I thank Senators for their willingness to take this legislation today. Seanad Éireann has always supported the Government's attempts to bring peace and political stability to Northern Ireland.
The purpose of the Bill is to provide in our law for the establishment of the Independent Monitoring Commission which has been the subject of an Agreement between the Governments of the United Kingdom and Ireland. It may be helpful if I set out in some detail the background to the establishment of the commission.
Members of this House who follow developments in Northern Ireland very closely will undoubtedly be aware of the broad background to the creation of the Independent Monitoring Commission, but I will revisit some of the main points in that genesis to show where the IMC fits into the overall pattern of political progress in Northern Ireland.
The early months of this year saw a great deal of political engagement between the two Governments and the pro-Agreement parties in Northern Ireland. Our intensive engagement continued through the months that followed and following much painstaking effort and a slow grind, a full and complete audit of all areas of the Good Friday Agreement which remained to be fully implemented was developed. This engagement included a set of talks over two days at Hillsborough, involving the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, as well as the parties and a range of Ministers, myself included.
The result of our engagement was the Joint Declaration published on 1 May 2003. The Joint Declaration is the comprehensive assessment by the two Governments of what remains to be implemented from the Agreement and the most positive way of ensuring that this takes place. Published in conjunction with the Joint Declaration, the Agreement on Monitoring and Compliance set out some important principles on how confidence and stability in the political process can be sustained and developed, principally through the creation of a new independent body. This new body will monitor and report on the carrying out of commitments in relation to the ending of paramilitary activity and the programme of security normalisation in Northern Ireland, as set out in the Joint Declaration. It will also consider claims that any party within the Assembly was in breach of its commitments under the Agreement.
The text of an international agreement setting up this new body, now known as the Independent Monitoring Commission, was published in September and signed here in Leinster House on behalf of the two countries by me as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the British ambassador on 25 November 2003. Members of the commission had been appointed earlier and they have been doing some preliminary work in shadow format.
The membership which is broadly based comprises Lord Alderdice, the former Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly and former leader of the Alliance Party; Mr. Joe Brosnan, former Secretary General of the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform; Mr. John Grieve, a former senior officer with the London Metropolitan Police; and Mr. Richard Kerr, a former deputy director of the Central Intelligence Agency of the United States.
The commission, whose members are all individuals of the utmost integrity and standing, visited Dublin last week. I had the opportunity to discuss the broad political situation with them and they also had the opportunity to discuss the situation with other members of the Government. We shared with them the Government view that the IMC can act as a confidence-building mechanism on a wide range of issues, particularly by offering reassurance that the activities which destabilised the institutions in the past will not be allowed to recur.
It did not prove possible to reach the agreement that we had hoped for in advance of the elections to the Assembly last month. That election has created a number of new imponderables. I cannot pretend that I am in a position to tell the House exactly how the political situation will evolve in the light of the Assembly elections. For its part, the Irish Government will do all it can to help achieve agreement among the parties but I stress that this must be in the context of the Good Friday Agreement. One way or the other, it is a fair assessment at this stage to say that the Independent Monitoring Commission will play a key role in future developments.
I will now deal in some detail with the main provisions of the Bill. Section 1 defines certain terms used in the Bill. Section 2 provides that the commission will be independent in the performance of its functions and will have the legal capacity of a body corporate in Irish law. Section 3 deals with the objectives, functions and membership of the commission, as well as the appointment of staff and the proper keeping of accounts.
Section 3(1) provides that the objective and functions of the commission are as set out in Articles 3 to 7 of the Agreement. The objective of the commission is to carry out certain functions with a view to promoting the transition to a peaceful society and stable and inclusive devolved Government in Northern Ireland.
The functions of the commission are as set out in Articles 4 to 7 of the Agreement. Article 4 provides that the commission shall monitor any continuing activity by paramilitary groups and assess whether the leaderships of these organisations are directing or seeking to prevent this activity and report to the two Governments on its findings. Article 5 provides that the commission monitors the British Government's adherence to its agreed programme of security normalisation in Northern Ireland and report its findings to the two Governments. There is also a mechanism for the commission to examine normalisation in the absence of an agreed programme. Article 6 provides that the commission may consider a claim by any party in the Northern Ireland Assembly that a Minister or Assembly party is not committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means or that a Minister or party is failing to observe any other terms of the pledge of office. In so far as a claim relates to the operation of the institutional arrangements under strand one of the multi-party Agreement, it shall be considered by those commissioners solely appointed by the British Government and any findings reported to the British Government only. Article 7 states that the commission shall recommend any remedial measures considered necessary.
Section 3(2) deals with the membership of the commission as well as the appointment of staff thereto, the proper keeping of accounts by the commission and privileges, immunities and inviolabilities as set out in Articles 10 to 14 of the Agreement.
Membership of the commission shall be as set out in Article 10 of the Agreement. The commission shall have four members appointed as follows: two members, one of whom shall be from Northern Ireland, to be appointed by the Government of the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland; one member to be appointed by the Government of Ireland; one member appointed jointly by the two Governments, who shall be a nominee of the Government of the United States of America.
Section 4 deals with the provision by me as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, of such moneys, premises, facilities and services, including staff, necessary for the proper functioning of the commission in line with Article 12 of the Agreement. Section 5 deals with immunities and privileges afforded to the commission. Section 5(1) provides that the commission and its property shall be afforded certain immunities and privileges in the performance of official functions. Section 5(2) and (3) deal with immunities and privileges afforded to members of the commission, its staff and agents or persons performing functions assigned to them by the commission.
Section 6 provides that the commission shall not do anything which might prejudice the national security of Ireland or of the United Kingdom, endanger the safety of any person or have a prejudicial effect on any current or forthcoming legal proceedings.
Section 7 deals with the disclosure of information to or by the commission. The section ensures that the commission is in a position to obtain all relevant information to enable it to fulfil its mandate. In particular, it specifically permits the Garda Síochána to provide information to the commission.
The section also ensures that the commission and its agents observe confidentiality in respect of material received. Section 8 provides for the formal dissolution of the commission in an orderly manner in line with article 16 of the agreement. The section allows for the winding down of the commission in a manner which would allow for such transitional or consequential provisions, as are necessary or expedient.
Section 9 provides that applications, under the Freedom of Information Act 1997, for disclosure of information relating to communications between the commission and public bodies may be refused. This is necessary to protect communications between the commission and public bodies. The commission itself is outside the scope of the Freedom of Information Act, as amended, as it is not a public body under the Act and it is not intended that the Minister for Finance would make an order declaring it to be such a body.
Section 10 provides that a copy of each report submitted to the Government by the commission or its members, under articles 4 to 6 of the agreement, shall be laid before each House of the Oireachtas. Section 11 is a standard provision which provides for the payment of any expenses arising under the Act out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas. Section 12 provides that the Act will come into operation by order to be made by me as Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, following consultation with the Secretary of State.
It is in the nature of things that when this House is asked to enact legislation in the context of giving effect to an international agreement, the form of the legislation is to a large extent determined by the terms of the agreement. The agreement, included as a Schedule to the Bill before the House today, is the culmination of detailed negotiations between the Irish and UK Governments. Such a process inevitably involves compromises on both sides.
While the wording of the agreement might not be exactly what any individual Senator might write, if he or she was starting with a clean sheet of paper, I hope the House can accept that the agreement it is being asked to legislate for is a balanced one which has the potential to make a significant contribution to the quest for political stability in the North. It is against that background that I commend the Bill to the House.