Tuesday, 13 December 2005
Ceisteanna — Questions.
Question 7: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent contacts with the political parties in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36485/05]
Question 8: To ask the Taoiseach the contacts he has had with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, or the British Government regarding new legislation introduced in the UK by the Northern Ireland Secretary, Mr. Peter Hain, permitting an amnesty for on-the-run terrorist suspects; the implications for legislation in the State; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36691/05]
Question 10: To ask the Taoiseach the nature of the discussions he has had with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, or other representatives of the British Government regarding British legislation to deal with the position of persons still wanted for serious terrorist offences; if his attention has been drawn to the terms of the British legislation prior to its publication; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37653/05]
Question 11: To ask the Taoiseach if he has received representations from the SDLP regarding British legislation to deal with the position of persons still wanted for serious terrorist offences; the response he has made to these representations; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [37654/05]
Question 14: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent contacts with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, and with political parties on the peace process; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [38703/05]
With regard to Question No. 6, I have had no contacts with the US Administration since the question was last asked.
I continue to make contact with all the political parties in Northern Ireland. Most recently, I met the SDLP on 5 December. Before that I met Sinn Féin on 1 December. At both meetings we discussed the way forward, the restoration of devolved government and other matters of current interest. I met Prime Minister Blair on 9 December in London. Our discussions focused on European issues, but we took the opportunity to discuss the current position in Northern Ireland also.
We must inject new momentum into the process in the new year. We have reflected on how this might be done and on the issues that remain to be addressed. I have advised the House on several occasions that the Government would, in the appropriate circumstances, address the so-called "on-the-run" issue. The two governments' intentions regarding this issue were referred to as far back as July 2001 in Weston Park. For a number of reasons, it was not possible to advance the issue in the intervening period, but both governments have now published their proposals on the matter and the approach envisaged in our respective jurisdictions.
I was not aware of the specific provisions in the legislation in the UK until immediately prior to its publication. I have said before in the House that it is a matter for each jurisdiction to bring forward proposals to deal with the issue within our own legislative or constitutional frameworks. I have received correspondence from the SDLP on this issue, which was also discussed at our meeting on 5 December. I am fully aware of the SDLP's concern, and I have explained the Government's position on this to the party representatives.
I last met the US envoy Mitchell Reiss when he visited Dublin on 12 September last. I have answered several questions on that since. We had a wide-ranging discussion about the political situation and the prospects for progress in the coming months. I last visited the United States between 13 September and 16 September. However, I was in New York on United Nations business and it did not involve any formal contact with the US Administration on Northern Ireland or any other issue.
The Taoiseach did not give an adequate answer to Questions Nos. 6, 12 and 13. If his only answer is that he has not had contact with the US Administration, I ask him if he will agree that the lack of contact is extraordinary. Only a few days ago the President of the United States agreed that at least 30,000 Iraqis have been killed since he invaded their country.
I am entitled to ask why the Taoiseach has not been in contact with the US Administration. Three years ago that administration was in overdrive saying there were weapons of mass destruction which necessitated an invasion of Iraq. The Taoiseach said he believed it and the Government swallowed this claim which turned out to be a lie. When we last spoke about this several months ago, I asked the Taoiseach would he ask the US Government to explain why it had mislead him. Has he done so?
There is deep unease throughout Europe and among many in the United States about the CIA policy of kidnapping so-called suspects and torturing them on behalf of the US Government. In view of this, and the sighting of planes involved in the process at Shannon, does the Taoiseach agree that contacts at the highest levels are necessary?
Given that he was told a lie about the weapons of mass destruction, what credence should he give to the US Secretary of State's denials that this so-called policy of rendition involves the use of Irish facilities?
I have reported to the House on the issues in which I have been involved with the American Administration this year. There are no other issues.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs answered questions on this subject. He has had numerous meetings with the administration on which he has reported to the House. The EU Presidency has worked on several of the issues raised by the Deputy and the Minister for Foreign Affairs has reported on those issues.
On 8 November the United Nations agreed unanimously to acknowledge the work undertaken in Iraq by the international peacekeeping force. In answer to the question, I had no contacts. It is a matter for the Minister for Foreign Affairs who has made regular contacts.
When I raised the issue of the so-called "on-the-runs" with the Taoiseach two weeks ago he responded to the effect that the proposed deal for people on the run came from the Good Friday Agreement and the arrangements to deal with that had been in the public domain since the talks in Weston Park. Both of these perceptions are wrong. The Good Friday Agreement made no reference whatsoever to those who are on the run and the issue of irrevocable pardons for them was never mentioned, either at or after the meeting at Weston Park.
Does the Taoiseach accept that a presidential pardon has never been granted in this country to a person who has not been convicted of a crime? Does the Taoiseach accept that he proposes to use a constitutional provision in a way that was never contemplated previously? Does he intend to discuss with Opposition parties a better way to proceed to deal with this matter? It is necessary to deal with this issue but not in the way the Taoiseach proposes.
The Good Friday Agreement dealt with how prisoners would be released. From that time, the issues of on-the-runs was in the public domain. At Weston Park in 2001, we agreed to bring forward the scheme when progress was made on other issues. At that stage, an enormous amount of debate surrounded the issue. The issue has been in the public domain for the last four and a half years. The scheme as outlined was not as it was only announced two weeks ago. If Members or others have suggestions to make on the issue, the Government will examine them. While I have not seen any yet, over the Christmas and new year we will look at some because it will be some months before we will deal with the cases.
As I outlined to Deputy Kenny two weeks ago, the Government is satisfied on the basis of work done to date that pre-trial pardons cannot be granted in cases, even if legislation is introduced on this issue. Under the Constitution, there are great difficulties in adopting another approach to the one for which we opted. That is based on legal advice. If another idea for dealing with the issue is raised, it will be looked at. The power of pardon cannot be delegated under the Constitution as it is vested solely in the President and exercised on the advice of the Government. The Government has been advised that the constitutional provisions for dealing with the trial of offences would stand in the way of setting up the type of tribunal for which the UK opted.
I accept some people, as a matter of principle, are opposed to addressing the issue. If it is accepted the matter must be dealt with, we believe the proposed way is the most passive way of dealing with the small number of cases that are likely to arise. If there are other suggestions, the Government is prepared to examine them.
Accepting the matter must be dealt with, I have already suggested to the Taoiseach that these persons, small in number, should present themselves to a court, declare their guilt, have the conviction put against them and then be released on revocable licence. It would provide some consolation and closure to the families and loved ones of victims who were murdered or blown up. It also allows the Executive to deal with the issue and not draw the Presidency into a matter that could be constitutionally dubious. Two weeks ago, the Taoiseach told the House he would send on the Attorney General's legal advice on the matter to the Opposition leaders. As we have yet to receive it, I ask him again to send it on.
Will the Taoiseach accept much greater consultation is needed before moving on the sensitive issue of on-the-runs and exemptions of security force members from trials? Other countries have developed merits around truth and reconciliation commissions, such as the truth for amnesty formula in South Africa, all of which have worked well. Have these been referred to in his discussions on the issue? Will the Taoiseach consult not just the parties in the North but also the Opposition parties in the South before proceeding on what is potentially a damaging issue if not dealt with sensitively?
I heard the Ceann Comhairle say that he has no role in the ordering of parliamentary questions. I submit, in any event, that questions on Northern Ireland are one of the few substantive areas where Opposition Members may question the Taoiseach. Otherwise, we are back to e-Cabinet projects, the communications unit and housekeeping matters that could be dealt with by Deputy Callely or someone. Despite this, somebody has bundled in a question on the United States, Question No. 6, with the questions on Northern Ireland. I suggest this is sharp practice because serious matters must be teased out with the Taoiseach. Deputy Kenny has raised one such matter, the on-the-runs. Whoever did this is guilty of sharp practice because the clock has been ticking and the time for questions on Northern Ireland in this term has expired, but we have not even touched the surface of the issues. This is not acceptable, regardless of who is behind it, and I am not suggesting, Sir, that you had anything to do with it.
I have a suggestion to make to the Taoiseach on another matter. When the most powerful country in the world goes to war on the basis of the existence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq and it is then established conclusively that no such weapons exist and Ireland was sucked into the coalition of the willing, what, other than a lie, does one call this and what does the rest of the world call it?
In respect of the Taoiseach's remark that he was invited to express his view on the Peter Hain on-the-runs legislation for clarification purposes only, has the Government made its view known on the legislation? Will he indicate what is the Government's disposition on restorative justice which, for example, is being established under a given structure in Northern Ireland? In so far as I know, a number of these committees have former prominent paramilitaries dictating the pace and thus controlling the communities they controlled in a previous guise, prior to commissioning and so on. This will not be confined to one side of the community. Is it not the case that the system will operate on both sides of the community? Is it not the case that demands are already being made that we follow suit and establish committees for restorative justice down here, which will, in some people's minds, have the same implications?
Will the Taoiseach please note that Question No. 13 in my name on contacts with the Government of the United States has nothing to do with the other questions in the group relating to the North and the peace process? Time restrains me but the Taoiseach must be conscious that a case arising from the so-called Stormontgate affair was withdrawn last week by the Northern Ireland Director of Public Prosecutions and the three men who had been facing charges have been deemed to be innocent of them. Does the Taoiseach recall that the political institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement were brought down as a result of those charges and the public presence of the PSNI at the Sinn Féin offices in Stormont at the time? Does he accept that the carrying out of that raid and the subsequent trial by media created a serious situation, from which we have all been trying to rebuild since, with all the difficulties of which the Taoiseach is aware?
Does the Taoiseach accept that it is imperative in light of this development that he put it to the British Prime Minister that he has a responsibility, collectively with the Taoiseach, to ensure we will not face similar contrived circumstances on the re-establishment of the institutions, designed and carried out by those who hold only ill will towards the outworking of the Good Friday Agreement and the potential of a real peace process on and between these islands?
I will take the Deputies' questions relating to Nos. 6 and 12 together.
When I go to the United States in March each year there is a more complete agenda within which I deal with a number of issues, but I do not deal with the United States on any of the other issues during the course of the year. That is why my officials would, correctly, have put these questions together. I totally defend them having regard to any insinuation that they did anything wrong. If I had been there on a separate mission, that would be a different matter. However, they were correct in how they handled this. The answer to Questions. Nos. 6, 12 and 13 is that I had no contacts with the US administration since I last answered the question. There are no supplementaries because I did not have any discussions with them.
A few weeks ago, I told Deputy Kenny that I would give him the contents of a note I had and I will do so. It was not the constitutional advice of the Attorney General.
Deputy Sargent referred to the idea of a truth and reconciliation commission. As he knows, I have supported that for some years in some format, although I never prescribed that it should be on the South African model. There are so many people who have been victims from whatever perspective and who feel their cases have not been dealt with. As time goes on, if anything, it gets more difficult for those people, so I have never ruled out the establishment of such a commission. On a number of occasions, I tried to engage people concerning some model, but not necessarily the South African model to which the Deputy referred. There are many other models. This will continue because the one thing I have learned about victims is that their pain and hurt never ceases, so we need some way of dealing with it. As I said before, however, there has not been much support for that initiative in Northern Ireland.
Deputy Rabbitte referred to the issue of restorative justice committees. I have made it clear a number of times, and I am glad to restate it, that the only way this can operate properly is with policing, otherwise it would open up all kinds of difficulties, some of which the Deputy mentioned. Restorative justice committees must be part of policing. There are currently 19 such committees in the North — 14 on the republican-Nationalist side and five on the Unionist-loyalist side. The five on the Unionist-loyalist side have an association with policing, while the others do not. Therein lies a danger, so restorative justice can only really be dealt with in the context of policing. I restate that position.
The issue that has become known as "Stormont-gate" brought down the institutions in the North. As I have said outside the House, it was on the basis that there was evidence that justified all these actions, which created many difficulties for many of us. Unfortunately, I have not had a chance to read all the files on this matter yet, but as we have seen, this has all gone now and there is no follow-on. It means we all went through a great deal of suffering for something that at the end of the day did not seem to add up on examination.