Northern Ireland: Statements (Resumed)

I welcome the opportunity to debate the situation in Northern Ireland. As Members are aware, engagement on Northern Ireland issues is a matter of the highest priority for the Government which, in common with the British Government, is co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. However, engagement must take account of the fact that the devolved institutions are in the lead in ensuring Northern Ireland becomes the peaceful and reconciled society envisioned in the Good Friday Agreement.

The Government takes a whole-of-government approach to Northern Ireland. That is particularly evident through the work of the North-South Ministerial Council which can play a central role in maintaining both parts of the island on the path of economic recovery and job creation. The Council and its work is an excellent example of the kind of work that is to the benefit of all parts of the island. As we have seen, Ministers come together to discuss areas of work and opportunities of mutual benefit in agriculture or transport, for example. By using such a body to work on behalf of all communities on the island, it allows Ministers to deliver a mutual benefit in making progress towards the kind of society articulated in the Good Friday Agreement.

As the Taoiseach said, in the current economic circumstances we are even more determined to concentrate on all areas in which co-operation makes sense and is capable of delivering real, tangible and practical benefits to people across the island. The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste work closely together and with the British Government in ensuring the two Governments maximise co-operation in support of the Northern Ireland Executive. The Taoiseach works closely with the British Prime Minister, with whom he now has an annual meeting in the St. Patrick’s Day period, in addition to their regular meetings in the EU context. The Tánaiste works closely with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on political issues, particularly in support of the political talks between the five leaders of the Executive parties to follow up the excellent work done by Dr. Richard Haass and Dr. Meghan O’Sullivan.

The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, works closely with the Secretary of State on justice and security issues. Co-operation between the Garda and the PSNI is better than ever as they work together on countering the threat from dissident republicans, in respect of whom continued vigilance is required. As the Taoiseach mentioned, thanks to the efforts of the Ceann Comhairle and the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Mr. Willie Hay, we are fortunate that the North-South Inter-Parliamentary Association, foreseen in the Good Friday Agreement, was established in 2012. The inter-parliamentary dimension of the relationship within and across these islands is also nurtured through the work of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly established under the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, the 30th anniversary of which we will mark next year. I record my admiration for the enormous achievement by the then Taoiseach, Dr. Garret FitzGerald, and his colleagues at the time. The situation in Northern Ireland is debated regularly by the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, the members of which hear from a wide range of voices on the island and undertake regular visits to Northern Ireland.

It is regrettable that MLAs from all Northern Ireland Assembly parties do not participate in meetings of the committee but I welcome the fact the Ulster Unionist Party leader, Mr. Mike Nesbitt, MLA, addressed the committee in 2012. The Government would like to see more engagement by Unionist political representatives with Members of this House.

Mr. Mike Nesbitt, MLA, chairs the Northern Ireland Assembly committee overseeing the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, the OFM-DFM committee. Part of its remit extends to EU issues and I was pleased to brief it last October on the achievements of Ireland’s 2013 Presidency of the European Council of Ministers, with particular reference to North-South issues. In particular, I briefed its members on issues of direct relevance to Northern Ireland such as the strong progress made on negotiations on the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy and the EU budget. I also briefed MLAs on the increasing importance of the role of national parliaments and assemblies in the European Union, drawing attention to the increasing importance of the European Parliament under the Lisbon treaty and the need for national parliaments, assemblies, Council Presidencies and member states generally to deepen engagement with it.

I spoke about the debate developing around the UK's terms of membership of the European Union. I made it clear we absolutely recognised the right of any country to discuss or debate its membership or terms of membership of the European Union as a sovereign right. I also made it clear we believe the European Union is a far stronger place for having the UK in it and that we work together with the UK on a large number of areas. I emphasised Ireland greatly values our continued strong membership of the European Union and wants to see the United Kingdom stay in the Union. It is important all regions in the United Kingdom ensure their contribution is heard in the debate on its role and future membership of the Union.

The EU brings specific benefits to Northern Ireland. The EU’s PEACE and INTERREG programmes continue to play a key role in supporting cross-Border and cross-community co-operation in Northern Ireland and the Border region. In excess of €340 million has already been spent on PEACE and INTERREG projects in the current programmes. The PEACE III programme has seen several valuable cross-community projects such as the teaching divided histories project work with communities along the interface areas of Belfast and shared space projects such as the Peace Bridge in Derry, which has become an iconic reminder of how much progress Derry has made in overcoming past divisions.

Several high profile projects were launched under the INTERREG programme last year including the all-island tourism trail, cross-Border economic development projects and business support programmes aimed at small and medium-sized enterprises. The Government was disappointed that the Narrow Water Bridge and Maze Long Kesh projects had to be withdrawn. However, our immediate focus must be to ensure full expenditure under these programmes. The Government remains committed to the concept of the Narrow Water Bridge and to the development of the peace building and reconciliation centre at the Maze Long Kesh site.

As we are now in the critical final implementation stages of PEACE III and INTERREG IVA, the priority will be to ensure expenditure targets are met and EU funds are fully drawn down, so the benefit to this island in developing the peace process and the cross-Border economy is maximised.

I am particularly pleased that during our EU Presidency, the European Council decided to include a special allocation of €150 million for a new PEACE programme in its multi-annual financial framework. It is also positive that the British Government has indicated it will provide an additional €50 million of ERDF, European Regional Development Fund, funding to the PEACE programme. The Special EU Programmes Body, SEUPB, has undertaken its initial consultation process for both the new PEACE programme and the successor INTERREG programme. Preliminary drafts of the programmes will shortly be released for consultation. The focus of the new INTERREG programme, which covers Northern Ireland, the Border counties and the west of Scotland, is likely to be directed towards areas such as research and innovation, social inclusion and combating poverty, the low-carbon economy and the environment.

The Government believes the current talks process presents an opportunity to reaffirm the fundamental principles set out in the Good Friday and St. Andrews Agreements and to use those principles as the basis for agreement in the three areas of contention. The Government, as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and of the process as a whole, must ensure there is no weakening of those commitments. It is encouraging that the Northern Ireland party leaders are meeting again this week and I hope their discussions will lead to further progress. We will continue to support the process in any way we can and will work closely with the British Government to do so.

The Government will continue to keep Northern Ireland at the forefront of its agenda. We will maintain our whole-of-government approach, focusing in particular on the central role of the North-South Ministerial Council in keeping both parts of the island on the road to economic recovery and prosperity.

The Good Friday Agreement is a powerful and lasting achievement, marking an historic breakthrough in relations on this island, as well as in relations between Ireland and Britain. All of us must be conscious of the significant benefits that have derived from the Agreement but we must be diligent in our work to ensure the peace process is not just about the absence of violence. That is not taking away from the importance of the cessation of violence but the potential of the Agreement is not being maximised. Unfortunately, complacency has been the order of the day for both Governments over the past three years. The peace process was always intended to be a bit more than an absence of violence. The people of Northern Ireland deserve a political system that delivers progress and shows clearly in people’s everyday lives that politics works. The ongoing work of the peace process must be about delivering benefits to the people on this entire island.

All analyses of the work of the Northern Ireland Assembly show, regrettably, how ineffective it has been in regard to the processing and passing of legislation. The Executive and the Assembly have extremely important work to undertake, major problems to be surmounted when one considers the high level of child poverty which requires urgent attention. A staggering 46.2% of children in Belfast are defined as living in poverty. Those indices clearly indicate the need for financial support for families and communities, particularly in areas classified as deprived or disadvantaged.

Surely statistics should indicate to any public representative of any political party or religious belief that these are the issues to be tackled for the betterment of society, not daily petty political bickering. At the end of 2012 and in early 2013, the flag protests inflicted massive damage on the economy both North and South, but naturally more so in Belfast. Alienated sections of the community obviously will latch on to any particular movement like that, and such tensions and activities are holding Northern Ireland back. One also must be cognisant of the criminal intent of some people who would be referred to commonly as dissident republicans, which is a description I believe is not apt for criminals. Those people pose a threat to society in Northern Ireland and right along the Border, including my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan and elsewhere. I want to state clearly to those people that they have no mandate and no support, that their behaviour is not tolerable and is not acceptable and that such criminality, thuggery and violence should end.

Political parties in the North cannot simply rule by division of the spoils. As a guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the Irish Government, together with its British counterpart, has a critical role to play in ensuring the peace process provides real dividends to all the people on this island. I commend those who participated positively and actively in the Haass talks, but unfortunately, a consensus was not reached on those particular proposals. As my party leader, Deputy Martin, stated earlier and as I have noted in debates with the Tánaiste in this Chamber, particularly during Question Time, it is highly regrettable that the two Governments did not adopt a hands-on approach in those important and necessary talks. Ireland's history and recent history in particular shows clearly that the active and constructive engagement of the two sovereign Governments is essential to bring about needed agreement on major issues. All of the issues that formed the basis of the Haass talks are important and I note that the aforementioned talks were the first time that the Northern Ireland Executive undertook substantial discussions on the architecture of the peace agreement in the North without either Government being involved. The failure to date to reach agreement on the Haass talks clearly underlines again the importance of both Governments being vigilant and being actively involved in Northern Ireland.

I believe it is vital that the Irish Government, as a guarantor of the process, works with the British Government and the Northern Ireland Executive to help ensure that peace yields real dividends for all communities in the North. Lack of progress and a vacuum can be very dangerous. As I mentioned earlier, the residual threat of dissident groups and indeed violence by loyalist thugs are a real threat to the economy and to society on the island. Politics in the Assembly and in the Executive must be about bread-and-butter issues that face the communities in every town, village and rural parish in the North of Ireland. The time for grandstanding and playing to one’s own constituency is long gone.

I will take this opportunity to compliment Ambassador Richard Haass and Dr. Meghan O’Sullivan on their work in formalising good proposals which, unfortunately, have not won the support of the five parties in the Assembly. It is extremely regrettable that the two Unionist parties have not agreed to the proposals put forward. I believe the proposals are good, important and progressive and that they can be built upon. I commend the other three parties, which were positive in their work. There is an urgency with regard to this matter, particularly in view of the tensions, conflicts and violence Members witnessed last year. It always has been my opinion from the outset of this process that it would be extremely difficult to achieve agreement without the hands-on and direct involvement of the two sovereign Governments. All Members are aware that the Downing Street Declaration, the Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement were driven by the two Governments working with the parties in Northern Ireland. There never has been a breakthrough in Northern Ireland without the direct hands-on involvement of the two sovereign Governments.

I wish to recognise again the huge contribution the SDLP has made to the progress that has been achieved on this island. On 8 January, after Dr. Haass and Dr. O’Sullivan had tabled their proposals, the SDLP leader, Alasdair McDonnell, speaking in the House of Commons, stated:

The Secretary of State will recall that when the Haass process has been mentioned on previous occasions, I have urged a much greater involvement at an earlier stage by both the British and Irish Governments to ensure [that a] positive outcome and ... a determined implementation and legislation programme [was put in place].

Those are the comments of the leader of a democratic Nationalist party that continues to contribute so much to the political life in this island. Moreover, they contradict directly comments made by the Tánaiste in this House previously. The proposals published by Ambassador Haass and Dr. O’Sullivan on 31 December 2013 captured a series of measures that would facilitate progress on the key issues that are holding Northern Ireland back. Both Governments, working with all of the parties in Northern Ireland, must ensure the progress made is not lost and that the outstanding issues are addressed properly and conclusively. Hopefully agreement will be reached without much further delay, and the SDLP and others have called on the British Government to contribute financially to ensure the successful implementation of the proposals that warrant expenditure. On foot of an agreement, any necessary legislation should be enacted and necessary financial resources provided.

I again welcome the publication of Anne Cadwallader’s Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland, which literally was chilling reading. Ms Cadwallader recounted the stories of 120 people murdered by loyalist gangs, some of whom had been armed from Ulster Defence Regiment, UDR, depots. All bar one of those 120 people were not involved in violence of any kind, with just one person having a link with the IRA. The rest were citizens going about their daily work. Some were active members of the SDLP and other legitimate voluntary and community organisations, including Cumann Lúthchleas Gael. That was their only public involvement. The minimum their families deserve is the truth, and society deserves the truth about all of those awful murders. Ms Cadwallader’s book raises a series of questions about the past that are very relevant in the context of the Haass talks. It has now been some years since Members passed the unanimous motion in this House calling on the British Government to co-operate on the matter of the Dublin-Monaghan bombings, but sadly there has been no positive response. Of the 120 murders outlined in Ms Cadwallader’s book, one third took place South of the Border. Sadly, a number of people were murdered in my own constituency, in the Belturbet bombing and in the bombing in Monaghan town. Appropriate inquiries must be carried out in respect of the slaughter of those innocent people. In the middle of December last, I arranged for representatives of the families of the Disappeared and of other victims to address the all-party Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Again, those families outlined their demand, which simply was a demand for the truth. In meeting those families and in any dialogue with them, one can see they do not seek revenge but just want the truth. Margaret Urwin of Justice for the Forgotten and Anne Cadwallader are to be commended on their ongoing advocacy work with regard to these very difficult issues and their ongoing contact with and support for those families.

The reunification of the island of Ireland as one political entity is a founding value of the Fianna Fáil Party and a key guiding objective of our party. The changes to Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution under the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, verified by an overwhelming majority in an all-island vote, set out our vision to work towards that goal of a united Ireland through a peaceful consensus with all traditions. It was a pleasure to listen recently to the former British Prime Minister, John Major, outlining in detail the work both he and Albert Reynolds did in achieving the Downing Street Declaration. That work was carried out during a very difficult period in the history of both islands and it was the tenacity, commitment, leadership and courage of both political leaders that achieved that very important declaration. Similarly, the Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement were victories for constitutional republicanism. That commitment and that leadership were shown and this is what is needed at present to deal with the important issues confronting the people in the Six Counties, which are of critical importance to the entire island.

I note that the Minister of State, Deputy Perry, who also represents a Border constituency, is present in the Chamber. One area that must be addressed is the maximisation of the Good Friday Agreement, with particular emphasis on cross-Border economic, trading and retail policy. All of these issues must be treated with urgency and additional impetus must be given to them. I hope, for the benefit of all people on this island, that progress, which unfortunately is sadly lacking today, can be achieved.

Like many of my generation the conflict in the North shaped, tempered and radicalised my politics. It was personal and immediate, not abstract, and it was not something that could be ignored or air-brushed from our consciousness. If conflict changed us, so did the peace process. The peace process did not start with the Good Friday Agreement and did not end when the DUP ended up in government. Peace, conflict resolution and reconciliation need to be nurtured, protected and worked at daily by those who are committed to their primacy. Sectarianism, bigotry, inequality, the denial of human rights and the failure to deal with the past still bedevil progress.

Is it naive to think that many of the causes of conflict that were identified after endless, frustrating and maddening hours, days, months and even years, of talks and discussions should be gone and relegated to the past? Was it naive to think that the methodology and structures that were collectively agreed by both Governments and all the parties to the talks in an international agreement should be legislated for and be now, years later, playing a positive part in building a new Ireland? Is it naive or gullible to think that the process of change wished for and dreamed of by so many could not have happened quicker, driven forward by both Governments and all parties to the agreement? The majority of people North and South signed up to the Good Friday Agreement. The Irish Constitution was amended and some legislation initiated. The Irish Government is a joint, co-equal guarantor to the agreements and has a formal role in all-Ireland and east-west institutions.

Since Christmas we have seen unionist parties try and walk away from Haass and their responsibility to address the past, parades and cultural symbols. In the past week we have seen police attacked at a reconciliation event in east Belfast, a Roman Catholic teacher intimidated from her job because of her religious and political beliefs and Orange Order spokespersons threaten Protestants who want to learn a cúpla focal. The response from mainstream political leadership of unionism has been to minimise many of these events, to try and explain away these actions as an aberration or the actions of a few. Is this acceptable? Is this good enough? Should we remain quiet, keep our heads down, not upset them even more, ignore sectarianism and intimidation? Is that an option? I do not think so.

Those opposed to change, inclusion and equality believe they can get away with this behaviour and remain unchallenged by political leadership, secure in the knowledge that there will be little political fallout or, sadly, any electoral retribution. Let us be honest, one will not hear many complaints in this Chamber at this behaviour unless it can be twisted somehow and blamed on Sinn Féin or, by extension, Irish republicans. The "no" men, the "no surrender" brigade, believe they can frustrate the democratic will of the vast majority of people and unpick the Good Friday Agreement line by line. Their only agenda is to maintain division and roll back the clock to a not-too-distant time when inequality was the norm and discrimination endemic.

Speaking of division Nelson Mandela said of his conflict resolution process:

It is not our diversity which divides us; it is not our ethnicity, or religion or culture that divides us...there can only be one division amongst us: between those who cherish democracy and those who do not.

It is clear that the actions of a section of unionism and so-called republican micro-groups do not respect democracy and, by extension, do not respect the rights, entitlements and views of the Irish people. These groups are about frustrating political progress, undermining the potential for lasting peace and creating even more dissension and division. The response of the British and Irish Governments to events have contributed to the political paralysis. We know there still remain outstanding issues to agreements that have yet to be addressed or implemented. This reduces the moral authority of the Governments and their ability to hold others to account.

The North is still without the promised Bill of rights that could conceivably have been the basis for resolving the issues of parades, the past, flags, and emblems, that would have, arguably, contributed to a process of reconciliation and the promised shared inclusive spaces. The British Government has failed in its commitment to implement an Irish language Act and a full public inquiry into the killing of Pat Finucane. The Good Friday Agreement enshrines the rights of all cultures and identities to equality and parity of esteem regardless of the issue of sovereignty. Yet the British Government pushed through legislation on the flying of the Union flag on a set number of days. This was long before the Belfast City Council decision and was seen as a sop to David Trimble and unionism. Was it not legitimate for some to ask why there was no similar or parallel provision being enacted with regard to Irish identify in the North?

The old pals approach meant the unionists did not have to engage and reach agreement on the issue. This move further entrenched the demands of the few over the rights of the many. In these important matters it appears that the Irish Government has allowed itself to become a junior, ineffective, silent partner. This passive and silent approach makes progress more difficult and encourages, some would say feeds, the belief of those opposed to change. Is it too much to ask that an Irish Government lead by example in the many areas for which it has direct responsibility and hold the British Government to account for its commitments? The big question overhanging this debate today is, will it?

The Irish Government could, for example, legislate and give the Human Rights Commission in this jurisdiction the same powers as that in the North, as per the Good Friday Agreement. It could develop the all-Ireland framework of rights and the all-Ireland consultative forum. It could ensure all legislation is proofed against the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement and ancillary agreements. This would effectively mean no more discriminating legislation, for example of qualifying Good Friday Agreement prisoners such as the recent Taxi Licence Bill. The development of all-Ireland and cross-Border services and projects has stalled. This has undermined economic development and maintained costly separate public services.

Lately there has been a focus brought to bear on the past and victims’ rights to information and truth. This should not be a selective or party political motivated process. Recently Justice for the Forgotten, a group that deals with many of the people bereaved and injured in this State, told how some victims were having their quest for truth processed by the office of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland. This entails a review of the RUC's investigation or, in most cases, its failure to investigate. These families cannot do the same with regard to Garda investigations as the Ombudsman’s office in this State does not have the powers with regard to historic actions or inactions of the Garda. The funding to Justice for the Forgotten was cut by the previous Government. The group now relies on short-term funding from the Pat Finucane Centre in Derry. This is unacceptable and needs to be addressed. The Government should act with others to redress this anomaly.

The peace process needs to be imaginative and inclusive. It requires us all to challenge prejudice, be open to new ideas and welcome change. It requires leadership. We may not agree about what caused the conflict but surely we can collectively work together to put in place structures that will ensure conflict is never allowed visit these lands again. We need to be more pro-active, engage with people and listen to people. That is the key. We need to go out to those areas where people feel left behind by the process. There are clearly many of them here in this State and in the North. That is where all the parties in this House have a significant role to play. I have travelled the North. The conflict there changed my life, but the peace process has also changed me. We need to work on that process, nurture it and work on it day by day. Sometimes we need to be quiet and listen to others.

When we look at the North, it is in some ways a case of everything being different, yet in some ways everything remains the same. I was in Derry at the weekend at the invitation of a community organisation to discuss issues of justice following on the anniversary of Bloody Sunday. It had been approximately 28 years since I had been in Derry and in some ways it was like nothing had changed at all. Big murals calling for an end to internment, armoured cars, tanks and guns and all the rest were alive and well on the streets. We would do well to look back 42 years to Bloody Sunday. People involved in that march did not come along to get shot. The original march was about internment, a situation where people are incarcerated and have their liberty taken from them without the benefit of a trial, which is an affront to democracy. That scenario radicalised a generation.

Now, 42 years on, we have a new power structure and a new Administration, but it must be said that internment without trial still exists. People are ending up in prison, in some instances at the whim of the Northern Ireland Secretary of State. This is an enormous attack on human rights and civil liberties but, critically, it is an incredibly destabilising issue in the communities and in terms of the peace process. Those of us involved in the cross-party group in the Oireachtas have had the advantage of being able to visit a number of prisoners in Maghaberry and of meeting the Northern Ireland Minister for Justice, visiting the Northern Ireland Office and other members of the Northern community.

I must say, however, that the cases of the likes of Martin Corey and Marian Price, who had their licences or parole revoked, have shocked us. Marion Price is the only person in the history of the universe who had a pardon which was mysteriously lost. These people have been recently incarcerated, without being told the evidence against them, on secret information, with secret hearings being conducted by the parole commissioners. The legal rights of these people have been absolutely violated by secret hearings, secret evidence and so on. This is outrageous and is an insult to any idea of real justice and transparency. It is also a hugely destabilising issue in Northern Ireland. We have made the point on numerous occasions that had Marion Price's ill health resulted in her condition worsening in prison, this could have had a seriously destabilising effect and could have created a martyr.

We must recognise there is a case of internment by remand, where people, like Stephen Murney, are being kept for incredibly long periods without hearing the charges against them and without being able to answer for their alleged crimes. This again is hugely destabilising. Stephen Murney has spent 14 months in prison, yet only recently had charges put to him. By the time his case came to trial, most of the charges were struck out and not pursued, but the man had already spent over a year in prison. This is not on. Neither is the situation where we have prisoners who had to embark on a "dirty" protest for over a year in order to reach agreement on improvement in prison conditions. Yet, these prisoners will tell us that many months after agreement was reached and they came off the protest, many of the agreed conditions in terms of free association have not been implemented and they continue to face invasive body searches and so on. We must acknowledge that unless these issues are addressed, they will continue to fuel dissident activity.

Sectarianism and division are alive and well. We have a sectarian carve-up at the top, but on the ground many of the issues have not been addressed. Nowhere is this more evident than in the area of housing. I do not have sufficient time to deal with that issue, but earlier this week the UN rapporteur for housing published a report of her visit to Britain and Northern Ireland, in which she highlighted the inequality problem in North Belfast in terms of the housing situation. As a result of the sectarian carve-up, those in charge are unwilling to address the issues of substandard housing because housing Catholics in the area might result in a different electoral configuration next time around. People's human rights are being violated.

The last point I wish to make is that discrimination is not an exclusively Catholic possession. We have met many Northern Protestants who feel alienated and who feel their issues are not being addressed. Unless their concerns are taken on board in a joint campaign or co-operation that will deal with civil, political and economic rights, we will not have a lasting peace and the stabilisation so many people desire.

I too have been involved in visits to the North with other Deputies and have visited Maghaberry on five occasions. We have been at pains to point out that we have no interest in dissident IRA activity or anything of that nature. We visited Maghaberry on the basis that there were human rights issues to be addressed, in the context of how prisoners were being treated. Some of the issues have been resolved, but others have not.

As Deputy Daly mentioned, the remand issue is a huge concern. For people to be held for over two years without trial is crazy. This is a form of internment and does not stack up. Given that the situation outside can be very volatile, such issues just throw diesel on the fire and make little sense. Strip searching is another issue for prisoners. Republican prisoners who were leaving the prison in the custody of the police and returning to prison without having left their sight were being strip searched on their return to the prison. I do not see how this can be justified and one must suspect an element of humiliation is involved. This is not right and should be challenged.

The general perception in republican communities is one of distrust of the legal and prison system and the events of the past few years have heightened this distrust. The peace process was built on creating confidence in shared institutions, but this is something that can be easily undermined and, therefore, needs careful attention. The cross-party group has visited a number of people in the North, including the Justice Minister, David Ford. It was good that he was prepared to meet us, but I found him a bit intransigent. I pointed out to him that not all is perfect in the South either and we have no right to throw stones. I pointed out to him that our treatment of the Traveller community here has been deplorable and that the end result is that many male Travellers get involved in crime because they have been disconnected from mainstream society and do not feel part of it. If the Northern Ireland authorities do not adopt an inclusive policy and treat everybody fairly the situation could be similar. Chickens come home to roost and discrimination is not a good long-term approach to take.

Like Deputy Daly, I looked at the UN special rapporteur's report on housing last September, in which she addressed the issue of housing inequality in north Belfast. It is sad that tribal politics could interfere in the provision of proper housing for people of either persuasion. The research carried out by the group found that 38% of residents in north Belfast were living in homes with damp, that 89% were unhappy with the heating system in their homes and 71% reported their housing had a negative impact on their health. This is a serious concern.

The issue of abortion has also been raised. Sadly, despite enactment of the Abortion Act in Britain in 1967, it was never extended to Northern Ireland. Women in Northern Ireland who want to access abortion must travel to mainland Britain to do so, much like women in the South.

I also find this strange.

From what I can gather, in the North a huge proportion of working-class Protestants are every bit as aggrieved as working-class Catholics with how they are treated. Neoliberalism seems to be applied in Northern Ireland in the same measure as it is in the South. I am disappointed that Sinn Féin and the DUP have not had the strength to stand up to it, no more than the Government here. It is sad that neoliberalism seems to be the order of the day for anyone in political power in the developed world.

The specific item is statements on the situation in Northern Ireland, but we need to include the east-west dimension. Any time we speak about North-South issues we must be conscious of the east-west element. I acknowledge the Taoiseach's ongoing commitment to east-west relations, in particular his work at the British Irish Council. Work is being undertaken on youth unemployment, an issue which resonates with everybody in the House.

The Tánaiste's role is specific to the North-South element and he has engaged intensely with many political parties and individuals in various organisations in the North and, more recently, in the Haass-O'Sullivan talks. While many in the House are disappointed, we must pursue a positive approach to finding a solution in addressing legacy issues, including emblems and parades.

I ask Members to respect the Deputy who is speaking and have their conversations elsewhere.

I do not mind. They can chat away.

Recently the Tánaiste announced new work at North-South Ministerial Council level regarding a better focus on economic development and job creation. I acknowledge the new strategy. Representatives from the Centre for Cross Border Studies and a representative from the North-South Ministerial Council were present today to share information with Members of the House on a cross-party basis. Such activity is very welcome.

Deputies Martin Ferris and Seán Crowe are active members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and we focus on victims' groups, ex-prisoners and former combatants. Prior to Christmas representatives from Families of the Disappeared appeared before the committee. We have a sharp focus on legacy issues and coming up with a solution and roadmap to address the legacy of the conflict. We must also be conscious of the silent and forgotten victims. On Monday I met a gentleman who had suffered serious harassment and intimidation in the early 1970s. He was told never to leave County Donegal and never to set foot again in Northern Ireland. Such intimidation needs to be addressed and there should be an avenue for people to tell their stories. Those who were not directly involved in the Troubles may state this happened in the 1970s and that people need to move on and put the past behind them, but it is important to address and acknowledge that many still have a story to tell. Some seek justice, others seek the truth, while others seek closure. They want various solutions to their experiences in the past 30 to 40 years. We must find a solution for those who were affected indirectly, through intimidation or otherwise, during the Troubles.

As the Taoiseach correctly pointed out, we must also look to the future. In doing so we must examine the economic construct and what is happening at legislative level. Legislation passed at Westminster can directly affect the lives of Irish citizens; an example is the new levy to be introduced on 1 April on heavy goods vehicles. This is a new annual levy of £1,000 on trucks over 12 tonnes. This legislation was introduced on the basis that British hauliers must pay tolls in the Republic of Ireland, but British hauliers must also pay the new levy. The legislation will affect those operating in Border counties such as County Donegal in which there are no tolls. There are no tolls because the county has terrible roads because of economic and political neglect as a result of partition, but operators there will suffer from legislation enacted at Westminster. We cannot inspect every piece of legislation enacted in the United Kingdom, but we have a responsibility as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement to see how legislation enacted at Westminster has a direct effect on business and Irish citizens. This was not done in the case of this legislation. Secondary legislation will pass through Stormont specifically to enforce this legislation and set out the PSNI's role in this regard. There was no due diligence or proper consideration and analysis of the legislation to assess how it would affect Irish citizens. That is wrong. It sends a very poor and negative signal to citizens who listen to us speaking week in week out about cross-Border collaboration and co-operation, how we can work better together, have more streamlined services on a North-South basis and make Border areas more accessible. There are obvious sovereign and currency constraints, but issues such as this send a very negative signal.

I acknowledge the role of the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Leo Varadkar, in trying to secure derogations for certain roads. A 7 km section between Cavan and Monaghan has a derogation and I call for the A5 to receive a similar derogation. The Minister will continue to pursue this issue. If the A5 receives a derogation, should the road from Donegal to Belfast also receive one? It sends all the wrong signals on our approach. Our democratic mandate, as legislators, is based on the fact more than 70% of those in Northern Ireland voted for the Good Friday Agreement, with 90% of the people in the Republic of Ireland, and it was not only on a North-South basis but also on an east-west basis. I have written formally to the Secretary of State for Transport in the United Kingdom calling on him to re-examine the issue. I appreciate that the legislation has been enacted, but secondary legislation is going through Stormont. I have spoken to the Minister for the Environment in Northern Ireland, Mr. Mark Durkan, MLA, and if there is a way to amend the legislation to provide derogations for certain roads in Northern Ireland, it would send a very positive signal to citizens of this country that the British were looking to work with us in a meaningful way and make commonsense laws which would not in any way impact on businesses such as hauliers in this example.

Recently in London Ms Judith Gillespie, the Deputy Chief Constable in Northern Ireland, gave a very frank and open account of what life was like in Northern Ireland and the challenges faced by her members in the PSNI. She made a specific call to politicians involved in the peace process in Northern Ireland, elsewhere in the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland to take risks. She stated unless we, as politicians, took risks, we would not move forward. Shortly after the 1998 Good Friday Agreement, Mr. Seamus Mallon stated that the legislators had built the institutional construct of the Agreement.

I believe he was being modest when he said that was the easy part and now we have the constitutional challenges. We have to listen to Seamus Mallon, Judith Gillespie and the various people who are asking politicians to take risks and not play political football with this issue. When the then leader of the Opposition, now Taoiseach, Deputy Enda Kenny, the then Deputy Eamon Gilmore and I sat on the opposite side of the House there was careful, cross-party co-operation on the Northern issue. That has changed. I will not tell a political party how to do its business but I do not believe that change is for the better. It was reflected here earlier in Deputy Micheál Martin's contribution when he said that everything was terrible, everything was wrong and that Northern Ireland was an unhappier place. Northern Ireland is not an unhappier place. People have moved forward. Sixteen years after the Good Friday Agreement, people are no longer being killed, which was the case for the previous 30 years. We have to look at the positives. Challenges remain but we must work together, and this House should show leadership and work together on this issue and not the way it was done today.

I would like to say at the outset that I will work with anybody who shares any idea with me. It is fair to say that a group of politicians who have worked hard together in recent months, across very diverse backgrounds, on the prisoner issue, including two previous speakers, Deputies Clare Daly and Mick Wallace. I saw Deputy Frank Feighan in the House earlier and I would like to compliment the work he has done, and Deputy Martin Ferris for the support, advice and help he has given. It is welcome that we work across parties, but it is wrong in any facet of politics to say we cannot debate issues openly and express differences of opinion.

There appear to be some sacred cows in this country, the Irish language being one of them, on which we are not meant to have a proper, robust political debate but how can we ever move forward if we are not willing to debate issues, express different ideas and respect different views?

We all know that the quickest way to get stagnation is to have no real debate and to create an atmosphere where we say that everything is okay and we should not question anything. That is very dangerous.

I am a republican. I have always been a republican. I believe passionately in the bringing together of the people of this island. I believe that partition has been very bad for Ireland socially, economically and culturally but the big challenge for us is how we achieve the bringing together of the people in the different communities on this island. My belief is that it will not be possible to do that until the people get to know each other. The biggest source of violence is distrust. The biggest source of distrust is people not knowing each other. The people at the top knowing each other is not good enough. We must always remember that the First World War was fought between families that were closely related to each other - the Kaiser of Germany was a grandson of Queen Victoria - but the ordinary people did not know each other, and we saw the slaughter that followed. Political change is important, but interaction on the ground is more important.

Since I became a politician I have visited as many times as I could every corner of the North and every community in the North to which I was invited, and they have been diverse. I have continued that over the years. I have met leaders of the UDA and the UVF. I have met leaders of the IRA. Recently, with other colleagues, I have visited both loyalist and republican prisoners. I have been in Rathlin Island four times. I have been in Ballymoney. I have been in east Belfast. I have been in Newtownards, Portaferry and Ballymurphy. I could not count the number of times I was in west Belfast. I have been across Derry and in many other places. I believe all Members of this House have an obligation to meet our Northern co-citizens to create the trust and give the leadership needed to ensure the people of this island get rid of the fear and the distrust and begin to trust each other. In that way they will see that together we can create a much better place to live in than the island we have now.

One of the constant challenges is the idea that some day we will wake up and all Unionists will think the tricolour was the greatest flag in the world and that they would somehow turn on their own identity. That idea is wrong and simplistic. In whatever Ireland we build, we will have to respect the different identities that exist on this island.

In trying to illustrate that I recall being severely criticised many years ago by some super-Nationalists for saying I had no difficulty with a united Ireland being part of the Commonwealth so that those who would live in that united Ireland would have some way of associating themselves with the British Crown, which is so important to them, not only in a political sense for some of them but also in a quasi-religious sense. If we are not willing to engage with their identity, it is difficult to understand how people will engage with the depth of our identity. I have found that when one respects others' identity, they return that respect for one's own identity.

It was for that reason some years ago I facilitated the provision of funding to a company operating effectively as part of the Orange Order in lieu of halls that had been destroyed by vandals in the Border counties of this State. I believed that somebody coming from such a strong republican tradition as I do had an obligation to show that we are not afraid of their identity. I attended loyalist marches, and I was a guest of honour at an Orange march in Drum, County Monaghan, and it was good to see both Nationalists and Unionists come out and celebrate that in a non-confrontational way. All of us went into the Orange Hall afterwards and had tea and sandwiches. That has not made me any less a republican. As far as I am concerned, part of being a republican is that we share every tradition, every identity and work with everybody.

There are some issues that worry me deeply. I am not sure that this Government, at a ministerial level, is engaging with the communities in the North in the same way the previous Government did. I am not denying it has many contacts with the British Government but the British Government has clearly declared that it has no strategic or selfish interest here. The challenge, therefore, is not to achieve good relations with the British Government, which one would expect to have anyway as northern members of the European Union, but to win the hearts and minds of the people of this island for a new way forward. I will be told that North-South ministerial meetings take place. We had those too, but I am talking about getting on the ground in the communities. I am talking about going into loyalist, Unionist, Nationalist and republican communities and getting to know the people in Portaferry, Newtownards, the Creggan, south Armagh and so on. Unless we do that day by day, week by week, I do not believe we are doing the job in the way it needs to be done.

To be blunt, in terms of my experience of dealing with Northern Secretaries of State over the years, with the single exception of Mo Mowlam, to whom this island owes a debt that will never be repaid because she genuinely cared, showed a genuine interest and engaged with the problem day and night despite her illness, it is fair to say that for most Northern Secretaries of State now, being Secretary of State is something they do for a while. They are very disinterested and disengaged, and that may not be a bad thing. It is very natural because if I was a politician in England and I was sent to the Northern Ireland Office for two or three years, I am not sure how engaged I would be with it in terms of a problem I do not understand, that I have never been involved in and that had nothing to do with my life until then. It would be difficult to see how they can engage, particularly as they move on so rapidly, but that may not be a bad thing.

How long have we argued that if the British disengaged, we on this island could re-engage across all of our differences? I do not agree with the policy the Government followed in respect of the Haass talks, whereby only Irish people born north of an arbitrary line were involved. That process should have been on an all-Ireland basis, and if Britain wanted to be involved, that was its call. The identity issue does not solely concern Northern Nationalists. If we are to be truthful, we must admit that Southern people have never dealt with it properly.

My colleague spoke eloquently on the issue of prisoners. Trying people for what occurred prior to the peace process is wrong and always seems to be on the one side. I do not agree with the revocation of licences and what was said about remand is wrong. However, we must not forget that a decent and honest prison officer is now dead. David Black was murdered because of the refusal on the part of people in authority to deal with the issues that resulted in a dirty protest that lasted 18 months. One can see the cause and effect.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important issue. All of us are victims of history. Last weekend I visited Belfast, as I do, and went to the Grand Opera House in Belfast to watch Garry Hynes's great production of "The Colleen Bawn". On Sunday I went to mass in St. Patrick's Cathedral on Donegall Street, which in recent years has been the focus of issues that are not particularly nice for Northern Ireland. I also happened to pass by the courthouse in which my grandfather, James Feeley, was convicted almost 100 years ago. He was a Sinn Féin councillor and an IRA commander in County Roscommon. He went on hunger strike in the Curragh and in Mountjoy Prison and later became a garda in the new Free State. My other grandfather was born in Cullyhanna in south Armagh. He was in the south Armagh brigade of the IRA and was incarcerated in Dundalk Prison. I am proud to come from a strong republican background, but there are two sides to every story. Less than 100 years ago Ireland was part of a different jurisdiction. There were various armies in Ireland. The UVF had 100,000 volunteers from a Unionist background and the National Volunteers also attracted a large membership from a Nationalist background. Every second day these armies were to be seen marching through towns and villages. Arms were smuggled to them through Howth and Larne. The historian Roy Foster has suggested that if World War I had not occurred there would have been unprecedented bloodshed on this island.

I pay tribute to the 200,000 Irishmen, both Nationalist and Unionist, from North and South who fought in the First World War. They all fought for different reasons. Unionists do not always realise that more Nationalists than Unionists died in that war. However, as history is written by the victors, those who came from a Southern background were forgotten. In my home town of Boyle, 126 young men out of a population of 3,000 died in the war. Four hundred young men from County Roscommon and 50,000 men from the island of Ireland died. They were written out of history. I grew up near an old British army barracks but I never knew about these young men. They should be remembered, just as the men of 1916 are remembered. I take great pride in wearing a poppy as someone from a Nationalist background. The poppy should not be the preserve of British imperialism or militant Unionism. I also take great pride in wearing the Easter lily.

I have been in Maghaberry Prison and visited Marian Price while she was in a Belfast hospital. I am delighted she was released. Her detention was managed in a ham-fisted way and I welcome the fact that common sense prevailed in the decision to release her. I have also visited a number of dissident republican prisoners in Maghaberry Prison, as well as meeting loyalists and Nationalists who are trying to work together. A little over a year ago I was part of a delegation under the Good Friday Agreement which visited the Skainos Centre in Newtownards in east Belfast. The experience was eye-opening because the First Minister and Deputy First Minister both gave speeches in Unionist east Belfast. I saw my colleague, Deputy Ferris, warmly embrace his counterparts in the UDA. It was poignant that people could embrace one another after so many years of conflict. I pay tribute to Deputy Ferris for proving that the people at the coalface were able to find solutions. Their flanks were sometimes exposed by those who talked the talk but did not walk the walk. It is our duty to work together to ensure the democratic process is protected.

Belfast was vibrant when I visited on Saturday night, thanks in part to the peace process. A greening process is ongoing in the PSNI, but there is also a darker side to that force. Certain issues remain to be addressed. We will have to learn the truth about the infamous Glenanne gang and the Dublin-Monaghan bombings, because dealing with the past is a critical factor in moving forward. Perhaps our greatest challenge is dealing with the past to deliver a sustainable peace. Issues arise in respect of cultural identity, ethos, flags, equality and parity of esteem. The establishment of an all-island civic forum would help us to resolve many of these issues. The Bill of Rights and the all-Ireland charter of rights, as well as the North-South review and the Irish Language Acts, are all important.

We have come an awful long way but we cannot forget the past. The person who forgets history knows nothing.

What I try to do is to look at it as politicians should and remember that there are two sides to every story. I do not have all the answers and neither do Nationalists or Unionists. Our duty is to look at the two sides of the story and try to determine whether we will take two steps forward and one step back. Sometimes it will be one step forward and two steps back.

We are in a very different place from the one we were in when I was growing up 40 miles from the Border in the 1980s, when Northern Ireland was not our problem. It was up there and as long as it did not come down here, we were happy. Indirectly, it was our problem.

Unfortunately we have had many lapses over the years, but in my humble opinion the Anglo-Irish Agreement, under the late former Taoiseach, Dr. Garret FitzGerald, opened up dialogue and cross-Border institutions and was followed by the Good Friday Agreement. Hopefully, the Agreement will bring lasting peace and prosperity to Ireland. As I said, 100 years is not a long time. I was born 50 years ago. I hope that in the next 15 or 20 years our differences will be put in the past.

Exactly 20 years ago journalists in the public service broadcaster, RTE, and in the independent stations were, for the first time since 1972, interviewing members of Sinn Féin. The broadcasting ban on Sinn Féin under section 31 of the Broadcasting Act 1960 was lifted by the party colleague of the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, the then Aire Ealaíon, Cultúir agus Gaeltachta, Uachtarán na hÉireann, Michael D. Higgins, in January 1994. Prior to that, I fought seven elections at local, European and Dáil levels while I and other Sinn Féin candidates and elected representatives were barred from the airwaves. One can only imagine how difficult that must have been.

How about the people of Kingsmill?

Of course, this was a violation of our rights as citizens and of the rights of the people who voted for us. More importantly, it was a violation of the right of the Irish people to freedom of information, to the facts about what was happening in the conflict and to a balanced view of how and why that conflict continued.

It was not only information about the conflict that was denied to people - it was much wider than that. If the speaker was from Sinn Féin, no matter what he or she was speaking about, and no matter in what capacity, the ban was imposed. As the High Court challenge of trade unionist and Sinn Féin member Councillor Larry O'Toole established, the ban was extended illegally by the broadcasters themselves. The 20th anniversary of the ending of the section 31 ban has not been sufficiently marked in the media, but in one piece broadcast by RTE a media lecturer stated that when he tells students today about section 31, they find it incredible that such blatant political censorship existed well within living memory.

Section 31 was only possible because of the deeply partitionist mindset that was so prevalent among the dominant political forces in this State for so long. They claimed to be protecting the State, but in reality they were protecting their own political patch, the corrupt conservative set-up that Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party had kept in place for decades. It suited most of them to turn their backs on the Six Counties and on the direct effects of partition on the Border counties in particular and on Ireland as a whole, and that was even before the armed conflict began in the early 1970s.

As the conflict went on, the partitionist and censorship ethos among the political elite in this State spawned a mindset in which republicans North and South were demonised and the entire responsibility for the conflict placed upon their shoulders. I regret to say that mindset remains prevalent among some in the Oireachtas. The other day in the Seanad, in the course of a debate on the charity sector, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, because he could not take criticism, interrupted Senator David Cullinane to say, "The actions of a few resulted in the deaths of 3,000 people on this island." We know the so-called few he was referring to and it was not the members of successive British Cabinets.

It would be useful in this decade of centenaries for the Government of this State to ask its British counterpart to reflect on the role of its predecessors over ten decades in imposing partition, suppressing democracy and fostering sectarianism in Ireland, as they most certainly have done. It was exactly 100 years ago, in 1914, that the British Government first hatched the plot to partition Ireland, as part of the climb-down in the face of armed Unionist opposition to Home Rule. British officers at the Curragh mutinied lest they be asked to go North to keep order among their Unionist brethren - there was not only one mutiny at the Curragh.

It was 40 years ago this May that the same unholy alliance between armed Unionism and the British Crown forces resulted in the no-warning bombings of Dublin and Monaghan and the deliberate killing of 33 civilians, including a pregnant woman, in the single worst loss of life in the conflict. That 40th anniversary will fall on 17 May, just a short time away. Four decades on, the survivors and the bereaved of Dublin and Monaghan have yet to receive truth and justice. The British Government has yet to release all of the information in its possession. I urge a far more proactive approach from the Irish Government to this and to the other fatal acts of collusion between British State forces and loyalist paramilitaries that led to loss of life in this jurisdiction. I have lost count of the number of times I have had to make that appeal to the former Taoisigh Mr. Ahern and Mr. Cowen and to the Taoiseach, but I and my colleagues here will continue to make it. We are, after all, simply seeking the implementation of the call on the British Government made unanimously and repeatedly by this House.

Most of the fatal acts of collusion in this State occurred in the Border counties. This, one of the many tragic aspects of the effect of partition and conflict on the counties of Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan, Monaghan and Louth, is not in the past. The Border counties still suffer both the legacy of decades of economic neglect and the current ill-effects of partition and the failure of regional policy by successive Governments in this State. Those counties need continuing attention and I urge especially that assistance be given to the struggling indigenous small and medium-sized businesses on which the local economies in the Border counties are based.

There is no excuse for either the British or the Irish Governments to stand over any delay in advancing with key cross-Border infrastructural projects such as the Carlingford Narrow Water bridge and the Ulster Canal. With regard to the Ulster Canal, I have been in touch with the office of the Northern Ireland Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Carál Ní Chuilín MLA, my party colleague. She assures me that both she and her counterpart here, the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, are fully committed to this project, and I welcome that affirmation. As I pointed out in the debate on the Six Counties last year, the North-South Ministerial Council agreed to proceed with the Ulster Canal project in 2007. In the intervening period, we have seen the economic collapse in this State and a parallel contraction in the North. Despite this, the Ulster Canal project was kept alive.

Permission was granted last year for the Northern section by Environment Minister, Alex Atwood, and by Clones Town Council and Monaghan County Council for the section in this jurisdiction.

The Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, has advised that the earliest the contract could be awarded would be late 2014 with a completion date in spring 2017. I urge the Minister to do all in his power to expedite this process and to encourage his colleagues to do so. I also urge him to maximise the possible EU funding for the project from the Peace IV programme.

The Ulster Canal project is about greatly enhancing one of the finest landscapes in Ireland for locals and tourists alike, regenerating rural areas that have long been neglected and delivering a tangible peace dividend to Border communities that were neglected for far too long. It is time to get the work on the ground under way.

In the course of his contribution, the Fianna Fáil leader, Deputy Micheál Martin, made his by now customary but quite pathetic effort to lump Sinn Féin in with the DUP as somehow jointly placing obstacles in the way of the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and the expansion of the all-Ireland institutions. Does anyone but himself actually believe this?

Quite blatantly, Deputy Martin totally misrepresented Martin McGuinness by claiming that he joined with Peter Robinson in opposing the convening of a civic forum. The opposite is the case, as any informed voice in this House would know. Sinn Féin has advocated a civic forum, both in the Six Counties and nationally, as provided for under the Good Friday Agreement. Deputy Martin should set aside the political posturing and get his facts right. He may mistakenly think that his approach will do his party some good in electoral competition with Sinn Féin in this State, but it contributes absolutely nothing to building the peace process.

We should always be conscious of the tremendous progress which has been made over the past decade and a half. That needs to be emphasised here today. We should never be complacent or take for granted what has been built. We should have an all-Ireland vision, as befits our name - Dáil Éireann and Oireachtas Éireann.

For our part, we in Sinn Féin, will never cease our efforts to promote reconciliation, combat sectarianism, create a sense of common purpose on this island and fulfil the dream of millions past and present of a new united Ireland, built in agreement among the people who share this island and achieved solely by peaceful and democratic means.

Is maith an rud é go bhfuilimid ag déanamh díospóireachta ar an ábhar seo inniu.

In some respects I find this subject very difficult because I approach it from a slightly different angle than most. That is because although I am a republican and a social democrat, a lot of my ancestry is Unionist. I do not share their ideology and wish they would embrace a more open type of unionism. However, I am conscious of the fact that they are part of the peoples of this island and that we have to learn to work with them. A great deal of work has been done on that journey.

At a meeting in Ballycastle, County Antrim, I heard Nuala O'Loan say that we all have to work at the peace process. We take it for granted that we have peace, which is a very foolish idea in the context of Ireland. I am particularly grateful to the Tánaiste, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, for keeping a close eye on what is happening in Northern Ireland. He uses people like me, various other Labour parliamentarians and others, to try to have links with different parts of the community in the North. I am not suggesting that Labour is the only party that does this; it is not, but it is really important that we do so. I wish to pay tribute to the Tánaiste for showing a real, active interest in being on top of the issue and in trying to encourage the British Government in particular to be more active, as well as interacting with different parties in Northern Ireland.

When one thinks of the three areas that Dr. Richard Haass was considering - parades, flags and emblems, and the past - one could get very frustrated. For example, the last time I was in Belfast just before Christmas, we met some loyalists who were protesting at Twaddell Avenue just outside the Ardoyne. I spoke to one of them who was in charge of some of the protestors. I said it was really important that the PSNI enforced the order that the Orange Order were not to march up past there, because if they did not it would damage whatever relationship they were building with the Catholic or Nationalist community so much. The response I got to that was so frustrating. He said: "Yes, I understand what you are saying, but we still want to do it." That mindset is one of unionism's greatest enemies.

I do not share their view, but they have every right to want to maintain a link with Britain. However, they do not, and never did have, a right to treat Nationalists and Catholics as second class citizens. While they are no longer top dog in the way they used to be, they still have a huge amount to learn in terms of treating their Northern Nationalist brethren as equals.

I have used that example to show the frustration involved. I appeal to the Unionist parties to engage fully in the Haass process. That was a real attempt to get both sides to treat each other with respect and dignity. Some serious steps have been taken down that track. For example, in the area of the past it is now possible to show some mutual respect towards commemorations of the Somme and of Bloody Sunday in Derry.

There is an urgent need to take a leadership role, however, particularly because there are small groups both on the nationalist and unionist sides who want to destabilise things. There is a real need for unionists to engage properly with the nationalist community and nationalist politicians, be they from Sinn Féin or the SDLP, in order to find a way forward. I urge them to do so.

There is great scope for civic society to play a much more leading role in all of this. In the Republic of Ireland civic society plays a huge role in representing different interests. Businesses, trade unions and churches could do more to encourage people to engage with one another in the North.

This year, Europe remembers the 100th anniversary of the start of World War I. For the island of Ireland, North and South, the First World War is a shared sorrow. From this island 250,000 men left to fight a war that should never have happened. A fifth of those men never returned. Some of them were Unionists, loyal to their king and country. Some were nationalists, loyal to an ideal of home rule or some other form of independence for Ireland that they assumed would follow the war.

Most were just young men who signed up to see the world. One of the most poignant Irish symbols of peace is not in Ireland at all, but at the all-Ireland peace park in Flanders, Belgium. At the entrance to the park is a peace pledge, unveiled a little over 15 years ago by former President Mary McAleese and Queen Elizabeth of the United Kingdom. The pledge contains the following words that are worth repeating in this House today: "As Protestants and Catholics, we apologise for the terrible deeds we have done to each other, and ask forgiveness."

There is a lot to forgive and be forgiven. The late Senator and peace campaigner, Gordon Wilson - one of the few true persons of forgiveness and peace to walk the corridors of Leinster House - set a very high standard with his statement "I bear no ill will. I bear no grudge," which was uttered just hours after his beloved daughter Marie died following the devastating IRA bomb at Enniskillen in 1987.

Walking out the gates of Leinster House onto Kildare Street and turning right towards Trinity College Dublin, we find ourselves on South Leinster Street, at the bottom of Nassau Street. On the footpath by the railings of Trinity College Dublin there is a square granite plaque that marks the spot where almost 40 years ago, in May 1974, two innocent women lost their lives in a UVF car bomb explosion. Anna Massey, a 21 year old employee of Lisney's auctioneers, and 51 year old Christine Lawlor, who worked up the street in the Shelbourne Hotel, died on that spot, a short walk from where I stand. They were two of the 33 victims of four bombs planted on that day, three in Dublin city and one in Monaghan. It was the highest number of casualties on a single day during the years of the conflict in Northern Ireland. Twenty of the dead were women.

More than 3,500 people were killed by violence in Northern Ireland - the population of a medium-sized town just wiped out. More people were killed by Northern Irish violence than in the Twin Towers tragedy in New York on 9/11. Tens of thousands of Irish and British people remain living victims of the terrible deeds committed, supposedly, in the names of nationalities and religions. One island and two nations share the sorrow of these deaths. There is too much sorrow and darkness in Ireland's history, too much of which is claimed falsely in the name of religion.

In this jurisdiction we have had in recent years an avalanche of reports and inquiries into church and State abuse of vulnerable people. Even more inquiries will be needed before, as a country and an island, we will have faced up to the impact of that part of our past. In Northern Ireland the Historical Institutional Abuse Inquiry is hearing evidence from witnesses, including victims. A witness in giving evidence last week to the inquiry was asked to compare his time spent in the Termonbacca children's home in Derry with his experience of a home in Salthill, County Galway. "Salthill was Auschwitz," he said, "Termonbacca was Treblinka."

The people of this island, North and South, have been the victims of political and religious ideology and claptrap for far too long. Symbols, whether crosses or flags, hymns or anthems, are just that - symbols. If people take comfort from their symbols, let them be, but there is a bigger picture. This shared island of ours has common sorrows that must be addressed with meaningful apologies and forgiveness. Only then can the people of this island, whether they call themselves Irish, British, Northern Irish or European, move forward and embrace a future of common opportunities.

Tá sé tábhachtach agus oiriúnach go bhfuil an díospóireacht seo againn inniu. Tá a fhios againn go léir cad a tharla sna Sé Chontae - na daoine a fuair bás, na daoine a bhí gortaithe, na daoine a bhfuil gortaithe go fóill, an íobairt, an féiníobairt, an obair i rith na blianta i dtreo is go mbeadh síocháin againn inniu agus Comhaontú Aoine an Chéasta.

This is an important debate and we must, first, acknowledge the pain, suffering, destruction and sacrifices people experienced in Northern Ireland. We must also acknowledge the extent of the work and commitment that went into realising the Good Friday Agreement. It was disappointing to listen to contributions in which Deputies only seemed to recognise the role of members of their own parties in bringing about peace. Peace would not have come except that it was comprehensive, involving players from all walks of life. I acknowledge the front-line players and those behind the scenes who did so much to bring it about. No one wants to see it jeopardised and the Six Counties descend into trouble, but there is no doubt that there are serious threats to peace. The Irish section of the Association of European Parliamentarians with Africa, AWEPA, which I chair, had parliamentarians from north African conflict countries such as Egypt, Libya, Tunisia and Yemen in Ireland at the weekend. I was struck by what was common between them and what had happened in the North of Ireland. They had also experienced bloodshed, destruction and loss of life. They must deal with the legacy of bitterness and hurt. However, they were proactive and definite in what they appreciated - the values of freedom, democracy, social justice and equality. That is what they are trying to bring into constitutions. Equality means no discrimination on the grounds of gender, creed, sexuality or ethnicity. Human rights are at its core. I was struck by two points which had been made forcefully. One was on the need not to exclude anyone from political dialogue. The other was that no country could become complacent about safeguarding liberty and justice. There are groups in the North which are excluded from political dialogue and we have become complacent about the rights to justice and fairness of certain groups and individuals there.

With other Deputies, we have been involved in the promotion of the human rights of prisoners in Northern prisons. Meeting and listening to them has been frustrating because we see what is happening to them as undermining the peace process. It is certainly not conducive to maintaining peace. People in prison in the North, both loyalists and republicans, were denied justice. They feel they have been left behind by their leaders. Strip searching is a significant issue for them. In the two years we have been travelling there, very little progress has been made on that issue. Issues stem from the time of the dirty protest and protests by loyalists and there are outstanding issues. What is horrifying is the way licences have been revoked without giving a reason. We have met people who have been in jail for four years without charges being brought against them. If people are suspected of committing a crime, charges should be brought against them and due process followed. Depriving them of their rights is a recipe for disaster and will only fuel violence and threaten the Good Friday Agreement, which we see happening. We have also seen disengagement and the lack of interest among some in authority. People who have never been charged with a crime have been released on very restrictive conditions. In certain cases, they deprive them of the right to make a living.

People disagree with the Good Friday Agreement. They are entitled to their opinion and express it, but they are not entitled to express it through violence. It also means listening to those who have outstanding issues, whether they are loyalist or republican. We have seen violence in the North, the murder of PSNI and prison officers, which is regrettable and horrifying. The perpetrators must be brought to justice, but that means having a thorough investigation in order that the real perpetrators are brought to justice, not just the targeting of known individuals. There are outstanding issues of collusion, finding the murderers of solicitors such as Rosemary Nelson and Pat Finucane, the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, the murder of members of the Miami Showband and the disappeared. We must acknowledge the success of the Good Friday Agreement. We meet people who come from other conflict areas who are very supportive and respectful of it. They see it as a landmark, one that they want to follow. We owe it to people in the North and other conflict areas who see it as something to which they should aspire to ensure the inclusion of all in political dialogue. We must not be complacent in this regard.

I concur with Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin that tremendous progress has been made in Northern Ireland. I do not agree, however, with the derogatory remarks directed at political parties from those dredging and digging up the past for political gain or expediency. That is not the way forward. I have been in Northern Ireland on hundreds of occasions as a member of the Workers' Party and have my own opinions. I have met many people from both sides of the divide.

People should not be surprised that there is a degree of sectarianism in Northern Ireland. Many say the political institutions are built on sectarian division and segregation. Change will have to occur at that level. The full promise of the Good Friday Agreement has not been realised and one of the major failings is that we have not moved beyond the narrow and dangerous confines of unionism and nationalism. We must change the way Northern Ireland's political institutions are structured. We need to bring to an end designating MLAs as Unionist and Nationalist, which would be a great step forward. Perhaps the parties might examine this. Otherwise we are setting a trend in saying to the people that the MLAs are not members of Sinn Féin or another democratic party but are Nationalist or Unionist.

There is a myth that we can develop a society based on the notion of being separate but equal, an expression I have heard in Northern Ireland and the South. It cannot be perpetuated if we are to work seriously towards having an integrated society. In continuing to promote that policy people compound existing problems.

They are probably widening the community division.

The immediate basis for the development of an integrated and non-confrontational society would have to be a complete rejection of the philosophy of separate but equal, as there are very many people in the working class suffering the same problems in Northern Ireland from the divide. There should be a promotion of citizenship as an antidote to Unionism and Nationalism as a way forward, along with a robust and transparent programme for integrated housing, a commitment to introduce integrated education and teacher training in Northern Ireland and an accelerated programme to dismantle Northern Ireland's peace walls. I believe this would be a way forward.

Has the Executive failed to deliver a radical and social economic agenda required to provide quality of life? There are many people who would say that, although I am not here to criticise the individual parties in the Executive, and there are some very good members on both sides. This has resulted in a major disconnect between the citizens of Northern Ireland and the political parties there. One way to address that, on balance, is to explore ways in which civic society can be strengthened or empowered. To this end, there should be the introduction of a comprehensive bill of rights and reinstatement of the civic forum, which Sinn Féin has indicated it supports. The Good Friday Agreement acknowledged that a bill of rights should form part of the settlement. Although there is much more I would like to say on the matter, I do not have the time.

I will skip to the big issue of parades and flags. Everybody has a right to parade, protest and lawful assembly, and such rights should be available to all citizens and protected in law. The vast majority of parades in Northern Ireland pass off peacefully and without a problem, but there are difficulties in specific locations such as Ardoyne and Carrick Hill in Belfast, where it is less about the parade and invariably more about a chance to reverse localised underlying sectarian tensions, as can be seen with the violence that can take place after parades. The flying of the Union flag at Belfast City Hall is a case in point, as few if any people would even have noticed the flag flying before the decision to limit its presence was taken. People are aware of that.

One of the Labour Party Deputies stated that we should not forget our past, but I am not so sure about that. Somebody once said that we should not forget the past and our history but we should never be shackled by it. That is the way forward.

I welcome the opportunity to speak in this very important debate. It is a bit overdue but nonetheless welcome.

This afternoon I sat here for most of the contributions of the main party leaders, and the contrast between the statements given by the leaders of Government and those of the main Opposition parties could not have been greater. I think when the leaders of Fianna Fáil and Sinn Féin read or listen to the contributions from earlier today they will agree that their tone and contributions lacked any degree of vision that their respective parties might have on the issue at hand. I was particularly disappointed in the contribution of the leader of Fianna Fáil who, despite his experience in the affairs of Northern Ireland, reduced his contribution to making political shots and jibes in the hope that it might bring some electoral advantage to his party, particularly on those flanks that might be threatened by Sinn Féin south of the Border. Language and its various meanings and emphases has always been a very important part of building peace on the island, but some of the comments of the Fianna Fáil leader today were an attempt to introduce divisive tribalism into a debate, which would result in a lack of unity of purpose from this side of the Border. Attempts to cash in politically on what has been called the national question are nothing new, as we can recall from the way a predecessor of his tried to bring down the Anglo-Irish Agreement in 1985; however, political immaturity in this area in 2014 is something that should not be condoned and instead should be seen for what it is. The Sinn Féin leader spent the first ten of his 15 minutes talking about the past - and a very one-sided version of that past - without any reference to the here and now or to the future.

I am a younger person who has been fascinated by this for a long time, as my first exposure to Northern Ireland politics was in the early 1980s, when Northern Protestant workers stayed with us at home during the construction of Aughinish Alumina. It is from that point that I developed an interest, and I resent any claim that this is the sole preserve of one political party or an individual. I agree with the sentiments of Deputy O'Sullivan and many others that all political parties south of the Border have played a very mature role in this. My party, like many others, has played a firm and concrete role in the delivery of the current position through Sunningdale, the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the framework document and more recently the developments in the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council. Although these contributions are of themselves no more or less important than the contributions of any other constitutional nationalist party to the national question, it seems, upon reflecting on the remarks of the two Opposition leaders this morning, that the conciliatory nature which for so long was a hallmark of this State's approach to the national issue could be starting to fray, and that is something of which we must be vigilant as a Dáil and that we must work to prevent.

This debate is an opportunity for us to give contributions on the challenges that we as a Dáil believe confront the North, and they are many. However, we know that there are many challenges and we must also acknowledge the positives. As I said earlier, the news bulletins of the childhood years of a person in his or her 30s were dominated by the latest killing of a Catholic or a Protestant and the constant sectarian bloodbath which left open sores and deep divisions that we must confront as a society. We must be prepared to confront the horrors of the past in a way that respects the memories of those who had their lives cut short while respecting the wishes of families. For those families who desperately seek to find out how a loved one died, who ordered the killing and why it was ordered, we must be prepared to stand with them and seek the truth. Similarly, those who have no graveside to visit, no headstone and no remains, only the knowledge that the person might be buried in a lonely bog or on a deserted beach, deserve something better as well. They deserve to have their loved one at rest in a peaceful location close to family, and every effort needs to be made to ensure that any information which can lead to the recovery of their remains is given. On that note, I would appeal to anyone in this House or outside it who may have influence on anyone who knows where these remains are to bring it forward so that the families in question can begin the normal process of grieving and of letting go.

Through my membership of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, BIPA, I have probably had a greater level of insight into the difficulties that exist in building the peace, but I am under no illusion that the issues we discuss are the only ones or the most important. I am delighted to be a member of the BIPA sovereign affairs committee, and we are currently carrying out work on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. We have through the course of our work met several groups, and one of the issues I have come to understand is that there is no shortage of people willing to speak in Northern Ireland; the issue is that the talking needs to be done in a more structured way that not only gives a platform to the elected representatives but also to the genuine community leaders, who, without fear of paramilitaries or other threats, can articulate the views, fears and, most importantly, the hopes of their communities. That is why I agree with the views of the Tánaiste from today that we need to see the establishment of a civic forum, which I believe could be a real power for good as it would ensure that proper discourse on bread-and-butter issues for communities are openly and frankly aired.

In our discussions, I got the sense that the recent flag demonstration was a symptom of a greater problem in some communities which feel threatened and disconnected, and this needs to be watched. Educational underachievement, unemployment and lack of access to housing, together with other issues, can gnaw away at the heart of a community whose political leaders have peddled the notion that the community is under siege and almost threatened with extinction. That is something which naturally could resonate with people who need something to blame for their condition, and the temptation of some political leaders to lay the blame for social and economic problems at the gate of another because of their religious belief is something that we all have a duty to work to confront. However, the culture of blame will not fix the problem; as we have seen, it will merely make it worse, because the result of the highly charged blame game with the resultant street protests and violence leads to other difficulties, including challenges for the retail and hospitality trades. This makes places look even less attractive for visitors and investors, and as a result further threatens livelihoods and people's futures. The way out of that for the community concerned has nothing to do with a flag but everything to do with a political process that is made to work for a community and deliver for it. These challenges of exclusion and social deprivation are not unique to Northern Ireland but they are complicated exponentially when we add sectarian divisions, historical hatred and lack of political leadership to the mix. The key is for the co-guarantors of the agreement, namely the British and Irish Governments, to continue to press the Executive to ensure that proper programmes of delivery of education, training, employment, housing and inter-community relationships are provided in these areas. These are the areas with the greatest potential to cause the scenes that will flash across the world and do untold damage to the economy of the North, and that is why it is vital that the issue be addressed.

To that end, we must all, through any engagement we have, no matter how low the level, encourage the parties to ensure the outstanding issues of the agreement are discussed further. I do not accept the prophecy of those who want to destroy this agreement that these issues cannot be resolved. For the most part, these are the same people who said there would never be an agreement. They campaigned against it and lost, finding themselves out in the cold when it came to the express wish of all the Irish people at the ballot box.

People have a right to protest and to assemble to voice their concerns, but when protests turn ugly and intimidatory and are designed to strike fear into others who might not share the same views in the same area, the authorities have an obligation to intervene. To that end, I applaud the work of the PSNI and its Chief Constable, Mr. Matt Baggott, who I understand is due to retire. We wish him well. The continuing work on acceptance and the normalisation of policing is work that we must continue to support. The effectiveness of the policing board and the devolved justice functions from Westminster will be the critical tests for the success of peace-building in Northern Ireland, and continuing co-operation between the PSNI and An Garda Síochána is a vital part of that.

I understand that the aspects of the agreement that remain to be resolved, together with the headings of the Haass talks, are the most contentious, but they were always going to be the most difficult ones to be addressed. We should not shy away from them because the opportunities for this whole island will be immense when they are behind us. The economic potential of the island as a whole, particularly in agriculture, tourism and technology and the food sector, will be important in delivering opportunities to the communities I referred to.

I welcome the Taoiseach's remark on Horizon 2020 and his view that this could be the blueprint for further co-operation on European programmes involving the island of Ireland. However, following on from the Taoiseach's speech, these co-operative measures can only be developed further within Europe if the United Kingdom continues to be a member of the Union. It is blatantly obvious that a withdrawal of Northern Ireland from the European Union would be disastrous for its economy and people. It would also pose considerable challenges to the economy and people in the South. However, rather than bemoan the fact that the United Kingdom might leave the Union, it would be neglectful and remiss of us to fail to ask why the British are even contemplating a withdrawal at this time. It would be foolish of the Union to ignore the reasons a growing number of British people feel disconnected from the Union. We on this island, north and south of the Border, need to have an honest conversation on our European experiences. The sooner this takes place on this island and in the other member states, the better for the Union itself.

Strand 3 of the Good Friday Agreement is one in which further real opportunities can exist for both islands. We have already witnessed the ability of a healthier political relationship between the islands to create an environment for increased trade and jobs, but greater levels of collaboration in energy, education, health, agriculture, communications, culture and transport, the sharing of experiences, the creation of joint ventures and the adoption of single positions could all lead to greater opportunities for people north and south of the Border, and that is why I envisage critical roles for the British-Irish Council and British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. I wish the Taoiseach and Tánaiste well in their role. It behoves all political parties to unite with the common purpose of building peace for all people on the island.

I am grateful for the opportunity to speak on Northern Ireland. Before I address the past and the particulars of the ongoing Haass talks in regard to flags and parades, I would like to put a number of points on the record as this is the first time I have had the opportunity to discuss the North.

The world lost Nelson Mandela this year. From his experiences in South Africa and the experience of the civil rights movement in Northern Ireland, it is important that we record the root causes of the problems right across the world. The civil rights movement in the North campaigned for political freedoms, freedom of expression and assembly, access to decent housing, proper and fair democratic participation and elections. It is right that we acknowledge the outstanding contribution of those concerned.

From experience not only on this island but also internationally, we must remember a number of important principles. One such principle is that no political problem, however protracted, can be resolved through violence. Another is that violence and the taking of innocent life are never acceptable in the pursuit of a political objective. Equally, political violence can never be addressed or resolved without dialogue and discussion and by addressing the root causes of conflict.

In Northern Ireland, the crucial issue continues to be the ongoing challenge associated with segregation. There has been very disappointing progress in moving towards an integrated system of education in the North. The North needs to move towards this so as to have children educated together rather than on the basis of sectarian division.

We must challenge the decision of the British Government to reduce significantly the block grant to the North. The reductions have resulted in severe cutbacks to public services. I am disappointed in the parties that formed the Northern Executive in that they have not organised and mobilised citizens in the North more strongly to challenge the coalition in Westminster and the cuts to the block grant. A problem we in the Twenty-six Counties share with our friends and fellow citizens north of the Border is that we are all victims of neoliberal policies implemented by a conservative coalition.

I am disappointed by the established parties in the North - Sinn Féin, the SDLP and the Unionist parties - because of their continuing refusal to support the extension of the Abortion Act 1967 to the North. I am pro-choice for both the North and South. Political parties need to take a stronger position and they have questions to answer because of their refusal to support the extension of the Act to the North and because of the consequent fundamental undermining of women's reproductive rights. I support the extension of the legislation and legislation to address the issue more broadly in this State also.

With regard to dealing with the past, the problem with all mechanisms thus far has been attributable to staffing and resources. It has been established that the authorities cannot investigate a particular killing as part of a wider pattern. Collusion comes to mind in this regard. I still do not believe collusion between British security forces and loyalist terrorists in the Dublin-Monaghan bombings has been addressed adequately; nor has the murder of Pat Finucane. There has been an inability up to now to gain access to intelligence and military files so as to find out the full truth. This should be made possible. A single mechanism such as the one suggested by Mr. Haass - the historical investigations unit – would, if implemented properly, go beyond these constraints. Implementing it properly means a security-cleared group with access to the files that is independent and free from state and political interference. It should have powers to compel witnesses and recommend prosecutions, where appropriate. Victims want different results, and we must remember the victims of every single act of violence in the political conflict on this island. Victims want truth and, in many cases, prosecutions. More than anything, they want to know what happened to their loved ones. Any approach needs to recognise this and allow victims the choice between pursuing prosecution and opting out of this process.

A useful aspect of the Haass document was the recognition of the value of investigating thematic areas, such as collusion and the mistreatment of prisoners, as mentioned by other Deputies. I oppose absolutely internment without trial, irrespective of the circumstances. I condemn the decision to engage in internment, even very recently, in particular cases. Doing as I suggest would allow the narrative in Northern Ireland to move beyond individual cases and allow for a study of the policies and practices of various governments and political organisations that operated within the Six Counties over four decades and more. However, the model Mr. Haass suggested was that combatants would testify on actions in which they were involved in exchange for immunity. This testimony would be confidential. This, however, would mean no one could tie it in with state files or the larger patterns. This needs to be teased out.

With regard to parades, it is a generally accepted principle across this House that the rights to freedom of assembly and organisation should be respected. However, there ought to be a balancing of rights. Communities have a right to go about their daily business without fear and intimidation.

I vividly recall, as a young man, witnessing the dreadful scenes on the Garvaghy Road in the mid-1990s, when our fellow citizens were literally beaten off the road by the British security forces to allow the Orange Order to march down that road. Such situations should not be tolerated and should never be repeated. Organisations do not have a right to march through communities without the consent of those communities and any attempt to do otherwise can only be considered to be provocative and intent on heightening rather than ameliorating tensions.

On the issue of flags and banners, again I believe people have an absolute right to express their political views. However, Northern Ireland as a State witnessed institutional sectarianism, where Irish citizens were discriminated against in accessing housing, for example. Even today, there are still issues of concern, with question marks over some housing allocations in the context of population balance within certain constituencies. Groups do not have a right to seek to roll back progress and undermine a society based on equality and social justice. We must address the issues of unemployment, poverty and inequality in the North of Ireland. I firmly believe that the real division on this island is not between Protestant, Catholic and Dissenter, nor between Nationalist and Unionist but between the vast majority of citizens - workers, carers, the unemployed - the 99%, as it were, and the 1% - bankers, developers and political elites - who control wealth in this country. That is the real division within this State and in the North of Ireland, as well as across Europe. That is the issue that must be addressed.

I have visited the North of Ireland on many occasions and, in particular, Belfast and believe that if poverty and injustice were addressed through a significant redistribution of wealth, the frustration and anger felt by many communities, which is often exploited by sectarian groups, could be resolved once and for all. Social and economic policy must be at the heart of the solution in the North of Ireland. I agree with Deputy Halligan that we need to move beyond the sectarian divisions within the Northern Ireland Assembly of Nationalist or Unionist, where people adopt positions based on their political perspective on the economy and society rather than on the narrow issue of the national question.

I wish community groups, trade unionists, women's groups and those fighting for LGBT rights in the North of Ireland well. I aspire to the establishment of a 32 county Republic on this island which is democratic, secular and socialist and which enjoys the support of the people who live on the island but I respect alternative view points. That is the way forward. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to contribute to this debate.

I am grateful for the opportunity to contribute to this important debate. The people on this island, North and South, as well as those in Britain, must move on, learn to understand one another and get to know each other better. We must enhance our knowledge of the common work we must do in order to deliver services to our people. We can learn much from each other's experiences. We can also learn from one another's mistakes in terms of implementing policy.

This morning the Taoiseach acknowledged the work of members of both Houses of the Oireachtas and the Northern Ireland Assembly. He also paid tribute to the members of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and the North-South Inter-Parliamentary Association which continue to further British-Irish and North-South relations.

I am a member of the North-South Inter-Parliamentary Association, which consists of 50 parliamentarians from the main political parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Houses of the Oireachtas. The inaugural meeting of this body, which alternates between Leinster House and Stormont Castle, took place in the Seanad Chamber on 12 October 2012. Meetings are chaired jointly by the Ceann Comhairle, Deputy Seán Barrett and the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Mr. William Hay, MLA. I wish to pay tribute to all of the members of the association and to the commend them on the quality of the debates in which they have engaged on important social issues. The association has invited experts from both North and South to outline their experiences, knowledge and research on important social, cultural and economic issues affecting our people.

Many of the issues discussed by the association are not strictly political but have an enormous bearing on the daily lives of people, both North and South. There was a very interesting meeting on co-operation in child protection. The tragic experience of child abuse, North and South, is known to us all and mutual co-operation in that area was discussed at length. The plan for the restoration of the Ulster Canal was raised by Deputy Ó Caoláin and was discussed at length. We also discussed positive mental health strategies and there was a separate session on suicide, during which we learned that there is different but complementary research being conducted in Northern Ireland and the Republic. It is important that we share that research and share the experiences of suicide prevention programmes on both sides of the Border. In that context, the Irish Association of Suicidology, a 32-county organisation, held its annual conference in Derry last October. There were contributions from various Northern bodies dealing with psychological and counselling services and the conference was hugely successful. The North-South Inter-Parliamentary Association has also discussed type 2 diabetes and caring for an aged society. We also discussed the emergency ambulance services and GP out-of-hours services and potential areas of co-operation in that regard. We also discussed energy security. The association has discussed a very broad range of issues to date and the quality of the debate has been consistently high.

We need a more prosperous Northern Ireland and southern Ireland and co-operation will lead to more success. The promotion of Ireland abroad as an island has great potential.

I welcome the joint initiative being taken for the first time by Ministers from Dublin, Westminster and Stormont. They will shortly go on a trade mission to Singapore, led by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Bruton, the British Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Stephen Hammond, and the Northern Ireland Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Investment, Arlene Foster. There is co-operation in this area. We have seen the benefits we have obtained by being members of a larger body of nations, namely, the European Union. Surely both islands could also benefit from co-operation between North and South and between Britain and Ireland.

We must also consider co-operation to enhance our mutual interests and benefit from the European Union. North and South have a common interest in staying in the European Union. We must try to influence and understand the difficulties that would arise if Britain were to leave the European Union. That would have enormous consequences for the North and the south of Ireland, especially from the perspective of agriculture, regional development and cross-Border INTERREG programmes, as we have mutual interests in those areas.

The terrible consequences of the Troubles will continue to have repercussions for politics and society in Northern Ireland, the South and Britain. We must recognise the difficulties experienced by the victims of Northern violence on both sides of the divide, which we are working towards removing. We must also recognise the immense contribution of the peace process, which has made a profound difference. The political process worked and those who contributed to it on all sides, including with the co-operation of the United States, helped to bring about peace. We must now drive the economic and social agenda North and South as a compliment to the development of the peace process. I am pleased to have had an opportunity to contribute to the debate.

Fianna Fáil is committed to working towards a united Ireland through the peaceful agreement of all people on this island. We believe the peace process has to be about more than the absence of violence. Political parties in the North cannot simply rule by the division of spoils. Fianna Fáil supports the adoption of the majority of the Haass proposal as a means towards moving Northern Ireland out of its current dangerous inertia. The failure of the Haass talks to reach a consensus and the ongoing bickering between Northern Ireland parties is a sad reflection of the poor state of Northern Ireland at the moment. The peace process has stalled and fallen into inertia, yet there is absolutely no urgency or ambition on any side to come to a viable solution. Northern Ireland has enormous potential but it seems the political parties are all playing hardball and no major progress is being made.

I commend the Haass approach to dealing with the major issues in Northern Ireland. Now is the time to adopt the main points and focus on the rebuilding and growth of Northern Ireland. There are three key areas, the first of which is the past. More than 3,500 people died in the Troubles, and in almost 3,300 cases no one was prosecuted. Reaching agreement on how to investigate the killings and what to do about other people affected by the Troubles has so far proven impossible. The second is the flags issue, which was highlighted last year when Belfast City Council's decision to fly the Union flag from City Hall and other council buildings only on 18 designated days sparked street protests. The third is the issue of parades. Although many parades are not contentious, some Unionist parades that pass through or close to Nationalist areas have been controversial. A small number of Nationalist parades have also proven contentious in the past. I hope further discussion can be made with the parties independently. Those issues are holding back Northern Ireland and its economic recovery.

There is a need to develop a conventional economic environment. This would lead Northern Ireland into the future, with a key focus on jobs, job creation and job retention. Peace is not something to be taken for granted – it must be built upon. The idea that seems to have seeped into Government Buildings that the North is sorted is extremely short-sighted. Equally, the unity of people on this island in one state remains the aspiration of the majority of the Irish people and it is the duty of our Government to work towards it with real commitment.

The fact that a major investment programme, the Northern Ireland economic package, was launched in Northern Ireland without any reference or consultation with the South is a clear indictment of the gap that the Government has allowed to develop. On St. Patrick's Day in Washington in 2010, when all the various economic and political interests converged on the White House and Washington generally, I was disappointed to see that the promotion of industrial development was separate and distinct on that occasion. We need a comprehensive economic strategy that targets skill shortages and prepares Northern Ireland for future industries. There needs to be a clear and concise focus on key job creators, be it the IT industry or the financial industry. More support is needed to expand SMEs in Northern Ireland.

Being so close to the Border in Louth, I have found it obvious in recent years that fuel smuggling has increased. That must be addressed urgently. Recent figures suggest that 12% of all diesel in Ireland is sold illegally. The illegal laundering of diesel is damaging to public safety, the environment and the public finances. With the rise in fuel costs only encouraging such criminal activity, it is imperative that measures be taken to address the matter. Revenue agencies North and South need a formula to urgently deal with the issue.

In the health area, a joint operation for public procurement of equipment could facilitate savings for hospitals north and south of the Border. The provision of specialist hospital care for certain conditions requiring expert treatment in centres of excellence also has the potential for both jurisdictions to co-ordinate their planning and investment in an all-island framework for neck, brain, heart, lung, spinal and cancer specialists. Establishing the value for money of any North-South project to share provision is therefore a key task, because the incentive has to exist. As an immediate first step, it is important to develop a model for estimating potential economic benefits, including those for cost savings from shared health service provision, by undertaking a micro-sized bottom-up exercise to scope in detail joined-up patient care in both jurisdictions. I recently visited Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry. I was impressed by the adoption of technology and the linkage with Craigavon Area Hospital. Daisy Hill is a small but intense hospital where a large number of patients are seen on a daily basis. One could not but be impressed with the difference the adoption of modern technology makes to the delivery of health care. We have much to learn from it.

There is growing uncertainty about the future of the Narrow Water project, with funds from the Northern Ireland Executive still to be provided. The bridge at Narrow Water linking County Louth and County Down was first proposed in the mid-1970s and received significant support from Fianna Fáil in government, including a major funding commitment. I am extremely anxious to see this project delivered for the communities on both sides. The European Union has generously provided significant sums for the construction of the bridge, with the remainder to come from the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive. The time has now come for the Minister for Finance and Personnel in Stormont, Mr. Simon Hamilton, to give the green light and allow this important project to proceed. I have previously raised this matter directly with the Minister and I believe there is progress to be made. The project might be stalled at this point but I sincerely hope the Government can succeed in keeping it on the political agenda and that it is not effectively abandoned. It must be kept as a priority project. It is a hugely symbolic and iconic project that would do much to build the peace process in the Border counties. There is a need to set up a cross-Border tourism agency to develop such areas as Louth, Monaghan, south Armagh and south Down. The building of the bridge would add an integral infrastructural dimension to the process.

The key focus would be on establishing this unique area with a clear strategy for developing the area for tourism. This will lead to both job creation and economic stimulation. The region offers a unique mix of history, culture, shopping and scenery. With a co-ordinated approach, this area has massive potential and will also strengthen the links between Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. With the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs in the Chamber, I urge examination of the development of an economic zone between Dundalk and Newry on a joint basis.

Another area which can be strengthened is the agriculture sector. A recent report by the Centre for Cross Border Studies focused on agriculture, food and fish. Its main recommendations included exploiting the natural unspoiled landscape and history of food production in the area; differentiating products in export and domestic markets; applying the same concept to develop local markets and food-related tourism to encourage people to visit the area; fostering collaboration to maximise internal synergies; leveraging domestic procurement opportunities and the base of large food producers to support small and medium-sized enterprise development; sharing resources between small and medium-sized enterprises to overcome scale and peripheral disadvantages; and strengthening linkages between industry and education and research institutes. With the end of the milk quota in 2015, the potential to develop agriculture on an all-island basis is obvious, with benefits for rural areas and the wider economy.

On 31 May 2013, the president of Dundalk Institute of Technology, Denis Cummins, with Paul Hannigan of Letterkenny Institute of Technology and Dr. James Brennan, head of life sciences in Sligo Institute of Technology, called for an establishment of a North-South higher education working group. Dundalk Institute of Technology's strategic alliance and the University of Ulster also recommend the establishment of a North-South higher education joint working group to promote student mobility between North and South through improved co-ordination in admissions processes, the establishment of cross-Border staff mobility programmes, reform of the Central Applications Office system so that Northern Irish students receive equitable treatment and the establishment of scholarship funds for students from low-income backgrounds. This strategy needs to be re-examined. With co-operation in the education sector, it will prosper and grow. With further co-ordination between Dundalk Institute of Technology and University of Ulster, more people in this area would have to access to all the services both universities have to offer.

I too am a member of the North-South Inter-Parliamentary Association. During my tenure as Ceann Comhairle, I remember the engagement we had with the Speaker in Stormont, Willie Hay. While the process of establishing it was slow, we eventually had the first meeting in Slieve Donard Hotel in Newcastle and there have been many plenary sessions since. We need to look at the establishment of specific committee structures for this body which will allow smaller groupings to explore specific areas that have immediate potential for development and see if they can be grasped through the political system.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the current situation in Northern Ireland and on the recent work that has been undertaken by the Government and, in particular, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade in seeking a successful resolution to the talks chaired by Dr. Richard Haass. It is with a sense of regret that I point out that almost 20 years since the IRA and loyalist ceasefires, 15 years since the Good Friday Agreement and seven years since the restoration of the Assembly and Executive in 2007, over the past 18 months, negative events in Northern Ireland have come back on the political agenda. Whether it is ongoing paramilitary activity by dissident groups, protests over flags and parades and related disturbances, dealing with the legacy of the past through books and television programmes on collusion, the publication of the Smithwick tribunal report or the ongoing search for the disappeared, matters relating to tension in Northern Ireland have been to the fore.

Regarding the latter issue, I, along with several colleagues in the parliamentary Labour Party, Deputies Nash, Wall and Dowds, travelled to Belfast last November, where we were privileged and humbled to meet the relatives of the disappeared. Their courage and dignity in their ongoing search for the remains of their loved ones who were abducted and murdered by the IRA during the Troubles stands in contrast to the callous cowardice of their killers, as well as the embarrassing denials by the leadership of Sinn Féin that they had any hand, act or part in these events. We also told the families that the Labour Party would be proud to facilitate the bringing of their simple and moving exhibition on the disappeared, which we visited in Belfast City Hall, to public spaces and civic centres across Ireland so that people do not forget one of the saddest outstanding legacies of the Troubles. I am glad to inform the House that their exhibition will open in Drogheda next Monday, facilitated by my colleague, Deputy Nash, where it will be on display for a number of weeks. Family members of those whose remains have not yet been found will be in attendance. I have requested the Lord Mayor of Dublin to facilitate this exhibition in the capital.

With regard to the Smithwick report, I want to place on record my support for the apology given to the Breen and Buchanan families by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade last December. It was not easy for those of us who abhorred the violence of the IRA during the years of the Troubles to hear that agencies of this State were culpable in the murder of the two RUC men. In particular, it was a difficult day for an Garda Síochána. I commend the manner in which the Garda Commissioner acknowledged the report's findings on publication. However, it was important the Government took a leadership role in fulfilling the commitments it gave to have an open, honest and transparent investigation into the murders of the two men. Following publication of the report, it was fully appropriate for the Tánaiste to offer the apology that he gave. The type of courage he displayed in doing so must be replicated by others. In this I include paramilitaries from either side, as well as the British Government regarding activities by the British State and its agencies during the Troubles. The Government has led; others must now follow. It was significant that both the Breen and Buchanan families welcomed the Tánaiste’s apology with great dignity. For too long, the needs of the victims of the Troubles have come second to the understandable need to keep the political process on track.

One of the positives to be taken from the Haass process, however, is the significant progress made on dealing with the outstanding legacy of the past. The final Haass document is 40 pages long; dealing with the past takes up 50% of that. There was considerable agreement among the political parties on this section. I welcome this development and urge the two Governments to safeguard the extensive agreement that was reached. There are some in Northern Ireland who would like simply to wish the past away or draw a line under some of its horrific events. It is possible to do so. If we are to have a fully reconciled society in Northern Ireland, however, then we have to deal with the past.

I pay tribute to those political parties, in particular the SDLP, which have over recent years argued that the needs of victims and their families have to be dealt with. This is supported by the Labour Party and we continue to support the efforts of groups seeking the truth. A Labour Party delegation met the Ballymurphy families in Belfast last November. We welcome the support that was given to them by the Taoiseach on behalf of the Government last week. Similarly, the Labour Party continues to support the call for an independent inquiry into the death of Pat Finucane and encourages the Tánaiste to continue to raise this with his British counterpart at every opportunity.

In saying this, I pay tribute to the Tánaiste for the work he has put into seeking agreement in Northern Ireland over recent months. While in recent years the Irish and British Governments largely gave the political parties in the North the time and space to sort out local issues under devolution, in response to recent events there has been a clear need for the two Governments to reassert their roles as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement. I know the Tánaiste devoted significant time to the Haass process - largely behind the scenes - as well as undertaking frequent visits to Belfast, Derry and Armagh. While it is regrettable that these efforts did not lead to agreement at the end of the talks process, I urge him to continue his efforts over the coming months. In particular, the effort the Government has put into the process over recent times should be reciprocated on the British side. Intergovernmental co-operation remains an important element of the process. I know that the Tánaiste has developed a positive working relationship with the UK’s Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. There may be a need for increased activity by the two Governments over the next several weeks and months to keep the process moving. I urge all parties in this House to give their support to the two Governments in this regard.

Traditionally there has been a large amount of consensus among the main political parties in Dáil Éireann on the political process in Northern Ireland. It has been an unspoken rule that we do not play party politics with the peace process. Regrettably, over recent times, this consensus has been broken. Earlier in this debate, I heard an extremely partisan speech by the Fianna Fáil leader, Deputy Martin. His unhelpful criticisms of the Government were consistent with his recent remarks in which he has tried to score political points rather than support the process.

I point out to Deputy Martin that many of the issues with which the political parties in the Executive and Assembly and the two Governments were dealing in the Haass talks were live when he was Minister for Foreign Affairs. He was not able to get agreement then and he should know better than to snipe from the sidelines now. He knows the failure to extend the remit of the North-South bodies or regarding the construction of the Narrow Water bridge in Louth is not down to the Irish Government. Rather, it is down to opposition within the Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland. I support fully the development of both and we in the Labour Party will continue to work in whatever way we can to advance both these projects.

In conclusion, I welcome this opportunity to speak on Northern Ireland and hope there will be further opportunities to speak as the process continues over the coming months. Many issues remain unresolved that have an impact on all of us who live on the island, just as they do on the population in the North. I thank the Tánaiste for his work to date and pledge the Labour Party's full support for the period ahead.

Sinn Féin welcomes the debate today and the statements on the North, as this gives an opportunity for all parties in this House to set out what political action they have taken individually and what political action Members have taken collectively in recent times to help build the peace and to advance the full implementation and delivery of the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements, of which both Governments are co-signatories.

In his earlier contribution, Deputy Adams outlined and catalogued the historical and political context to the partition of Ireland and the two conservative States that were created in both the Six Counties and the Twenty-six Counties as a result. In his remarks, the Taoiseach noted the significance of the decade of centenaries upon which I wish to spend some time reflecting and on how the events of the past 100 years have shaped both our country and the relationship between Ireland and Britain. Between 1913 and 1923, this country began a journey that still has huge contemporary political relevance today, most particularly in the continuing struggle for national independence, peace and sovereignty for all of Ireland. Last year we commemorated the historical landmark events of the 1913 Lockout, as well as the founding of the Irish Citizen Army and Óglaigh na hÉireann, the Irish Volunteers. This year we will commemorate the founding of Cumann na mBan in 1914, and before long there will be the centenary of the 1916 Easter Rising itself, followed by that of the death of Thomas Ashe in 1917, who was the first of the 22 hunger strikers to die in the past century, and the centenaries of the First Dáil and the Democratic Programme of 1919 will follow soon after. As a Cork Deputy, the year 1920 is hugely significant for me in remembering our past, since that was the year in which the Black and Tans were introduced and in which the murder of Cork Lord Mayor Tomás Mac Curtain occurred in March and the death of Terence MacSwiney on hunger strike on 25 October. After the signing of the Treaty, the pro-Treaty Free State Army bombed former comrades out of the Four Courts and civil war ensued with devastating consequences, both during 1922-3 and for decades thereafter, which has left Irish society divided and embittered, as Members sadly know well. Terrible events occurred during this period, including the official and unofficial executions of more than 100 republicans by the Free State, 77 of whom were executed in prison.

This is not meant as a history lesson but merely is a brief reminder of what this country has gone through over the past century of conflict and struggle North and South. It also is the political and historical context for what emerged as the recent phase of conflict after 1969. The issue of conflict is a century old and no party in this House was born out of peace. Frank Aiken, a founder of Fianna Fáil, started out as a young IRA man in south Armagh. Only before Christmas, the leader of Fianna Fáil, Deputy Martin, was at his graveside there to pay his respects and to commemorate him. However, in the same graveyard, only a short distance away, lies a hunger striker from 1981, Raymond McCreesh. Is Deputy Martin telling me and everyone else in this Chamber that they, as republicans, are different? If so, he is a hypocrite. Republicans from every decade and generation fought and died for Irish freedom and unity and no amount of revisionist rhetoric from parties such as Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Labour Party will change this. To listen to some in this House, one would think this State came into existence through wishful thinking and the bluster of debate. The halls on the way into this Chamber are lined with portraits of men in the uniform of the IRA. Every party within this House, including Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party and the remnants of the Workers' Party, all have links back to militant republicanism. For more than 40 years this Parliament failed to protect Irish citizens in the North. It stood idly by while a sectarian State, ruled by oppression and governed by discrimination, was established and allowed to run roughshod over the rights of Northern Nationalists.

When the demand for peaceful and democratic change was voiced towards the end of the 1960s, the full brunt of the Northern State was brought to bear on the Nationalist community and some decided to fight back. When politics and democracy failed, an alternative was pursued by republicans and the IRA. That was a choice made by some and the longest phase of militant republicanism was born. Almost 30 years of violent conflict took place before the political path opened up and a peaceful and democratic alternative to achieve a united Ireland was negotiated. There are some who may prefer the analysis of republicans as the sole aggressors, but this does not hold up to historic scrutiny. The conflict was bloody and violent. The British Government was an actor in that conflict, yet there has been a disproportionate focus on the role of republicans. Many within this House and within the media have attempted to vilify and criminalise republicans engaged in armed struggle, but I for one will not allow that analysis to go unchallenged. As for the men and women who were volunteers of the IRA, they were ordinary people who found they were living in extraordinary times. They were not criminals; they were revolutionaries and freedom fighters of whom I, for one, am proud. The fact that in the past 40 years, Irish men and women were obliged to organise and fight an armed campaign at all to defend their families, friends and neighbours, as well as their dignity and rights, was an imposed reality and a manifestation of the failure of politics and they were entirely justified in taking up that fight. The volunteers of the IRA from the latest phase of struggle died for Ireland in order that this generation could live for Ireland and do so as first-class citizens North and South, winning the freedom while building the peace.

However, that was then, and the armed campaign is now over. The IRA rightly left the stage as new frontiers which had never before existed opened up and evolved into a successful peace process. Sinn Féin's peace strategy evolved over a period of ten years. It began with the production of two key documents, namely, A Scenario for Peace in 1987 and Towards a Lasting Peace in Ireland in 1992. The IRA ceasefires in both 1994 and 1997, as well as the ending of the armed campaign in July 2005, formed a critical part of the process that led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. As for its success thereafter, that peace process is considered to be one of the most successful contemporary peace processes in the world. Sinn Féin is proud of the pivotal role we played with others in forging agreement. Outstanding issues remain and republicans will not be found wanting in pursuing and working towards a shared solution with others. Such solutions will be based on parity of esteem and equality and one needs to look no further than the recent Haass talks to see the commitment and desire of republicans to address these outstanding issues. Sinn Féin entered those talks with a desire for an agreed outcome. Our commitment is to continue working with all other parties and sectors of society to achieve a successful outcome in this regard.

In conclusion, gone are the days of sectarian domination and political conflict in the North - that is, a century-old conflict. Things have changed and change will continue. Parity of esteem and equality will continue to be cemented and the outstanding issues of the Good Friday Agreement, including dealing with the past, truth recovery and reconciliation and an end to sectarian division, must be worked on to achieve success both in the immediate and longer term, despite our opponents or the naysayers, in whatever quarter they may be found.

We will not be found wanting in that. Republicans stand tall, we stand proud and we stand prepared to work with others to ensure conflict remains a thing of the past.

Could I have the co-operation of the remaining Members? There are 30 minutes left before I call the Tánaiste and there are four speakers, two of whom are here, and two more may arrive. I will allow eight minutes for each speaker, if that is okay.

I would say eight minutes will be plenty. I am glad to have the opportunity to speak. I do not think I have ever spoken on matters relating to Northern Ireland as a Member of the Dáil. There have been some very interesting contributions. I have listened to most of the debate earlier today and this evening. I found myself in the unusual position of agreeing with a large chunk of what Deputy Ó Cuív had to say, which is a political first from my perspective. I want to emphasise some of the points he made about the practical efforts that people, particularly Members of the Oireachtas, can make in fostering relations between people on both sides of the Border.

I have been a regular visitor to Northern Ireland in my 35 years on the planet. My late father was a much travelled man, had a deep interest in history and politics and travelled to many parts of the world, including spending a week in Baghdad in the 1970s. I had a discussion with him before he died five years ago and found he had never been to Northern Ireland. He held quite strongly nationalistic views, as I do. I was struck by Deputy Feighan's outline of his family's involvement. If one goes back far enough, most Members of the House on all sides, including my family, have people who were involved in political struggle around the time this State was founded in the 1910s and early 1920s.

I do not want to spend all my time talking about the past. Deputy Ó Cuív mentioned the recent Haass talks. There has been some negative commentary and some people have stated that they were a complete failure. They were not. They are the basis for further discussion and conciliation between the communities. As somebody who is a regular visitor but has no immediate family living in Northern Ireland, I see particular difficulties for the two communities at the margins, whether dissident republicanism or - a more visible threat - the flags protest. Some loyalist communities feel themselves to be politically marginalised.

I was in Belfast for quite some time this summer and I took the opportunity to spend an evening close to confrontation points near the shops in the Ardoyne. I witnessed some of the activities and was struck by the fact that so many people were involved on that particular sunny night, while it gets little media coverage on this side of the Border. They obviously feel a disconnect from the parties that traditionally would have represented them. That reality has not been grasped or understood and is not even spoken about that much. For one reason or another that sector of Northern Ireland society feels politically marginalised. That is not a good thing because the history of the conflict is that those who feel marginalised may take drastic action. We need to ensure that whether communities are republican or loyalist in their outlook, they do not feel marginalised. I commend many of the efforts the Sinn Féin party has made in the recent past to ensure the current largely peaceful situation exists on our island.

I was born in the late 1970s, as my name would suggest. My name also suggests that I might be expected to hold particular political views on Northern Ireland. I come from a family that was politically interested but not politically involved. My first political memories are of waking up to go to school and listening to radio reports about who had been blown up, murdered, maimed or injured the night before. The fact that that is not happening is something we take for granted a bit too much. I commend those involved in ensuring that it is no longer happening. We should not rake over the past.

Language is important. I agree with much of what the previous speaker, Deputy O'Brien, said, but some of his language was a little rash in terms of other Opposition parties and the role they have played. All the political parties in this Chamber, and the non-aligned people, could rightfully claim some credit for the situation of broad peace that exists on our island. It is a question of trying to ensure that peace is sustained into the future and extended to those communities on both sides, but particularly to the loyalist community, which feels marginalised. That marginalisation cannot be allowed to develop into something much worse. A number of initiatives have been undergone recently.

The fact that Northern Ireland is not so prominent in our political discussion any more is reflective of the fact that it is not covered as much in our political media as it was heretofore. My first real political memory was the Anglo-Irish Agreement. I remember being at home as a rather strange seven-year-old baby-sitting my sister and seeing that the Government in the Republic, for the first time - through the efforts of then Taoiseach Garret FitzGerald - had a political input into the future of Northern Ireland. That was a significant development from which all other developments since have flowed.

I welcome the fact that in the past ten days the Taoiseach has engaged in a meeting with the families of those people who were murdered in the Ballymurphy massacre. A number of other outstanding inquiries and discussions need to be had regarding a permanent or long-lasting solution. These include the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, the recent findings of the Smithwick tribunal and the very necessary desire of the families of the people now loosely referred to as the disappeared to have some degree of finality brought to their situations by finding the last resting places of their loved ones. That is why the Haass talks, while they may not have been immediately successful, at least provide another step along the road towards, hopefully, a more permanent and long-lasting solution in Northern Ireland.

I do not want to be too party political, but Deputy Ó Caoláin, with whom I often agree, provided an interpretation of the thoughts of the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, as he spoke in the Seanad last week when he said he was referring to a small group that led to 3,000 deaths during the course of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. Had the Minister wanted to pinpoint a particular group, he would have. He has never been known to be slow to speak his mind on particular issues as they arise. I was not aware that Deputy Ó Caoláin was able to read the minds of Cabinet Ministers.

I welcome the opportunity to have this discussion. The major outstanding issues I mentioned in my contribution can be resolved. The Haass talks provide a step towards that resolution.

I also welcome the opportunity to discuss Northern Ireland here this evening. It is very important that we discuss Northern Ireland, but a person I spoke to earlier made the point that we rarely discuss the counties around Northern Ireland and the three other counties of Ulster, which have been more affected than any other part of the country by the legacy of the Troubles in the North over the years and by the difficulties we still experience in terms of trying to ensure further integration of our services and co-operation between Northern Ireland and our Government.

No county has been affected more by the Border and the fact that we are two separate jurisdictions than my county of Donegal. I welcome the fact that we are here discussing the issues in a scenario where there is no longer the type of conflict we saw over so many years. There has been much progress. The Good Friday Agreement was an historic agreement and many did not think we would see the scenario we have lived through over the past ten to 15 years. However, there has not been the level of progress in recent years that we would all like to have seen. We need to ensure the institutions within the Six Counties and between Northern Ireland and the Republic continue to be developed further.

The recent Haass talks offered an opportunity to deal with some of the outstanding issues and it is unfortunate that they did not lead to agreement across all parties. Unfortunately, many people are still looking over their shoulders rather than ahead to what is possible. The pace of political progress continues to be slow. There was much that was positive in the Haass proposals and I hope the parties, perhaps after the upcoming elections, can get together again to develop them and, hopefully, reach agreement. I urge the Tánaiste and the Government to work closely with the British Government and to do their bit in terms of being involved in this effort.

Overall, there has been more of a hands-off approach than we should have seen from the Government, particularly since the current Government took office. I make this comment in the context of some of the projects on which we should be seeing some progress. Three years ago, the A5 project, the dual carriageway from Derry to Aughnacloy, had political and co-funding commitment from the Government. It was a bad day for the north west and Northern Ireland when the Government rowed back on that. I know there have been problems in regard to planning and that this has led to difficulties. The actions of our Government in terms of re-quantifying its commitment to the project was not a good move in the context of trying to make progress. In regard to the current position of the project, the Government has given a commitment of €25 million in 2015 and the same the following year. However, we need to see more active participation by the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive on the project. They must work alongside each other. Since the Government's commitment has been re-quantified, the project has been very much left to Northern Ireland to drive it. This project is critical to the future infrastructural development of the north west, but because the St. Andrews Agreement did not come until later on in our economic development and just a couple of years before the economy turned, the agreement between the Six Counties and the Republic to work alongside one another to develop it came too late to avail of the funds that had been in place. Unfortunately, the economic recession in the North and South has made progress more difficult.

Another project I would like to bring to the attention of the Tánaiste is the Foyle ferry, from Greencastle to Magilligan, which has been up and running for almost ten years and has transported more than 1 million people across the two-mile strait. This service is currently in significant difficulty and a group met the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport last week on the issue. The service was funded by Limavady Council and Donegal County Council, but they are no longer in a position to continue with the funding as they were doing. Without some kind of co-operation between the Northern Ireland Executive and the Government, the future of this cross-Border project is in question. I urge the Tánaiste and the Minister to make every effort possible to get together and liaise at North-South level to find a solution to allow this important service to continue.

My party leader referred to the issue of support for Protestant schools and minority faith schools in his contribution to this debate earlier. As a result of the introduction by the Minister for Education and Skills of increased pupil thresholds for the maintenance of teacher numbers, significant pressure is being put on many Protestant schools. We have seen, for example, the pupil threshold for a three-teacher school move from 49 pupils required to maintain three teachers to 56 for next year. Approximately half of all Protestant schools have fewer than 50 pupils and they are suffering a disproportionate impact due to this measure. Just as it is important to respect the traditions of all cultures and backgrounds in the Six Counties, we should do the same here. I ask the Tánaiste to reflect on that and on the impact of the changed pupil thresholds on Protestant schools.

The next speaker is Deputy Durkan and I would like to inform him that in his absence it was agreed speakers could have seven minutes to make their contributions.

I wish to comment on a number of issues, some of which have been referred to already. It is essential that the economic projects envisaged some years ago as being part and parcel of the benefits accruing from the Good Friday Agreement are redefined and renewed as early as possible. We all know there have been economic difficulties across this island and the adjoining one. Notwithstanding that, the benefit and focus of the Good Friday Agreement and all the effort that went into it would be worth nothing if we did not try to ensure that the economic benefits are continued and developed in a determined fashion. If we do not do this, it will be recognised as time goes by that nobody cares. In any situation where there has been conflict in a community, it is a serious concern when it transpires that the people on the ground get the impression that nobody cares. In that regard, I wish to compliment the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste on their respective input into this structure over the past number of years. I wish to add that the Tánaiste made a tremendous speech in Cambridge last year in which he touched on all the issues of concern to the people of Northern Ireland and to the Governments here and in the United Kingdom, and was recognised as having done that. It is vital this work continues and that there is visible, ongoing recognition that this work must continue in a positive and supportive way, rather than in a confrontational way. This is important.

We must recognise that we amended our Constitution to redefine our objectives in respect of our entire island in order to accommodate the views of others on this island. This was the right thing to do, but it means - I support this - that everybody must adopt a slightly different stance from the one adopted 50 years ago. The sooner we learn that we have changed our attitude and build accordingly, the better.

We must build on the legacy of people such as Senator George Mitchell, Tony Blair, the Government here and many others who contributed in this country and elsewhere because the people recognised that what had gone on for 30 years was not acceptable. The atrocities, terrible tragedies and perpetration of more and more violence, which begot more and more violence and retaliation, could not continue and was not acceptable. What needs to be done now is the people in both communities in Northern Ireland must be re-examined, not in an inquisitive way but in a supportive way, to try to find out what is most required to support them in recognition of the Good Friday Agreement. We want to recognise there is a huge difference between telling those on both sides of the divide what they should do and asking them what they would like us to do. This is hugely important.

There will always be outstanding issues, and as time goes by new issues will emerge and we will need to deal with them on a regular basis in a meaningful way. The Nationalist and Unionist, or Catholic and Protestant, communities need to know they can trust the people they are dealing with. There was no trust for a very long time which is why we had what we had. We have an opportunity to build on the trust, which brought about the Good Friday Agreement, in a meaningful way with a new generation. There will always be disruptive people who want to return to the past and who have their own agendas, but a new generation is coming on board and it is of huge importance that we engage in a meaningful way, and by "we" I mean the country and population, with the people of Northern Ireland on both sides, not in a confrontational or regressive way but in a way which gives them a clear impression we understand their problems and will try to help - without intrusion or incursion - and that they also need to help themselves.

There are those who state they would like the process to move much faster and that the aspirations of the Good Friday Agreement have not been realised. Rome was not built in a day and there is no sense in reverting back to the let us free Ireland brigade of a few years ago. It would not solve any problem and would create other problems. It would create distrust and the foundation for more conflict in future. The speech made by the Tánaiste in Cambridge was tremendous and needs to be read carefully by everybody in the House. Within it are the rudiments of what is required to address what is still a very fragile situation.

The points I have made are those I believe need to be dealt with, as a Member of the House with the knowledge and experience I have gained from what I have observed and learned over the years.

We inherited a positive legacy from people such as Senator George Mitchell who spent a long time in the process. He returned again and again to the table when everybody else had given up. I for one believed he could never succeed, but he did. We should never forget everything we do and say should be geared towards supporting his legacy because any deviation from it will leave a further, much more negative, legacy to the people of the country which we cannot afford. Far from old-fashioned republicanism, to which an earlier speaker made reference, we need to look to the future and ensure what we have achieved so far sticks and that we continue to have even greater achievements in co-operation with the rest of the population of the island.

I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the discussion on the situation in Northern Ireland. Many of the contributions have focused on the economic progress made since the ending of the conflict. While progress has been made on economic issues and North-South co-operation, which is very welcome, there are still high levels of unemployment in the Six Counties and high levels of deprivation in many communities on both sides of the political divide.

Over the past year much disquiet has built regarding the political situation. We saw the reaction of loyalist communities to the so-called flags issue and the amount of unrest it fermented. This shows the complete lack of political leadership within loyalist communities and the lack of political direction from which they suffer. For many years they were used by Unionist politicians and the British State as cannon fodder, and it has always been in their interests to ensure they do not have political leadership. Loyalist leaders need to look at the state of their communities and ask why they are in that situation. They need to work within their communities to build political alternatives to Unionism, which has not served them. The recent Haass talks have shown the lack of leadership in mainstream Unionism and that it still cannot go beyond the traditional stance of blocking progress and not making decisions that would benefit all of society.

A structure, whether a truth commission or not, to allow families obtain answers on the many atrocities that took place in the conflict has to be established. The Government in the South has to stop letting the British Government off the hook on this issue and should ensure any structure to deal with the past includes both Governments, with full and frank disclosure of information. If families believe they will get answers and some form of closure, then reconciliation can begin. It is vital the British Government is forced to participate fully in any process.

Large cohorts of activists in republican communities do not see the Government in Stormont as the solution to the conflict which raged for many years. The Stormont regime is not a substitute for a united Ireland and should not be seen as such. I do not believe anybody in this State believes it is a substitute. They must question whether they should continue with armed action because there is a greater need for political work within their communities. The focus on armed action deprives communities of politically-oriented activists who could spend their time representing the community and building political strength rather than languishing in jail.

However, it also appears elements within the security apparatus do not want to see this happen. The use of a system of administrative internment, whereby people are held for years on remand without charge and whereby licences are revoked without explanation, sustains the sense of resistance and helps to create an atmosphere of conflict. We only have to look at the use of stop and search, whereby some politically active republicans have been stopped hundreds of times for no apparent reason. There are also concerns regarding the surveillance of solicitors. This leads many to wonder why they should be involved in politics and only creates a self-sustaining cycle of conflict.

The activity of MI5 in republican communities continues as they attempt to recruit agents, and this is causing huge concern. I wonder how active MI5 is in the Twenty-six Counties. Some commentators believe there are so many agents in republican groups they wonder whose aims they are pursuing. There are times when one must wonder in whose interests is the continuation of armed action and whether the security apparatus encourages it because it wants to ensure its own future.

Community and political action is the only way forward to remove the causes of the conflict once and for all and build towards a united Ireland and remove the British influence on our island.

I thank members for their contributions. I believe there was great value in taking stock of the situation in Northern Ireland and considering recent developments in the totality of relationships set out in the Good Friday Agreement, which support and underpin our approach to Northern Ireland.

There was encouragement and support today from a number of Deputies for the Northern Ireland parties and their ongoing work on finding agreement on flags, parades and contending with the past. As many speakers have pointed out, if they can succeed in reaching agreement on how to manage these issues now, they will create the political and civic space to consider what else needs to be done to make Northern Ireland a less divided and more prosperous place.

Reaching agreement without further delay must remain their priority. We, as a Government, will facilitate progress in any way we can. There is no room for complacency on this.

I have made that clear. I have made it clear also that I do not underestimate the nature, scale or complexity of the work ahead.

Many Deputies raised the scourge of sectarianism, and I agree wholeheartedly that it must be tackled urgently. The Northern Ireland Executive's initiative entitled Together: Building a United Community made this a priority for the Northern Ireland public service. I welcome that. I referred earlier to the work of my Department's reconciliation and anti-sectarianism funds, which assist projects in interface areas designed specifically to address the root causes of sectarianism and defuse tensions.

It is clear that current difficulties regarding sectarianism, identity issues and contending with the past, if left unresolved, will continue to undermine peace, hamper confidence and hinder prosperity. They are important issues and rightly deserve the attention they have been receiving in the context of the ongoing political talks from the parties, from this House and from the Government as a co-guarantor of the constitutional agreements.

There are many other challenges and opportunities facing Northern Ireland which are also deserving of attention. I alluded to a number of them in my statement, as did other Deputies. These include issues around housing, youth employment, attracting foreign direct investment and growing indigenous industries. In some cases, these are challenges we face in this jurisdiction also and it makes sense that, as part of our approach, we should look to tackle these jointly on a North-South basis.

North-South co-operation is strong and strengthening, and both Deputies Martin and Adams echoed my views that there is the potential to do more on an all-island basis. On my visits to Belfast and Derry last autumn, I actively reached out to local business people to get their sense of how this Government can work with them to address the challenges they face. In addition, I ensured that the Northern Ireland business community was represented at last year's Global Irish Economic Forum and that a specific Belfast element was included in the forum's programme. I believe the addition of a stronger Northern focus enhanced the work of the forum. This is a practical example of how we can co-operate to our mutual benefit.

The Taoiseach acknowledged the work of Members of both parliamentary Houses of the Oireachtas from across political parties and groupings who, through their contributions as members of the Good Friday Agreement committee, the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and the North-South Inter-Parliamentary Association, continue to foster and further British-Irish and North-South relations. A number of Deputies earlier referred to their own work and contributions as members of these committees and bodies. This is where political relationships develop and good ideas are formed. I want to underline again the importance of this work and to encourage Members to continue to foster these links.

A number of contributors also made reference to the importance of international support and interest in furthering the peace process. The support of the US Administration has been constructive, essential and steadfast over a number of years in encouraging and strengthening peace and reconciliation on this island, including throughout the recent political talks. The European Union has been and, through the new PEACE IV and INTERREG programmes, continues to be a constant, positive and generous supporter of reconciliation and development. I want to acknowledge and thank our US and European friends for that support and acknowledge the agreement that we secured during our Presidency of the European Union of the €150 million PEACE IV programme that will now be developed and brought forward.

Throughout the decades this House has united on several occasions in respect of matters in regard to Northern Ireland. I welcome the solidarity expressed today by Members of this House with the Northern Ireland political parties as they work collectively to find agreement on the contentious issues of parades, flags and contending with the past, in the knowledge that that is what the majority of the people of Northern Ireland want. I welcome that so many Deputies today were united in support of new, renewed and unprecedented opportunities for North-South co-operation and for the continued strengthening of British-Irish relations. I know that we are all united today in support of a safe, secure, fair and prosperous Northern Ireland at peace with itself and with its neighbours. However, I want to express some disappointment at the contribution made earlier by Deputy Micheál Martin, as Leader of Fianna Fáil, which was echoed, unfortunately, by some members of his party later in the day. It was the first occasion I can recall when the Leader of the Opposition in this House, in a contribution on Northern Ireland, failed to support the work the Government is doing, irrespective of its composition, on Northern Ireland and the issues on which all of us in this House are united. If there were any words of support in Deputy Martin's contribution for the work of the Government in regard to Northern Ireland - and I was here for it - they escaped me as I listened to it. I want to caution against the temptation, which I do understand, for Fianna Fáil in opposition to play Northern Ireland for party advantage. There has been-----

That is not correct. Absolutely incorrect.

-----a very strong tradition in this House of a united approach to supporting Government work on Northern Ireland. I have to say to Deputy Smith that I think we would have to go back to the then Deputy Haughey to find a contribution that was as negative about the role of the Government. There were also inaccuracies in Deputy Martin's contribution. He stated, for example, that we did not recognise the 15th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. That is simply not true. There was an event in the MAC centre in Belfast attended by 15 year old children who were born the year of the Good Friday Agreement. That was attended and addressed by both myself and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland precisely to mark the 15th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement.

I want to conclude this debate on an optimistic note. In its consideration of Northern Ireland this House has always emphasised the importance of three sets of relationships: between Britain and Ireland; between Ireland, North and South; and between the different political traditions in Northern Ireland. Relations between the British and Irish Governments are strong, extending to a depth and across a range of policy issues unmatched in our recent history.

Devolution has facilitated a similar expansion in North-South relations. I had the honour last week of speaking at the Chartered Accountants Ireland event in the Convention Centre in Dublin, together with the First Minister, Peter Robinson. He acknowledged that North-South co-operation has never been better and welcomed the range of work that the Northern Ireland Executive and the Irish Government does together to achieve mutual benefit across many areas. That is not to say we cannot do more. It can and it should be the case, but we are now building on a strong foundation.

Although the political talks between the party leaders in Northern Ireland have yet to reach agreement, there has been a convergence of views on how to move forward on some of the most difficult of issues, which few could have imagined or foreseen a few months ago. We need to build on these strengths.

I said earlier that I know that there is some scepticism about whether these talks will lead to agreement. I do not share that scepticism. I believe there is a genuine and sincere desire among the Northern Ireland party leaders to find agreement and that agreement is within reach and achievable. I believe their work is best assisted by the unity of purpose and the constructive support shown in most of the contributions to this debate today. I encourage the Northern Ireland party leaders to conclude their work now without further delay, and in concluding that work they will have the support of the Irish Government.