Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 1 July 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement
Ballymurphy Families: Discussion
Today's engagement is with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney. This follows on from engagement with the representatives of the Ballymurphy families. On behalf of the committee, I welcome the Minister.
Although the Minister is well acquainted with it, I must read a note about privilege. The evidence of witnesses physically present from within the parliamentary precincts is protected pursuant to both the Constitution and statute by absolute privilege. However, witnesses and participants who are to give evidence from a location outside the parliamentary precincts are asked to note that they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings that a witness giving evidence from within the parliamentary precincts does and may consider it appropriate to take legal advice on this matter. Witnesses are also asked to note that only evidence connected with the subject matter of the proceedings should be given. They should respect directions given by the Chair and the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should neither criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the person's or entity's good name. I invite the Minister to make his opening statement.
I am very pleased to meet with the committee today. I look forward to the questions and comments of members in a few minutes' time. I wish to make a brief opening statement to set a context around our discussion and then I will take questions. Thank you for the invitation to meet with the committee today, a Chathaoirligh.
I was honoured to meet with the Ballymurphy families on several occasions in recent years, as the Government worked with them to support their long campaign for truth and justice. The coroner's verdict last month was a moment of complete vindication for their loved ones and a testament to their own determination and unyielding pursuit of justice. When I met them in their own area, it was a very emotional meeting, so I can understand the outpouring of relief and emotion of so many of the families when the verdict was delivered. It was important that the significance of the verdict was marked by statements in the Dáil, and I was pleased to learn that the committee met with the families at the end of May.
When dealing with the legacy of the Troubles, it is unfortunately all too rare that we see such moments of progress. It was, therefore, very heartening to hear John Teggart say when he met with the committee that he was "overjoyed at the verdict" of the inquest. It is not language we hear often from representatives of victims or victims' groups in Northern Ireland. As John said, "every victim should have a right to pursue justice", and that is a view the Government has consistently taken. I know many members of this committee take the same view.
Every family bereaved as a result of the Troubles should have access to effective investigation and to a process of justice, regardless of the perpetrator. The Government is committed to helping all of those who seek truth and justice on behalf of loved ones lost during the Troubles, to find it.
The Stormont House Agreement was reached between the two Governments and the political parties in Northern Ireland, with the exception of the Ulster Unionist Party, UUP, in 2014 after a long and intense period of negotiation. It set out a path forward – a balanced framework that encompassed the core principles of truth, justice and reconciliation. Recent reports of plans by the UK Government to introduce a statute of limitations have caused significant upset, shock and concern among many families, including the Ballymurphy families.
We know the Stormont House Agreement is not perfect. I am not sure that there can be a perfect solution to such a complicated sensitive and historical problem but it gives us a framework and an agreed path forward. Where are there are concerns about any aspects of the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement, they need to be addressed as part of a collective process, one that has at its heart the voices of those most impacted by the process. When I discussed the matter with the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, last week during the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, I made this position clear to him while also making clear, as we have always done, that the Government is ready to discuss any concerns on the Stormont House Agreement and will try to find workable solutions.
The views of victims and survivors must be central to any new discussions. It is also essential that a comprehensive framework to address legacy complies fully with the European Convention on Human Rights. Both Governments agreed at the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference last week that there is a need for a process of intensive engagement with the Northern Ireland parties and others, especially victims' groups, on legacy issues. I look forward to this engagement beginning immediately. The first meeting will take place after this meeting. Representatives from various parties and the two Governments will meet to start that process. It will move at a later stage to party leader discussions with the UK Secretary of State and me. All parties have been asked to nominate representatives to take part in these initial discussions. The talks will have the objective to find an agreed way forward that will allow implementing legislation to be introduced in the UK and Ireland by the end of this autumn, but there will be no predetermined outcomes to this process. It is important to emphasise that point.
It is vital that we make progress. It is vital for victims, families and society as a whole as we seek to build deeper reconciliation, trust and lasting peace. I know of the frustrations that many families of victims have expressed to me on the lack of progress in this area in recent years despite the coming into being of the Stormont House Agreement in 2014. There will be no approach to addressing the painful legacy of our past that is without complexity or difficulty or that does not bring with it additional challenges. We know that we may not find complete consensus across the spectrum of parties, stakeholders and victims' representatives. Yet, we have an obligation to try. It is crucial to have a collective approach that works in both jurisdictions and that is in accordance with the European Convention on Human Rights. We have that in the Stormont House Agreement. We need to have such a collective approach to its implementation or to any changes we may agree to make together.
The Ballymurphy inquest showed that breakthroughs are still possible and that important truths are still recoverable. Important outcomes for families are still achievable, even 50 years later. We need a system in place that maximises the chances of those things for all families and that supports true reconciliation in Northern Ireland. However, it needs to be a workable and deliverable process and it needs collective backing from the two Governments and the parties in Northern Ireland for that. That is what we are seeking to achieve in these current discussions. No one is going into this process naively. There is certainly scepticism among parties in Northern Ireland on whether we will be able to find agreement. From the perspective of the Government we are going into the process with an open mind. We are going into the process with a clear view on the need to agree outcomes that can maximise the opportunity for establishing the truth and achieving justice for families when and where there are files of evidence to be able to do that in court. I encourage all parties to be active, to be part of this process and to try to find a way forward with us that ultimately can allow us to progress an approach on legacy.
The starting point of this discussion is the Stormont House Agreement. We believe the Stormont House Agreement is still the best way to do this, but of course we are not the only voice in this discussion by a long shot. We know the British Government wants to pursue a different approach. We have to listen with an open mind but ensure no impression is given that there is a pre-determined outcome to these discussions. Instead, we will approach the discussions with an open mind, but we expect the British Government to do so too and to take on board the concerns, anxieties, ambitions and frustrations of so many victims and their families and so many politicians who have been working on their behalf for many years and, in some cases, for decades.
That is where matters stand. I look forward to the questions and comments from committee members on the approach we are taking.
Thank you, Minister. I will go through the order again. We will hear from Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil, SDLP, Alliance, Independents, Aontú, Sinn Féin, Labour and then the Green Party. Senator Currie is here but I cannot see everyone. My apologies for that. I am not sure whether Senator McGahon is there. If he is not, there is no problem. Each party will have 15 minutes to ask questions and hear the answers.
I wish to congratulate the shared island unit, Government representatives and civil servants involved in getting the Narrow Water bridge project to the stage it is now at. The project is really important and is a sign of peace and reconciliation. The funding to ensure that this important project materialises will greatly benefit peace and progress North and South, especially in my constituency of Louth and in County Down. It will be most beneficial. It is a sign of the good things that can happen if we can reach appropriate and proper accommodation on the island, North and South. I call Senator Currie.
My thanks to the Minister. It is really good to have him before the committee today. The timing of this is good. Obviously, there has been some movement following the meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference last week. Yesterday, there was an update on the multiparty talks.
The Minister is right about scepticism. We are embarking on a process of engagement. We had engagement before that resulted in the Stormont House Agreement. The principles of the Stormont House Agreement, as well as the framework, really matter. This meeting has followed from the Ballymurphy inquest results and findings. It is important that we reflect on what they communicated to us and what we felt when they spoke to us. It remains clear to me that we need effective investigations but we also need a process of justice. In terms of the engagement we have had, we need access to truth and justice. We have been dealing in a vacuum by not having a framework to deal with legacy. It is good that the engagement is taking place but my question is about who will be doing the listening. We have been consistently clear about what matters and the fact that this issue has to be dealt with and cannot be swept under the carpet.
Does the Minister think there is an appetite for listening on all sides?
I will highlight some of the things that were said by the Ballymurphy families when they spoke to us. They told us they were the lucky ones because they actually had an inquest. They told us people cannot move on without accountability and justice. They spoke about the importance of inquests that comply with Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. They said a precedent had been set that families are no longer outside the legal system, looking in, looking for accountability and access to justice. They were given that opportunity. There is much emotion behind this. I am trying to convey that things have moved on in terms of the engagement that is under way but we cannot forget the trauma behind all of this and the injustice that has been felt because of the lies that were told. The British Government is not an impartial observer, it is an actor. That came across at the time of the findings.
The Minister is saying he will go into this process with an open mind. I feel that the Irish Government has always been true to the principles of the Stormont House Agreement and the rule of law, and recognises the importance of reconciliation and human rights compliance. Does the Minister believe that everybody will be listening to each other and not coming in with preconceived ideas of what truth and justice are?
The Senator has outlined many of the concerns I have. It will not surprise people that she and I have a very similar view on this issue. I will comment on a number of matters. There was a fear among many people that the British Government could act unilaterally to pass legislation in Westminster. We know there is a lot of pressure in Westminster to do that, to be honest, in the context of commitments that have previously been made to veterans' associations and so on. There was a real fear among victims, representative groups and political parties that the British Government may decide to legislate and introduce what many would regard as an amnesty or statute of limitations. Even though nothing has been formally published in that regard, many of the debates in Westminster leave us in no doubt that there is pressure on the British Government in that area.
I have been speaking to the Secretary of State, as you would expect, on this issue. The relationship is good on this issue. I have made it clear that the position of the Irish Government is that we support the Stormont House Agreement, which we think is, on balance, the best way forward. As people know, the Stormont House Agreement effectively sets up four structures. It establishes a historical investigations unit to take forward investigations that are outstanding and uses the court system to do that. It sets up an independent commission for information recovery where people can come and tell their stories outside of a court setting in an attempt to establish the truth. The agreement establishes an oral history archive which offers an opportunity to share experiences and narratives relating to the Troubles in terms of trying to create a context around what happened, how and why, even though it is extraordinarily painful. Many people have very different versions of that history, including some people in this meeting. The agreement also focuses on an implementation and reconciliation group to oversee the process and report on the themes, drawing from the work of other bodies and so on. That is a structured approach that deals with truth recovery, the pursuit of justice in court and tries to build a historical context that can take account of the very different perspectives on history and, of course, a structured focus on ensuring that leads to a process of reconciliation. That is quite a compelling series of structures. It is far from perfect but, as I said, there is no perfect structure. We know that from studying other peace processes around the world, the aftermath of conflict and so on.
What I think the British Government has a concern about is the capacity to bring cases to court when crimes may have been committed a long time ago. There are other issues around the debates that have been taking place in Westminster about people who served in Northern Ireland and so on. We have made it clear that we believe the pursuit of justice is the right of families of victims. We also believe in compliance with Article 2. That article requires independent, effective investigations capable of leading to identification and, if appropriate, punishment of those responsible. That is the relevant language. If we are all serious about trying to take forward a process that can work for families, we must take into account the fact that the British Government believes that there are other ways of delivering on commitments on legacy. The Irish Government is somewhat sceptical of that but we recognise that if the British Government has a different perspective, we have to listen to it and then involve all political parties and other stakeholders, particularly families and victim groups, in that discussion. We are committed to doing that.
The alternative to having that discussion is stagnation, which is, effectively, what we have had. Some people will say that the Stormont House Agreement is not working because nothing is happening. I do not accept that description. The agreement is not working because the people who committed to introducing legislation and funding consistent with the agreement have not done it. Of course it is not going to work if legislation to set up the structures and institutions is not passed. Nevertheless, we are and have been in a period of stagnation, lack of progress and endless consultation, if you like, around these issues without getting to the nub of what families want from the process, which is truth, in some cases. Some families do not want to pursue court cases while others do. This is about trying to accommodate the search for truth and justice, and the contribution that search can make to a process of reconciliation which we all know will take a long time but is something we need to be pursuing.
That is our approach. We also have legal considerations in the context of the Irish Constitution. The British Government does not have a written constitution to abide by; we do. There are certain things that may be complicating factors in terms of legal advice from the Attorney General that we will need to study. There is also the Article 2 compliance issue. Those are, in some ways, pressures around the parameters within which we can negotiate and discuss these issues. The most important element here is that we cannot progress legacy on a unilateral basis. This cannot be resolved in Westminster or Dublin. It would be fantastic if it could be resolved in Belfast or anywhere else in Northern Ireland on its own, but it probably cannot be. This is going to involve both Governments trusting each other, working together, having an open mind in terms of finding a way forward and having no preconceived outcomes with a view to then going through a kind of sham process that ticks boxes in terms of consultation.
To be fair, I do not believe we are in that space. My conversations with the Secretary of State on this have been blunt and, at times, difficult, but we have now agreed on a way forward based on being inclusive and on trying to find a way forward. The starting point is the Stormont House Agreement because that is the last agreed position. If we are to move away from elements of that agreement, there must be good reason for doing so. However, it has to be victim centred. That is how we are approaching these talks. I appeal to the parties to help us on that, and not to see this in any way as a party political issue. Hopefully, we will be able to find some consensus on the key pillars that are needed to move this forward.
We would happily move forward on the basis of the Stormont House Agreement, but that is not the space we are in at present. We have to listen, discuss and see if we can find consensus as a basis for a way forward. We owe that to the thousands of families concerned. I say that as somebody who comes from Cork. I know I am on a video call here with people who have experienced, in a very personal way, the trauma and violence of the Troubles, so my job is to try to be a facilitator and actor in this who can help shape a way forward that everybody can buy into and, most importantly, that can be implemented quickly. One of the lessons from the Stormont House Agreement is that if one agrees something in 2014 and one still has not implemented it in 2021, it is no wonder that victims' groups become sceptical, frustrated and angry. In some cases, they are traumatised again when they read in the newspaper that we are moving away from that commitment again.
That is where we are. As I said, I strongly encourage parties to work with us to try to find a way forward for the sake of the victims in particular.
Mr. Paul Maskey:
I will lead on this issue because I am the Member of Parliament for Belfast West, the constituency where Ballymurphy is located. John Finucane will come in directly after me. As the MP for Belfast West, I thank the Minister. I know he has been meeting with the families. I was at the meeting he had with the families in Ballymurphy and when he walked the sites where some of the loved ones were killed. It was a very emotional day, and the Minister mentioned that. Every time the families have a meeting with anyone and tell their stories, it is obviously very emotional for them. We owe it to them to do whatever we can to make sure they get what they need. It took 50 years for the families to get to the truth. It was a momentous day when Mrs. Justice Keegan made her verdict known. I met the families directly after it and I could see in their faces a sense of relief that they had achieved the truth. Within hours, however, there was sadness for them because of the actions of the British Government and how it handled the matter. What it did was quite poor on its part. The families were very disappointed with that.
I have spoken to the families since then. One of their biggest concerns, if not the biggest, is that the Stormont House Agreement will not be implemented. A number of weeks ago, when Mrs. Justice Keegan gave her verdict, there was a sense of pride among the families, but that could be dashed. We must do whatever we can, including the Irish Government, to make sure the Stormont House Agreement is implemented in its entirety. We all must work towards that. My question for the Minister and others is: how do we ensure that the families are not disappointed again by the actions or lack of actions of others?
Eleven months after the Ballymurphy massacre, the Springhill-Westrock massacre occurred. I have met those families as well recently. I put a proposal to the committee that the members go to Ballymurphy to meet with the families again, and also meet with the Springhill massacre families. As the MP for west Belfast, I am putting that proposal to the Minister as well. I hope he can come up and meet the Ballymurphy families again and, when doing that, I hope he will also meet with the families of the victims of the Springhill-Westrock massacre in the heart of my constituency. That is an offer for the Minister and I hope he will agree to take it up. I believe it would be very important to both the Ballymurphy families and the Springhill-Westrock families.
Mr. John Finucane:
I thank the Minister for attending the meeting. I echo the comments of my colleague, Paul Maskey. It is important to note what the Minister described as rare moments of progress in the legacy context. It is my strongly held personal view that it simply would not be possible without the strong support and involvement of the Irish Government throughout the process and in the journey undertaken by the families.
I have been contacted within the past week. My constituency of Belfast North probably has the unenviable title of being the most impacted, geographically, by the Troubles. Among the many families who have contacted me in the past week are the families who have recently achieved a new inquest. They are known as the New Lodge Six. Six people in the New Lodge area were murdered in 1973. Like so many families, those families have been on a generational campaign for truth and justice since that time. It is important that we recognise not just that it is important to them to tell their stories but also the importance, and to be fair to the Minister he touched on this, of the need to have official recognition and vindication of the campaign they have been on. We saw a stark example of that with the Ballymurphy families and the findings of the inquest.
It is also important that the families have the ability and the option to benefit from the criminal justice system or any judicial process which is naturally open to them as a result of information coming to light. The focus of my questions arises from the joint communique from the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference last week. There is a process of consultation, which begins today, and my party is engaging in that. However, there is a concern that this is going to be an example of yet another political agreement, this time in the legacy context and being like the Stormont House Agreement, that is not going to be implemented. There is a real concern, certainly among my constituents, that what we are seeing is a cynical attempt by the British Government to evade its legacy responsibilities.
I have three questions for the Minister. First, if he can answer, why does he feel the British Government pulled back from what it had signposted it was intending to do in July, namely, to introduce legislation? My second question follows up on comments the Minister made to RTÉ this day last week and, with respect, what he said again today. It is a contradictory position whereby the Irish Government will say there is a commitment to the Stormont House Agreement and to no amnesty, yet it is approaching this period of consultation with an open mind and with no red lines, saying that it is an evolution of the Stormont House Agreement and that it is a starting point but will not necessarily be an end point. That causes huge concern for constituents in north Belfast and for those I speak to in the wider victim sector. My last point, which I am keen that the Minister address if he has time, is that the issue of reconciliation is very important for this society. For me, legacy is arguably the single biggest barrier to reconciliation. If we see a political agreement not being implemented, how does the Minister see that impacting on being serious, as a society, in dealing with reconciliation?
First, I would be very happy to meet the Ballymurphy families again. In fact, I enjoy that interaction. I recall the last time we met.
There was such a sense of injustice and frustration among them in the context of their pursuit of justice. If we met again now, we could talk in a very different context. That is something I would really like to do. If there are others who Mr. Maskey believes it would be helpful for me to meet and hear their stories in the context of the legacy work we are trying to do, I would be very happy to do so, whether that is the Springhill group or any others. I am not a Minister who hides himself away. I am happy to meet and hear people's stories. In fact, I would very much welcome that.
Mr. Finucane made some comments and asked three questions. Why do I feel the British Government pulled back? I would like to think we had some part to play and also that the British Government weighed up the consequences of legislating in a way that may have resulted in a political outcome in Westminster but could have caused huge tensions in Northern Ireland. I hope it reflected on why it should not legislate unilaterally to get something done and out of the way before the summer break in a way that would have very negative and significant fallout in Northern Ireland among political parties and victims' groups in particular. To be honest, that just was not part of the deal. The point of the Stormont House Agreement and the public consultation process around taking the legacy forward was about listening. It was also about trying to accommodate people's different perspectives to find consensus and trying to move forward on the basis of that consensus, while legislating unilaterally under pressure from people who are focused, perhaps, on the politics of veterans as opposed to the politics of Northern Ireland. It would have been very problematic.
I was very blunt and direct, both privately and publicly, about my concerns on that issue. To his credit, Brandon Lewis listened to that and we are now pursuing a different path. This does not mean that the outcome will be the same, however. I want to emphasise that point. Just because we have agreed to a consultation does not mean we have agreed to the approach it seems the British Government would like to take. We have not agreed, and I have been very clear about that. We believe there needs to be a route to legal justice in terms of people taking cases to court when there is still a chance and a desire to do so. Others do not necessarily agree with that opinion and this is what we must now discuss.
I will take Mr. Finucane's other two questions around the commitment of the Irish Government. He asked whether we are for the Stormont House Agreement. If we take that approach, this process will go nowhere. At the moment, the British Government's position is that it is not going to implement the Stormont House Agreement because it believes that there is another approach it should take. If we simply take a stubborn position that we believe the Stormont House Agreement is the only way forward and say "That was agreed and you must implement it", then I believe this process will stagnate and families will have to continue to wait. We have agreed to a process. This has resulted in the avoidance of unilateral action and the introduction of legislation at Westminster, which is a good outcome.
I have made it very clear that our approach to this process of discussion and dialogue is that we believe the Stormont House Agreement can work. We would like to have it implemented. If Mr. Finucane believes changes should be made to the agreement, then he has an opportunity to explain why and see if he can build consensus around that. That is what is driving this. The Irish Government has not looked for this process. We have been asked if we will be part of it and I believe that it is the best way of trying to find a way forward on legacy issues. Otherwise, if everybody just holds their position and nothing happens, we will be here this time next year having the same conversation.
Am I committed to the Stormont House Agreement? Yes, I am. Would I like it to be implemented? Yes, I would like it to have been implemented years ago in terms of the structures being set up and funded. Do I recognise that at the moment there is a lack of commitment to the Stormont House Agreement and that, as a result, it is unlikely to progress? Yes. That is the reality. We have to meet, therefore, to try to find a way forward. That is what I meant when I said that this is a discussion on an evolution of the Stormont House Agreement. We are happy with the agreement. We believe it is about as balanced as we can be. Others are not. They are an important part of the picture and they happen to be members of a Government that needs to legislate in order to move the legacy process forward.
As I said, we will approach these discussions with an open mind but also with a pretty strong view as to what the outcome should look like. We have quite a lot of conviction in that regard. I hope the conversations we have had with different political parties on this call will have reinforced that with our teams.
We can focus here on trying to isolate and call people out for not following through on political commitments that were made in the past, which I have done. I do it in the context of the protocol and I have done it with regard to Brexit, the New Decade, New Approach agreement and so on. My job, however, is to try to find a way forward with everyone present in respect of the most sensitive issue in politics on this island, which is how we deal with the legacy of the past and how we can move forward on a journey of reconciliation. That is where we are.
To reassure the committee, when I talk about an evolution of Stormont House, I am not talking about an amnesty or doing away with an opportunity for families to pursue justice. As I was speaking about Article 2 compliance earlier, one of our team handed me a note in which it is correctly stated that in developing jurisprudence, the European Court of Human Rights is tending, very clearly, against amnesties. We also see the same in UN policy in terms of post-conflict peace processes and so on. In general, the recommendation is to move away from amnesties to try to ensure that truth and justice are part of reconciliation and recovery. That is the perspective we come from as well.
As already stated, if I wanted to make this political, I could do so. I could be critical and I could grandstand. We have decided not to do that. We have decided to engage with all the parties, let all of those involved have their say and then try to find a way forward based on the closest outcome to consensus that we can create. I suspect those discussions will be difficult-----
I am sorry to interrupt the Minister but we must move on to the next group because we have run out of time. I have to stick to the time if that is okay. We move on now to Fianna Fáil, which has 15 minutes. Members might identify who wishes to speak and how they intend to use their time.
I will speak first. Senator McGreehan is in the Leinster House complex and will also be contributing.
I welcome the Minister's continued engagement with this committee and his remarks this morning. In the engagement we had with the Ballymurphy families, there was such a palpable sense of relief when the coroner's verdict was announced and the outcome of that inquest showed very clearly that ten entirely innocent people were shot dead in that massacre. These issues need to be addressed with the utmost urgency and I fully appreciate that it is not straightforward, unfortunately.
The Minister stated that every family must have access to truth and justice. So many families across this island have been denied truth and justice. I welcome the Taoiseach's confirmation that a number of legacy issues, including in the context of atrocities committed in my constituency and elsewhere, we raised during his recent bilateral meeting with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Boris Johnson.
I also welcome the Minister's confirmation that these issues were also discussed at the recent British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. Importantly, the Minister stated that victims and survivors are central to all these discussions and that intense engagement is needed if we are to achieve true reconciliation.
The Minister will have heard me on many occasions, including at committee meetings, on Question Time and during debates in the Dáil, talking about some of the atrocities that impacted on my immediate home area almost half a century ago. I am referring to the bombing in Belturbet in December 1972 and the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in May 1974. Unfortunately, no one was brought to justice for any of those heinous crimes. As the Minister knows, on three occasions, in 2008, 2011 and 2016, the Dáil and the Oireachtas unanimously passed well-crafted motions. They were crafted responsibly. We called on the British Government to give access to all papers and files pertaining to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings to an independent eminent international legal person. Over the course of the last Dáil a support group was formed in the Oireachtas for the families of the victims of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. The group included the former Deputy, Maureen O'Sullivan, Deputy Seán Crowe and me. We have had considerable contact with the Department and appreciate the access we have had in the context of those atrocities. The Department kept us updated on what was not happening in respect of the unanimous requests from the Oireachtas. Will the Minister provide an update on the position? Have the British indicated in any way that they will respond to the motions that were passed unanimously by our sovereign Parliament? We know of the Glenanne gang. There is plenty of evidence from state papers in Britain relating to these atrocities. Recently, I put on the record of the Dáil information that had come to me from the University of Nottingham regarding collusion in Northern Ireland in respect of the bombing at Belturbet in December 1972. There is irrefutable evidence.
We all know about the age cohort of many siblings and parents of people who were victims of those atrocities. They are concerned that everyone is getting older. The truth has not been established. I have campaigned with many of the families in my constituency to try to get the truth and to get their voices listened to. The Minister rightly stated that families cannot continue to wait. Unfortunately, they have waited for decades and there is no sign of the truth. The British Government, if it is serious about having the Border instalment of the Stormont House Agreement, could show good intent by giving some indication on the request of our Parliament for access to all the papers pertaining to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings to be given to an independent international legal person. The Minister might provide an update on that.
There is one other matter. In recent days, members of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly had an engagement with the British ambassador. One of the points that I and others raised relates to the need to try to keep families updated on what is happening or not happening. In many instances, families, survivors and people who have lost loved ones were not contacted enough by statutory agencies or Departments. If this process is to be intensified and if we are to make much-needed progress, then the families have to be continually updated on what efforts the Government, Departments and statutory agencies are making to try to get the truth and to try to get justice for these families. The issue needs to be treated with the utmost urgency.
I will come in briefly if that is okay. We are talking about legacy issues. The term "legacy" is a simple description for intergenerational trauma and heartbreak. It is a simple term for what is complex and devastating trauma. What can the Government, on behalf of the country, do to encourage both communities to work together to solve the legacy issues? How can we avoid sidelining justice in any way whatsoever while bringing in both communities or those on both sides? How can we work to encourage the British Government to stand up to its agreements? Legacy issues are equal on both sides. I do not imagine any of us will move on until the questions Deputy Brendan Smith has highlighted are addressed. Is there a role for the shared island unit in bringing people together to work on a conversation to get to the next point?
I am glad that a number of issues were raised. I am keen to address them. The first issue was in respect to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and Seamus Ludlow. As people know, last month marked the 47th anniversary of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in 1974, in which 33 were killed and hundreds seriously injured. These attacks saw the largest loss of life of any day of the Troubles, as everyone knows. The Government reaffirmed its commitment in the programme for Government to seek access for an independent international judicial figure to all original documents relating to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, the murder of Seamus Ludlow and related cases in line with the three all-party Dáil motions to which Deputy Brendan Smith referred. The Government has a long-standing request made to the British Government in this respect. The absence of response is of concern and has been the topic of discussion on several occasions between me and various counterparts in the British Government in recent years.
At the meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference last week, I raised the concerns and requests of repeated Oireachtas motions relating to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and related cases, including that of Seamus Ludlow, and the absence of a response from the British Government. The Secretary of State agreed to come back to us with a formal response to the case. We will continue to wait to see what happens there.
For what it is worth, our officials have regular contact with the families of the victims of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and will continue to do so. We know the families were encouraged by Jon Boutcher's team looking at their case. The families want that route to be pursued further.
The Belturbet bombing was raised by my colleague, the Minister for Justice, Deputy Heather Humphreys, at the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference last week. At the meeting the Minister for Justice raised the need for progress on the bombings and asked the UK Government to secure movement on these cases. Again, the Secretary of State agreed to come back to the Government on this issue.
I wish to reassure committee members that we raise these cases all the time in formal formats like the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and, separately and privately, when we are discussing other issues. We will keep raising these issues because they are very much part of the broader legacy cases. We will raise the Finucane case as well and I imagine committee members will be interested in that and in the need to get clarity from the British Government on a full investigation.
The point made by Deputy Brendan Smith was that if the British Government is serious about trying to find a way forward on legacy issues and building trust and faith on both sides of the Border in that process, then there are things it can do in respect of individual cases.
The Irish Government also needs to be convincing in how it is co-operating with investigations, inquests and cases relating to many families, predominantly within the unionist community, whether those relate to Kingsmill or anywhere else for that matter. We need to look at ourselves in the mirror as well as ask the hard questions and make sure we are contributing to establishing the truth and achieving justice. We need to ask if the Irish Government can do more. From my perspective as Minister for Foreign Affairs, I want to facilitate processes that can establish the truth for everybody. We know there are accusations that are still current. The Irish Government has contributed to hiding information that may be there and is not being provided to inquests and so on. I would like to hear from anyone who has any evidence to suggest that the Irish Government is withholding information on any case. I will act on any such information. I have given that assurance to families linked to Kingsmill and others. We need to continue to be convincing and reassuring in that space. We also need to be demanding of the British Government in terms of it playing its part for many of the other atrocities that it can help to contribute to establishing the truth of.
Senator McGreehan asked how we can encourage the UK Government to be a partner in this. We are now buying into this process. There are many reasons to be sceptical and to believe that we are not going to make the progress we would like to. However, we all have an obligation to try to be as positive as possible and buy into this process to see can we find a way forward that can be accepted by the two Governments, the parties and the vast majority of victims' families. That is ultimately what this process is about. If we cannot do that, the outcome will not be good. It will, in fact, be worse because we would be back to square one. In that scenario, we make the case for the Stormont House Agreement, it does not get implemented because others do not agree, and families are asked to wait until some political or legal mechanism can allow cases to be taken forward individually on the basis of inquests, an investigation by the PSNI, or whatever. We have an obligation to be more proactive and to try to find a way forward that both the British and Irish Governments can legislate for and that the parties in Northern Ireland can buy into.
Dr. Stephen Farry:
I beg the indulgence of the Chairman because I want to refer to what was agreed yesterday between the UK Government and the European Commission around a number of flexibilities relating to the protocol. I thank the Minister for his good offices. I am sure the Irish Government had something to do with the progress that has been made on those issues over the past number of weeks and months. I stress that there will be other areas in which we will need to see more progress and flexibility. This is certainly a glass-half-full moment but we are not quite there just yet.
On the issue of legacy, I will start with the Ballymurphy issue, the reason we are meeting. What is the Minister's opinion on the genuine options that will be available next in terms of the campaign for justice for the families? I appreciate that this falls into the jurisdiction of the UK but I note, for example, that we have not heard much from the UK Ministry of Defence so far, under whose jurisdiction the soldiers in question fell. We have also not heard much about the prospect of further criminal investigations into what happened. I bear in mind the wider statements the families have made about their concern and reticence over any potential move away from the Stormont House Agreement.
What is happening now in terms of dialogue and consultation? My party is wary of this process, primarily because there is very little trust of the modus operandiof the UK Government. There are questions as to whether things are being done for the right reason of finding agreement or whether they are being done to suit a particular agenda and bolting on whatever else needs to be done. There is nervousness about what we are getting ourselves into in this process. Are we, in effect, going to act as people who, shall we say, polish the bad look, to a certain extent, of flawed proposals which are then imposed over the heads of the Northern Ireland political parties? Is this a situation whereby for this process to go ahead, there is an expectation that if we are to have an open mind on how to do this, any package will essentially have to be agreed either formally or by informal consensus across both Governments and a critical mass of the Northern Irish political parties, in the same way as was the case for the Stormont House Agreement? Before we go on that journey, we need a sense of reassurance that we are not going to end up inadvertently giving legitimacy to a process that is fundamentally flawed in a range of ways and is then imposed over our heads by the UK Government.
I understand Dr. Farry's concerns. Many of us know there is a lot of pressure in the British political system at Westminster to ensure that people who served in Northern Ireland do not end up being pulled through a court system. We need to make sure that what is motivating this process is not pressure coming from a different place, if you like, and is rather a pressure on us all to do what is right for Northern Ireland. I promise that is my motivation. There is no way that the Irish Government is in this process to legitimise unilateral action that is somehow explained on the basis of the British Government saying we have gone through a consultation process, cannot get agreement on Northern Ireland because it is so divided and Westminster just needs to legislate and move this process forward. That narrative could develop. The narrative has almost taken hold that there is no point in even going through another process of consultation and legislation should be drafted anyway to follow through on commitments that were made in an election manifesto or whatever. That cannot be the motivation here. That is why we have said to the British Government that we will work with it in trying to convene a genuine process of consultation to listen to parties and victims groups. We will listen if the British Government outlines that it has a different perspective and believes it can add to the legacy process by making amendments or changes to the Stormont House Agreement, or making new proposals. Let us hear them, discuss them, dissect them and test them in terms of the purpose of what we are trying to achieve, which is truth, justice and reconciliation. That is how we are approaching this process. I hope that it will not result in a clash, a stand-off and a failure to progress because, to be honest, we have had enough of that. Victims families deserve better than that. We are approaching this on the basis of partnership with the British Government. We are approaching it on the basis of reaching out, working with parties and victims groups to try to find a way forward that is acceptable to the British Government, although it may have to compromise, and the Irish Government.
It may have to compromise but it could accept that we could accept. From our perspective, certainly at the outset of this, it is very important that there is a justice element to any outcome. It is very hard to see how an Irish Government could support an outcome that does not give families the right to pursue justice in the courts if they want to, and certainly if there is a case file that makes that credible.
On a personal basis, hopefully Dr. Farry knows my form well enough at this stage. I am not shy of having an argument even if it is with the British Government. I want close and good relationships with the British Government but that does not mean that we simply accept its perspective and move forward on that basis. We have a different perspective on this issue on the outset of these discussions but we are willing to participate in an effort to try to find a compromise position, if necessary, that can move us forward. I believe only so much compromise is possible, however, from the principles of Stormont House and obviously the structures that were committed to on that basis.
I thank Dr. Farry for his recognition of the protocol. Sometimes when I read the British media, it is almost as if it does not want to report on good news when it comes to the protocol or the European Union. That is why I spoke to the BBC this morning. Yesterday was a very important day for Northern Ireland. It was the first time that both sides agreed to quite a significant package of flexibilities on the basis of taking a pragmatic approach towards problems that have surfaced because of the protocol. The problems are ultimately because of Brexit but they have surfaced because of the implementation of the protocol, which is trying to manage the disruption of Brexit.
The grace period for prepared meats has been extended to the end of September on the ask of the British Government, which received a positive response. That is a much better outcome than taking unilateral action and triggering an illegal response leading to a further breakdown of trust and so on.
The EU wanted to go beyond that, however. It said it had been working on a whole range of other things and wanted to reassure people in Northern Ireland that the supply of medicines was not going to be a problem from Great Britain, for instance, generic medicines coming into Northern Ireland through the NHS system dealing with certifications systems that would otherwise be a problem. The EU is actually willing to change European law to make sure Northern Ireland does not have concerns and anxiety around access to medicines. That is appropriate, particularly in the context of the pandemic.
It has also done niche things like making sure guide dogs can travel between GB and Northern Ireland. It sounds like a small thing but I recall Mr. Michael Gove MP raising this issue with me last January because it is highly emotive. Likewise, with regard to the tagging of animals, the EU is effectively facilitating animals being taken to shows in Scotland and coming back into Northern Ireland and so on. Rather than having to have an identification and tagging system every time the animal moves, a system is now in place that recognises and can allow the free movement of animals. These are practical, sensible issues that are being resolved.
Ultimately, the EU said that it is up for a serious discussion around a common approach towards veterinary standards. As I previously said to Dr. Farry, if we could get a sanitary and phytosanitary, SPS, agreement between both sides in terms of a common approach towards standards, we could dramatically reduce the numbers of checks on imports in Larne and Belfast by up to 80% in terms of animal products. Surely that is something worth pursuing.
Unfortunately, some of the commentary on that from the British side has not been overly positive. It comes back to what is almost a conspiracy theory that the EU wants to control the UK. It does not. It simply wants to try to maintain a positive, sensitive relationship that removes unnecessary barriers to trade and takes a common approach towards high standards in food safety. Hopefully, therefore, we will be able to make some progress on some of those issues.
As I said, any time Dr. Farry wants to get an Irish Government or European Commission perspective, he should feel free to pick up the telephone at any stage. We are trying to find ways forward on some of these delicate questions in order that we can get through the summer and out the other side with a protocol that becomes less controversial and is seen as a technical trading arrangement as opposed to a political totem, which is what some people see it as.
Mr. Francie Molloy:
I thank the Chairman. I also thank the Minister for his attendance and participation. I pay tribute to the way he has managed the process to date and the fact that he has given recognition to the victims and taken their concerns on board. That has been a good response and victims have recognised that right across the board. Even the Minister's answers have indicated that he understands, probably better than some, the issues that are actually being raised by the families and victims who want to get them resolved. The Ballymurphy case is very typical but unfortunately it is not the only case right across the North.
Perhaps the Minister has read it but I will recommend Anne Cadwallader's book, Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland, which highlights the amount of cases of victims right across the North, where the very clear indication is of collusion between state forces, loyalists and others within the agencies that are involved.
There are 120 victims right across what is termed the "murder triangle". I live in that area. My field runs down to what was the centre of Bond's plantation or the Argory. Certainly, around this part of the country, the fears that were in people over those years are still there because they have not seen any resolution of the issue. It would be beneficial if at some stage the Minister was able to visit and bring together a number of those families to let them speak for themselves on the issue. Some of them already have. I believe it is very important at present that they do not feel left out, however. That figure of 120 is quite a sizeable number of people within that murder triangle, which takes in Glengannon, Portadown, Armagh and around that particular area.
Even when we look at the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, there was a link into that murder triangle for those who carried out that bombing. Sometimes it comes across that the Glenanne gang was the only group that was actually carrying out a lot of these murders. I think that is a mistake. We might look at the number of victims across the area, certainly even along the lines of the Devlins and the different families and local people who were involved. Patricia Devlin highlighted the circumstances around that recently and it is very important.
When we are dealing with this in the Stormont House Agreement, it is important that we keep to the core principles. There were concerns from the families, after the meeting between the British and Irish Cabinets, that a change was happening and that Stormont House was being set aside. They need reassurance that we are starting a new discussion. The new discussion can be dangerous, however. It appears to families that the British Government is just delaying and procrastinating to try to drag out the whole process but giving no commitment to actually delivering on it.
It would be very important to remember, as Senator Currie said, that the British Government is not neutral in this. Its representatives are actors and are part and parcel of it, for instance, its agents and soldiers. The state itself was actually part and parcel of removing people. The Pat Finucane case is probably one of the best examples but many others in different areas have a similar line. I do not believe the British Government should be let off the hook in that regard or portray itself as neutral within it. Unfortunately, we have seen so many broken promises from the British Government, including the Good Friday Agreement, which has not been fully implemented.
They seem to make agreements, break them and then just move on to the next stage. I will say fair play that Ireland is trying to confront them. I am of the view that we must move to a situation where we need to get answers to the question: "Are you going to live up to the commitment made or are you not?" We need to get that.
I welcome the point made by the Minister regarding the Irish Government. There was some concern still that the Irish Government was in possession of papers on the Glenanne gang, the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and cross-Border raids that happened, and that there would still be some documentation there. It would be good if it was possible to move along from this stand-off. I accept the point the Minister has made that he has stood up to the British Government. That is good and welcome. The stand-off sometimes has to happen in order to move things along and get truth and justice for the victims. I thank the Minister very much for everything so far. When we go back into the discussion on the Stormont House Agreement, however, it has to be to protect the agreement and not to weaken it, and not to take away the role of victims or the concept of justice for the victims.
Everyone on this call fully understands the responsibility that lies on the Minister's shoulders. He referred to it being compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights. What particular mechanisms are available to ensure the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement from that perspective?
Can there be continuous communication with the families? If we lose the relatives and the Relatives for Justice in this process then I believe immense damage will be done. I will hand over to Chris Hazzard now.
I am happy to do so if that is okay with the Chairman. I agree with Mr. Molloy on the need for a victim-centred approach. This is what we must manage to achieve. I used the word "we" in that regard. While I was not the Minister at the time the Stormont House Agreement was agreed, I can remember what happened well. The idea was that we would try to have structures agreed that would allow families to fit into different elements of that structure depending on their stories, what they were looking for, and what they wanted, whether this was establishing the truth, pursuing a case for investigation or being part of an oral history.
If a new approach is being proposed by the British Government, I point out, first, that this has not been published yet, even though many of us have a pretty good idea what is in it, and, then, that the onus is on the people who are proposing a new approach to explain why and to make a convincing case in order that consensus can be built. Many times, privately and publicly, I have said that I do not see the case for a statute of limitations, which many will regard as a simple amnesty, adding to the challenge of legacy and reconciliation in a positive way. This is why I have not been supportive of that. In many ways, introducing an amnesty or statute of limitations will be seen by many victims as a hugely disappointing and traumatic ending to a very long wait for justice where the hope of taking a case successfully had been there and would be removed.
I have spoken to many of the victims' families. They are very realistic about what is possible and what is not it with regard to having a successful case in court. That is different from actually legislating to prevent them having the opportunity at all, which is what a statute of limitations would do. Many of the victims' families will accept that their cases will be unlikely to be able to contribute to a case file that can successfully result in a prosecution. There may well be some cases that can do that, which is very important, but in many cases, it may not be possible. We have to have other mechanisms that can allow for evidence to be built up, for the truth to be told and for families to be given as much of that truth as is possible to put together often decades after the events took place.
I take the point about the 120 victims referred to by Mr. Molloy in the part of Northern Ireland he comes from. Mr. Molloy makes the point, as I have also, that many victims and victims' groups, including the Ballymurphy families, have expressed real concern at a move away from the Stormont House Agreement structures and process. They felt that was a credible way to pursue cases. A question was asked as to whether the UK Government is just delaying. No, I do not think it is. To be fair to the British Government, it wants to move this issue on. The problem is that how we do so matters. One does not move on legacy by unilaterally passing legislation in a way that has not achieved consensus as being the best way forward. If this is tried then one damages rather than builds relationships in the context of true reconciliation. Whenever there have been suggestions about a different tiering of blame or prosecution, depending on who the people were who broke the law and were involved in violence, it has created extraordinary division, and understandably so. In my view, this is why a court process and an investigation process where evidence is put together and cases are made for and against is still a very important part of the legacy process for many families.
I shall turn now to the question on whether the Irish Government is in possession of papers relating to the Glenanne gang. I have a note on Glenanne gang and the wider question. The announcement by the PSNI on 30 November 2019 that former Chief Constable Jon Boutcher would lead an independent police team to conduct an analytical report on collusion into the Glenanne gang series of cases was very welcome. During the meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, I raised the issue and underlined the importance of this process being supported in bringing the team's work to a successful conclusion. The Government is supportive of facilitating this investigation, subject to the requirements of the law, as we have other investigative processes in Northern Ireland. Mr. Boutcher is in a position to seek the co-operation of An Garda Síochána through the framework of the mutual legal assistance that underpins the excellent co-operation that exists between the Garda and the PSNI more broadly. It is welcome also that Mr. Boutcher has already met with many of the victims' families and that he has confirmed he will conduct his work in ongoing liaison with them. It is hoped that the report being conducted by Mr. Boutcher will contribute to the long process of justice, truth and acknowledgement of what happened in many of these awful cases where collusion was undoubtedly a feature.
We have a process there that I think people have increasing faith in, which is good.
Senator Conway-Walsh referred to the European Convention on Human Rights. We raise cases relating to the convention all the time through the Council of Europe, with the Committee of Ministers that meets there, and at the European Court of Human Rights in Strasbourg. That is where I suspect any approach on legacy in the future may be tested to ensure it is compliant with the European Convention on Human Rights. That is where I think the right to the pursuit of justice for victims and their families would be a pretty important consideration. I cannot give a definitive view in advance, but, from our experience, we understand the bar would be quite high to justify introducing a broad amnesty for an entire period of Northern Ireland's history that was very brutal and violent and in circumstances where so many families have been attempting to pursue a course of justice and truth recovery for a long time. Let us wait and see where that goes.
I am happy to get everyone in. That is the first thing. I am also happy to make sure that I am fair to everyone and, in that context, I want to make sure that Chris, who made two efforts, has a third opportunity.
I thank the Minister for comprehensive briefing he has given us, particularly on the issues relating to Ballymurphy, the negotiations and the progress he believes, and I believe, both Governments will hopefully make to resolve this and ensure that the families get the justice they are entitled to and deserve. If it is a new process and a different way of looking at a solution to the same problem, then the core point must be clarity for the families and the justice they are entitled to get. That is a good agenda, and the only one worth pursuing.
I respect and acknowledge the fact that the victims on all sides and their families and the people who survived are entitled to the same truth and justice. In the context of others and the counties in which they live, I live in county Louth where there are still families waiting for the truth and for justice regarding Jean McConville. Jean was abducted in the most cruel and barbaric way and lay buried in an unmarked grave for decades. There is also the murder of Tom Oliver. These are matters that to deep to the heart of things, just like the murders in Ballymurphy. They relate to people who lost their lives. It should never have happened. We are entitled to ensure that the families get justice and they get at the truth. Whatever process by which we can make that happen, we should continue to pursue.
We have done the rounds of all the parties so I am happy to start again. There are 25 minutes remaining. We can split the time five minutes for Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil, Alliance and so on.
The meetings are two hours long but we are very happy with the time the Minister has given us. We will cut that back to a quick comment from each of the parties, if that is okay. They will each have two minutes. I appreciate the Minister's point.
I thank the Minister, as always, for his diplomatic skills. We saw the fruits of his labour in recent days. When we come through the process, we will hopefully be able to say the same thing. We are all familiar with the expression "nothing is agreed until everything is agreed". The lesson here is that nothing is implemented until everything is implemented. It is really important that we get this right. So much good faith depends on this. As the Minister said, whatever the family or experience and whatever the atrocity or the trauma, there has to be a way that people can engage in trust in the framework set out along the principles with which we are all familiar, truth, justice and reconciliation.
Mr. John Finucane:
I thank the Minister for his time. I appreciate it. I was aware that the Minister and the Government had raised our own case in the context of discussions last week. That is something that we are keeping a close eye on as a family. To broaden it out, the uniform approach of this committee is something that is not party political is the fact that we need to have mechanisms in place that deliver for everybody and provides that opportunity of access for all families, to use the Minister's words, regardless of perpetrators because that is very important. The fact that families have had to wait five decades in some cases is the context in which we meet today, because a group of families did have a rare moment of progress after five decades. A process lasting five decades is not what grandchildren or, in some cases, great grandchildren should have had to embark upon. People should be free to get on and live their lives without having to engage in legacy processes. The Minister is right, however, in that we are where we are. In the process we now enter into, I trust the Government knows where victims, families and campaign groups stand. It is important that we come out of this quickly and enter a period of implementation. Our party looks forward to engaging on that in the period before a line is drawn in the autumn.
Is there a timeframe for the new talks, if we want to call them that? I referred to the need to ensure that families of victims and surviving victims are updated and that constant contact is made with them on behalf of the State. The Minister referred to the ongoing contact that his Department has with representatives of the families of the victims of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. I am strongly of the opinion that there may be families out there that are not represented by any advocacy group. If the Department or some statutory agency could ensure that such families are updated as much as is possible and that they at least be let know what efforts are being made at State level to try and make some progress at getting truth in the many atrocities that have been carried out.
Dr. Stephen Farry:
I want to reinforce that wherever we end up in this regard, at the very least the four principles of the Stormont House Agreement - human rights, the rule of law, justice and reconciliation - are absolutely fundamental. It is important that we always bear in mind that the victims are at the heart of this process. It is their needs that we are trying to address alongside facilitating the wider reconciliation and healing of our society.
I thank the Chair for his accommodation and apologise if there was any confusion about time. Senator Currie said that so much good faith depends on this. That is a point which really hits home with me. It does depend on this. We have had so many difficult debates in the context of the politics of Northern Ireland in recent years.
There was the lead-up to the New Decade, New Approach agreement, Brexit and the protocol and a series of other political issues, be they in respect of language, culture or legislation. It has been a difficult and disruptive period and now, arguably, we are moving into an even more sensitive space. It is almost as if the challenges are never-ending for the political leadership in Northern Ireland and for the two Governments to work on with it. I just appeal to people to try to approach this, yes, with very firm views, as have been expressed today, but also to try to use language that is not as confrontational, perhaps, as it otherwise might be, in an effort to try to find a way forward. The approach the Irish Government is taking, which I hope I have outlined reasonably clearly, will be firm, but we will also try to approach this with a real effort to try to achieve consensus as much as possible.
On Mr. Finucane's comments, we have raised his family's case and will continue to raise it. He does not need me to remind him that the work in this regard is very much unfinished. I used the term "investigation" earlier. Of course, what we are seeking is a full public inquiry. I say that in case anything was read into my comments. Mr. Finucane said that it is important that victims know where the Irish Government stands. I have been consistent on that and I will continue to be.
With regard to Deputy Brendan Smith's comments and the timeframe for the talks, clearly, there is a great deal of pressure in the British system to legislate in this space from a time perspective. That is no harm, because there must be urgency anyway for families if we can find a way forward. What we are not going to do is what sometimes happens in Northern Ireland, where there are months that turn into years of negotiation and discussion, with stand-offs, party-political positioning and so forth. We must do this differently if we can and find a way forward in the next few months in order that we can facilitate legislation in the autumn. That is the aim. He referred to families who may not feel that they are plugged into or represented by official representative groups. If there is a database of families who are not getting updates, we would be interested to get that. We will make sure to reach out to them. That goes for anybody on this call, incidentally. If participants feel that people are isolated and have not been part of broader representative groups, political parties or whatever, we will try to address that deficit if it exists.
On Dr. Farry's comments, how can one be against a process that takes account of human rights, the rule of law, justice and reconciliation? I hope that is what we are all about here. However, I can understand why it is not as straightforward as that, but they are four very important pillars. Perhaps a fifth to add to that is legal obligations. We have constitutional obligations and we have to be compliant with Article 2. That comes under the rule of law. Ultimately, we can take a legalistic approach here or we can try to do what is right for families and reconciliation. Hopefully, we can do both in our efforts to find a way forward.
I will make a final point. The scepticism about this process is very evident. Parties have been quite honest with us about that. However, let us not discount the possibility of surprising ourselves and perhaps providing some positive momentum and good news for families, against the odds. If we do, it will be against the odds, given the expectations going into these talks. Certainly, the Irish Government is going to take this seriously and try to make something positive come out of this process. I encourage others to try to be the same. Let us try to avoid the usual arguments and stand-offs. Of course, we rely on others to do the same. We will see where it goes. If it comes to nothing, the fall-back position is quite straightforward. It is the Stormont House Agreement. However, I would be doubtful about whether that gets delivered, given the view that is quite strongly held now that there is a need for some change to that approach. That is why I believe these discussions are important and will, from my perspective, remain very much focused on prioritising the welfare of families and the road to reconciliation, which is a difficult and painful one. That is the only motivation for me. There are no other considerations, be that in the Oireachtas, Westminster or anywhere else.
I thank members for the opportunity to talk with them. I always learn something when we have these sessions. We can refer back to the committee if there are any further questions which we can respond to in writing. The committee can feel free to reach out and we will respond as quickly as we can.
On behalf of the committee, I thank the Minister for his time. I ask members not to forget to tune into the shared island briefing at 6 p.m. We will adjourn until 9.30 a.m. on Tuesday, 6 July, when we will meet a panel of the next generation of public representatives from the parties in Northern Ireland.