I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
The legislation has its origins in the British-Irish Agreement and the subsequent amendment of the Constitution effected by the Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution Act, 1998. The signing of the Act by the President, following its passage through the Houses of the Oireachtas and its approval by the people, added a new section – section 7 – to Article 29 of the Constitution. This provides that the State may agree to be bound by the Agreement, contains consequential provisions to enable the institutions established under the Agreement to function and, critically, provides for the insertion of a mechanism whereby new Articles 2 and 3 can be substituted for the existing Articles and a new section 8 inserted into Article 29 on the entry into force of the Agreement.
Article 29.7.5 contains a mechanism whereby, if the British-Irish Agreement does not enter into force and the amendments to Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution are therefore not made, the whole of the new section 7 ceases to have effect after 12 months. As the Nineteenth Amendment of the Constitution Act was enacted on 3 June 1998, the amendment would not be effective after 2 June 1999 in the absence of legislative action by the Oireachtas. However, there was provision in section 29.7.5 for an extension of the 12 month period by legislation "for such longer period as may be provided by law".
As Members will know, the British-Irish Agreement has regrettably not yet entered into force and it is clear it will not come into force by 2 June. Consequently, it will not be possible for the Government to make the declaration envisaged in Article 29.7.3 within that timeframe. Accordingly, the Government now considers it necessary to seek the approval of the House for the extension of the 12 month timeframe by an additional 12 month period. Such an extension is necessary if Article 29.7 and consequently the amendment of Articles 2 and 3 is not to lapse thereby making it impossible to implement the Agreement, the constitutional and institutional aspects of which are interlocking.
The Government has opted for a clearcut 12 month extension. It might be possible to make a case for a one month extension by reference to the 30 June deadline, but this would be very tight and would involve a risk of having to return to the Houses again before the summer recess. The incidence of the recess argues against a three month extension, so the Government has taken the view that a 12 month period is preferable. It is the normal roll-over period for any temporary provision. There are other provisions in the Agreement which involve periods of two years, the expiry of which would broadly coincide with the expiry of the extension now proposed.
This promised extension is not an indication of failure of the Agreement. The possibility of needing it was part of the Agreement. Nor is it to be taken as a signal that the Government believes 12 months will be needed to overcome current difficulties. On the contrary, our efforts are focused on a much shorter timeframe. The extension is rather a way to facilitate further dialogue with all parties to reach an all-inclusive settlement in Northern Ireland and put an end, once and for all, to the violence and political instability with which we have lived for so long. As Deputies will know, the deadline of 30 June has been set for devolution of power to the Northern Ireland Assembly. We are working to achieve this.
All parties are being asked to go as far as they can and then a little further to reach agreement on issues which are difficult for them and those they represent. For the Agreement to work, it is critically important that they have the backing of their constituents in Northern Ireland. I am heartened by the genuine efforts being made to achieve this, but further strenuous efforts need to be made. In presenting this legislation providing for an additional timeframe of 12 months, the Government is ensuring there will not be legal impediments to bringing the Agreement into force as soon as the current intensive efforts are successful.
It is important to understand the Bill will not delay for 12 months the entry into force of the amendments to Articles 2 and 3 and the addition of the new paragraph 8 to Article 29. The Bill proposes an extension of time within which the Government can make the declaration envisaged in Article 29.7.3. Once the basis was established for making the declaration through the entry into force of the British-Irish Agreement, the Government would be obliged under the Agreement to make the declaration without delay and the relevant amendments to the Constitution would then enter into force forthwith.
What we propose fully preserves the conditionality and link which was incorporated in what the people approved in the referendum last year. An additional 12 months is provided for the Government to make the relevant declaration, but it can still only be made when the Agreement enters into force, triggering the operation of all the institutions and bodies for which it provides, including the North-South Ministerial Council and the implementation bodies.
In recent weeks and months on a regular basis I have kept the House informed of developments and the situation regarding the formation of the Executive. I did so most recently in the House yesterday and there is little I can add to that. Rather I want to focus on the advances which have occurred. Deputies will be aware of the progress which has been made regarding the implementation of the institutional and other arrangements provided for in the Agreement. The necessary legislation regarding constitutional change and the establishment of the institutions and bodies provided for in the Good Friday Agreement has been enacted at Westminster and in the Oireachtas. This includes the legislation on implementation bodies following the agreement reached last December on the areas for these bodies and also the areas for co-operation using existing mechanisms for implementation and the subsequent agreements on the detailed remits and structures of the implementation bodies. More recently, work has been advanced on other aspects of the functioning of these bodies and also on the modus operandi of the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council.
Progress is being made on a number of human rights areas which are important to confidence building in the divided communities in Northern Ireland. A human rights commission has been appointed in the North headed by a highly and widely respected chairperson. The Bill to establish a human rights commission in this jurisdiction, which is being drafted on a priority basis, based on proposals approved by the Government, will take account of the views of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution and the Joint Committee on Justice, Equality and Women's Rights. The Bill, which in some respects will go further than the provisions of the British Northern Ireland Act, 1998, establishing the Northern Ireland Commission, is expected to be published soon.
In regard to equality legislation, the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform has set September next as the target for implementation of the Employment Equality Act, 1998. The Act prohibits discrimination in employment on nine distinct grounds: gender, marital status, family status, sexual orientation, religious belief, age, disability, race and membership of the traveller community. In March, the Minister announced arrangements for the equality infrastructure being put in place to underpin employment equality and equal status legislation. The equality infrastructure which he announced and which was established under the provisions of the Employment Equality Act, 1998, consists of two new bodies: the Equality Authority which will replace the existing Employment Equality Agency and the Office of Director of Equality Investigations to provide a forum of first redress. The Equality Authority was appointed by the Minister on a designated basis in March.
After enactment of the equal status legislation, the remit of these two bodies will be broadened beyond the employment equality area to cover matters under the Equal Status Bill. The Bill, which has completed Second Stage, is a comprehensive measure to promote equality and tackle discrimination in our society in the non-employment sphere. In February, the Government approved proposals for the ratification of the Council of Europe Framework Convention on National Minorities – it has now been formally ratified – to coincide with ceremonies relating to the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Council of Europe. We are on target for the publication of the Irish nationality and citizenship legislation in this session.
In the Good Friday Agreement, the Government agreed, taking account of the work of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution and the Report of the Constitution Review Group, to bring forward measures to strengthen and underpin the constitutional protection of human rights. These proposals will draw on the European Convention on Human Rights and other international legal instruments in the field of human rights. Follow-up on these commitments has been taken forward by an interdepartmental working group and the question of incorporation of the ECHR is being further examined in this context.
In both jurisdictions, large numbers of prisoners have been released. In the North the Patten Commission on the reform of policing is well advanced in its work, as is the separate review of the criminal justice system. The process of normalisation of security has progressed significantly, with the dismantling and evacuation of forts and other installations and the discontinuation of army patrols over large areas. I am particularly pleased that following representations from the Government, Cumann Lúthchleas Gael and other sources, the British Army and the RUC will vacate the GAA grounds in Crossmaglen, the occupation of which has for so long been a running sore.
We should acknowledge the valuable contribution the ceasefires of republican and loyalist paramilitary organisations have made. I also welcome the IRA's willingness to facilitate the return of the bodies of the 'disappeared' to their families, where results should now follow the enactment of the relevant limited immunity legislation in both jurisdictions. The British Act is expected to become law tomorrow and our own legislation is already in force. I hope there will finally be closure for the families in the cases which may be near to resolution, these families who have suffered for far too long. Also welcome are the efforts to replace the barbaric system of punishment beatings with a new system of restorative justice and the support this has been receiving from America.
These are real changes which will assist the people of Northern Ireland in breaking down the barriers of sectarianism, while recognising the rights of each community to respect its traditions and ethos. In addition , there has been substantial change in the political atmosphere across all parties. Meetings between Sinn Féin and the Ulster Unionist Party are now routine. Meetings to consider North-South matters are no longer viewed with the same suspicion by Unionists. Political contacts and dialogue are taking place in a better atmosphere than ever before and there is a better understanding on all sides of the pressures that each side faces.
Difficulties remain, however, and difficult issues which could exacerbate the situation subsist. There is a very worrying pattern of sectarian violence against Catholics across northern and eastern parts of Northern Ireland. There has been the horrific murder of Rosemary Nelson and the issues of concern to which it gives rise. The continuing sectarian harassment and intimidation of the people of the Garvaghy Road is entirely unacceptable. Direct dialogue between residents and the Orange Order is the obvious way forward, but, whether direct or indirect, dialogue is essential. The sense of threat and of siege that arises from sectarian attacks on the Nationalist communities must be lifted, with a focus on the conditions needed not only to restore normal rights of freedom of movement and freedom from harassment but also to improve community relations.
If dialogue can take place between Unionists and Nationalists, republicans and loyalists at all levels, then the Orange Order can speak to the communities, through which it desires to march. The principle of consent applies to that situation as much as it does to the constitutional position of Northern Ireland. The principle of equality, so central to the Good Friday Agreement, must also apply. There are many decent members of the Orange Order and the Church of Ireland who have taken a principled stand against the unacceptable behaviour of some elements in Portadown and I welcome the resolution passed at the General Synod of the Church of Ireland. No genuine cultural identity should be aggressive or threatening towards those who do not share it.
The Good Friday Agreement offers a truly historic opportunity for a beginning of new relationships on this island and between Ireland and Britain. It is also the realisation of many years of commitment and effort by many people to the cause of peace. Constitutional change is part of that comprehensive settlement and the necessity for it has been fully accepted by the people North and South. The Agreement is a balanced settlement, involving agreed changes in both Irish and British constitutional law, based on the principles of self-determination and consent. These changes reinforce the principle that in Ireland, North and South, it is the people who are sovereign. The Agreement provides for a peaceful method of resolving fundamental differences in the future, while creating a basis for practical partnership and co-operation now.
As I stated in the past, the reformulation of Articles 2, 3 and 29 reflects modern, progressive Republican thought that is truly pluralist and keeps faith with the inclusive tradition of Irish nationalism which stems from Wolfe Tone and the United Irishmen. The Bill before the House is necessary to maintain the State's capacity to give effect to the reformulated Articles, which, as approved by the people, remain a vital element in the interrelated whole that is the Good Friday Agreement.
I reiterate that the full implementation of that Agreement in all of its aspects remains the key priority of the Government. We are working closely and unremittingly with the British Government and the pro-Agreement parties to achieve this objective. It is the duty of everyone who supports the Agreement to ensure that it works. While we must recognise and accept each other's difficulties, our focus must remain on the implementation of the Agreement and all its provisions.
The Government appreciates the support received from all parties in this House on Northern Ireland matters, including the expeditious passage of this vital legislation. This is a measure of how well our democracy has developed since independence. We, as members of different parties, have individual policies and aspirations, but we can come together to support initiatives which are critical to the common good of our people, North and South. This is the same co-operative spirit which is now emerging in Northern Ireland. I am confident that we will bring an end to the conflict and make a reality of the new dispensation that the Good Friday Agreement heralded.
I commend the Bill to the House.