Priority Questions

Northern Ireland

Brendan Smith

Question:

74. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if he will provide details of the latest initiative to reach agreement on the Haass proposals in Northern Ireland; the areas to be dealt with in these talks; if the devolution of further responsibilities to the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly will be considered; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37870/14]

I congratulate the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, and the Ministers of State at that Department on their appointments, and I wish them well in their responsibilities.

I welcome the statement made at the end of September by the British Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, to the effect that there will be a new round of cross-party negotiations involving the Irish and British Governments. I also welcome the follow-up statement made by the Minister, Deputy Flanagan. Important and contentious issues must be resolved, specifically parades, flags and contending with the past. I have argued for most of the past year that both Governments, as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, must take a central, leading role in the talks to drive them to a successful and early conclusion.

I thank Deputy Brendan Smith for his comments and look forward to working closely with him on this important issue. The British and Irish Governments have confirmed their intention to convene all-party talks involving both Governments. Over the recent period, the Northern Ireland Executive has been faced with a number of challenges on which it has been difficult to find agreement. I am strongly of the view that talks are required to overcome the current political impasse within the Northern Ireland Executive, including legacy issues such as parades, flags, identity and dealing with the past, which were the subject of talks chaired late last year by Dr. Richard Haass and Dr. Meghan O’Sullivan. A failure to address these issues would have serious consequences for the effective functioning of the Northern Ireland Executive. I am confident the North's political representatives will show the leadership needed to deliver comprehensive, fair and balanced solutions to the issues before them.

This will require compromise and committed engagement to the talks process. The goal is to ensure that Northern Ireland’s political institutions not only function, but flourish, to the benefit of all, as envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement. I support partnership government in Northern Ireland and will continue to work with the Northern Ireland Executive parties and colleagues in the British Government, with the full support of our partners in the United States, in the period ahead.

The specific agenda and format of the talks have yet to be finalised. In addition to the above mentioned legacy issues, I expect budgetary and financial matters to also be on the agenda; these may include the question of the devolution of corporation tax powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly. I will report back to the House when a specific agenda has been agreed.

I thank the Minister for his reply and I am glad to note there will be an expansion of the particular issues to be discussed. Will the Minister indicate the timeframe and the work programme? When does he hope to have these agreed between the two Governments and the Executive parties? The Minister quite rightly stated that peace must yield benefits and dividends to all communities. Throughout these talks, urgency and momentum must be attached to show the people of Northern Ireland and throughout the island that politics work and that it is about delivering for people. Dealing with these issues will allow the Executive, the Assembly and the two Governments to deal more and more with the bread and butter issues in which the people throughout the island want to see us engaged. I hope progress can be made quickly. As I have stated previously to the Minister's predecessor, the two Governments need to take a leading role and I sincerely hope it will be the Minister's focus. Why was the statement of Theresa Villiers a stand-alone statement with a follow up statement from the Minister? I know he was in New York on the day. Why was it not a joint statement on a major issue? It is a departure from precedent.

To deal with the final issue first, it was not a joint statement because, as the Deputy is aware, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland issued her statement at her party conference. It would not have been appropriate for me to issue a statement at a Conservative Party conference. I issued a statement from New York at precisely the same time. We had been engaged in the process during the previous days. I was conscious of the fact the announcement would be made at a forum at which my attendance could not have been facilitated. If the Deputy checks the record, he will see the statements were made contemporaneously.

As soon as I took office as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I immediately engaged with all key stakeholders in Northern Ireland. In recent months I have regularly met and spoken with party leaders to exchange views on developments as they occur. This evening, I will have a meeting with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and we will work out the detailed agenda, the particulars of which I am not yet in a position to provide to the House. With regard to the timeframe, it is expected the talks will take place over the next two weeks or more. I am cautious of putting a definite timeframe on them but I will be disappointed if the talks are not under way within a period of two weeks. I expect they will intensify. With goodwill on the part of everybody involved, I hope that by the year end we will be in a position to report progress.

Northern Ireland

Seán Crowe

Question:

75. Deputy Seán Crowe asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade if his Department will pursue the implementation of all aspects of the political agreements entered into since Good Friday 1998 in respect of the peace and political processes, as part of the newly convened all-party talks on Northern Ireland. [37869/14]

I congratulate the Minister and the Ministers of State on their elevation to their new jobs and I look forward to working with them. I welcome the Minister's statement that the British and Irish Governments are to initiate all-party talks. There is a growing sense of crisis in the North and it requires an immediate response. Will the Minister outline a date to begin all-party talks? He stated he is unsure but that he hopes it will be in the next two weeks. Unionists have sought to limit the role of the Irish Government and the agenda. The British Government continues to threaten the Executive with fines over welfare cuts.

I ask the Minister to ensure the talks take place in an atmosphere free from preconditions and threats and that the agenda will include the issues outstanding from previous agreements, including Haass-O'Sullivan, powers and budgets for the North, as well as the operation of the institutions.

The Government is firmly of the view that all commitments undertaken in political agreements from the Good Friday Agreement onwards must be fully implemented by the relevant stakeholders. The Government remains committed to fulfilling all its responsibilities under the agreements.

The Deputy will be aware that the Good Friday Agreement, as well as the values and principles underpinning it, is at the core of the Government’s approach to peace, reconciliation and prosperity on this island. Implementing outstanding elements of the Good Friday Agreement, as well as the other agreements of the peace process, is a priority for the Government. Among the elements of the Agreement yet to be implemented are the establishment of a North-South consultative forum, a Bill of Rights and an Irish language Act. The Government’s priority is to ensure that the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement function effectively to the benefit of all.

I do not envisage that there will be preconditions or threats. I envisage an opportunity for all parties to come together with the assistance, encouragement and support on an ongoing and active basis of the two Governments jointly.

The St. Andrews Agreement provided for a review of the North-South Implementation Bodies and areas for further co-operation. The first part of the St. Andrew’s Agreement review is now largely completed. This involved examining the bodies in terms of efficiency and value for money. Part two of the review involved expanding the areas for North-South co-operation in line with the decision at the North-South Ministerial Council plenary meeting in November 2013.

As I set out in my previous reply, given the current political impasse in Northern Ireland, I am strongly of the view that these talks are necessary. As I said in reply to Deputy Smith, the format and agenda are yet to be agreed, but work is at an advanced stage to ensure all the issues, including those Deputy Crowe mentioned, are fully examined with a view to ensuring that normal politics takes place within Northern Ireland.

Sinn Féin is ready for the talks. We will enter them to resolve outstanding issues and we will always abide by any agreements made. We have lived up to all our commitments in the past and sought to promote peace and reconciliation, inclusion and equality. We have tried to work with all parties and none in the institutions in good faith, and we are committed to the whole idea of power sharing. However, there is an agenda within political unionism that is being driven, it would appear, by an anti-Agreement axis and the unwillingness of the leadership of political unionism to share power is undermining the agreements.

We are concerned that the British Government has assumed an explicitly partisan and pro-Unionist party stance and has been cosying up to Unionist politicians, which may be to do with the next election down the road. Did the Minister discuss this with the British Government? Will the Government act as a defender and a champion of progress in the North and hold the British Government to account for its failure to implement key aspects of the Agreement? These outstanding matters have come up repeatedly at meetings of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. We want to see clear progress in that regard. For too long we have stepped back and we need to move forward.

I place on record my appreciation of Deputy Crowe's comments on the talks. I acknowledge the positive engagement on the part of his party and the very important role the Northern Ireland Deputy First Minister, Mr. Martin McGuinness, MLA, will play in the process. I assure Deputies that the Government will continue to use all appropriate avenues to progress implementation of the outstanding elements of the Agreement. I refer specifically to the matters of a Bill of Rights, the civic forum and the Irish language Act. I have already taken up these issues directly with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Ms Villiers, MP, and will continue to do so. I hope these issues will form an integral part of the talks process once they get under way in Belfast later this month.

I welcome what the Minister has said. The US Administration has talked about playing a constructive and meaningful role in supporting the talks process. During his trip to the US last week, did the Minister have formal discussions with members of the US Administration, and what role does he see for it in these talks?

The US Administration plays a very important role in respect of ongoing developments in Northern Ireland. In particular, I acknowledge its role in the lead-up to the historic signing of the Good Friday Agreement in the spring of 1998. I took the opportunity last week to have a productive and constructive meeting with the Vice President, Joe Biden, the Secretary of State, John Kerry, and other senior officials, during which I impressed upon them the need to continue their active engagement and refresh their interest in Northern Ireland.

In recent years, as the devolved institutions in the North went about implementing their own constitutional process and engaging actively in the community as an Executive and Assembly, it was perhaps appropriate that neither the United States nor other jurisdictions played a hands-on role. However, it is my considered view that we need the wider engagement that is expressed in the talks process, and I look forward to the continued active engagement of the United States Administration in encouraging, supporting and assisting matters. It has a very important role to play in ensuring we maximise the benefits under the Agreement for the entire community in Northern Ireland.

Northern Ireland Issues

Thomas Pringle

Question:

76. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the contacts he has had with the Northern authorities in relation to prison conditions for separated prisoners; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37956/14]

My question concerns conditions in Maghaberry Prison, with particular reference to the separated prisoners who are held there. Will the Minister comment on the need to ensure the 2010 agreement, a review of which is ongoing, is implemented in full? What contacts has he had with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on this issue and in regard to the five prisoners currently being held in the facility's isolation unit?

I thank the Deputy for his question. Since the devolution of policing and justice in 2010, policing, prisons and overall criminal justice policy in Northern Ireland have been the responsibility of the Minister of Justice, David Ford, MLA. The Government has an ongoing engagement with the Minister, Mr. Ford, on a wide range of security and political issues, including most recently, on 1 October, when my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and Mr. Ford addressed the 12th annual organised crime seminar in Belfast. I spoke with Mr. Ford on Sunday, 28 September by telephone.

Since 2010, in addition to strengthening Garda-PSNI co-operation, a primary focus of the Government is to ensure the justice systems in place are robust and remain consistent with the principles and values of the Good Friday Agreement and the other agreements of which we are co-guarantors. In this context, my Department maintains an ongoing interest in the humanitarian aspects of prison conditions in Northern Ireland and engages as appropriate with the relevant authorities. A central aspect of our engagement is our absolute support for the men and women of the PSNI and the Northern Ireland Prison Service in their work to support the rule of law and a new beginning for justice in the North. I reiterate previous condemnations in this House of the unacceptable threats to members of the prison service and the PSNI from enemies of the peace process and call, once again, for such threats to be lifted with immediate effect.

As an executive agency of the Northern Ireland Department of Justice, the Northern Ireland Prison Service implements prison policy in that jurisdiction. The Prisoner Ombudsman is also appointed by the Minister, Mr. Ford, and operates entirely independently of the prison service. The ombudsman, Mr. Tom McGonigle, and his team investigate complaints from prisoners and visitors regarding prisons and prison conditions in Northern Ireland.

Since taking office, I have had regular and comprehensive discussions with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, MP, on these specific issues.

We all agree we want to see the system working and it is important that humane conditions are in place to ensure and show that the system can work and feed into that process. The Northern Ireland Minister, Mr. David Ford, does not have the final say about the prisoners in the care and supervision unit. In fact, the Secretary of State, Ms Theresa Villiers, is using a so-called threat against the lives of these prisoners as a way to keep those prisoners isolated, and in a way whereby they can be accessible to MI5 in order that it can attempt to get information from them. The other prisoners in the prison have said there is no threat against these prisoners but the Secretary of State continues to use that as a reason to keep them separated. The conditions in which they are being housed are not humane and it is not conducive to building a proper peace process. Will the Minister use his office to talk to the Secretary of State to have those conditions eased, at the very least, for those prisoners?

I would be happy to keep a close eye on matters and to continue to engage with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on the issue. I assure the Deputy that my officials at the British-Irish Intergovernmental Secretariat engage very carefully in ongoing monitoring of prison issues, including prisoner conditions, and discuss them regularly with their counterparts. We all have a duty to use language responsibly in regard to these sensitive matters and to avoid giving any succour to dissident groups by our public statements in regard to them. I again deplore the continuing threats made against prison officers in Maghaberry Prison by so-called dissident republicans. The prison officers have a right to live their lives free from threat from faceless criminals.

I understand what the Deputy has said and assure him of my continuing engagement and that of the Taoiseach, to whom I understand he addressed some correspondence in the not too distant past.

Northern Ireland

Brendan Smith

Question:

77. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the initiatives he is taking to ensure the further implementation of provisions of the Good Friday and St. Andrews Agreements; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37871/14]

Achieving the Good Friday Agreement and having it endorsed by the overwhelming majority of the all the people on this island were truly seminal moments in our history and gave us a whole new inclusive political architecture for the governance of our country. Sixteen years on, we need to have the remaining aspects of that agreement implemented in full, including the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, the Irish language Act, the North-South consultative forum and a review of the North-South bodies.

I thank Deputy Smith. I do not disagree. As I set out in my previous reply, the Government remains committed to ensuring the Good Friday and St. Andrews Agreements, as well as the other agreements of the peace process, are fully implemented. The Government is determined that the potential of these agreements be fully realised to the benefit of all in the community.

In regard to outstanding elements of the Good Friday Agreement, I continue to urge all the parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly to engage in constructive discussions with a view to reaching agreement on the substance of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. A Bill of Rights drawn up by agreement between the main parties of the Assembly could set out precisely and formally the rights underpinning a reconciled society in Northern Ireland. Officials of my Department remain in ongoing contact with representatives of civil society on the issue of a Bill of Rights.

As the Deputy will be aware, the British Government committed in the St. Andrews Agreement to introducing an Irish language Act and to working with the Executive to enhance and protect the development of the Irish language. Since the restoration of the devolved institutions on 8 May 2007, the question of an Irish language Act for Northern Ireland is a devolved matter and is the responsibility of the Northern Ireland Executive and, in particular, of the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure. The Government continues to follow developments closely in regard to this proposed Act, as well as the overall enhancement and protection of the Irish language in Northern Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement also provided for the establishment of an independent civic forum representative of civil society in Northern Ireland. The St. Andrews Agreement provided further that the Northern Ireland Executive would support the establishment of an independent North-South consultative forum.

In September 2008, the Irish Government submitted proposals for the role, format, membership and operation of a North-South consultative forum to the Executive for its consideration and facilitated three consultative conferences, the most recent of which was in January 2011. The Government awaits a response from the Executive. We have since raised the forum at each plenary meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council. It was on the agenda for the most recent meeting on 3 October 2014 and will be discussed again at the next North-South Ministerial Council plenary meeting scheduled for 5 December 2014. I will continue to press the importance of implementing outstanding elements of the agreements in my discussions with the British Government and Northern Ireland Executive.

Additional information not given on the floor of the House

Officials in my Department will continue to monitor these matters in their ongoing contacts with the Northern Ireland Office and officials of the Northern Ireland Executive.

I welcome the Minister's clear indication that he wants to see the momentum restored to ensure the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement are implemented in full. At the North-South Ministerial Council meeting last Friday, did the members of the Northern Ireland Executive indicate whether they are attaching any urgency to achieving agreement on the Bill of Rights, which needs to be drawn up and agreed between the main parties in the Assembly? Following the St. Andrews Agreement, responsibility for Acht na Gaeilge was devolved to the Assembly and the Executive, and also the North-South consultative forum. Over the years, Governments here have put forward proposals on advancing that matter. Are all these issues being held up by non-agreement in the Executive? Is the British Government showing any interest in implementing the remaining elements given that it is a co-guarantor, along with the Irish Government, of an internationally binding agreement?

Matters in the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly present ongoing difficulties and are in something of a gridlock, which is why the current round of talks is taking place. Notwithstanding that, however, I was impressed by the meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council last Friday. It was the first time I had an opportunity for such engagement. All party representatives and Ministers came with a spirit of constructive engagement. Progress was made over a wide range of issues, with particular reference to trade, commerce and tourism. I accept what the Deputy has said, however, and I assure him that it remains Government policy that the Good Friday Agreement, as well as the St. Andrews Agreement, must be implemented in full.

Among the outstanding elements are the North-South consultative forum, the Irish language Act and the Bill of Rights. The agenda, format and schedule for the all-party talks are yet to be finalised but I will use all appropriate avenues to progress the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and I assure the Deputy of my determination, and the determination of the Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Sherlock, and all my Government colleagues. I will undertake to report back to the House when the format of the agenda has been agreed and when the talks commence.

It baffles me why a North-South consultative forum could not be in place by now. Civil society does not threaten anybody. Civil society has also played an important role. In many areas of Northern Ireland where I have had opportunities to meet local communities, people feel they are not adequately represented by the political system. Civil society might assist in filling that deficit.

The St. Andrews Agreement provides for an expansion of the North-South bodies and prioritisation of areas in which further co-operation can be achieved on a North-South basis. Was there any discussion at the recent meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council with members of the Executive or the Secretary of State on the need to prioritise other areas in which we can make progress, and which would contribute to strengthening the all-island economy, growing jobs and providing better services for our citizens, be it in health, education or other services that need to be provided to the people on all of this island? Is any urgency being shown by the Executive or the Secretary of State regarding the need to prioritise more issues on which we can make progress for the benefit of all the people on this island?

I assure the Deputy that both the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and I are actively engaged along the lines he suggested.

I stress the importance of the engagement of my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock. For the first time in the history of the State we have a Minister of State with dedicated responsibility for cross-Border trade, economic development and commerce matters. He has on several occasions been actively engaged in Northern Ireland in Border areas. Next week he will attend a very important Chamber of Commerce initiative.

I take Deputy Smith’s point about the engagement of civil society in the advancement of economic and social issues. The Good Friday Agreement provides for the establishment of the North-South consultative forum appointed by the two administrations and representative of civil society, comprising social partners and other members with expertise in social, cultural, economic and other issues. The Deputy is right that we need to engage civil society. We need to ensure that we maximise trade, commerce, economic development, job creation and cross-Border trade over a wide range of issues. I assure the Deputy of my positive engagement in that regard and the positive and active engagement of the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock.

UN Reform

Thomas Pringle

Question:

78. Deputy Thomas Pringle asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade his views on the way the United Nations can be enhanced in order for the international community to deal with current threats. [37741/14]

This question concerns reform of the United Nations, UN, and how the Minister believes that could be enhanced to make it more effective.

The essential requirement for effective action by the United Nations in the face of any challenge or threat is political will on the part of the member states and particularly the permanent members of the Security Council. The undoubted achievements of the UN organisation over the years amply demonstrate its capacity to act decisively and effectively when the necessary political will is forthcoming. This requires that all member states demonstrate, and co-operate to ensure respect for, the norms that have been established to regulate relations between states and to protect the personal rights of all members of the collective human family wherever they may reside. These include respect for the rule of law, including the legal norms governing the sovereignty of states and the protection of human rights. Nevertheless, UN structures and systems are certainly capable of improvement and Ireland has been in the vanguard of countries working towards and for reform. In particular, the functioning of the UN Security Council is crucial for the effectiveness of the whole UN system as primary responsibility for ensuring the maintenance of international peace and security is vested in the Council under the UN Charter.

Ireland and its partners in the accountability, coherence and transparency, ACT, group, comprising 21 states across the world, have been actively promoting new approaches to the work of the Security Council. A particular concern is the veto power given to the permanent members of the Security Council in 1945 which has often proved an impediment to effective action or, in some cases, to any action at all. Accordingly, we welcome the initiative put forward by France and actively supported by Mexico to better regulate the use of the veto power by permanent members of the Security Council. While we consider this power an anachronism, and something which should eventually be abolished, the French proposal is a necessary step in the right direction and deserving of support.

I thank the Minister for his response. He mentioned political will. That the permanent members of the Security Council have and maintain a veto means there is no need for political will because they can decide which issues are progressed and which are not by using that veto. How does the Minister propose to encourage removal of that veto or how would it be abolished? What is the process within the United Nations for that? What is Ireland doing to make that happen? Do the members of the Security Council have a veto on the removal of the veto?

I recently spent some time in the United States and had the opportunity of spending four days at the UN General Assembly attending several important and positive meetings covering a range of issues. With particular reference to the French proposal on the veto, the permanent five, P5, would make a mutual commitment to the effect that if the council were required to make a decision regarding, for example, a mass crime, they would suspend their right to veto.

A key element of this would be the mechanism used to determine that a mass atrocity has been committed. This has yet to be determined. There are ongoing meetings and discussions in that regard.

With regard to the question of whether the French proposal might be accepted by the five permanent members of the Security Council, I assure the House that there is, in all likelihood, little current prospect of the proposal winning the support of Russia or China. Even if it is not adopted in the near future, however, at least it has legitimised a debate about the ways in which the veto held by the five permanent members of the Security Council - a prerogative which is deeply unpopular - might gradually be dismantled. France is working hard to consult the UK and the US because it knows the support of both is crucial if Russia and China are to be put under real pressure on this issue. The UK has indicated its openness to the French proposal. The US has not ruled out such an arrangement. Russia and China have expressed reservations and are sceptical. I assure the Deputy of Ireland's positive and active engagement in making progress with these matters, in so far as that is possible.

Can we be sure that the US is committed to the process of altering the veto? It is very active in using the veto to prevent anything that might look to harm its interests in the Middle East, particularly in Israel, from taking place. Have there been discussions with the US in relation to its commitment to easing the use of the veto?

I assure the Deputy that we will actively encourage the French authorities to move on their proposal. We acknowledge the support of Mexico. That continues to be our position. We will continue to influence and encourage member states to deal with this issue, which we recognise to be most unsatisfactory in its current format and guise.