Priority Questions. - Northern Ireland Peace Process.

Gay Mitchell

Question:

11 Mr. G. Mitchell asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will make a statement on the status of the Northern Ireland peace process. [8376/98]

The talks are at a crucial stage as we seek to reach agreement on the terms of a comprehensive settlement by the deadline of Thursday, 9 April. The parties and the Governments are meeting intensively in both bilateral and round table format with the able support of the independent chairmen and will be continuing to do so over the next week. Despite the differences which still exist between the positions of the participants on a number of key issues, I continue to believe that, if there is sufficient political will and imagination, an historic settlement is achievable.

The Government is making every effort to ensure this goal is reached. Ultimately, however, the participants and the constituencies they represent can only support an agreement if it addresses all issues of concern to them in a balanced and comprehensive fashion. What is required is a settlement which brings about fundamental change and a new beginning in all the key relationships.

The need to demonstrate the primacy of politics and to face down the enemies of peace and agreement was underscored again last week-end by the brutal and obscene murder of Cyril Stewart in Armagh which I condemned at the talks no later than two days ago in the strongest and most unequivocal terms.

I join the Minister in condemning in the strongest terms the murder of Mr. Stewart. I hope the discussions bring about a cessation to this madness. Will the Minister agree that far from contributing to resolving the existing problem the idea of having referenda every five years on the status of Northern Ireland will perpetuate it even if, as seems unlikely, some time in the future the people of Northern Ireland vote to join with the Republic? If this precedent is set, presumably further referenda would have to be held every five years to allow them to opt out again. Will the Minister agree that it is not a contribution to the process to make suggestions of this kind at this time?

It arose from a reasonable question put to the Taoiseach in Ballyconnell where he addressed the Anglo-Irish Interparliamentary Union. The Taoiseach said in response that it was not part of the talks. The Deputy asked whether provision should be made for regular polls. Provision is made in the Northern Ireland Constitution Act, 1973, for polls of this kind. While I share the Taoiseach's view that a continuing mechanism to test opinion from time to time would be necessary, it would not be helpful, as the Deputy properly pointed out, if such polls were conducted on a frequent basis. The first priority must be to ensure all the institutions and arrangements established in a settlement are bedded down and work to their full potential for the benefit of all.

I hope this is the last Question Time the Minister will have to take prior to the conclusion of the Northern Ireland peace process. I wish him every success and God speed in finding a peaceful solution. I assure him of the support of the Fine Gael Party in bringing the discussions to a fruitful conclusion. We will do everything we can to ensure public support for any reasonable outcome to the discussions. Did the Taoiseach consult with the Minister on his proposal that referenda should be held every five years on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland before commenting publicly? Is there a paper on the issue or did this idea come from the top of the Taoiseach's head?

It did not come from the top of the Taoiseach's head. Provision is made in the Northern Ireland Constitution Act, 1973, for polls of the kind the Taoiseach was contemplating. He did not consult with me. He would have had to anticipate the question which was an appropriate one put by a journalist who was seeking information. I am deeply grateful to the Deputy for wishing all the participants in the talks process every success. The prize is immense. A positive outcome will settle the problem on the island of Ireland for generations to come. I am deeply grateful to the parties opposite for their continuing support for what we all seek to achieve in the name of peace and Ireland.

Jan O'Sullivan

Question:

12 Ms O'Sullivan asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs if he will outline the proposed amendment to Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution discussed in the all-party talks. [8377/98]

The Government has yet to finalise the wording of possible amendments to the Constitution which might be proposed in the context of an overall agreement. No specific texts have yet been tabled for discussion in the negotiations. We have consistently made it clear, however, that any amendments will be consistent with the various commitments and undertakings made by us in the Joint Declaration and Framework Document.

We have also made it clear that we will only be prepared to propose amendments in the context of a balanced and comprehensive overall agreement which brings about fundamental change and a new beginning in all our relationships. It is first the Oireachtas and then, decisively, the people who will decide whether to approve any proposals we may make. The Government will offer amendments to the Constitution in appropriate circumstances and the people will then decide.

When is the Government likely to complete its consideration of the proposed wording? Is it proposed to change the wording of Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution? When are the Government's proposals likely to be presented to the Houses of the Oireachtas?

We are working on the twenty-eighth or twenty-ninth draft of the proposed amendment. The Taoiseach has given an undertaking to consult with the leaders of the Opposition parties when the final draft is available. It is intended to amend Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution. The ratification Article, Article 29, would also require to be amended. People outside the family of Fianna Fáil are equally concerned about Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution. The House will be kept informed. More particularly, the leaders of the main political parties will be contacted when the draft has been finalised.

I join Deputy Mitchell in wishing the Minister every success in the crucial discussions that will take place in the immediate future. Will the wording of the proposed changes to Articles 2 and 3 be put to the people in a referendum on 22 May as soon as overall agreement is reached?

I thank the Deputy for her kind remarks. I welcome her to the House and wish her a long stay although I am not sure a stay as long as my own would be helpful.

I assure the Deputy that the date of the referendum has not yet been decided. It has been suggested that the referendum on the Treaty of Amsterdam should be held at the same time as the proposed referendum on the Constitution in the event of a satisfactory conclusion to negotiations on Thursday next. I am subject to the collective decision of Government, but I would like to see both referenda being held on separate days. The Treaty of Amsterdam is complex and complicated and I do not think it would do justice to what we seek to achieve to add further complex and complicated issues.