I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 31, inclusive, and No. 172 together.
I take this opportunity to pay tribute to the extraordinary contribution of John Hume to political life on this island and, on his announcement that he will not seek his party's nomination for the European Parliament elections on this occasion, in particular his contribution on the European stage. Throughout his distinguished service in the European Parliament, John has always worked with his fellow Northern Ireland MEPs across the political divide to put the interests of the people of Northern Ireland and the people of this island first. He was central to securing the support of the European Union for the peace process, support that found tangible expression through the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation. He is a great European who believes strongly in the European project and he leaves a remarkable legacy of achievement. I wish him well for the future.
Since the Assembly elections last November, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, and I have had a range of contacts and meetings with Prime Minister Blair, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Paul Murphy, and the political parties. I met the SDLP, the Ulster Unionist Party, Sinn Féin and the Alliance Party in London on 17 December. Most recently, I met Prime Minister Blair on 19 January. The Minister for Foreign Affairs met Paul Murphy at the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference on 22 January. I met a DUP delegation led by Dr. Ian Paisley on 29 January in London. On 4 February, I met Mitchell Reiss, President Bush's special envoy. All these contacts have focused primarily on assessing the prospects for making progress, including in the context of the review of the Good Friday Agreement, which commenced on 3 February.
At my meeting with Prime Minister Blair, I urged again the publication of Judge Cory's report into the murders of Pat Finucane, Rosemary Nelson, Robert Hamill and Billy Wright. As I stated, I met a Democratic Unionist Party delegation led by Dr. Paisley at the Irish Embassy in London on 29 January. I sincerely welcome the opening of this dialogue with the DUP. It was an important meeting, the first in which Dr. Paisley has engaged with the Irish Government on political issues. Our discussions were of an exploratory nature. We want to have good relations with the DUP. We would like, arising from our meeting in London, to see our dialogue continuing at all levels and on the basis of mutual respect.
Both Governments have made it clear that the review that is now under way is not a review of the fundamentals of the Agreement. We have said that there can be no change to these fundamentals, but we are open to considering practical and sensible changes in the workings of the Agreement where there is a consensus supporting such changes.
The Agreement is, of course, wider than devolution. It embraces a broad agenda of changes in other areas, changes reasserted in the Joint Declaration last year, including in policing, criminal justice, human rights and equality. This remains the agenda for both Governments and we will continue to insist thatthe changes are implemented. The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, which is chaired by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Secretary of State, is taking the process forward. We are committed to ensuring that the North-South arrangements continue to function in a satisfactory manner.
On Monday, 26 January, I met representatives of the Ulster Political Research Group. I have long held the view that the opening of dialogue with representatives of the loyalist community was important. This meeting was a logical follow-up to my meeting with the Loyalist Commission last June. I recognise the very real concerns loyalists have about issues that affect their communities, particularly jobs, housing and educational opportunities. I am encouraged by some of the positive work that is being done to address the problems in these communities. We want to be constructive and to assist in any way we can.
My views on paramilitarism and sectarianism are well known. I have made it clear to both republicans and loyalists that all such activity must cease. Violence and the threat of violence are not in anyone's interests. I deplore recent sectarian attacks, attacks against prison officers and racist attacks. Such illegalities and other criminal activities must be dealt with by the police and those responsible must be brought to justice.
I have indeed received the annual report for 2002 of the North-South Ministerial Council. Deputies will be aware that the annual report was laid before the Houses of the Oireachtas on 13 January. The annual report provides a very interesting insight into the work of the Council. It is impossible not to be impressed by the very considerable programme of work taken forward under the aegis of the North-South Ministerial Council in 2002, both in terms of the North-South bodies and in the areas where co-operation is taken forward by the respective Departments. It clearly confirms the importance of North-South co-operation and the benefits it has brought to the people of this island. Deputies will recall that, given that the NSMC cannot meet during suspension, we legislated in November 2002 to provide that both Governments could take any decisions required to allow the North-South bodies to continue to carry out their important public functions.
In the period ahead and against the background of efforts to bring about the restoration of devolution in Northern Ireland, both Governments are committed to protecting the achievements of the agreement, including the strand two arrangements which include the North-South Ministerial Council and the all-island implementation bodies.
Whether a meeting of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation is convened is not a matter for the Government but for the chairperson and all the participating parties. The review process will be the focus of the Government's attention in the period ahead. In these circumstances, I would not expect an early meeting of the forum.
The Oireachtas All-Party Committee on the Constitution reported on its examination of how people living in Northern Ireland could play a more active part in national political life to the extent that they so desire and in a spirit consistent with the principles underlying the Agreement. The committee also suggested that it would be especially valuable periodically to have the expertise, experience and insight of politicians from Northern Ireland in specific, appropriate debates in the Dáil and Seanad.
I share the all-party committee's view that it would be desirable to extend and formalise the existing practice regarding representation from Northern Ireland in the Seanad. The review of the composition and functions of Seanad Éireann provides an opportunity in which this discussion and dialogue can be progressed.
In so far as the all-party committee's recommendations on the Dáil are concerned, I hope the Whips can examine the possibility that arrangements for appropriate participation could be considered within the timeframe of this Dáil. I fully subscribe to the view that such participation should take place on a cross-community basis with parity of esteem for all communities in Northern Ireland.