I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
I thank Deputies for their willingness to take this legislation today. That is what I am supposed to say, but at this late stage I thank the Deputies for their willingness to take the legislation at this stage today. This reflects the Dail's continued support for attempts to bring peace and political stability to Northern Ireland.
The purpose of the Bill is to provide in our law for the establishment of the Independent Monitoring Commission which has been the subject of an agreement between the UK Government and ourselves. It may be helpful if I set out in some detail the background to the establishment of the commission.
Members of this House, who follow developments in Northern Ireland very closely, will undoubtedly be aware of the broad background to the creation of the Independent Monitoring Commission. I will revisit some of the main points in that genesis in order to show where the commission fits into the overall pattern of political progress in Northern Ireland.
The early months of this year saw a great deal of political engagement between the two Governments and the pro-Agreement parties in Northern Ireland. Our intensive engagement continued through the months that followed, and after much painstaking effort and slow grind, a full and complete audit of all areas of the Good Friday Agreement which remained to be implemented was developed. This engagement included a two-day set of talks at Hillsborough, involving the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Blair, as well as the parties and a range of Ministers.
The result of our engagement was the Joint Declaration, published on 1 May. The Joint Declaration is the two Governments' comprehensive assessment of what remains to be implemented from the Agreement and the most positive way of ensuring that this takes place. Published alongside the Joint Declaration, the agreement on monitoring and compliance sets out some important principles on how confidence and stability in the political process can be sustained and developed, principally through the creation of a new independent body. That new body would monitor and report on the carrying out of commitments regarding the ending of paramilitary activity and the programme of security normalisation in Northern Ireland, as set out in the Joint Declaration. It would also consider claims that any party within the Assembly was in breach of its commitments under the Agreement. In the agreement on monitoring and compliance, the UK Government has undertaken, where such claims are made, to resolve those matters in line with the commission's recommendations and in consultation with the Irish Government.
The text of an international agreement setting up this new body, now known as the Independent Monitoring Commission, was published in September, and signed in Leinster House on behalf of the two countries by myself and the British ambassador on 25 November last. Members of the commission had been appointed earlier and they have been doing some preliminary work in what I might call "shadow" format.
Membership is broadly based. It comprises Lord Alderdice, the former speaker of the Assembly and leader of the Alliance Party, Mr. Joe Brosnan, former Secretary of the Department of Justice, Mr. John Grieve, a former senior officer with the London Metropolitan Police, and Mr. Richard Kerr, a former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States of America.
The commission, whose members are all individuals of the utmost integrity and standing, visited Dublin recently and discussed the broad political situation with the Government and its Ministers, including myself. We shared with them our view that the commission can act as a confidence-building mechanism on a wide range of issues, particularly by offering reassurance that the activities which destabilised the institutions in the past will not be allowed to recur.
While it did not prove possible to reach the agreement that we had hoped for in advance of the elections to the Assembly last month, and while that election has created a number of new imponderables, we must set our minds to managing our way through them.
I cannot tell the House exactly how the political situation we face in light of the Assembly elections will evolve in the coming weeks and months. Deputies will be aware that a series of discussions has taken place, including discussions at Downing Street yesterday between the Taoiseach, the British Prime Minister, Ministers including myself and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, and members of the pro-Agreement parties. We now face into an early review of the operation of the Agreement. For its part, the Irish Government will do all it can to help agreement to be achieved among the parties, but this must be in the context of the Good Friday Agreement. It is a fair assessment at this stage that the Independent Monitoring Commission will play a key role in future developments.
I will now deal in some detail with the main provisions of the Bill. Section 1 defines certain terms used in the Bill. Section 2 provides that the commission will be independent in the performance of its functions and will have the legal capacity of a body corporate. Section 3 deals with the objective, functions and membership of the commission, as well as the appointment of its staff and the proper keeping of accounts by the commission. Section 3(1) provides that the objective and functions of the commission are those set out in Articles 3 to 7 of the agreement.
The objective of the commission is to carry out certain functions with a view to promoting the transition to a peaceful society and stable and inclusive devolved Government in Northern Ireland. The functions of the commission as set out in Articles 4 to 7 of the agreement are to monitor any continuing activity by paramilitary groups, assess whether the leaderships of these organisations are directing or seeking to prevent this activity, and report to the two Governments on its findings. All that is provided for in Article 4. The second function, provided for in Article 5, is to monitor the British Government's adherence to its agreed programme of security normalisation in Northern Ireland and report its findings to the two Governments. There is also a mechanism for the commission to examine normalisation in the absence of an agreed programme.
The third function, as provided for in Article 6, is to consider a claim by any party in the Northern Ireland Assembly that a Minister or Assembly party is not committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, or that a Minister or party is failing to observe any other terms of the pledge of office. In so far as a claim relates to the operation of the institutional arrangements under strand one of the multiparty Agreement, it shall be considered by those commissioners solely appointed by the British Government and any findings reported to the British Government only. As provided for in Article 7, the fourth function is to recommend any remedial measures considered necessary,
Section 3(2) deals with the membership of the commission, as well as with the appointment of its staff and the proper keeping of its accounts and privileges, immunities and inviolabilities as set out in Articles 10 to 14 of the agreement.
Membership of the commission shall be as set out in Article 10 of the agreement. It shall have four members. Two members, one of whom shall be from Northern Ireland, are to be appointed by the Government of the United Kingdom. These are, respectively, Lord Alderdice and Mr. John Grieve. One member is to be appointed by the Government of Ireland, Mr. Joe Brosnan. One member, to be appointed jointly by the two Governments, shall be a nominee of the Government of the United States of America, Mr. Richard Kerr.
Section 4 deals with the provision by me as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform of such moneys, premises, facilities and services, including staff, necessary for the proper functioning of the commission in line with Article 12 of the agreement. Section 5 deals with immunities and privileges afforded to the commission. This is similar to the arrangements in place for the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and the Commission on the Location of Victims' Remains.
Section 5(1) provides that the commission and its property shall be afforded certain immunities and privileges in the performance of official functions. Sections 5(2) and (3) deal with immunities and privileges afforded to members of the commission, its staff and agents or persons performing functions assigned to them by the commission.
Section 6 provides that the commission shall not do anything which might prejudice the national security of Ireland or of the United Kingdom, endanger the safety of any person, or have a prejudicial effect on any present or forthcoming legal proceedings.
Section 7 deals with the disclosure of information to or by the commission and ensures that the commission is in a position to obtain all relevant information to enable it to fulfil its mandate. In particular, it specifically permits the Garda Síochána to provide information to the commission. The section also provides that the commission and its agents will observe confidentiality in respect of material received.
Section 8 provides for the formal dissolution of the commission in an orderly manner in line with Article 16 of the agreement. The section allows for the winding down of the commission in a manner which would allow for such transitional or consequential provisions as are necessary or expedient.
Section 9 provides that applications under the Freedom of Information Act for disclosure of information relating to communications between the commission and public bodies may be refused. This is necessary to protect communications between the commission and public bodies. The commission itself is outside the scope of the Freedom of Information Act 1997, as amended, as it is not a public body under the Act and it is not intended that the Minister for Finance would make an order declaring it to be such a body.
Section 10 provides that a copy of each report submitted to the Government by the commission or its members, under Articles 4 to 6 of the agreement, shall be laid before each House of the Oireachtas. Section 11 is a standard provision which provides for the payment of any expenses arising under the Act out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas. Section 12 provides that the Act will come into operation by order on such day as the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform stipulates, following consultation with the Secretary of State.
It is in the nature of things that when this House is asked to enact legislation in the context of giving effect to an international agreement, the form of the legislation is to a large extent determined by the terms of that agreement. The agreement, included as a Schedule to the Bill, is the culmination of detailed negotiations between the Irish and United Kingdom Governments. I ask Members to understand that such a process inevitably involves compromises on both sides. I believe the agreement which the House is being asked to approve formally today is balanced and has the potential to make a significant contribution to the quest for political stability in the North. People acting in good faith who are attempting to implement the Good Friday Agreement should have nothing to fear from the establishment of the commission. That is the context in which I commend the Bill to the House.