Tuesday, 20 January 2015
Northern Ireland and the Stormont House Agreement: Statements
I welcome the opportunity to open this debate on Northern Ireland and the outcome of the political talks in Belfast, which concluded on 23 December last with the Stormont House Agreement.
Since the 1990s, successive Governments have played their parts in supporting and facilitating a series of agreements to establish and underpin the Northern Ireland peace process. The first of these, in 1998, was the Good Friday Agreement, which provided a template for greatly improved relationships across these islands. The St. Andrews Agreement of 2006 and the Hillsborough Agreement of 2010 were critical further steps along this journey.
I am pleased that the Government and I, working closely with our British counterparts, and, of course, with the Northern Ireland parties, have played an important role in helping to broker the latest in this series, with the successful conclusion of the Stormont House Agreement on 23 December 2014. This represents the culmination of many months of negotiation, but also many years of close relationship building. I am proud of the role that I, my Ministerial colleagues, our officials and all concerned have played in helping to deliver it. I would like to record my gratitude, in particular, to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan and Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock for their hard work over recent months. I believe this agreement lays a firm foundation for Northern Ireland, its politicians and its people, to look forward and outward and, more important, to move forward together. Yes, the process will need to deal with the challenges of the past, there will be a need for continuous attention on reconciliation and tough decisions have had to be taken on the budget and the economy, but important as these are in their own right, they are also important steps towards securing a better future, a shared society and greater prosperity.
I recall our last debate in this House on Northern Ireland when I referred to our interdependence on this island. The history, interests and futures of the people across both parts of this island are intricately interwoven. Equally, the lives of all the people on both parts of this island are increasingly influenced by events beyond our shores, be they events in our nearest neighbour, Great Britain, or the continued evolution of the European Union or wider international and geopolitical developments. On both parts of this island, we need to continually look outwards, to pay more attention to events beyond our shores, both to the challenges and to the opportunities. We must collectively be aware of, and be able to respond to, external developments and challenges beyond our direct control. In many instances, we can do this together. Co-operation and collaboration are not just desirable but essential in the reality of the world economy today. We need look no further than across the water to our nearest neighbouring island to understand the dramatic impact that developments beyond this island can have. The recent Referendum on Scotland and the consequent debate about devolution of powers within the United Kingdom, Britain's position in the European Union and the prospect of a referendum on EU membership are all issues that can have a profound impact for Northern Ireland and indeed across this island.
I have already made clear that we want the UK to remain a full, integral member of the Union. I believe this to be in Britain's best interest and in Ireland's best interest, but I am also absolutely convinced that it is in Northern Ireland's best interest. We should also remember that the European Union has been an active political and financial supporter of the Northern Ireland peace process. This support continues through EU peace and INTERREG funding programmes, which will see almost €500 million invested in the region for the period to 2020.
In regard to relationships on this island, when the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 was concluded, it was described as an historic template for the mutually beneficial development of the totality of relationships among the peoples of these islands. Looking back over the intervening period, I think it is fair to say that it has contributed enormously to a transformation in relationships between the two great traditions of this island. That agreement opened up opportunities for us North and South, east and west, to get to know one another in new ways. Our commitment to that agreement and to partnership, equality and mutual respect, today stands more firm than ever. Ireland and Northern Ireland now work closely together through the North-South Ministerial Council and beyond in areas of common interest that are beneficial to both parts of the island, including the economy, society, peace, reconciliation and prosperity. The Government's commitment to North-South and all-island co-operation remains a priority.
A recent example of how we can co-operate and collaborate more closely is the joint bid to host the Rugby World Cup in 2023. Last month in Armagh, together with the Tánaiste, First Minister Robinson and Deputy First Minister McGuinness, I was particularly pleased to launch and pledge our full, joint support for the IRFU's tournament bid. We have co-operated before to hold cross-Border sporting events but I firmly believe that working together to bring the Rugby World Cup to Ireland can bring North-South co-operation to a whole new level. Ministers in both jurisdictions will be working closely together to ensure the strongest possible bid is submitted.
Looking outwards, the Good Friday Agreement has enabled the development of ever closer relations across these islands, perhaps best symbolised by the highly successful reciprocal State visits of Queen Elizabeth to Ireland in 2011 and President Higgins to the United Kingdom last April. In March 2012, the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, and I signed a Joint Statement which sought to take our relationship further by setting out a vision of what closer co-operation might look like over the next decade. It also mapped out a unique, structured process of engagement, activity and outcomes between our two governments, including annual review summits by both of us and underpinned by a programme of engagement by our most senior civil servants. All of this work and ongoing close relations matter deeply. Beyond producing practical outcomes that can benefit both jurisdictions it also helps to build trust and understanding. Oireachtas Members of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and the North-South Inter-Parliamentary Association, are also helping to rebuild trust by continuing to promote and nurture co-operation in British-Irish and North-South relations for the benefit of all the people on these islands. I attended the first Plenary British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly in Westminster in February 1990 and I look forward to opening the 50th plenary and marking the 25th anniversary of BIPA here in the Oireachtas next month.
In the context of the peace process and as co-guarantors of the agreements put in place, the British and Irish Governments worked closely together to support and encourage the Northern Executive in its efforts to overcome the political impasse which appeared to be taking hold in recent times, including through the talks chaired by Dr. Richard Haass and the subsequent attempt to make progress under talks involving the Party Leaders. The UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, and I have maintained close contact on Northern Ireland over this time and our respective officials have also been in continuous engagement. As a consequence, we and our Governments were in a position to respond quickly, and in unison, last September when it became increasingly clear that intervention and involvement by both Governments was required to avoid the possible collapse of the power-sharing institutions. This led to the announcement on 28 September of the intention to convene a new round of political talks in Northern Ireland, with the direct involvement of both Governments. Our objective in the talks was to ensure that the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement not only continue to function but work to the benefit of all and to conclude a broad agreement that provided a framework for both economic renewal and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan, together with the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, represented the Irish Government at the weekly sessions of the talks over a period of 11 weeks and co-chaired all-party round table talks with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers. I would like to thank the Minister, Deputy Flanagan and Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, for their tireless efforts on behalf of the Irish Government over those three months. I acknowledge the commitment of officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and my own Department, and indeed other Departments and agencies, in supporting the talks process and more generally in working continually to support and promote the peace process and the North-South agenda. I wish also to record my appreciation for the very close co-operation we have had with the British Government throughout the process.
Finally, I acknowledge the leadership shown by the Northern Ireland parties themselves in reaching consensus on an agreement. I am glad they found it within themselves to reach an agreement in the final analysis. The final text, based on the draft agreement tabled when the UK Prime Minister, David Cameron, and I travelled to Belfast to participate directly in the talks last month, deals with the key issues comprehensively. The agreement itself covers a broad range of political, economic and social issues.
In particular, it sets out a plan for financial and budgetary reform while proposing a way forward on flags, identity, culture and tradition through the establishment of a commission. It envisages the devolution of responsibility for parades to the Northern Ireland Assembly, with proposals on parading to be brought to the Northern Ireland Executive by June 2015. It will establish a programme of institutional reform at Stormont and progress several outstanding aspects from the Good Friday and St. Andrews Agreements, including the establishment of a civic advisory panel by June 2015. It has a commitment to reporting on new sectorial priorities for North-South co-operation by the end of February 2015 and the further development of the North-West gateway initiative. Significantly, the agreement also establishes a new comprehensive framework and broad ranging structures for dealing with the legacy of the past. These include a new historical investigations unit to examine the deaths that occurred as a result of the troubles, an independent commission for information retrieval and an oral history archive.
What people lost through the Troubles no one can return. Nor can we forget the pain and suffering inflicted on victims and their families. However, the new structures can help in some way to lessen the impact of the legacy of the past on everyday politics. The challenge now is to use the opportunity presented to bring a collective effort and focus to bear on building a shared and prosperous future. It is also different to previous agreements, in particular because of the prominence of sound management of budgetary matters and the economy - the cornerstone of government.
Tough choices and tough decisions had to be taken. This is by no means unique to Northern Ireland or to its Executive, however. The recent economic crisis has required tough decisions to be taken right around the globe, across the European Union, in Britain and, as we all know only too well in this House, here in Ireland. None of this is easy. Little of it is popular but we know it is necessary. The Stormont House Agreement sets a roadmap for the Northern Executive to put its finances on a sustainable footing for the future and to move forward with the necessary rebalancing of its economy to promote growth and create jobs. The package of significant financial support amounting to nearly £2 billion of additional spending power will support this process.
Since the conclusion of the agreement last December, legislation to provide for the devolution of responsibility for corporation tax has now been published, a new speaker to the Northern Assembly has been elected and the Executive's budget has been formally adopted for the next financial year. These confidence-building measures represent progress in their own right and will also contribute to a more stable political environment. More importantly, they also show that politics does matter and can make a difference.
The Irish Government will continue to play its part. We will work with the Northern Executive to deliver even closer political, economic and social co-operation. We are committed to working for even greater cross-Border economic co-operation to accelerate growth and secure the creation of jobs on this island. We will continue our close engagement with the British Government, both to promote and develop our wider bilateral interests but also to pursue our common custodianship of the agreements in support of the Northern Ireland peace process, and, above all, in the interests of peaceful, prosperous and harmonious future for all of the peoples of these islands.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the agreement reached at Stormont House in Belfast before Christmas between the Irish and British Governments and the political parties in Northern Ireland. When I became Tánaiste last July and when the Taoiseach and I agreed the Government's statement of priorities for the next two years, we included securing and enhancing peace in the North as one of our six key objectives. We did so in the context of a potentially difficult marching and parading season last summer and against the backdrop of political stalemate that had existed since the end of the talks chaired by Dr. Richard Haass last January.
Thankfully, the marching season passed off relatively peacefully. Subsequently, the political parties engaged in ten weeks of political negotiations during the autumn that ultimately concluded with this agreement. The Irish Government was an active participant in those negotiations. For this, thanks are due in part to my party colleague Deputy Eamon Gilmore, who, in his final weeks as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade last June, engaged in a series of meetings to encourage all parties and the British Government to enter into discussions. Thankfully, this came to fruition during the autumn. In this respect, the fact an agreement is now in place is no small part due to the efforts Deputy Eamon Gilmore made, often behind the scenes, during his time in office. All parties and the two Governments are grateful to him for that.
The Irish Government's efforts to achieve a successful outcome were further boosted by the work of Deputy Eamon Gilmore's successor, the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, and by the appointment of the first Minister of State with responsibility for North-South co-operation, my party colleague Deputy Sean Sherlock. Their work over recent months with their officials was also central to this agreement.
Along with the Taoiseach and the two Ministers, I joined the Irish Government negotiating team towards the conclusion of these negotiations in December. I believe the combined presence of the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and two Ministers demonstrated the Government's commitment to achieving an agreement and ending the political deadlock. That was my motivation in attending the talks. I will continue to make myself available for any matters relating to Northern Ireland for the remainder of the Government's term in office.
The peace and progress achieved since the darkest days of the Troubles has been hard won. All of us who remember that terrible period in our recent history have a responsibility to ensure those days never return. As to the details of the Stormont House Agreement itself, the Irish Government's primary interests lay in building to the greatest extent possible on the proposals contained in the Haass package on flags, parades and dealing with the past. Further, we also sought to develop the role of the North-South institutions, conscious of the potential of all-island economic development to boost employment and investment. I am glad the package of measures agreed on the past largely reflects what was contained in the Haass proposals. Rather than dwell on their details, it is more important to concentrate on implementing them as quickly as possible.
Victims and survivors in Northern Ireland have had several false dawns in terms of processes for dealing with the past. The Eames-Bradley report of January 2009 laid out a comprehensive set of proposals and recommendations which were regrettably not acted on following publication. Hopes were raised once again during the Haass negotiations but these were dashed when the parties failed to reach a final agreement. Now we have a clear set of measures to be implemented that include the establishment of a new historical investigations unit to review Troubles-related deaths, a new independent commission on information retrieval and an implementation and reconciliation group. These developments are a step forward for families who have long sought processes for achieving truth and accountability for what happened to their loved ones.
There is also a subsequent onus on both paramilitary organisations and Governments to step up to the mark and meet the obligations required of them in these new structures. Success in what has been agreed on the past will ultimately be judged on whether or not it meets the needs of victims and survivors. Only when searches for the disappeared have successfully concluded, when we have full disclosure on collusion between paramilitaries and the State and when families are satisfied they have achieved a measure of justice, will we know these processes have worked.
On the issue of flags, I hope that progress can be made through the new commission that has been established. This has proven an extremely difficult issue to resolve, and I believe the commission is the best possible compromise in current circumstances.
While there is some uncertainty regarding the process for determining parades, I do welcome the fact that the Northern Ireland Parades Commission is to remain in place. The commission has done excellent work in extremely challenging circumstances in determining that the rule of law must be upheld. Parades will remain a difficult issue in Northern Ireland for some time to come. While the overwhelming majority of these parades pass off peacefully, the public must have confidence in the rulings that are made on contentious parades. The Parades Commission is vital to this process.
On question of North-South co-operation, I welcome the commitments made to expediting the review of relevant North-South issues that was agreed some time ago. However, I am concerned that we are not fully realising the potential of all-island economic development. The SDLP, in particular, has consistently argued that rather than compete for investment, there are numerous opportunities for expanding North-South co-operation particularly in the Border region. I would hope that Sinn Féin will use its position in the Northern Ireland Executive to argue for the North-South agenda. In his role as Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade with responsibility for development, trade promotion and North-South co-operation, Deputy Sean Sherlock will continue his work in this regard, as I believe that both economies can benefit from shared resources and greater co-operation in the years ahead. It is very important that we get communities in all parts of the island in communication and co-operation with each other. It is absolutely the best way of promoting a shared understanding of what is a very difficult past for people on both sides.
On the subject of Sinn Féin, I am aware that Sinn Féin has constantly railed against the difficult decisions the Government here in the South has had to take to correct our public finances, get the country back on its feet, and get people back to employment. Spokespersons from Sinn Féin have been trenchant in their comments on that. It was interesting in the context of the Northern discussion how the rhetoric here was matched with an equivalent campaign against what I think was called "Tory cuts" in Northern Ireland, some time before these negotiations began. When the budget deal was done - it involves very challenging and difficult budgetary issues around a £700 million package - the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, described this package as the best deal possible. It will be challenging, particularly for Sinn Féin to reconcile its previous opposition to cuts on such a scale with its current support for the package of budget and welfare changes and reductions that have been signed up to as part of the Stormont House Agreement.
I want to recognise that the agreement lays down a demanding financial template for all the parties and people in Northern Ireland. We have sought here again and again, the Labour Party and Government, to ensure that the people who are most vulnerable, particularly in regard to social welfare and their weekly payments, have been protected, and that has been a very difficult thing to do. I know how difficult these financial adjustments are and that is definitely going to face the parties in Northern Ireland.
The Irish Government was not party to this part of the negotiations as they are an internal Northern Ireland matter, and we do not yet know the full details of where some of the reductions and the axe might fall. However, we do know from the global figures that its impact may be severe. We know there are proposals in regard to education funding, spending on vital services in the Department of the Environment, and potentially a reduction of up to 10% in the budget of the Northern Ireland Department of Social Development. Families, schoolchildren, and jobseekers will probably be impacted. Further, the statement this week by the North's Minister for Finance and Personnel, Mr. Simon Hamilton, that there will be 20,000 public sector redundancies over the coming years demonstrates the scale of the adjustment, and indeed the scale of borrowing that is implicit in the agreement to support those adjustments. Indeed, proportionately, as Members will know, this far outweighs the reduction in public service numbers that has been implemented in the South by voluntary retirement and early retirement packages.
In conclusion, the Stormont House Agreement offers an opportunity for politics in Northern Ireland to move on. Some issues that were outstanding for many years have been resolved. More work is required on other matters. Northern Ireland also faces significant challenges in meeting all that has been laid down in the agreement. In particular, the economy has moved to the centre of the political debate, and while we have made significant progress on that front in the South, difficult days and difficult decisions lie ahead in the North. The immediate threat to the institutions in the North has been removed and there is now a basis for all parties to work together to overcome shared challenges. It is not a perfect agreement but we must move now to implement what was agreed at Stormont House, develop the North-South economy, and build a prosperous and peaceful island for people on both sides of the Border. That is the shared aspiration not just of the Labour Party but of all parties in the South.
While we have an employment challenge in the North, I am conscious that we have many similar challenges in the South. If our experience in the South can be of value in terms of implementing the agreement in the North, we will certainly be ready to offer any advice, information or experience that would be helpful as the parties and the government in the North deal with the quite difficult adjustments that have been signed up to by all the parties.
The great achievements of the peace process were a triumph for democrats on this island who were willing to invest enormous time and patience into bringing a murderous minority to abandon violence. The overwhelming majority of people believed and still believe that we have a duty to work for a shared future for everybody who lives on this island. The breakthroughs of achieving ceasefires, a new constitutional blueprint, active cross-border engagement, decommissioning and devolved authority did not happen by accident and they did not happen because any individual or party imposed its will – they happened because of the will of people which demanded a better future.
By every means available to measure public sentiment, the last few years have seen a growing disillusionment, unfortunately, and a sense of drift which has, at times, threatened to engulf the peace process. People have lost the sense of a process which was about building a better future for them, as they looked at institutions which spent their time on partisan gridlock and increasingly sectarian posturing. On the streets, a process which promised reconciliation was seen to feed isolation and identity politics. A combination of party self-interest and governmental neglect led to a crisis which was entirely avoidable. Thankfully the governments decided to reverse their policy of disengagement and we finally got serious round-table negotiations. What has emerged does not provide answers to most of the problems which were being discussed but it does represent a step forward and hopefully a beginning to tackling damaging behaviour of recent years.
Fianna Fáil welcomes the Stormont House agreement as a positive one. For the first time in several years there has been some level of agreement between the largest parties in Northern Ireland to acknowledge and begin addressing deep and growing problems. The Irish and British Governments have also acknowledged the error of disengagement and returned to an understanding of their roles as active facilitators of the process.
The Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly have been given a new opportunity to work in a spirit of cross-community co-operation. The largest parties have promised to end the exclusion of smaller parties and the public from key discussions. There has been a new commitment to address issues of identity and history in an inclusive and tolerant way.
The agreement is, however, somewhat flawed since its main positive feature is the commitment to agree things in the future rather than actually finding agreement now. As yesterday's budget revealed, the financial impact of the deal is minor and primarily enables a smokescreen to cover the implementation of policies which the parties said they would never implement. In spite of this, the agreement should, on balance, be welcomed. It is in stark contrast to the cycle of complacency and growing division which has defined recent years.
The reality is that this happened because of two rather damaging developments, both of which marked significant moves away from the dynamics behind all progress to date. The first issue was that the Governments agreed on a policy which assumed that all the hard work was done. Their explicit policy was that the time had come to force the parties to take responsibility and that the Democratic Unionist Party and Sinn Féin would understand the need to deliver. This policy was a complete failure. As sectarian conflict rose, as the executive grew ever more dysfunctional and as fewer policies were agreed the Governments kept maintaining that everything would be fine. Worst of all, they enabled a second damaging move away from past practice, that is, the growing exclusion by the DUP and Sinn Féin of others. At every stage they have shown an iron commitment to securing advantage for their parties. This is what Deputy Adams calls the electoralism strategy. Rather than embracing the idea of trying to deliver an inclusive government they have focused on the fight to become the dominant representatives of their parts of the community. Both parties have shown a highly selective commitment to the institutions of the Government to which they belong. Whether it was threatening to withdraw from policing when a member of Sinn Féin was arrested or by refusing to condemn sectarian lawlessness, the parties have sought to have it all ways at once.
When Fianna Fáil started pointing to an impending crisis three years ago the DUP and Sinn Féin did find a unity in attacking us and claiming that things had never been better. Within the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly they have actively marginalised all other voices. Ministers from other parties have been denied basic information about matters before the executive to which they belong. Both large parties supported the continued breaking of legal agreements to establish a civic forum because - they actually admitted this - they preferred people and groups to come to them directly. This strategy worked for them electorally but it has been incredibly damaging for pubic faith in the institutions of the peace process. In 1998 they won 35% of the vote combined. Now, both main parties have 55% and see themselves as the leaders of their communities. Unfortunately, this has primarily come from pushing people away from politics. Election turnout is at the lowest ever level. The electorate is growing but 160,000 fewer people are voting. The Community Relations Council has shown that the majority no longer believe that the devolved institutions are delivering.
The combination of governmental disengagement and party game-playing gave us this crisis. Only by ending these permanently will we return to the type of progress for peace and reconciliation which had been seen previously. While Fianna Fáil welcomes the agreement we do not welcome the financial arrangements which have enabled it. They suggest that the Cameron-led Government continues to have no real understanding of the precious and fragile nature of the peace in Northern Ireland.
I put it to the Tánaiste that economic development in Northern Ireland is not an internal matter for Northern Ireland. It is part and parcel of the all-island economy and it is a matter for both Governments and for all on the island of Ireland.
London's policy has been one of seeking to end the idea of Northern Ireland as a special case for investment. This is an appalling attitude and I regret that our Government decided it was unable to make the case, at least publicly, that it was wrong to endanger progress for the sake of amounts which are minuscule in United Kingdom terms. The people of Northern Ireland have enough challenges on their plate without the addition of dramatic job cuts and service cuts. I mean this sincerely and this has been an issue for me for a considerable length of time. Let us consider the health index, social indices and school completion indices. There are significant and large marginalised communities in Northern Ireland on both sides of the political and committee divide. We need a Marshall-type plan to deal once and for all with these problems in a programmatic way but that is not happening. Rather than cuts, discreet ring-fenced funding should be put aside under a clear programme along the lines of the RAPID or CLÁR programmes we implemented to deal with similar challenges. I know that in his time in the Áras Martin McAleese worked hard on this informally. There was some resistance within the executive because people wanted a slice of the action and so on. We need a comprehensive approach to underpin the agreement and to ensure a real dividend on the social side. That should have been at the centre of discussions and negotiations on the financial dimension of the agreement. On top of a minor amount of money, the executive is being allowed to divert investment spending and borrow to cover short-term budget holes. These decisions do not show a significant commitment to the long-term future of Northern Ireland.
The claim by Deputy McDonald yesterday that Sinn Féin held out and got what it wanted on welfare reform is manifestly untrue. Welfare cuts will proceed as will education cuts, though both at a slightly lower level than first proposed. Most seriously, 20,000 jobs are to be cut but we have no idea where these cuts will come from or what services they will hit. The rhetoric of the DUP and Sinn Féin yesterday about minimal impact fooled no one.
That the issues of flags and parades are bigger today than in the past shows a great lack of leadership by many at different levels. They have provided the outlet for many of the worst sectarian flashpoints and there is no doubt that the enemies of progress have exploited various situations. I have great reservations about what the agreement says about parades and I have said as much before in the House during Leaders' Questions as far back as May 2013.
Unionists have pushed for many years for the disbandment of the Parades Commission and the development of a new architecture. To coincide with this the British Government has undermined the stature of the commission over time. The Unionists were keen to move the parades issue into the political sphere, a risky and premature strategy and not a good move if we stand back and examine it objectively. It has the potential to cause even further political instability in future. I believe we need a strong mechanism that is objective and independent. The Parades Commission had these characteristics at the outset as well as the ability to make rules that had to be abided by. I hope I am wrong but I do not believe there will be much progress on parades if it is left solely to the members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Assembly has yet to illustrate how it is capable of facing down intense communal pressures. Unfortunately, there is no evidence of this happening in the short or medium term. The core issue is not how decisions on parades are taken; it is a question of showing respect for a process which can sometimes recommend something that one does not agree with. In concrete terms, the statement in the agreement concerning parades does little beyond reaffirming current principles.
A bill of rights is a basic document for a society trying to overcome conflict. It sets out common basic rights which can serve as a foundation for a shared politics. It should not be a political football and it is long past time for it to be delivered. The failure of the parties to honour this commitment is a serious weakness of the agreement, as is the approach to other clear legal commitments under past agreements. The Civic Forum for Northern Ireland is part of an agreement ratified by the people of this island in free referendums. It is not an option, it is an obligation. When the DUP and Sinn Féin closed it down they said it was too big, cost too much and that they would propose something better. The convening of a small group, hand-picked by those parties, continues to ignore the obligation to have a genuinely independent forum. History shows that it is marginal groups with limited electoral appeal which can lead to the worst violence and division. The forum is a way of reaching out to all communities.
Is droch an scéal é nach bhfuil Acht teanga fós againn agus tá an dealramh ar an scéal nach mbeidh ceann againn le fada an lá. Is deacair é seo a thuiscint. Bhí ról faoi leith ag údarás na bProstastúnaigh i dtosach na haoise seo caite maidir le chaomhnú agus le hathbheochan na Gaeilge. Is deacair é a thuiscint nach bhfuil an thoil ann chun Acht teanga a chur i bhfeidhm.
The passage of a language Act is also, in our view, not an option and the lack of progress is unacceptable. The Irish language is a language preserved and promoted by people of all traditions, most notably the Church of Ireland tradition. At the beginning of the last century, some very notable leaders of that community did some great work on the Irish language but today the language has less legal recognition than its sister languages in Wales and Scotland.
The commission on flags, identity, culture and tradition is another outcome which is about establishing a willingness to engage rather than achieving anything specific. However, even a willingness to engage represents important progress. In practice, the centrality of the parties in the commission will mean it will need substantial governmental engagement to succeed. It is a bad sign that it requires an agreement such as this to force the office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister to share basic information with members of the Executive who are not members of the DUP or Sinn Féin.
The agreement’s proposals relating to the past are also welcome. They are modest but they do represent potentially significant progress. As others have said, too often in recent years the real war of the past has been replaced by a war of narratives. Each side has worked hard to impose its version of history rather than working on finding common ground and a respect for difference. In a manner which has many fewer repercussions, we have seen this here in recent years with the Sinn Féin project to falsify Irish republican history by claiming ownership of a movement which has nothing to do with the Provisional IRA movement created in the 1970s. Equally we see it in the fact that certain parties are only ever interested in investigating the crimes of others.
To date, the Irish Government is the only party to the process which has been fully open and honest about its actions and failings during the decades of the Provisional IRA's campaign. The proposal for the independent commission on information retrieval may address one aspect of the issue. I think it is wrong that the DUP and Sinn Féin effectively have been given a privileged right over all other Northern parties to a role in nominating members to the commission and I trust our Government will insist that the members have the confidence of those who represent parties who never condoned, encouraged or participated in the crimes involved.
The failure of the British Government to commit to a proper investigation and transparency relating to the Finucane murder and the Dublin/Monaghan bombings is a huge and unacceptable omission. Regarding North/South engagement, the commitment to finally move ahead with the obligation to review and develop cross-Border institutions is a step forward and I would welcome a special debate on this matter in the near future.
On behalf of Fianna Fáil I would like to commend the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan for his personal commitment. In his few months in office he has chosen to directly re-engage in Northern issues and this has been very helpful. I believe some of the Government’s statements about this jurisdiction's right in Northern discussions have been wrong but the Minister’s actions have been very positive. I also commend the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, on his engagement and activity.
If this agreement marks a moment where the parties genuinely commit themselves to working across communal divisions in the common interest then it will be a very positive footnote in the process of building peace and reconciliation. However, if all it does is represent a further kicking down the road of deep problems and if the parties and Governments return to their recent habits of complacency and disengagement, it will be seen as a dangerous missed opportunity. For everyone’s sake I hope the procedures and discussions which the Stormont House agreement has created can turn a crisis into a new moment of hope.
Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil le achan duine a bhí páirteach sna comhchainteanna, go háirithe an Aire, an Teachta Charles Flanagan, agus an Aire Stáit, an Teachta Sherlock; na páirtithe uilig; Gary Hart agus ardchonsal na Stáit Aontaithe sa Tuaisceart; agus na daoine a lean ar aghaidh go stuama nuair a bhí cúrsaí deacair go leor agus faoi dheireadh a tháinig ar chomhréiteach ag an Nollaig. I want to especially thank Martin McGuinness and the excellent team of experienced Sinn Féin negotiators who provided consistent, clear and unwavering leadership, who refused to be discouraged and who worked very hard to chart a positive path to a successful conclusion. Sinn Féin was very clear about its objectives. These were: to agree a deal that would protect the most vulnerable in society; to safeguard the rights and entitlements of citizens; to deliver on outstanding agreements; to grow the economy; and to enhance the workings of the institutions.
The failure, principally of the Irish and British Governments, to implement outstanding agreements and the failure of the Irish Government especially to act as a co-equal guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and other agreements, as well as tensions between the Executive and the British Government - most notably around British demands for welfare cuts which were blatantly supported by the Irish Government - was the context of the latest crisis. The ability of the five Executive parties to defend front-line public services, the poor, people with disabilities, the elderly and disadvantaged and to create jobs was significantly undermined by British Tory demands for welfare cuts, as well as by the £1.5 billion cut to the block grant since 2011. This austerity policy is similar to the Irish Government's and was actively endorsed by the Taoiseach. Sinn Féin was steadfast in its opposition to this agenda.
The British Government's failure to honour its commitments made in the Good Friday Agreement and other agreements, such as an inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane, was another important factor in the crisis. The London Government's refusal to back the Haass proposals to deal with the vexed issues of identity, parading and the legacy of the past had only succeeded in emboldening unionist hostility to the power-sharing arrangements. There is never any real incentive for political unionism to move forward in a consistent and progressive way if a British or Irish Government is not giving clear and unambiguous leadership and implementing commitments.
It took between 18 months and two years for Sinn Féin to persuade the two Governments to be part of a talks process. This included the failure by the Taoiseach to meet me and the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, over the summer, as he had promised to do as far back as last spring. By the time the Taoiseach, the British Prime Minister and the Tánaiste arrived in Belfast on 11 December, there was no great optimism that progress could be achieved. The presentation by the two Governments - through the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister - of a deeply flawed paper, on a take-it-or-leave-it basis and the approach of both principals during the talks was amateurish and ham fisted. The departure of Mr. Cameron and Teachta Kenny 24 hours later led many to believe that the negotiations were over and that the political institutions were at real risk of collapsing. The intervention amounted to little more than a charade. It was not, in my humble opinion, a serious endeavour.
The paper from the Irish Government and from Mr. Cameron sought to nationalise austerity, with the Irish Government supporting British Tory efforts to hurt the most vulnerable citizens in the North. Ní raibh Acht na Gaeilge ná Bille Cearta luaite sa phaipéar a chuir siad isteach sna cainteanna. Mar eolas do Teachta Martin, beidh Acht na Gaeilge curtha amach ag an Aire, Carál Ní Chuilín, roimh i bhfad. Feicfimid cad a tharlóidh ansin. The Irish Government also acquiesced to the British Government's use of "national security" to deny information to victims and to the British demand to end the rights of families of victims to an inquest in the Coroner's Court. If this proposal had been accepted - it was rejected forthrightly by Sinn Féin - this would have left victim's families, including the Ballymurphy families - whom the Taoiseach has met and who have campaigned for decades for the right to Article 2-compliant inquests - with no access to the crucial inquest system. Without consulting victim's families and contrary to those families' wishes, the Government signed up to ending this system. This was totally at odds with the Taoiseach's promise made in this House to seek an all-party Oireachtas motion - which he has never brought forward - to support the Ballymurphy families. Nor was there any guarantee in the paper tabled initially by the two Governments that the Dublin and Monaghan bombings - also the subject of an Oireachtas all-party motion - would be considered under the proposed civil inquisitorial process under the new historical investigations unit.
On 12 December David Cameron returned to London and the Taoiseach returned to Dublin leaving the process in a worse state than it was in when they arrived. The spin from the Governments at that point was that more than £1 billion was available and that this was the best deal possible but that quickly evaporated under scrutiny.
As one British journalist put it, the British cheque book "was all stubbs and no cheques". "The €1 billion in spending power offered by the prime minister is", he added, "largely a borrowing facility which the executive can already dip into." The Government tried to sell this as a gain for the Executive and something for which we should be grateful. In fact, when the two principals left a consensus was reached by the Executive parties, on the initiative of the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, and under the leadership of Martin McGuinness and the First Minister, Peter Robinson, there was a push for real and meaningful negotiation. Six days later and following lengthy discussions, many of which lasted into the small hours, and at least one all-night session, an agreement was achieved which reversed many of the proposals put by the two Governments. Proof of this can be found by parsing the first draft and comparing it to the final agreed draft. I invite anyone who has any doubts about what I am saying to do this.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Charles Flanagan, and Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock, may recall that the negotiations eventually got on the right track when Martin McGuinness and I warned the two Governments that their proposals were not sustainable. The Taoiseach has made a habit of stating that Martin McGuinness was prepared to accept a lesser deal than I was. He also described by behaviour as "outrageous". While I could take that assertion as a back-handed compliment, I do not do so because it is totally untruthful. Martin McGuinness, who is as committed to all these issues as I am, described the Taoiseach's remark as "stupid". Why would a Taoiseach say such a thing? If he put any thought into his remark, it was obviously to distract attention from the Government's refusal to develop any strategy for engagement with the British as a co-equal guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and other agreements.
I have dealt with every Government since Charlie Haughey's time, including a previous Fine Gael-led Government. The Administration led by the Taoiseach is the most deficient, inefficient and incompetent of all of them in dealing with the North. I do not say this lightly; it is my considered opinion.
The Taoiseach views the North as a foreign country. Rather than facing across the Border and extending a hand of friendship to all the people of the North, he faces away and turns his back on people there. I ask him to reflect seriously on what I am saying. His Government should develop a strategy to fully implement the Good Friday Agreement and other agreements, as it is obliged to do.
What was the outcome of Sinn Féin's outrageous negotiation? The total value of the British Government's revised financial proposals now amount to almost £2 billion or twice what was originally offered. This sum includes £650 million of new and additional funding, including up to £500 million over ten years of new capital to support shared and integrated education. Crucially, there will be no reductions in welfare payments under the control of the Executive. The new welfare protections are unique to the North and in sharp contrast to the austerity driven welfare system being rolled out in Britain and the austerity driven focus of the Government in Dublin. Anti-poverty measures will be funded and remain in place.
Significant progress was achieved on the wider political issues. The Minister and Minister of State will recall that I described this as a defensive negotiation, one in which Sinn Féin defended what had been gained previously and was being diluted as a result of the ongoing process. The progress achieved included the defeat of an effort to close off access to inquests for families of victims of the conflict. Glacfaidh an dá rialtas le stádas agus meas a bhronnadh ar an Ghaeilge ag teacht le Cart na dTeangacha Réigiúnacha nó Mionlacha ó Chomhairle na hEorpa.
Work has also commenced on the devolution of additional fiscal powers needed to grow the economy. A detailed proposal was agreed on a commission on flags, identity, culture and tradition, including its make-up and remit. Legislation on parades will be prepared with proper regard for fundamental rights protected by the European Convention on Human Rights. The Parades Commission also remains in place. All these measures are Haass-proofed.
The Historical Investigations Unit will have the full co-operation of all relevant Irish authorities, including disclosure of information and documentation. Important changes to the working arrangements of the Assembly and Executive were also agreed.
As with all previous agreements, the Stormont House Agreement is only as good as the determination of those involved to implement it. It is another key staging post in the peace process. The priority must now be to implement it.
As I stated, the involvement of the two Governments since this Government took office has been totally inadequate. While I commended the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Charles Flanagan, and the Minister of State in his Department, Deputy Sean Sherlock, on their role, the Tánaiste's presence at the talks is still a matter of wonderment to me. She had the right to attend and I welcome her involvement but I still have not figured out what her role was because she did not say anything in my presence during the talks.
I urge the Government to accept that the success and stability of the peace and political process in the North and the all-Ireland institutions are bigger and more important than any shortsighted, selfish electoral political agenda. The North is generally raised by other parties in this Chamber as part of a futile effort to score political points against Sinn Féin. Some of the progress that has been made has been the subject of ill-informed and untruthful comment, including by the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and leader of the Fianna Fáil Party in this debate. For example, it has been claimed that the agreement will result in redundancies in the public sector. While this may have been the intention of the initial proposals put forward by the Governments, there will be no compulsory redundancies. The Stormont House Agreement provides for a voluntary redundancy scheme for public sector workers who wish to avail of it. The scale of the take-up will be driven by public sector workers and balanced with the need to maintain public services. Sinn Féin will not repeat the mistakes of the Government by allowing a scheme to undermine public services in pursuit of savings. Any scheme will be agreed in consultation with the trade unions and Executive Ministers.
I remind the House that the peace process is the most important political project on this island at this time and it needs to be nurtured, protected and enhanced. It must be at the top of the Government's agenda alongside other priorities.
I welcome the financial commitments that have been made, including €25 million in annual funding for the A5 road project, which will assist people in Tír Chonaill, Derry, Fermanagh and Tyrone. I welcome additional funding for reconciliation under the European Union's PEACE and INTERREG programmes and the Government's renewed commitment to the Narrow Water bridge and Ulster Canal projects. These are important developments which need to be delivered.
Separate from the developments in Stormont House, the Government must also take action on the extension of voting rights to citizens in the North in presidential elections. Speaking at the Constitutional Convention in a previous ministerial role, the Minister for Foreign Affairs indicated he was in favour of the proposal to extend voting rights and I believe he was serious and genuine at the time. The decision by the Government not to proceed with the recommendation of the Constitutional Convention on this issue is deeply disappointing and lets down many people in the North who, as Irish citizens, believe they should have a say in the election of the President of this island.
The joint paper tabled by the Taoiseach and British Prime Minister is not the paper agreed at Stormont House in the absence of the Taoiseach and Prime Minister. I very much welcome that because the proposal was not sustainable and was entirely inadequate and in breach of the Government's obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. I very much welcome the Stormont House Agreement. For God's sake, let us work together on this very important issue for once as opposed to trying to score political points.
I will share time with Deputies Paul Murphy and Mick Wallace.
I remind Deputies who are members of a trade union movement or support the trade union movement that the body representing Northern trade unions has indicated it will not support the Stormont House Agreement.
It has described the agreement as wealth transferred from working people to big business in a speculative venture funded by the equivalent of a payday loan. The Minister of State can smirk all he likes; this is what the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has called the deal.
It is the first time in the history of the peace process that a trade union movement has refused to back a landmark political deal. This has to be considered and looked into.
I want to refer to the €2 billion of what is called new money. Everybody knows there is no €2 billion, and we can read the analysis in the Northern newspapers and, indeed, some of the Southern newspapers. Again, ICTU has said that a proportion will be taken from the €2 billion to pay redundancies. Having read the agreement, it is obvious to many people, including working people and the trade union movement, that the Tory Government is forcing the Northern Ireland Executive to take what has been called a payday loan cut in public services, which will result over a period of four years in the loss of about 20,000 jobs. As it will not be possible to get 20,000 voluntary job losses, the Government here should not fool itself. Very many people will just be sacked, while the savings from these losses will pay for a tax cut to big businesses through the reduction in corporation tax. Therefore, thousands of jobs and millions of pounds will be taken out of the economy, never to return, and the loss of the spending power of these 20,000 jobs will have a detrimental effect on the Northern Ireland economy.
All of these workers will face the Tory definition of social welfare payments in terms of how they are looked after while on social welfare. All we have to do is look at the intolerable Tory attitude in the UK in general to people on low incomes and social welfare, and how it has impoverished millions of citizens in the UK with a tax on social welfare recipients and those less well off in society. I do not believe for one moment that this will not happen to the very many hundreds of thousands of workers in Northern Ireland.
In the little time I have left to speak, I want to quote George Osborne, who said: "This will give the Northern Ireland Executive greater power to rebalance the economy towards a stronger private sector, boosting employment". These were his words no later than yesterday, when he suggested that 20,000 job losses will boost employment. George Osborne, Theresa Villiers and Sammy Wilson are three of the most right-wing politicians one can come across in Europe; they are anti-worker, anti-union and pro-austerity. I would believe the ICTU any day before I would believe any of those three politicians.
Once again, we are told we have a monumental step forward, as the First Minister, Peter Robinson, put it; the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, described this document as astounding; and the US diplomat, Meghan O'Sullivan, described it as a new era for Northern Ireland politics. In contrast to all of the empty bluff and bluster, the ad by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions in the North says very accurately that this is a bad deal, fit only for a land of pound shops and food banks. Despite the overblown rhetoric and spin, this is another agreement to disagree on contentious issues but, at the same time, to implement a savage agenda of austerity that will create unemployment, destroy public services and attack those who are currently unemployed.
Patrick Murphy, columnist, described it well:
The north is to be privatised, its past sanitised and its electorate anaesthetised. That appears to be a reasonable summary of what the Stormont parties agreed in their annual sleep-over at Stormont.On the issues of flags and emblems, of contentious parades and of dealing with the past, all that is agreed is new mechanisms to kick the can down the road. No real solution can ever be achieved by politicians who rely upon and have a vested interest in maintaining sectarian division. This can clearly be seen in the area of dealing with the past, where we are told there was most agreement. New support will be provided for the health needs of the victims and survivors but, in every other way, victims will be short-changed. They deserve a truthful account of the past. The proposals will not deliver the truth. No party or Government has an interest in exposing its own record to scrutiny because a genuine examination would expose the role played by the sectarian parties and the paramilitary groups, and the role of the British state, which employed vicious repressive methods for decades. The sectarian forces in the Executive and the British state are fundamentally incapable of delivering this.
There was a genuine consensus, however, among the DUP, Sinn Féin and all the main parties in Stormont, and that is the implementation of a programme of austerity so vicious that it would make Margaret Thatcher blush. It includes deep cuts to public services. It means public services like health, that are already in crisis, will be stretched even further. Again, Patrick Murphy says:
If this document does not exactly reflect the hand of history, it certainly smacks of the hand of Margaret Thatcher. It was achieved by the British government moving from bribing Stormont with its own money, to bribing it with its own debt.There is a redundancy scheme across the public sector, with 20,000 jobs to be wiped out over a period of four years. Whether that is voluntary or compulsory, the end result will be 20,000 fewer jobs in the public sector in the North, in an economy that everybody knows is particularly dependent on the public sector, which is a massive blow to employment prospects for young people. There is a further five-year pay freeze for public sector workers, which is another significant cut in real terms. Shamefully, given the revolt we have here against water charges, there is even the threat of the privatisation of Northern Ireland Water, which would inevitably lead to attempts to introduce water charges again in the North.
What do they get in exchange for all of this? The agreement states: "In view of the progress made in the talks, legislation will be introduced ... to enable the devolution of corporation tax in April 2017." So, in exchange for implementing all of this savage austerity against working people in the North, Catholic and Protestant, the parties in the North get the right to reduce corporation tax for big business - more handouts for big business at the expense of austerity and the destruction of public services. The reality is seen in the impact on the economy, which has no green shoots and is slipping back into negative growth, with wages continuing to fall.
Martin McGuinness, obviously a member of a party that strongly criticises austerity in the South, has said that anyone opposed to this budget needs a good shake and is living in fantasy land. To be honest, you would have to be living in fantasy land to call yourself a friend of the trade union movement while implementing massive job cuts; you would have to be living in a fantasyland to call yourself anti-austerity while kicking the poorest in society by agreeing to Tory welfare reform; and you would have to be living in fantasyland to call yourself left-wing while agreeing to massive cuts to public services at the same time as preparing to cut corporation tax.
They will get a surprise. They will get the good shake that Martin McGuinness referred to on 13 March, when there is a massive one-day strike of all public sector workers and a layer of private sector workers. It has the potential to be the biggest day of working class action and working class power since April 1980, when a major strike against Thatcher shut down the North. It must be the opening shot across the bow in a sustained campaign, including further public action to reverse those attacks. Hand in glove with that is the need to build a new, united working class movement against sectarianism and austerity, and for radical socialist change. A united working class movement would be able to come up with real agreement around the issues that divide society and open up a real new era for Catholic and Protestant workers and young people in the North.
I think everybody in this House is in favour of peace, whether it is in Northern Ireland, Europe or the Middle East, although we probably differ on how best to achieve it.
Given the events of late in Europe, I firmly believe that bombing people or terrorising them through drone attacks does much more for the arms industry than it does for peace.
It would be dangerous for us to become any way complacent in regard to Northern Ireland and the challenges it provides. I have been to the North on numerous occasions, mostly to Maghaberry Prison, in the company of a number of Deputies from across the parties. I would be very concerned about the tensions that exist, but I am not aware of any of the parties, North or South, addressing those tensions or taking them seriously enough. It would be unfortunate if we had to wait for some bad incident to occur before we woke up to the seriousness of the situation. There are particular challenges in regard to this prison. We have visited both loyalist and republican prisoners and are aware of a number of outstanding issues. Despite the optimism around the stock take, there have not been dramatic improvements in the areas of strip searching, control of movement, the isolation unit and use of it and visiting conditions. Negative tensions within the prison can impact on life outside the prison and the authorities need to be aware of this. It would be unfortunate if they woke up to this too late. Most of our involvement in Northern Ireland is not even remotely attached to any of the politics of any grouping we have visited. We are interested in human rights and believe affairs should be conducted properly. We see huge problems in that regard.
Apart from the prison issue, the Craigavon Two is a stark case that appears to represent an injustice. In 2012, John Paul Wooton and Brendan McConville were convicted of the 2009 killing of PSNI Constable Stephen Carroll in Craigavon in Armagh, but the manner in which the evidence was gathered and presented left much to be desired. We attended the appeal case and met the widow of Stephen Carroll. If there has been a miscarriage of justice, it is of little good to her that the wrong people may be in prison for the brutal murder of her husband. The manner in which the authorities dealt with the appeal was very disappointing.
Of late, Dr. Kevin Harty has drawn attention to the fact that the RUC has been asked to look again at an incident that occurred in 1982 and the DPP in Northern Ireland, Barra McGrory, has ordered the reopening of a case involving MI5 interference with evidence. He pointed out that in the case of the Craigavon Two, a conviction was secured against John Paul Wooton and Brendan McConville, despite similar interference with evidence by the intelligence services. During a recent appeal by Wooton and McConville, it emerged that the intelligence services had deliberately deleted evidence from a tracking device attached to John Paul Wooton's car. As the claim that John Paul Wooton was a getaway driver in the Continuity IRA attack that killed PSNI Constable Stephen Carroll is central to the case against Wooton, questions must be asked in regard to what data was deleted from the device and why. One can assume that if the evidence corroborated the apparent guilt of Wooton, it would be produced in court rather than deleted.
This is a serious matter and I believe the Government should take note of it and the matter should be addressed, irrespective of whether people think these people were involved in military activities. If these people are not guilty of what they have been accused of, they should not be in prison for this crime. The Government should push the British authorities to look again at this case, because it is causing unnecessary tension in the community. It will only lead to a bad outcome if we do not deal with the matter in a positive manner.
I welcome the opportunity to brief the House on the outcome of the political talks in Northern Ireland which concluded on 23 December last with the Stormont House Agreement.
As Deputies will be aware, the British and Irish Governments convened the talks last October. It was the joint assessment of the two governments at that time that the political impasse in the North was such that the immediate involvement of the governments was required to break the logjam. Our objective in the cross-party talks was to conclude a broad agreement that provided for economic renewal and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
Together with the Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock, I represented the Government at the weekly sessions of the talks over a period of 11 weeks. I co-chaired all-party round table talks with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, as well as having hundreds of hours of meetings and engagement with the parties in other formats as necessary. I believe that the agreement we reached on 23 December, following lengthy and at times challenging negotiations, represents a great opportunity to restore effective partnership government in Northern Ireland, advance genuine reconciliation between divided communities and progress economic prosperity for all.
The agreement covers a broad range of political, economic and social issues. In particular, the agreement sets out a plan for financial and budgetary reform; proposes a way forward on flags, identity, culture and tradition through the establishment of a commission; envisages the devolution of responsibility for parades to the Northern Ireland Assembly, with proposals on parading to be brought to the Executive by June 2015; establishes a programme of institutional reform at Stormont; progresses a number of outstanding aspects from the Good Friday and St. Andrews Agreements, including the establishment of a civic advisory panel by June 2015, a commitment to reporting on new sectoral priorities for North-South co-operation by the end of February 2015 and further development of the North-West gateway initiative; and most significantly, the agreement establishes a new comprehensive framework for dealing with the legacy issues of the past.
I wish to provide some detail about the terms of the agreement on dealing with the past. When I first visited Belfast, immediately following my appointment last July, it was clear to me that in addition to the need to address the political impasse, it was also vital to find a mechanism for dealing with the continuing corrosive effect of the past on the politics of the present. Several previous attempts had tried valiantly to address this issue, including the Eames-Bradley proposals of 2008 and the Haass talks process of 2013.
Building on this valuable work, the Stormont House Agreement sets out a framework which I believe will enable us to tackle the long-standing issues around the legacy of the past in a comprehensive way. In particular, the framework provides for an oral history archive which will provide a central place for people from throughout the UK and Ireland to share experiences and narratives related to the Troubles; a dedicated independent historical investigations unit which will have full policing powers to take forward investigations into Troubles-related deaths; and an independent commission on information retrieval to enable victims and survivors, North and South, to seek and receive information about the death of their loved ones. This comprehensive framework reflects the overwhelming consensus among all parties to the talks on the need to place victims and survivors at the heart of our efforts to deal with the legacy of the past.
As regards the financial aspects of the Stormont House Agreement, the estimated total value of the overall financial package agreed between the British Government and the parties to underpin the agreement represents additional spending power of almost £2 billion for the Northern Ireland Executive. As part of the agreement, the Irish Government also reaffirmed its commitment to part-funding the development of the A5 road to improve access to the north west. In addition, we have allocated €5 million to the International Fund for Ireland to support its work on reconciliation in Northern Ireland and the Border counties of the South.
I had the opportunity of witnessing the ongoing importance of the fund’s work in promoting reconciliation only last week when I visited Belfast and attended the Blackmountain Shared Space Project’s Peace Walls Programme there.
As is the case with all participants in the talks, there were a number of additional issues which the Government would have wished to see progress further but there did not appear to be sufficient consensus to do so. Notwithstanding that it was included in a paper tabled by the Government at the outset of the talks, we were disappointed that a commitment to an Irish language Act, either enacted in Westminster or the Northern Ireland Assembly, did not form part of the final agreement. I welcome, however, the explicit endorsement in the agreement by the British Government of the principle of respect for, and recognition of, the Irish language in Northern Ireland. Similarly, while the Government would have wished to see the establishment of a North South consultative forum and a Bill of rights for Northern Ireland, the necessary enabling consensus was not forthcoming during the Stormont talks. However, the Government will continue to avail of other opportunities to secure progress on these outstanding issues and there will be such opportunities.
Overall, the agreement represents the articulation of the next essential steps towards reconciliation and economic renewal. The two Governments sought to maximise what was achievable having regard to the core, and sometimes conflicting, negotiating positions of the parties and the finite time available to conclude the negotiations. By tabling papers and drafts of heads of agreement proposals, the governments helped to broker agreement on issues that had not been amenable to resolution during the Haass talks in 2013. I pay tribute to Richard Haass with whom I spoke on Christmas Eve.
I assure the House of the Government’s commitment to the effective and expeditious implementation of the Stormont House Agreement, which is likely to be as challenging as its negotiation. In this context, under the terms of the agreement, both governments will convene quarterly review meetings, with the first meeting due to take place before the end of this month at which an implementation timetable will be agreed. As a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the Government is conscious of its responsibilities to all of the people of this island. In the months ahead, we will continue to advance political progress and to play our part in the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement.
I wish to express my appreciation to all those who contributed to bringing the Stormont talks to a successful conclusion. In particular, I pay tribute to Secretary of State Northern Ireland, Ms Theresa Villiers, with whom I worked closely throughout the talks process. I acknowledge the presence in the House this evening of the British ambassador, Mr. Dominick Chilcott. The ongoing support and direct engagement of the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Cameron in the talks also played a crucial part in converting dialogue into agreement. I also acknowledge the constructive roles played by all the Northern Ireland Executive parties in reaching agreement and, in particular, the leadership shown by the First Minister, Peter Robinson, and Deputy First Minister McGuinness in bridging a number of negotiating chasms. I pay tribute to the officials from my Department and the Department of the Taoiseach. I would also like to pay special thanks to US Senator Gary Hart, for the most valuable role he played and for the ongoing support and commitment of the US Administration, including Vice President Joe Biden, Secretary of State, John Kerry, and other senior figures.
Last week I was in Belfast and I will be there again next week to represent the Government at the first implementation and review meeting of the Stormont House Agreement. I sincerely believe that the agreement provides the means for us to address the challenges facing Northern Ireland which I identified on my first visit to the North as Minister last July. I and my colleagues, in particular, Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs, Deputy Sherlock, will continue to apply the same level of determination and commitment in the implementation phase to ensure our investment in negotiating the agreement bears fruit and delivers on the promise of brighter days ahead for all of the people of Northern Ireland and, consequently, all the people on the island.
As Deputy Martin stated, the Fianna Fáil Party welcomes the agreement, which will help bring much needed stability to the workings of the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly. As a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, it is incumbent on the Government to ensure the latest deal is fully realised. I welcome the Minister's concluding remarks that the implementation process and the implementation review will be at the top of the agenda, which is where it needs to be. The complacent strategy that has marked much of the Government's approach to Northern Ireland has to be replaced with active, ongoing engagement. A series of outstanding issues must be addressed to copperfasten progress in Northern Ireland. Like Deputy Martin, I compliment the Minister and the Minister of State. Since last July, they have taken a different approach from their predecessors by ensuring a hands-on approach. Time after time during Priority Questions to the previous Minister for Foreign Affairs, I indicated that it was my belief and that of my party that progress would not be made in Northern Ireland unless there was active engagement by both governments and unless both governments carried out their role as co-guarantors of the agreement. Unfortunately, for a long time it was left to the five Northern Ireland Executive parties to conduct the negotiations and the British and Irish Governments were bystanders. I compliment the Minister and Minister of State on their work in that respect.
The Stormont House Agreement before Christmas averted the political collapse of the Executive and impending financial suspension. Sinn Féin agreed to welfare cuts it had opposed for a long time. The British Government put forward a financial package of up to Stg£2 billion with additional borrowing powers for the Executive. The deal repackages much of the proposals put forward by Richard Haass and Meghan O'Sullivan, which were finalised on the final day of 2013, and it is unfortunate that because of the intransigent Unionist leadership those proposals were not advanced at a much earlier date.
The negotiations, unfortunately, failed to lead agreement on a bill of rights, an Irish language Act and an inquiry into the killing of Belfast solicitor, Pat Finucane. We will all recall discussing the de Silva report into Mr. Finucane's killing in the House, which exposed shocking levels of state collusion in his murder.
It is important that the key proposals be advanced as much as possible. It has been indicated that it may take two years to have the historical investigations unit to inquire into killings during the Troubles operational. I took from the Minister's comments that the unit's work would be completed within five years. I hope there will not be a lacuna of two years before its work commences. We are all aware of the electoral cycles here, north of the Border and in Britain. I sincerely hope the Minister of State when he replies will give the House an assurance that there will not be such a delay in setting up the unit.
My understanding is issues particularly relevant to the South may not be investigated by the unit unless the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman agrees to refer the particular issues to it. That means many long-standing grievances, which have not been adequately reviewed or assessed in the context of who carried out particular murders, will be left out. I refer to a desperate bombing that occurred in Belturbet in my constituency in 1972. and I quote fromLethal Allies, Anne Cadwallader's book:
In between the Dublin Bombings of 1st December 1972 and the 20th January, 1973, Fermanagh-based members of the UDR and UVF carried out three bombings within an hour - Clones (County Monaghan) Belturbet (County Cavan) and Pettigo (County Donegal) - all on 28th December 1972. Two teenagers, Geraldine O'Reilly (aged fifteen) [from Belturbet] and Paddy Stanley (aged sixteen) [from Clara, County Offaly], were killed in Belturbet. Again no one was brought to justice.
I sincerely hope that no mechanism will be put in the way of ensuring that this particular atrocity, along with so many others, is fully investigated when the historical investigations unit is put in place.
The Minister knows that I have constantly raised the Dublin-Monaghan bombings and the failure of the British Government to release the files in respect of the desperate atrocity that occurred here in 1974. It was the single greatest incidence of carnage on our island during that period. Again, the British Government has not co-operated. Quite a number of us in the House this evening supported and spoke on motions in May 2008 and 2011. These two motions calling on the British Government to release those papers so that the proper investigations could be carried out into those desperate atrocities were passed unanimously by this House. We know that 33 people were killed on 17 May 1974, which is more than 40 years ago. As I said earlier, it was the highest number of casualties on any single day during that desperate period known as the Troubles. It left a further 300 people injured. Many families across this island suffered terrible losses during the Troubles, including the victims of the Dublin-Monaghan bombings and so many other atrocities. I appeal to the Minister to ensure that mechanisms are not put in place to prevent a proper investigation into those atrocities. It is very least that the victims' families and survivors deserve. Mention has already been made of the massacre at Ballymurphy in respect of which the British Government has refused a proper investigation. Again, this is totally unacceptable.
I think I used the phrase "who can be afraid of a civic forum?" during the last Question Time in this House. It beggars belief that there cannot be agreement on the establishment of a civic forum north of the Border. We know there are many communities which feel totally isolated. They feel that nobody of any political colour represents them. They believe that a forum which would hear the views of the different community organisations and different sectors could play a part in ensuring there was a broader representation for so many communities which feel alienated and believe they have not benefited from the Good Friday Agreement.
Given the considerable length of time that has elapsed since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement and the time that has elapsed since the signing of the St Andrew's Agreement and the Hillsborough Agreement, it is time to move on. There must be a review of the workings of the Good Friday Agreement, particularly the all-Ireland bodies. We should be moving on to the next phase of introducing new all-Ireland bodies.
Deputy Martin referred earlier to the economic potential for the development of this island on an all-Ireland basis. There are significant economic challenges North and South and significant financial challenges for Administrations North and South. Surely we should be putting in place the structures to ensure we maximise the potential for the good of all the citizens throughout this island. I hope the Minister will retain a hands-on approach along with his colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, to ensure that what has been agreed is implemented.
I will conclude with the comments I read shortly after Christmas which were attributed to the SDLP. It behoves all of us in this House to listen to the concerns expressed by a party that has been central to putting the Good Friday Agreement and other agreements in place. The SDLP executive concluded that while there has been some progress, the final outcome was not "comprehensive or decisive across all issues". It stated that it will work to correct what is weak in the Stormont House Agreement and that it will try to make progress on issues where the Stormont House Agreement is far too silent, including a bill of rights, a proper civic forum and the freeing up of the potential North and South and Acht na Gaeilge. It acknowledges the progress on the past but expresses concern that the proposals lack detail and fail to make state agencies fully accountable. Again, it raises concerns about a lack of clarity on parades. I would also have concerns with regard to bringing the Parades Commission into the political domain. From my recollection, the first Parades Commission was strong, made decisions, stuck by them and made progress in very challenging times. I hope the Minister and his colleagues in Government will ensure that the concerns expressed by a party that has been to the forefront in trying to secure progress on this island are addressed and that, hopefully, the issues about which we all expressed concern in a positive way that can be built upon to make more progress can be addressed. We wish the Minister well in his work of ensuring that the agreement is implemented.
First, I want to congratulate my party colleague, Mitchel McLaughlin MLA, who was appointed as the first non-Unionist speaker of the Northern Assembly last week. I have known Mitchell for decades and know he will be non-party political and rigorously impartial and is more than capable of doing an excellent job. His appointment sends out a strong message of inclusiveness and I hope all parties of this House support this hugely symbolic move.
The Stormont House Agreement thankfully represents progress. I do not think it is outstanding. I do not think it is a wonderful agreement. To quote "Mary Poppins", I do not think it is a supercalifragilisticexpialidocious agreement but it is agreement and is moving things forward which is the most important thing. This is the message that needs to come out of this debate - that we are actually moving things forward and things are progressing for people. It is a deal that will hopefully help and support the most vulnerable in society and deliver additional investment to the northern economy. The agreement also makes headway in respect of dealing with the legacy of the past, contentious parades and flags, symbols and cultural identity.
However, the agreement fell short of being comprehensive because the British Government, sadly with the support of the Irish Government, refused to meet its obligations to hold an inquiry into the killing of lawyer Pat Finucane, legislate for an Irish language Act or a bill of rights or address other outstanding commitments.
One key question that many Irish people are asking is why this Government turned away from its commitments to the Barron inquiry requirements on the Monaghan and Dublin bombings, the Pat Finucane inquiry, and the Ballymurphy massacre independent panel? Why did it exclude any mention of these events in the so-called "take-it-or-leave" paper that it co-authored with the British Government? Does the Irish Government still not want the families of the victims of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings to get truth and justice? This has been said to me by some relatives. Is the Irish Government not in favour of establishing an independent investigation into the murder of human rights activist and lawyer Pat Finucane? Why did the Irish Government co-author a draft agreement that ostensibly accepted the primacy of British national security interests over truth recovery for Irish citizens? Does this Government want to allow British national security interests to put a dead hand over the quest for truth and justice?
How is that in the people of Ireland's national interest? They supported the British Government's efforts to close families off from accessing inquests into the deaths of victims of the conflict through the Coroner's Court, the only option open to them at present. This approach undermined the integrity of the Good Friday, Weston Park, St. Andrew’s, and Hillsborough Castle agreements, of which both Governments were supposed to be co-guarantors. We could have made progress on securing the Pat Finucane inquiry, the Irish Language Act, the bill of rights and other outstanding matters had the Irish Government done the right thing and stood up for Irish national and democratic interests. Given this did not happen during the negotiations, can the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, confirm that he will work with us in the future to secure progress on these issues? What are his proposals to progress the other outstanding matters that were part of the agreements? How will he work to secure an inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane? I understand why the British Government does not want an inquiry to proceed but I cannot understand why the Irish Government does not support it.
The Tory-led government in London continues to brutally implement so-called welfare reform throughout Britain. That is the background to the agreement. It is attempting to unleash the same policies in the North of Ireland, while looking over its shoulder at the upcoming Westminster elections and courting the DUP in the event of a hung parliament. By its passivity, the Irish Government blindly pandered to these Tory desires. The big issue was the block grant, which is being cut by £1.5 billion. There was no support from the Irish Government in this regard. Correct me if I am wrong but it appears to have become a cheerleader for British Conservative austerity in the North and attempted to nationalise austerity and bring it to all corners of this island.
The joint Government paper included a proposal on water charges in the North and ending protection for welfare recipients. The Government's negotiators seem happy to push this agenda. Sinn Féin was steadfast in our opposition to the agenda and we were able to defeat these efforts. Instead of the Tories filleting welfare and social services in the North, the agreement now contains revised financial proposals from the British Government amounting to almost £2 billion, or double what was originally offered. Crucially, there will be no reductions in welfare payments under the control of the Executive and anti-poverty measures will be retained. We need unity on this front. We need all parties and both Governments to support measures to tackle poverty rather than take resources away from communities. Inclusive community investment needs to be focused on need and not subject to political battles. As a legacy of the conflict in the North, the number of those who are reliant on welfare is higher than elsewhere on these islands. This has meant an increased need for State supports and investments.
The £2 billion financial package on offer includes £650 million in new and additional funding. The Minister for Education, Sinn Féin’s John O'Dowd, MLA, has secured up to £500 million worth of new capital over ten years to support shared and integrated education. Yesterday’s budget also demonstrated Sinn Féin’s continued commitment to front-line public services. Reference was made to 20,000 jobs being cut. There is no way I would stand up here to support the agreement if I believed it would result in 20,000 jobs being cut in public services. More than £200 million extra will be invested in the health service and almost £100 million extra was announced for education and higher education compared to what was proposed in the draft budget. There were also increases for a number of other Departments, including £20 million for justice. Despite the Tory austerity cuts agenda Sinn Féin has continued to support public services and there will be no compulsory redundancies in either the Stormont House Agreement or the subsequent budget announcement.
While the agreement provides for a fund of up to £700 million over four years for workers choosing to retire or leave the public service, this scheme will be demand driven and balanced by the need to protect public services. Public sector workers will have the option to take part in the scheme if they so wish and it is completely at their discretion. It will not be willy nilly; it is part of a package. Sinn Féin will also work to ensure that the design and operation of any such scheme will not adversely impact on front-line services. There is general acknowledgement that the peace process must not be taken for granted. The Stormont House Agreement represents progress even if it is not comprehensive. There are difficulties in the agreement but the most important element of it is that it brings progress. People may say now that we should have done this or that but very few people were coming forward with options during the negotiations. At least we had a plan for the negotiations, and we delivered on the best part of that plan.
Irrespective of how this agreement is dressed up, it is an austerity programme similar to our own austerity programme and it will be inflicted on the working people and vulnerable people of the North. It is the equivalent of our memorandum of understanding with the troika and, despite the decoration and spin that surrounds it, the intent is absolutely clear. It will smash the public sector, prepare for the privatisation of State assets in the North, lay the groundwork for service charges, including water charges, and attack the poor and vulnerable through so-called welfare reform. It is no surprise that the southern Government and David Cameron supports such an agenda but it is surprising that Sinn Féin is endorsing it, even as it tries to blame the southern Government for not fighting hard enough against the introduction of this austerity programme. Why would the southern Government fight against an austerity programme in the North when it enthusiastically inflicted one on the South? As far as I am concerned the final adjudication on this deal was given by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions, which described it as a bad deal for workers, communities and equality. The agreement must be resisted and rejected. Thankfully, the mobilisation against this deal is already under way, with meetings planned across the North and a major demonstration taking place on 13 March.
It is disappointing that anybody would dress up plans for the privatisation of State assets and the slashing of 20,000 jobs. There were no compulsory redundancies in the public sector down here but we none the less lost 30,000 jobs. The same thing will happen in the North when a diluted version of vicious Tory welfare reform is inflicted on the poor and vulnerable. This deal must be resisted.
The Stormont House Agreement is the latest in a series of agreements put in place since the Good Friday Agreement to deal with issues arising from the peace process. It is interesting that the first two pages of the agreement deal with the implementation of austerity in the North.
In his contribution the Taoiseach said the agreement was unique in including so-called sound economic principles. That is a failure of the document and the entire process. How has achieving peace and a fair society become the same as implementing austerity? That is the question that must be answered. The first two pages of the agreement read like a memorandum of understanding with the troika in the South. It is about the implementation of austerity, not about dealing with the issues that must be dealt with in the North - the past, a Bill of Rights and an Irish language Act. These are the things on which the Government should have been focused in negotiating the agreement. With an eye on the election here, the Government in the South has focused on narrow political aims, rather than dealing with and giving a proper focus to the outstanding issues of the conflict in the North. That is what it had its eye on in dealing with the agreement. Sinn Féin has made a brave attempt to justify the agreement in the House, but this is the conclusion of the road of compromises. It is unfortunate for Sinn Féin that it has come to adding austerity to an agreement which should be above that and the narrow views of the right-wing Government in the South and the Tory Government in England.
In terms of other parts of the agreement, it is ironic that there is a proposed oral history archive included in it. Will this go down the same road as the only other oral history archive, the one at Boston College? Will the archive be protected from the influence of the PSNI and British secret services and their access to the information provided by people who agree to participate? It will be very difficult to get anyone to agree to participate in an oral history archive given the history of how other archives have been dealt with in this process. The agreement states the archive will be free from political interference, but how can we have any faith in this given what has gone on in the past? The proposed independent commission on information retrieval might have some potential to deal with some of the issues in relation to the conflict and families getting some information on what happened to their loved ones. However, the same difficulties will be encountered in dealing with how information will be provided and the commitment of the British Government, in particular, to participate fully.
One of the major problems that has not been looked at is the significant issue in the Six Counties of the disenfranchisement of loyalist communities and how they can have real political leadership to represent their views. That is something that should have been considered in terms of the agreement and the Irish Government should have been active in trying to progress it. The agreement is completely silent on the issues around prisons as outlined by Deputy Mick Wallace. Certain actions in prisons and the treatment of prisoners who have opposed the Good Friday Agreement sow the seeds of future conflict. They are things that should be dealt with through these agreements to ensure the seeds are removed and that we do not slip back into conflict. The way prisoners are isolated within the CSU of Maghaberry Prison is one of the issues that needs to be deal with. We must remove the seeds of future conflict. These agreements are about removing these seeds and delivering peace, not about delivering austerity on the people of the North.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for giving me the opportunity to speak in this very important debate on the recent conclusion of the talks on the North, in particular the Stormont House Agreement. I will be giving a different view to that of some of my colleagues. I warmly welcome the debate as I have major concerns that many of the real problems in the North of Ireland have been allowed to drift. It is important that we all keep ownership of the peace process. There is a constant need to keep our eyes on the ball. I was extremely annoyed by the recent reactions to the Haass proposals which were an important step in the peace process. It is not enough to say we oppose sectarian violence and marches that intimidate other communities; we must be proactive in pushing conflict resolution measures in order that we all move on in the debate.
It is particularly relevant coming up to the 1916 Rising commemorations as we all have a duty to stand by the wonderful Proclamation. When one looks at it, one is reminded of the work that needs to be done and that we must all bring Catholic, Protestant and dissenter, Muslim, Jew and non-believer together to build a new Ireland that respects all traditions on the island. I will always work for an independent and united country that enjoys and respects diversity and difference. Ireland does not stop at Dundalk. We must encourage a bringing together of all the people. Turning our backs on the North while hoping the issues will go away is never an option if we want to build and create a new republic and a new Ireland. Any person who has the honour of being elected to the Dáil or the Seanad must put this at the top of his or her political agenda. Sectarianism and division will never work and should never be tolerated on this island. Our history has taught us that. Each day we each have a duty to work towards that objective which should include a strong and independent foreign policy line as many countries around the world also need our respect and support.
It is worth recalling that when John Hume and Deputy Gerry Adams began discussions on a possible peaceful way forward, they were viciously attacked by sections of the Southern establishment. Sadly, that continues today, at times in the House. They and many of their revisionist friends must be challenged and we must stand up for the country. My objective has always been peace, justice and unity on the island, which is why I welcome the formation of the group Reclaim the Vision of 1916, a citizen's initiative for 2016 under the chairmanship of the great artist Robert Ballagh. We must all reassert the political principles of 1916 and demonstrate their continued relevance in the Ireland of today. I support the campaign for a better society and a democracy that puts the common good first. We have all seen the opposite in recent years.
I wish everyone involved in the talks well, particularly those who are directly involved. We must broaden this involvement to include as many people as possible. I want Ireland to develop a culture that fosters and encourages independence of thinking and action. Of course, we have many differences about how that vision can be implemented, but we must insist that those who believe in a democratic right of the people to govern themselves support a just and equal Ireland.
I express the Government's appreciation of the support expressed by some Members of the House today for the Stormont House Agreement and the Government's role in negotiating it. The Stormont House Agreement was a necessity. The months before the political talks began were characterised by political deadlock and a public increasingly disheartened by the inability of the political system to deliver reconciliation and economic renewal for Northern Ireland. The talks embody the collective desire at Stormont and Westminster and in Leinster House to show that politics can deliver by addressing a range of contentious issues, including how best to deal with the legacy of the past and charting a way forward that will deliver for all the people of Northern Ireland. The Stormont House Agreement has created the conditions necessary to allow a fresh start in 2015 and beyond. It is the potential for a new beginning which Northern Ireland's leaders need to embrace fully.
I will address some of the points raised by previous speakers, in particular, about the outstanding commitments of previous agreements. As the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, has underlined, the Government remains strongly committed to ensuring outstanding commitments are fulfilled. It must be repeated that, notwithstanding that commitment, the agenda for the most recent talks was essentially focused on outstanding commitments arising from the Good Friday and St. Andrew's Agreements, the foundational agreements of the peace process. To be clear, the Irish Government was not a party to the negotiations which dealt specifically with budgets and financial reform. That must be understood for the historical record of the House and the purposes of clarity in reply to some of the points raised by Members opposite.
While the case of the late Pat Finucane did not come within the scope of the Stormont House Agreement, the position of the Irish Government on this important point has not changed.
A commitment to having a public inquiry on the murder of Pat Finucane, as provided for in the Weston Park agreement of 2001, should be honoured and we continue to raise the case with the British Government. We were very conscious of the needs of the victims and survivors in the South, including the families of the victims of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and others. The new independent commission on information retrieval will operate North and South. When appropriate, we will, in a timely fashion, legislate for it.
In terms of what was explicitly on the agenda, the Government's mandate going into the talks was to facilitate agreement between parties who held very different and differing views and this meant making a realistic assessment of what was possible within a very tight timeframe and locking down the best possible outcomes. We achieved this. The president of Sinn Féin, one of the parties opposite, has signed up to it, despite some of the attempts to revise his party's position on the talks. Having signed up to it, we stand over it.
It is a matter of regret that the Executive parties and the British Government were unable to agree on the inclusion of the Irish language Act in the Stormont House Agreement. Nevertheless, we succeeded in ensuring the agreement contained an important and formal recognition by both Governments of the need for respect for and recognition of the Irish language in Northern Ireland. The Government will continue to advocate for the enactment of an Irish language Act and to encourage the Northern Ireland parties which support an Act to continue to build the necessary enabling consensus among their Executive colleagues. One of the parties opposite, Sinn Féin, is part of the Executive. I beg the Leas-Cheann Comhairle's indulgence because there are some important points that must be addressed, if I may.
In this regard, I am encouraged the recent announcement by the Northern Ireland Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Carál Ní Chuilín, of her intention to proceed with the publication of Irish and Ulster Scots language strategies for public consultation. During the talks, we advanced the view that a bill of rights for Northern Ireland could set out precisely and formally the rights upon which a shared society for Northern Ireland could be based. Regrettably, sufficient consensus between the Northern Ireland Executive parties did not exist to take this forward within the context of the Stormont House agreement. However, we succeeded in ensuring the agreement contained an agreement by the parties to serving the people of Northern Ireland equally and to the application of a broad range of associated rights.
Regarding a civic forum for Northern Ireland, during the talks the Government strongly advanced our position that greater civic engagement would stimulate informed public debate on key societal challenges. We welcome the fact that the Stormont House Agreement provides for the establishment of a civic advisory panel to meet regularly on key social, cultural and economic issues and to advise the Northern Ireland Executive. As Minister with responsibility for North-South co-operation, I was particularly pleased that the agreement provides for a number of concrete all-island measures. The North-South Ministerial Council, meeting in institutional format, will agree, by the end of February 2015, a report on new sectoral priorities for North-South co-operation identified during ministerial discussions since November 2013.
As many Members have observed, a key to realising the full potential of the agreement lies in effective and timely implementation. It is the Government's intention that the new framework be operational as soon as is reasonably possible. We will continue to take a hands-on approach. In the months ahead, the Government will continue to sustain the commitment shown throughout the talks and play our part in ensuring the full implementation of the agreement. Dáil Éireann will maintain its important role in guaranteeing peace and reconciliation across the island of Ireland, not least through the consideration of the legislation that the agreement requires for the new institutions in dealing with the legacy of the past. I look forward to the co-operation and support of the Members of the House as we progress this important work, through the leadership of the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan.