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Statement to the Dáil by Bertie Ahern, then Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), on Northern Ireland, (15 December 2004)

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Text: Bertie Ahern ... Page compiled: Brendan Lynn

Statement to the Dáil by Bertie Ahern, then Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), on Northern Ireland, (Wednesday 15 December 2004)


Ceann Comhairle,

I wish to report to the House on the progress made last week on the Northern Ireland peace process.

Last Wednesday was an important day in the politics of Northern Ireland and I wish to take the opportunity this afternoon to explain why this was so and why it is my belief that we have reached the final, and admittedly difficult and frustrating, phase of our peace process.

Since last week there has been a fair amount of controversy and debate.

It would be surprising if it were otherwise.

I welcome this opportunity to present to the House the full context in which we are now working.

People have tended to speak of yet another failure. I do not see things in such a negative frame.

I have always believed that this end-phase would be difficult.

But just because it is difficult and awkward does not mean that we should avoid taking on the outstanding issues.

Let me make my position clear.

I will not settle for a half-solution. I will take the political risks for peace.

And I expect others also to do so.

Ceann Comhairle,

I have heard some people say that things are quiet in Northern Ireland and that we should leave well enough alone.

In my view it would be an act of irresponsible folly to leave things as they are and not try and bring agreement and final closure all around.

I was privileged to have been part of history at the signing of the Good Friday Agreement.

It is now my responsibility, and duty, to make history work, and work fairly and well for everybody.

The proposals that we published last week cover key issues that must be resolved to finally and definitively assure peace and political stability in Northern Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement made a real difference to the politics of this island and to the lives of all its people.

But the Governments’ proposals would bring closure to issues, which were not, or could not be, resolved at that time.

There were many such issues.

It is now time to deal with them once and for all and build the final bridge to peace.

Ceann Comhairle,

On Wednesday, Prime Minister Blair and I had obviously wished to be able to present our proposals in the context of full agreement.

But we are not quite at the point of total success.

Our work will, therefore, continue to secure closure on what, by any standard, is a landmark package.

This is as close as we have ever been to assuring peace on our island and moving into a confident future on the basis of the Good Friday Agreement.

I welcome and value the continuing partnership that we enjoy with the British Government and I commend Prime Minister Blair for the time and effort that he invests with us in addressing the issue of Northern Ireland.

The process derives enormous strength from this partnership and it is through it, and working in collaboration with all the parties, that we will ultimately achieve the final breakthrough.

Ceann Comhairle,

Since the devolved institutions were suspended in October 2002, there have been two previous intensive negotiations designed to achieve a comprehensive agreement that delivered acts of completion on all sides.

These were large-scale undertakings.

Certainly they were ambitious. But they were essential in the context of the paralysis and distrust that had come to beset the process at that time.

Each initiative had its own difficulties.

But each, in its own way, pushed the process forward and helped bring us today to the point where completion is achievable.

The first such initiative culminated in the Joint Declaration in May 2003 but did not lead to the ending of paramilitarism or the restoration of institutions.

The second, nearly 14 months ago, in October 2003, saw the political parties in Northern Ireland come very close to agreement on the restoration of the political institutions.

To our disappointment, and for reasons that are well known, we did not get over the line on that occasion.

When the results of last year’s election became known, many believed that it would never be possible for the two main parties involved to work together.

I did not share that pessimism.

First, because political leadership carries responsibility to make things work.

And I was convinced following my meeting with the DUP at the Embassy in London in January this year – the first such meeting between the DUP leadership and the Government on political matters – that the DUP recognised this responsibility and wished to pursue a solution.

Over the months that followed, the Government pursued a new relationship with the DUP and worked closely with them and the other parties in this new environment.

Second, because the story of the peace process has been that the dynamic of the Good Friday Agreement inevitably draws people from opposing viewpoints to the centre ground. By offering equality and partnership to both communities, the Agreement narrowed the scope for disagreement.

Ceann Comhairle,

After several months of tentative engagement, at Lancaster House in June of this year, the two Governments identified four critical issues that had to be resolved as part of any comprehensive agreement. They were:

  • a definitive and conclusive end to all paramilitary activity;
  • the decommissioning through the IICD of all paramilitary weapons to an early timescale and on a convincing basis;
  • a clear commitment on all sides to the stability of the political institutions and to any changes to their operation agreed within the Review of the Good Friday Agreement;
  • support for policing from all sides of the community, and on an agreed framework for the devolution of policing.

Since then, we have spent an enormous amount of time and effort on these issues, the satisfactory resolution of which would open the way for the widest possible agreement.

The package published by both Governments last week was styled a comprehensive agreement. It is comprehensive in the sense that it seeks to address and resolve the four core issues identified at Lancaster House. It does not in any way transcend the Good Friday Agreement, whose principles and values remain the template for both Governments.

However, by offering a way forward on the four core issues, the comprehensive agreement provides the key to unlock the promise and potential of the Good Friday Agreement.

At Leeds Castle in September of this year, significant progress was made in advancing these issues and in narrowing the gaps between the different sides.

Following the momentum that had been created by those discussions, there was further engagement between the parties and the two Governments, including on the institutional matters pertaining to the review of the Agreement.

While the diverse range of issues being addressed was sometimes complex and technical, the central objective was clear: to secure a complete end to paramilitary violence in all forms and the decommissioning of paramilitary weapons; to secure a genuine, lasting commitment to power-sharing and partnership and to achieve universal support for the new policing arrangements.

Ceann Comhairle,

Sometimes in the hectic world of daily politics, it is a good idea for everyone to step back for a moment and to pause.

I think that is what we should do when considering what was published last Wednesday.

We felt that publication of these proposals was appropriate at this time.

They had been in circulation among the DUP and Sinn Fein since the middle of November.

We were concerned that time was slipping by and that other parties and the wider public were entitled to a full accounting of the efforts that had been underway.

Both Governments made it clear in publishing our proposals that, while considerable progress had been made, not all elements were agreed.

Nonetheless, we expressed the hope that the people of Northern Ireland would reflect on what was in prospect and the opportunity which the agreement, if accepted in its entirety, represented.

The proposals of the two Governments address:

Firstly, the ending of all paramilitary and other illegal activity.

The draft statement would commit the IRA to support the comprehensive agreement, to move into a new mode conducive to a peaceful society and consistent with this, and recognising the need to uphold and not to endanger anybody’s personal rights and safety, to give instructions to its members not to engage in any activity that might thereby endanger the new agreement.

No one, anywhere on this island, should turn their back on the prospect of achieving such an outcome.

We have always been clear, and it was commonly understood throughout this entire period of engagement, that the ending of all paramilitary activity must also encompass all other illegal activity.

The IRA statement on Thursday, while confirming their intentions in relation to that organisation moving to a new mode, issuing instructions to volunteers and completing decommissioning to a rapid time-scale, did not address this issue in the clear terms required by the Government.

Clarification is required that the IRA’s commitment is indeed, to a complete ending of paramilitarism and other illegal activity. We are duty bound to satisfy ourselves on this point.

This whole initiative is based on this vital premise.

It should be clear that any ending of paramilitary activity and other illegal activity would continue to be monitored by the Independent Monitoring Commission, which was set up jointly by the two Governments last year.

Secondly, completing the process of IRA arms decommissioning in a rapid time-scale.

The early realisation of this part of the proposals would remove an issue which has come to dominate and impede the prospects of political progress. The proposals envisage two independent witnesses, the availability of photographs for inspection as well as their later publication.

I believe that the Governments’ proposals in this respect continue to represent a fair and reasonable judgment and should – in the context of an overall comprehensive agreement – have been sufficient to close the gap on this most sensitive issue.

I should make it clear that we always understood that the photographs issue would be a difficult one for the IRA. However, in the context of an overall package, it was our understanding that this proposal would be considered by them. They have, of course, since said that they are unable to agree to it.

A core recommendation of Senator Mitchell’s report on decommissioning in January 1996 was that the process should "suggest neither victory nor defeat" and the modalities of decommissioning should not require any party to be seen to surrender.

Humiliation thus did not play any part in the Governments’ proposals and cannot be part of this process.

Publication of any photographs would not have taken place until the formation of the Executive which would be in March, several weeks following the completion of decommissioning. If all this had worked, my own view is that a far more compelling photograph would have been one of the formation of a DUP/Sinn Fein-led Executive at that time.

At this point, let me commend the continuing role of General John de Chastelain and his team on the IICD. We greatly appreciate their enormous dedication, patience and commitment to their responsibilities.

Thirdly, the Governments’ proposals seek to secure a basis for the full operation of the institutions of the Agreement, on an inclusive basis. The prospect, which was thought so unlikely by many, of all the political parties in Northern Ireland going forward together on the basis of the Good Friday Agreement will contribute hugely to certainty and stability.

The question of changes to the operation of the institutions of the Agreement has been exhaustively discussed and analysed since the review of the Agreement commenced in February of this year.

From the outset, our approach was clear.

We were open to sensible changes which improved the working of the institutions or which addressed operational difficulties that had been experienced between 1999 and 2002. However, the fundamental architecture of the Agreement was not open to change nor was its fundamental principles.

This included the key power-sharing provisions and protections of the Agreement, as well as the North/South partnership arrangements.

The Governments’ proposals do envisage change in the operation of certain aspects of the operation of the Good Friday Agreement.

Inevitably, every aspect of these institutional changes will not attract total agreement from all sides.

However, the Government is fully satisfied that they respect and protect the fundamentals of the Agreement; that they have taken account of, and been informed by, the extensive discussions within the review; and that they will strengthen the stability, effectiveness and accountability of the institutions in the years ahead.

Certainty and clarity are two-way streets. They apply equally to partnership politics as they do to the process of arms decommissioning.

In the context of an agreement, I welcome the prospect of the DUP operating and participating in all the new arrangements, to working in constructive partnership with all other parties in the Assembly and to meeting their commitments in each Strand of the Agreement, and in every other respect.

I acknowledge too the support of Sinn Fein, which Gerry Adams has confirmed to me, for the political aspects of the Governments’ proposals which include those relating to the Review of the Good Friday Agreement.

Fourthly, we have agreement on the basis on which the republican community will support the new policing arrangements. This is an enormously significant and historic prospect which will bring assurance and benefit throughout Northern Ireland.

I obviously welcome the fact that during the later stage of this initiative, direct engagement between the Sinn Fein leadership and the Chief Constable of the PSNI was initiated.

I hope that this signals the prospect of further such contacts pending membership of the Policing Board by Sinn Fein when the legislation allowing for the devolution of policing and justice is enacted. Agreement on the modalities of the devolution of justice and policing will be difficult but if enactment of the legislation can be secured as envisaged, it should allow Sinn Fein to take a positive decision on policing later next year.

Such a decision by Sinn Fein on policing would be an enormous breakthrough and radically alter the climate of confidence and trust throughout Northern Ireland.

I have always believed that the completion of the policing project – both in terms of securing full community support and ensuring that the policing arrangements are accountable to the devolved administration – would represent the consolidation of peace and political stability in Northern Ireland.

The Governments’ Joint Declaration of May 2003 outlines in considerable detail the many other issues that will be addressed in the context of overall closure, including moving ahead rapidly with reducing the British military presence and addressing the matter of the on-the-runs (OTRs).

In the context of assured peace, everyone will welcome Northern Ireland being progressively normalised on an accelerated basis.

I have had further copies of the Governments’ Joint Declaration placed in the Library as it too is an important part of the architecture of the completion we are trying to secure.

Under the Governments’ proposals, roll-out, pending the formation of the Executive in March, would comprise a number of important elements throughout December, January and February.

In December, it was anticipated that the British Government would announce legislation to provide for a Shadow Assembly and to accommodate changes to the Northern Ireland Act of 1998 arising from the Review of the Good Friday Agreement. It was also envisaged that there would be initial engagement with the parties on a number of issues. It was understood that decommissioning would be completed before the end of the month.

A Shadow Assembly would meet in January following the completion of decommissioning. Consideration of the modalities for the devolution of justice and policing would be a particular focus of attention for this Shadow Assembly.

Suspension itself would be lifted by the British Government in February, allowing the new First Minister and Deputy First Minister to be confirmed by the Assembly in March.

Early plenary meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council were envisaged.

Ceann Comhairle

The combined impact of our proposals would fully realise the vision of a new beginning promised by the Agreement.

Compared to where we were one year ago, the Governments’ proposals represent a dramatic surge towards final closure.

I have made it clear that the Government would play its part in addressing those areas, few in number, that are relevant to us in this overall context.

A comprehensive deal is a comprehensive deal.

It means all issues being fully addressed, by everyone.

For everything to work in the context of overall agreement, each of us, governments and parties, must therefore fulfil their obligations, some of which, taken in isolation, present the most profound difficulties.

I said in Belfast that the proposals that we published were those that had been under consideration by the DUP and Sinn Fein. I also said that there were other issues that were being dealt with separately by the two governments.

For our part, there are three such issues.

I have mentioned these issues in the Dail on several occasions, including most recently last Tuesday.

They are not new.

Let me deal with them again.

First, there is the case of the killers of Garda Jerry McCabe and the wounding of Garda Ben O’Sullivan.

As the record of this House will show, in particular last May, I have already addressed, in a comprehensive way, the circumstances in which their release would arise.

But let me repeat what those circumstances are.

It could only arise in the context of a comprehensive agreement in which the International Monitoring Commission reported that all IRA paramilitary activity had ceased and the IICD reported that all IRA arms had been decommissioned.

The Minister for Justice, Equality & Law Reform will address this issue further in his contribution.

I said in Belfast that nothing can console those bereaved and certainly the last thing we wish to do is to add further pain to the suffering that these innocent families have already endured.

My only hope is that the full knowledge of the comprehensive agreement that we have been seeking to secure will help clarify the environment in which we have been working.

It was always the intention of the Government that the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform would meet with the McCabe and O’Sullivan families in advance of any decision on early release. Consultation with the GRA was also envisaged.

Secondly, there is the issue of the so-called on-the-runs (OTRs). These are individuals who have been on the run for crimes committed prior to the Good Friday Agreement. The two Governments agreed in Weston Park in July 2001 that these cases would have to be addressed and we went into some detail on this in the May 2003 Joint Declaration. We made clear then, and I have said it many times in the Dáil, that both Governments would be addressing such cases arising in their respective jurisdictions. Again, the Minister for Justice Equality and Law Reform will address this issue further in his contribution.

Thirdly, the question of following-up, in an appropriate way, on the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution (Seventh Report). This is an issue that has been discussed many times in the Dáil. I have frequently registered my support for the proposal to invite, on a periodic basis, Northern Ireland MPs to a Committee of the Dáil regarding Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement, as I have for inviting MEPs from Northern Ireland to attend Seanad discussions on EU matters.

Both such proposals are, of course, properly a matter for the Oireachtas itself and would have to be the subject of consultation and agreement with parties in this House and the Seanad.

There have been exaggerated reports about all of this. These proposals would not involve the granting of any rights or privileges. There would be no constitutional implications. Nor would there be any question of cutting across the architecture and operation of the Good Friday Agreement.

In the context of Seanad Reform, I support increasing membership of the Seanad and formalising the existing ad-hoc arrangements to provide cross-community representation from Northern Ireland. This, of course, could only be done by referendum. I imagine that this is a matter on which aIl parties will have views. For my part, I would like to see such a referendum before the next general election.

Ceann Comhairle,

I believe that the scope of what is in prospect is of real potential.

The Kilkenny writer Hubert Butler, who as an Irish Protestant reflected much on the problems of Northern Ireland, once asked the simple question: "Why have our differences been so unfruitful?"

That there are differences between us, between unionist and nationalist, British and Irish, is beyond question.

But difference can be a spur to achievement.

The future lies in sorting out our differences through politics.

And through politics, we have come a long way.

I am not prepared to let the progress that we have made become bogged down at the final hurdle. The sectarian nightmare has gone on too long, and nobody has a monopoly on suffering.

Because, if the will to put it all behind us is really present, the outstanding difficulties can be put behind us quite quickly.

The package that was unveiled last Wednesday is the signpost to a shared society. What is now required is a collective decision by all concerned to leave the past behind.

So, this is my appeal. That people resist the temptation to score short-term political points against each other and see the opportunity that is staring us in the face for what it is.

The task of building a shared society is an urgent one. I do not agree with the point of view put forward by some that the status quo is acceptable. I believe that agreed institutions are necessary to provide certainty and reassurance to the people of Northern Ireland. That is why another prolonged fallow period will only make the urgent task of building a new society more difficult.

I read that many expeditions to climb Mount Everest hit a psychological wall with 200 metres to go, and that it is common for people to turn back having got so close.

But none of us can now afford to turn back.

It is my honest assessment that huge progress has been made over the last twelve months. It is also my firm belief that the process of trust-building can only improve when direct dialogue is established between the two parties who enjoy leadership mandates in their communities. I look forward to the day when such engagement becomes possible.

I have worked with politicians from Northern Ireland for a long time now, and I admire their political commitment. I believe that they genuinely wish for the future to be better than the past.

I am not for turning back because I believe that if all that commitment, dedication and ability is channelled into improving people’s lives through politics, the differences between us will prove enormously fruitful and the future of Northern Ireland and all who share this island will be very bright indeed.

As we maintain our efforts on this initiative, everybody needs to play their part in creating a climate that is conducive to getting matters over the line.

I ask people to reflect on the package that both Governments have tabled.

We need everyone’s support to fully secure this comprehensive agreement.

I met with a Sinn Fein delegation on Monday and last evening, I met with Mark Durkan and members of the SDLP. I also spoke with Dr Paisley on the phone on Monday during which I was able to confirm the Government’s position in relation to the photographs issue which I have addressed earlier in my statement.

Minister Ahern will meet with Secretary of State Murphy and Northern Ireland parties in the course of today in Hillsborough. US Envoy Mitchell Reiss will also be present. I will have an opportunity to discuss matters with Prime Minister Blair in Brussels over the next two days.

I have said before that if we do not get agreement soon, we risk major delay in the restoration of the institutions.

I therefore strongly urge all the parties not to delay unduly and to seize this moment of opportunity and real hope.

The above text originally appeared at the web site of 'The Department of the Taoiseach' on the following page:
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