Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Tuesday, 15 Feb 2000

Vol. 514 No. 3

Northern Ireland Developments: Statements.

It is a cause of great disappointment to me to have to address the House in these circumstances. I know that this sense of disappointment is shared by every one of us here. Our disappointment is all the greater because the rich potential of the Good Friday Agreement has, since the establishment of the institutions in December, begun to translate itself into full reality. Few would have anticipated just how quickly and significantly the institutions would begin to make their mark.

The Executive, under the joint stewardship of Mr. David Trimble and Mr. Séamus Mallon, has succeeded in bringing together representatives of both communities to work together with common purpose. The long awaited "real politics" has begun with local, and locally accountable Ministers taking decisions on matters of enormous importance and significance to the lives of the people in Northern Ireland. The operation of the Executive has demonstrated fully that the values underpinning the Agreement – partnership, mutual respect and equality – can be brought to bear in a meaningful and practical way for the benefit of both Nationalists and Unionists.

Similarly, the Assembly has been working well. Like any other elected body, it has seen its share of robust debate. I have been deeply impressed by the manner in which parliamentarians from all perspectives and backgrounds have been approaching their work with diligence, commitment and enthusiasm.

Ministers from both jurisdictions on the island have been meeting each other regularly and frequently in the North-South Ministerial Council, to the point where such meetings have become almost unremarkable. From the longer-term historical perspective, the very ordinariness of these meetings is itself astounding. At their meetings, Ministers from North and South have been making decisions which stand to benefit all the people of the island in a practical, meaningful and constructive way, and to promote real partnership.

The Implementation Bodies are up and running. The British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference have identified for themselves substantial programmes of work which they are now beginning to take forward.

In December, few would have anticipated such solid progress being made in just ten weeks, with so few teething problems. However, we now find ourselves in a situation where, as I said in my article in The Irish Times yesterday, difficulties of trust and confidence have once again crystallised around the issue of decommissioning and the Assembly and the Executive have been suspended. I passionately wish it were not so. It was not an outcome that any supporter of the Agreement would have wished to see and I believe that nobody other than those who remain opposed to the Agreement can relish the prospect of suspension. However, suspension has happened, and it is a very serious setback. The Government did all it could to seek to avert it. We now need to dedicate ourselves not to apportioning blame, because recrimination simply makes our task more difficult, but to encouraging the earliest possible restoration of the institutions so that the progress we have all welcomed can be built upon and developed.

Throughout the peace process, for at least the past five years, decommissioning has been a thorn in our sides. It has provoked emotions and polarised attitudes in a way which is out of proportion to its intrinsic importance, significant though it is. It proved impossible for the parties and the Governments alone to resolve, and was so charged and difficult an issue that the parties to the Good Friday Agreement decided that it was best left to the independent International Commission on Decommissioning to oversee. Similarly, both as they entered and as they left the Mitchell Review, it was common ground among all of the pro-Agreement parties that the decommissioning which they were all committed to seeking to bring about should be carried out in a manner determined by the independent commission. The pre-eminent role of the commission with regard to decommissioning is, therefore, unquestioned. As I have said elsewhere, the de Chastelain commission is the instrument of the Agreement in terms of decommissioning and the key to it happening. That is why it is so important that we study carefully what it has had to say.

Since devolution and the entry into force of the British-Irish Agreement, the commission has made three reports to the Governments. On 10 December, the commission was able to positively report that the improved political atmosphere created by the establishment of the new political institutions, the renewed collective commitment of the parties, and the appointment of authorised representatives by the IRA and the UFF provided "the basis for an assessment that decommissioning will occur". On 31 January, and following several meetings with authorised representatives, the commission was further able to report that it had been assured by the IRA of its unequivocal continuing support for the political process.

The commission also acknowledged the important part that the maintenance of the IRA cease-fire has played, and continues to play, in the political advances that have been achieved to date. However, it also reported that, at that point, it had received no information as to when decommissioning would start. As both Prime Minister Blair and I said at that time, clarity was needed about the intentions of the paramilitary organisations. We recognised, and we still recognise, that decommissioning is an integral and essential aspect of the Agreement. It is neither possible nor wise to hope that the issue will simply wither away.

However, on 31 January, the commission also placed its statement in the context of ongoing negotiations and undertook to report any concrete progress to the Governments. Before and after the de Chastelain report of 31 January, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and I, together with our most senior officials, engaged in the most intensive and extensive discussions with the parties, especially with Sinn Féin, to facilitate, in whatever way we could, a successful outcome.

The result of those negotiations was the report submitted to the two Governments on 11 February, which I have already described as highly significant. In that report, following further contacts with the IRA representative, the commission was able to state: "The representative indicated to us today the context in which the IRA will initiate a comprehensive process to put arms beyond use." It was also able to state that "the commission believes that this commitment . holds out the real prospect of an agreement which would enable it to fulfil the substance of its mandate".

Anyone who has been engaged in the process and, in particular, who has studied the difficult question of decommissioning, will realise the deep significance of these statements. In effect, the commission is saying that, for the first time, it believes it has a commitment from the IRA that decommissioning will happen. This is, beyond doubt, a huge advance and progress which we should build upon as quickly as possible. I am glad that the British Government has also recognised the significance of this statement, as have the political parties.

There is now a basis on which the de Chastelain commission should be able to take forward its work quickly, but that is likely to happen only in a context where the institutions are functioning. As Senator George Mitchell said in November on publication of his final report, it is certain that without the institutions there will be no decommissioning. However, I also appreciate that given the long legacy of distrust which has surrounded this question, there are questions to which the report inevitably gives rise which need to be worked through. It is for this reason that I have urged David Trimble to talk to the commission and to seek assurance from General de Chastelain. The general is a man of great integrity and one in whom all of the participants in this process have felt able to place their complete trust. His credibility is unquestioned. I am sure he will be pleased to assist in whatever way he can in enabling us to move forward.

Similarly, I hope that, having played such a constructive and hugely valuable part in making such a report possible, Sinn Féin will also wish to offer whatever assurances they can to their partners in the political process. For this reason, I have said it would also be most useful for David Trimble to meet with Gerry Adams to discuss the contents of the de Chastelain report.

With such statements and assurances I firmly believe it should be possible to bring the Assembly and the Executive back into operation as quickly as possible. It is in nobody's interest to see a political vacuum develop. Having made so much progress, we cannot now let matters slide into stalemate. I assure the House that, for the Government's part, no effort will be spared in seeking to move matters forward.

In saying that and to assist the fullness of this debate, I have just heard that the IRA issued a statement at 5 o'clock. It is pulling its representative from the International Commission on Decommissioning. I have the statement before me. It says that the IRA has withdrawn its interlocutor from the decommissioning body, it has taken its latest proposals on disarmament off the table and it accuses the Ulster Unionists and the British Government of trying to achieve military victory, which it says will not happen. It goes on to say that in the light of this the IRA leadership has decided to end its engagement with the decommissioning body and withdrawn all the propositions put to it since last November. That covers all the propositions to which I have referred.

Having given the House an outline of the IRA statement I shall now return to my prepared script. Since the events of last Friday, I have been in constant contact with Prime Minister Blair. The Minister for Foreign Affairs met with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland twice in Belfast yesterday, where they discussed the de Chastelain report and how best to secure the earliest restoration of the institutions. The Minister also has had meetings with the UUP, Sinn Féin, the Alliance Party, the Women's Coalition and the PUP. Tonight the Government is meeting the SDLP and tomorrow I will meet Prime Minister Blair in London and together we will be meeting the leaderships of the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP and Sinn Féin. We are determined to maintain the momentum towards restoration of the institutions.

On the basis of the contacts that have taken place, I assure the House that the British and Irish Governments are at one on the need to secure the earliest possible progress so that suspension can be short lived. Moreover, none of the parties want the institutions to be placed in deep freeze. As we work to end suspension, we need to make continuing progress on other aspects of the Agreement where full implementation has yet to be achieved. In this regard, I welcome the Secretary of State's clear statement of his continuing determination to implement the Patten report. It is important that the review of the criminal justice system be published as soon as possible and that it be comprehensive and ambitious in its recommendations. Progress in security normalisation must be advanced urgently, while progress in decommissioning can be mutually reinforcing.

As we work to move matters forward, I am aware that the decision of the Secretary of State last Friday to move to suspend the operation of the Assembly and the Executive has given rise not only to political questions and difficulties. Questions have also rightly been asked regarding legal and constitutional issues in the wake of suspension. We have, as a State with a written Constitution, specific issues and responsibilities to which we must give careful consideration. When we amended the Constitution on 2 December last, in addition to the changes that were made to Articles 2 and 3, we also agreed to be bound by the British-Irish Agreement, which was thereby incorporated into the Constitution. The terms of that agreement do not expressly provide for the situation in which we now find ourselves, where some of the interlocking institutions under it have been suspended. This clearly gives rise to concerns for the Government and it is important for us to tread carefully.

However, it is equally clear that these concerns will be most readily allayed by the speediest possible restoration of the institutions. Prolonging suspension can only make the situation more difficult, politically, practically and legally. There is a degree of public concern about the fact that the institutions have been suspended so quickly after the irreversible amendments of Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution. I understand the frustrations which have been expressed, but I would make a number of points which I hope will offer reassurance. First, all participants in the Agreement were called upon to take risks, ourselves included. Second, balancing British constitutional change, including the repeal of the Government of Ireland Act, remains in place. Third, as I have said before, the new articles stand by themselves as a valid and modern expression of our fundamental values and aspirations as a people.

I again assure the House that we will spare no effort to ensure the early restoration of the institutions. They are central to the Agreement. As I said earlier, their operation to date has been an extraordinary success. They have allowed the people of Northern Ireland a greater deal of control over matters directly affecting them than they have known in decades. An inclusive Executive has been put in place where both communities are fully represented. The North-South Ministerial Council has provided us with the means of advancing co-operation and partnership on this island in a more structured and, therefore, more effective way than ever before. The implementation bodies are doing real work.

Alongside the institutional developments, the implementation of other aspects of the Agreement has been delivering real and tangible benefits to all the people in the areas of human rights, equality, reconciliation and policing, in opening up the possibility of a new and better future built in partnership and hope together and in presenting us with a unique opportunity to put the divisions of our past behind us so that the real business of improving the quality of life of all our people can take precedence. It is for these very sound reasons that all the parties know we must overcome our present difficulties and I remain fully confident that we will.

It is very difficult to know how to react to what has just happened in the House. I believe the IRA has set out, in a calculated way, to humiliate the Taoiseach, the elected leader of the Irish people, and that is not acceptable. How can it allow the Taoiseach, who has acted in good faith in this matter with Sinn Féin and all the parties and who has worked all the hours God sends to bring peace, to come to the House to deliver a careful, moderately optimistic message and be placed in a position where he was handed a note telling him that the entire basis upon which he was speaking had been taken away from him by a secret organisation which is accountable to nobody, elected by nobody and has no right to act on behalf of the Irish people? The Minister for Foreign Affairs met Sinn Féin today or yesterday, and I have no doubt there has been telephone communication with Sinn Féin in the past hour or two. This is the height of impertinence and I compliment the Taoiseach on the calm and dignified way he dealt with the appalling way in which he has been treated by Sinn Féin and the IRA.

I do not accept the fiction that these are two entirely separate organisations. I and the Taoiseach know that this is just not true. I was at pains to ensure that the information available to me about the close links at the very top between the two organisations was drawn to the Taoiseach's attention on taking office. Sinn Féin and the IRA are indivisible, yet Sinn Féin met the Minister for Foreign Affairs today or yesterday and, I have no doubt, did not breathe a word of this to him. What way is that to treat a newly appointed Minister for Foreign Affairs who is also working with dedication, as his predecessors have done, to bring peace?

Everything the IRA says in its statement is not in accordance with the facts. It says, for example, that Mr. Adams said following his meeting with Mr. Mandelson that he had no evidence the British Government was contemplating re-establishing devolved institutions in the North. From what I have been told by Government sources, every effort is being made by the British and Irish Governments to restore devolved institutions in Northern Ireland virtually immediately. The Taoiseach has ensured that I and, I have no doubt, Deputy Quinn have been kept fully up to speed on what is going on, and I appreciate this. That is why I can say with absolute confidence that what was stated by Mr. Adams is wrong. I believe that the people who are telling me on behalf of the Government that there was a serious prospect this week of the institutions being re-established with the agreement of the British Government are telling the truth. Yet these people come along and allow the Taoiseach to stand in the House and be treated like this. It is outrageous. The Taoiseach has conducted himself very well in the face of the utmost provocation.

This was done the day before the Taoiseach was due to meet the British Prime Minister, a meeting which was a court of appeal of sorts in terms of any issue regarding Mr. Mandelson. However, the IRA could not wait for the Taoiseach to meet the British Prime Minister to deal with outstanding problems. This suggests that they did not want the problem to be resolved. It appears that the only possible motivation for sabotaging an imminent effort by the Taoiseach with reasonable prospects of success of having the institutions re-established was to ensure they were not successful, as success would embarrass the IRA. It would have meant that the IRA would have had to do something which it does not want to do. The movement puts its own pride before all else. It seems that not losing face is more important than making peace. The issue of putting arms beyond use is one of losing face for the republican movement – it is not a practical matter. As John Hume has frequently pointed out, putting a certain amount of semtex beyond use would immediately resolve the issue. Nobody is expecting everything stored by the IRA to be removed, and nobody could finally verify in any event if everything had been removed. It is probable that only very few within the organisation know the exact extent of the IRA arsenal. However, they could not even make a gesture.

I find it very difficult to speak on this occasion. The decision by the IRA is throwing back in my face and in the face of Deputy Dick Spring the work we did. It is also throwing back in the face of Deputy Albert Reynolds the work he did, just as it is throwing back in the face of Deputy Andrews, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs the work they have done. It is also a full frontal rejection of Senator George Mitchell and the US Government.

I remind Sinn Féin and the IRA – two sides of the same coin, as the Taoiseach very aptly put it – that the Mitchell principles which they signed up to even before entering the talks contain a total and absolute commitment to the total disarmament of paramilitary organisations and a commitment that disarmament be verifiable to the satisfaction of an independent commission. Sinn Féin agreed to these commitments even before entering the talks. That commitment was a recommendation of Senator George Mitchell, not a precondition laid down by other parties. The people voted for the Good Friday Agreement on the basis of the commitment by all the parties to the Mitchell principles, which included the total disarmament of paramilitary organisations. Without that commitment, there would not have been a Good Friday Agreement. That is a practical fact. If there had been no signing up to the Mitchell principles by Sinn Féin there would not have been all-party talks and if there had not been all-party talks there would not have been a Good Friday Agreement. The Good Friday Agreement explicitly recalled and drew into itself and its commitment those Mitchell principles containing a commitment to total disarmament. The people voted for the Good Friday Agreement and in so doing they voted for the total disarmament of paramilitary organisations to the satisfaction of an independent commission. It is simply bad faith to go back on those commitments now. People who signed a total commitment to the disarmament of paramilitary organisations got all the other concessions which are part of the talks but they are simply acting in bad faith when it comes to delivering on their side of the bargain by withdrawing that commitment.

In business, negotiation or any transaction in life there must be good faith. One can have the most profound disagreements with people, the most profound differences with them, but business can be done with them if they act in good faith. I have to question the good faith of people who signed the Mitchell principles and now, on the eve of a summit meeting between the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister, withdraw their interlocutor from the commission which was set up with their agreement in the Good Friday accord. The refusal to disarm not only flouts the democratic will of the people in the 32 counties who voted for the decommissioning of weapons, North-South bodies, RUC reform and other parts of the British-Irish Agreement but also the democratic decision, the first since 1918, by the decision about which we have so discourteously learned in the midst of this debate – it is an act of bad faith.

I recognise the Government's task is not to indulge in recrimination other than that which is necessary so the public can understand the true facts. There is a role for the Government in setting out the facts and giving people moral leadership at this time of crisis. There is a difference between right and wrong, it is not all about process. There must be a case for saying that some actions are bad and some actions are good and not all actions are equivalent. This is a very bad action by the IRA and their political supporters, Sinn Féin.

Having established clearly the moral parameters of the discussion which is part of the Government's role and of leadership, I have no doubt if the Taoiseach had been given more time to digest what was happening, he would have said a lot more and perhaps said many of the things which I have said. I recognise it is the Taoiseach's job, distasteful as it may be, to pick up the burden again and to go ahead to try to find a solution tomorrow. It is difficult and discouraging, but I assure the Taoiseach, in taking up this burden again and in seeking to put things together, he has not just the passive support of the other parties in this House but the acts of sympathetic support of us all.

We have had our divisions in this House and we will have them again, but we support the Taoiseach in this matter. I also support the Minister for Foreign Affairs as somebody who has the ability to do business in good faith, speak his mind and make a deal. I hope his qualities and those of the Government which has worked so hard for peace will supervene over the sly, cheap, impoverished mind which decided to withdraw co-operation from the de Chastelain Commission just as the Taoiseach was getting to his feet in this House.


Hear, hear.

It is seldom a pre-arranged set of statements has been transformed by information that literally comes in the midst of the first speaker. I would like to add my words of deep disappointment and regret that the IRA has so precipitously responded to an action which none of us wanted to see happen, namely, the suspension of the institutions in Northern Ireland, but which we nevertheless saw as perhaps being an inevitable consequence of a failure by some participants to the process to meet what was understood by others to be their obligations within a given timeframe, a timeframe set not by one political party but by the Mitchell process of review. We must go on and I will look at some of the things we have just forfeited.

One hundred days is normally regarded as an appropriate political honeymoon for any new political regime. That the Northern Executive did not last that long is particularly sad and disappointing. Even in 72 days we saw enough to vindicate the choice made by the Irish people by referendum two years ago. Even the DUP, for all its objections, has worked the Agreement.

The peace process has, for my party, been about the normalisation of politics, warts and all. Rows about the allocation of projects to ministerial constituencies, for instance, is a time honoured tradition on this side of the Border. In Northern Ireland though, the row about the location of maternity services and the decision taken by the Health Minister, Barbara de Bruin, was almost a refreshing change. Real politics at last – a Minister being made to account for her decision to her own electorate.

Few of the fears people had about the Executive prior to its formation proved to be real. There was no attempt by Unionists, for instance, to bypass or ignore the cross-Border bodies. Sinn Féin's participation in Government did not mean the end of the world as had been feared by Unionists despite a few spats about flags and symbols. The £73 million made available to the Minister for Education, Martin McGuinness, for construction of primary schools stands out as a beacon of the possible progress to come.

For these resasons, the decision by the Secretary of State to suspend the institution is all the more tragic. In particular, I would like to sympathise with the other political parties and especially the SDLP which is not directly party to this dispute. I am not in the business of playing the blame game. The blame game is the most singular sign that things are not going well in the peace process. It has been part and parcel of the worst moments of the peace process. In the participants themselves, it is inevitably a sign of fatigue and frustration.

I do not intend to carry out a post-mortem into the events of last Friday evening. It has happened and we must live with its consequences. Both Governments have shown commendable determination to get the process back on track very quickly. However, some points need to be made. The first de Chastelain report is a damning indictment of the republican movement. I understand that the establishment of a new deadline for decommissioning by the Ulster Unionists caused difficulties and deeply annoyed republicans. Although most parties to the talks, including the SDLP, seemed to expect some decommissioning by the end of January, none of this excuses the failure of the IRA to engage with the international body when its colleagues in the movement's political wing, Sinn Féin, have been championing it for months. The reality is, sadly, that republicans could have snubbed the Trimble deadline and adhered to the de Chastelain principles if they so chose. It remains a source of enormous frustration for those of us largely outside this process that developments and breakthroughs only occur as deadlines disappear. Deadlines appear to have the effect of concentrating minds in this process, even if their sanctions are not to be taken literally. That is no harm in itself.

However, I would be the first to recognise that the second de Chastelain report last week represented considerable progress on the first report and, notwithstanding this afternoon's statements by the IRA and Sinn Féin, once something has been put on paper it is there and as much as the IRA wishes to withdraw its proposals, effectively I do not believe they can in their entirety be withdrawn. Sinn Féin spokespersons are right to stress the significance of the decommissioning body's assertion that it is in place to carry out its mandate based on what it has already received from the IRA.

However, it is fair to respond that there can be no justifiable reason why the IRA cannot go further and indicate publicly when weapons will be put beyond use – the "if and when" question put so succinctly once again by Séamus Mallon. There should be no difficulty on any side with weapons being put beyond use as opposed to destroyed or handed over. A timetable was clearly set out in the de Chastelain report published in December. It is one thing for republicans to complain about a Unionist veto on the process, but, in a similar vein, members of the IRA are also being allowed to veto the process.

There are also questions to answer on the Unionist side. David Trimble can have been in no doubt that by setting a deadline for republican decommissioning he made the event less rather than more likely. I will not second guess that he felt compelled to do so in order to carry his brave decision to enter the Executive at the meeting of his party's governing body without prior decommissioning. However, threatened resignation, on a point of principle, cannot be accompanied by undercurrents about an attempted re-negotiation of the Patten report. Any attempt to do so will fuel Nationalists' suspicion that unionism has been engaged in strategic manoeuvring, with this just the latest in a long line of incidents. This week's statement by Mr. Mandelson that there can be no going back on the Patten report is important and should be accepted by Unionists.

They should also recognise the significance of the second report of the decommissioning body. They have a right to be sceptical about the IRA's intentions, all the more so now. The first Mitchell report on decommissioning, prior to the start of inter-party talks, suggested that paramilitary groups should agree to the start of decommissioning during the inter-party talks themselves. At each stage of the process Unionists have moderated their position on decommissioning to facilitate progress. However, the IRA is clearly now engaged in this process in a manner in which it was not even two weeks ago. Assuming that further clarification is forthcoming and intent is confirmed, flexibility must be allowed. The context in which we find ourselves, however, will need to be clarified in the light of what we have just heard. Decommissioning is not the only item for which the timetable has slipped during the Agreement, but without a start to the process before May and a clear agenda for progress after that, the process will falter, perhaps irrecoverably.

I welcome this morning's reports, confirmed by the Taoiseach, that both Governments are working closely together to ensure the suspension is of as short a duration as possible. I hope that the IRA's announcement at 5 p.m. does not lengthen that timeframe. The Taoiseach's concern about constitutional implications arising from the suspension are not with foundation. Suspension is not contemplated in the British-Irish Agreement which, as a result of the referendum of May 1998, has constitutional standing, but if we have learned anything from this process it is that progress is made, however painstakingly, by face to face dialogue and negotiations rather than recourse to the courts. It must not come to that.

Decommissioning is a central component of the Good Friday Agreement. It has been supported by public opinion in countless opinion polls, including among Sinn Féin supporters. It is not about surrender or humiliation, but building trust between all the peoples on this island. It would represent a recognition on the part of republicans that the Irish people are mature enough to make their own decisions. As Parnell famously put it "No man has the right to set a boundary to the march of a nation", and on this issue the nation has spoken clearly.

Republicans argued trenchantly for the repeal of the Government of Ireland Act and they got it, but the IRA must also accept the implications of that advance. The people, not Westminster, are now sovereign and change can only come about if they are persuaded that the people want it. There has never been a clearer indication that the public want the Good Friday Agreement implemented in full. I wish the Taoiseach and his colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs success and assure them of our full support. Many issues divide the parties in this House but we are not divided on this. I commend the commitment, energy and dedication that the Taoiseach and his team of officials and advisers have brought to this process, particularly over the past fortnight. We will gladly offer now anything we can do to help the Taoiseach.

On a point of order, does the Taoiseach wish to respond? If not, obviously we will understand.

I will make two comments. Unfortunately, it was known that I was to speak at 5 p.m. and obviously the IRA statement was designed for that. There is no need for me to say any more. Perhaps a far more important matter is that I appreciated the comments of Deputies John Bruton and Quinn and the support of all Members of the House. The advice that has been given to us is that when we leave the House we just get on with it again. That is the best way.

That is the only thing the Taoiseach can do.