I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.
As Deputies are aware, the panel of parties talks on parades, flags and contending with the past, under the chairmanship of Dr. Richard Haass and the vice chairmanship of Dr. Meghan O’Sullivan, concluded in the early hours of New Year's Eve. I commend Dr. Haass and Dr. O'Sullivan on the energy, commitment and vision they brought to their work. The panel of parties talks arose on foot of an initiative by First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness last May, when they established a working group of representatives from each of the five Northern Ireland Executive parties to examine the contentious issues of flags, parades and the past. The establishment of the working group formed part of the Executive's Together: Building a United Community strategy aimed at improving community relations and continuing Northern Ireland's journey towards a more united and reconciled society. Dr. Haass and Dr. O'Sullivan started work in September 2013 with the objective of concluding agreement by the end of last year. They undertook an ambitious programme of work, including an extensive process of consultation with wider society between September and November, which proved particularly valuable. Following four earlier rounds of discussions, the talks entered an intensive political phase in the run-up to Christmas and between Christmas and the new year. Dr. Haass and Dr. O'Sullivan circulated a number of draft texts to the parties, with a seventh and final version submitted to the five parties in the early hours of New Year's Eve.
I will briefly outline to the House the main provisions of the final Haass-O'Sullivan proposals. On parades, the proposals recognise parading as an important cultural and historical tradition for many in Northern Ireland which enjoys protection under European and international human rights law. They also note the wide variety of other rights potentially affected by parades and other events and call for a new consensus based on rights, responsibilities and relationships.
The proposals provide for devolution of responsibility for parades to the Northern Ireland Executive which would require legislation at Westminster and in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Such legislation would establish two new bodies which would take over responsibilities currently held by the Parades Commission.
An office for parades, select commemorations and related protests would have responsibility for receiving event notifications and promoting dialogue and mediation among event organisers and local communities. An authority for public events adjudication would in some cases set conditions on the relatively small number of events which prove contentious. Determinations would be made by a seven-member panel led by a legally-qualified person. Affected parties could pursue an internal review and judicial review. A new code of conduct would be enshrined in legislation by the Northern Ireland Assembly.
Discussion on flags and emblems proved the most difficult. There was no agreed approach reached on the flying of flags on official buildings or the unofficial display of flags and emblems in public spaces. It was recognised by the panel of parties that these issues are closely linked to larger debates about sovereignty, identity and related matters which they judged to be beyond the remit of the talks. The proposals provide for a commission on identity, culture and tradition to hold public discussions on those issues throughout Northern Ireland. The commission’s remit would not be limited to flags and emblems and would include consultations on Irish and other languages, including Ulster Scots; a Bill of Rights; gender; public holidays, possibly including a day of remembrance or reflection; and memorabilia and other items in public buildings. The commission, which would comprise of MLAs and non-political members, would report within 18 months. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister would bring any recommendations of the commission receiving broad support to the Northern Ireland Executive for further action.
During the period of the talks substantial progress was made on agreeing an approach to dealing with the legacy of the past. The final proposals make special provision for victims and survivors, affirming that their individual choices should be paramount wherever possible. The proposals welcome the ongoing review of the Victims and Survivors Service and pledged to promptly consider recommended reforms, including the establishment of a comprehensive mental trauma service. The proposals establish an historical investigations unit, HIU, with the full investigative powers of the PSNI, to take over the Troubles–related deaths cases at present within the remit of the Historical Enquiries Team, HET, and the historical unit of the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland, PONI. The proposals provide that where the evidence warrants, the HIU could refer cases to the Public Prosecution Service. The HIU would consider remaining HET cases in chronological order and in extreme cases of old age or illness, cases could be brought forward out of sequence. Once the HIU has completed reviews of all outstanding HET and PONI cases, it would consider requests for further review of cases previously examined by the HET or PONI. Should resources permit, it would also consider requests for reviews of cases involving serious injury but not death.
The proposals call for an independent commission for information retrieval, ICIR, to enable victims and survivors to seek and privately receive information about conflict-related events. The ICIR would not provide amnesty for those who come forward with information about the conflict. It would provide those coming forward with limited immunity, also known as inadmissibility, for statements given to the ICIR. The information provided to the ICIR could not be used in court but prosecution would still be possible, based on evidence obtained through other means. The ICIR would also use information it recovers, as well as public records and interviews it conducts independently, to assess the presence of certain patterns or themes involving paramilitary organisations or governments in conflict-related cases. It would also report on the degree of co-operation with this process by governments and paramilitary organisations. The proposals call for public statements of acknowledgment by those involved in the conflict, encouraging them to take responsibility for what they have done and to express remorse for the pain they have caused. Under the proposals, the Executive would pledge to facilitate the collection of individual narratives of the conflict and to establish an archive for their preservation. As Deputies are aware, the Government, in common with the British Government, was not directly involved in the talks process. The Government has, however, provided ongoing support and encouragement to the political parties throughout the process, working closely with the British Government. I take this opportunity to acknowledge the close engagement of the US Administration throughout this process and to place the Government's appreciation on the record of the House.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
Throughout the talks, I have made clear the Government’s view to all participants and stakeholders that there is now a unique opportunity to make further progress towards advancing reconciliation and the creation of a truly reconciled and prosperous society in Northern Ireland. That remains the Government’s view and we will continue our engagement with the Northern Ireland political parties and the British Government to that end. While acknowledging that the issues to be addressed in the talks are difficult and contentious, the Government encouraged the parties to be ambitious in their approach and to engage actively with the process. I welcome that very significant progress was made within the talks process over a short period on a number of the most difficult issues that face society in Northern Ireland. The priority now should be to safeguard and give practical effect to what has been achieved. I welcome that the five political parties in the Executive have been meeting to discuss the next steps and that they are working together with the common goal of reaching a final agreement as soon as possible.
I wish to send a clear message of support from this House to the five Northern Ireland Executive parties as they continue the vital task which they have set in train. The Government, along with the British Government, will play its role in partnership with the Northern Ireland parties to the full as they complete their work on an agreement. It is in all our shared interests to see Northern Ireland make further progress towards reconciliation in line with the vision of the Good Friday Agreement. Our support and our work in this regard continue unabated.