Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 30 Oct 1996

Vol. 470 No. 7

Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Forum for Peace and Reconciliation.

Bertie Ahern


1 Mr. B. Ahern asked the Taoiseach if it is the Government's intention that the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation should resume its deliberations if there is a renewal of the IRA's August 1994 ceasefire. [19859/96]

It is a matter for the participants to determine, by agreement, any future role for the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. The primary axis of progress is the multi-party talks. The Government remains open, however, to any role for the forum that might seem appropriate as the situation evolves, following an unequivocal restoration of the IRA ceasefire.

Will the Taoiseach agree that one of the benefits of the forum would be that in the event of a ceasefire Sinn Féin could immediately resume dealings with political parties North and South? Will he agree the only alternative to violence is participation in political dialogue? How can we hope to persuade people to give up violence for good if it is clear that others reserve the right to block the path to dialogue for an indefinite period?

The answer to the first and second parts of the question is yes. There is a clear statement in paragraphs 8 and 9 of the ground rules which determine eligibility to participate in talks and as long as those paragraphs are complied with there is no bar to the participation of any party in the talks.

I am sure the Taoiseach has the benefit of the discussions last evening. I note a Government spokesperson stated there was agreement by the British Prime Minister, Sir Patrick Mayhew and others with the Government's position on the talks, but that does not seem to be the case from public comments. Maybe the private position is different. Is it the case that the British Government is still reluctant to agree to the ground rules as stated and that it has not made clear what would happen in the event of renewal of the ceasefire? Would Sinn Féin be allowed take up its position in talks? It is certainly not clear in the public domain that that would be the case?

Paragraph 8 of the ground rules states that for parties to participate in the talks they must establish a commitment to exclusively peaceful methods and have shown that they abide by the democratic process. Paragraph 9 refers to, in the case of Sinn Féin, the requirement of an IRA ceasefire. It is necessary for both those paragraphs to be complied with for a party to take part in the talks. For the sake of clarification, the discussions I had with the British Prime Minister were on Saturday; the only meeting I had last evening was with Chairman Arafat.

May I take it that if there was a renewal of the IRA ceasefire Sinn Féin would be allowed to make political progress instantly and that within a short period it would be able to take up its position in the talks? From a number of statements by Sir Patrick Mayhew and the British Prime Minister since I raised this matter two weeks ago in the House it appears they are not answering the question. Neither are the questions being answered in other contacts.

The position seems to be that if there were a ceasefire the British Government would still seek a period — I do not know what that period would be — before Sinn Féin could take its place in the talks. Perhaps the British Government would not dissuade others from rerunning the same story that happened before so that we would be in precisely the same position as we were in the autumn-spring of 1994-5 and Sinn Féin would not be able to take its place in all-party all-inclusive talks. From the Taoiseach's contacts with the British Prime Minister at the weekend, is he satisfied — the Government spokesperson said last night there is agreement on this issue — the British Government will allow Sinn Féin to take part in all-party talks as soon as the IRA calls a ceasefire?

This question deals with the possible future of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, but we seem to be embarking upon wide-ranging questioning of general affairs appertaining to Northern Ireland, which is not in order.

As I said, for Sinn Féin to participate in the talks it must comply with paragraphs 8 and 9 of the ground rules. It must show that its commitment to democratic politics is real and establish that it is committed to exclusively peaceful methods — that excludes the possibility of using other than political methods to achieve its objectives. It must demonstrate that that is the case. As I said in response to lengthy questioning from the Deputy the last day, Sinn Féin must find a way to demonstrate to others its commitment to paragraphs 8 and 9 of the ground rules. It is important to repeat that any ceasefire must be credible, it cannot be a tactical ceasefire to achieve a short-term purpose. There must be a credible, unequivocal commitment to exclusively democratic political methods —"exclusively" means that all other methods are excluded.

Given the significant discovery of arms in Donegal at the weekend, some of them primed for use, will the Taoiseach accept that the IRA is not interested at present in a ceasefire?

The preparation of military operations of the kind to which the Deputy referred make the fulfilment, in particular of paragraph 8, of the ground rules more difficult in so far as there is a clear inconsistency between preparing explosives and saying that you are exclusively committed to democratic and nonviolent methods of activity. There is no doubt that every IRA action is an added difficulty, particularly in regard to paragraph 8 of the ground rules.

In view of the fact that the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation placed so much emphasis on the prisoners' issue, that Friday marks the first anniversary of the introduction of the transfer mechanism and in view of the reported worsening conditions in British prisons, what representations has the Taoiseach made to the British authorities about speeding up the process of the transfer of prisoners from Britain to Ireland? What was the response?

We are having general questions of a wide-ranging nature quite removed from the intentions in respect of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation and I must dissuade Members from that.

On the Taoiseach's statement about the preconditions relating to a resumption of activities of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation and the requirement that everyone should demonstrate their compliance with paragraphs 8 and 9, will he agree that one of the elements in showing an exclusive commitment to peaceful means is a clear indication of the end of punishment beatings? Will he agree that whatever formula is used — perhaps it is better not to use exact words — the sense of any ceasefire will have to be that violence is over for good in layman's terms? Will he also agree that the notion of a limited lifespan for the talks should not in any circumstances be seen as a mandate thereafter to return to violence should the talks fail?

I agree with the Deputy in respect of all three propositions. Plainly, the Mitchell principles are in the same sense as the three questions put by the Deputy. The Mitchell principles clearly indicate that one will accept the result of any negotiations and not seek to use violent methods to overturn it. They also exclude punishment beatings. I have no difficulty, therefore, in agreeing with the points made by the Deputy. Naturally, I prefer to use my own words in matters of this seriousness but I can see no particular reason to disagree with anything the Deputy said.

The Taoiseach appreciated, as we all did, the opportunity presented by the forum to engage in discussions with various people and groups. There were many useful interchanges with the Sinn Féin delegation both on a formal and informal basis. Are the Taoiseach's officials still meeting Sinn Féin and does the ban on political meetings between members of the Government and Sinn Féin extend to appearances on television and radio programmes?

We are straying very much from the subject matter of this question.

Not really.

Yes, Members are taking some licence in the matter.

The Taoiseach might like to reply.

The forum was operating when the IRA was not killing people. It has recommenced killing people. The situation, therefore, so far as the forum is concerned, has changed. When the IRA recommenced its campaign I made it clear that political contacts with Sinn Féin would cease so far as the Government was concerned. That remains the case. However, I decided that we would not close off an official channel. Deputy Harney questioned me about this some time ago and I made it clear that this official channel was to be used solely for the purpose of determining whether a credible, non-tactical ceasefire could be obtained, not for any general discussion. I set this out in some detail in this House and I am repeating what I said then. I am not aware of any difficulty so far as television appearances are concerned. They do not fall into the category of meetings.

In view of the circumstances which prevailed during the summer, particularly in Drumcree, will the Taoiseach agree that there is a vital need for reconciliation on this island, both North and South, between Nationalist and Unionist? There should be a re-establishment of the forum in some form to allow reconciliation take place after those events.

As the Deputy knows, it was much to my regret that the Unionist parties did not take part in the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation which was established by my predecessor. The Deputy may also know that I took exceptional steps when Leader of the Opposition to try to get the Unionists to participate. I sought to persuade them that that would be in their and our interests but they did not do so.

The Taoiseach was not the only one.

The absence of the principal Unionist parties from the forum meant that it was unable to achieve one of its purposes, reconciliation between those and other parties.

At the beginning of September it was the Taoiseach's view that a ceasefire might be achieved in the short term. Following his discussions with the British Prime Minister and other contacts the Tánaiste has had in the past week, is it still the Taoiseach's view that a ceasefire is imminent or are the difficulties facing the process delaying any hope of this indefinitely?

At the risk of being tedious or pedantic, I did not express a view, optimism, a prediction or anything of that nature. What I said in September was that I hoped — that was the strongest word I used — there would be an IRA ceasefire soon and that I had reason to hope there would be. That remains the case.