Ceisteanna — Questions. Priority Questions. - Northern Ireland Issues.

asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the steps, if any, the Government is taking to ensure that the decommissioning logjam in the Northern Ireland peace process is broken; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [22190/98]

Dick Spring

Question:

2 Mr. Spring asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs the progress to date on the implementation of the terms of the British-Irish Agreement. [22194/98]

I propose to answer Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

The overriding priority of the Government continues to be the implementation of the British-Irish Agreement in all its aspects and to try to ensure that the various time scales set out in the Agreement are fully respected. We are working closely with the British Government and with the political parties in Northern Ireland to achieve this. Confidence in the Agreement can only be sustained by real progress in the implementation process. The Agreement is about ushering in a new era of peace, partnership, and co-operation on this island. The appalling murder last weekend of Brian Service and the tragedy it represents for his family provides a stark reminder to us all of the bitter past we are trying to leave behind and just how important it is that we implement the Agreement in its totality.

We have already made considerable progress in the implementation process with the two successful referendums and the elections to and the establishment of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Patten Commission has begun its work on police reform and a comprehensive review of the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland is also under way. The International Decommissioning Commission is working actively with parties to bring about decommissioning as mandated in the Agreement. Both Governments will continue to work closely together to ensure the full and speedy implementation of all aspects of the Agreement.

The British Parliament is considering the Northern Ireland Bill which combines provisions on constitutional matters, detailed arrangements for the transfer of power to the Assembly and the enabling provisions in respect of the other institutions. The Bill has already passed the House of Commons and is now with the House of Lords. It is expected to be given Royal assent later this month.

For our part, the overview function with regard to the implementation of the Agreement rests with the interdepartmental steering committee, chaired by my Department. A subcommittee is taking forward implementation of the North-South aspects of the Agreement.

Legislation will be required in both jurisdictions in respect of the establishment of the North-South implementation bodies. Other legislative measures regarding the release of prisoners, establishment of a human rights commission, changes to the Irish nationality and citizenship acts, employment equality and equal status are dealt with by my colleague the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform who informed the House on 20 October of progress being made on these and other matters.

All of us are conscious of the difficulty we are facing on the issue of decommissioning which has stalled the establishment of the shadow executive and other shadow institutions. Whatever the merits of the arguments on both sides, the solution to this current impasse lies in building up trust on both sides. Both Governments are working on ways in which this can be achieved. We have to build the necessary confidence on both sides to allow us to press on with the implementation of the Agreement. We are both agreed we cannot allow one issue to block progress in the Agreement.

Decommissioning was an essential part of the negotiations and a key element of the British Irish Agreement. Like all aspects of the Agreement it must be implemented in full. Under the Agreement all parties were asked to work constructively with the independent commission and to confirm their intention to "use any influence they may have to achieve the decommissioning of all paramilitary arms within two years". The appointment in September of Martin McGuinness as the Sinn Féin representative to work with the decommissioning commission was a positive indication by that party that it intends to co-operate fully on this issue.

The key to the delivery of decommissioning lies in the Agreement. There are specific mechanisms and a specific framework set out for handling the issue. The Independent International Commission on Decommissioning, chaired by General de Chastelain, has a critical role to play in the resolution of the issue. General de Chastelain is working hard with all the relevant parties to resolve this issue and has the full support of both Governments. I also welcome the direct dialogue between David Trimble and Gerry Adams, which could be central to building trust. Building trust is the key to the solution of our current difficulties.

It would have been preferable if difficulties on one area had not meant that we missed the deadline of 31 October in another araea. Under the Agreement it was planned that the shadow North-South Ministerial Council would identify and agree by that date at least six subject areas in which implementation bodies are to be established and six others where co-operation would be on the basis of existing arrangements. Substantial informal preparatory work has been done in a variety of formats at both political and official level. Earlier this week in Belfast the Taoiseach, the Minister of State and I had a very constructive meeting with the Northern Ireland parties to advance the work of identification and agreement on the North-South bodies. A reasonable degree of convergence has emerged and there is evidence of potential common ground. We hope we can agree the North-South bodies quickly so that we can begin soon the legislative and other preparations necessary to establish them.

Nobody is seeking to minimise the size of the challenge we face in completing the implementation of the Agreement but let us be clear about one reality: there is no other option available. The Agreement is the will of the people and all of us in political leadership are required to ensure that the will of the people is delivered. I am certain that, building on the very real progress that has been made since Good Friday, we can complete the task. In doing so, we will ensure that the potential of the Agreement for a dynamic new era in this island can be realised.

Does the Minister agree that in his reply on 28 May last he set out a timetable which said that in early July the Assembly was due to begin meeting in shadow form to elect a presiding officer and shadow first minister. This has been achieved. The timetable said that in September there would be inaugural meetings of the shadow North-South Ministerial Council and the shadow British Irish Council. The deadline for the agreement of the shadow North-South Ministerial Council on at least six areas in which implementation bodies are to be established is 31 October and at the end of 1998 and early in 1999 the two Governments are to enact legislation and take the other steps necessary to establish implementation bodies.

The Minister set out a timetable in precise terms on 28 May. Does he agree that the timetable has now been derailed? If decommissioning is to be achieved within two years then we must presume it will start at some stage within that two year period. Does the Minister agree that if there is not a start to decommissioning soon the First Minister designate will himself be derailed?

I accept what the Deputy says. I set out what I considered to be a prospective timetable in the circumstances at that time. In the meantime, as the Deputy has pointed out, circumstances have changed and there is a decommissioning blockage. The Deputy will appreciate that these circumstances are extremely sensitive. We are trying to build bridges between opposing and firmly held positions. It is my and the Taoiseach's belief that this can be done privately and must be done with patience.

I am concerned at some of the public rhetoric in Northern Ireland in recent times. All sides need to calm the situation and to work with renewed determination to move matters forward. This is what the Taoiseach, the Minister of State and I tried to do on Monday last, I believe with some significant success. We must be very measured in what we say and pay well merited tribute to all sides for their sensitivity.

On the central point of the Deputy's question that there is now a new timetable, it is difficult to be precise about the timetable for the period ahead. I can offer what might be considered the best thinking on it. I hope the sequence of upcoming events I will now give will happen sooner rather than later.

With regard to agreement on the demarcation of up to ten Northern Ireland departments I believe that work is going ahead on the six plus six, that is six areas in which implementation bodies are to be established and six where co-operation will be given through existing machinery. I pay tribute to our Civil Service in this regard. I brought a paper to Government two weeks ago and the House would be proud of its readiness to put into operation immediately the machinery required in the context of the Agreement.

The two Governments will initiate the necessary legislative and other preparations for the establishment of the implementation bodies. This is likely to take two to three months. In November 1998 the Northern Ireland Bill will get Royal assent. Early in the New Year the Government will complete the necessary legislative and other preparations for the establishment of the implementation bodies and the North-South Ministerial Council. In February 1999 the two Governments will exchange letters notifying each other that all necessary legislation has been enacted. The Agreement will come into force; the North-South Ministerial Council, the implementation bodies, the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference will be firmly established; full powers will be devolved to the Assembly and the Government will make a declaration triggering the amendment of Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution.

I attended Mass in Mount Argus last Sunday and I heard the priest, Fr. Fernandez, who is a friend of the late Mr. Brian Service's father, preach about the family. Anyone who heard that sermon was struck by the essence of the problem which will continue for as long as weapons are in the hands of terrorists in Northern Ireland. Is the Minister convinced Sinn Féin and the IRA, in particular, will start to decommission in the near future so that the process and timetable can get under way?

I express my condolences to the Service family. This enormous tragedy should not have happened. It is the will of all politicians, North and South, to ensure it does not happen again.

As I said in my reply to the substantive part of the Deputy's question, the solution to the current impasse lies in the building of trust on both sides. Unionism does not trust the IRA's intentions as regards decommissioning, Sinn Féin sees the failure to agree the establishment of the shadow executive as evidence of bad faith on Mr. Trimble's part and both Governments, in our discussions with the two sides, have explored ways in which confidence can be built which would allow them both to feel comfortable with the result. As these discussions are still ongoing, it would not be helpful to go into too much detail.

I regret I was not here for the Minister's substantial reply. Now that the timetable has slipped, although I acknowledge the efforts the Minister, the Minister of State, the Taoiseach and the British Government have made to stay with the timetable, is there a new schedule or are there new target dates? How optimistic is he that we can overcome the present impasse?

We must remain optimistic and hopeful. The Deputy was not here when I went through the likely sequence of events. I set out what might be considered target dates for the demarcation of up to ten Northern Ireland departments. It will probably take two to three months for the Governments to initiate the necessary legislative and other preparations for the establishment of the implementation bodies. The Northern Ireland Bill will get Royal assent some time this month. Early in the New Year the Governments will complete the necessary legislative and other preparations for the establishment of the implementation bodies and the North-South Ministerial Council. In February 1999 the Governments will exchange letters notifying each other that all necessary legislation has been enacted. These may be nothing more than happy thoughts, but they are our best guesstimate of the target dates the Deputy requested.