and with the parties with a view to reaching agreement on a suitable candidate well before the opening of negotiations. It is clearly important that the person chosen should have the necessary qualifications and authority for what will be a very challenging task.

The position regarding Sinn Féin has been made very clear in this House on several occasions. The ground rules repeat the hope of both Governments that all political parties with an electoral mandate will be able to participate in all-party negotiations. It is obvious that the prospects of success in the negotiations would be greatly enhanced by the presence of Sinn Féin. However, both Governments have also made abundantly clear that the resumption of ministerial dialogue with Sinn Féin, and their participation in negotiations, requires the unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire of August 1994.

Only the IRA can take the decision to restore the ceasefire and allow Sinn Féin to participate in the negotiations. If it fails to do so, it will mean that the republican viewpoint will not be represented in the comprehensive round-table negotiations for which Sinn Féin has been calling since August 1994. The single step of an unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire would permit the entry of Sinn Féin to negotiations without further preconditions. I regret the placing of a large bomb in London last night which was intended to do serious damage. The restoration of the ceasefire and the entry of Sinn Féin to negotiations is primarily a matter for the IRA.

Both Governments recognise that in the climate of mutual suspicion and uncertainty which exists, confidence building measures will be necessary as regards both communities. This was acknowledged by the Taoiseach and Prime Minister in the February communiqué. The ground rules, therefore, state that the agenda for negotiations will need to be in accordance with the communiqué's treatment of these issues, which states in paragraph 12:

Therefore the opening plenary session will need to ensure that priority is given to these confidence building issues. The opening plenary session will also adopt, and commit the participants to negotiate, a comprehensive agenda which provides reassurance, both in terms of addressing the report of the International Body and ensuring that a meaningful and inclusive process of negotiations is genuinely being offered.

The ground rules paper also lays stress on the determination of both Governments to ensure "that the structure and process of the negotiations will be used in the most constructive possible manner in the search for agreement. They will use their influence in the appropriate strands to ensure that all items on the comprehensive agenda are fully addressed in the negotiating process and commit themselves, for their part, to doing so with a view to overcoming any obstacles which may arise."

In my view, the balanced approach set out in the communiqué and in the ground rules should reassure all participants that the negotiations will be meaningful and should be engaged in fully and seriously.

The Government will continue to use the machinery of the Anglo-Irish Agreement to press for appropriate action on a range of other confidence issues, some of which were referred to by the Mitchell report. These include prisoner issues, the handling of parades, the review of emergency legislation, the normalisation and reform of policing and continued action to redress socio-economic disadvantage and inequality.

The involvement of the loyalist parties in the negotiations will also be crucial, and we would hope that they will be enabled to play a full and constructive role in them. On 6 February the Tánaiste had a very positive meeting in Dublin with a delegation from the Progressive Unionist Party. Members of the party, in a number of subsequent interviews and statements, expressed disappointment that at the meeting the Tánaiste did not personally brief them on the Government's proposals for proximity talks, which were at that time under discussion with the British Government. As was immediately explained to the PUP, these proposals had been made to the British Government on the understanding that they would be kept confidential to avoid the pressures of public debate until the resumed meeting of the Anglo-Irish Conference on 7 February. While awaiting the British response, which was due the following day, the Government did not feel able to discuss our proposals with any party.

The Tánaiste subsequently conveyed to the PUP the full background to his decision not to go into this particular point at their meeting. He also made clear his concern both for continued constructive dialogue with it, and to ensure an appropriate role for it in the negotiations in prospect. I would hope this has helped to allay any inadvertent misunderstandings which may have arisen.

This question refers to the need for confidence building measures. Does the Minister of State agree that the single biggest requirement is that the Government speak with one voice? Will she clarify the position with regard to the views expressed by the programme manager and special adviser to the Tánaiste, Mr. Finlay, on a Channel 4 programme when he said that all-party talks without Sinn Féin are not worth a penny candle and the fact that the Taoiseach made it clear today that he views that statement as being inappropriate and one that does not reflect his view? Will the Minister of State clarify the Tánaiste's position on this matter? Does Mr. Finlay speak for the Tánaiste? Has the Tánaiste a different view from that of the Taoiseach or from Mr. Finlay? Will she clarify the position and outline what measures are being taken to remedy the breakdown in Government unity on this issue?

The greatest confidence building measure in terms of the negotiations on Northern Ireland would be the restoration by the IRA of the cease-fire. All other confidence building measures take second place to that. While I did not see the programme to which the Deputy referred, my understanding is that the remarks made by Mr. Finlay were very much in that context. For a very long time Sinn Féin has called for all-party negotiations in which, given its electoral mandate, we expect will be a renewed mandate, in the context of the elections to be held at the end of May, it would consider its participation to be of the utmost importance. Sinn Fein's participation in the negotiations, however, is blocked by the fact that the IRA has failed to restore the ceasefire. That is the greatest threat to confidence building.

There is no disagreement among the Government parties on this matter. My understanding of the programme — I cannot comment in detail on it because I did not see it — is that it was a discursive look at the history of the creation of the ceasefire and the path to negotiations in Northern Ireland. Mr. Finlay who, with people such as Dr. Martin Mansergh, has been involved in many stages of the negotiations, and others who were interviewed commented on how they saw the process in an historical sense. Sinn Féin's participation in the negotiations is critical to the historical evolution of the process. One can envisage negotiations without the participation of Sinn Féin, but negotiations involving one of the parties which has taken the road to violence would have far greater significance.

The consistent Government view has been that we would like to see Sinn Féin taking part in the negotiations, but the barrier to its participation is the failure of the IRA to restore the ceasefire. Despite the fact that hundreds of thousands of people demonstrated by marching throughout this island, indicating that they want a restoration of the ceasefire, what happened last night in London is an indication that, unfortunately, the IRA is not yet ready to respond to that request. I hope the IRA leadership will reconsider its position in the context of what the people of this island want and open the way to Sinn Féin's participation in the negotiations.

I am dealing with replies to Question No. 4 and related questions in ordinary time and will call the Deputies who are offering, particularly Deputies Michael McDowell and Callely who tabled questions on the subject.

Did the Minister hear the comments this morning by my party leader, Deputy Ahern, in condemnation of the Hammersmith bombing last night and will she accept that it is common cause on all sides of the House to call for the restoration of the IRA ceasefire? There is no division in the House on that matter — there is a very strong bipartisan view in that regard. The Minister did not reply to the question I asked her. I agree it is essential that Sinn Féin is present at the all-party talks and in that context we call for a restoration of the ceasefire.

The special adviser and programme manager to the Tánaiste expressed a view that all-party talks without Sinn Féin would not be worth a penny candle. Where there is an obvious difference between the views of such a senior person within the Administration and those of the Taoiseach, Leader of the Administration, does the Minister believe that this matter needs clarification so that there will be one voice from the Government rather than two, one from Iveagh House and one from Government Buildings? It is crucial that question is replied to. Is the Taoiseach's view, as the Minister understands it, similar — I trust it is not — to that of the British Prime Minister at the time of the Downing Street Declaration, that the Declaration has been agreed so let us move on from there, take it or leave it? Surely that is not the Taoiseach's view.

On Deputy Ahern's comments in condemning the Hammersmith bomb, I am certain that every Member will join in condemning the placing of that bomb last night. I noted at the weekend when Deputy Ahern spoke at Arbour Hill he said specifically that his party would adhere to the view that the Framework Document provides the essential basis for political settlement. That is a reiteration of the bipartisanship that has existed for a very long period in this House, which is immensely helpful to the Northern Ireland peace process.

I reiterate I did not hear or see a detailed quote of the remarks by Mr. Finlay or the Taoiseach and, therefore, I do not wish to comment on what they said. There is no disagreement within Government that the essential confidence building measure in maintaining the momentum for peace is primarily the restoration of the ceasefire. All the other confidence building measures such as the very important issue of prisoners, community participation and development in disadvantaged areas in both Republican and Loyalist areas, the marching season and how we deal with marches are secondary to the restoration of the ceasefire.

Sinn Féin leadership engaged very successfully in the forum in the Republic, which was to its benefit and to the general understanding of all political parties in the Republic of the issues that divide the two communities in Northern Ireland. We must send a very clear message to the IRA leadership that it is important to restore the ceasefire so that there will be full momentum in the negotiations for all-party talks, which is what Sinn Féin has been calling for as a primary political objective in the context of its electoral mandate for a section of the Nationalist and Republican community. There is no disagreement within Government on that matter.

Will the Minister agree that the first place to demonstrate bipartisanship is within Government? Will she also agree it is most inappropriate for a programme manager to express views in public, irrespective of what they are about, which may embarrass either or all parties in Government? Will she agree that a statement that negotiations without Sinn Féin were not worth a penny candle was the equivalent of conferring upon the Provisional movement a veto equivalent to the Unionist veto which took so long to dislodge? Will she finally agree that the statements by Sinn Féin leaders that the Governments in London and Dublin need to undergo an attitude change is profoundly mistaken, and that the real attitude change required is one on the part of those who would have set off a bomb under Hammersmith Bridge if they had got away with it?

Expecting me to agree with the Deputy on everything is taking bipartisanship a little too far.

The Minister of State can tell me what she disagrees with bit by bit.

There is no disagreement among the parties in Government as to our objectives. We have called clearly on the IRA leadership to restore the ceasefire. The people of Ireland have demonstrated clearly that they want the IRA leadership to restore the ceasefire. I do not know how many messages must be sent before the leadership of the IRA understands that attempting to explode bombs under Hammersmith Bridge is not the way to build confidence.

The whole process of negotiation has been about taking the gun and the bomb out of Irish politics. In the process that took place during the period of the ceasefire, I believe Sinn Féin as a party, its members and supporters gained enormously from the process as did all the people living in Northern Ireland, the Republic and the United Kingdom.

In regard to the statements made from time to time by Sinn Féin leaders on the attitudes of the Irish and British Governments, we had entered into a process of dialogue with Sinn Féin until the cessation of the ceasefire. In such dialogue, Sinn Féin leaders will give their views forthrightly on any and all aspects of Irish and British policy. That is not to say we necessarily agree with any or all of the views they put forward.

Mr. Martin McGuinness stated last night that he did not expect a ceasefire before 30 June. Obviously as a leader of Sinn Féin he may be in a position to have detailed knowledge of the likely outcome of events with the IRA but it behoves him and the other leaders of Sinn Féin to call on the IRA to resume the ceasefire and for Sinn Féin to then enter the negotiations.

I do not have details of Mr. Finlay's comments or the comments made by the Taoiseach today but my understanding of the programme is that it was a general historical review of the processes leading to the ceasefire. A statement to the effect that the negotiations would be greatly enhanced by the presence of Sinn Féin goes without saying.

That is not what was said.

That is not what he said.

The negotiations can take place without Sinn Féin but they will be the lesser for that.

I am taken by the fact that the Minister of State is familiar with the comments made by Martin McGuinness last night but she is notau fait with the comments of Mr. Finlay.

Fully briefed on one side of the story.

I realise the Minister of State is standing in for the Tánaiste, who is familiar with this area, and without any disrespect to her, I take it this is not her area. I suggest that the Minister of State brings a message to the Taoiseach, her colleagues in Government and the GIS that the view from this side of the House is that this matter should be clarified this afternoon in relation to the possible divisions perceived between the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste's office with regard to a crucial issue on which a single approach should be adopted. This is not a time for division in Government on this issue. I do not want to enter controversy with the Minister of State; I am trying to be as constructive and helpful as I can. This matter needs clarity today.

I reiterate that there is no disagreement in Government, among Government Departments or the offices of various Ministers.

The Minister sounds silly when she says that.

The Government has a clear objective and I suggest to the Deputy that we focus on that objective. The primary objective is that the IRA should desist from violence and that it should restore the ceasefire. It behoves every party in this House to focus on that primary objective; everything else is secondary to that objective——

We are all agreed on that.

I said that at the beginning of Question Time today.

——on which there is no disagreement between the Government parties.

In relation to my Question No. 51 on the resumption of ministerial dialogue, will the Minister of State indicate the level of dialogue that is taking place with Sinn Féin? Will she comment on the progress made in the 17 months' peace process with the participation of Sinn Féin? Is she indicating that the Government is holding Sinn Féin responsible for IRA actions even though Sinn Féin has a clear electoral mandate from the people?

I will comment on that question and on Question No. 13, which is related, in which the Deputy asks if it is accepted that a united Ireland is obligatory. In the process, it is expected that parties of a Nationalist and republican view would put forward the view of Nationalists and republicans in Northern Ireland.

Is the Minister of State separating them?

Nonetheless, the process is about working towards and achieving a broad consensus. In that context, a series of measures were taken at different levels during the 17 months of the ceasefire. I do not know if the Deputy wants me to reiterate all the measures, which are well known, but they range from the detailed negotiations, the process of the Forum, the Forum report, to which Fianna Fáil was a party, to the whole process of economic regeneration of socially disadvantaged loyalist and republican areas.

The position in relation to dialogue and contact with Sinn Féin has been clearly set out by the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste and is based on the position taken by the former Taoiseach, Deputy Reynolds, which was that the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation would not commence, nor would Sinn Féin enter into that Forum, until such time as a ceasefire was in place. Similarly, ministerial level contact between Sinn Féin and Ministers of this Government will not recommence until such time as the ceasefire has been restored. That policy has been reiterated on a number of occasions. The contacts, therefore, which are available to Sinn Féin are at official level.

The Minister talked about confining negotiations with Sinn Féin to a level other than one involving Ministers of the Government. Will she make it very clear to this House that there has been no ministerial contact at Minister of State level between Sinn Féin and any Minister of State on behalf of the Government?

Has the Deputy got a specific instance in mind? The position has been outlined on a number of occasions by the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste. There may have been contacts in the sense that people have been participants on different media programmes at different times. I am not sure to what exactly the Deputy is referring.

Perhaps I could explain. Will the Minister of State give an assurance to the House that no Minister of State has been in dialogue with Sinn Féin during the period when Ministers have not been in contact with Sinn Féin?

I can only set out the policy as outlined by the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste. If the Deputy wishes to bring a specific occasion to my attention I can have it examined. I have no reason to believe that the policy as set out by the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste has not been effected by every member of the Government, but I am aware of participation ——

I am not talking about the Government but Ministers of State who are not in the Government. I want a clear unequivocal answer, yes or no. Has there been dialogue between Ministers of State, who are not members of the Government, and Sinn Féin during the weeks and months since the breakdown of the ceasefire?

I suppose the Deputy is being consciously obscure.

I am being very clear.

If the Deputy wishes to draw a particular occasion to my attention, he may do so. All I can reiterate is the position set out by the Tánaiste and the Taoiseach and repeated on a number of occasions in this House and elsewhere. My understanding is that all members of Government have abided by those guidelines.

I did not ask about members of Government; I asked about Ministers of State.

In my earlier supplementary I requested the Minister of State to indicate the level at which contact had been made with Sinn Féin. Will she indicate also the timing of the recent contacts with Sinn Féin? More importantly, I asked the Minister if this Government was holding Sinn Féin, a party with a clear electoral mandate, responsible for IRA actions.

Contacts are at official level. I do not have the details of all those contacts which have taken place nor do I believe it would be appropriate to give the Deputy the details of those contacts. That has not been the practice and I do not believe it would serve a useful function. Contact is at official level in the Departments of Foreign Affairs and the Taoiseach.

Is it strictly official?

Yes, my understanding is that is the case.

Does that include Members of this House——

Does that include programme managers?

——or contractual civil servants?

Contact is at official level. I do not have the details of all the contacts. I do not want to be more specific than that.

And no Member of this House is involved?

I cannot comment on what any Member of this House has done because I do not know.

No Member——

The Deputy should not speak from a sitting position. Has the Minister concluded?

The second point related to Sinn Féin's electoral mandate. The history of the Sinn Féin party is well known to every Member. Sinn Féin, as a party, has an electoral mandate which the Government respects. Sinn Féin entered the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in the Republic on the basis — as set out by the former Taoiseach, Deputy Reynolds — that the IRA had called a ceasefire. I do not know whether that means the then Taoiseach held Sinn Féin responsible for the IRA calling a ceasefire. Sinn Féin's entry into formal contact with the Irish Government and formal entry into the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation was predicated on the IRA calling a ceasefire. That remains the policy of this Government and I see no good reason to change it.

Will the Minister of State agree that, in the area of confidence-building, special attention must be given to matters such as the treatment of prisoners, republican and loyalist, particularly Paddy Kelly, the language schools, the meanscoileanna, questions and decisions in relation to marches, and funding for job creation in communities which have suffered major unemployment problems as a result of the bombings and actions over the past 25 years?

I agree with the Deputy. It is regrettable that during the past two years greater progress has not been made on the question of prisoners. Under the Convention on the Transfer of Sentenced Persons and the Transfer of Sentenced Persons Act, 1995, some progress may be made in the future. A number of applications have been received which are being processed by the Department of Justice. It is unfortunate that changes being made in the British prison system, some of which are not directed at IRA prisoners, have enormous implications for IRA prisoners who are category A prisoners. Changes in British prisons in regard to visits, contact and searches as a result of a review of policy in relation to the widespread availability of drugs in prisons have impacted on IRA prisoners. I share the Deputy's concern on this issue. Other Ministers and I have availed of every opportunity to reiterate this view to the British. There are many long-serving prisoners in the United Kingdom whose parents are now elderly and because of the cost involved in visiting prisoners it is becoming physically difficult for a number of them.

In relation to Paddy Kelly the Government has expressed its serious concern about his health and the desire that he be transferred. In regard to the position about disadvantaged areas in republican and loyalist districts in the North, I had the opportunity to visit a number of those communities and a number of community organisations during the past year and a half. Everything should be done to improve the economic development and prosperity of those areas and the participation of women, who are active in the various community groups and are extremely positive in building confidence and in allowing a more normal type of politics to develop. I agree that these areas ought to receive as much attention as possible.

In the case of the prisoners and the marches issues, they need to be dealt with great sensitivity and imagination. In the case of disadvantage, it needs to be targeted and resources provided. In that context the participation and contribution by the European Union and the International Fund for Ireland have been beneficial. We need as much of that as we can get.