Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers (Resumed). - Northern Ireland Peace Process.

Bertie Ahern

Question:

4 Mr. B. Ahern asked the Taoiseach the respects in which President Clinton has offered to act as guarantor of any agreement reached in the peace process. [8602/96]

Mary Harney

Question:

5 Miss Harney asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with a delegation from the Federation of Irish Societies in Britain. [8605/96]

Mary Harney

Question:

6 Miss Harney asked the Taoiseach the comments, if any, he has made regarding the peace process since Monday, 22 April 1996. [8797/96]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 6, inclusive, together.

I assume that Deputy Ahern's question refers to comments made by President Clinton when we met on 15 March. This was a particularly useful meeting in the run up to the all-party negotiations fixed for 10 June. The President said that the US involvement in the peace process "presumes the integrity of any agreement which would be made". He added that it would be very difficult for that agreement not to be carried because the United States would have placed its good faith in the process and because the whole world is looking at this. The Government has always valued greatly the constructive and even-handed involvement of the US Administration — and of President Clinton particularly — in our efforts to bring about lasting peace and political agreement in Northern Ireland. We will continue, as we have always done, to encourage this positive engagement on the part of the United States.

With regard to Deputy Harney's question on the comments I made on the peace process since yesterday week, I do not believe that it would be the best or most efficient use of Question Time to simply repeat every utterance I make outside this House on any given issue. I will, of course, continue to answer specific questions as appropriate.

Regarding my meeting with the Federation of Irish Societies on 24 April, we had a useful and wide-ranging discussion, particularly on matters relating to the Irish community in Britain.

I join the Taoiseach in thanking the President of the United States for his continued interest in Northern Ireland. He made a statement on this matter again recently. What is the Taoiseach's opinion of the view of the Tánaiste's special adviser that talks without Sinn Féin are not worth a penny candle? I am sure the Taoiseach is aware, although he was in Poland at the time, that the former Northern Ireland Secretary of State, Peter Brooke, expressed a similar opinion when he stated in an interview for the latest book by Mallie-McKittrick that no great progress could be made unless the IRA engages in a ceasefire, that without a ceasefire there could be no negotiations. Will the Taoiseach give his view on both those comments?

The Deputy is raising another matter.

That matter was dealt with extensively last week on behalf of the Government by the Minister of State, Deputy Burton, and her replies on that occasion were very fair and accurate in reflecting the Government's view as a whole. She said:

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 call a ceasefire.

That answers the Deputy's question in a balanced way.

This is Question Time to the Taoiseach and the reason my question on Northern Ireland is so vague is that it is almost impossible to get a question down to the Taoiseach on Northern Ireland. Does the Taoiseach accept that the comments of the Tánaiste's programme manager effectively give Sinn Féin a veto over the talks process?

I do not think the person to whom the Deputy referred would purport to do anything of the kind. No party has a veto over the talks process. I made that very clear in my public comments on this general matter not just last week but on many previous occasions. No party has a veto, either by its absence or by what it does at the negotiations, on what others may wish to agree. It is, however, important that we do everything possible to get all the parties to the talks. There is no question that talks with all the parties would be much more valuable than talks with only some of them; that stands to reason. Equally, we do not wish to see a position where people can veto progress by others simply by not turning up. Such an approach would be difficult from every point of view.

On Mr. Ancram's statement on Sunday, will the Taoiseach state whether willingness to accept the Mitchell principles is a precondition to entering talks?

The communiqué agreed on 28 February between the Prime Minister and myself is absolutely clear on that point. There are no preconditions for participation in the discussions other than in the case of Sinn Féin in terms of the reinstatement of the cessation of violence that applied from August 1994 until comparatively recently. That is the only precondition. It is clear, however, in the communiqué that the Mitchell report is to be addressed at the outset of the negotiations, as are other matters which would need to be addressed to satisfy parties, including Sinn Féin, that the discussions will be comprehensive and that there is a willingness to negotiate across the entire agenda. That is set out clearly in the communiqué and a matter to which I have repeatedly referred. It is an approach which has widespread support and which provides the necessary assurances to all parties that their concerns will be addressed.

That was my understanding of the communiqué and I support it. Is the Taoiseach concerned about or has he received clarification of the statement by Mr. Ancram, who is usually very precise in what he says, that he believes that the signing up to the Mitchell Commission is a precondition to talks and that that should be discussed in advance. When asked the question a second time by the interviewer he made the exact same statement.

Although I have seen newspaper reports of the interview in question I did not hear it. The position is as stated in the communiqué and any other glosses on it that differ from the communiqué are inaccurate.

On the commitment made by the Taoiseach to the Ulster Unionist delegation on 11 March regarding proposed legislation on decommissioning, what is the status of that legislation?

The position is that for decommissioning to take place certain changes in legislation would need to be made in both jurisdictions in regard to, for example, the carrying out of forensic tests, the possible use of weapons as evidence in prosecutions and the issue of the legal liabilities of people who engage in decommissioning of weapons. These legal questions need to be addressed so that decommissioning can occur. The issues concerned are quite complex, particularly in regard to people who might wish evidence based on particular weapons to be used in their defence; it is possible to envisage such evidence being used by the defence as much as by prosecuting authorities. Obviously there is a fine balance to be drawn here to ensure the rights of citizens to defend themselves from accusations are also vindicated in any legislation.

This Republic has a written Constitution which means that any matters of this nature cannot be dealt with by regulation; original legislation cannot be made in this jurisdiction by regulation. In countries without a written constitution — there is only one in the world of which I am aware — it is possible to do that and to have a short Bill stating, "The Government may make such regulations as it deems fit to provide for the decommissioning of arms". However, it is not possible to do that here. The actual detail of the legislation involving the rights of the various parties affected has to be set out in statute.

When I met the members of the Unionist Party delegation I told them there would be no block to the negotiations arising from any absence of legislation in this jurisdiction. In other words, we will make sure that our legislation is in place in such a way as to ensure that no delays occur in decommissioning because of absence of legislation which could in any sense cause difficulties in the negotiations. Since my discussions with the delegation, officials in the Department of Justice and in the Attorney General's office have been working almost full time on the preparation of this legislation. It is at an advanced stage at this juncture. The actual date of enactment, however, will not be decided at this stage. I would be quite happy — I made this offer to the Unionist delegation and I repeat it now — to provide a detailed briefing for them on all of the legal aspects that have to be considered in this matter so that they will be assured we are dealing with this matter seriously, as we are dealing with all matters seriously that affect the addressing of the concerns of both sides of the community in Northern Ireland in regard to the talks commencing on 10 June.

Can I take it from what the Taoiseach has said, irrespective of the difficulties in the drafting of the legislation and the recognition of our written Constitution, that the legislation will have been introduced and debated in this House by the commencement of the talks on 10 June?

It will be necessary to have clarity prior to 10 June on how we will deal with decommissioning-related matters. This is something that is of concern to both sides of the community in Northern Ireland. Both sides agree from their very different perspectives that they do not want this issue to prevent other issues being dealt with. It is one of the issues that needs to be dealt with as far as possible and in as much detail as possible prior to 10 June and it is in that spirit that the Government is devoting so much time to it. As to whether the legislation will be introduced here or the extent to which that would be useful, that is a matter currently in discussion but I have given the assurance that the matter is being dealt with very seriously and that it will not be a block to progress on other issues. That is the extent of the assurance I gave to the members of the Unionist delegation when I met them and I repeat that assurance now. I further offer a briefing to any party, in particular the Unionist Party, that wishes to have one on the issues to be dealt with in that legislation.

The Taoiseach said he was currently in discussion about whether the legislation would be introduced before 10 June. With whom is he having those discussions. Has this proposed legislation been discussed with representatives of Sinn Féin?

The discussions to which I am referring are primarily with the British Government in regard to this matter. This Government is currently in discussion with the British Government in regard to making sure that as much clarity as possible exists in both jurisdictions on this issue. It is important to recognise that this issue must be dealt with in both jurisdictions simultaneously and consistently; it cannot be dealt with in one jurisdiction and not in the other. Hence the discussions I am referring to are primarily with the British Government but I have indicated that I would be happy to offer any briefing that would be helpful on the matter to interested parties.

Has it been discussed with Sinn Féin?

In my earlier answers to Deputy Harney I indicated some of the complexities in regard to the matter. It is not as straightforward an issue in terms of legal liabilities or its consequences for individuals as one might think on first superficial mention of the subject.

As far as Sinn Féin is concerned, the Government's position in that regard is well known. There are ongoing official level contacts.

Has this matter been raised at official level?

I must bring matters to finality in respect of questions to the Taoiseach. I will hear two brief questions from Deputies Harney and Burke.

I want to know whether this matter has been raised on an official level with Sinn Féin.

I am sorry to have to say to the Deputy that it would not be appropriate for me to refer to what may or may not have been discussed in any confidential discussions the Government might have had with any of the parties to the process.

The Taoiseach said he discussed them with the Ulster Unionists.

I am not in a position to answer that question. In so far as the subject of decommissioning is concerned, the primary entity with whom we are having discussions of a substantive kind on the matter is the UK Government.

The Taoiseach seems to be of the view that the assurances he gave were understood but, having listened to Mr. Trimble this morning, I get the impression he is not quite as clear about those assurances as the Taoiseach suggests. May I suggest to the Taoiseach that, in addition to talking to the British Government about this matter, contacts should be made with the Unionist parties in relation to it? Does the Taoiseach believe that the SDLP, as well as Sinn Féin, should be briefed in relation to the Government's thinking on this crucial issue? Will the Taoiseach agree that the loyalist parties, who also have a crucial interest in this matter, should be aware of the thinking of both Governments in this regard? It is absolutely essential that the SDLP be briefed on this matter. It should not be a question of the SDLP requesting a briefing from the Government; the Government should make itself available for briefings.

The Government is working intensively on finalising this legislation and addressing the constitutional and other civil liberties and practical considerations that need to be taken into account in the drafting of the legislation. That process is ongoing but almost complete. Obviously any briefing of parties on that matter is something that would best take place after the preliminary work has been done.

I indicated in the House that I am willing to have briefing provided for all parties who are interested in this matter. I did not include or exclude any party. Deputy Harney asked me about a particular party and I answered her question. The party to which the Deputy referred would also be readily provided with such a briefing as it would find it useful.

That concludes questions to the Taoiseach for today. We now proceed to deal with questions nominated for priority to the Minister for Finance.