A Chathaoirligh, this is my first visit to the Seanad since you have been elected to high office. I congratulate you and wish you well in the exercise of your functions.
I am grateful for the opportunity to participate in this debate which is the latest in a series of valuable Seanad debates on Northern Ireland, and to place in context the current priorities of the Government.
Every month of the calendar includes the anniversaries of significant days in the history of conflict on our island. Some of these events happened long ago — as long ago, indeed, as 1690. As we know, that does not dull their capacity to inspire both celebration and division. Many others are more recent, and are unambiguously painful to recall, for example, Enniskillen; the Abercorn Restaurant; the Birmingham, Monaghan and Dublin bombings; and Bloody Sunday, which was commemorated last week and of which I shall speak later. In addition, of course, virtually every date recalls in some home a private, personal grief, otherwise largely forgotten by most of us. Nor should we forget that each great collective tragedy, the subject of our common remembrance, is composed of many individual tragedies.
This Sunday, 9 February, marks the first anniversary of the ending of the IRA ceasefire and of the Canary Wharf bomb, which took the lives of two innocent and uninvolved young Londoners. None of us will ever forget what we were doing when we heard the news, or our reactions of disbelief, shock, anger and personally, of profound shame and sadness. I was returning from a visit to Washington, where I had been briefing President Clinton on our proposals to promote agreement on a framework for negotiations, part of the slow, difficult process of building agreement brick by brick.
The Government's response to the outrage of Canary Wharf was threefold. First, we made absolutely clear that the use of violence to achieve political objectives remains unjustifiable and intolerable, not only to us but to the people of Ireland. We immediately ended ministerial level contact with Sinn Féin, and insisted that only following an unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire could it participate in the negotiating process. We also sought to ensure that the response of our security forces to the renewed threat of paramilitary violence was as resolute and effective as it could possibly be.
Second, however, we continued to emphasise that the involvement of Sinn Féin in political dialogue, while dependent on an unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire, in our view remained highly desirable from all perspectives. We made every effort to address the legitimate concerns of republicans and to facilitate their transition to the democratic arena should they make it possible for themselves to do so.
Third, together with the British Government and the political parties, we sought to create a process of political negotiation which would be comprehensive in scope and fair in its procedures, and capable of achieving, through substantive debate, a lasting and balanced political settlement which the people of both parts of the island could democratically endorse. Throughout the past year, these three elements of our approach have remained constant and we have worked consistently to advance them. I am to meet the Secretary of State this evening as part of that ongoing endeavour.
There is no point in denying that it has been in many ways a difficult and disheartening year. The heady optimism of 1994 and 1995 seems like a distant memory. Following the IRA and loyalist ceasefires, the deep-frozen certainties of conflict appeared to be melting away. We celebrated the reality of peace and in a few short months witnessed its power to transform the economic, social and psychological landscapes. Now, the old poisons of violence and sectarianism have bubbled up to the surface once again. There is a powerful sense of unease and uncertainty at all levels, from the streets to the boardrooms.
Over the past quarter of a century nobody would have become rich in Northern Ireland by betting on optimism. The Government remains convinced, nevertheless, that there are rational grounds for a continuing determination to work for peace and agreement. Our objective remains a comprehensive agreement, based firmly on the principles set out in the Joint Declaration and expanded upon in the Framework Document, encompassing all the core relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South, and between the British and Irish Governments.
In our analysis, a lasting political settlement is intimately connected with the achievement and consolidation of peace. We frankly think that the former is more likely to be achieved and sustained alongside the latter, although this has not prevented us from engaging fully in the present stage of the talks process. We are determined to secure progress through whatever avenue is realistically open at any given time. That is why we have continued to emphasise the potential value of an unequivocal restoration of the ceasefire.
Quite unforgivably, acts of violence continue. The prospects for a new and unequivocal ceasefire are depressingly uncertain. Despite our revulsion and disappointment, however, the imperative of peace remains compelling. Quite literally, there is no rational alternative in so far as the republican movement is concerned. Martin McGuinness said last Sunday that there was nowhere to go other than the negotiating table. It has been made abundantly clear that only through a renewed ceasefire will Sinn Féin get there.
A restoration of the IRA ceasefire would be the right decision morally, politically and economically. If set out in convincing and unequivocal terms, and consistently observed, it would have the capacity to break the current stalemate and create renewed possibilities. On the other hand, a continuing failure to respond explicitly to the manifest desire of the people for peace, above all if punctuated by fresh atrocities, would cumulatively destroy belief in the very concept of an inclusive peace process. Trust has already been severely damaged, and will take time and effort to restore.
There are those who say that our strategy has been naive and based on miscalculation and that the door should be slammed for good on the possibility of Sinn Féin's participation in talks. My own assessment is that this analysis fails to give due weight to the very strong desire for peace which is manifest on the ground in and throughout the island, and which the republican movement must know they cannot afford to ignore indefinitely. As a democrat, I also believe that those who support Sinn Féin have a right to be represented in talks once the fundamental democratic ground rules are satisfied. Even if I were wrong, however, how could this be more decisively demonstrated than in the clear light of democratic debate?
If, as many Unionists fear, republicans, once in talks, failed to honour their commitments to peace and democracy, and sought to exploit force or the threat of it, then this would be laid bare for all to see. And it is surely when confronted, face to face, and every day, with the desire of the representatives of a great majority of our people for a reasonable compromise, that any party will find it hardest to justify an unyielding and absolutist position.
The necessity of a sustained loyalist ceasefire is also absolute. The loyalist leadership have set out their own fresh political vision, and made a most constructive contribution to the talks so far. It would be tragic if their capacity to articulate politically the views and needs of their community were to be lost because of a recrudescence of loyalist violence.
Those who have been accustomed to violence need to know that the political alternative is not an abstraction but a reality. That, in turn, requires all constitutional politicians to overcome their understandable fears and inhibitions and to demonstrate in practice the validity and potential inclusiveness of the political path. In our situation, there is a particular onus on the Governments, which have the political resources and psychological space, to keep open the bridge out of violence to the democratic arena without relaxing our own standards or compromising our principles. It is vital that others make clear that they, too, will automatically and rapidly engage in serious dialogue if and when there is a complete unequivocal and lasting restoration of the ceasefire. But this does not in any way lessen the prime responsibility for the restoration of the ceasefire which rests fairly and squarely on the IRA.
Last June, the two Governments put in place a talks process involving themselves and nine political parties, with provision for the entry of Sinn Féin following an unequivocal restoration of the IRA ceasefire and subscription to the Mitchell principles. The talks are based on fair and carefully negotiated rules, and are chaired with skill, impartiality and great patience by Senator George Mitchell and his colleagues. Progress to date has been tortuously slow despite the best efforts of the Government which is fully committed to doing all it can to make the talks work. We have been bogged down in consideration of the decommissioning of illegally held weapons, a vital objective but one which, as the Mitchell report underscored, is likely to be attained only in the context of substantive and inclusive political negotiations. It is essential that we overcome this hurdle. The way forward mapped out by Mitchell is the only plausible and realistic one. So far, it is regrettable that those who are most vocal on the need to proceed without Sinn Féin have done least to make progress in that format a real possibility, and have continued to focus so unblinkingly on precisely that issue, decommissioning, where practical progress without Sinn Féin is least likely.
We are continuing to explore the questions which have dominated the talks since their inception, and we fully support all continuing efforts to consolidate and build on what has already been agreed. It is clear, however, that electoral considerations are predictably ever more decisive in the minds of many of the participants. Inevitably the imminent British general election will lead to a brief pause in the talks. We are considering, therefore, how best to prepare the ground for a renewed and reinvigorated process of negotiation following the British election so that we can pick up the threads as soon as possible thereafter. It is important that we maintain the framework which was so carefully and painstakingly constructed and, at the same time, overcome initial hurdles and get to the real heart of the issues.
The significance of the forthcoming election should not be exaggerated however. In both Westminster and Dublin there has been a high degree of bipartisanship and there is firm cross-party agreement on key principles and structures. The fundamentals of our situation and the outlines of the settlement we all know is needed will not be decisively altered by any eventual changes in the political balance. That is why an immediate restoration of the IRA ceasefire would open the way for the rebuilding of confidence on all sides and provide the platform for a revitalised negotiating process.
The Unionist community should for its part draw confidence from the objective strength of the situation. The principle of consent and all that flows from it, including the commitment to a referendum on any proposed settlement emerging from talks, represents a fundamental and unshakeable protection of their essential position — one which is guaranteed not just in legislation and international law but in the political realities on this island.
The real challenge for unionism remains this: having failed, in the long run, to achieve stability and security through exclusion and the politics of dominance, is it capable of acting on the reality that they can only be achieved through inclusion and the politics of equality and mutual respect? We seek not domination but partnership, not uniformity but diversity.
There are many challenges ahead. The publication of the report of the Independent Review of Parades and Marches has focused attention on the parades issue and the prospects for this year's marching season. The start of the marching season is less than two months away. We must use that time as productively as possible to ensure that the events of last year are not repeated. We must work to ensure that July 1997 is not remembered as another doleful anniversary of confrontation, mistrust and disillusion. The parades issue is undoubtedly a profoundly difficult one. Its significance has been enhanced by the perception on the part of both communities that the validation of their rights and identities turn on the outcome of contentious parades. Rather than seeing contentious parades as the product of a complex process involving demographic, social, cultural and local factors, they are now regarded crudely as a contest of wills. Approached from this angle, the marching season becomes a series of events whose outcomes determine the winners and losers.
The reality is that the 1996 marching season will be remembered as disastrous on many fronts. The state of community relations deteriorated, mistrust and suspicion grew, confidence in the rule of law was dealt a serious blow and doubts about the impartiality of the RUC and the authority of government were encouraged. The debate on the parades issue and its resolution has been enhanced by the publication of the report of the North review. Its recommendations are considered, comprehensive and thoughtful. They have been arrived at after extensive consultation with those most directly involved in the parades issue, those whose views command support and, through a series of public attitude surveys, with the people of Northern Ireland.
In formulating their recommendations, the members of the review have clearly paid heed to the results of these consultations. The review found that the overwhelming majority of people in Northern Ireland and in both communities believed that disputed parades should be subject to mediation. A similarly overwhelming majority wanted a binding decision made by someone else should accommodation not be possible. The most popular choice for third party determination was an independent commission. I say this to underline the fact that the broad thrust of the recommendations reflect the clear wishes of both communities in Northern Ireland.
One may have reservations on points of detail. There are areas which have yet to be clearly defined either by the parades commission or by statutory instrument. There are ways in which the determinations of the commission may be reversed. The circumstances in which this occurs are to be subject to statutory guidelines yet to be established. The way in which this turns out in practice will have a direct bearing on the credibility and authority of the parades commission. Clarification is required on the precise relationship between the law on defying determinations and the operational independence of the RUC.
However, the recommendations in their general thrust are sensible and constructive. They offer a viable mechanism for dealing with the contentious parades. Perhaps most importantly they allow for a dynamic interaction between the particular and often highly sensitive circumstances of individual parades and the rule of law as determined by a dedicated, independent statutory body.
The Taoiseach and I have urged the British Government to act on the North review. It is a matter for concern that it has indicated its intention to begin only a partial implementation of the review's recommendations despite the widespread support for them in Westminster. This issue will be discussed in our ongoing contacts with the British Government and I will also have the opportunity of discussing this issue more fully at the next meeting of the Anglo-Irish intergovernmental conference.
The Government is keenly aware of the trepidation and anxiety which is widely felt in Northern Ireland about this year's marching season. No effort should be spared to avoid a repeat of the trauma of last year which cost Northern Ireland so dear in terms of community relations, trust and confidence in the rule of law and economic development. The Government will leave no avenue unexplored in our efforts to ensure that 1997 is remembered not as a "ground-hog day" of bleak familiarity but rather as the point at which the parades issue was steered away from the brink.
We have been familiar over the years with the commemoration of one of the most traumatic events in Northern Ireland's history, the events remembered as Bloody Sunday. The 25th commemoration of those events is somewhat different in that it coincides with the presentation of new information and re-evaluations of what actually happened. This information adds significantly to the many doubts which have been expressed, including by successive Governments, about the methods and conclusions of the Widgery tribunal. It adds considerable, indeed compelling weight to the calls of the victims' relatives to have the report and its imputations of the victims' guilt repudiated. This new information warrants examination and assessment. My Department is currently doing just that. The Taoiseach and I have urged the British Government to do likewise and will be conveying to them the specific points we believe most relevant to that exercise.
If controversial and violent events of the past, including Bloody Sunday, can be reassessed and re-evaluated objectively and in a non-partisan spirit of truth and justice, then we can begin to bind up the wounds of the past and bring them to a close. If remorse can be expressed for violent deeds, then the prospect of eventual reconciliation — and I believe that reconciliation of our different traditions lies at the core of Irish Nationalism — and lasting peace can be significantly advanced. It is part of the necessary process of establishing a lasting commitment to peace and the political process. The call for an official apology has crossed the community divide in Northern Ireland. It is one which should be listened to and acted upon. I hope that in future years we may commemorate the events of Bloody Sunday as a tragic chapter of our history which has been brought to a just and dignified close. Our concern must be to redress the wrong to the memory of the victims and to the feelings of their families, not to rekindle the anger or relive the horror of those events.
Ultimately, it is only through a lasting political accommodation that it will be possible to create a genuinely new beginning for all of us in these islands. While in the coming months there will inevitably be a brief interval required by electoral politics, we must not lose sight of the many assets we possess in terms of the work already done and the extensive common ground in principle on the way forward. A renewed ceasefire would do more than any other act to place us in a position to make full use of those assets; but generosity, courage and vision are needed on all sides. We must work, North and South in the two islands, for the kind of "consensus society" so eloquently described in the North review — one built on mutual understanding, which celebrates cultural diversity, in which citizens have a more secure sense of belonging, and in which conflicting interests are accommodated. The history of 1997 need not and should not be another chronicle of wasted time.