Text of article by the Taoiseach Bertie Ahern, 14 February 2000
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Article by the Taoiseach, Mr. Bertie Ahern, 14 February 2000
"We, the participants in the multiparty negotiations, believe that the agreement we have negotiated offers a truly historic opportunity for a new beginning."
Those are the opening words of the Good Friday agreement. They represented a bold statement of hope and promise. The people agreed. They voted in enormous numbers, North and South, for the new future charted by the agreement.
A future that would see no more funerals, no more waking up to news of bombs, no more inequality, no more fear.
A future based on peace, not conflict. And, in political terms, a chance to build institutions and structures which were inclusive, founded on partnership and respect for diversity, and which struck a fair and balanced compromise for all.
In the context of decades of conflict, division and failed attempts at a resolution, the achievement of the agreement in providing an opportunity for such a new future, based on huge popular support, has been a development of priceless value.
In the months since April 1998, the record has shown that the hopes we vested in the agreement were solidly based. Peace has continued to be consolidated. Key aspects of the agreement, such as those relating to human rights, are being implemented. In particular, the new institutions established under the agreement have quickly shown themselves to be effective and valuable.
Many of the critics of the agreement said the new structures were too complex, too unwieldy and too broadly based to work effectively. Well, I believe that anybody who has studied the record of the new dispensation has the answer. It can be summarised in two words: this works.
The executive, under the leadership of David Trimble and Séamus Mallon, has shown itself to be an imaginative, dynamic body, delivering effective, accountable government. Each minister has demonstrated professionalism and dedication, taking decisions which have had a real and positive impact.
The assembly and its committees have been getting on well and effectively. The North/South ministerial council has met five times, once in plenary session in Armagh and, since the new year, four times in sectoral format. All of the meetings have been businesslike and constructive, getting on with cooperation and partnership to the benefit of both parts of the island.
The implementation bodies are up and running. The British-Irish council and British-Irish intergovernmental conference have also had their inaugural meetings and have set in train substantial programmes of work.
Nobody expected the path forward to be totally smooth. Residual difficulties relating to trust and mutual confidence have remained with us. These have crystallised around the issue of decommissioning and have now led to the suspension announcement by the British government last Friday.
Last autumn's Mitchell review sought to provide a basis on which the issues of decommissioning and the establishment of the institutions could be resolved. A core principle underlying the review was that decommissioning should be carried out in a manner determined by Gen de Chastelain and his colleagues in the Independent International Commission.
This was fully in line with the Good Friday agreement itself, which makes clear that primacy in this matter rests with the commission. In very direct terms, the de Chastelain commission is the instrument of the agreement in terms of decommissioning and the key to it actually happening. It is imperative that all of us be guided by this commission.
That is why the Irish Government attaches such importance to last Friday's report by the de Chastelain commission. As someone who worked long and late over the last few weeks on these issues, I can confirm, without breaking any confidence, the deep significance for the resolution of the decommissioning issue of the last two paragraphs of the de Chastelain report.
Paragraph 7 reads: "The Representative [of the IRA] indicated to us today the context in which the IRA will initiate a comprehensive process to put arms beyond use, in a manner to ensure maximum public confidence."
And this is followed in paragraph 8 by the commission stating that it "believes that this commitment, on the basis described above, holds out the real prospect of an agreement which would enable it to fulfil the substance of its mandate".
In effect, what the commission is saying is that it now believes that, for the first time, it has a commitment from the IRA itself that decommissioning will happen. Given where we have been coming from, that is a huge advance and one we must now build on quickly.
It is, of course, natural that people should wish to have reassurance about what is involved. For that reason, I believe it is right that David Trimble should seek such reassurance from Gen de Chastelain. I am sure the leadership of Sinn Féin, which has worked long and courageously to try to bring about a positive outcome, will also wish to be helpful.
What is important, however, is that we move quickly. History has taught us the danger of vacuums in Northern Ireland. Time is not on our side. It is imperative, therefore, that the institutions be restored swiftly. They are the heartbeat of the agreement and fundamental to its success. Each day they are suspended is a day in which further damage is being done to the well-being of the agreement.
At the same time, the vital work of the de Chastelain commission must be taken forward, as must all other aspects of the agreement. What the people voted for, and what they want, is the full implementation of all aspects of the agreement.
All parties to the agreement have particular concerns and responsibilities that they must look to. For the Irish Government, these include our position as a State with a written Constitution. That Constitution has now been amended to include the terms of the British-Irish agreement, terms which do not expressly include provision for suspension. In that context, suspension raises issues of concern for the Government and any significant extension of it could make the situation more difficult.
For all these reasons we will be working might and main with the British government and with the SDLP, UUP, Sinn Féin and other pro-agreement parties over the coming days to ensure the swift return of the institutions, and the definitive resolution of the arms issue, under the aegis of Gen de Chastelain, building on the very real progress that has been made in that regard in recent days.
The essence of the Good Friday agreement was the fact that it was an honourable accommodation with which all sides could live. In terms of the difficulties we now face in its implementation, the challenge for all of us involved is to ensure a similar outcome. I am confident that, with goodwill all round, we can succeed.
Source: The above article appeared in the Irish Times, 14 February 2000
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