Ceisteanna–Questions - Northern Ireland Issues.

Ruairí Quinn


1 Mr. Quinn asked the Taoiseach the matters discussed at his meeting on 31 January 2001 with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair; if, based on his discussions with Mr. Blair, he will give his assessment of the prospects for political progress in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [2990/01]

Joe Higgins


2 Mr. Higgins (Dublin West) asked the Taoiseach if he has discussed sectarian attacks in Northern Ireland with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Blair. [3065/01]

Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin


3 Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, on 31 January 2001. [3078/01]

Trevor Sargent


4 Mr. Sargent asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting at Downing Street with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, on the progress of the Good Friday Agreement. [3228/01]

Austin Currie


5 Mr. Currie asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent discussions with the British Prime Minister and Northern Ireland political leaders; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3235/01]

Alan Shatter


6 Mr. Shatter asked the Taoiseach if his attention has been drawn to the fact that Catholic families have been targeted by pipe bombs in the North of Ireland in the past five weeks; the discussions in which he has engaged concerning these attacks; the action necessary to bring these attacks to an end; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [3882/01]

Ruairí Quinn


7 Mr. Quinn asked the Taoiseach the reason for the cancellation of his proposed visit to Scotland on 11 February 2001; if a new date has been fixed for the visit; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4023/01]


8 Mr. Hayes asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement following his recent meeting with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair. [4420/01]

Michael Noonan


9 Mr. Noonan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the current state of the Northern Ireland peace process. [4616/01]

Michael Noonan


10 Mr. Noonan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent contacts with the British Government and the Northern parties in relation to the peace process; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4618/01]

Michael Noonan


11 Mr. Noonan asked the Taoiseach when he plans to undertake the official visit to Scotland which was postponed recently; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4620/01]

Ruairí Quinn


12 Mr. Quinn asked the Taoiseach the matters discussed and the conclusions reached at his meeting with members of the SDLP on 13 February 2001; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4642/01]

Joe Higgins


13 Mr. Higgins (Dublin West) asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on the cancellation of his visit to Scotland on 11 February 2001; and his plans for a visit in the near future. [4647/01]

Joe Higgins


14 Mr. Higgins (Dublin West) asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent contacts with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, in connection with Northern Ireland. [4648/01]

Joe Higgins


15 Mr. Higgins (Dublin West) asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent contacts with the First Minister of Scotland, Mr. Henry McLeish, MSP. [4926/01]

Joe Higgins


16 Mr. Higgins (Dublin West) asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent contacts with the Northern Secretary, Mr. John Reid. [4927/01]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 16, inclusive, together.

I met the British Prime Minister and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in Downing Street on Wednesday, 31 January, and the SDLP on 13 February to review all aspects of the current discussions and decide how best to take them forward. My officials and I are in regular contact with the UUP and Sinn Féin. We are focused on overcoming the remaining difficulties in the full implementation of the Agreement and will be continuing our intensive efforts in the period ahead.

I had been due to attend on Sunday, 11 February, the unveiling of the Famine memorial at Carfin, Lanarkshire, which had been erected by the Famine memorial committee with assistance from my Department's commemoration initiatives sub head. I had also been invited by the board of Celtic Football Club to attend a Scottish League match between Celtic and Rangers on the same day. Some days before the ceremony I was advised by our ambassador in London that concerns had been expressed in relation to the holding of the event on the same day as the Celtic-Rangers match. In view of these concerns I took the decision not to travel to Scotland. I look forward to accepting the invitation to pay an official visit to Scotland and unveiling the Famine memorial at Carfin later in the year.

I am concerned about the spate of sectarian attacks in Northern Ireland, including Larne. As I said in my reply to the House on 31 January, we have made the strongest representations on this matter through the British-Irish Secretariat in Belfast and called for immediate and effective action by the security forces. The Minister for Foreign Affairs has also raised the issue directly with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I utterly condemn these horrific attacks which are an affront to the vast majority in Northern Ireland who want peace. I welcome the fact, however, that people from across the political spectrum in Northern Ireland have condemned the attacks and I am pleased that the security for-ces seem to be making significant progress in dealing with them.

I will allow one supplementary question from each Deputy who tabled a question in the first round of questions.

In the light of the difficulties that have unfolded in recent days and weeks does the Taoiseach believe that Sinn Féin genuinely wants to find a solution that will lead towards the establishment of an acceptable police force in Northern Ireland?

This round of discussions has lasted five weeks. We have discussed policing, about which Deputy Quinn asked, as well as the aspects of the original Police (Northern Ireland) Bill and the second implementation plan which differ from the Patten report to ascertain where difficult issues arise. Although certain aspects remain to be finalised, the discussions have addressed matters of concern to the SDLP, Sinn Féin, the Catholic Church, parties in this House and others. A judgment will soon have to be made by the parties in the North when Deputy Quinn's question will be answered. The Secretary of State, Mr. John Reid, who is in the North for a few days, held discussions with Sinn Féin and the SDLP last night. This afternoon I spoke to the Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, who will meet some of the parties involved before travelling to the United States tomorrow. Everyone will have to make a judgment in the next week.

(Dublin West): Did the Taoiseach cancel his visit to Carfin, Lanarkshire, on the advice of Mr. Frank Roy, a Labour MP who, according to his colleagues, is not the swiftest brain in Westminster? Does the Taoiseach believe that the threat of a sectarian incident if he attended the function was a gross exaggeration? Unlike the Taoiseach, I was in Glasgow that weekend for a Scottish Socialist Party conference, not the old firm show. There was immense publicity in the Scottish press. Does the Taoiseach realise that ordinary working class people in Lanarkshire and beyond were deeply offended by the suggestion that, as one Member of the Scottish Parliament put it, they were being portrayed, not necessarily by the Taoiseach—

The Deputy should not give quotations at Question Time. He should ask a brief question.

(Dublin West): A Member of the Scottish Parliament said that it was like comparing Lanarkshire to segregationist Mississippi. Does the Taoiseach believe that Mr. Roy was advised by the First Minister, Mr. Henry McLeish, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. John Reid, or the Scottish Secretary, Mrs. Helen Liddell, to whom Mr. Roy was Parliamentary Secretary before being forced to resign? Is that the reason the Taoiseach took the threat so seriously?

I have not commented on the matter in recent weeks and have no wish to do so now, other than to say that my decision was based on the advice of our ambassador, Mr. Barrington. I am aware of the speculation and have read the comments made in Scotland, but they have not influenced me. Mr. Barrington and our consul general in Glasgow, Mr. Mulhall, discussed the matter and outlined their views. My judgment was based on their advice.

Does the Taoiseach agree that the situation in the run-up to the British general election presents a terrifying impasse which needs to be addressed? Is he satisfied the parties in the North have set out adequately their detailed positions on policing? If so, are the differences as insurmountable as some prophets of doom say? Does he believe he has a role in bringing together, in a final effort before the British general elections, those with influence on the policing impasse, particularly the church leaders? They have been waiting rather than influencing their followers to reach a compromise. If he does not have this role, who does?

As Deputies Quinn and Sargent said, we have a last opportunity before the British general elections to reach a conclusion of this stage – there will be other stages as the agenda unfolds over three, six or even nine years. There were issues not finalised in the Good Friday Agreement but which were not ignored. Policing was to be dealt with by the Patten Com mission, decommissioning by General John de Chastelain and the Independent Commission on Decommissioning and demilitarisation by the British government when circumstances permitted. Other issues were the OTRs and the stability of the institutions, the latter being the responsibility of the First and Deputy First Ministers.

We have been trying to get an agreement on these issues within the five weeks. These are not all the outstanding issues but they are important. It is our aim to reach an agreed conclusion on these matters. We have not crossed every "t" and dotted every "i", but there has been more than 90% progress. There are always differences of emphasis and opinion on what can be achieved. In the end the parties, collectively, but especially individually, have to decide what is satisfactory. The Governments are working together and bilaterally with them to get everyone across the line in this phase. This has to be done in the next week or so.

Referring to Deputy Quinn's question, I am concerned because no progress will create difficulties. There can be no such thing as thestatus quo in the peace process, as with a peace process anywhere. It cannot remain static. I accept that I have a role, as do the churches and others, in trying to persuade the parties if there is a deal which, although not perfect, can enable progress. We ourselves have not come to a conclusion yet but will decide soon. Everyone in the House realises the importance of progress. It is a difficult but important time. I hope the parties in the North reflect on what has been achieved and on what has yet to be achieved. If some major parts are not yet achieved, I, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the officials, who have been involved in this matter for many years, will continue to do our best to bring it to a conclusion. However, for the information of the House and, more importantly, people outside it, the matter cannot drift on endlessly. People somewhere will have to make a call soon.

I agree entirely with the Taoiseach about the urgency of reaching a decision on this crucial matter of policing. Does the Taoiseach agree that the differences now appear to be limited to the four main headings of accountability, operational matters, inquiries and symbols? Given his knowledge of how legislation is processed by Legislatures, is it the Taoiseach's view that these differences could be resolved without recourse to more legislation in the British Parliament? It appears implicit in his comments about this matter that he believes these differences can be resolved without recourse again to the British Parliament. Is that his view?

My view is that an understanding can be reached on these issues. Ultimately, they will require legislation, but they do not need legislation now.


Not within the next week or two?

No. An understanding could be reached now that would allow movement to take place. Ultimately, legislation will be required.

Is that the answer to Sinn Féin? Could the Taoiseach say "yes" rather than nod?

Will the Taoiseach confirm that, during the past six weeks, there have been approximately 50 pipe bomb attacks of a sectarian nature on Roman Catholic families in the North of Ireland? Will he give more detail about the discussions he has had in which his concerns about these attacks have been expressed? Is he in a position to outline to the House what action is being taken to bring these sectarian attacks to an end? Will he acknowledge that their continuance adds to the risks, dangers and uncertainty of the current situation?

There were approximately 70 to 80 pipe bomb attacks throughout last year. Up to 14 February 2001, there were 62 such attacks.

The extent of pipe bomb attacks exclusively on Nationalist households is terrible. On at least four occasions, it was a miracle that there were no fatalities. In some cases, if anybody had been present at the time, there would have been fatalities.

As I said on the last occasion that I answered questions on this matter, the former Secretary of State, Mr. Mandelson, undertook to meet the relatives and local police officers. Such a meeting has taken place; the former Secretary of State's replacement has continued his work in this regard. The RUC has put in extra resources and it found at least one of the factories and some other isolated matters. However, there is still enormous fear in many areas.

It is clear that these were not isolated attacks and Deputies will recall that last year I repeatedly raised this matter in relation to Portadown. There have not been any attacks in Portadown recently; all the attacks have taken place in up to 15 towns across the North. It has been a systematic campaign even if, in the view of the political system in the North, they were not sanctioned by the leadership of any group. However, from the perspective of whoever is behind it, it has been an effective operation.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, met SDLP representatives. He also met a number of the families who have been attacked. He has addressed this with the Secretary of State. I have impressed the issues and the details on the Northern Ireland secretariat every week. I also discussed it with the British Prime Minister at the end of January, when he was with the Secretary of State, Dr. John Reid, and on numerous occasions since by telephone.

In fairness the RUC is putting extra resources into dealing with the problem but it has not eased and there has been a number of serious issues in the past week or so. We must continue to address this. Most of these pipe bombs are of similar construction. Most have been made with technology which may not be of great quality but that does not make them any less lethal. They have exploded and their potential is quite clear to everybody.

I appreciate the delicacy of the present negotiating position. I would like the Taoiseach to agree to allow me, together with my spokesman on foreign affairs, a confidential briefing by his officials and officials of the Department of Foreign Affairs on the present state of the negotiations. Second, I would like a briefing for myself and my justice and security spokesperson on the threat now presented by the paramilitary die-hards on both sides to the security of persons, both north and south of the Border.

I appreciate that Deputy Noonan understands the sensitivities and I will arrange both meetings.

I presume, as has been the practice in the past, that briefing would be available to the Labour Party also—

—but obviously in a separate context. Why have the British-Irish Council meetings been postponed? I understand it was due to meet on a couple of occasions and the meetings were postponed. There are other East/West items on the agenda of that council which are pertinent and real. When is it intended to have the next British-Irish Council meeting?

The Irish Government is ready to meet at any time. There have been a number of dates arranged, as Deputy Quinn stated, but the postponements were not at our behest. None of the issues would have affected matters – they were other issues – but we gave way to the sensitivities of particularly one party on these issues.

As of now, the date of the meeting is predicated on the progress we will make over the next week or ten days. I do not see there being a meeting of any of the bodies until we make some progress on this round. We are ready to do that at any time.

Would the Taoiseach agree that the timetable for such meetings should not be open to interpretation and that arbitrary postponement can be taken to mean that there are more prob lems than perhaps exist? Would he agree that it is preferable that these meetings are set on a regular basis and proceed irrespective of what other difficulties exist, in order to maintain a normal and balanced relationship and to make progress on all three strands of the Good Friday Agreement?

I believe that. I could have created difficulties about some of these cancellations. I did not, for the obvious reason, but it cannot continue on that basis. The institutions are, by and large, working well and I am quite happy to have the East/West and North/South meetings on the same day, if it saves everybody time. I think it would save everybody time. I have no hangups about any of these items.

By and large the agenda we have worked out covers issues such as the drugs issue, which was to be discussed at the last meeting. We had presentation papers and a great deal of data on the drugs issue which we have assembled here from our experiences, good and bad, in the past decade which would have been helpful to everybody concerned.

The meetings were cancelled at short notice, as Deputy Quinn is aware, probably to give some assistance. I would far prefer that all of the meetings, whether they are meetings of the North/ South Council, the overall structural body, the East/West bodies or the interparliamentary body were held on a regular basis, regardless of what is happening. Thankfully, meetings of the interparliamentary body have not really been affected other than that one group has not turned up.

Can I take it from the Taoiseach's initial reply that, while the major outstanding matters of decommissioning, demilitarisation and policing still remain, in terms of a negotiating position, he sees progress being made on the policing issue in the coming week to ten days while acknowledging at the same time that the other issues are equally important? In terms of advancing the outstanding issues, I take it the policing issue is on the front line now.

Yes, and it has been such for at least three of the five weeks of negotiations. However, it should not be read that some of the other issues cannot create difficulties. Certainly all the detailed discussions of recent weeks centred on the Northern Ireland police service Bill as against the Patten report. We would like to take all the issues together. It would be much better for the negotiation process if we could deal with all three items together as one package. They are related in their own ways and I do not see the parties, especially the main parties, moving unless there is an understanding on all three. If we resolved the policing issue and did not make progress with the other two issues, we would still probably not crack existing difficulties.

Will the Taoiseach tell me in terms of his negotiating position if each of the three issues – decommissioning, demilitarisation and policing – is being treated as a unit in itself for negotiating purposes or is there an attempt to arrange compromises which cross from one unit to another?

No, each is an item in its own right. As always, and not so much from the Government's perspective as from the parties' perspectives, what is achieved on each one and what is achieved collectively is a major influence. The argument on decommissioning is fairly evident, namely, re-engagement with the de Chastelain commission. The issue of demilitarisation is a question of how the military infrastructure in Northern Ireland can be reduced to a peacetime level. The debate on policing is the issue of how to return to the Patten proposals. In many ways, we have had to expend an enormous amount of energy in getting back to where we should have been in September 1999. However, it has been necessary to do that because, as we often said in the House, the Northern Ireland police service Bill has moved so far from the proposals. Discussions are taking place to try to return to the proposals. On Deputy Currie's question whether that can be done without legislative measures, I believe it can be done now.

However, the Taoiseach is not trying to arrange aquid pro quo?

No, because the different parties have different perspectives and because the three issues are outstanding from the Good Friday Agreement. That would not work for their overall resolution. It has to be an overall package.

Could the Taoiseach afford me a similar briefing to that which he has offered to the other Opposition parties to ensure the Green Party is as helpful as possible in the course of the process and fully equipped with the information to put its proposals in context? On his previous reply, does the Taoiseach agree that the home-made nature of the pipe bombs and the atrocities they cause and are capable of causing emphasise that, whatever decommissioning agreement is reached, it will by its nature be inconclusive? That said, does it not highlight even more the central and vital importance of resolving the policing impasse? As it is assumed that two weeks remain before those involved go into election mode, is it envisaged that a deadline will be set, as was the case with other deadlines which led to us watching late night reports from outside Stormont? Does the Taoiseach agree that the policing impasse will require a deadline or will it be left to drift with all the risks that entails?

Setting a deadline in terms of a time or day is a bad idea, but that will become self-evident. Those involved are working towards local elections in late May as well as a general election, though I know no more than anyone else when a general election will be called. People are talking about being two months into their campaign, from which one can work out the date.

People will want to know what the position is, but it is unlikely that progress will be made during that period. It is unhelpful from a negotiating position that that is how matters stand. It would be far more helpful if there were no elections in Northern Ireland this year, but that is the situation and it creates a deadline for this phase of negotiations.

To be fair to all parties, there were five week-ends of negotiations in a six week period, an enormous burden for our officials and the party representatives. That cannot be kept up indefinitely, but that is what happened in each round of the discussions. There are intensive discussions for a period, then a deadline is called and that phase works or not. We have been in both positions in the last seven to eight years and it is the same now. It would be unfortunate if all the work since November was to go to waste, as it has been centred on these issues. The agenda was the same before Christmas. One way or the other, these issues will have to be taken up at a later date as they will not go away. I do not have to spell out their ability to cause problems.

Has the Taoiseach's attention been drawn to the efforts of the Omagh relatives and other concerned individuals to take a civil action against those whom they and the authorities believe were responsible for the Omagh tragedy? Does he agree that it would be preferable if the people concerned were charged with the murders they perpetrated? If that possibility appears remote, does he agree that every effort should be made to make sure they do not escape scot free? In the circumstances will he encourage people to contribute to the £1 million required by the relatives and others to bring the case before the courts?

That issue was brought to my attention yesterday and I would like it to be examined legally and in other ways before I commit anyone to anything. It would be far better if there were prosecutions. All sides have committed enormous resources to trying to secure prosecutions. I will look at the proposals made yesterday.

Will the Taoiseach bear in mind that August is a deadline in relation to this matter as, apparently, if a civil action is not taken before then one cannot be taken? In the circumstances, might that provide a deadline for the security authorities, North and South, to bring these murderers to justice?

I am aware that there is a three year rule in respect of this and that nothing can happen until those three years have passed. We will, however, consider the matter further. Every effort is being made and there has been an unprecedented level of co-operation in respect of the Omagh bombing between the various security authorities. That co-operation will continue.

We judge by results.

(Dublin West): When the Irish ambassador to Great Britain and the Irish consul general to Scotland, Mr. Mulhall, advised the Taoiseach that he should not travel to Carfin, Lanarkshire, did he inquire if an assessment had been made by the two advisers as to whether a threat was posed or whether Mr. Roy was playing a sectarian card, in some perverse way, for his own ends or those of others? Did the advice offered by the ambassador and consul general indicate that Mr. Roy had acted alone? Is the Taoiseach aware of the deep offence that has been caused to ordinary people in Scotland because of the implications of his visit being cancelled?

Is the Taoiseach aware that in Northern Ireland matters have moved from the horror of people's homes being pipe-bombed to their being threatened in their places of work? Is he also aware that the staff of the Mater Hospital in Belfast have received serious threats of a sectarian nature, presumably from loyalist splinter groups? Is he further aware that 200 members of the trade union, Unison, Protestant and Catholic, who work at the hospital staged an affirmative protest against those threats and demanded that they be withdrawn? Does the Taoiseach agree that while the majority of ordinary decent people in the Protestant community deplore sectarian threats and pipe bomb attacks, they feel isolated? Does he also agree that the trade union movement in the North should be urged to take affirmative action in breaking that isolation by encouraging its members to mobilise and take action against such sectarian threats as happened after the Canary Wharf bombing when the tens of thousands of workers who took to the streets played a key role in defusing sectarian tensions?

I understand the hurt and concern caused by the cancellation of my trip to Scotland and, for that reason, I will make an official visit to that country, meet the various people to whom the Deputy referred and unveil the plaque at Carfin. The security forces in Scotland did not believe that my visit posed a threat, but there was no point in my becoming involved in a situation which might affect extremely friendly relationships. As I did not want that to happen, I took the advice I was given. We will do our utmost to ensure the engagement is fulfilled at a later date.

The Congress of Trade Unions has, for the past 30 years, been to the forefront in ensuring sectarianism is exposed. It did so in some of the darkest periods in the history of the North, including Bloody Sunday, Bloody Friday, Black Friday and other events. During the years the trade union movement, North and South, was involved in peace initiatives such as the STOP campaign and others. Long before I became Taoiseach I supported its efforts in trying to expose sectarianism, break down barriers and promote equality. The movement is in a position, through the various vehicles now available in Northern Ireland, including the Human Rights Commission, to break down past and present forms of discrimination.

I am heartened that all the political parties and churches have come out strongly against pipe bombs and other sectarian attacks. It is a fact of life, not always much publicised, that breaches of security and violent activities in the North have not stopped. There is still an amount of activity by paramilitary groups or breakaway paramilitary groups which continues to be of concern. I have no doubt the majority of Catholics, Protestants, loyalists, republicans, and people who would not classify themselves as being in any of those categories, are against these actions, find them barbaric and want only a peaceful existence with the people who live in their communities. That is the view of practically everybody I meet either in the North or from the North.

Will the Taoiseach clarify one aspect in which I am interested? Is there as yet clarification from the new American administration as to whether the issue of Ireland generally and Northern Ireland specifically—

Are they too busy bombing Iraq?

—will continue to be dealt with by the White House through the National Security Council or will it revert to the old system where it was dealt with by the State Department?

There has not. We have received correspondence directly from the President on three occasions expressing his views and support for the Good Friday Agreement. In the next week the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, will meet Colin Powell, Secretary of State. That meeting will be the first occasion on which we will be able to firm up. The Minister will also meet the other senior people on that occasion. Thus, next week we will know where things stand. Prime Minister Blair will also meet the President in the next number of days.

In respect of Deputy Quinn's Question No. 1 on the issues discussed with Prime Minister Blair – I ask this only because a question put down to him was unfortunately transferred for reasons I do not understand – did the Taoiseach discuss with Prime Minister Blair the plight of Irish emigrants and, if so, would he be kind enough to write to me about it? It is believed he had such discussions and there is great concern that no action has been taken as promised in the Programme for Prosperity and Fairness in terms of setting up a task force on the plight of some of these people who emigrated in the 1950s and 1960s.

Arising from the question on the new administration in the United States, has the Taoiseach received an invitation to the United States, and to the White House specifically, on St. Patrick's Day this year?

This year St. Patrick's Day falls on a Saturday and, needless to say, there will be no parliamentarians in the White House or on the Hill over the weekend. St. Patrick's Day will, therefore, be celebrated earlier, either on 15 or 16 March.

Is the Taoiseach invited?