Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Dáil Éireann díospóireacht -
Wednesday, 18 Oct 2006

Vol. 625 No. 5

Northern Ireland Issues: Statements.

I propose to share my time with the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.

The two Governments and the Northern Ireland political parties met last week between 11 and 13 October at St. Andrews in Scotland. Following intensive and complex negotiations, Prime Minister Blair and I published what we believe represents a way forward for the restoration of the political institutions in March 2007. A copy of the agreement at St. Andrews has been placed in the Oireachtas Library.

We appreciate the commitment and engagement of all the parties at St. Andrews. In particular, I acknowledge the ongoing commitment of the Prime Minister and his determination to push for a conclusion of this process. I also appreciate the support and involvement of the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Minister for Foreign Affairs during these negotiations. Let me also express my appreciation to this House for its support for the progress we sought to achieve at St. Andrews. Our position derives enormous strength from the overall approach shared across parties in this Chamber. This bipartisan policy serves the country, and the peace process to which we are all committed, in a very real way.

Since the devolved institutions were suspended in October 2002, three previous sets of intensive negotiations have been aimed at restoring the devolved institutions. Each of these negotiations encountered its own difficulties and, ultimately, failed to bring about the restoration of the institutions. Earlier this year, when we met at Farmleigh, Prime Minister Blair and I decided that we should re-engage in a fresh effort to reach agreement this year. When we met in April in Armagh, we announced that we would work with the parties to have the institutions back in place by 24 November. We were firmly of the view that this push for completion was essential. The vacuum and overall sense of stalemate was not acceptable.

The meeting at St. Andrews took place against the background of the ending of the IRA campaign, the decommissioning of its weapons and the recent IMC report, which confirms the IRA is honouring its commitments. This summer was also among the most peaceful for many decades. All these developments, together with the engagement between the parties in recent months, represent real progress. The situation has, thus, never been more favourable for securing overall agreement.

At St. Andrews, Prime Minister Blair and I had a clear focus on what was needed. We were also very determined that the deadline of 24 November should be respected. Throughout the negotiations at St. Andrews, both Governments worked at an intensive level and in a spirit of partnership to bring the negotiations to a successful conclusion. These negotiations involved the inevitable highs and lows but, ultimately, the two Governments took upon themselves the responsibility of bringing forward a document for agreement.

The agreement which Prime Minister Blair and I presented to the parties at St. Andrews is balanced and fair. It addresses the reasonable concerns of all relating to the outstanding issues. If implemented, it will bring the peace process to a successful conclusion and assure a fair basis for government in Northern Ireland. In particular, it envisages wholehearted commitment by all to the full operation of stable power-sharing government and the North-South and east-west arrangements. It envisages full support for policing and the criminal justice institutions, including the policing board. It also addresses a number of other key issues in the areas of human rights, equality and victims and the question of a financial package for the newly restored Executive.

All the issues the Governments addressed at St Andrews are important. However, everyone in the House will recognise the importance of full support by all for the policing and criminal justice institutions. I welcome the indications from Sinn Féin of a willingness to see this matter resolved. If that can be achieved — I believe it can — then trust and confidence will follow and the devolution of policing and justice to the Executive can be achieved by May 2008. All of this would be profoundly beneficial for the process and help guarantee the stability and security that Northern Ireland so badly needs.

We have set out a fixed timetable for the implementation of this agreement and have asked the parties to confirm their acceptance by 10 November. Following endorsement of the St. Andrews Agreement by the parties, legislation will be passed at Westminster to address a number of practical changes to the operation of the Good Friday Agreement arising out of the 2004 review and more recent detailed engagement between the parties. The Attorney General will advise the Government on any constitutional implications that may arise as a consequence of these changes.

Many of these changes respond in a number of areas to the need for greater efficiency and transparency. They should enable all the institutions to operate in an effective and stable manner, with all parties engaging in good faith and in a spirit of genuine partnership. However, the key fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement — consent for constitutional change, commitment to exclusively peaceful and democratic means, stable inclusive partnership government, respect for equality and human rights and a balanced institutional accommodation of the key relationships on and between these islands — remain unchanged.

A particularly contentious issue surrounding the mechanisms for the appointment of the First and Deputy First Minister was addressed to the satisfaction of the parties. Proposed amendments to the pledge of office would require that Ministers fully participate in the Executive, North-South Ministerial Council and British-Irish Council and would observe the joint nature of the office of First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Further discussions in the new programme for government committee regarding policing and the rule of law in the context of the pledge of office are also envisaged.

There is provision for the establishment, consistent with the Good Friday Agreement, of a North-South parliamentary forum bringing members of the Seanad and this House together with members of the Assembly. The agreement at St. Andrews also envisages an independent consultative forum which would bring together representatives of civil society North and South, the establishment of an east-west interparliamentary framework as well as the establishment of a standing British-Irish Council secretariat.

The Assembly is expected to meet to nominate the First and Deputy First Minister on 24 November. This has always been a key date for the Governments, and it remains so. All going well, in less that six weeks, the people of Northern Ireland will have a First and Deputy First Minister for the first time in four years. This would clearly be of landmark significance. It will signal in a very real way that a shared and agreed future for Northern Ireland is in prospect. There will be an IMC report in January 2007.

In the light of our discussions with the parties, it is clear that some form of electoral endorsement of the agreement as a whole will be required in the new year. As of yet, the form of this endorsement is not decided. The Executive is due to be nominated on 14 March. Over the coming period, the new programme for government committee, at leadership level, will have the responsibility of agreeing all issues relevant to the work of the new Executive, thus ensuring that it operates immediately with effect from 26 March.

There is an enormous responsibility on all the parties to walk through the door opened at St. Andrews. The conditions for concluding this process have never been more promising. As usual, issues will arise and clarifications will be sought. I strongly urge parties not to walk away at the first challenge. Despite yesterday's setback, I hope the new programme for government committee will be able to convene without too much further delay.

It is essential that the momentum out of St. Andrews is maintained. The opportunity is there for everybody to engage and to agree. It is the belief of the two Governments that all of the parties should be able to endorse this agreement and to implement it in good faith, building the trust and confidence necessary for a stable and lasting settlement. The overwhelming response out of St. Andrews since last Friday is positive. There is a new impatience for progress. People can now see that agreement and a shared future is achievable. I urge the parties to work together and to hold their nerve in the face of those who will want to frustrate agreement.

Both Governments will remain in active contact with one another, as well as with the parties, as we seek to give effect to our work at St. Andrews. The process will continue to demand careful management to bring it to a successful completion. We are also clear that in the event of failure to reach agreement by 24 November, we will proceed on the basis of the new British-Irish partnership arrangements to implement the agreement.

Many things divide us in this House but there is general agreement across the House that no Member has done more to secure peace and stability on the island than the Taoiseach. We have been extremely fortunate too that for many years we have had a British Prime Minister in Tony Blair who has cared deeply about Ireland and devoted enormous effort and resourcefulness to addressing the issue.

It is, of course, a source of great disappointment to all of us that the Good Friday Agreement has yet to be fully implemented after such a long period. That Agreement represented the democratically expressed will of the people on both parts of the island, who are entitled to feel frustrated and disillusioned at the seemingly endless twists and turns that have thwarted its full implementation. We would do well, however, not to overlook the huge progress that has been made and the welcome fact that the daily lives of the people of Northern Ireland have been immeasurably improved, with benefits for all the people of these islands.

It would not be helpful here for me to rehearse recent history and seek to apportion blame but I will observe in passing that I suspect history will be kinder to parties of moderate opinion in the North than perhaps the electorate has been of recent times. However, we are where we are and St. Andrews was about getting from there to where we want to be. The Governments, following intensive and extensive discussions with all the parties, were able to map out a way forward. It is in the nature of events that this represents and requires compromise on all sides.

It is well known that there were two key and related issues. Put simply, would the DUP enter into an Executive with Sinn Féin and would Sinn Féin take the necessary steps to facilitate this through support for policing and the rule of law? At the preliminary round table session, based on broad principles set out by party leaders, there were some grounds for optimism but it quickly emerged during the course of bilateral discussions that there was still a wide gulf between statements of broad principle and turning them into practical steps which the parties involved were prepared to take. The fundamental conundrum was that the DUP was unwilling to enter an Executive without Sinn Féin having taken certain steps in relation to policing, while Sinn Féin for its part was unwilling to take steps of this kind without an Executive being in place.

It was against this background that eventually a sequencing of actions, including the early nomination of First Minister and Deputy First Minister, was devised, which we believe has the potential to bridge seemingly irreconcilable positions. It seems to us that the commitment to exclusively political and democratic means, which the Good Friday Agreement requires, inevitably must involve support for the rule of law and criminal justice institutions including, in particular, the Police Service of Northern Ireland. However, the Agreement requires too that power is shared between those parties which are so committed. It is not unreasonable, given the traditional attitude of the Democratic Unionist Party to the Good Friday Agreement, to look for tangible evidence that it is willing to operate the institutions.

I have always been, and will remain, a fervent opponent of the Provisional IRA. As Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, it was my duty to highlight the unacceptable activities by that movement even when on ceasefire, particularly in regard to criminality. For my troubles I was criticised as an enemy of the peace process but the truth is that the spotlight which was shone by Government on those activities has helped that movement to face up to these issues. I fully share the assessment of the Independent Monitoring Commission that it has done so. Sinn Féin's past, its outlook and its very mindset may be politically distant to me and many others but, particularly against the background of the developments at St. Andrews, the impediments to Sinn Féin being in an Executive in the North no longer exist.

A question which the DUP often asks and frequently asked at St. Andrews is why is it expected to share power with Sinn Féin when many parties in this House would be unwilling to do so. The answer, of course, is that power sharing in Northern Ireland is not a voluntary matter. Everyone who passes the threshold of commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means is entitled, as of right, on the d'Hondt principle, to participate in executive power under the Agreement.

Yesterday's events were not as positive as some might have hoped but if there is a will to work around difficulties, it will happen. In the real world compromise does not involve surrender. While the Governments will continue to play a positive and supportive role the issues can only be ultimately resolved by goodwill on the part of the public representatives in the North. That is what the people of the North expect and are entitled to. I am sure many look forward to the day when they will seek to have their issues and problems addressed in Belfast rather than in Dublin or London.

Before concluding I remind the House that there remains among us a small group of dissident men of violence on both sides, particularly dissident republicans, who believe they can thwart the will of the vast majority through violence. I assure the House that no effort will be spared by the Garda Síochána, in co-operation with the PSNI, to deal firmly and effectively with their activities.

While the Governments know what they must do if the institutions are not restored, what was agreed at St. Andrews is clearly the way forward. As we know too well, it would be foolish to think that its implementation will be simple or straightforward. However, Dr. Paisley spoke movingly last Friday of a better future for his grandchildren. I believe his grandchildren and all the grandchildren of the present generation in Ulster deserve that future. They cannot be expected to forgive us lightly if we fail.

To all of those involved in the process in Northern Ireland I say "do not look back over your shoulder at those who are reluctant to walk through the door" — as the Taoiseach put it. Now is the time for people to show leadership, bravery and commitment.

I wish to share my time with Deputy Crawford.

Is that agreed? Agreed.

It is the case that the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Blair have spent an enormous amount of time deliberating about Northern Ireland. However, it is also the case that Governments over the years have put in place parts of the jigsaw that allowed that to happen. This is why my party has always consistently supported the Government's efforts to achieve and implement the Good Friday Agreement in full. It would be remiss of me not to refer to the part played by Liam Cosgrave, Garret FitzGerald and John Bruton, as leaders of my party and as taoisigh, in respect of the Sunningdale Agreement, the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Framework Document, all of which were central to the process which has brought us to a point where the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Blair attempt to do their duty in bringing about a conclusion to the Agreement. In that sense, I welcome the opportunity to contribute to these statements.

I welcome the progress made by the Provisional movement towards democracy in the past 15 months. I agree that the evidence produced in the Independent Monitoring Commission's reports speaks for itself. I hope the IRA has moved away from the activities in which it was previously involved, as the Garda Commissioner recently announced. This is welcome. I hope it is the case and will always continue to be so. I accept the statement by the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform that the impetus of the Garda Síochána will be to see that this does not happen, if it is humanly preventable.

I hope the positive signals emanating from the loyalist community in recent times will result in the loyalist paramilitary organisations formally ending their activities, as the IRA has done. I urge the Taoiseach and Tánaiste to assist in the delivery of new measures to support the development of community projects in these areas. I have visited these areas on a number of occasions and it is obvious there is a deep-rooted frustration and resentment at some of the progress made in other areas, as seen by loyalist groups. The good people in these communities should be supported in their desire to see democracy work for their communities. This requires demonstrable evidence of investment in community facilities that are evident in many other areas, so such communities do not feel alienated from the political process.

It should be acknowledged and recognised that there has been increased willingness by the Democratic Unionist Party to engage in dialogue with the political parties and other organisations in the Republic in recent months and for the future. As leader of Fine Gael I have had two meetings with the Reverend Ian Paisley in the past nine months and I have witnessed this openness at first hand. Dr. Paisley was genial and open but expressed the very frank view that he would not be shoved around by anybody, and that he would state his views very clearly. His willingness to have this dialogue is to be welcomed. I heard the message about his desire for his grandchildren and the next generation to have a community to grow up in of which they can be proud. I also heard the message that the DUP is not likely to be, or prepared to be, constrained by any agenda or timetable other than its own.

Against that relatively positive background, I welcome the progress made at St. Andrews towards restoration of power sharing, although the original November deadline cannot now be met.

It appears, however, as if all parties recognise that full and unconditional support for the police and the justice system is essential if we are to have any durable settlement here. It also appears that we are now in sight of the end-game position.

It should be remembered, however, that the St. Andrews agreement is an agreement between the two Governments and that reaching agreement between the parties is a far greater challenge. This has been brought into sharper focus by the abandonment of the meeting yesterday. I was not surprised by this nor do I believe was anybody else. We should prepare ourselves for possible further setbacks along the way as all parties will seek to reassure their individual communities. What is more encouraging, however, is that none of the parties has walked away from the process or rejected the timetable that was set out between the Governments in the St. Andrews agreement.

I want to express two causes of concern. The first is that part of the latest problem appears to have its origin in a private side arrangement between the Government and individual parties. Dr. Paisley speaks of a piece of paper from the British Prime Minister. A similar situation arose here previously, about which I made a case, when a sort of agreement was made with Sinn Féin at the time about the proposal to release the murderers of detective Garda Jerry McCabe. It also arose in regard to speaking rights in the Dáil and the presidential pardon for the so-called on-the-runs. The issue yesterday appears to have centred on an agreement or a piece of paper given to Dr. Paisley by the British Prime Minister and Dr. Paisley said he would produce that in public if that were necessary. If we are into the business of doing side deals again, it lessens the impact of all the parties wanting to get on with this business. That is the reason I repeat that I am concerned about what I believe is the continued marginalisation of the SDLP which has always courageously opened up political dialogue with the republican movement and others, and I am concerned that this should not be cast aside. Both Governments need to recommit themselves to the inclusive all-party transparent model of negotiations envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement.

I welcome the Taoiseach's pledge to consult the Opposition parties on the mechanism for creating democratic approval for the revised timetable. As part of that consultation, I would like to see clarity on whether the proposals have any constitutional implications. I would like to see the advice and the analysis of the Attorney General before we move on that. My first reading of the proposals indicate that they encompass relatively minor rather than fundamental changes to the Agreement. They appear to be very similar to the changes set out in December 2004 in a draft comprehensive agreement, and at that time there was no question of a constitutional referendum being flagged. My belief is that if a constitutional referendum on the fundamental issue of the agreement is not required, this House could give a democratic mandate and a democratic political imprimatur to the changes being made arising from the St. Andrews talks. I believe that would have the support of everybody concerned and we would not have to stray into a fundamental constitutional issue. I hope the Attorney General’s advice will be given to us. Members of the public in the South would be happy to have a political endorsement from the Dáil of all parties and all Members who support this rather than having to stray into constitutional business.

The Taoiseach said that some form of electoral endorsement on page four of the agreement as a whole will be required in the new year. I ask whoever will reply to this debate to clarify if that is in respect of Northern Ireland only or the island. The Taoiseach spoke of electoral endorsement and possible constitutional implications. Dr. Paisley has made it clear that he would like an election at an early date and if that is an electoral endorsement in the North, that is a different matter.

In respect of the vote on 24 November, somebody might clarify whether this is to be on the appointment of those concerned as designated First Minister and Deputy First Minister only, which would relieve Mr. Martin McGuinness of having to take an oath which might cause him a problem in the event that Sinn Féin cannot have an Ard-Fheis before 24 November. I know that arrangements were made previously for cross-compliance here without a vote being required from Dr. Paisley or Sinn Féin. Perhaps that matter will be elaborated on or clarified. If we are to have agreement and dialogue, perhaps some arrangement will be made, or in that respect what is to be involved?

I thank my party leader for the opportunity to say a few words on this important issue. There is no doubt there is an enormous responsibility on all parties to walk the walk and not just walk through the door. They have engaged in a great deal of talking in recent times and it is important that they now deliver.

I welcome this opportunity to speak on this vital issue and, above all, I welcome the change of attitude of some of those involved in the Northern Ireland political system. As a person living in and representing the two Border counties of Cavan and Monaghan, I know better than most the cost of the Northern Ireland difficulties, not only in terms of human death and many people carrying injuries for the rest of their lives but also the serious loss to our economy from lack of investment, tourism etc.

While I congratulate all those involved in the St. Andrews agreement we must remember it is only an agreement between two Governments and it will take a great deal of work, commitment and, above all, trust to make it a reality. Only yesterday we got some indication of how difficult that will be. It is important the DUP makes a reality of what it has promised and accepts democratic power through sharing, but equally it is vital that Sinn Féin accepts and commits itself to law and order and the police force, which is necessary to provide security and law and order for everybody.

After ten years of discussions and debate, it is time for everyone to face reality and deliver that faith and trust for which so many of our people yearn. It is now more than ten years since my party leader, as the then Minister for Tourism and Trade, set up the process to market the island of Ireland as one entity and that eventually became Tourism Ireland. It could do much more work successfully in Northern Ireland and the six Border counties if the Assembly was up and running, as it should be.

Unfortunately, I can think of other organisations such as Waterways Ireland which do not have the same record. Waterways Ireland, like other North-South bodies, is still under the care and maintenance strategy and it is difficult to get an answer to the question as to what will happen to these bodies if the Assembly is not up and running by the end of March. Waterways Ireland is of specific interest to me and many others in the Border region because of the importance of projects such as the Ulster Canal. Never had this nation more finance available and the Tánaiste said we do not need it all, yet projects such as the reopening of the Ulster Canal depend on the Northern Ireland Assembly working with the Government to let Waterways Ireland do its job.

Will the Taoiseach advise us what will happen to the North-South bodies' care and maintenance strategy if the Assembly does not work? Having been involved in many background meetings with the DUP and others over the past 12 months or so, I note that attitudes have changed dramatically. I have no doubt there is a willingness to do business, but fine words and statements regarding commitments are not enough. We are at the stage where delivery is vital — I say this to both sides, not only to one side — if the trust needed to deliver the fully operational democratic Assembly is to be achieved.

As vice chair of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body, on behalf of the Fine Gael Party, I am proud that for the first time in the history of that organisation we will have our next meeting in Belfast. At our spring meeting in Kerry, the DUP attended for the first time to address it, which was also a major breakthrough. That body has played a tremendous role in breaking down barriers between the two Parliaments. It can play a major role in the future not only on an east-west basis but also on a North-South basis. As Dr. Ian Paisley said at the weekend, if the Assembly works, all the children of Northern Ireland can look forward to a peaceful and bright future. Only hard work and a building of trust can achieve this.

At a recent meeting of the British-Irish Association in Oxford, I witnessed first hand people from both sides of the divisions in Northern Ireland talking and working together like people who could do business.

That meeting was in private so I will say nothing more about it but it gave an indication of what is possible if goodwill and trust exist. Such goodwill and trust can be achieved and I urge both sides to ensure they deliver on the commitments given at St. Andrews. There should be no procrastination or further questions. The parties should get down to the job at hand and deliver. Then, as Dr. Paisley has said, and Mr. Adams would also say, there can be a peaceful and bright future for our children, not just in Northern Ireland but on the island of Ireland.

I acknowledge the work and effort of the two Governments, especially that of the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, who have invested a great deal of time in the peace process over the past decade. There have been so many false dawns in recent years that it was very welcome to see the St. Andrews talks conclude on a positive note last week. We all want to see the process work, the institutions return and Northern Ireland become a fully peaceful, democratic and lawful society. With that in mind the leader of Fine Gael and I issued a joint statement last week wishing the Taoiseach and the Government well in their endeavours in Scotland.

However, we must be careful not to get carried away with the outcome of the negotiations nor the text of the St. Andrews agreement. The lack of detail and the vague and merely suggestive timetable outlined in the annex could, but hopefully will not, lead to breakdown in the near future. Yesterday we saw differences emerge between the parties over what is said to be on policing in the pledge of office. This led to the DUP leader not attending a meeting with Sinn Féin and the postponement of the programme for government committee. With the DUP claiming an understanding was agreed in St. Andrews and Sinn Féin claiming there was nothing of the sort, this could well be a sign of trouble ahead. For the moment we will have to trust the Taoiseach's assertion that there was no side deal and that the parties will deal with this issue in Stormont.

The reality is that the talks at St. Andrews were presented by both Governments to the parties and the rest of us, in public and private briefings, as the last opportunity in the immediate future to secure any agreement that could lead to political progress and the restoration of the democratic institutions in Northern Ireland. Perhaps for that reason and perhaps necessarily, a heightened level of expectation was created by both Governments in advance of the opening of negotiations. The outcome also seems to have a certain amount of hype attached.

Last Friday I described the outcome of the talks as being, in reality, somewhat disappointing and, notwithstanding the surrounding spin, that assessment is still accurate. This is particularly so in regard to the planned sequencing of events. It may have been that the deadlines set by the two Governments were simply too ambitious. There are multiple issues about timing and sequencing that remain unresolved. The Governments' supposedly unalterable deadline of 24 November will not be met but there will be interim shadow arrangements to bridge the gap and, it is hoped, lead on to March of next year.

Much can still go wrong. However, the fact that, so far, it seems no party is in a wrecking mood gives justifiable grounds for continuing cautious optimism. If the outcome of the talks had been that all parties now accepted the police and courts and had clear agreement on transition to power sharing, then it would have represented an important step forward. However, it has become harder and harder to make out what was agreed at St. Andrews and by whom. This is because the St. Andrews agreement is not yet an agreement at all. Rather it is in an announcement by the two Governments of an indicative timetable for a process they hope will lead to agreement.

It seems that if the process is to succeed, the parties must return with their indications of support by 10 November. The issue is one of sequencing. Sinn Féin must, at some stage, indicate support for policing and take its seats on the policing board. The DUP must, at some stage, indicate a willingness to accommodate Sinn Féin in devolved power sharing structures. Which stage comes first? Both sides agree that ultimately a Northern Ireland Executive will have devolved responsibility for policing and criminal justice. Sinn Féin would prefer to postpone its step until that devolution takes place, which cannot be before 2008. The DUP says it will not permit Sinn Féin to be in the Executive unless and until its support for policing is confirmed. How does one bridge the gap in timing?

Initially the DUP seemed happy with the St. Andrews agreement because, according to it, the Governments' plan requires all parties to indicate approval for the agreement by 10 November, including Paragraphs 5 and 6 of said agreement. It is worth putting them on the record. Paragraph 5 reads:

We have consistently said that support for policing and the rule of law should be extended to every part of the community. We believe that all the parties share this objective. Notwithstanding the right of every political party to hold the police to account, we believe that there are fundamental principles of support for the police and the courts which underpin any democratic society.

Paragraph 6 states:

We believe that the essential elements of support for law and order include endorsing fully the Police Service of Northern Ireland and the criminal justice system, actively encouraging everyone in the community to co-operate fully with the PSNI in tackling crime in all areas and actively supporting all the policing and criminal justice institutions, including the Policing Board.

The DUP seems to believe that, regardless of when the Ard-Fheis takes place or the Ard Comhairle meets, within less than a month Sinn Féin must sign up to these two paragraphs. It also believes that, in addition, the nominees for First and Deputy First Minister next November will be required to make a declaration on entering into office that will include, among other commitments, support for the police service. However, we are told that Sinn Féin has quite a different understanding of its commitments on policing and the timetable for delivery.

In the past, and again last week, Mr. Mark Durkan, Sir Reg Empey and many politicians in the South, including myself, have expressed concern about side deals reached between the two Governments, the DUP and Sinn Féin. We warned against having any further such deals at St. Andrews but yesterday Dr. Paisley said: "We are in this fight to keep the British Government to the promises they made. None of these promises are verbal. They are promises which were written down. They know if they don't keep them, these writings will be taken out and pushed down their throats publicly." Will the Taoiseach tell us to what written proposals the DUP leader is referring? Is it possible there are yet more side deals, unilateral agreements and unpublished understandings between the two Governments and individual parties in Northern Ireland?

It is worth remembering that questions about the nature and extent of such side deal commitments have contributed to the derailment of earlier agreements. The inherent instability of the Good Friday Agreement itself flowed from a letter from the British Prime Minister, Mr. Blair to Mr. David Trimble, written and handed over on the margins of the Stormont talks. The letter promised that if there was no IRA decommissioning within six months of the Assembly going live, the rules would be changed to exclude Sinn Féin from ministerial office. The promise set out in that letter proved to be completely ineffective. Now we hear about a new oath or pledge of office, which Dr. Ian Paisley and Mr. Martin McGuinness will apparently have to swear on accepting nomination to their posts, explicitly endorsing the PSNI, the Northern Ireland courts and the rule of law. Yet, when one checks the published papers, one discovers there is no reference, good, bad or indifferent, in any of the St. Andrews documents, to proposed changes, general or specific, to what any such oath, pledge or endorsement may contain. There is, admittedly, reference to a possibility that the British Government will legislate for any future agreement at which the DUP and Sinn Féin arrive in a Stormont committee. Therefore, there is of course no reference as to when it should be taken. Not surprisingly, the two parties now have radically different interpretations about what this unwritten requirement might entail.

Dr. Paisley believes the new oath must be sworn before he and Martin McGuinness become shadow First and Deputy First Minister in November. The British Government has indicated it applies only next February. The difference is significant, and if one listens to the DUP, it could become a deal breaker.

In summary, what we have published by the two Governments is a detailed timetable pointing to a resumption of power sharing government by 26 March next year. We have no corresponding clarity or detail on the internal Sinn Féin processes needed to resolve the outstanding question of policing.

As I read it at present, however, Sinn Féin will not endorse policing until the institutions are restored and there is a firm timetable for devolving criminal justice to the North. Even then, we do not know when they will take their seats on the boards. The DUP, on the other hand, will not restore the institutions until Sinn Féin endorses policing.

According to Nigel Dodds, under the St. Andrews arrangements, before Sinn Féin can take office, it must first demonstrate support for the PSNI. Mr. Dodds stated:

The DUP ensured that a triple-lock on devolution of policing and justice remains in place, including a unionist veto in the Assembly. This absolutely crucial victory means that Sinn Féin has to start signing up almost immediately to support for the rule of law, the institutions of policing, justice and the courts. This signing up must happen both in word and by actions over a clear testing period. All this with no concession on the part of the DUP to any timetable for devolution of policing or justice powers. Our position has consistently been that devolution of policing can only happen when there is confidence for such a move in the community.

On the other hand, the Sinn Féin position is — there is no agreement that Mr. McGuinness would endorse the PSNI in order to secure prior nomination as Deputy First Minister, it has not agreed any pledge or oath to be sworn by Martin McGuinness ahead of a special Ard-Fheis, it is not yet in a position to put a proposal to a meeting of the Ard-Chomhairle let alone an Ard-Fheis, it will not hold its Ard-Fheis before the deadline of 24 November and it may not agree to actually take up policing board seats until responsibility for policing is devolved to a Ministry of the Northern Ireland Executive.

From the South's point of view, it seems the Taoiseach believes a referendum may be required. There are two important points here. The first issue about a referendum is that, while one may be necessary in the South, the two Northern parties, Sinn Féin and the DUP, may well prefer an election. The agreement itself fudges the question and refers simply to "endorsement by the electorate of the St. Andrews agreement". Whether endorsement is by an election or a referendum is not a minor or technical question. It will change the whole dynamic of the next six months.

As I have previously stated, the asserted need for some form of "electoral endorsement" should not be used simply to further strengthen the political extremes at the expense of the more moderate parties who have done so much to bring about an end to violence, and to bring Northern Ireland to the position where it is today.

The second issue, more directly relevant down here, is that we do not know what aspect of this proposed new agreement the Taoiseach considers may require constitutional cover. The risk is that advice leading to a conclusion that a referendum is needed might be, or be seen to be, partisan or opportunistic, and that a general election might be added to the same general timescale as the referendum for purely party political purposes. The question is whether the changes now being made to the Good Friday Agreement are such as to require an amendment to the Constitution. Surely this would be decided by reference to what impact the proposed new arrangements would have on the Constitution. If the changes are to internal Northern Ireland Strand One rules and procedures, how do they impact on our Constitution? I fail to see how what we know of the present proposals — while they undoubtedly amount to an amendment of arrangements made under the original Good Friday Agreement — raise constitutional issues, since they do not further encroach into areas protected by overarching constitutional requirements. The Taoiseach ought to explain his thinking further on this important aspect.

In this contribution I have tried to set out in a frank and honest manner the problems facing the two Governments and the parties in Northern Ireland if we want to see the optimism created by the outcome of the St. Andrews talks translated into concrete political progress. Political progress since the heady days of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 has been tortuously slow. Too often it has been a case of two steps forward and one step back and on a few occasions, even one step forward and two steps back.

It is important that the momentum has been forward. Sometimes in the midst of what often appears like interminable wrangling between the parties involved, it is easy to lose sight of the fact that the situation has changed beyond recognition over the past ten years. Almost 3,500 people died between 1969 and the mid-1990s. Politically motivated violence has now become virtually a thing of the past, and I hope it will soon become permanently a thing of the past.

IRA decommissioning has been achieved despite the boasts of the hard-liners not too long ago that "not a bullet, not an ounce" would be handed over. Violence by loyalist paramilitary organisations has declined hugely and I hope they too will soon be knocking on General de Chastelain's door.

The Deputy's time is concluded. We have limited time. The Deputy is one minute over.

It is disappointing that the Good Friday Agreement has not led to the strengthening of the political centre in Northern Ireland as many people had hoped, and that the principal political beneficiaries appear to have been the parties of the extreme. We owe a great debt of gratitude to parties like the SDLP and the Ulster Unionist Party, which kept the process alive through the many dark days since 1998.

I propose to share time with Deputies Sargent, Finian McGrath and Joe Higgins.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an deis próiseas na síochána a phlé. Bhí mé i láthair ag na cainteanna in Albain, agus creidim go bhfuil dul chun cinn déanta ag gach páirtí agus ag an dá Rialtas. Tá bunús maith ann anois Comhaontú Aoine an Chéasta a chur i bhfeidhm go hiomlán.

Having attended the talks in St. Andrews in Scotland, I believe very significant progress has been made towards the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. The basis for further progress has been put in place, and it is up to the two Governments and all parties to build on that basis.

Yesterday the DUP pulled out of a meeting of the programme for Government committee, a direct engagement with Sinn Féin arising directly from the St. Andrews talks. The pretext for this pull-out was the DUP's interpretation of the pledge of office for the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. I wish to point out very clearly at the outset that Sinn Féin has suggested changes to the pledge of office which we believe would be helpful. If the DUP wishes to make other suggestions, it should be talking to Sinn Féin.

There is no substitute for direct dialogue between the DUP and Sinn Féin. The DUP has yet to come to terms with that but it must do so if we are to build on progress made to date. As I have stated, St. Andrews formed a basis for movement forward, but much more remains to be done. That needs to hammered out with direct dialogue.

The DUP has also linked the issue of policing to its conduct yesterday. I should again be very clear on Sinn Féin's position on policing. Sinn Féin is for proper civic, democratic and accountable policing. What we are against is bad policing and bad law and order. We are against political policing, counter-insurgency policing and policing as a weapon of war, which has been the norm in the Six Counties for generations.

Sinn Féin is about changing all of this, and we have made huge progress in recent years. The issue before us is whether policing in the Six Counties has reached a stage where it can enjoy the support of all the community. Our job is to resolve all of the outstanding matters and help to create a proper policing service. It will be the PSNI's job to prove itself to the community.

For our part we want to see rapid progress made on this issue. We believe such progress is possible. When this happens, and in the right context, uachtarán Shinn Féin, Gerry Adams, will go to the party's Ard Chomhairle to ask it to call a special Ard-Fheis on the matter. It will then be the membership of Sinn Féin that will decide our position.

It needs to be stressed that the St. Andrews document is an agreement between the two Governments. The parties have not signed up to it. This process is work in progress and much remains to be worked out between the parties. There is real hope, despite yesterday's events, that the DUP has come to accept the democratic mandate of Sinn Féin and to accept the need to share power with its Nationalist and republican neighbours. That will be tested in the period ahead and Sinn Féin is anxious to facilitate the DUP in taking that step forward, a step forward that will surely benefit all the people of the Six Counties and of Ireland as a whole.

If Sinn Féin is to respond positively to the St. Andrews agreement the proposals therein must have the potential to deliver equality, accountable civic policing, human rights and the full restoration of the political institutions established by the Good Friday Agreement. We are commencing a process of internal discussion with the membership of Sinn Féin on the St. Andrews document, on the outstanding issues which are still subject to negotiation and on the way forward. That is a very important process. I urge people generally, as I did yesterday, of all parties and none, to read and study the St. Andrews document and to participate in the public discussions. This is not just a matter for the two Governments and the parties in the Six Counties, this is about the future of Ireland and of all the people who regard this island as their home.

At St. Andrews the British Government made a number of commitments, which must now be delivered, on issues including the all-Ireland parliamentary forum and the all-Ireland civic forum, the removal of the British Government power to suspend the political institutions, a statutory obligation for relevant Ministers to attend meetings of the all-Ireland ministerial council, the establishment of a bill of rights forum by the end of the year, a single equality Bill, an Irish language Act, tackling discrimination against ex-prisoners and an end to the bar on Irish citizens accessing top Civil Service posts in the Six Counties.

The Irish Government also has obligations it must meet. These include real representation for Six County elected representatives here in the Dáil — that responsibility falls on all parties. It includes the setting aside of the draconian Offences Against the State Acts. It must accelerate its efforts to integrate infrastructure and public services on an all-Ireland basis and provide a real peace dividend for those communities most adversely affected by partition and conflict. There remains the issue of republican prisoners, which must also be faced up to.

Sinn Féin does not believe that either a referendum or an election in the North or South is required in the event of the St. Andrews proposals being agreed by all the parties. The extremist wing of any party here might like to note that. In our view it does not and should not alter the fundamentals of the Good Friday Agreement. That Agreement is the basis for progress now and always.

Tá sé go maith go bhfuil an díospóireacht seo ann agus cuirim fáilte roimhe. Yesterday's developments involving Mr. Paisley and Mr. Adams were disappointing. However, these must be set in context. Last week and in the early stages of the meeting at St. Andrews it appeared that no deal would be possible. The parties have made progress in recent days and, indeed, in recent years. In all those years, the policing issue has not gone away. It must be resolved and I urge all parties to the talks to push ahead in co-operation for an agreement on this issue. Regarding the current dispute over the pledge of office, I urge parties to examine imaginative solutions, such as the SDLP's suggestion of a temporary shadow pledge. This issue should not be allowed to stand in the way of agreement.

While the Green Party, Comhaontas Glas, welcomes the St. Andrews agreement, even in its provisional form, I am concerned that, in advance of any final agreement, the Taoiseach, at this very early stage, has been seen to push for a referendum. We have concerns that another referendum may take from the foundational significance of the Good Friday Agreement which the Irish people view as the cornerstone of the process. Referenda should only be used if absolutely necessary, and that necessity has not been demonstrated to date. Moreover, with a general election approaching, the electoral benefits for the Government parties or for other parties should not enter into consideration. The focus should be entirely on the well-being of the people of these islands.

I urge all parties to remain focused on the business of delivering democracy to the people of Northern Ireland. There are fundamental issues for the economy and society which urgently need to be addressed. Education, health, transport and energy are the issues with which public representatives should be dealing. These issues have nothing to do with questions of nationalism or unionism, but rather are fundamental to the quality of life of everybody on these islands.

Take, for instance, energy, the issue that is fundamental to our economic well-being and quality of life. Dealing with energy on an all-island basis has nothing to do with nationalism. Dealing with Ireland's transport energy needs, given our status as an island nation, has nothing to do with nationalism either. It has everything to do with the well-being of the people of this island. East-west energy interconnections should never be seen as a form of toying with commonwealth. Increasing east-west connections on energy should be used for exporting surplus energy from this island, a surplus which renewable energy sources could provide. Likewise, east-west co-operation to protect people from nuclear accidents is simply a pragmatic response to a grave threat.

I urge the parties to the process to focus on practical solutions in a finite world which will ensure the quality of life of the people who elect them and pay their salaries. The Green Party has welcomed the fact that the Government is likely to support, at EU level, the designation of Northern Ireland as a special region for tax status, which would allow the harmonisation of corporate tax rates with the Republic. The harmonisation of corporate tax rates would help job creation in the North, reduce its competitive disadvantage with the Republic, give a spin-off boost to service jobs in the Border region and benefit the economy of the island as a whole. Such reform fits into the Green Party's policy on economic reform, which wants to shift taxes away from the cost of creating and sustaining jobs and towards the consumption of non-renewable resources. It is the Green Party's view that such harmonisation of corporate tax rates, North and South, should prioritise indigenous industry and the small and medium enterprise sector above foreign direct investment, which is temporary by nature.

In the medium term, I ask the Taoiseach, once again, to consider allowing a more structured and active contribution to the process from Opposition parties. As the Taoiseach knows, parties in this House have consistently supported Government policy on this issue, even before the Good Friday Agreement came into being, but we cannot help progress matters if we are excluded from the process.

There is now an opportunity for politics in the North to take a leap forward and political leaders will be judged very harshly if they fail to grasp the opportunity currently in front of them. I encourage all the Northern parties, the DUP and Sinn Féin in particular, to remain focused on the hugely important work at hand and deliver the outcome which people from all communities in the North deserve and for which they have waited for far too long.

I thank the Acting Chairman for the opportunity to speak on recent developments in the North of Ireland and the St. Andrews talks. I wish the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, well and offer my full support on this very important national issue.

I have some concerns about the delays and posturing which are taking place. I urge caution on the part of the Taoiseach when dealing with negotiations. I urge caution when dealing with the DUP and the British Government. Historically Britain has employed strategies of deception to obtain its diplomatic objectives. These tactics seek to deceive opponents into believing they are working towards one goal when they are working towards another one more compatible with British interests. I raise these issues to urge the Taoiseach to keep his eye on the ball and not be distracted by a sophisticated British agenda, supported by their two-nations supporters in this State. The Taoiseach's job is to represent the people on the island, as Tony Blair represents his interests. I particularly address these comments to the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy McDowell.

I find it totally unacceptable that in the middle of a peace process, with all the talk of disarmament, one side to the conflict, the British, is building a vast new MI5 spying centre in Holywood, County Down. This raises serious questions about Britain's real intentions in Ireland. It is simply not good enough and I expect a strong response from our Government. After all, these are the people who were involved in the killing of Pat Finucane and in planting bombs in Dublin and Monaghan in 1974.

We are all working hard to remove the guns from Irish politics, yet these military spooks want to build spying centres in County Down. This hypocrisy must be challenged.

Following the DUP's recent attempts to move the goalposts, most people on the island are now becoming sick and tired of its antics. It must respect democracy and come into the real political world where difference and diversity are accommodated. The DUP cannot be allowed to destroy the agreement and block the path of the vast majority of the Irish people, Roman Catholic, Protestant, Muslim, Jew and dissenter. The DUP must be told it is not entitled to stop the will of the Irish people.

We should never be afraid to say where we stand politically. I stand for Irish unity and independence, and by the teachings of Tone and Connolly, and will work with English, Scottish and Welsh democrats to bring about change, justice, equality, unity and peace on our island.

The deal cobbled together in St. Andrews in Scotland between the British and Irish Governments and the political parties in Northern Ireland is called an agreement. In reality it is shaky, full of contradictions, and will be prone to collapse because it was an agreement to agree something general with major issues left outstanding.

Deals worked out between parties which are sectarian-based cannot by definition address the real problems affecting the communities in Northern Ireland, including crucially sectarian division itself, which continues to blight the lives of working class people in particular. There is a deal with general outlines underpinned no doubt by several private assurances to parties, which would be interpreted differently depending on which sectarian bloc is concerned. A deal between Sinn Féin and the DUP does not get to the roots of sectarian divisions and eight years after the Good Friday Agreement the communities are unfortunately more divided than ever.

This deal is based on neo-liberal, right wing economic policies pushed by the Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, and by the Irish Government. Such economic concessions as it contains, including a cap on rates and cuts in corporation tax, benefit the wealthy and corporations. There is nothing in this to stop the imposition of a significant burden of water charges on working class people and their communities which will be a major issue down the line.

On the basis of the institutionalisation of sectarianism on which these deals are based there will inevitably be crisis after crisis as party leaders play to an agenda which is based on sectarian division, depending on which sectarian camp they claim to represent. A radical policy on strategy that builds the unity of working class people in Northern Ireland across sectarian divisions addressing the key problems that they face, and the national question, is the way forward. Unfortunately, a solution for the peoples of Northern Ireland will not come from two right wing Governments and parties which are based on sectarian divisions.

I thank the various Members for contributing to this debate and for the broad cross-party goodwill they have expressed towards the discussions that took place over the past few weeks and days. The Government thanks all those who have been concerned in the so-called "hothouse talks", including the Taoiseach and Tánaiste, and Mr. Blair who in very difficult circumstances spent a great deal of time on this issue. It is significant that in a time when he was under considerable political pressure at home he was able to spend two and a half days constantly working on the issue of Northern Ireland. I also thank my counterpart, Peter Hain, who had, and still has, a significant amount of work to do. I thank too the parties, and officials from both Governments and the parties involved, who worked well into the night on every occasion. I wish especially to mention the US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, Mitchell Reiss, who was there for the entire period.

We share the frustration at the slow progress on devolved government in Northern Ireland but we should not underestimate the difficulties ahead of us. The St. Andrews talks were a result of the review of the Good Friday Agreement, not in place of that agreement. That point needs to be emphasised because all the issues flowing from the Good Friday Agreement are still required and to the fore.

Several speakers referred to the inclusivity of the talks. It is the case that the talks leading up to, and at, the St. Andrews meeting included all the political parties, such as the PUP and Bob McCartney. They were involved in the discussions as was appropriate.

We on this side of the House are disappointed of course with the postponement of the programme for government committee. I spoke to Peter Hain a couple of times yesterday and the indications are that this issue will be sorted out in the not too distant future. I hope it will because while some people may have been euphoric after the St. Andrews agreement, it is important not to over-estimate the situation and to acknowledge that over the next few months there will be hurdles to clear.

There are two net issues, one, whether Sinn Féin will, as it has said it will, fully commit to policing and the rule of law. The second concerns the DUP which has repeatedly said it is prepared to share power with nationalists but only when we see that made manifest, as it sits at a table with Sinn Féin, the SDLP and others, will we be sure it will put its words into action.

Several Deputies, including Deputies Kenny and Rabbitte, spoke of a referendum or election in Northern Ireland. At least one party demanded an election on this issue. The Governments and the parties held some discussions on this and it was agreed that it would be indicated that an electoral endorsement of the discussions would take place over the next couple of months. As I said publicly, the issue of holding a referendum here in the Republic is under consideration. The Attorney General will advise the Government which will decide on the basis of that advice. He said in 2004, when we studied the comprehensive agreement, that he would have to advise on whether there would be any constitutional implications in the St. Andrews agreement, and in the comprehensive agreement at that time. That is yet to be decided. We will not decide off the tops of our heads but after full consideration of the Attorney General's advice.

There have been several discussions at official and ministerial levels on a possible peace dividend. The Chancellor of the Exchequer and the Minister for Finance, Deputy Cowen, will meet with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister of the devolved government when that is up and running.

Trust and confidence between the parties are at the core of this process. There has been incredible mistrust between the parties, now that we are dealing with the parties on the extreme. We need all parties to engage and the idea of the sequencing of events between now and March is to endeavour to get those parties to engage with each other. The requirement is for the DUP and Sinn Féin to engage with each other on the type of issues that caused difficulty yesterday.

There are several hurdles to be cleared between now and 26 March but if the Governments or the parties fall at those hurdles we will revert to plan B, which has been discussed and more or less put together. This is not a threat but if the parties cannot agree on this over the coming months we will revert to plan B.

Deputy Kenny raised the issue of the designation or otherwise of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. On 24 November the First and Deputy First Ministers will be nominated without a vote and will carry forward the preparations for government. Power will not be devolved until after that. It is important to stress there will not be a vote on 24 November. It was never envisaged that there would be when the Executive goes live.

Several Members raised the issue of side deals. No side deals were done by the Government and no letters or documents were exchanged by it in any of these issues. The Government was not privy to all discussions held between some parties and the British Government.

I thank Deputies for contributing to the debate. We should be under no illusion that it will be a difficult few months ahead. However, last Friday's events illustrated a better relationship, particularly when one observes the body language and the speeches by Sinn Féin, the DUP, the SDLP and the UUP. There was a constructive atmosphere at St. Andrews. Yesterday's difficulties are regrettable but I believe we will be able to get over it with some goodwill. Last Friday's agreement is the dawn of a new beginning for the people of Northern Ireland and the rest of the island.