Tuesday, 26 June 2007
Ceisteanna — Questions
Northern Ireland Issues.
Question 1: To ask the Taoiseach the contacts he has had with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, regarding the Irish peace process since the dissolution of the 29th Dáil; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16481/07]
Question 2: To ask the Taoiseach the procedures in place for liaison between his Department and the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16482/07]
Question 4: To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on recent developments in the Northern Ireland peace process; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16787/07]
Question 5: 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. [16788/07]
Question 10: To ask the Taoiseach if he will convene a meeting of the Ireland-America Economic Advisory Board during his next visit to the United States; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16797/07]
Question 11: To ask the Taoiseach the arrangements in place within his Department for maintaining contact with the Ireland-America Advisory Board; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16798/07]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 12, inclusive, together.
The period since the dissolution of the 29th Dáil has seen tremendous progress in Northern Ireland, with the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive and the appointment of Dr. Ian Paisley and Mr. Martin McGuinness to the positions of First Minister and Deputy First Minister, respectively. The North-South Ministerial Council and the North-South bodies have also been restored to full operation.
I expect the first meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council in plenary session to take place shortly in Armagh, with the next summit meeting of the British-Irish Council also to take place shortly in Belfast. Final arrangements for the two meetings are currently being made.
I have met Prime Minister Blair on several occasions recently. On 8 May, we met in Belfast, when we attended the restoration of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement in Northern Ireland. We met again on 15 May in London, when I addressed the joint Houses of Parliament in Westminster. We also met on the margins of the European Council in Brussels last week.
Prime Minister Blair is leaving office tomorrow. I take this opportunity to pay tribute to him for his immense contribution to the improvement in relations between Ireland and Britain and his historic role in helping bring peace to this island. He has earned the eternal gratitude of the Irish people and, I am sure, of all sides of the House for that work.
I have not yet made any formal arrangements to meet his successor, Mr. Gordon Brown. I extend my best wishes to the new Prime Minister as he takes office and look forward to maintaining and improving the excellent relationship that now exists between our two countries.
On 15 May, I had the honour of addressing the joint Houses of Parliament in Westminster. In my address, I spoke about the significance of putting the past behind us and laying the foundation for the future. I emphasised the importance of moving forward and building on the new partnership between Ireland and Britain. I offered the view that this was not only a partnership of peace but also other common interests — of people, culture, business and sport.
I met Dr. Ian Paisley on a number of occasions recently. We had a very businesslike and friendly discussion on a range of matters of mutual interest at Farmleigh on 4 April. The meeting represented a very significant demonstration of how the relationship between our two traditions has developed. On 8 May, I met Dr. Paisley with Mr. Martin McGuinness in Stormont for the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and their appointment as First and Deputy First Minister. I then met the First Minister on 11 May at the Battle of the Boyne site. The event was also attended by representatives of both traditions on this island and public representatives from North and South.
Prior to the restoration of the institutions, I met Dawn Purvis, MLA, the leader of the Progressive Unionist Party, on 24 April. It was my first opportunity to discuss the situation with Ms Purvis since her appointment as leader. I reiterated my determination that the peace process should leave no one behind and my hope that loyalism would now move on. I welcomed the subsequent statement by the UVF that all its active units have been deactivated, all weapons have been put beyond reach and that targeting has ceased. I also made clear the need to see progress on the issues of criminality and decommissioning.
There have been suggestions in the past that we reconvene the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation, or a similar body, so that it can focus on reconciliation and the plight of victims on all sides. The question of dealing with the past is crucial and requires our ongoing attention. I am open as to the best means of making progress. I welcome the establishment of the independent consultative group to be jointly chaired by Archbishop Robin Eames and Denis Bradley. While our focus must be on building a better future for this island, it is right that we think again about how we try to address the human legacy of an appalling conflict.
Looking to the future, the Government will continue to maintain close contacts at different levels with the British Government, with the Northern Ireland Executive, with the political parties and civil society in Northern Ireland. Officials from my Department are in regular contact with officials from Office of the First and Deputy First Minister through official channels. Several meetings have been held since the restoration of the Executive and these contacts will continue. There are also formal procedures in place for liaison on the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council.
We will also continue to work closely with the US Administration. I was very glad to meet a high level delegation from the United States, led by Senator Edward Kennedy and Special Envoy Paula Dobriansky, in Stormont on 8 May. I expressed my continuing gratitude for the US contribution to the peace process. The special envoy has since had a number of meetings with officials to discuss the future US contribution, which I expect to be mainly in the economic arena. I have no formal plans to visit the United States this year, although it is possible I will visit there in September on UN business.
I normally meet the Ireland America Economic Advisory Board during my visit to the United States for St. Patrick's Day and I expect there will be a further meeting on that occasion next year. The Government maintains ongoing contact with the board, primarily through the embassy in Washington.
At the outset, I thank the Ceann Comhairle for his kind remarks.
Will the Taoiseach join me in commending the people of south Armagh who for decades have had to endure the British occupation of their community and environment and who yesterday saw a significant milestone towards the total demilitarisation of their area, and indeed of the Six Counties area, with the decision of the British Army to vacate its post at Bessbrook? Has the Taoiseach raised the issue of total demilitarisation with the outgoing British Prime Minister? Has he immediate plans to address this issue with the new Prime Minister taking up office tomorrow?
Will the Taoiseach raise as a matter of urgency the decision announced yesterday by the Public Prosecution Service in the Six Counties not to press charges against any British soldier or RUC officer for the murder of Pat Finucane with the new British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown? Given that decision, what renewed efforts do the Taoiseach and his Government propose to take to see the establishment of the international independent public inquiry which has been sought by the Finucane family and which was, as he will recall, unanimously backed by all parties and Members in this House during the last Dáil? Does he agree that the refusal of the British Government to act on this issue is most likely out of the desire to protect named individuals and others unknown, including Brigadier Gordon Kerr, the former head of the force research unit which ran the loyalist paramilitary agents who is now a senior British army officer serving in Iraq? Does the Taoiseach share the strongly held view that the British Government's refusal to act in line with the Finucane family's demand is in order to protect Brigadier Kerr and out of fear of the information he might disclose if subjected to scrutiny and questioning on collusion during his years serving in the North of Ireland?
The Taoiseach referred to the all-Ireland ministerial council. When does he expect the first meeting of the council will take place? Will the Taoiseach initiate in the new Dáil a report-back procedure to provide Members with an opportunity to participate in and ask questions about the workings of the council? Does the Taoiseach agree it is extremely important that the House recognises the importance of the all-Ireland ministerial council? As the elected voices of the people in this part of Ireland, Members should have the opportunity to be fully apprised of the council's work and make direct contributions to assist it in the conduct of its business and to help it reach its full potential as an all-Ireland council of Ministers.
Like the Ceann Comhairle, I am glad to see that Deputy Ó Caoláin is well.
On the closure of Bessbrook, the demilitarisation process continues and I am very pleased to see this. On Deputy Ó Caoláin's question, demilitarisation is raised on an almost daily basis by either myself, more often the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, or officials. It is a weekly if not almost a daily item of business and will continue to be. It has especially been the case throughout the year as we have moved towards normalisation that the issue has been raised daily in respect of various bases and infrastructural projects we wish to see dismantled and moved on. We note the significant and continual progress that is being made and will continue to emphasise that.
It is disappointing that the Public Prosecution Service of Northern Ireland has found there is insufficient evidence at this time for further prosecutions arising out of the third Stevens report on collusion between loyalist paramilitaries and the security forces. It is a disappointing development not least, as Deputy Ó Caoláin said, for the Finucane family. The finding does not alter the need for an independent inquiry and to allay any other concerns surrounding this case as I documented here during the life of the last Dáil time out of number. That will continue to be our stated position. It is the Government's view that the finding adds to the case for an independent inquiry. It is the attitude we will persist with. The House passed a very clear motion in support of the Finucane family in the last Dáil and called for a full, independent judicial inquiry. I am sure that is also the view of this Dáil. It has been a long-standing position of the Government and remains so. We remain in touch with the Finucane family and will continue to offer our full support in every way at home and abroad, especially in the USA and Europe.
We are at the final stage of preparations for the meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council. While the North-South Ministerial Council and the intergovernmental British Irish Council meetings will take place close in time to each other, it has not yet been possible due to the change of Prime Minister in the UK to tie down dates for the latter. We hope to do so shortly and to be in a position to move on both dates. The hope that the new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, would attend the BIC has been the reason for waiting for a sign-off date.
We are ready and the agenda and work of Ministers across Departments has been finalised on our side and is fairly close to finalisation on the Executive side. It is hoped the meeting will take place as soon as possible.
With regard to reporting on it, I have no difficulty with what Deputy Ó Caoláin stated. Obviously, during questions on Northern Ireland here, I will give a report from my perspective as I used to do previously when it met. It will also involve detailed work by most Departments so the relevant Minister should also answer in his or her area. The preparatory work has been done and there is an enormous, exciting and dynamic agenda across Departments. It is necessary and important that it is debated here and that colleagues answer questions here on the progress which takes place between them and the Executive on an ongoing basis.
The Taoiseach will recall that, following a proposal put forward by the Fine Gael Party last year, the House unanimously supported the call for a public inquiry into the death of Pat Finucane. His family live on and a grave injustice was done. Judge Cory recommended that a full-scale public inquiry should take place. Does the Taoiseach accept he failed to convince Prime Minister Tony Blair of the need for a public inquiry in this case where a glaring injustice must be rectified?
In accepting this failure to convince Prime Minister Blair, will the Taoiseach tell the House that he will take it up as a priority with his successor, Prime Minister-elect Gordon Brown, to be appointed tomorrow? The proposal was unanimously supported in this House by all parties and none. This is a glaring injustice in the background to the Northern Ireland Troubles, which have evolved to the peace we have today.
In the context of the North-South Ministerial Council, what is the status of the Taoiseach's proposal to allow Seanad speaking rights to Northern Ireland representatives in view of the fact an all-party Oireachtas committee will deal with this issue? When does the Taoiseach expect the council to commence its first meeting? Is the Taoiseach's Seanad speaking rights proposal now withdrawn?
According to Queen's University, Belfast, young boys and men appear to be far more prone to suffering the effects and after-effects of sectarianism in Northern Ireland. What efforts is the Government making to support combatting sectarianism and dealing with its consequences? A group was established to examine the legacy of the Troubles in terms of its social effects on young men and women and the population in general and former Primate Robin Eames, Denis Bradley and others were extremely vocal on this issue. What is the Government's view in this regard?
At the Taoiseach's recent meeting with Archbishop Tutu of South Africa, the possibility of a peace and reconciliation forum was discussed at some length. Is this a runner or will it supersede the forum dealing with the legacy of the Troubles?
The corporation tax rate is an incentive for this country and has been for a long time. Big and small business and business interest groups throughout the country have suggested an equalisation of corporation tax rates North and South to build an Ireland economic entity of which the Taoiseach spoke and which we all support. Has the Taoiseach put any initial proposals to the Chancellor of the Exchequer and will he raise this matter with him when he becomes Prime Minister tomorrow? The Northern Ireland economy is referred to as a "basket case" during the doling out of the grant from the British Government every year. If the island is to become attractive economically, surely this should be of critical importance to the incoming British Prime Minister. Has the Taoiseach raised that issue and will he ensure it is a priority when he next meets with the British Prime Minister?
In regard to the first question, the British Government's position is not that it will not offer an inquiry. It has offered us an inquiry and amended the legislation on the Finucane case but the family, the Government and others rejected the form of that legislation. We do not accept the kind of inquiry the British Government has offered — it is its right to offer it. The British Government gave way to us on the basis of an inquiry but in our view that inquiry, under that legislation, would not be full and open and would allow for protecting people in a way that would get to the truth. It is not that the British Government did not offer an inquiry. It went further than that and changed the legislation and offered the resources and the staff. That inquiry is not one that we believe is open and satisfactory. The British Government's position is that it will go no further under its jurisdiction than that type of inquiry. There rests the issue. Our ongoing campaign has argued for a full transparent inquiry that will bring the people who were involved in this case to heal in a way the family and all those who campaigned for it want.
On the issue of sectarianism, it was the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, who met Archbishop Tutu. Previously I had looked closely at the South African model. The Deputy will remember some years ago when we had the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation we looked very closely at how that would or might work. There was not a great interest in or take-up of that by the parties or other groups in Northern Ireland but that does not change the need for us, as set out in the programme for Government and many of the programmes under the Department of Foreign Affairs, to try to help in every way possible in projects, examinations, pilot surveys, cross-Border initiatives and education promotions to deal with the issue of sectarianism in a way that can ease the tensions and particularly in the areas where sectarianism is rife. I acknowledge the enormous amount of good work being done by universities, education institutes, cultural bodies, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and many other bodies. In the programme for Government there is provision for the continuation of this work and the setting up of a fund to assist in this area.
In regard to the North-South bodies we are ready to have those meetings but are waiting for finalisation of the date, which is held up because of the change in the UK this week but, hopefully, it will be cleared. There is a provision whereby the North-South Ministerial Council will be held fairly close to the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. Obviously we hope the British Prime Minister will attend, at least on this occasion. It is not a question that the British Prime Minister always attended or that I always attended, but it is a matter of attending the first meeting.
On corporation tax, last year I worked with the groups in the North to put that case. We had done much to assist and press that issue. I worked with Dr. Quigley and many of the other business leaders to put forward a case. Out of that the British Government initiated a review by Sir David Varney to examine the issue of corporation tax reform in Northern Ireland. They did not pin themselves down as to what they would do. Officials have been assisting Sir David and have been in consultation with colleagues in Belfast. We support the proposal, although, of course, we understand that it creates a range of issues in the UK context. Alex Salmond, when he was in Northern Ireland recently, also highlighted the issues for Scotland and a number of people in Wales have done so as well.
Some in Northern Ireland, including some eminent economists, who obviously would be of the Unionist tradition, would argue very strongly that this is not in the interest of Northern Ireland. They would resist the Deputy's comment that their economy is a basket case. They do not accept that the level of public sector involvement is dangerous. I agree with the Deputy, I think it is. There are a number of fundamental problems and difficulties but they fairly trenchantly resist this analysis by us. I obviously respect their position, but those who have argued for more private sector involvement, more capital into Northern Ireland and more inward investment are on the right side of what seems to be the logical economic argument for the future. It was on that basis — we have said this for several years — that we were in favour of moving to an all-island economy in a whole range of areas, the corporation tax issue being one. There are many other initiatives, fiscal initiatives and others, that were raised, at least in a preliminary way, with the President of the European Commission, Mr. Barroso, when he was in Belfast. These are initiatives on which we should follow through.
I do not think this will be an easy case. Obviously the man who tomorrow will become British Prime Minister, Mr. Brown, will be very familiar with the arguments of the Treasury. Most, but not all, senior business people in the North would agree that there is a substantive case at least to examine. I hope that the work Sir David does takes that into account. We will give our input into that.
Do I take it from the Taoiseach's reply that he does not believe that the South African-style truth and reconciliation commission would be the appropriate one for Northern Ireland? Have the British authorities consulted him or the Government about the remit, personnel, timeframe etc. of the independent group announced to examine the legacy of the Troubles? If the Taoiseach's view is that the South African model is not the appropriate one, does the Government have views on what the appropriate model might be and will that be exchanged with the British Government?
The Taoiseach said that the North-South Ministerial Council is likely to be convened at an early date to meet in Armagh. Does that mean there will be regular meetings between him and the First Minister? Is such a meeting planned? In that regard what is the status of the Government proposition made during the last Dáil for an Oireachtas committee on North-South co-operation? Does he agree that no steps ought to be taken that would destabilise the institutions in Northern Ireland? Does he agree that priority ought to be given to the North-South parliamentary forum as envisaged in the Belfast Agreement?
In respect of the assassination of Pat Finucane, was he surprised at the decision of the prosecutorial service in this regard, having regard to the clear conclusions of the Stevens inquiry that there was collusion between security services and paramilitaries in Northern Ireland? Will he raise with the new Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, the imperative of a truly independent and proper inquiry into that murder?
Does the Taoiseach agree it is an irony that, as we approach a peaceful marching season in Northern Ireland, which we all hope will continue through 12 July and thereafter, there is in prospect a potentially contentious parade in Dublin by the Love Ulster organisation? The parade on the last occasion had unfortunate consequences. What is the Government's view on that? Is there contact between the organisers of the parade and agents of the Government? Does the Taoiseach think it will or it ought to go ahead?
A truth commission was discussed more than ten years ago in Dublin Castle and at that stage we had examined the South African situation. There was not an appetite for a commission then or since during various discussions with representatives of political parties and other non-political organisations who would have been able to assist in making it workable. The reason it was a success in South Africa is people were prepared to come forward and follow through on incidents by bringing the various victims, witnesses and others to the table. I pressed for a commission at that time and on several occasions since, on the basis that more and more individuals, families, organisations and communities have come forward to try to find out the truth about what happened in the circumstances where after the atrocity or killing and other incidents that occurred during the 28 years of the Troubles there was very little investigation. As I have stated previously in the House, the groups and families involved paint the picture of these events honestly and truthfully as if they happened yesterday. This does not go away and it makes things very difficult for them. I have always seen merit in having a way in which they can register formally their feelings other than approaching me, a Minister or a British Minister. While this would not resolve their problems and give them closure, it would at least give them some satisfaction. That is all many of the families need and there is merit in establishing some mechanism. The South African mechanism is the best and no other mechanism has been as wide, broad and successful as it. The British Government consulted us on the group that was announced and its format and we will co-operate on that. The two people, Denis Bradley and Reverend Eames, have been involved in different ways in the peace process and the Troubles for many years and they are very much aware of what I have outlined. It is worth having a look at what we can do on this.
While we have had several inquiries, including the Cory inquiry, and there was much engagement between the Government and many of the families and groups, the historical inquiries team within the PSNI is examining the cases and significant resources have been invested in its work. These initiatives have been very useful but very many of the families still need help. I have only met a fraction of the large number of families requiring some process to be put in place. This group, which will look back on the issue, will consider what we can do and engage everyone in the process.
It is a useful and worthwhile exercise, and I very much appreciate that Prime Minister Blair initiated this before he left office. We had made the case time and again that some process had to be put in place, and it is an area he understood very well. I hope we can take it forward from that position.
We are ready to move on the North-South Ministerial Council and I will not repeat myself on it. As the Deputy stated, I proposed in the previous Dáil to establish a joint committee on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and allow Northern Ireland MLAs attend on a similar basis as MEPs on the committee for European affairs. We did not reach all-party agreement on that but we are clearly in a far more positive environment now.
The question of a North-South parliamentary forum is contained in the St. Andrews Agreement, and that is more realistic now the Northern Ireland Assembly has been restored. However, I understand there may be mixed views in the Northern parties on the issues. I will consult with my Government colleagues and Opposition leaders on how we might progress from here.
On the proposed Love Ulster parade, I am aware there has been ongoing contact between the Garda Síochána and Families Acting for Innocent Relatives, FAIR. Although discussions are at a very early stage and no decisions have been made, the group has put its points of view and the Garda has explained its position. As a general rule, the Garda tries to facilitate orderly demonstrations while minimising disruption to ordinary people going about their business. Public safety and the protection of lives and property must be a priority. Contact between the Garda and FAIR will continue. I do not want to prejudice the issue, as the Garda has explored the issue and given its views, as well as its opinion on what happened before. We should all reflect on whether a march along the lines of the previous march is the most appropriate way to remember victims.
If the purpose is to remember victims, we should keep that issue in focus and consider the most appropriate way to do this. The events surrounding the last march did not do much to help that cause. It may also be an issue elected representatives North and South would have views on in the wider context of our improving relationships. It is very early on and my information from the Garda Síochána is that it saw the meeting as a preliminary stage.
Has the Taoiseach been invited to address the Northern Ireland Assembly? Is it his intention to invite the First Minister to possibly address Seanad Éireann, in view of regulations for the Houses regarding a head of government addressing the Dáil?
Is the Taoiseach aware of the organised crime task force report from Northern Ireland in which Mr. Paul Goggins, a minister in the Northern Ireland Office, calls for public support from both governments in the fight against organised crime? In it he makes the point that oils fraud across the border is the equivalent of approximately £280 million. He also indicates that there are clearly fraudulent activities going on with at least 50 different denominations of bank notes in circulation.
In the report, he goes on to indicate that the big threat in future will be armed threats to cash in transit, drugs, excise and tax frauds, extortion, blackmail and intimidation. In view of that litany of serious crime, has the Taoiseach spoken to the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and the new Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform about co-operating with the Northern Ireland authorities in attempting to deal with these serious areas of economic fraud?
Is there any update on the ongoing investigation into the Northern Bank raid?
In regard to addressing the Assembly, Deputy Rabbitte asked if we would have a meeting. We will have a meeting around the North-South Ministerial Council meeting but we have no formal arrangements yet. I am very anxious to get the institutions up and running fully first before we do anything else. It is important that the provisions of the Agreements, the Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement, are fully operational. Then we can consider other matters, but for the remainder of this year the focus will be very much on getting all the institutions to not only hold their formal meetings but arrange the agendas.
I should have said earlier that in our preparatory work for the first meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council we have a work programme through to the remainder of the year across Departments, agencies and areas of ministerial responsibilities.
On the issue of organised crime, Deputy Kenny will be aware that as we have seen the end of organised paramilitary activity in some areas, we have seen an increase in other criminal activity, as we have in every normalised society in the world. This has created its own problems and difficulties.
There is ongoing co-operation between the agencies here and close co-operation between the Garda and the PSNI, and that will continue where necessary. It is a daily issue. I do not believe there is any need to do anything new in that respect. It is a matter of tackling those individuals who are involved in criminal activity. Much of this problem, as in most other parts of Europe, relates to drug activities.
I do not want to invite the Taoiseach to comment further than is prudent on the question of the proposed Love Ulster demonstration, but on the discussions on the North-South institutions, is he saying that the proposal of the last Dáil in respect of an Oireachtas all-party committee is now withdrawn in favour of establishing the North-South Parliamentary Forum that is provided for in the Good Friday Agreement?
As I said, the question of the North-South Parliamentary Forum is contained in the St. Andrews Agreement. With the Assembly restored, it would seem more realistic to get that up and running. I will again consult the party leaders on how we might make progress on that. Some of the difficulties we had in the past should now be removed and the North-South Parliamentary Forum will allow us to move on.
On the Dublin-Monaghan bombings, we saw the 33rd anniversary recorded at the height of the general election campaign, a week before polling day. In light of the MacEntee report and the further deliberations of the Oireachtas sub-committee, has the Taoiseach moved forward in any way towards the central demand of Justice for the Forgotten, representative of the victims and the survivors of the Dublin-Monaghan bombings of 17 May 1974? Where does he stand now in regard to its call for a full, cross-Border preferably, cross-jurisdictional public independent inquiry? Will he advise where he stands on that matter and how he intends to progress towards that requirement?
Separate questions are tabled on the MacEntee commission report and I will deal with that issue then because there is extensive detail on that and on the follow-up on the other Barron inquiries. I would prefer to take those questions at that stage.