However, he made no attempt to consult the Government parties about the matter. I am sure if we had gone through a process of consultation we could have reached agreement on the motion. Deputy Ahern decided to act on his own, as is his right, but he must accept the consequences. If we had a discussion about the framing of the motion I would have said I did not agree, in terms of the peace process, with singling out one item, even one as important as prisoners, and saying that we will concentrate on that item in the motion. Issues such as prisoners, decommissioning, policing, the courts system and progress on political talks feed into and off one another and if progress is made in one area it makes progress possible in others. One item cannot be dealt with in isolation because even if it is dealt with absolutely fairly, the fact that it was chosen rather than another issue which may be of concern to other communities creates the possibility of a potentially politically unbalanced choice being made. It should be remembered that in dealing with Northern Ireland we are dealing with a community that is profoundly divided on grounds of allegiance, and what is seen as beneficent to one community is seen as malignant to another. Therefore, one needs to be very careful in choosing one issue.
Another concern that must be borne in mind — and this has been highlighted by the family of Karen Reilly — is the perspective of victims. The perspective of victims of all offences must be taken into account. It is for those reasons I do not favour a motion that singles out one issue. The Government amendment puts the prisoners issue in context an does not deal with it exclusively fror any other issue.
I wish to refer to the peace process in general terms. Listening to some of the reactions from north of the Border in recent days where, for example, dire predictions have been made by one politician of a return to violence, the peace process was always going to be uncomfortable; an agreement, by definition, is going to be uncomfortable for everybody. Everybody, including the parties in this House, will have to make concessions that are uncomfortable if we are to have an agreement.
There is a tendency in political debate on Northern Ireland for people to hark back to the old certainties, just as people in the United States harked back to the old certainties of the Cold War and wished the world was simple, as it was in the 1980s before the fall of the Berlin Wall. There is a similar tendency in some cases in Northern Ireland for people to hark back to the old certainties of 25 years of violence when you did not have to think very much before you made a comment because you knew what you were against and what you were for.
The whole essence of the peace process is that people will have to change their approach to these matters. On the comments by Mr. Ken Magennis, to whom I already referred, predictions of violence are dangerous because they infer an acceptability that if something happens it will not be so surprising because it has been predicted. People should be very careful before making such predictions. There is no justification for them. The leaders of Sinn Féin, the republican movement, and the loyalists are committed to the peace path and no security information available to me suggests there is a foundation for the predictions of the kind made by Ken Magennis, a view have conveyed to him.
The most difficult and important step in the peace process was achieving the ceasefires. However, while extremely difficult, it was comparatively simple in the sense that it involved a focus on the republican movement and the loyalists and on what could be done by the Governments. There were three or four parties involved and, once they made the right moves at the right time, there was the hope that the peace process would be achieved. I am not taking away from the immense achievement involved, it was the most important step to stop the violence, but it had a certain degree of simplicity. We are moving into a phase where progress must be made on a much wider front and a larger range of issues which are more complex through not as important individually as the decision to declare a ceasefire.
I wish to comment briefly on the 14 issues — that list is far from exhaustive, I am sure other Members can add other items to it — upon which we need to make progress. In the early stages of the peace process in getting the republicans and the loyalists to stop violence, basically four parties had to move forward, the two Governments and the two sets of paramilitaries. Now we must get simultaneous movement by eight to ten parties, not only the two Governments and the paramilitaries, but also five or six constitutional political parties which have a legitimate and an essential role in any overall agreement. We are trying to move not only four, but eight to ten players, in the same direction at the same time on up to 14 issues.
The first issue, the one which has been mentioned most frequently, but is far from being necessarily the most important one, is that of the decommissioning of arms. We must recognise not only the perspective of the republican movement, that its members were not asked to agree to decommissioning in explicit terms at the time of the Downing Street Declaration, but we must understand also the feelings of the Unionist community and its parties. If we are to get them to sit down with Sinn Féin we must achieve progress on decommissioning. The Unionists are going to feel a certain reserve about sitting down with Sinn Féin as long as the latter is connected with the IRA which still has arms. The Unionists will feel that without Unionists there is not parity at the negotiating table. That is a reality, regardless of the views of the British Government. Even if the British Government changed its views on decommissioning in the morning, that does not guarantee that the Unionists will change their view. In a sense the Unionists are able to hide behind the British Government on this issue as long as it holds its present line, but it is wrong to assume the converse, that if the British Government changed its view, the Unionists would change theirs. That does not necessarily follow. That is a difficult issue.
The next issue is what should be done about legal weapons. There are many licensed weapons in Northern Ireland, mostly in the majority community which are available for use. The justification for issuing many of them was self-protection at a time of violence, but that justification does not exist any longer. If paramilitary arms are to be decommissioned, legitimate questions will be asked about calling in some legally issued weapons.
The third issue is that of policing. This issue feeds in directly to the issue of punishment beatings. There is a sense in some communities that the RUC is not fully accepted and that is offered, as what I would regard, as a spurious justification for punishment beatings. One may not agree with that — I certainly do not — but that is the explanation advanced. It must be recognised that it is not easy to solve the policing issue. The question arises even as to what to call the constabulary. If, for example, we were to cease to call it the Royal Ulster Constabulary, the dropping of the word "Royal" would have all sorts of negative implications for Unionist opinion. Conversely, if we continue to call it the Royal Ulster Constabulary, that would have all sorts of negative implications for the Nationalist community. Perhaps, it is possible to find a new name for it. The argument has also been advanced that we should localise the police service, but the political map of Northern Ireland reveals that Northern Ireland is not made up of neat parcels that could be locally and separately policed. There are pockets of Nationalists among the Unionist community and vice versa. A large number of police services would be required to specifically police the religious map of Northern Ireland. The idea of localising the police service thus is not necessarily easy, but progress must be made on this general issue. There must be a coming together on the police issue if we are to make progress on all the other issues. The policing issue feeds into the decommissioning issue and into the legal arms and other issues.
The fourth issue, the focus of this motion, is the important issue of prisoner releases. I strongly agree that there should be a higher rate of remission as there is less likelihood of re-offence as a result of the existence of peace. That is an objective fact and justifies earlier release on objective grounds. There can be no argument about that. Why is it not happening? One of the reasons it is not happening is that there is a fear that, as it involves introducing legislation in Westminster, difficulties may arise in getting agreement on it. All we can do in this House is use our influence in Westminster, as I have done by talking getting agreement on it. All we can do in this House is use our influence in Westminsters, as I have done by talking to members of the Government and Opposition, to urge them to agree to the idea of a 50 per cent remission in prison sentences.
The fifth issue is that of the courts and justice system. Emergency powers legislation, which is quite severe, is still in place in Britain. We have got rid of our state of emergency. The courts system is open to some question, an area where a good deal of progress could be made and many changes are needed. If we could make progress on one of those issues, that could help solve other problems as it would create a climate of confidence.
The sixth issue is that of parity of esteem, the issue of flags and emblems. Any time Nationalists visit an RUC station they see a Union Jack flying and emblems that represent a majority but not a minority view in Northern Ireland. It could be suggested that they should be taken down and not have any emblems but it must be recognised that emblems are part of people's lives. Unionists consider they are part of the United Kingdom and that their flag should fly, but would they accept the flying of the Union Jack and the Tri-colour? How can we resolve the problems of emblems? We must find a solution if there is to be parity of esteem because symbols matter. In some senses they matter more than practical realities because symbols touch people's emotions. The symbolism of partity, of esteem is extremely important.
Deputy Ó Cuív correctly mentioned the issue of the Irish language and some progress has been made in that regard. The first issue I raised with the British Prime Minister when I met him last December was the position of mean scoil Báil Feiriste. More progress needs to be made on the recognition of the Irish language in Northern Ireland. It would do a great deal to advance the process, but one must recognise that as of now most of the majority community in Northern Ireland do not identify with the Irish language in the same way as the minority community. That may change.
A major historical review is taking place among the Unionist community. Many of them are rethinking who they are, their sense of being Irish, but also British. That is the seventh issue, the need to change our thinking on this side of the Border. We have worked on an assumption that there was only one type of Irish person, an Irish person who owed allegiance to a united Ireland and that was the only way of being fully Irish. We are beginning to change that view. The late Gordon Wilson, who was justly praised on all sides of the House, said only last week that he was proud to be British and Irish.
We are beginning to recognise that there are many people living on both sides of the Border who are proud to be Irish, but who are also happy that they have a little bit of British heritage and do not want to reject it or bury it completely. They want to be comfortable with it while also being comfortable with their Irishness. That type of mental and psychological change is needed here. We need to come to terms with the complexity of our history. It was not always simply a monochrome colour green and we need to change our view about that. That mental change is almost or perhaps more important than changes in words in the Constitution. What is in the Constitution is one thing, but what people think in their hearts and minds and how they behave vis-ávis Unionists or people of a different allegiance is perhaps more important than the words in the Constitution. That is not to diminish the need for constitutional change which I accept.
The eighth issue that needs to be looked at is the question of consent. Arguments that are somewhat theological and semantic have been put forward about whether Sinn Féin has fully accepted that concept of consent. I believe it has because its members have said they are looking for agreement and agreement must be given by consent. That argument has been clouded somewhat by the suggestion that the British should also be persuaders for agreement. The term "persuade" is ambigious. Does it involve more than soft words? Would there be an element of pressure involved? How much pressure is legitimate? What degree of pressure makes the consent unwilling as distinct from willing? Clearly, if there is to be agreement, there must be willing consent but, on the other hand, people need some incentive to move forward. Perhaps that is a somewhat theological semantic argument which, at the end of the day, may not be very important if we can reach agreement on other issues. However, it will be probed a great deal.
The ninth issue on which there must be movement relates to cross-Border institutions, and all-Ireland institutions. Unionists must recognise that if we and Nationalists accept that Northern Ireland is to remain within the United Kingdom, there must be a substantial all-Ireland dimension. Unionists have tended to want one and not the other, but if there is not an all-Ireland dimension Nationalists will not get the reassurance and security for which Unionists are craving. Both communities must get reassurance and security if there is to be peace and stability. Progress also needs to be made on that issue.
The tenth issue, one on which Irish Governments by a self-denying ordinance have not debated, relates to the internal governance of Northern Ireland. What are the appropriate powers of the Assembly? What powers should it have relative to all-Ireland institutions or Westminster? What powers should the panel have relative to the Assembly? Will the panel consist of a small, closed group making all the important decisions with the Assembly being basically a rubber stamp or should the Assembly be the focus of power? What implications will that have for the balance between the two communities? What will be the relationship with the existing local government system in Northern Ireland? Will it have to cede power to the Assembly? While we accept that there cannot be an internal settlement alone, we agree that government at the level of a sovereign state — Westminster or Dublin — would not be sufficient and would not engage the attention of people in Northern Ireland adequately. One has only to note the low poll in North Down to recognise that people in Northern Ireland are not fully engaged by what happens in Westminster. If they are to become engaged, power must be exercised closer to them. If they do not become engaged the talented people needed to solve the problem will not become involved in political issues.
The eleventh issue is who will negotiate? Obviously it will be the Governments and the parties, but how does one test the mandate of the parties? How will new parties come into the process? In what forum should negotiation take place? Should there be bilateral discussions between Governments and individual parties or must round table discussions take place at some stage? There should be round table discussions, but at what stage?
The next issue relates in particular to Unionists who fear proposals for new constitutional arrangements. They consider any new arrangements proposed as a stepping stone on a road to a united Ireland and nothing more than a stratagem to bring them a little further along that road. They believe that if they agree to some new arrangement they fear Nationalists will make further demands later, and if they agree to them then even further demands will be made. Unionists believe they are being asked to go down a road with an uncertain destination or one they do not like. How can we reassure them? Can we tell them that if they agree to, say, something along the lines of the proposals in the framework document, that that will be all they will be asked to agree for a certain period of time or until certain demanding conditions are met? Can we offer them a degree of permanence? People will not make a final concession unless they know that when the deal is struck further demands will not be made of them. Unionists have I believe tended to hold back because they are not certain that what is on offer is a permanent settlement.
I have outlined 13 or 14 areas in which a great deal of work must be done. The British and Irish Governments are engaged in a process of serious discussions on all those issues and have set out in great detail our understanding of many of them in the framework document but there is, of course, room for change in that document. However, it is tragic that the parties in Northern Ireland, particularly the Unionists, are not engaged in dialogue on those issues either with their neighbours or with the two Governments. Unless they become involved in such dialogue, it will be difficult to move forward. It is not simply a matter of doing what is necessary to keep Sinn Féin and the loyalists on board. The Unionist community, the Alliance Party, the SDLP and so on must also become fully engaged. Unless they engage in dialogue it will be impossible to offer the political agreement necessary to underpin the peace process and prevent the recurrence of violence. The concept behind Sinn Féin giving up violence was that Sinn Féin believes agreement can be reached through political methods. However, unless the talks involve everybody, including the Unionists, there cannot be such an agreement and if agreement is not reached then the basis on which the political talks on the peace process commenced will be difficult to achieve. We must recognise the great complexity of the issue.
The matter cannot be addressed solely by referring to the prisoners' issue. That is one of a large number of issues. If we can make progress on any of the other issues to which I referred, progress on the prisoners' issue will be easier. If progress is made on the prisoners' issue, progress on other issues will become easier. We need a process in which everybody can put their cards on the table, a process of comprehensive dialogue and to talk to each other in an open manner. That is not happening in Northern Ireland at present. The Governments are talking to each other but the parties are not talking to each other. Of course, the road block of decommissioning must be overcome to get Sinn Féin engaged in the process, but that is not an excuse for other parties not being involved in dialogue on those issues. The aim of the Government is to have all-inclusive dialogue working towards an agreement, involving Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the Alliance Party, the Official Unionist Party, the Democratic Unionist Party and the loyalist parties, all of whom must be involved, commensurate to their electoral mandate, in comprehensive talks on the range of issues I outlined. This is a complex process and will not be concluded, or even begun, overnight. There will be discouragements, disappointments and moments when people will fear that the peace process is in danger of derailment, but I do not believe that will happen. People are now convinced that the way of violence has been tried for 25 years and failed and that the only way forward is through peaceful means. I will share the remainder of my time with Deputy Boylan.