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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 17 Dec 1998

Vol. 498 No. 6

Northern Ireland Peace Process: Statements.

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.

I would like to start my contribution by agreeing with what the Taoiseach has just said about the dedication of Séamus Mallon. He is quite right to take his doctor's advice and have the operation tomorrow. I compliment him on the patriotic approach he has taken to this matter despite the acute personal pain he has been suffering.

I am optimistic that this phase of the peace process will be successfully traversed and that agreement will be reached on the number of Ministers and on the number and function of the implementation bodies. It is right that the two issues are being dealt with together. There might be temptation in some quarters to deal with one first and leave the other over until after Christmas. The truth is that they inter-relate so much that they must be dealt with together. It comes down basically to two issues — who will have the most Ministers and the number of ministries, which determines to some degree at least the balance in numbers between Nationalists and Unionists. There will be a different balance between Nationalists and Unionists if there are eight ministries than if there are ten under the d'Hondt proportionality system, the result being more favourable to the minority with ten ministries under the proportionality rule than it would be with eight. This issue is understood by anyone who can count and has caused some problems.

As regards the implementation bodies, the issue is not whether to have them — everyone is agreed there should be at least six chosen from a list of 12 topics. On the face of it, there is not too much difficulty in this regard. However, the substance of these bodies is important. Intensive discussions are continuing. I believe an agreement will be reached. I do not think it would be a good idea to settle the executive numbers and leave the implementation bodies aside. The two should be dealt with together.

I realise there is a difficulty with meeting next week. Most people welcome Christmas, but from the perspective of completing negotiations, it could not be coming at a worse time, when agreement is within reach. I have spoken to those involved in the negotiations in the past couple of days. It is interesting, as someone who is not involved, to hear the different perspectives of each person and how the position changes daily. One day it is a disaster, people are walking away, going to other meetings and there is no communication. Twenty four hours later the same people say there is constructive engagement and it is almost as if one did not have the previous conversation.

This is what happens in negotiations. They are inherently stressful and those involved get matters out of focus because they are under stress. Sometimes they fail to see the big picture and see a move by someone on the other side in the worst possible light because they are under stress. To some extent, they transpose their stress into an over lurid interpretation of the conduct of another party, which is doing the best it can from its point of view. Sometimes being unavailable to take a call is a legitimate part of negotiations. It gives people an opportunity to think or sweat it out. We should not get too excited about these matters, which I do not think the Irish Government is doing. It is pursuing these matters with a deliberate approach and is not being panicked, which I support.

I think agreement will be reached today — I hope it will. If it is not, it should be possible today to refine the issues to some net points which can be settled between now and Christmas, if necessary by other methods than face to face negotiations that involve everyone. We should not despair if agreement is not reached. There is no doubt these matters will be settled. Today is a deadline, as one of the key participants will be going into hospital tomorrow. It is an important day. However, if agreement is not reached tonight, it is important people do not overreact. I appeal to those who are distrustful and may feel let down not to react in that fashion tomorrow if my hopes and expectations are not fulfilled. I am convinced that matters will be satisfactorily concluded. All the participants have gone so far and are in mid-stream. They cannot go back. It is important that everyone knows that in realistic political terms, none of them can go back to the other bank of the river — they must proceed to the opposing bank.

Equally, we should not elevate success, today or whenever it happens, to a fantastic and historic breakthrough. We have a penchant for hype about the peace process which leads from an excess of exuberance to a hangover later when we discover circumstances are not as good as we thought. I punctured the hype on one occasion in the Dáil when I pointed out, at the time of President Clinton's visit, that there was a huge divergence between what the IRA was saying and what Sinn Féin was trying to convey. What I said was felt to be unhelpful as I was spoiling the party atmosphere. We subsequently saw that what I said about the IRA position was accurate and it has reiterated that position. It does no harm to point out these matters so people realise there will be problems down the road.

If we reach agreement on the implementation bodies and the executive today — which I think we will, and if we do not I will not complain — we should remember there are many other difficult issues to be dealt with. Policing is a huge problem from the perspective of the Nationalist and Unionist communities. One might ask what is in a word as regards "Royal" in the title of the Ulster constabulary — from a Nationalist point of view, absolutely nothing. However, from the Unionist point of view it is of huge symbolic importance. The police is the implementation arm of a civil democracy. If a symbol which people hold dear is removed, it is not an insignificant matter. It should be understood that Unionists have genuine feelings about this. They are not just creating pre-conditions for the sake of being difficult. The Unionist community has invested its sense of identity in the police.

Equally, from the Nationalist point of view, there is a record of distrust of the police. There is a sense of its composition being completely skewed. This was contributed to by the systematic assassination of any Catholic who joined the police. We should recognise that the sectarian division of the RUC is in part created by the IRA who actively discouraged any Catholics from joining the force. It was a self-fulfilling prophecy. However, there is no doubt there is a legacy of distrust, on justifiable grounds. We should not get too excited as this issue has not been solved.

The other issue which has not been solved is decommissioning. Decommissioning has almost become a bad word. Some of the media almost equate decommissioning with surrender or see it as a British imposition. Decommissioning is common sense. If one is committed to peace, one does not need guns. Political parties do not need to be associated with people who have guns if they are entirely committed to peace — they are irrelevant. It is not surrender to follow the logic of one's policy. The policy of Sinn Féin is commitment to a peace process. The logic of this policy is that it should cease its association with people who hold guns or that they should get rid of them. That is the logic of a peace process.

The Nationalist community argues that there are a great number of licensed guns in the hands of the Unionist community. The Nationalist community feel they are potentially pointed at them. Why should there be so many licensed guns? I would be happy to see this reviewed. I am surprised that more pressure is not exerted to withdraw gun licences. I do not see the need for that amount of licensed firearms in Northern Ireland. Equally, I do not see a need for the IRA to hold on to semtex. Semtex is not a defensive weapon — it is purely an offensive weapon.

John Hume's call on the IRA to make a gesture by decommissioning semtex is reasonable. It is important to understand why the IRA or the UVF having arms in commission is detrimental to the normal participation of Sinn Féin and the Progressive Unionist Party in Government. Threats have to be made in coalitions sometimes — people have to say that unless one thing is done they will do another. The consequences of one side failing to comply are purely political. In other words, people will withdraw support, bring down the Government or vote against it. For example, a political party in the Executive may say it wants £3 million for the promotion of Irish, not £1 million, and that if it does not get its way there will be grave consequences. If this was said by a political party which had no association with guns, nobody would construe what was being said as meaning other than that the party was making a political threat to withdraw from the Executive. However, as long as the party is associated with a body which has guns, utterances that unless it gets its way on the budget for the Irish language "there will be grave consequences" will lead some people to think that the grave consequences may not be political but relate to the possible use of guns.

It is important that this issue is understood in its political context. Decommissioning is a political requirement. It is not an act of surrender but an act of movement into politics. We are not talking about a gesture of decommissioning, but the total disarmament of paramilitaries within the two year period. I believe the IRA, the UVF and the UDA will decommission within two years. There are mixed sentiments within those organisations on the issue and I do not think a decision to decommission has yet been taken. However, I believe it is inevitable that they have to do so, as the political gains they have made will not survive if they do not decide to decommission. They are committed to decommissioning under the British-Irish Agreement within two years. It is not a precondition but it must be carried out. It is a condition subsequent which must be fulfilled.

I wish the Government well in its work. I am optimistic about what will be achieved. I ask the people to remember the principle canon of good negotiation is not to think about the needs of oneself and one's community, but to begin by wondering what the feelings and fears of one's antagonists. If this approach in taken in negotiations, be they political or otherwise, they are likely to succeed. If one wonders about the attitudes of one's own supporters first, one will not succeed.

This has been a remarkable year for the people of the island. What the late Professor John Whyte referred to as the intractable problem, namely, the relationship between the two traditions on the island, has been put in its proper historical context. Quite considerable progress has been made this year between the two Governments and the political parties in the North. The current difficulties which face the peace process do not detract from this basic fact. We should take confidence from the great progress we have made this year.

The remaining obstacles to the full implementation of the British-Irish Agreement can be overcome. In this regard I share the optimism expressed by Deputy Bruton. I say this because the momentum generated behind the peace process is too great to allow any turning back. For the first time in my lifetime, the success and future of most political parties in Northern Ireland is intertwined. They cannot succeed in their chosen strategies without the assistance and support of others. There may be, as of yet, a reluctance among political parties to realise or appreciate this. Such slowness is understandable. The rivalries and hostilities of generations do not disappear over night.

When in Government my party appreciated the support of the Taoiseach in relation to Northern Ireland and in Opposition we have sought to reciprocate. Of course, we would try to pursue a bipartisan approach even if Fianna Fáil had not done so. Bipartisanship is not a complete carte blanche. We will continue to point out areas where we think progress is not being made or where it can be made more speedily. We published our Human Rights Bill in this spirit. It is one of our major contributions to the process to date. Its importance is that we must all make clear that the new agreed Ireland must respect the rights of all and not seek the dominance of any group or section over another.

I stated that the current difficulties facing the peace process should not detract from the achievements of this year. They are resolvable. The mandate from the people of the island to politicians is absolutely clear and no theology or ideology from either side should stand in its way. There is a bottom line. The British-Irish Agreement is a package which must be implemented in full. It is often repeated but nonetheless true that there can be no cherry picking of the Agreement. It contains elements which are distasteful to both sides. This is the essence of a compromise agreement between opposing sides.

The current position seems best summarised by the saying that one side, the Ulster Unionists, are seeking to insert into the Agreement something which does not exist while Sinn Féin is seeking to suggest that a clause which is in the Agreement either does not exist, should not exist or can be minimised in importance. The fact is simple — decommissioning is not a precondition under the Agreement for entry to the Executive. Therefore, it cannot become one now. However, this is not the end of the story. The Agreement envisages a two year programme towards decommissioning but the people on the island want to see decommissioning commencing as soon as possible. They want decommissioning to be an end in itself and an important step towards the demilitarising of Northern Ireland and the attainment of normal civic society. There must be decommissioning of the military mindset as well as the destruction of arms. In this context I support what Deputy Bruton said in relation to the apparently excessive number of gun licences in Northern Ireland which should in future be part of a review.

Most importantly, I believe the people of Northern Ireland do not wish to see the issue of decommissioning elevated to the point where it can endanger the implementation of the Agreement. I have already stated on the record that I wish to see an immediate contribution from the IRA on this issue. I try if possible to take an optimistic view of things, and for this reason I wish to read Mr. Trimble's recent speech as indicating that a gesture of intent and good will is all that is needed either at this time or in the near future. Such a gesture from the IRA would indicate the continued support of the republican movement for the process and acknowledge some of the gains, such as prisoner releases which must continue in any event. These gains have accrued to the republican movement since the signing of the Agreement and a gesture or response would be positive in every sense.

Such a gesture on the part of the republican movement cannot be viewed as an act of surrender. Rather it should be viewed as a recognition by the movement of the democratically expressed will of the Irish people. It is ultimately a function of self-determination, and this has informed the ideology, if not the theology, of the so-called republican movement since 1919 and certainly since 1922, according to which the Irish people had never expressed their right to self-determination. This clearly must stand side by side with the referendum of 22 May 1998 when such a right was exercised and the results of which were loud and clear.

Decommissioning would also mean a recognition by the republican movement of the genuine problems facing the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party. There are no longer any zero sum situations. A problem for David Trimble is simultaneously a problem for the republican leadership, while a problem for the republican leadership is also a problem for David Trimble. While a gesture of this kind would be highly desirable in advance of the formulation of the Executive and would be an act of considerable imagination and confidence on the part of the republican movement which would cost it absolutely nothing, I believe that even an indication of an intention to engage in this context shortly thereafter could provide the necessary momentum to drive us forward to the next stage of the process.

I find considerable merit in the suggestion of the Deputy First Minister, Séamus Mallon, to whom I extend my good wishes as he approaches his medical operation, that Sinn Féin be permitted to enter the Executive on the strict understanding that failure to bring influence to bear on the IRA for decommissioning in compliance with its obligations under the Agreement would have implications for its continuing membership of the Executive. It is the best formulation I have heard so far to ensure compliance with the terms and spirit of the Agreement. It deserves a more considered response from the Ulster Unionist Party than it has received so far. That party's position is incompatible with the terms of the Agreement and there is an obligation on it to move, notwithstanding internal difficulties.

There is a view that the logjam on this issue has hardened opinions and hindered movement on other areas of the Agreement, so I welcome recent reports of progress in these areas. I share the Taoiseach's view that one way to increase pressure on the parties to overcome the decommissioning hurdle is by making progress on other areas. I was concerned at reports a number of weeks ago that the Government was adopting an ungenerous position with regard to North-South ministerial bodies. My support for the merging of the two primary industrial agencies on the island is well known and I regret it does not look likely to happen at this stage, although I am satisfied the Government was prepared to suggest and implement it. The importance of these bodies for Nationalists cannot be underestimated. The question is not whether Nationalists view these bodies as a type of Trojan horse leading towards Irish unity, as some Unionists suspect, but rather whether the Unionist community can be sufficiently generous to Nationalist concerns and display its commitment to govern Northern Ireland in partnership with them, so that, notwithstanding their ultimate aspirations, Nationalists would be in a position for the first time since 1922 to give their loyalty to the new Administration.

In relation to the Executive, it is Unionist commitment to partnership which Nationalists are seeking to secure. I welcome the fact that it now appears the Executive will consist of 12 members, including the First and Deputy First Ministers. This is an important step to ensure full Nationalist inclusion. It is to be hoped agreement can be reached soon on the assignment of portfolios. This is a crucial stage in the process. Members of the Executive, regardless of party or tradition, will work closely together, not as opponents but as colleagues under the system selected. Northern Ireland has been denied real politics for too long. Real politics involves the subtle tension between ideology on the one hand and compromise, conciliation and mutual interest on the other. All essential components of a working democracy have been denied the people of Northern Ireland.

While my party remains committed to supporting the Government in its attempts to progress the peace process, we must be critical of the Government in one area. There are issues where, to ensure implementation of the Agreement, agreement is needed between both Governments and the Northern parties. However, there are other issues where the capacity for action lies solely within our hands. For example, while no legislative action can be taken on the North-South Ministerial Council until there is an agreement between the Northern parties on the number and nature of those bodies, other legislative measures stipulated in the Agreement have not yet been enacted. The human rights Bill, the equal status Bill and other measures have been promised but, six months after the Agreement was signed, none of these has been delivered. It is now clear, and has been for some time, that the decision to abolish the Department of Equality and Law Reform is a critical factor. The amount of legislation pending in the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform has reached ridiculous proportions. There is legislative gridlock in the Department.

The downgrading of the Department of Equality and Law Reform does not, however, reflect the Government's priorities on human rights and equality issues. My understanding is that the Government's human rights Bill does not intend to incorporate the European Convention on Human Rights into law. Neither has any progress been made on the framework convention on the protection of national minorities or on the commencement of the Employment Equality Act, which remains in deep freeze awaiting a commencement order some months after its enactment. The lack of suitable premises has been put forward as the ridiculous excuse for not bringing it into force.

The Government's record on human rights conventions has been lamentable. Since coming to office. It has not ratified any. The Criminal Justice (United Nations Convention Against Torture) Bill, 1998, has only just been published. The United Nations race discrimination convention remains unratified, while serious question marks hang over the Government's policy towards non-citizens, especially refugees and asylum seekers. Even Protocol No. 7 to the European Convention on Human Rights, which requires no legislation in its implementation, has not been ratified and the ridiculous excuse has been offered that the Department of Foreign Affairs is examining the legal issues, even though the convention's obligations are already binding upon us through the UN covenant.

I do not wish to end on a sour note. I extend the Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and his Minister of State my sincere good wishes in the difficult tasks ahead in making the British-Irish Agreement work. The Labour Party wants to be as supportive as possible of movement towards our common goal: an agreed Ireland which respects the rights of all and a new set of relationships within Northern Ireland, between the islands and between Dublin and London. The British-Irish Agreement is in draft stage on a series of issues, such as the Nineteenth Amendment to the Constitution Act, the Criminal Justice (Release of Prisoners) Act, and the Offences Against the State (Amendment) Act. The Labour Party has taken considerable pains to maintain that supportive and bipartisan position and, subject to the conditions I have outlined, that is the approach we intend to continue while I hold my present office as leader of the Labour Party.

I join with the Taoiseach and other party leaders in congratulating John Hume and David Trimble on their being awarded the Nobel Prize for peace. I also wish Séamus Mallon well in his operation and hope that he has a quick recovery. He has played an enormously positive role throughout the process, often quietly and without much publicity. Since he became Deputy First Minister, he has played a key role in ensuring the Agreement is progressed.

The year 1998 will certainly be remembered for the historic British-Irish Agreement which offered the people of Northern Ireland new hope and optimism and the expectation that a way was being found to lead them out of the terrible sectarian strife and conflict which had blighted Northern Ireland and distorted politics in this State for more than 70 years. Speaking at my party conference last Saturday, I expressed the opinion that the British-Irish Agreement had dwarfed all the petty squabbling which passed for politics in our State. I described it as a thing of beauty crafted by ordinary politicians practising the art of politics at its best. I pointed out the Agreement did not obliterate differences or dissolve Unionism or Nationalism but sought to accommodate them. The British-Irish Agreement is not in itself the solution to the political problems of Northern Ireland. It provides the framework or the scaffolding on which the politicians of Northern Ireland can build the edifice of a permanent, lasting political structure which will deliver a permanent and lasting peace.

It is disappointing that, in the seven months since the British-Irish Agreement was concluded, more progress has not been made in implementing its terms. It is disappointing but not surprising given the depth of the problems and the extent of the bitterness and divisions within that area of the island. Initially, encouraging progress was made in the aftermath of the British-Irish Agreement. There were the positive referendum results in both jurisdictions, the Assembly elections and the early and successful meeting of that body, the election of the First and Deputy First Ministers, the reduction in the level of troops, the closure of a number of military bases and checkpoints and the establishment of a commission on policing.

In recent weeks the process seems to have run up against a series of formidable obstacles. There was great hope that, at the time of the visit of the British Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair to Belfast last month, agreement would be reached on the issues of the number and nature of cross-Border bodies and ministerial positions but hopes were dashed amid further bitterness and recrimination. There have been conflicting reports in recent days about whether progress is being made and on the prospect of agreement on these issues prior to Christmas. The message seems to change from optimism to pessimism and back again, sometimes in the same day. I very much welcome the indications from the Taoiseach today that significant progress has been made.

It does not serve any useful purpose to try to apportion blame for obstacles that have arisen but it seems a genuine opportunity for a breakthrough was missed on the occasion of the Blair visit last month. Had agreement been reached on cross-Border bodies and the number of ministerial positions, it would have put enormous pressure on the paramilitary organisations to respond with some movement on the decommissioning issue. Of the problems facing democratic politicians in Northern Ireland, questions such as the areas to be covered and the number of ministers rate fairly low on the scale of seriousness. If progress cannot be made rapidly on these issues it does not augur well for tackling the far more difficult problems such as policing and decommissioning.

The search for a solution to many of the problems to which I referred earlier has been made much more difficult by the failure to make any progress on decommissioning. If we are to overcome the logjam and move forward, flexibility on decommissioning is required on all sides. Given what has been achieved so far and the potential that remains within the framework of the Agreement, it would be tragic if rigid and inflexible positions were allowed to prevent further progress.

The paramilitary organisations have been among the principal beneficiaries of the Agreement. All but one of the republican prisoners have been repatriated from the UK to jails in Northern Ireland. More than 200 paramilitary prisoners have been released from jail in Northern Ireland and many more will be out by Christmas. Society has taken a great leap of faith and as a result prisoners who were convicted of what were often vile and vicious crimes are walking free. It is time for the paramilitaries to repay that trust. The very minimum required is a willingness on the part of the paramilitaries to address decommissioning in a much more forthright manner than has been the case to date.

There is a need for Nationalist members of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Sinn Féin members to acknowledge the political difficulties faced by David Trimble. With the support of a bare 50 per cent of the Unionist members in the Assembly, Trimble's room for manoeuvre is severely limited. Some realpolitik is required if the process is not to run into the sand once again.

Arguments that decommissioning is unimportant because decommissioned weapons or explosives can be replaced are missing the point. Decommissioning is about building trust and demonstrating absolute commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means of pursuing political beliefs. Without trust and an absolute commitment to democracy the process may well founder.

The other festering sore that continues to poison the body politic in Northern Ireland is the Drumcree-Garvaghy Road dispute. This reflects in microcosm the wider problems of entrenched bitterness and sectarian conflict in Northern Ireland. It is disappointing that the talks this week brokered by the Prime Minister's office have again failed to find a solution. Members of the Orange Order have camped at Drumcree since July. Residents of the Garvaghy Road remain under a virtual state of siege and large numbers of the security forces are required to keep the protagonists apart.

The situation threatens to deteriorate further this week when up to 10,000 members of the Orange Order are expected at Drumcree. Surely the advent of Christmas offers an opportunity to find a way out of this problem without any side losing face and without any side being able to claim victory. Even for non-believers Christmas is a special time and one which everyone associates with peace. Even in those times over the past 30 years when violence was at its peak, the paramilitaries generally declared ceasefires for the Christmas period. Even in the bloodiest and most senseless of conflicts — the First World War — the protagonists halted the conflict over the Christmas period.

If a solution is not found now it will inevitably drag on until July of next year. I offer the following suggestion as a possible formula for a way out of the dispute. A small number of members of the Orange Order, without bands, should be allowed to return to Portadown along the Garvaghy Road from a special service to be held in Drumcree Church on Christmas Day. A Christmas Day service would be different and would have none of the political connotations of the Battle of the Somme service on which the July march is based. Most people on the Garvaghy Road would, I am sure, spend Christmas day with their families and would be unlikely to be offended by a small group of people walking along the road in this way. The Orange Order would have fulfilled the objective of marching down the Garvaghy Road before the end of 1998 and when it was all over everyone could go home and resume some sort of normality in their lives. I accept this formula would not be a permanent solution and that the dispute could erupt again next summer but it would provide some time and space for a more lasting solution to be brokered before next July. Ultimately this formula would depend on the people of the Garvaghy Road showing charity and goodwill, something which is not easy to find in the highly charged atmosphere of Portadown, especially against the background of the disgraceful conduct of some members of the Orange Order and some loyalists in the period since July of last year. Unless both sides want to continue with this stalemate and continue to inflict misery and pain on each other, a solution will have to be found. Nobody should casually pass over the opportunity presented by the Christmas period to do this.

Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Comhaontas Glas as an deis chun labhairt sa dispóireacht tábhachtach seo. I thank the Green Party for the opportunity to speak on this important debate. I regard it as totally unacceptable that the statements on such an important and urgent matter have been so curtailed and that speaking time has been allocated in such an inequitable way. On a related matter, not having had the opportunity this morning, in the context of this discussion I utterly deplore the US and British bombing of Iraq last night.

I have to reflect to the Dáil today the deepening disappointment and disillusionment among growing sections of republican and Nationalist opinion that over eight months after the conclusion of the Agreement its central elements have yet to be put in place.

Two weeks ago we progressed as far as agreement on the number and functions of departments and the number and functions of all-Ireland implementation bodies. There was consensus among ourselves, the Irish Government, the British Government and the SDLP, on these matters two weeks ago. Sinn Féin would like to go further but in the interests of the British-Irish Agreement we were and are prepared to support this accommodation. The accommodation is still on the table and it is up to David Trimble today to take it up. Two weeks ago, David Trimble led the British Prime Minister and Deputy First Minister designate Seamus Mallon to believe he was in agreement with the proposed structures. Our negotiators were clear that this was not the case, that once Tony Blair left Stormont David Trimble would revert to his stalling strategy. That is what Gerry Adams told Tony Blair and that is exactly what has happened.

Up to today there has been no movement from the impasse reached two weeks ago when the Unionist Party reneged on the agreement then reached. At that time John Taylor urged everyone to take a week's holiday. The Unionists duly did so. While newspapers were carrying stories yesterday about expected progress before Christmas, both David Trimble and John Taylor were absent from Stormont. The reality which needs to be recognised is that the Unionists have been engaged in a strategy of delay and disruption designed to knock the stuffing out of the British-Irish Agreement. They are deeply uncomfortable with its all-Ireland ethos and its commitment to equality. They do not want to share power with the Nationalist community in the Six Counties, almost 50 per cent of whom are represented by Sinn Féin. Look at the ungenerous and unstatesmanlike speech of David Trimble in Oslo last week. Was ever a more party political speech made at a Nobel Peace Prize ceremony? The speech was an effort by David Trimble to use political philosophy to justify the political codacting and filibustering of the Unionists as they resist the implementation of the Agreement to which he was a party on Good Friday. It bewildered his international audience and infuriated many people of disparate opinion in this country but its purpose was clear. It was political cover for the stalling of the Unionists as they seek to undermine the equality and inclusiveness of the peace process and to hollow out the British-Irish Agreement nullifying its cross-Border aspects. I hope some of the people on this side of the House take note of these points. Week after week during questions to the Taoiseach, leading Members rise in their places and in addressing a narrow agenda they contribute to the myth that the barrier to progress is decommissioning. That tune is sounding increasingly discordant.

The guns on the streets in the six counties are those of the British Army and the RUC. There are also an estimated 150,000 weapons, deemed to be legally held, which are predominantly in the hands of the Unionist section of the community. The entire British military infrastructure remains in place.

As on previous occasions, I must refer to the situation in south Armagh. There has been no abatement of the occupation endured by the people of that area. On Saturday last, 12 December, electricity supplies were disrupted and roads blocked for hours when a British Army Lynx helicopter malfunctioned and crashed into overhead cables. The scepticism of the people of south Armagh is understandable when one realises that they regard as routine the RUC's initial denial that this crash took place. The RUC later admitted the truth. I am sorry to say that scepticism in that area has been added to by the delay in the promised visit of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Andrews, to south Armagh. The credibility of the South Armagh Farmers' and Residents' Committee, a key player in the promotion of the peace process, has been undermined because of this. I urge the Minister to fulfil the undertaking given by him to representatives of the committee on 13 October when he said he would visit the area at their invitation to see the problem at first hand.

The lesson of the negotiations on the British-Irish Agreement must again be applied. It was the direct intervention of the British Prime Minister and the Taoiseach which proved to be the key factor in delivering the Agreement. Tony Blair has a particular role to play in encouraging First Minister designate, David Trimble, to remove his barrier to the implementation of the Agreement which was overwhelmingly endorsed by the Irish people. It is imperative that we seek early consolidation. In that context, I conclude by stating that, from my perspective, today will not be too soon.