I thank the House for this opportunity to speak about recent political developments in Northern Ireland. While there is undoubtedly disappointment that it has not yet proved possible to see the movement we had hoped for last week, I believe that we still have an opportunity to bring our work to finality. I cannot say at this time when we will be able to do so but the goal of both Governments is to complete our work as soon as possible so that we can present the fruits of our efforts over the past several months.
Since the suspension of the institutions in October 2002, the two Governments have con centrated our energies on the restoration of trust and confidence on all sides. A deficit of confidence on each side surrounding the commitment of the other to the full operation of the Agreement was, in the view of the Governments, central to the destabilisation of the institutions and their suspension. At an early stage, we recognised that the most effective way of ensuring mutual confidence on all sides was by looking towards the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and removing all the obstacles that stood in the way of its full implementation.
The phrase "acts of completion" captures both the enormity and the simplicity of what is required. It reflects an end to instability and lack of confidence, the attainment of a satisfactory finishing point in all aspects of implementation and a completion of the transition from paramilitarism to exclusively peaceful means. It is a substantial and demanding task but one which Prime Minister Blair and I decided we should pursue in the interests of underpinning the Agreement and restoring stability and trust in Northern Ireland.
To achieve completion, it will have to be clear, as set out in the joint statement of the two Governments in October 2002, that paramilitary activity and capability is being brought to an end; that the process of security normalisation is rapidly advancing; that the achievement of the new beginning to policing is being fully realised; that the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland is fully reflective of both communities; that the human rights and equality provisions of the Agreement are being entrenched; and that the stop-start phase of the operation of the institutions has come to an end and that all parties are committed to fully and wholeheartedly participating in them.
These involve complex and difficult areas. There are differing perspectives between the parties and finalising our work has not proved easy. We did not expect it to be but we will continue to expend all our energies on it. As I have made clear, acts of completion must see an end to all paramilitary activity and the putting beyond use, finally, of all paramilitary weapons. This is basic and essential. We wish to see the restoration and full operation of the institutions of the Agreement, to return decision-making on local issues to locally accountable Ministers in Northern Ireland. Acts of completion would also allow policing and justice to be devolved on a robust and workable basis, subject to agreement between the parties.
Most important, acts of completion would allow the full potential of the Agreement to be fostered and developed to the highest degree, with positive outcomes, tangible dividends and constructive opportunities for communities and individuals throughout the island of Ireland. We want a police service representative of all sections of the community, supported by all sections of the community, and being held accountable by the chosen representatives of all sections of the community. People have to decide in their own demo cratic way how to address issues, but it is clear that the time has come when the new police service – and its officers now being recruited on an equal basis as Patten intended – is entitled to the support and co-operation of the entire community. We look forward to seeing Sinn Féin taking their place on the policing board sooner rather than later. Such a move will be facilitated by the continued implementation of the Patten reforms and through the delivery of all acts of completion necessary to bring about the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.
In the area of security normalisation, there is immense potential at present for conclusive advances towards the Good Friday Agreement's goal of as early a return as possible to normal security arrangements in Northern Ireland. We wish to see this goal achieved and believe it can be achieved in the context of the Governments' joint proposals. We want to see a Northern Ireland in which people are free to go about their daily lives in an environment of normality and safety.
In the context of the acts of completion which I have outlined earlier, and following what I hope will be the early restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly, I look forward to the North-South Ministerial Council being able to resume its regular meetings. It has not been possible to hold these meetings while the Assembly is suspended. The intensive discussions that took place at Hillsborough on 3 and 4 March saw draft proposals being discussed and further developed between the Governments and the pro-Agreement parties. Following these discussions, a large measure of shared understanding emerged on what was required to move the process forward in the way that was desired by all sides.
Let me make it clear that Hillsborough achieved a great deal. Issues that had remained unresolved for years were addressed and most of them were reconciled in a fair and acceptable way to the parties. However, we could not close on everything at Hillsborough and discussions since then have been focused on doing this. The Governments firmly support the comprehensive proposals that have been developed and feel that they form a comprehensive framework within which acts of completion should occur on all sides.
The meeting which President Bush, Prime Minister Blair and I held with the parties at Hillsborough last week offered a further opportunity to emphasise and elaborate on the key points of significance which the Governments believe should form the basis for progress. In the statement that we issued following our meeting, we said that the proposals of the two Governments held out the prospect of enormous progress. We emphasised that peace is its own dividend. To further underpin the future we agreed together to look at ways to encourage the flow of investment to Northern Ireland. I very much welcome the US President's continuing interest in achieving a positive outcome to the current challenges in Northern Ireland and of his willingness to lend the full support of the United States to our efforts. The role of Ambassador Haass in recent days has been extremely valuable.
The political parties have all made strong and positive contributions, despite the differing political needs and pressures that influence them, to finding a way forward on a collective basis through the complex issues that need to be addressed. The time devoted by Prime Minister Blair to these issues in the fraught current circumstances bear witness to the personal and real commitment to partnership which has been demonstrated throughout this process by the British Government.
The last week has been a very demanding and testing time for those of us who are closely involved with the negotiations in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, it did not prove possible to bring the package to a conclusion in time for it to be published last Thursday, as we had hoped. Instead, we have continued to work with the parties to conclude the process of achieving the necessary clarity on the required acts of completion. I met with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and SDLP leader Mark Durkan on Saturday in an effort to maintain momentum towards closure on outstanding difficulties. I also spoke on several occasions over the weekend and since with Prime Minister Blair. These contacts both between the Governments and with the parties have continued since the weekend.
Yesterday, the two Governments welcomed the positive aspects of a draft IRA statement which was passed to us on Sunday evening. We acknowledged that it showed that much progress had been made and that it reflected a desire to make the peace process work. However, we also asked for clarification on a number of issues. Obviously it is important that the two Governments reflect very carefully to ensure that there is a basis on which we can proceed. The imperative of the popular mandate of the Agreement cannot be put aside and we must all recognise our responsibility to take and facilitate the further steps necessary to ensure its full implementation.
We all welcomed and celebrated the new dawn with the signing of the Agreement and now five years later, it is no longer adequate simply to profess ourselves still dedicated to the Agreement. We must make clear the strides we are all willing to take to move the process to completion to enable the Agreement to deliver on its full potential.
Some steps are, undoubtedly, more challenging than others. The opportunity offered through clear and wholehearted acts of completion is ours to embrace and I hope that our efforts can meet with success. The Government is totally committed and engaged in this effort. I commend the contribution of my colleagues, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, who have invested enormous effort in trying to bring our work to a successful conclusion in recent weeks and days, in particular.
On a personal note, over the past five years as Taoiseach the task that I have put and will continue to put above all others in my political life is to ensure that the people of this island remain united around the Good Friday Agreement. On this week of Good Friday, it remains my great political objective and desire to see the Agreement fully work and see its provisions fully implemented. Working with the British Government and the parties, I will do everything I can to achieve this.
I thank the Opposition parties, particularly the main Opposition parties, Fine Gael and the Labour Party, for the understanding and support they have shown, as have all parties in the House. It has been a difficult process. I would like to make a fuller and more detailed statement but I think the parties understand that is not possible, for which I thank them. I will continue to keep them informed.