Dáil debates

Wednesday, 28 May 2014

Ceisteanna - Questions - Priority Questions

Northern Ireland Issues

10:30 am

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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1. To ask the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the efforts he has made to try to progress the Haass talks to a successful conclusion; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [23289/14]

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I note that we have Foreign Affairs oral questions on 1 July and on that occasion we will have an opportunity to pay tribute to the Tánaiste and Minister and for Foreign Affairs and his current role in government.

It is essential that both Governments, as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, take a hands-on approach in efforts to bring to a successful conclusion the Haass talks. Urgency must be attached to the finalisation of proposals to deal with the very important matters of parades, flags, identity issues and the past.

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Tánaiste; Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
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Last Friday, I met with Dr. Richard Haass in Dublin ahead of the planned resumption of the Northern Ireland party leaders’ talks. Dr. Haass also met with British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, last week. Under Dr. Haass’s chairmanship of the Panel of Parties talks, the Northern Ireland parties made enormous progress in seeking an agreed approach to dealing with flags, parades and the past. Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan consulted widely across society in Northern Ireland last year and took back to the table a clear message from the people that they want to see the party leaders finding new, comprehensive and credible ways of dealing with legacy issues.

We have seen on numerous occasions in recent weeks that the legacy of the past has seriously disrupted political and community life in Northern Ireland. A lack of agreement or progress within the talks process would be an unhelpful backdrop to the approaching marching season. As I have said repeatedly, there is a window of opportunity between now and the summer recess for the party leaders to reach an agreement on these contentious issues. I urge the party leaders to use this time well. They need to set an early date to meet. Procrastination will not make the job any easier. The British and US governments agree that there is a need for renewed urgency by the parties, with the support of the governments, to make real progress.

I agree with Dr. Haass’s assessment that there is deep and wide public support for these issues to be dealt with in a comprehensive way. I have perceived this at first hand during my visits to the North. As Dr. Haass said following his meetings in London and Dublin, both governments see the opportunity and necessity of making progress.

There is broad agreement among the Northern Ireland parties on the basic architecture for moving forward on each issue. There needs to be progress now in closing any gaps between the parties in terms of the basic principles of each issue and for developing the practical mechanisms and timeframe for implementation.

It is in the best interests of Northern Ireland that agreement be reached now. I will be meeting with the British Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, in Dublin tomorrow. There is a shared expectation across both Governments that after the elections we will see progress.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Tánaiste for his reply. Unfortunately, a number of deadlines have been missed - the end of December, St. Patrick's week, Easter time and the election dates. I sincerely hope that what has been outlined by the Tánaiste in his concluding remarks can gain traction and that the issues can be dealt with. I note that comments attributed to Prime Minister, David Cameron, indicated that talks should begin as a matter of urgency. Has the Tánaiste been in contact with the leadership of the DUP or the Ulster Unionist Party about the need for them to take a positive approach to this very important issue?

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Tánaiste; Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
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Both the Irish and the British Governments are clear that progress needs to be made. Deputy Smith is correct that we had hoped agreement would be reached in the new year following the Haass talks. Unfortunately, that did not happen, although much progress was made. There was a period of talks after that involving the party leaders. For a variety of reasons, those talks were interrupted and resumed again. The window of opportunity we have now is post the election period and in the run-up to the marching season. I have had a number of discussions with the Secretary of State and will meet her tomorrow in Dublin to discuss further what we can do together to move forward on each issue. There has been quite an amount of discussion at official level between my officials and officials of the Northern Ireland Office and between the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister. Over a period I have also been in contact with the leaders of all the parties in Northern Ireland. We have been urging the DUP, the Unionist parties and all the parties to fully engage and to conclude the process.

Photo of Brendan SmithBrendan Smith (Cavan-Monaghan, Fianna Fail)
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Can we hope that tomorrow, in the Tánaiste's talks with Theresa Villiers, he will give a clear indication that both Governments will take a hands-on approach in dealing with these issues? As I mentioned on numerous occasions, any time we made progress on the issues pertaining to this island on North-South development, the agenda was driven by two sovereign Governments. We had the Downing Street Declaration, the Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement. I genuinely believe that without the active and leading role being played by both Governments we will not see the progress made that needs to be made for the sake of all the people on this island.

Photo of Eamon GilmoreEamon Gilmore (Tánaiste; Minister, Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade; Dún Laoghaire, Labour)
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It is my view and that of the Irish Government and the British Government that both Governments must and do have a hands-on approach to these issues. Both the Secretary of State and I were in Belfast for the concluding stages of the discussions prior to the new year. We have remained in contact. We have talked and liaised about our respective contacts with political leaderships in Northern Ireland. It is also worth bearing in mind that we now have a devolved Administration in Northern Ireland and that there is responsibility on the political parties in Northern Ireland to conclude this agreement. We are both of one mind - we have talked about this on a number of occasions - on the fact that we work together and that we also work in co-operation with the US Administration, which has been very supportive and has been in close contact with us, particularly in recent times, about what we can all do to encourage agreement among the political parties. It is important that we recognise that this requires agreement by the parties in Northern Ireland. While the governments can have all the hands-on approach that we can muster - that is the approach we intend to take - agreement must be reached by the political parties in Northern Ireland, and we will continue our efforts to do that. I will be discussing that with Theresa Villiers tomorrow.

We have spoken a number of times on the phone over the course of the past couple of weeks and we will discuss all of this when I meet her tomorrow.