I welcome the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, to the House.
Independent Reporting Commission Bill 2017: Second Stage
I am pleased to come back to the Seanad to present the Independent Reporting Commission Bill. It is being brought forward to give effect to one among a number of commitments arising under the Stormont agreement and implementation plan, known as the Fresh Start agreement. Senators will recall that in September 2015 the Irish and British Governments convened a talks process in Northern Ireland to address the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement of 2014, as well as trust and confidence issues stemming from the legacy of paramilitarism in Northern Ireland that had led to difficulties at the Northern Ireland Executive in the course of 2015. Following ten weeks of talks, the Fresh Start agreement was concluded on 17 November 2015. The agreement provides a roadmap for the implementation of many aspects of the Stormont House Agreement of 23 December 2014, including measures to support institutional reform at the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive and financial and welfare reform in Northern Ireland. The agreement also sets out a strategic approach for ending paramilitarism in Northern Ireland and tackling organised crime, especially cross-Border crime. It contains a firm commitment to achieving a society free of paramilitarism, to working for the disbandment of all paramilitary organisations and their structures and to challenging paramilitary attempts to control communities.
An important thread that ran through the talks was the need to seek to tackle the legacy of paramilitarism in Northern Ireland on a cross-cutting basis to see it as a whole of society issue, rather than solely through the lens of security and policing. In this regard, among the key elements of the agreement is the establishment of the joint agency task force as provided for in the agreement. The task force is a cross-Border, multi-agency body which has been established in order to enhance co-operation between police, revenue and other law enforcement agencies, at both strategic and operational levels, in tackling cross-Border organised crime. It is led by the police and revenue services in both jurisdictions and it has been taking forward a range of targeted actions to tackle serious criminal activities that exploit the Border and impact particularly on Border communities.
Another key element is the Northern Ireland Executive's strategy to end paramilitarism. In line with the agreement, the Executive appointed an expert panel to develop recommendations for the disbandment of paramilitary groups. The panel comprised Lord John Alderdice, Professor Monica McWilliams and Mr. John McBurney and it reported to the Executive in June 2016. Based on the panel's report, the Executive published its Action Plan on Tackling Paramilitary Activity, Criminality and Organised Crime on 19 July 2016. The action plan adopts an Executive-wide strategic approach to measures aimed at ending paramilitary activity, including measures to promote a culture of lawfulness, to support persons moving away from paramilitary activity to do so, to tackle criminality linked to paramilitaries and to address broader societal challenges, such as educational and economic disadvantage that is often exploited by paramilitary organisations.
The Fresh Start agreement also provides for the establishment by the two Governments of a body to monitor and report on the implementation of the various measures in the agreement aimed at ending paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland. This body is the independent reporting commission. In my previous capacity as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I signed an international agreement between Ireland and the UK on the establishment of the independent reporting commission on 13 September 2016. The agreement, which is included in the Schedule to the Bill, outlines the agreed structure, functions, objectives and other necessary arrangements for the commission, and the Bill before the House will provide for those in law. It is the intention that reporting on the implementation of the Executive's action plan will be a priority for the commission in order to help to support and to ensure its implementation by the Northern Executive.
The Bill has 12 sections which provide for the establishment of the commission in accordance with the terms of the international agreement between Ireland and the United Kingdom. Section 1 contains the definitions of terms used in the Bill. Section 2 provides for the establishment and status of the commission as an independent body with the legal capacity of a body corporate. Section 3 articulates the objective and functions of the commission. Those are as set out in the agreement between the Governments establishing the commission and they follow directly from the Fresh Start agreement. The commission's primary objective is the promotion of progress towards ending paramilitary activity connected with Northern Ireland in the interests of long-term peace and stability in society, and stable and inclusive devolved Government in Northern Ireland. The functions of the commission in relation to the remaining threat of paramilitary activity will be to report on the progress that is being made towards ending continuing paramilitary activity connected with Northern Ireland. Section 4 provides that the Minister shall provide the commission, on a basis to be determined by the Government, with funding, premises, facilities and other services as may be necessary for its proper functioning. The costs of the commission will be shared between the two Governments.
Section 5 provides for the necessary privileges, immunities and inviolabilities of the commission. Section 6 sets out certain duties on the commission in the performance of its functions, notably that it shall not do anything that might put at risk the life or safety of any person, have a prejudicial effect in Ireland or the UK on national security interests, legal proceedings, or the prevention, investigation, detection or prosecution of crime. The provisions in sections 5 and 6 are particularly important given the obviously sensitive nature of the matters with which the commission will be dealing. They are also important in ensuring that there is no unintentional interference with the work of An Garda Síochána and the PSNI in their ongoing work to tackle paramilitary groups and criminal gangs North and South. Section 7 provides for controls on the disclosure of information obtained in the performance of its functions unless authorised by or on behalf of the commission and it also facilitates co-operation between the commission and An Garda Síochána.
The lifespan anticipated for the commission in the course of the Fresh Start agreement talks was about five years and section 8 provides for the future dissolution of the commission by mutual agreement of the two Governments. Section 9 amends the Freedom of Information Act 2014 to preclude the application of the Freedom of Information Act to the commission. That is required by the nature of the sensitive information that the commission will deal with. Section 10 provides for the laying of the commission's reports to the two Governments before the Houses of the Oireachtas. The commission will report at least annually. Sections 11 and 12 are standard provisions for legislation relating to the expenses arising being paid out of moneys provided by the Oireachtas and the Short Title and commencement arrangements.
As provided for in the Fresh Start agreement, the commission will be a four-member body and the Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive have advanced matters by nominating the four commissioners. The Irish Government has nominated Mr. Tim O'Connor, a former Secretary General to the President and a respected former diplomat. The British Government has nominated Mr. Mitchell Reiss, who was the United States Special Envoy to Northern Ireland between 2003 and 2007. The Northern Ireland Executive has nominated Mr. John McBurney, a well-known and respected Northern Ireland solicitor, and Professor Monica McWilliams, who has a long experience in politics and public service in Northern Ireland. John McBurney and Monica McWilliams were members of the Executive's Expert Panel on the Disbandment of Paramilitaries which reported in June 2016. All four nominated commissioners have extensive experience of the situation in Northern Ireland and they will have the full support of the Irish and British Governments and of the parties in Northern Ireland in bringing forward their work. Of course, the Seanad will know well that there is an ongoing process of talks at Stormont aimed at establishing the Executive following the Assembly elections earlier this year. While much progress has been made in reaching agreement on a range of important issues, it has not yet proved possible to finalise an agreement that will facilitate the formation of the Executive for the time being. That is, of course, a disappointment.
The Government maintains its strong, ongoing commitment to the success of the institutions established by the Good Friday Agreement and we will continue to play our full part in supporting the resumption of power sharing in Northern Ireland. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, has encouraged all the parties in Northern Ireland to maintain contact with each other over the coming weeks with the aim of securing agreement at the earliest opportunity. This Bill is not without precedent and it follows in many respects the arrangements that were successfully put in place in regard to other bodies established to further the objectives of the Good Friday Agreement, notably the Independent Monitoring Commission; a cross-Border institution established by Senator McDowell when he was Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform. The independent reporting commission will have an important role to play in bringing forward work aimed at bringing an end to paramilitarism and its insidious legacy that impacts on all communities in Northern Ireland. I look forward to finalising the Bill at the earliest opportunity and to commencing the important work of the commission.
I thank the Minister for coming to the House again today. I believe he will be here later on as well.
Fianna Fáil supports this legislation, which is one of the key outcomes of the Fresh Start agreement of November 2015. The Bill creates a new monitoring body to review and report on any paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland. It is a damning indictment of Sinn Féin and the DUP that such a body is still required almost 20 years on from the Good Friday Agreement. The peace process was always about more than the absence of violence. However, the zero-sum attitudes taken by the two main parties which has led to the current impasse in Stormont has hobbled the immense potential and optimism of the Good Friday Agreement. This sterile political environment has allowed paramilitaries to continue to blight both communities in Northern Ireland.
This Bill was necessitated by MI5 and the PSNI confirming the continued existence of the IRA and its role in formulating Sinn Féin policy. Sinn Féin has fundamental questions to answer around its links to the IRA, which has no part in the democratic state. It is now time for Sinn Féin and the DUP to move beyond tribal partisanship and work to ensure Northern Ireland is capable of addressing the challenge of Brexit. The Bill ultimately arises from the Fresh Start agreement. However, Northern Ireland remains engulfed in yet another political crisis, which has led to the protracted paralysis in the institutions. The lack of progress in getting the institutions up and running is deeply disappointing and underlines our concern that zero-sum politics is sustaining a fertile ground for paramilitaries.
Due to the tight numbers in the House of Commons following the recent elections to the British Parliament, the Tory Government is reliant on DUP support. The DUP has secured a deal worth £2 billion over two years and further flexibility around £500 million already committed. It appears to bypass the Barnett formula used to allocate funding across the component nations of the United Kingdom. This has drawn criticism from other devolved administrations. We hope that a focus is placed on key Stormont House and Fresh Start measures such as the A5 motorway to Derry, which will be a key piece of infrastructure for the north west, and the Narrow Water bridge, which should be completed. The Irish Government should uphold its commitment to those measures.
The botched renewable heating incentive scheme could cost up to £490 million and has acted as the catalyst for this crisis. However, behind the immediate problems lies a deeper malaise that has afflicted the institutions over the past number of years. The political system has to move on from this addiction to crisis politics. Over the past few years, there have been annual problems with the institutions, punctuated by a series of new agreements and arrangements designed to keep the system ticking over. Since 2013, there have been the Haas talks, the Stormont House agreement and the Fresh Start agreement, all aimed at reinvigorating a stagnant political process. History has shown it requires both Governments to fully and honestly engage in order to keep the peace process moving forward. The DUP's leverage cannot be allowed to stymie progress and undermine long-established British policy for the sake of short-term political gain. Likewise, Sinn Féin has painted itself into a corner and must have the honesty to agree a way out of this impasse. With Brexit looming, all parties need to work together to ensure there is no hard border. It is time for real maturity and leadership from all of us on the island.
My contribution does not mention Fianna Fáil half as much as Sinn Féin was mentioned in the Fianna Fáil contribution. While I do not take huge issue with Senator Ardagh personally because it is clear from her contribution that she has been handed a speech to recite in regard to this issue, I do have to pull the Fianna Fáil Party up on a number of points.
Coming just a few short weeks after the UDA murdered a man in the car park of a Sainsbury's supermarket in Bangor, Fianna Fáil got up in this House and started to tell Sinn Féin it needs to reflect on the IRA, which left the stage in 2005. That, of course, was verified by a whole raft of organisations, North and South and internationally, and by bodies appointed by the Government. Its decommissioning was overseen by the Rev. Harold Good and the late Fr. Alec Reid, and I do not imagine Fianna Fáil will call into question the bona fides of those individuals. I do find it interesting that Fianna Fáil, in the form of hurlers on the ditch - in fact, all-Ireland winning hurlers on the ditch when it comes to politics in the North - is saying this to Sinn Féin, which, I remind the House, received its biggest ever mandate since the partition of the country and overwhelmingly significant endorsement from the people in the North, while Fianna Fáil received zero votes there. The people there are very clear in regard to the Sinn Féin stance on these matters.
The issue of rights, Acht na Gaeilge, marriage equality and victims and legacy issues should not simply be parked and set aside. I wonder what rights the members of Fianna Fáil would ask their children, families, neighbours and constituents to compromise in this jurisdiction. Would it be Irish language rights, the right to marry the person one loves or the right to access a proper legacy inquest into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, for example? Is that what Fianna Fáil is telling nationalist and republican people, and many people from the unionist and loyalist tradition in the North, to park, and all simply because it wants to have the opportunity to grandstand and take political sideswipes at Sinn Féin in advance of the summer recess? I will not be distracted and I do not think people in the North will be particularly enamoured. It is very clear those issues will not be parked for the sake of returning to the status quo and what passed previously. Those days are very clearly over.
To return to the business at hand, I welcome the Bill, which gives effect to the international agreement between the Irish and British Governments in September last year to establish the independent reporting commission. This commission mechanism was agreed as part of the Fresh Start agreement in November 2015 which Sinn Féin negotiated and supported, along with other parties - I do not think Fianna Fáil was there. All and any steps that contribute to the ending of violence and criminality on our island are to be welcomed. The establishment of the independent reporting commission is a positive step forward in that regard. Its objective, as outlined in section 3 of the Bill, is to support long-term peace and stability.
No one in this House can argue against all of that and it is what all of us want to see - peaceful communities and a peaceful country. There are those, however, who do not want to see that objective fulfilled. The continued activity of so-called paramilitary groups impedes the development of peace, imposes hardship and inflicts great harm on citizens and communities. The Bill before us rightly reflects the need for greater all-Ireland co-operation to tackle crime and criminal activity. I welcome the realisation of both Governments and all parties, North and South, that we are better able to tackle issues like this on an all-island basis. The argument has been made here many times that together we are better equipped to tackle the big issues that face all of us on the island.
Sinn Féin is totally and absolutely opposed to criminality of all kinds and we stand with communities across this island, with An Garda Síochána and with the PSNI in opposing criminal gangs and criminality in all its forms. As a consequence, Sinn Féin members' homes, my own included, and their families been attacked. Our party will continue to try to reach out to others and to robustly face down violent loyalism and so-called republican dissidents. Despite that fact, there have been deliberate efforts, some of which we have heard here today, to criminalise and demonise republicans, Sinn Féin activists and other citizens, especially those in cross-Border communities in places like south Armagh and north Louth. Contrary to the image portrayed by some elements in the media and some in this House, such portraits are a fallacy, conjured up for the purposes of pathetic political point-scoring. There is no doubt that criminal gangs which masquerade as republicans, for whatever reason, exist. They are not republicans; they are criminals. No doubt, the independent reporting commission will come to that same conclusion.
There is also a major problem relating to ongoing loyalist paramilitary violence which should concern us all. The recent killing of Colin Horner, purportedly as a result of a feud within the UDA, is deeply concerning and there can be no room for such grievous acts in a civilised society. I urge those involved to stop now in the interests of all citizens.
The independent reporting commission is a mechanism on which we can all agree. It was agreed as a result of all-party talks and agreement between both Governments. The latest round of talks in the North have, regrettably, not proven successful, despite the very best efforts of Sinn Féin to find agreement with the DUP, the other parties and the two Governments on outstanding issues. It is disappointing but perhaps not surprising that a deal has not been done. Such a result is a direct consequence of the British Prime Minister, Theresa May, supporting the DUP and the DUP supporting her. The DUP which, of course, was strangely absent from the Fianna Fáil contribution, had the endorsement of the Loyalist Communities Council ahead of the last Westminster election, certainly giving cause for concern among many of us. It is a monumental failure by Theresa May and her Government. Decades of work are being put on hold to keep her in power.
It should be very clear by now that a restored Assembly and Executive are only sustainable and tenable if they are based on fairness, respect and equality. The rights-based issues, whether they be Acht na Gaeilge, a Bill of rights, marriage equality, the rights of families to coroners' inquests, independent investigations or information recovery, are not solely Sinn Féin demands but are citizens' demands and are basic rights that are protected in England, Scotland, Wales and the rest of Ireland. The denial of these rights would not be tolerated elsewhere on these islands and should not be tolerated in the North. However, the British Government is prepared to facilitate such a failure because it is in hock to the DUP. It is prepared to say "No" to fundamental human rights to appease its partners in the DUP, which is unacceptable.
Sinn Féin was and is prepared to work through the issues and we will continue to try to do that. We will not tolerate the denial of basic human rights. It should not be a shock to anyone that unionist parties want to delay, nor that they come to the issue of rights slowly and reluctantly, but they cannot do that forever. The Sinn Féin electorate will not consent to be governed by the DUP on the DUP's terms. We do not and would not expect the DUP electorate to consent to be governed by us on Sinn Féin's terms either.
It is quite simple. It is all about rights, equality and respect. It is about agreement on how these rights and our agreements are to be delivered and implemented. That is the only way to get the institutions back up and in place. I support the Bill.
I welcome the Minister and thank the parties opposite for their support for, and endorsement of, the Bill. The best any of us can do for the negotiations in the North is wish the parties well in their endeavours to find an agreement. It is in the interests of all Irish citizens, North and South, to find an agreement and I have no doubt that all parties will play a constructive role. I commend the previous Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, on the many long hours and days he spent up North engaging with the parties in a constructive manner, and I have no doubt his replacement, the new Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, will learn from his example and continue that engagement.
I see this Bill as another fundamental building block in the ongoing process of peace on this island. It was appropriate that the Minister acknowledged the role our colleague, Senator Michael McDowell, played as Minister for Justice and Equality. Indeed, all Governments and Ministers for the past decade and a half have been constructive in their engagement to ensure the peace continues. It is a fragile peace and probably will be fragile for another couple of generations.
This Bill is part of the agreement. I wish the four designated appointed commissioners well. They have vast experience and it is an important job of work. Going from a paramilitary background to mainstream society brings its challenges and the Bill is about the State engaging in a positive way to ensure there is a framework in place to deal with it.
The Minister has outlined the 12 provisions of the Bill and it is fairly straightforward. This is our responsibility and the Oireachtas has a duty of care to ensure it passes without delay. The full agreement of this House is very welcome in this regard.
I welcome the Minister and I welcome the independent reporting commission. I hope this will be another step towards achieving a society free from paramilitarism. This will help provide stability and peace in a society that has been plagued by violence for many years. The shared futures agreement promised to build hope and confidence throughout the North and to establish true reconciliation. While this has not been fully achieved yet, we must build a society based on equality and justice because this is the best way to ensure paramilitary activity will cease.
My father comes from Rathlin Island off north Antrim, and during the conflict we spent our summer holidays there. Rathlin is a small island but, while one would see the army in Belfast, the island led the way in non-sectarian politics. The community always worked together no matter what part people came from, and they still do that to this day. The people there lead by great example and the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement is taking a trip up to Rathlin in September. Maybe the Minister would like to join us. It would be lovely if he came to meet the community there.
The fears of some communities are being exploited by paramilitary organisations for their own financial gain. This must not be tolerated, and support for independent community organisations must be maintained. The most deprived areas are those most affected by paramilitary activity and more investment and services in these communities will help decrease the influence of the paramilitary organisations, more than any policing or security measures. The re-establishment of the Northern Executive is of the utmost importance if this Bill is to be effective because the elected representatives in the North must work together to rid society of all paramilitary activity. To this end it is necessary that the equality agenda is implemented and outstanding issues from previous agreements are addressed. I know this is a very difficult situation and I wish all parties well in re-establishing the Northern Executive. With the start of the Brexit negotiations it is more important than ever that the Northern Executive is up and running and both the Irish and British Governments, as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, must ensure the issues leading to the suspension of the Executive are resolved.
I welcome the enactment of this legislation and I hope it can be an important step towards building a better future for all communities in the North.
I welcome the Minister to the House, I welcome this Bill and I express the support of the Labour Party group for it. This is an important aspect of the progress being made under the peace process. The Minister referred to the unfortunate stalemate in Stormont and the disappointment over the failure to date to get the Northern Ireland Executive up and running again. There has been an interruption to the process by the elections, and colleagues in the North have suggested to me that election fatigue had set in among many citizens in Northern Ireland following all the election and referendum processes through which they have been in recent years.
It is good to see initiatives such as this Bill coming forward which will see the establishment of an international body, the independent reporting commission, to report on progress towards ending continuing paramilitary activity connected with Northern Ireland. I thank the library and research service for preparing for us a very good synopsis for the context of the Bill and giving us an important reminder that there are ongoing levels of paramilitary activity. The PSNI recorded security situation statistics annual report for the past year, from April 2016 to 31 March 2017, provides a chilling reminder that deaths and casualties continue, even with an established peace process in place. In the timeframe to which I referred, there were five security related deaths and there has been one more since, in May this year. The five deaths between April 2016 and March 2017 also represent a high level of activity compared with previous years and is the highest number per year since the 2008-2009 reporting session. On top of fatalities there have been 61 shooting incidents and 29 bombing incidents. There are ongoing casualties and individuals and families are being grievously affected on an ongoing basis by paramilitary groups and individuals. It is important we recall that while we speak in support of this legislation.
I join others in wishing the best of luck to the four members of the commission: Mitchell Reiss, Tim O'Connor, Monica McWilliams and John McBurney. In particular, I welcome the inclusion of Professor Monica McWilliams, who has a proud record of public service, in particular in ensuring there is representation of women in the Northern Ireland public sphere and in political debate through her work with the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition.
For those of us not from Northern Ireland, the lack of women at high levels in political life in Northern Ireland is a constant source of concern. It has perhaps improved in more recent times but certainly over many years we have seen an absence of women in public debate in Northern Ireland. It is great to see Monica McWilliams as a member of the commission for that reason, apart from her own stellar record.
I join others in supporting the Bill. I wish the commission the best of luck with its arduous task.
I call the Minister to reply to the debate.
I acknowledge and thank the Senators Ardagh, Ó Donnghaile, Conway, Black and Bacik for their contributions. I very much welcome the broad support that has been expressed in the House for the Bill and for the objectives and work of the independent reporting commission. I acknowledge that traditionally there has been cross-party support in the Seanad for measures that have been brought forward over the years to support the process of seeking full and stable peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, building on the many achievements, initiatives and programmes of all Governments throughout the decades during the very difficult times of the Troubles and beyond. I am very pleased to note that this cross-party approach has been maintained and I thank Senators for that.
It is the firm intention of the Government to do what we can towards achieving a society that will be free of the scourge of paramilitarism. We will work with our colleagues in the Executive in Northern Ireland, as soon as it has been established, and also with the British Government with the aim of disbanding all paramilitary organisations and their structures, activities and what they stand for. I have no doubt that the commission will play a positive role in that regard. The Bill, and the measure to which it gives effect, fully underlines the strong importance we all attach to positive developments not only in politics on the island of Ireland but also in respect of society on the island of Ireland and the economy, North and South, which will benefit everybody across the island.
I once again thank the Senators for their contributions. I look forward to hopefully completing Committee, Report and Final Stages of the Bill before the Seanad rises for the summer vacation. That would be some good news coming from Seanad Éireann in the form of our contribution towards ensuring the establishment of the important independent reporting commission in Northern Ireland.
When is it proposed to take Committee Stage?
Is that agreed? Agreed.