Northern Ireland Issues: Statements.

I thank the House for this opportunity to speak about recent political developments in Northern Ireland. While there is undoubtedly disappointment that it has not yet proved possible to see the movement we had hoped for last week, I believe that we still have an opportunity to bring our work to finality. I cannot say at this time when we will be able to do so but the goal of both Governments is to complete our work as soon as possible so that we can present the fruits of our efforts over the past several months.

Since the suspension of the institutions in October 2002, the two Governments have con centrated our energies on the restoration of trust and confidence on all sides. A deficit of confidence on each side surrounding the commitment of the other to the full operation of the Agreement was, in the view of the Governments, central to the destabilisation of the institutions and their suspension. At an early stage, we recognised that the most effective way of ensuring mutual confidence on all sides was by looking towards the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and removing all the obstacles that stood in the way of its full implementation.

The phrase "acts of completion" captures both the enormity and the simplicity of what is required. It reflects an end to instability and lack of confidence, the attainment of a satisfactory finishing point in all aspects of implementation and a completion of the transition from paramilitarism to exclusively peaceful means. It is a substantial and demanding task but one which Prime Minister Blair and I decided we should pursue in the interests of underpinning the Agreement and restoring stability and trust in Northern Ireland.

To achieve completion, it will have to be clear, as set out in the joint statement of the two Governments in October 2002, that paramilitary activity and capability is being brought to an end; that the process of security normalisation is rapidly advancing; that the achievement of the new beginning to policing is being fully realised; that the criminal justice system in Northern Ireland is fully reflective of both communities; that the human rights and equality provisions of the Agreement are being entrenched; and that the stop-start phase of the operation of the institutions has come to an end and that all parties are committed to fully and wholeheartedly participating in them.

These involve complex and difficult areas. There are differing perspectives between the parties and finalising our work has not proved easy. We did not expect it to be but we will continue to expend all our energies on it. As I have made clear, acts of completion must see an end to all paramilitary activity and the putting beyond use, finally, of all paramilitary weapons. This is basic and essential. We wish to see the restoration and full operation of the institutions of the Agreement, to return decision-making on local issues to locally accountable Ministers in Northern Ireland. Acts of completion would also allow policing and justice to be devolved on a robust and workable basis, subject to agreement between the parties.

Most important, acts of completion would allow the full potential of the Agreement to be fostered and developed to the highest degree, with positive outcomes, tangible dividends and constructive opportunities for communities and individuals throughout the island of Ireland. We want a police service representative of all sections of the community, supported by all sections of the community, and being held accountable by the chosen representatives of all sections of the community. People have to decide in their own demo cratic way how to address issues, but it is clear that the time has come when the new police service – and its officers now being recruited on an equal basis as Patten intended – is entitled to the support and co-operation of the entire community. We look forward to seeing Sinn Féin taking their place on the policing board sooner rather than later. Such a move will be facilitated by the continued implementation of the Patten reforms and through the delivery of all acts of completion necessary to bring about the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

In the area of security normalisation, there is immense potential at present for conclusive advances towards the Good Friday Agreement's goal of as early a return as possible to normal security arrangements in Northern Ireland. We wish to see this goal achieved and believe it can be achieved in the context of the Governments' joint proposals. We want to see a Northern Ireland in which people are free to go about their daily lives in an environment of normality and safety.

In the context of the acts of completion which I have outlined earlier, and following what I hope will be the early restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly, I look forward to the North-South Ministerial Council being able to resume its regular meetings. It has not been possible to hold these meetings while the Assembly is suspended. The intensive discussions that took place at Hillsborough on 3 and 4 March saw draft proposals being discussed and further developed between the Governments and the pro-Agreement parties. Following these discussions, a large measure of shared understanding emerged on what was required to move the process forward in the way that was desired by all sides.

Let me make it clear that Hillsborough achieved a great deal. Issues that had remained unresolved for years were addressed and most of them were reconciled in a fair and acceptable way to the parties. However, we could not close on everything at Hillsborough and discussions since then have been focused on doing this. The Governments firmly support the comprehensive proposals that have been developed and feel that they form a comprehensive framework within which acts of completion should occur on all sides.

The meeting which President Bush, Prime Minister Blair and I held with the parties at Hillsborough last week offered a further opportunity to emphasise and elaborate on the key points of significance which the Governments believe should form the basis for progress. In the statement that we issued following our meeting, we said that the proposals of the two Governments held out the prospect of enormous progress. We emphasised that peace is its own dividend. To further underpin the future we agreed together to look at ways to encourage the flow of investment to Northern Ireland. I very much welcome the US President's continuing interest in achieving a positive outcome to the current challenges in Northern Ireland and of his willingness to lend the full support of the United States to our efforts. The role of Ambassador Haass in recent days has been extremely valuable.

The political parties have all made strong and positive contributions, despite the differing political needs and pressures that influence them, to finding a way forward on a collective basis through the complex issues that need to be addressed. The time devoted by Prime Minister Blair to these issues in the fraught current circumstances bear witness to the personal and real commitment to partnership which has been demonstrated throughout this process by the British Government.

The last week has been a very demanding and testing time for those of us who are closely involved with the negotiations in Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, it did not prove possible to bring the package to a conclusion in time for it to be published last Thursday, as we had hoped. Instead, we have continued to work with the parties to conclude the process of achieving the necessary clarity on the required acts of completion. I met with Sinn Féin leader Gerry Adams and SDLP leader Mark Durkan on Saturday in an effort to maintain momentum towards closure on outstanding difficulties. I also spoke on several occasions over the weekend and since with Prime Minister Blair. These contacts both between the Governments and with the parties have continued since the weekend.

Yesterday, the two Governments welcomed the positive aspects of a draft IRA statement which was passed to us on Sunday evening. We acknowledged that it showed that much progress had been made and that it reflected a desire to make the peace process work. However, we also asked for clarification on a number of issues. Obviously it is important that the two Governments reflect very carefully to ensure that there is a basis on which we can proceed. The imperative of the popular mandate of the Agreement cannot be put aside and we must all recognise our responsibility to take and facilitate the further steps necessary to ensure its full implementation.

We all welcomed and celebrated the new dawn with the signing of the Agreement and now five years later, it is no longer adequate simply to profess ourselves still dedicated to the Agreement. We must make clear the strides we are all willing to take to move the process to completion to enable the Agreement to deliver on its full potential.

Some steps are, undoubtedly, more challenging than others. The opportunity offered through clear and wholehearted acts of completion is ours to embrace and I hope that our efforts can meet with success. The Government is totally committed and engaged in this effort. I commend the contribution of my colleagues, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, who have invested enormous effort in trying to bring our work to a successful conclusion in recent weeks and days, in particular.

On a personal note, over the past five years as Taoiseach the task that I have put and will continue to put above all others in my political life is to ensure that the people of this island remain united around the Good Friday Agreement. On this week of Good Friday, it remains my great political objective and desire to see the Agreement fully work and see its provisions fully implemented. Working with the British Government and the parties, I will do everything I can to achieve this.

I thank the Opposition parties, particularly the main Opposition parties, Fine Gael and the Labour Party, for the understanding and support they have shown, as have all parties in the House. It has been a difficult process. I would like to make a fuller and more detailed statement but I think the parties understand that is not possible, for which I thank them. I will continue to keep them informed.

I thank the Taoiseach for his comments. It is fair to say every Member of the House shares the sentiments of the Government in this matter, namely, that the Good Friday Agreement, in its entirety, should be brought to a conclusion. We are again at a point where that is tantalisingly close. Given the images on our television screens from the far side of the world, it is obvious that there can be no going back over the past 30 years of desolation and paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland.

I was contacted on Sunday evening by a member of Sinn Féin, whom I thanked for his contact, on the basis that a definitive decision and statement was being issued by the IRA that would deal with the outstanding issues of clarification which were requested. As Opposition parties, we are not really central to the process in that we have not seen or been furnished with the proposals from either Government or the statement from Sinn Féin. I expected that the Sinn Féin statement would deal with the matters outstanding but it did not. On this occasion, the Governments were right to seek clarification on whatever matters they considered to be outstanding. It is fair to say that in the negotiations and discussions over the last number of years, Sinn Féin has repeatedly sought clarification from both Governments on a range of issues and circumstances ad nauseam. From its perspective, it is right to do so. Vested with the constitutional authority of the peoples of Great Britain and Ireland, the Governments were right to seek absolute clarification in respect of matters they considered to be outstanding.

We are again almost at endgame. If it is not endgame, I would hate to think it might be game over. The outstanding issues remain to be clarified. I suppose as we speak discussions are going on between Government parties and the pro-Agreement parties in Northern Ireland. I genuinely hope that before the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister fly to Athens this evening, this matter will be finally resolved. A sequence has been laid out which, if followed through, could see this brought to a conclusion very rapidly whereby everybody in the country could rejoice, people could get on with their business, normality could be restored and people could achieve their full potential.

However, if the statement issued by the IRA is not to be changed in any way, then verification of that and the authenticity of verbal clarification of those issues will have to be very clear. If, for instance, the leader or a member of another party interprets that statement for their party, it might not mean what the Government understands it to mean. I hope verification and clarification of that statement by whoever will lead to trust and compromise. I say trust in respect of both Governments having a clear and full understanding that on this occasion the game, or the war, is over and that while those words may never be used in a statement by the IRA, we can take it that what we have known for the past 30 years will be finished.

If the IRA does not have a constitution which allows for it to be disbanded and if it is to "continue", then the independent monitoring committee and everybody else should be very clear that there are to be no further acts of paramilitarism, knee-capping and beatings and that that applies both North and South of the Border. We do not want to see a situation arise like that in Bray some months ago where preparations were being made to carry out some acts. I accept on trust, if that is absolutely verified, that the game, or the war, is over, that there will be no more of this and that we will move on to the avenue of participative democracy with the act of decommissioning to be verified by General de Chastelain in accordance with the process in place. If both Governments are prepared to accept that, Mr. Trimble must be able to say to his people that what is on the table is final and that he can get on with his convention, the restoration of the Assembly and the institutions and letting the people of Northern Ireland decide who they want to elect to that regional assembly.

As leader of the Fine Gael Party, it has been my privilege to go to Northern Ireland on a number of occasions in recent months and to bring with me newer Members of the Oireachtas from our parliamentary party, both TDs and Senators, to give them a flavour of the complexity of the issues of Northern Ireland with which the Taoiseach, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and others have been dealing over the years, whether in Cluan Place, Tigers Bay, the Falls Road or the Shankill. Their view on the politics of Northern Ireland and on the way people perceive Northern Ireland and their understanding of the difficulties with which people in Northern Ireland must deal, whether from a Sinn Féin or a Unionist perspective, has changed utterly as a result of their exposure to that kind of complexity. Such visits provide a stark understanding to Oireachtas Members of how difficult and painful this process has been and how much patience and resilience has been required.

I commend all the leaders of the pro-Agreement parties and all those associated with this process for the commitment they have shown. I pay tribute to the Taoiseach, as leader of the Government, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, for the efforts they have made and the commitment they have persistently shown in trying to sort this out. Prime Minister Blair has shown undue commitment from a British perspective to a cause in which we all believe, that is, peace, co-operation, understanding and power sharing.

I also pay tribute to the leaders of Sinn Féin, Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, for the way in which they have reached this point where we are almost at endgame. I do not know at which point on that journey their political minds became fixed on the democratic route. I am not really interested in the Tánaiste's comments last weekend about Mr. Adams and whether Sinn Féin and the IRA are the same, as I am more interested in the end result of this process. I do not wish to stand in judgment over anybody, but I would like to make it perfectly clear that there can be no ambiguity as we move forward from here. I said to Mr. Adams and Mr. McGuinness that I do not want an "army" to be still around and involved in activities of a criminal or paramilitary nature. I have had discussions with David Trimble, Reg Empey and Dermot Nesbitt of the Ulster Unionist Party, who have defended their position very resolutely.

The Agreement does not receive ten marks out of ten, as it is not perfect in every respect, but extra understanding and compromise are needed on the part of all involved for its full implementation and its future. We are obviously very close to this. The former US President, John F. Kennedy, once said that "no problem of human destiny is beyond human beings" and that "man's reason and spirit have often solved the seemingly unsolvable and we believe they can do it again". Those who have worked in the North, including the leaders and parties who have gone before us, have played their part in putting together the jigsaw and colouring in the picture to the point where it is now. I would like the final acts of completion to take place without further delay and the elections to take place on time. Undermining the elections by postponing them further will not do anybody any good.

The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Paul Murphy, has played a role in the process. There is little else to be said from this perspective, as we cannot directly influence the final clarification. I would also like to compliment the US special envoy, Mr. Haass, who has tried to build on what George Mitchell put together five years ago. I ask the Taoiseach to bear in mind that the US Congress, which is controlled by the Republicans, restored the United States's full contribution of $24 million to the International Fund For Ireland after the US President, Mr. Bush, proposed to it that the fund be reduced to $8.5 million. I understand that the arbitration committee may find it difficult to acquire all the moneys for the fund, following the passing of a major proposal to cut taxes by about $700 billion in the US. I would not like to see the fund diminished, given that it has created thousands of jobs along the Border and has been of interest to the economies North and South.

When I spoke recently to the leader of the SDLP, Mark Durkan, I was struck by his commitment and his party's commitment to its involvement in the policing board. The genuine political risk taken by the SDLP in majoring on this issue, as well as its total involvement in the issue of policing, which is central to the process, shows that it is committed to the future of Northern Ireland. I note the presence in the Distinguished Visitors Gallery of Bríd Rodgers and Seán Farren and, on behalf of Fine Gael, I pay tribute to them and the members of the SDLP for the work they have done over the years.

A new future beckons for the island of Ireland following the elections and the restoration of the Assembly, if this phase of the peace process can be brought to a successful conclusion today or tomorrow. I have personal experience of the area of international tourism and I know it is possible to market the entire island of Ireland, as distinct from two entities. Following the Canary Wharf bomb in the 1990s, I recall that it was recommended that the Northern Ireland Tourist Board and Bord Fáilte should not have a presence at the second biggest tourism show in the world, at Earls Court in London. Rather than having two stands promoting regions of Ireland, it was decided to promote the island of Ireland on the same stand. For the first time in many years, one could see pride in people's faces because they were marketing internationally the concept of Irish tourism both North and South. Such a single entity does not interfere with the political dimensions preferred by parties on both sides of the Border and I hope, above anything else, that it will be backed by the Taoiseach, the Prime Minister, the Assembly, when it reassembles, and both Governments. It should be allowed to work and to do its business.

Similarly, mutual co-operation can benefit those North and South of the Border in areas such as agriculture, health, medicine, education, transport, intelligence information and broadband access. The fact that such potential exists was demonstrated by the co-operation between the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Walsh, and his Northern counterpart, Bríd Rodgers, as well as their Departments, during the foot and mouth disease scare. Co-operation can enhance development in bodies like the North-South Ministerial Council, the Food Safety Promotion Board, Waterways Ireland, the North-South Language Body and the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission. I ask the Govern ment to reconsider the reduction in funding to the North-South Language Body, something which should not be allowed to happen.

I appreciate that a number of barriers have yet to be overcome. I understand and empathise with the difficulty and sensitivity that surround the remaining obstacles. The Taoiseach was right to ask for further clarification if he was unhappy with the statement issued by the IRA to both Governments, which I have not seen. I understand that the Taoiseach has spoken to the Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, about the outstanding matters of clarification. Members of Sinn Féin said to me publicly in Belfast that they do not represent the IRA, but that they have influence over it. I hope that the remaining set of obstacles in respect of clarification and verification can be overcome. If such clarification is given verbally or orally in a way that both Governments can stand over, it should also be acceptable to the Unionist community to allow for the restoration of the Assembly and the holding of elections. As I have said, the Agreement is not perfect and is not an absolute instrument, but it is the best we have got. It holds a great deal of potential and opportunity for many people. I hope that the next generation can look back and say that everybody who was involved in this process was really committed to the future of Ireland.

The comment of the Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, that "the hand of history" is still very much on us is quite true. Similarly, there was an historic moment 91 years ago today when Belfast's most famous export, the unsinkable Titanic, was lost in the Atlantic. In this case, however, we can prevent a political tragedy by averting the prevention of the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. I genuinely hope that the small number of people involved in the last remnants of this process can see it in their hearts and political minds to do it this time. If this happens, all sides of the House will be able to say that we were involved in a process which affected the social and economic well-being of the peoples of this island, North and South. We have stood by progress, defended principles in this area and clearly stood for non-involvement with private armies.

I hope there will finally be clarity and the matter will be truly ended. I look forward to the next few hours and days. I wish the Taoiseach and Deputy Cowen well in their endeavours. I hope all others involved in the process will show similar commitment and express a similar attitude of compromise that can lead to the trust and confidence that will allow us to move on to other business.

I hoped that when we came to make these statements, there would at last be some degree of certainty about a package of measures, including a statement from the IRA. It appears now that it will be some time yet – I hope, a short time – before that certainty is arrived at. I understand the tenor of the Taoiseach's earlier remarks in that regard.

The Government has our broad support in the efforts it is undertaking to bring this phase of the process to a conclusion. I am saying that on the assumption that the Government has been firm in its dealings with Sinn Féin in recent days. It is essential now that all of us in this House unite in our support for the people and politicians of Northern Ireland, as they seek to ensure that so-called "acts of completion" are put in place to secure the future of the Good Friday Agreement There is no greater present we could give to the people of Northern Ireland, or the island as a whole, than a long spell of uninterrupted political stability, where democratic government, based on the consent of the governed, was the central and only feature of all political activity.

The key to that long spell of democratic political activity lies in the hands of P. O'Neill, the mythical signatory of statements from the Provisional IRA. The statement on which they have closed and which is now in the hands of both Governments, must be capable of only one interpretation. It must mean, unequivocally, that democratic politicians are free to go about their business, in this case the business of building a dynamic economy and a fair and just society in Northern Ireland, without ever having to worry again about the threat of violence from a paramilitary source.

I know that many statements have issued over the years from P. O'Neill which bore all the hallmarks of deep theological training and which often required the skills of a highly Jesuitical mind to interpret and analyse. From the very beginning of this process, back to the first IRA ceasefire, there has been room for ambiguity in everything said and written.

All the so-called "terms of art" that have underpinned the process down the years have enabled statements and positions to be constructed that have the ability to mean different things to different audiences and that has often been necessary. However, now there is no longer room for doubt. If politics is the future, armed struggle is the past.

I have praised the leadership of Provisional Sinn Féin on other occasions in this House for leading the members of that party on a long and arduous struggle down the road of peace. All of us in this House have recognised how difficult a job it has been at times. That road has an end and the end is now. Following the IRA ceasefire in 1994, there was general acceptance that the republican movement would need time and space to make the transition from violence to democracy. There was an understanding that the leadership was committed to moving towards full participation in our democratic system, but that it would require time to convince others in the republican movement. Anyone who understands anything about our political history knew that it would take time, that there would be slippage and that there would be problems.

In recent years all of us too have from time to time bitten our lips. We have refrained from expressing the frustration we have felt at the slowness of the process. Too often over the past four years, it seemed to have been a case of two steps forward and one step back or even, on some occasions, one step forward and two steps back. Too often it has seemed as if the leadership of the republican movement was prepared to move only at the pace of its most recalcitrant member. Too often it has seemed that that slow pace was putting the process itself at risk.

Let the republican movement now be the ones to take the final risk. Following 11 September there is no tolerance of terrorism in a civilised society. We will all applaud the day the entire republican movement has the vision and the foresight to say that democracy is the only way forward. The republican movement ended 30 years of conflict with its military wing, the IRA, undefeated. The undefeated IRA should now tell us, as clearly as it can, that the war is over. No one in this House or elsewhere will interpret such a statement as an admission of defeat.

The republican movement has said again and again – and I for one am prepared to take what it says at face value – that it represents no threat to the peace process. It has it in its hands now to provide a positive benefit to the peace process.

It has been said before, but it bears repeating here that a movement that describes itself as political, that has made significant political gains on both parts of this island and that is significantly represented in this House, in the Northern Ireland Assembly, in the Westminster Parliament, and on some local authorities throughout this island, does not need semtex. A movement that sees itself as pursuing democratic goals through democratic means does not need guns. A movement that is committed to the dynamics of political contest, that is seeking to build a strong political base in every democratic forum, must not shy away from declaring that it is no longer at war.

Last November I suggested that it was time for a new analysis, an analysis that says republicans and Nationalists derive strength and confidence from peace and from democratic involvement. The old ways, just like the old days, are gone and the only way forward now is through politics. Making politics work requires drudgery, for sure, and we all here know that, but it does not require terror or violence. If the republican movement takes that last logical step of putting into words what it is already putting into practice, it will have a right to demand the only appropriate response from Unionism, the resumption of full democratic political engagement through the operation of all the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.

We must never lose sight of what has been the primary achievement of the Good Friday Agreement, that it has brought a degree of peace, albeit flawed and imperfect, not experienced in Northern Ireland over the previous 30 years. The passage of time can dull the memory to the horrors that were inflicted on Northern Ireland for such a long period. In 1993, just a decade ago, 90 people died in politically motivated violence arising from the Northern conflict. In January, Julie Statham a 20 year old student, took her own life just weeks after her boyfriend, Diarmuid Shields and his father, Patrick, were murdered by the UVF. It did not get any better as the year went on. On 3 March, three year old Jonathan Ball and 12 year old Tim Parry were murdered in an IRA bomb attack in Warrington in England. In October, ten people died in an IRA bomb attack in a fish shop in the Shankill Road. The loyalist response was almost as brutal, with the "trick or treat" gun attack on the Rising Sun public house in Greysteel. Republicans were responsible for the deaths of 39 people and loyalists for the deaths of 48. In 1993 the security forces were not responsible for any deaths.

There is still violence in Northern Ireland and one death from politically motivated violence is a death too many, but the fact is that were it not for the Good Friday Agreement many more people would have died. There is no viable alternative to the Good Friday Agreement and its commitment to equality and mutual respect as the basis of relationships within Northern Ireland, between North and South and between these islands. The key now, and the breakthrough we need to see, is the recognition that the agreement and its democratic framework is the only way forward.

The general approach of seeking to deal with all outstanding issues arising from the Agreement in the talks now effectively concluded was the correct one. We must end the stop-start approach. We must remove the instability and uncertainty. Most of all, we must end the series of crises that have bedevilled the process from almost the beginning and replace it with stability and certainty.

The Taoiseach said that the time has come for the new police service, drawn from both sides of the community, and that it is entitled to the support and co-operation of the entire community. I agree with that. I also agree with the Taoiseach that there may be some who want to make their own judgment in terms of timing and participation on the police board. Like Deputy Kenny, I pay tribute to the courageous and visionary leadership of the SDLP in this regard. In keeping with the sober and sensible leadership they have given throughout the northern conflict, this last step was a particularly courageous one and is likely to become to be recognised as such.

I understand from the public statement issued by the IRA that it will restore, or perhaps even already have, its relationship with the de Chastelain Commission. I understand, too, that we can shortly expect a major act of decommissioning, presumably as part of a process leading to the elimination of all weapons and material. Nothing could be more welcome, because it would be an end to the system of "each-way bets" that has made the republican movement so distrusted by those whom they wish to regard as partners – the Unionist community. We have all said before, in debates like these, that no one can be allowed to take an each-way bet on democracy. One cannot choose to be a democrat one day and revert to violence on another. The restart of the decommissioning process, and this time its progression to a final conclusion, will be all the more welcome for that.

If everything is right in the next couple of days, the Ulster Unionist Party will also be asked to accept that the war is over. I hope they will find it in their hearts to do so. Stable government in Northern Ireland over the next five years will require courage and imagination on all sides. It will require a leap of faith by the people of Northern Ireland, and the rebuilding of trust.

It is one of the saddest ironies of all that as we celebrate this week the fifth anniversary of the Belfast Agreement, and despite the political progress that has been made, the central task of reconciliation in a divided community has barely begun. There remains a need to encourage the allegiance of the loyalist community to the Belfast Agreement. Hopefully, the last obstacle will be removed when the IRA finally declares that the only future is a political one, and when the principle of consent is thus accepted across the entire community. Knowing as we do that nothing can ever be taken for granted in this process, and knowing as we do that all too often we have had to endure setbacks before making progress, may I conclude by expressing the fervent hope that this time the war is finally about to end.

I had expected the debate today would be truly historic. We have not got there yet, but the Government has our full support in taking advantage of the current environment to ensure this week will indeed be the start of a new political dawn on this island.

I wish to share my time with Deputies Ó Caoláin, Joe Higgins and Finian McGrath.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

It is clear as we speak today that republicans, Unionists and indeed the two Governments are playing for very high stakes. It is still not clear that a form of words from the IRA is an absolute commitment not to recommence war at a future date. However, we are told by the media that the wording suggests there will be no return to violence. That said, the Green Parties North and South of the Border have not seen the draft joint statement of the two Governments. Assuming it represents a sufficient commitment to acts of completion with regard to the full implementation of outstanding matters within their remit under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, in particular, with regard to policing and demilitarisation, but also with regard to strand 1 – the stability of the Northern Ireland institutions – and strand 2, which should include consideration of establishing a North-South parliamentary forum – issues and human rights – the arguments for acts of completion from republicans become overwhelming.

What must acts of completion from republicans involve? Sinn Féin is not facing up to the political reality if it claims there are no links between it and the IRA and that, therefore, acts of completion are only required from the Governments. It is reasonable for Unionism to insist that the Good Friday Agreement implies that all who signed up to it be committed to the ending of paramilitarism. It is also reasonable in the presumed light of a tightly timeframed commitment from the two Governments to the full implementation of the agreement to state that now is the time for clear and unambiguous language from both Sinn Féin and the IRA to the effect that in the changed constitutional circumstances of today, which have for the first time in eight and a half centuries ended the unilateral claim of sovereignty over Ireland or any part thereof by the British crown, there is no further legitimacy for the retention of so-called arms of liberation, and that a tightly timeframed process of decommissioning is under way. Any other stance is intellectually dishonest and politically illiterate.

Failure by the republican movement to cross the Rubicon now, the Rubicon of recognition that the last remnants of justification for an armed struggle is gone, opens them to the accusation that bad faith has underpinned their approach all along, that they invite the instability and disorder which will ultimately fill the political vacuum maintained by their refusal to act now. In other words, it can be said that they have been misleading people all along. We in the Green Party are not accusing them of that. We certainly say there have been many honourable men and women of undoubted political skill from the republican movement who have made enormous contributions to date. Now that they have reached their defining moment, can their organisation, or indeed organisations, recognise that moment has come?

In many ways, another step on this road to full implementation would be welcome if strand 2 could be strengthened further. It would be very important in finding the agreement that is needed to have to some extent, as we already have in strand 3, the British-Irish inter-parliamentary structure in place. In paragraph 18 of the agreement, under strand 2, it is envisaged that there would be a North-South inter-parliamentary forum on this island. The Green Party calls for such a structure to be put in place as a matter of priority so that it can give full expression to a working agreement in terms of strands 1, 2 and 3.

Finally, I wish to pay tribute to all the pro-agreement parties, particularly in the North and, indeed, to the two Governments. We wish them rath Dé ar an obair.

This week marks the fifth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. It also marks another very crucial stage in the peace process. As we speak, it is an inconclusive stage and the future implementation of the Agreement may depend on decisions made in the next few hours or days. It is very important, therefore, that we approach these statements with some restraint. Sinn Féin negotiators have worked at full stretch to achieve progress. I know that both Governments have also expended considerable energy. It is my wish and that of my Sinn Féin colleagues that collectively, all parties and both Governments will overcome the difficulties of this phase and move forward together.

I urge the two Governments to publish their joint declaration – it should have been published last Thursday. While the joint declaration has not yet been published, we have had a quite unprecedented initiative by the IRA in which it has outlined to both Governments its position in detail in an effort to move the process forward. Sinn Féin has been engaged in intensive efforts to see the current deadlock ended and the Good Friday Agreement implemented in full. The IRA has responded positively to this. The two Governments have recognised the positive nature of the IRA response and have acknowledged the desire of the IRA to make the peace process work. What is the current delay about? The two Governments, the UUP and all of us should seize this opportunity.

On Sunday, 13 April the IRA undertook to draw up a statement setting out its views on recent developments in the peace process. It said it did so because of its commitment to this process and its desire to see it succeed. In its statement to the Governments, it set out its attitude on the current disposition of the IRA and the status of its cessation, its future intentions, its attitude to a re-engagement with the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and engagement in a process of putting arms beyond use and a third act of putting arms beyond use to be verified under the agreed scheme. The IRA said it shared concepts and draft elements on these matters with others and, following an internal consultation, closed on a statement that was passed onto the two Governments. I believe this was indeed an unprecedented engagement by the IRA and it deserves to be recognised as such. All parties and both Governments should respond positively.

On Sunday evening last, Sinn Féin President Gerry Adams stated that the Governments had acknowledged that the IRA statement was positive. He found it incredible that they had not acted on the basis of this unprecedented intervention. He also stated that if the Governments' request for clarification was, as they claimed, a genuine attempt to advance matters at this point, then all obstacles to progress should be removed. I understand that clarification was subsequently given.

We need to put all this in context. The reality is that the Good Friday Agreement has not been fully implemented. The Agreement was the culmination of an enormous collective effort by the two Governments and the parties to tackle the causes of conflict. It was about fundamental and deep-rooted change in Ireland. There has been significant progress. In the limited time that the institutions existed they worked and were popular. Real progress was made and the hope of further progress was generated.

The talks have been focused on implementing the Agreement. In our discussions with the two Governments and the other parties we have made considerable progress on a number of specific areas. These include policing, criminal justice, the stability of the institutions, demilitarisation, human rights and equality. Yet critical issues remain and these include the transfer of power on policing and justice, the suspended status of the institutions and the absence of any clear commitment from the Ulster Unionist Party that it will work the institutions in a sustainable way. There is also the attempt to introduce sanctions against Sinn Féin, which are clearly outside the terms of the Agreement and this is unacceptable.

However, we continue to engage on these issues. All the issues in the Good Friday Agreement are issues of entitlements and rights, not subject to precondition by Governments, political parties or armed groups. This time five years ago the Good Friday Agreement would have been seen as an impossible achievement. Five years on, let us not underestimate the advances that have been made.

I wish all the negotiators well and look forward to real progress in the coming hours and days.

I am glad to have the opportunity to contribute to this debate on the peace process and its development on our island. I hope and pray that we have a positive engagement on this serious national issue. It is essential that we build on the magnificent progress made in the negotiations. I urge Deputies not to use this debate as a point scoring exercise and commend Deputies for not doing this so far. I also wish all groups and parties well in the negotiations. I know it is a difficult task and calls for brave and decisive leadership.

However, I am concerned that the Governments and the major parties have taken their eyes off the ball. Some people even seem to be trying to rewrite this Agreement. We need to start implementing it and ensure that people's rights are respected and equality is brought back on to the agenda.

I will not take any moral or ethical lectures from the likes of Mr. Blair and Mr. Bush, or anyone else in this House, regarding our peace process and conflict resolution. The slaughter in Iraq over the past 27 days has shown us where many of them stand on morality and the concept of a just war. There are people in this House that quietly supported the war from the sitting rooms. They should spare us the lectures when sections of the Irish people are trying to resolve their differences in a peaceful and democratic manner.

We should also remind ourselves that this is not the David Trimble agreement, it is the Good Friday Agreement. Many people also seem to ignore the views of the DUP. Regardless of what I think of them – I disagree strongly with the party – exclusion will not work. History has always taught us that exclusion is dangerous. I also believe that sanctions are dangerous and will not work. Neither Tony Blair nor anyone else has the right to give concessions to the Irish people. The people are entitled to their rights. Nobody has any right to block or stall that development and the extension of democracy on this island. This is what I mean by equality.

It might surprise members of the media, or Members of this House, that there still exists elected politicians that believe in Irish unity and independence. We believe in a free, democratic and intercultural Ireland based on equality and respect for difference. This is the new Ireland I see emerging from the Good Friday Agreement. The Ireland I want to build is anti-sectarian, anti-racist and looks after the men and women of no property. While there is great potential in this Agreement, we need to implement it as soon as possible. We need deep-rooted change in all aspects of society and should face this change together to tackle the causes of conflict. Ganging up on one side or getting involved in the blame game will not resolve the tough issues. We have made major progress over the past five years and we need to build on this. Let us also remind ourselves that this is a peace process – it is a process towards a greater goal.

I commend the leadership of Sinn Féin in its negotiations, particularly those it has held in recent days. Sinn Féin has shown decisive leadership and many future historians will probably record that its leaders had the same vision as the men and women of 1916. I long for the day when we see all the guns out of Irish politics and where political debate and dialogue replaces conflict. We have started the process, now let us move on.

I deplore, and I believe a majority of people on this island deplore, the cynical hijacking of the desire for peace here by the President of the United States and Mr. Blair in an attempt to portray themselves as men of peace, even as they were waging pitiless war in Iraq with the most cruel consequences for innocent civilians and thousands of ordinary Iraqi soldiers and conscripts. The Northern Ireland parties opposed to the war in Iraq should not have afforded Messrs Bush and Blair the kind of cover they were seeking. That the Taoiseach has reported no conclusion demonstrates that last Tuesday was a war summit and a cynical photo opportunity.

Working class people in Northern Ireland are, I believe, for the most part heartily fed up with the manoeuvrings and brinkmanship of the political parties. Based as they are on one side or other of the sectarian divide, ordinary people are increasingly alienated from the political in-fighting, the horse trading, the posturing and the grand standing because issues of fundamental concern in working class communities are being sidelined, and are not receiving the attention they need and the discussion that is deserved and required. While the Assembly is suspended the British Government and its agents in Northern Ireland are making far-reaching decisions with immense consequences for ordinary people down the line.

The privatisation of many crucial public services is being pushed through. Currently, hundreds of water service workers in the North are threatened with redundancies as that service is being prepared for privatisation. The Government is planning to bring in a water tax and a figure of £400 sterling has been mentioned. Housing continues to be a huge problem and poverty continues to be a major problem. Meanwhile we are faced with political parties based on one side or other of the sectarian divide and the institutionalisation of sectarianism which the structures of the Good Friday Agreement enshrine.

The reality is that new elections in those circumstances will further polarise the situation. Therefore, we need a new departure in political life in the North. We need the paramilitaries disbanded. They have never added an ounce of progress on any side to the lives or the welfare of working class people. We need the apparatus of State repression disbanded as well and we need the people who represent concerns on the ground, trade union activists, community activists, anti-war activists and young people, to begin the process of building a real peace process and a new political movement that can go across the sectarian divide and offer a real and a radical alternative to the problems that face Catholic and Protestant working class people equally. That is how a solution will be found to the problem on this island.

I thank the party leaders for their helpful and constructive statements and express my appreciation to the House in general for its continuing interest in, and support for, the Government's work in regard to the peace process.

As the Taoiseach outlined in his statement, the past six months has been a particularly intensive period in the collective task of fully implementing all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement. The suspension of the devolved institutions last October was related to a crisis of trust. As a result of a number of destabilising incidents and allegations, many Unionists no longer had the required confidence that republicans were committed to exclusively peaceful and democratic means. Equally, the Ulster Unionist Council of 21 September created doubts as to the commitment of that party to core elements of the Agreement, including the operation of inclusive institutions.

In their statement of 14 October last, the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister recognised this mutual deficit of confidence could only be addressed by substantially advancing the transition to exclusively peaceful and democratic means and, at the same time, ensuring the operation of stable and inclusive political institutions. It was our joint analysis that an incremental approach of gradually moving forward would no longer be sufficient to achieve these objectives. Five years after the Agreement, the deficit of confidence was such that a more radical and ambitious approach was required.

We needed to fast-forward the implementation of the outstanding aspects of the Agreement. Quantum leaps were required or, in the words of the Prime Minister Mr. Blair, acts of completion that brought closure to all outstanding commitments under the Agreement. This was a bold and ambitious approach that challenged all sides – the Governments, the parties and the paramilitary organisations.

In dialogue with the pro-Agreement parties, the two Governments have undertaken a huge amount of work auditing the progress that has been made over the past five years and bench-marking it against the objectives and undertakings of the Agreement. This work was undertaken in various formats; bilateral, trilateral and round-table meetings – implementation group meetings as they were known where all the parties who have an interest in this matter in terms of the full implementation of this Agreement – were held over several months to develop a broad consensus of the kind of steps that were required to constitute an overall acts of completion package.

From these discussions, two things were clear. First, that the question of the transition to exclusively democratic means was a key issue of confidence that had to be resolved if the institutions were to be sustainable. Second, that it could only be addressed in the enabling context of the full implementation of all aspects of the Agreement.

I pay tribute to all of the pro-Agreement parties for the contributions they made to our collective endeavours over recent months. While each of the parties has different views, needs and pressures, all of them share a common determination to see the Agreement succeed. Each of them, irrespective of size, has made a distinct and valuable contribution to the progress that has been made.

I place on record my appreciation of the quality of the working relationship that currently exists between both Governments. A key enabling condition of the progress made in recent years has been the solidity of the partnership between both Governments. That is most clearly reflected in the political partnership between the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister. They negotiated the Agreement as colleagues but are seeking to deliver it as friends. The leadership and commitment they have both shown has been vital in overcoming the various obstacles to implementation.

The strength of the partnership is reflected in the constructive working relationships between the two Governments at all levels. The progress we have made in recent years has been built on the foundation work of successive Taoisigh and Governments over several decades. This Government is very appreciative of those constructive foundations and of the bi-partisan support in this House for our ongoing work.

The discussions at Hillsborough on 3 and 4 March between the two Governments and the parties were very productive and a good deal of progress was made across a range of issues including policing, criminal justice, security normalisation, ending paramilitary activity and the human rights and equality agendas. Progress on all of these issues is central to achieving a normalised society. While there was a shared understanding between the parties on the broad import of this work, more time was required for reflection and internal consultation. Accordingly, both Governments agreed to return to Hillsborough in early April. For related reasons, the Assembly elections were also postponed by 4 weeks from 1 May to 29 May.

Arising out of the progress made, the Governments have now developed a comprehensive package of proposals which, we believe, could provide a solid basis for the necessary acts of completion. However, for this package to have the desired political impact, it must be clear that the consequential acts of completion will have the required confidence-building impact. That is why the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister laid such stress last Thursday on obtaining the required clarity and certainty.

Assuming that sufficient responses are forthcoming, it must be equally clear that the Ulster Unionist leadership will positively embrace the package as a reasonable and sustainable basis for participation in inclusive government. The stop-start phase of the operation of the Agreement must be seen to be over. As the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister said on Saturday, fulfilling the promise and potential of the Good Friday Agreement is a collective responsibility.

Last Thursday was the fifth anniversary of the Agreement. I know this House shared the disappointment of many that it did not prove possible for the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister to return to Northern Ireland on that day to publish their proposals. However, there would have been little purpose in doing so if publication did not achieve the quality of response that would have the potential to break the current impasse. The two Governments, therefore, judged it necessary to defer publication until there was sufficient clarification about the nature of those responses.

Some encouraging progress has been made since then. The Government has been keeping in close touch with the parties. All the pro-Agreement parties are to be commended for the responsible way they have dealt with the situation in recent days.

As the House will be aware, the two Governments sought clarification on a number of issues arising from the text of an IRA statement which we received on Sunday night. That clarification was received last night and is being studied by both Governments. The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach have discussed the matter by phone and will have an opportunity to consider it further when they meet at the European Council in Athens tomorrow.

Given the fluidity and sensitivity of the current situation, the House will appreciate that I am not at liberty to discuss the substance of the clarifications being sought. However, they are related to achieving together with the publication of the Governments' proposals, a political environment in which confidence and trust can be recreated leading into the Assembly elections on 29 May. The two Governments have been working around the clock in recent days to finalise work on these issues. If we can make the judgment that sufficient clarification of positions has been obtained, we will publish our full proposals.

The recent efforts of the two Governments have been greatly assisted by the support and encouragement received from our friends in the United States. President's Bush's meeting with the Governments and the parties last Tuesday in Hillsborough was a powerful reaffirmation of US support for the process. Not only has President Bush lent the power and prestige of his office to support our efforts, he has also given us the diplomatic skills of Ambassador Richard Haass who has been an assiduous facilitator of progress. As Deputies will be aware, Ambassador Haass has again spent the past few days in Northern Ireland meeting the parties, encouraging them to go the extra mile and remaining in close touch with the two Governments.

Whatever happens in the next few weeks, the people of Northern Ireland will go to the polls on 29 May to elect a new Assembly. Our immediate priority is to create a strong pro-Agreement platform for those elections. The people of Northern Ireland want to see devolved government by local Ministers that are accountable to them. Since the Agreement, they have seen devolved government in operation. They know it works and that it delivers tangible benefits for its citizens.

We must redouble our efforts in the coming days to ensure that, on 29 May, the people of Northern Ireland have before them an Agreement that is in full working order and that they have the credible prospect of electing members to an Assembly and Executive that are sustainable and that will again deliver them good government. In that scenario, I believe the people will remain constant to those parties who had the courage to commit themselves to the vision of the Agreement, who believed that, through partnership, Northern Ireland could be made a better place, who were prepared to take risks to light candles of hope rather than smugly curse the darkness.

No doubt some of those who have always been opposed to the Agreement will argue that the current difficulties are a validation of their argument for an alternative approach. They argue that a new agreement can be negotiated that will attract the clear majority support of both Unionists and Nationalists. Apart from blithely ignoring the fact that the Good Friday Agreement attracted the solemn endorsement of 85% on the island, they have failed to indicate how people in Northern Ireland, particularly Nationalists, could be persuaded to depart from the core principles, values and safeguards of the Agreement.

Do they seriously believe that key concepts of the Agreement, such as inclusive government and balanced North-South institutions, could be renegotiated? If so, I am not sure who the negotiating partners on the Nationalist side would be. As the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister said on 14 October, the Agreement remains the template for political progress and is the only sustainable basis for a fair and honourable accommodation between Unionists and Nationalists, loyalists and republicans.

When President Bush was in Hillsborough, he urged us to "achieve the Agreement, because it will have an effect beyond Northern Ireland". Despite the occasional frustrations we might feel, Northern Ireland is an encouraging case-study of conflict resolution. Compared to some other regions, Northern Ireland is a model of hope and encouragement for many areas of conflict in the globe.

In the coming days and weeks we must seize the opportunity to fully secure gains that have been made over the past five years; to consolidate the many achievements that the Agreement has brought us; and to translate our peace process into a peace settlement.

That is what our current work is about, why it is important that everyone can move forward together in mutual confidence and why, as we approach another Good Friday, we must finish the job begun five years ago of achieving a fresh start to relationships within and between these islands.