I am sure the House would wish to join me in offering its warmest congratulations to John Hume and David Trimble on becoming Nobel laureates. Throughout his political life, John Hume has devoted himself to the cause of peace and to the building of a new, inclusive society in Northern Ireland. This award was a fitting tribute to his life's work.
The First Minister, David Trimble, showed true leadership in the negotiations which achieved the British-Irish Agreement and has the onerous task, together with Deputy First Minister, Seamus Mallon, of leading the implementation of crucial aspects of the Agreement.
Today's debate gives us an opportunity to discuss where the Agreement stands, to review achievements over the past year and to explore how we might get through our current difficulties. I would have wished to be able to report to the House that the implementation of the British-Irish Agreement is proceeding on schedule. After the overwhelming endorsement of the Agreement which so clearly embodies the will of the people North and South, I would have expected the Executive to be meeting at least in shadow form, likewise the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council to have held inaugural meetings in shadow form. I would have expected more significant progress to have been made on the normalisation of security, including a clearer start to the process of decommissioning paramilitary weapons.
In so far as it has been in our power, the two Governments have sought to fulfil their obligations. We have advanced legislation, bodies have been established or their establishment prepared, and the programme of prisoner releases has been implemented, notwithstanding some criticism from certain quarters in the British Parliament. Under this programme, the British Government has released 220 prisoners on licence, including 68 life prisoners, and has transferred almost all prisoners involved from British jails. So far the Irish Government has released 12 prisoners since the enactment of the release of prisoners legislation.
Many of the Northern parties have done their utmost and have been frustrated at the lack of progress beyond establishing the Assembly. All parties need to show a strong commitment to fulfilling their obligations under the Agreement and not creating unnecessary difficulties for others. It is highly undesirable to give any impression that a political vacuum is being allowed to develop or that any party will be allowed to hollow out or evade its obligations under the Agreement. There must be credibility regarding the implementation process and that is what we have been seeking to secure since the roundtable meeting of 2 November in Belfast attended by myself and Deputies Andrews and O'Donnell.
I am disappointed and concerned. However, at another level, it is necessary to take a longer perspective in looking backwards and forward. This time last year, we were in the disappointing situation of not having reached agreement on the agenda for the talks, and while the parties had detailed their positions, there had been no real engagement in a negotiating situation. From that position we were able to come to the proposition documents — the various debates and the amended version of that document, then to the multi-party talks which led to 10 April where all of the parties to the negotiations were able to sign up to the Agreement. On 22 May, the people of this island, North and South, endorsed that Agreement in overwhelming numbers.
This time last year in Derry, we were in a situation where there was a very considerable amount of violence at the time of the Apprentice Boys' parade. It is fair to say that, in the course of the past year, the Apprentice Boys and residents groups have made strenuous efforts to develop a better atmosphere. While it was unfortunate that it was not possible to achieve agreement this year and that there was some violence last weekend, there is the prospect that we will have peaceful parades in Derry in the future. The violence that occurs on these occasions is an expression of the tensions that surround the parades issue and underlines the need to continue to work to achieve accommodation in disputed situations.
Similarly, if we continue to focus on what divides and polarises people in terms of the Agreement, it will be difficult to make progress in its implementation. From the moment of the achievement of the Agreement, I have continuously emphasised that partnership, equality and mutual respect lie at the heart of the Agreement. To make the Agreement a reality we must make these concepts a reality. The Irish Government, in fulfilling its commitments under the Agreement, has sought to do so in a spirit of partnership. We do not see our position on the North-South aspect of the Agreement as threatening and we have no intention of engaging in a onesided take-over of the areas involved.
We have always said that this is a balanced Agreement. The Agreement recognises the substantial differences between equally legitimate political aspirations. We seek to accommodate these aspirations through meaningful institutions, while also believing that the practical benefits of these arrangements are clear.
The North-South ministerial council will bring the Irish Government and those with executive responsibilities in Northern Ireland together in equality. Council decisions will be by agreement, operating in accordance with the rules for democratic authority and accountability in force in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Oireachtas, respectively. In all its dealings on these matters, the Government has sought to be realistic and businesslike. We want the relationship between North and South to be similarly disposed. Were our current proposals in regard to implementation bodies to be published today, I would defy anybody to conclude that they were excessive or threatening. They are eminently reasonable. However, there has to be a balance between the different strands of the Agreement. Those who fail to recognise this and who seek to empty Strand Two of substance need to consider carefully the risks they are taking.
With regard to the Northern Ireland Assembly, we would wish to see everyone involved in politics working to the same objective — the betterment of the people of Northern Ireland. In the ordinary political landscape, diversity of view, even healthy partisanship, is to be welcomed. The basis of political discourse is people with similar views coalescing and forming alliances to get things done. It would be a very dull political environment if every party was of the same persuasion. However, it is very difficult to comprehend politics that has stagnation at its very heart. In any evolving situation, and the political situation in Northern Ireland has evolved radically in recent years, politics must move and shift with the changing times, and this change must be embraced. As part of this, all political and sectarian violence must be in the past. The Northern Ireland Assembly provides the opportunity for politicians from all of the parties to work on behalf of their constituents, for the people of Northern Ireland as a whole and to forge better relations on the island of Ireland and, through the British-Irish Council, between the people of these islands.
In short, we want to get on with it because, at the end of the day, politics is not about making shapes on the tightrope, it is about delivering a service to the public.
There are exciting opportunities to be grasped. Society on this part of the island of Ireland has changed in a particularly dramatic way in recent years. We have achieved a level of prosperity that once we would scarcely have aspired to. We look towards Europe in a spirit of partnership and equality, playing our own distinctive role on the European scene. We are a more confident, outward-looking people now than possibly at any time in our history. We value the peace that has resulted from the cessation of paramilitary violence and we want it to endure and to use the opportunity it provides for co-operation, greater economic activity and the development of relationships between the people of these islands.
As Deputies may be aware, our negotiations on implementation bodies and areas for co-operation have centered mainly on the areas identified in the British-Irish Agreement. I do not intend now to add substantively to what I have said earlier or to go into the details of our negotiating strategy, but I will say that a considerable amount of progress has been made; and that in so far as full agreement has not been reached, it is not because of lack of enthusiasm, homework or flexibility on the part of the Government. It is disappointing that full agreement has not yet been reached, but work will continue and we will continue to try and achieve agreement at the earliest possible time. In so far as we are concerned, this round of discussions began on 2 November. This last phase has been going non-stop in Belfast since Sunday afternoon. Unfortunately, because of the numerous occasions when people were not available, we have been unable to conclude matters. I thank the party leaders, the British Prime Minister, Mr. Trimble and, in particular, Mr. Mallon with whom I have had endless discussions over the past three or four days. Even last night when the British Prime Minister had other issues to deal with he still engaged in those discussions. For minor reasons matters are not yet concluded. I hope they will be but I cannot say with certainty.
There are, of course, many horizontal issues such as financial, legal and personnel issues on which a considerable amount of work has been done but which, until final agreement has been reached on the areas, cannot be brought to finality. Many of the issues will have to be considered carefully with staff interests. As has been said many times, in addition to the practical benefits that they bring, the North-South arrangements provide institutional expression to the identity that northern Nationalists share with people in the South. The creation of any new institution brings change, indeed radical change, for those directly involved. People's work practices, their reporting arrangements, sometimes their physical locations change, and these must all be considered carefully and in consultation. We want to see these arrangements agreed quickly so that we can get on with the practical work early, so that we can realise the benefits they will bring.
The coming months will see activity intensify in the legislative area. In addition to the legislation necessary to implement Strand Two arrangements, the Government's legislative programme will include the establishment of the Human Rights Commission, equal status legislation and the amendment of the Nationality and Citizenship Act, 1956. Other legislative measures to strengthen and underpin the constitutional protection of human rights may be decided on in the light of the provisions of the Agreement which requires us to consider the possible incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into Irish law and the implementation of the recommendations of the committee which will review the Offences Against the State Acts. I acknowledge the helpful contributions by Opposition parties and party leaders throughout the year to this process and I would also like to acknowledge and thank them for their ongoing support for the difficult process which we are going through.
This process is difficult, but since it began there have been many periods where it seemed stalled and where some began to lose faith. However, it has survived. At crucial times we have, all of us, been able to take the actions necessary to move on. We have, on all sides, had to take actions that we did not necessarily want to take, and we know and acknowledge the pain and suffering caused to others by some of these. All of the actions, and all of the risks, have been taken to consolidate peace and work towards a better future for ourselves and for generations to come.
If there are some organisations who are contemplating the use of violence for political ends, they should recall very well the actions and the determination of the Government and all people in political life following the Omagh bombing. I am frankly dismayed that there remains any organisation claiming to be republican that is contemplating any further acts of violence in clear defiance of the wishes of the whole Irish people. While they invoke Wolfe Tone's end, complete separation, they have entirely forgotten and ignored his means which was to unite Protestant, Catholic and Dissenters under the common name of Irishman. The Irish Government will act quite ruthlessly within the laws passed by the Oireachtas against any group that tries to restart the terrorist violence of the last 30 years.
Finally, I would like to refer to decommissioning. We believed, in concluding the British-Irish Agreement, that we had found a way to provide the conditions and the formula whereby political progress and decommissioning would, and could, take place sooner rather than later. Eight months on from the signing of the Agreement, it is disappointing that the issue could remain an obstacle. If demilitarisation is the objective, no one can opt out of making a real contribution to it. Everyone knows the situation, but I would return to what I said earlier. All of the parties to the negotiations, all those who signed up to the Agreement, all those who continue to support the Agreement, must act in a spirit of partnership. We must recognise that for all of us there are difficulties, that stalemate is the enemy of everyone. The progress we have made, we have made together, bringing our supporters and the people with us.
On 22 May the people of this island, North and South, gave us their support because they wanted accommodation. We have a duty to the people to move forward together, to implement all of the Agreement, in the letter and in the spirit, and to build that lasting accommodation. At all stages of the peace process, it was agreed that a normal civil society was the ultimate goal, and on the Nationalist and republican side that this would involve complete demilitarisation. An armed peace is not demilitarisation. If the Agreement and its institutions are to work, then their establishment must be accompanied by a tangible commitment to dismantling, on all sides, the structures and arsenals of conflict.
I would like to have been able to say that the three central matters which we have been negotiating this week, the implementation bodies, the areas of co-operation and the make-up of the Executive in terms of numbers and portfolios, had been settled. Substantial progress has been made but nothing can be finally agreed until every part of it is agreed. For several days now minor matters have been holding the process up. Although one is tempted to do so, clearly it would not be helpful if I were to spell those out.
Lastly, let me thank in particular Séamus Mallon, who is due to undergo quite a serious operation, on the advice of his medical advisers, which he postponed last weekend and again at the beginning of this week with a view to being in position to conclude these matters. His doctors have ordered that the operation must take place first thing tomorrow morning, but he still remains at his desk until tea-time this evening to try to conclude these matters. Although he has been in substantial pain, he has continued to work 18 or 19 hours a day for the past week. We appreciate it.