Tuesday, 3 November 2015
Northern Ireland: Statements
I welcome the opportunity to open the debate on Northern Ireland as we face once again into a critical juncture for the peace process. I can assure the House that the two governments in Dublin and London remain steadfast and determined to support the parties in the North to reach agreement on critical issues.
With the conclusion of the Stormont House Agreement in December 2014 after months of talks, it was hoped that a way forward was agreed on resolving the difficulties in the Northern Ireland Executive around finance, welfare reform and dealing with the legacy of the past.
Unfortunately, implementation of the Agreement ran into difficulties, creating major challenges for the Northern institutions. The resulting political impasse was further compounded by the murder of Kevin McGuigan and the attendant implications for trust and confidence among the parties participating in the Northern Ireland Executive.
I made the Government's position clear when I spoke at the British-Irish Association in Cambridge in September and reiterate that, 21 years after the IRA ceasefire and ten years after decommissioning and the IRA announcement of cessation of paramilitary activity, it is past time that it should carry any capacity for threat. Statements to the effect that the IRA has gone away or left the stage are simply not credible. It is the responsibility of Sinn Féin, in particular its leadership, to address these issues and help to restore the trust that has been lost. We have become used to incredible statements, be they about past activity, current activity, murder, robbery or child abuse. There may have been a time when living with constructive ambiguity helped the peace process but that time is now past.
It is not for Sinn Féin alone to help to make progress. All of the parties and both Governments have responsibilities to shoulder. The shadow of the gunman and the poison of paramilitarism are not just confined to so-called republicans; they are still deeply embedded in loyalist communities, often with nakedly criminal agendas. Paramilitarism, in all its vestiges, must be removed. We need clear, not blurred, lines between constitutional politics and criminality. There must be no shared platforms or strategies and no shady grey areas between right and wrong.
The peace we now have was built by the people of these islands through their commitment to non-violence and reconciliation. The institutions of the Good Friday Agreement were created by these same people through their democratic vote. Political representatives are elected and thereby duty bound to protect the peace and the democratic institutions the people have created. These words are as true now as they were when I first spoke them in Cambridge in September. We must face the truth that an event such as the brutal and savage murder of Paul Quinn in 2007 illustrates most graphically and awfully the very worst effects of the scourge of paramilitarism on individuals, families and communities.
Devolution in the North is facing hugely significant challenges. That is why, on 2 September, the Prime Minister, Mr. David Cameron, and I agreed that the seriousness of the political impasse warranted the urgent convening of talks in Belfast involving the two Governments and the parties that had subscribed to the Stormont House Agreement. It was envisaged that these talks would be short, focused and intensive and advance implementation of the Agreement, as well as addressing the trust and confidence issues arising from the impact and legacy of paramilitary activity. While the talks got off to a reasonably encouraging start, progress was delayed by several developments that further compounded the situation. The Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, with the support of the Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock, worked closely with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to facilitate the return of all of the five main parties in Northern Ireland to round table talks. They resumed in round table format on 21 September. Talks have intensified in recent days and, while significant challenges remain, good progress is being made across the main issues. I remain hopeful that, with committed collective engagement, we can make real progress in the coming days on the critical issues, with a view to a successful conclusion of the talks.
I have kept in close contact with the Prime Minister, Mr. Cameron, and we last spoke on the telephone on 20 October. I expect to meet him again when in London next week to address the annual conference of the Confederation of British Industry. I am hoping that at that time we will be able to discuss significant progress in the talks process. I have also been keeping the US Administration informed of progress, most recently in my meeting with Senator Gary Hart on 14 October, when I expressed my gratitude for the continued US engagement in, and support for, the peace process. Of course, our No. 1 priority is to facilitate and encourage the Northern Ireland parties to find an inclusive agreement on these issues, a task to which the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock, have dedicated much of their time in recent weeks.
In response to the concerns raised about the activities of paramilitary groups, the British Government commissioned an assessment of the various paramilitary groups in Northern Ireland to be carried out by the PSNI and the British security services. The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, had also asked An Garda Síochána for an assessment of the status of the Provisional IRA in this jurisdiction. Both assessments were published on 20 October. In the first instance, the British Government's assessment makes for sobering reading. While acknowledging that the paramilitary organisations no longer represent a terrorist threat, it nonetheless presents a complex and challenging profile of unacceptable residual activities by various groups in Northern Ireland which are damaging to communities and which must be addressed. The assessment underscores the critical importance of the political talks process under way.
There is substantial common ground in the findings of both assessments and both raise deeply troubling issues about the Provisional IRA and the legacy of paramilitarism. Both communities continue to be affected by the so-called dissident republican groups and their ongoing campaigns of terrorism. While these groups are separate from and at odds with the Provisional IRA, they have their origins in the Provisional IRA. These things have no place in our democracy and never did. As I have said before, the future of the peace process depends on their being removed from the life of this island, completely and forever. All participants in the Stormont House talks have a duty of care to the people of this island to bring an end to the remaining blight of paramilitarism in communities and agree outcomes that will provide lasting peace and political stability in Northern Ireland.
A second aspect of the Provisional IRA's brutal legacy is the involvement in organised crime of a significant number of people who have been associated with the Provisional IRA and who, as the Garda Commissioner points out, are involved in organised crime and make full use of the reputations they acquired as members of the Provisional IRA and do not hesitate to use their previous terror tactics. The Garda Commissioner has made it clear that the close relationship and the successful record of co-operation with the PSNI will remain the cornerstone of tackling the cross-Border crime that harms communities, North and South. In that regard, both An Garda Síochána and the Police Service of Northern Ireland have my full support and that of the Government. An Garda Síochána is strongly committed to tackling crime of whatever sort, whatever its origin and whomsoever is involved. There was not, is not and cannot be any question of a blind eye being turned to any criminality and the Government is determined that there will be no hiding place for whatever manifestation of the IRA might be involved in it. Since the establishment of the Criminal Assets Bureau in 1996, a total of €28 million has been remitted to the Exchequer arising from proceeds of crime actions and tax assessments in respect of over 50 individuals who have had connections or associations with the Provisional IRA in the past. Other investigations and proceedings are ongoing.
The Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, recently met the Justice Minister in the North, Mr. David Ford, to discuss what more could be done to tackle cross-Border crime. The two Ministers jointly hosted the annual cross-Border conference on organised crime which took place in Sligo on 30 September and 1 October, with over 100 delegates attending from the North and the South. It is one demonstration of the close and ongoing co-operation between the two jurisdictions in this regard. There is extensive operational co-operation to tackle smuggling and other Border-focused criminal activities. This co-operation involves the police and other law enforcement agencies from both jurisdictions, with the inter-agency, cross-Border enforcement groups on fuel and tobacco fraud being two examples of this joint work in action. We are looking at ways to build on the excellent co-operation that already takes place in this area and want to see an overarching and enhanced structure in place to support it. It is the joint working of all of the law enforcement agencies involved on both sides of the Border which will be crucial in tackling these issues. As a Government, we will support them in any and every way we can. The Government will maintain and intensify its focus on combating paramilitary activity and organised criminality, whatever its aims or origins, and will continue to work in close co-operation with the authorities in Northern Ireland in this regard.
Dealing with the past is also a key element of the Stormont House Agreement and the implementation of these elements is an important part of the current talks. Many families, including those bereaved by incidents in which collusion has been alleged, continue to deal not only with the awful pain of losing a loved one but with the struggle for answers decades after these traumatic events occurred.
The impact of the many atrocities perpetrated North and South lives long in our memory and is felt to this day. Last July, this House adopted an all-party motion on the Ballymurphy massacre and only last week, we learned of further developments in the ongoing inquest into this case being carried out by the Coroner's Court in Belfast. I take this opportunity again to reiterate the support of the Government and this House for the Ballymurphy families in their quest for truth through an independent panel of inquiry.
I know the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement also met recently with several representatives of victim and family groups and I am grateful to its Chairman, Deputy Feighan, for his initiative in this regard.
I have always said there is no hierarchy of victims. They come from all sides of the community and from all strands of society. I understand and acknowledge the frustration of families who for too long have had to contend with inadequate mechanisms for addressing their cases. For that reason, the establishment of a new, comprehensive framework for dealing with the past, as envisaged in the Stormont House Agreement, remains a priority of the Government. We believe that these mechanisms offer the best hope of helping the thousands of families touched by the Troubles, including those affected by collusion. I know that the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, with the support of his officials, is working intensively with the Secretary of State, the Northern Ireland Office and the Northern Ireland political parties to ensure the rapid establishment of these institutions within the context of the ongoing round table talks. The Government is committed to ensuring full co-operation by the authorities in this jurisdiction with any new investigative body in Northern Ireland with appropriate policing powers and I have reiterated this at recent meetings in Northern Ireland, including with the Kingsmill and Ballymurphy families.
Finance and welfare reform is primarily a matter for the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly. However, the Government here fully recognises the importance of finding an agreement on these issues for the economic well-being of Northern Ireland. The British Government has a pivotal role to play and I hope in playing this role, it will recognise the unique circumstances of Northern Ireland as a society still emerging from decades of debilitating conflict. Under the Good Friday Agreement, we have seen important progress in North-South co-operation, through the work of the NSMC and the North-South bodies. I look forward to attending the next meeting of the NSMC in Armagh on 13 November and taking further stock of our progress across all the areas of co-operation.
This Government's recently published capital plan clearly states our ongoing commitment to investing in infrastructure to support North-South co-operation to help unlock the full potential of the island economy. This commitment is, of course, predicated on a stable political environment in the North with all of the institutions and cross-Border agencies operating to full effect. In our capital plan, we have reaffirmed our support for the EU PEACE and INTERREG programmes and will continue to work closely with the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure that funding opportunities are maximised, with almost half a billion euro available from EU sources from 2016 to 2021.
In addition, there will be a renewed focus on investing in a number of key transport corridors, including ongoing review of the scope for building on the current commitment to the A5 road project, which is of major strategic importance to the north-west, and the Dublin-Belfast rail line, which is critical to the development of the Dublin-Belfast corridor and is currently in receipt of an €18 million upgrade package. The Government remains committed to the concept of the Narrow Water Bridge, which would provide a valuable North-South link between counties Louth and Down, with potential to provide jobs and a significant boost to tourism in the area. The Government will also continue to explore the development of further cross-Border greenways and blueway cycling, walking and water leisure routes, including the Ulster Canal.
In considering Northern Ireland's economic future, it is also important that we recognise the European Union's strong support for, and positive influence on, the peace process and the importance for Northern Ireland politicians of engaging on the EU-UK debate. It would be remiss of me not to mention the bad news today in respect of the closure to come of a major plant in Northern Ireland, with the loss of over 800 jobs.
This Government has clearly set out its vision for a Northern Ireland free from the grip of paramilitarism and organised crime. We want to see a shared society governed by efficient, effective, representative devolved institutions which co-operate to build the island economy through overseas investment and joint efforts in trade and tourism. The people of Northern Ireland deserve political institutions which work to build a world class infrastructure and focus on delivering high quality citizen-centred public services, including an education system that promotes integration. The current talks have the capacity to move Northern Ireland forward towards that brighter future. Now is the time for the parties to step up to mark and show that they know how to make real and mature decisions about the future, rather than rely on the possibility of a return to direct rule.
The outstanding issues can only be successfully addressed by the Executive parties and the two governments working together to resolve the issues of trust, confidence and of political and financial instability that threaten the continuation of devolution and of course by implementing the Stormont House Agreement in its totality.
I wish to share time with my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on the situation in the North. I fully support the talks that are under way and hope they conclude successfully. I am encouraged by the updates from the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, and the Minister of State with responsibility for North-South co-operation, Deputy Sherlock.
To be a fully peaceful and democratic society Northern Ireland requires a functioning Assembly and Executive, but in order to be truly successful, the talks must be ambitious, comprehensive and robust. They cannot simply be about another quick fix. That approach has been tried and has failed far too often. All issues dealing with the past, welfare reform, paramilitarism and criminality must be dealt with once and for all. This brings me to the recent reports by the British Government and An Garda Síochána regarding paramilitary organisations. These reports arose from the murder of Kevin McGuigan in August and ongoing criminal activity by a range of paramilitary groups. The assessment by the British Government of the IRA indicates it is clear the army council continues to exist and exerts control over Sinn Féin. It asks fundamental questions about our democracy if a party that is in government in the North and aspires to be in government in the South continues to operate in this way. It is vote Sinn Féin; and get the army council.
There must be a break from all forms of paramilitarism and criminality. This does not just mean words, but requires action. It means allowing relevant authorities to investigate, co-operating with them and ending paramilitary activity in all its forms. When I became Tánaiste, I emphasised the need to tackle crime by paramilitary organisations in the joint statement of priorities with the Taoiseach. We must now recommit ourselves to doing this. This means escalating and expanding co-operation and developing a specific strategy for addressing crime in Border areas. An organised crime task force already exists at ministerial level and there is much North-South co-operation between relevant agencies. The Labour Party supports the position outlined by the Minister for Foreign Affairs to establish a new cross-Border task force to move to tackle more comprehensively organised crime in the region. If Sinn Féin is similarly supportive, it should not only endorse the proposal but also the national crime agency in Northern Ireland. That would be the biggest step it could take to demonstrate a real commitment to ending criminality.
I want to speak on the upcoming centenary of the Easter Rising. Commemorating the events of Easter week, as the State is doing, is both appropriate and natural. We have put in place a commemorative programme which reflects not just the events, but the differing perspectives on them.
We have come a long way since 1966.
We should also consider addressing some of the legacies of 1916. One of those is partition. The politics of this country up to 1916 revolved around attempts to arrive at a solution to the national question on an all-island basis, albeit within the United Kingdom. Following the Easter Rising and subsequent events, a partitioned island emerged creating two separate states. I am proud to be the Tánaiste of an independent Irish State, yet I also believe that the people of the island North and South suffered from the creation of what were and became two sectarian states for much of the period.
Close to 100 years living in separate jurisdictions on a partitioned island has also had its own impact. During the first half century, the two states largely ignored the issue and existed in splendid isolation from each other. The next 25 years were spent coping with the horror of a bitter and brutal sectarian conflict and the last 25 years have been about managing a peace process to ensure that the previous quarter century never happens again. Over that period, the most radical and effective new thinking on partition came from John Hume, the SDLP and people like Seamus Mallon. They restated the problem as being the division between the people living in Ireland rather than the contemporary malfeasance of the British State. Their outlook forms the basis of the Good Friday Agreement and the structures that flow from it. That analysis is challenged by those who assert the idealism of the 1916 Proclamation while ignoring the political reality on the ground. That divide continues to this day. It is why, for example, Sinn Féin members, who are self-styled republicans, have no visible strategy to bring about a united Ireland. Winning a Border poll is no answer to the question posed by John Hume, unless we simply wish to create the same problem in reverse.
One recent example highlights how the contradiction of the republican position can lead to nonsensical situations. I saw a Sinn Féin representative being involved in a minor row about the IRFU being west Brits for using "Ireland's Call" as a representative anthem of the all-island rugby team, which has been doing all of us proud during the world cup. Surely somebody genuinely interested in bringing Unionists and Nationalists, North and South together would be supportive of an all-Ireland institution like the IRFU. In fairness, Sinn Féin has come a long way in recent years. We are now talking about all of us, Sinn Féin republicans included, laying wreaths at memorials, not blowing them up.
There are over a million people loyal to the UK living on the island of Ireland. That is not to ignore the strong relationship that the rest of us continue to have, 1921 notwithstanding, with our nearest neighbour and sister island. After partition, undoing the Border rather than ameliorating the factors which gave rise to it became for many the sole goal of Nationalists. As we approach the centenary of the 1916 Rising, we might do well to consider these issues again.
It is over 30 years now since the New Ireland Forum first met. We have come a long way since then. The principle of consent remains paramount yet I remain of the view that the long-term future of the people of this island would be better faced together. Were that possible, it would not be on the basis of the domination of one tradition over the other. It would involve all of us who are republican and Nationalist recognising the essential British identity of Unionists, and Unionists I would hope embracing a greater sense of their own Irishness. In the context of the 1916 commemorations, we should set ourselves the challenge of convening a new forum or body, one that is separate from but supportive of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, specifically to discuss our island's future.
The men who fought in 1916 were idealists. The women who fought in 1916 and were involved in it were idealists. Those who died on all sides were victims. We have tragically had many more victims since then. What better tribute to all of them than to have a sensible discussion about our common future?
I was involved in the Royal Irish Academy last night in launching a book about 43 of the major figures involved in 1916, many of them household names and some of them relatively unknown. What stands out from the biographies and the Dictionary of Irish Biography, a seminal work of scholarship for this country about the people of this country, is that they all had a vision of an Ireland which was for all Irish people. Somehow in the course of the 1916 celebrations and the commemorations of the Somme, we have to really begin to embrace the other as we would ourselves and to reach out on both sides.
We are all here republicans and descended from proud traditions in respect of 1916. My own party, the Labour Party was founded by James Connolly. The first person who was shot was a Labour Party councillor, Richard O'Carroll, on Dublin City Council. We all of us are and have the right to be seen as republicans but we have to embrace that other strand that runs deep in our island, particularly in the North, and that is the issue of unionism. We have to create an island where all of us can live in peace. We have to see an end to paramilitarism. Paramilitarism in a democracy is a step on the road to fascism. That is where paramilitarism leads to. We have to put it away and see it off.
I thank the Tánaiste for sharing her time. The Minister, Deputy Flanagan will set out to the House the developments regarding the all-party talks in Belfast in which he and I have been involved over the past several weeks.
Beyond the talks, the work to deliver a reconciled and peaceful Northern Ireland as part of a prosperous and inclusive island of Ireland continues every day across Government. Nowhere is this more evident than in our work to promote and develop North-South co-operation. Through this work, we are building the lasting relationships between North and South which will help to copperfasten peace and stability and deliver prosperity for all our people. The success of North-South bodies like Tourism Ireland and InterTradeIreland demonstrate what can be achieved when we pool our resources in key strategic areas. Building on these successes is now our focus.
In line with the Stormont House Agreement, a report on new economically-focused priorities was brought to the North-South Ministerial Council this year. Priority areas of co-operation for the Government include higher level education, agri-food, energy, climate change, creative industries, sport and other joint initiatives. The overarching aim is to ensure the most effective use of scarce public funds on both sides of the Border to promote economic growth and create jobs in all our communities. The Government’s commitment to North-South economic co-operation therefore remains a priority.
As the Taoiseach has stated, the recently announced infrastructure and capital investment plan has a dedicated section on North-South infrastructure. In the Stormont House Agreement, the Government agreed to a financial package to support North-South work programmes as well as measures to promote reconciliation and INTERREG programmes, including the concept of the Narrow Water Bridge project and developing the Ulster canal.
In this agreement, we also reaffirmed our commitment to provide £25 million in 2015 and 2016 to the A5 project. This was the source of some discussions in Stormont as late as yesterday.
Research and innovation, one of the key drivers of economic growth and employment, has been a key area for North-South co-operation. For instance, the development of the North West Regional Science Park, co-located in Derry and Letterkenny, has delivered new hubs for the development of innovative businesses, creating jobs and strengthening the cross-Border links which are so vital to the economic development of the Border region. There has been very good progress to date in terms of North-South collaboration under the EU's €80 billion research and innovation Horizon 2020 programme, which was negotiated during the Irish Presidency. The first year has delivered over €19 million of EU funding to support North-South projects. We need now to build on the excellent collaborative progress to date and to work on our allied strengths in areas such as ICT, health and agri-food research to create and deliver more successful partnership projects.
The expansion of Science Foundation Ireland's remit to fund researchers in the North will enable further work together on an all-island basis and will create a further leveraging opportunity. North-South co-operation also brings real day-to-day benefits to people on both sides of the Border. For example, when open next summer, the £50 million radiotherapy unit at Derry's Altnagelvin Hospital will provide access to radiotherapy services to over a half million people across the north-west region, sharing services and maximising limited resources. This co-operation also extends to the field of sport. As one Rugby World Cup ends, we look forward to 2023 when, hopefully, Ireland will be hosting this great tournament on an all-island basis. This joint North-South bid has tremendous potential to drive tourism. Speaking personally, I am hopeful that all of the stadia will be ready when the time comes. I refer to Páirc Uí Chaoimh in that respect.
It is clear that North-South co-operation is crucial and indeed a central plank of the Good Friday Agreement. I hope we continue to fulfil our obligations both North and South in respect of the North-South Ministerial Council. I welcome the announcement by the Taoiseach of a date for Armagh. It is important all political persuasions would sign up to that and that the Executive in all its forms would ensure that we continue to give that the energy it deserves. The current political difficulties should not get in the way of vitally important North-South co-operation. Now that DUP ministers have returned to their desks in Stormont, I hope the North-South Ministerial Council can resume its work, which has delivered so much benefit for citizens across the island. Whatever the difficulties, this Government will continue to work to support North-South cooperation and to help unlock the full potential of the island society and economy.
Cuireann mise agus Fianna Fáil fáilte roimh an díospóireacht seo. Tá sé tábhachtach go bhfuilimid ag tabhairt ama chun ceisteanna an Tuaiscirt a phlé agus rudaí áirithe a shoiléiriú.
Unfortunately, a pattern has been established in recent years where we are only allowed to discuss Northern Ireland when a new crisis emerges. This tends to be the pattern. We will hopefully get through this latest crisis in the very near future and the immediate threat to the Northern institutions will be addressed. However, let no one be in any doubt that unless we see a major change in how the parties and Governments have been behaving, the cycle of instability will continue. Much worse than this, we may well lose the opportunity to embed peace, to begin overcoming sectarianism and to tackle deep social and economic problems.
The enormous advances secured by democratic leaders in bringing others into legitimate politics have been taken for granted. Opportunities for growth and reconciliation have been missed repeatedly. A culture of sectarianism and underlying conflict is not only unchallenged, it is becoming worse in important ways. The cult of paramilitarism is alive in different communities and while it exists at a time of growing alienation and sectarian discord, it remains a destabilising force. The one thing which should by now be blindingly obvious is that if you take peace for granted and if you fail to continue the work of addressing the underlying causes of division and alienation, you are taking enormous risks.
By every available measure, the Governments and parties have by their neglect and behaviour allowed core public trust to be undermined. This is not a political assertion. It is a fact established repeatedly in surveys, elections and events. It is there to see for anyone willing to open their eyes. Too often the challenge in these negotiations has been about how we get through the crisis and get the parties to start working together. Yet the people of Northern Ireland are increasingly asking when the parties will get around to working on their behalf. Northern Ireland has gone from having one of the highest levels of participation in elections to one of the lowest on these islands. Much of this fall is found in marginal communities and among the supporters of parties who see themselves excluded from all policy discussions.
The economic and social situation in Northern Ireland has deteriorated in a manner which should cause real concern. The austerity agenda being implemented is already causing disproportionate harm to vital public services such as education without which progress is impossible. Rates of poverty and child poverty in particular in Northern Ireland have continued to worsen and the gap with the UK is expanding. Nearly half - 46% - of children in west Belfast are today living in poverty. Pensioner poverty in Northern Ireland is one third higher than it is in the UK.
As we have seen, many of those who participated in the illegitimate paramilitary campaigns continue to operate as a caste apart and pose an ongoing threat and yet the institutions established with unprecedented hope and popular legitimacy are constantly diverted to dealing with breakdowns in trust and general party political manoeuvring. Two parties which rode to power by overcoming those who risked everything to secure and sustain a peace settlement have been unwilling to show the bravery needed to challenge their own or to accept the logic of peace in everything they do. Their willingness to attack inconvenient actions by independent institutions and to show loyalty to their movement before the public interest has been corrosive. After nearly two decades, the demand of the Irish people both North and South is to move on, to end the cycle of crises and to focus on the real agenda of challenging division and delivering growth which benefits all communities.
Fianna Fáil strongly supports the effort to achieve a robust agreement. Where we differ from others is that we do not just want a return to business as usual. We want the parties and governments to understand the need to change radically the way that they have been working in recent years. More of the same will not work and if that is all we get, we will be back for another crisis session sooner rather than later. If parties continue to assert that all problems come from the behaviour of others, how will anything change? If they will not recognise their own failures, what is to stop another crisis and yet more wasted time?
The recent reports concerning paramilitary organisations are a cause of major concern. The vast majority of Irish people believe that 20 years into a process, there should not even be a suspicion that these organisations are still active in any way. Any level of activity is destabilising because of what these organisations represent and the threat which is kept alive by the cult of paramilitarism which they seek to legitimise. We must not forget the full context in which this report has been produced and the fact that the growing dysfunction of the DUP-Sinn Féin control of the institutions was not caused by the most recent revelations.
Fianna Fáil believes the settlement which we played a central part in securing remains the best hope for a shared future for all parts of our island based on reconciliation and progress. It involves an approach to deciding the most important constitutional issues which has been agreed by all communities and gives a transparency and certainty which has never been in place before.
The spirit in which that settlement was first agreed and then, albeit slowly, implemented is the spirit which we need now to return to. We need the Heads of Government here and in London to give the deep and real personal commitment to Northern Ireland shown by their predecessors. We need the sort of commitment which recognises that this is not just any issue but one of enormous and historic importance. We also need the leaders in the North to show the sort of courage demonstrated by the former leaders of parties who put the public interest ahead of party and sectional interest.
In this House and in all of its work, Sinn Féin has taken the ever more arrogant approach of attacking anyone who challenges its actions. In its view anyone who criticises it is an enemy of peace. Too much time is given to the ridiculous political posturing of people who want to wear the garland of peace but continue to justify and honour the bloody, illegitimate and sectarian violence they perpetrated. There is, however, a need to respond to the latest Sinn Féin campaign of attacking me and my party. Implemented with Sinn Féin's usual efficiency, it is as empty as it was the last time it was rolled out, in the service of a now abandoned denial that child abuse was systematically covered up within the Provisional movement.
Sinn Féin's so-called new personalities have played a central role. Their empty attacks have claimed that we are challenging them only because of the coming election and that we would not say anything if Sinn Féin were lower in the polls. This is the type of empty nonsense which is being used to avoid answering substantive points. It is also the same tactic Sinn Féin has used unfailingly for 17 years.
Anyone who looks back through the records will see Sinn Féin claiming that the only reason decommissioning was being demanded was a coming election; the only reason the Northern Bank robbery was being talked about was a coming election; and the only reason the brutal murder of Robert McCartney was being highlighted was a coming election. For Sinn Féin there is never an issue too serious that it cannot be dismissed by attacking others for just being interested in elections. No matter how comprehensive the evidence of financial irregularities, child abuse, murder or criminality by those involved in the Provisional movement Sinn Féin never responds with anything but blanket denials and abuse of the accuser.
Let me be very clear about something: no party in Dáil Éireann has worked as hard or as long as Fianna Fáil in the cause of a lasting peace and reconciliation on this island. We took risks when many were attacking us for talking to paramilitaries and their political parties and we never stopped engaging and working to push the process on. I and my colleagues have spent countless hours in negotiations to get parties to accept actions which should be automatic in a democratic society. When we went into opposition after the last general election, I said to the Taoiseach in this House that peace should never be taken for granted and that he and his Government had our goodwill and support in respect of Northern Ireland. We began to express concern when it became clear that real damage was being caused by a policy of drift and neglect by the Governments, combined with the growing dysfunction of the Sinn Féin-Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, approach to government. When we said in 2012 that a crisis was inevitable unless policy changed, I was attacked by Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson, both of whom fell over each other to say that everything was great. Events have proven our analysis to have been correct. I and Fianna Fáil spokespeople have been consistent in repeating our concern in speeches, interviews and meetings in all parts of this island. Every time we have spoken the inevitable press release has issued from Sinn Féin either denying that there was any problem or denying it had anything to do with it.
We have also been consistent in calling for a reinvigoration of the North-South dimension, the creation of a Border economic development zone and a range of other actions which would rebuild trust and show concrete action to tackle growing poverty and alienation. We have met with a wide range of groups and listened to their concerns and to their proposals. For the past year, we have constantly called for a cross-Border crime agency to be set up and our spokesperson, Deputy Brendan Smith, has published a Bill on this. Given yesterday’s announcement that the Government is committed to setting up a cross-Border crime task force, I hope the Government will accept this Bill when it is debated in this House on 27 November.
Sinn Féin and those who fall for its propaganda can keep claiming that the only reason anyone criticises it is electoral politics. The more they do this, the more they confirm that their arrogance and their actions are standing in the way of badly needed progress. After years of attacking people for supposedly not paying enough attention to Northern Ireland, Sinn Féin has started attacking those who do as being "hurlers on the ditch". In an act of supreme irony, it has fallen into the partitionist mind-set of demanding that anyone who is not on the ground has no right to express an opinion. This is very similar to the approach of some Unionist politicians towards the Irish Government.
Sinn Féin’s arrogance has extended to claiming ownership of the word "republican". Its Deputies, new and old, have been united in recent weeks in claiming that Sinn Féin is the only republican organisation currently active. In doing this, they confirm yet again that there is nothing republican about them. Irish republicanism has its roots in an inclusive ideology. All of its great leaders earned and retain the respect of the Irish people because they were committed to a republicanism defined by the people and not by a party. The sectarianism seen in Sinn Féin’s north Belfast campaign, in Deputy Adam’s comments about equality being a Trojan horse and in the awarding of jobs by a Sinn Féin Minister can be described as many things but republican is not one of them.
In order to avoid addressing the substance of the recent report on criminal activities by paramilitaries, Sinn Féin’s leaders have focused solely on the point concerning the Provisional IRA army council. In doing so, they have avoided addressing the evidence that the core network of the Provisionals is in place and that there are significant links to criminality. The assessment that the Provisional IRA supports the peace process and is unlikely to return to a political campaign is welcome. What this does not do is remove the right of others to question the remaining activities of the Provisionals and the impact of them. The link of senior Provisionals to organised criminality can be seen in a number of high profile cases. Just as important are the large number of Criminal Assets Bureau cases which are not open to public scrutiny but which show a serious pattern relating to organised criminality in the Border region.
In maintaining its core structures and discipline, the Provisional movement maintains the idea of loyalty to the movement being superior to all other duties. It remains a fact that people associated with this movement do not engage with the policing and judicial system in the way that citizens are obliged to. A constant theme of crimes linked to the Provisional movement is that an absolute discipline is enforced. Sinn Féin goes out and calls on people to co-operate with the police but no one ever does.
Eight years after the ceasefires, a pub filled with 70 Sinn Féin members and supporters looked on as a man was brutally beaten and stabbed in front of them. They did not even call an ambulance as he bled to death and sat quietly as a Provisional squad forensically cleaned the scene of evidence. Why this Mafia like silence to protect men whose vicious crime was gangsterism at its worst? There was nothing political or noble in this. It was a cruel murder of an innocent man and the murderers have never been brought to justice. Two months after the murder, the Provisional IRA said it had investigated it and that two of its members were directly involved but the loyalty to the movement came first and still comes first. We saw exactly the same situation in the murder of Paul Quinn of Cullyhanna, on a farm in Monaghan in 2007. I met his mother, Bríd, and his father, Stephen. The mother keeps saying, and her words would haunt one, that they broke every bone in his body and his screams could be heard for miles. The scene of his murder was also forensically cleaned by a Provisional squad and no one has ever been convicted. Sinn Féin spokespeople, including Conor Murphy, tried to suggest that Mr. Quinn was a petty criminal and that was why he was murdered.
That is something that deeply upsets the family even today and yet no one has been convicted. The same is true in relation to child abuse within the provisional movement. Crimes with no political basis whatsoever have been covered up long past the ceasefires and decommissioning. No one has yet been brought to justice even though leaders of the movement have acknowledged the crimes happened. All of the punishment beatings, murders and criminality must end, as there is a political and moral obligation to do so.
As to the issue of the control or otherwise of Sinn Féin by the army council, we should remember one basic thing which is undeniable. Throughout most of the major negotiations of the past 20 years, Sinn Féin's position was that it could not agree anything until it had sought agreement from the Provisional IRA. It often claimed to want to agree things but it needed to talk to the Provisional IRA first. What matters today is that Sinn Féin is unwilling to distance itself from the Provisional IRA. Sinn Féin continues to honour the Provisional IRA without reservation. It sells mugs and T-shirts emblazoned with "Undefeated Army". It stills refers to its members as Óglaigh na hÉireann, in defiance of the people of Ireland who recognise only the Army of this State as Óglaigh na hÉireann. Since 1998, in every illegal action linked to the Provisional IRA, we have seen Sinn Féin’s loyalty to that organisation is absolute and it will not allow criticism of it. Ultimately, this goes to the heart of why we need a genuine commitment to end the cult of paramilitarism. If one honours a 30-year dirty campaign waged in the face of the overwhelming and repeatedly expressed views of the Irish people, how can one deny the same legitimacy to others? If one says that campaign was the only legitimate expression of republicanism in the last half century, how can one say that now only constitutional republicanism is legitimate? The cult of paramilitarism is a curse which is holding back progress on this island. In the North, it is vulnerable communities on both sides which are suffering the most. The local big men, who claim to police but are really enforcing silence, must no longer be sheltered by parties which lack the bravery to put the public interest ahead of the interest of their comrades.
If we are to rebuild trust and have sustainable progress, we need a number of new initiatives. A permanent process for monitoring and publicly exposing paramilitary organisations, active or dormant, is clearly required. Unless we have this, we will remain stuck in the cycle of denial and attempts to politicise legitimate security activity. We need a more open approach to the past. There must be an end to the situation where Sinn Féin and the British Government demand openness of others but show none of it themselves. Victims have the right to know why and how their loved ones were killed. In the institutions in the North, we need a return to the principle of inclusivity. The Sinn Féin-DUP stranglehold on all processes must be ended. The civic forum, which is an obligation of the Agreement, must be restored and the exclusion of other parties from discussions cannot be allowed to continue.
The Dublin and London Governments have to understand and accept the need for their continued high-level engagement in Northern matters. Linked to this is the need for them to commit to recognising the priority needs of Northern communities. The extension of British welfare policies to Northern Ireland will cause immense social damage and it should be stopped now while there is still time. We also need a genuine all-island development plan, one with the ambition and scale required to overcome the lasting damage of the conflict on both sides of the Border. The six-county plan developed by Sinn Féin, the DUP and London is nowhere near good enough. Finally, we need a renewed commitment to developing the North-South dimension in other areas. There are many services which would benefit from joint planning and delivery. They threaten no one's political beliefs but they offer the prospect of practical progress in the spirit of the Agreement freely entered into by the people of this island. We need to move on from a process focused on parties and movements to one focused on addressing the needs of people. There is no more time to waste. The cult of paramilitarism has no positive role to play and it represents a real threat to sustainable peace and reconciliation. If we want to end the cycle of distrust and crisis, then we have to demonstrate that paramilitarism will not be tolerated in any form.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an díospóireacht seo. However, it takes great patience to sit and listen to some of the rubbish and the lies which are peddled here, thinly disguised as a serious contribution to the resolution of the problems facing the people of this island as a result of partition. Ní bhíonn go leor díospóireachtaí anseo againn nó go leor ama againn ar chor ar bith chun na rudaí tábhachtacha seo a phlé. Sinn Féin has consistently proposed that there be a monthly Dáil debate on the North and I again urge the Taoiseach to agree to this proposal.
The Good Friday Agreement marks the most significant political development on this island since Partition. An international agreement, it involved the two Governments and Nationalist, republican and Unionist political parties in the North. It has provided a peaceful and democratic way to deal with contentious constitutional and political issues. It has opened up a new and peaceful path to the realisation of Irish unity and ending the union where none presented before. However, the political process has been held back by continuous phases of instability since 2010. This stems from the negativity, disengagement and mismanagement of both the peace and political processes by the present British Government. Tragically, this approach has been mirrored by the Irish Government's semi-detached approach to the North. Both Governments have failed to honour their commitments to ensure full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and other agreements since 1998. A commitment made at Weston Park to investigate the murder of human rights lawyer Pat Finucane has not been honoured or implemented. In the St. Andrews Agreement, a commitment was made to Acht na Gaeilge. This has not been honoured or implemented. There is no bill of rights or all-island charter of rights. There is no civic forum.
In the period from 2010, the two Governments have stepped back from their responsibilities and political unionism has refused to properly support power sharing in the North. That has contributed directly to the serious political difficulties and ongoing instability, particularly around dealing with the past, disputed parades, flags, symbols and cultural identity. Despite intense lobbying and advocacy by Sinn Féin, there has been a failure to implement the equality, parity of esteem and mutual respect elements of the Good Friday Agreement. This impasse led to the convening of talks by Richard Haass and Meghan O'Sullivan in late 2013. British Government and Unionist rejection of the Haass-O'Sullivan proposals and further political instability led to further political negotiations in November and December 2014 at Stormont House. Bealach nua chun tosaigh a bhí ann i gComhaontú Theach Chnoc an Anfa agus tá dóchas le fáil ann go fóill. However, this difficult political situation has been exacerbated by the austerity crisis caused over recent years by the British Government's reduction of the North's block grant by £1.5 billion. This has had devastating consequences for public services, jobs, social welfare protections and economic growth in the Six Counties. With the election of a majority Tory Government in May, worse is set to come. Another £1.4 billion will be cut from the block grant. An estimated £120 million per year will be taken from the pockets of working families as a result of Conservative cuts to tax credits. British Government austerity policies have deepened political instability in the North. Cuireann polasaí na Tories an próiseas agus na hinstitiúidí i mbaol.
Against this backdrop, political unionism has contrived to create a real crisis following the murders in Belfast of Jock Davison and Kevin McGuigan. This crisis was facilitated when a criminal investigation into Kevin McGuigan's murder morphed into an assessment of the status of the IRA by the PSNI leadership. While the PSNI chief constable may argue that this was not a political intervention, it is the responsibility of the PSNI to investigate criminality and to make those responsible accountable in the courts. It should do this by following the evidence and it is assured of the support of Sinn Féin in so doing. However, Sinn Féin will strongly resist any efforts to bring what should be operational matters for the PSNI into the political processes. We reject totally and will resist any efforts to undermine the rights of our electorate or any other section of voters.
This was the background for a cynical electoral power play between the two main Unionist parties which brought these talks to an effective standstill pending the publication of a report by the British Government.
Some elements of the British report, and a parallel report from An Garda Síochána, were seized upon by opponents of Sinn Féin, including the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Fianna Fáil leader, and misused for narrow, party political agendas. There has been a deliberate effort to criminalise and demonise republicans, Sinn Féin activists and other citizens, especially those in cross-Border communities in places like south Armagh and north Louth. Contrary to the Wild West image portrayed by some elements in the media and others in this Chamber, the people of the Border region are decent law-abiding citizens.
Let me also hold up to ridicule the absurd notion that there is a twilight zone in which the Garda colludes with republicans involved in fuel smuggling and so on as part of the peace process. This is patent rubbish. Let me repeat once again that Sinn Féin is totally and absolutely opposed to criminality of all kinds and we stand with communities across this island and with An Garda Síochána and the PSNI in opposing criminal gangs and criminality in all its forms. As a consequence of this, Sinn Féin members and our homes and families have been attacked. Despite this, Sinn Féin will be to the forefront of any future initiative to tackle paramilitaries or criminality on this island. No other party has done more to build the peace, reach out to others and robustly face down violent loyalism and so-called republican dissidents.
I have also made it clear that Sinn Féin members are only accountable to our electorate. Sinn Féin has no fear of the electorate. We respect them. They are the people, after all, who gave us our mandate.
Despite the political opportunism and cynicism which was evident in the efforts of the Taoiseach to get the Assembly adjourned and the entirely ham-fisted call by the Fianna Fáil leader for the suspension of the political institutions - this cynicism is again evident the Dáil today - talks have recommenced in Belfast. This is very much to be welcomed. Ach tá an baol ann go gcuirfidh daoine isteach ar an dul chun cinn atá déanta, sin daoine atá agus a bhí i gcónaí in aghaidh an phróisis ar fad.
I spend at least two days a week if I can in the North and I spend most Mondays in Stormont. There is a widespread conviction that some elements within political unionism have pulled back from the political process and are not seriously committed to power sharing. I always make the case that this is understandable because if they have other options, they will take the other options. If governments keep to their obligations and responsibilities and implement agreements that have been made, then this old guard has less room to manoeuvre. The British Government position lacks credibility and there is no genuine intent to resolve the impasse.
The very people in MI5 and in the old guard of the RUC, who produced the recent report, have also brought in a veto to stop the families of victims of British terrorism from getting the truth about what happened to their loved ones. These folks are locked into the conflicts of the past. They are the same people who directed agents, informers and paramilitary organisations that killed hundreds of citizens, including citizens in this city, with the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, and stirred sectarian violence and colluded in murder. They are prepared to put the peace and political processes at risk in an effort to stop the growth of Sinn Féin, North and South. These are the people some in this Dáil choose to believe. The Fianna Fáil leader does not believe the Garda Commissioner but he believes MI5. MI5, some in the PSNI and the British Government have also attempted to use the new legacy legislation to elevate British interests above those of victims and their families.
Victims’ groups are seriously concerned about the British Government attempting to row back from commitments on dealing with the legacy of the past. They are anxious and upset following a meeting last week with British Government representatives called to discuss the progress of legislation on this issue.
The British and Irish Governments agreed at Stormont House on the need to provide justice and truth-recovery mechanisms that would give disclosure to families of victims of the conflict. The British Government's legislation is in clear breach of this agreement. The legislation is all about hiding the British state’s role as a central player in the conflict and its collusion with Unionist paramilitary death squads. This is unacceptable. People there - I am sure the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade has met some of them - look to this Government to stand up for them.
All measures to deal with the past, including any legislation, must reflect the commitments made at Stormont House by the parties and the two Governments. Given of the serial crises in the political institutions in recent years, their reputation and public confidence in them has been severely undermined. It is the responsibility of the Executive parties to repair this. The responsibility of the Irish Government and of the parties in this Dáil should be to support the efforts to make progress and not to place narrow self-serving party political objectives and opportunistic untruthful propaganda above the necessary process of change and progress.
Sinn Féin’s priorities have been to ensure the efficient functioning of the power-sharing institutions while endeavouring to create jobs, reduce unemployment, protect the most vulnerable and bring forward working budgets that ensure delivery of front-line services. I commend the patience and fortitude of the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, MLA, in this regard. He has played a consistently positive role. In particular, he has demonstrated an extraordinary willingness to reach out to others whether within unionism or in the British royal family.
Sinn Féin wants the political institutions to work and to deliver for citizens. Despite all the difficulties, the Executive, the Assembly and the all-Ireland institutions have worked better for citizens than the years of direct rule by unaccountable British Ministers and decades of one-party rule by the Ulster Unionist Party.
The British Government needs to accept the reality of special circumstances in the North. I know the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade accepts this; I am uncertain if the Taoiseach does. The North is a society emerging from decades of conflict. It has always been a dysfunctional society; partition has that effect. Both Governments must accept the need for an economic dividend to the necessary process of peace building and political and societal change. Both Governments must fully implement the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements. The Irish Government needs to play a more constructive ongoing consistent role in the North and I have made this point many times to the Taoiseach.
Citizens in this State expect their Government to proactively pursue and promote the peace process. Citizens in the North, even those within unionism, expect the same. All of us in the Dáil must work to break down partitionist mindsets. This is a particular challenge for the Taoiseach and other leaders here. This Dáil itself needs to break out of a partitionist mindset. It was an interesting experience to hear the Tánaiste mention partition in an otherwise unremarkable and barely coherent contribution. The Government needs to move beyond its occasional rhetoric about republicanism. Any government that truly wants to unite all the people of this island, including those who see themselves as British, in peace, equality and harmony, needs to work diligently and in an effective way towards that end. There is also a constitutional imperative and obligation on the Government to do so.
This means pursuing every avenue to promote greater all-Ireland co-operation and working to build relationships on the basis of equality between all our people, regardless of their background or tradition. It is through the building of all-Ireland sectors as part of a single-island economy, including the environment, health, energy, education and agriculture, that peace and unity will be established. We must use every available opportunity to utilise the goodwill of our international friends, including those in the United States.
It also means proactively reaching out to Unionists. Crucially, the Government must end the practice of playing junior partner to the British Government when it comes to the peace process. The Government must see itself as a co-equal guarantor and deal with the British Government on that basis. Anything else is a recipe for failure. The British Government cannot be allowed to set the agenda, the pace of negotiations or the scope of discussions.
I have urged the Taoiseach here many times to prioritise his engagement with the British Prime Minister with the objective of stabilising and sustaining the political institutions set up under the Good Friday Agreement but also to deliver on the separate responsibilities and obligations of both Governments. A 15 minute phonecall and an occasional meeting on the margins of other meetings with the British Prime Minister is not good enough. The process needs a consistent, strategic involvement on an ongoing basis.
The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade will have noted, as I did, the positive contribution of the Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock. I am sure the former will vouch for the fact that Sinn Féin is currently working positively with all of the political parties and with the two Governments. However, as a co-equal guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, and other agreements, the Taoiseach must engage with the British Prime Minister with greater focus and consistency. We must accept that the peace process is bigger than party political point scoring or narrow electoral considerations.
As I have said here previously, this is a time of change for the British union and that has major implications for the North. That situation in itself is destabilising elements of unionism. The issue of Scottish independence has not gone away and remains a live political issue with obvious implications for the North of Ireland. The Government can rest assured that unionism is watching that space very closely. While Sinn Féin is highly critical of elements of the European Union, including the lack of democratic accountability, the narrow ideological pro-austerity focus and the failure to deal with the humanitarian crisis faced by refugees, the prospect of increased or full withdrawal by the British state from the EU or the significant erosion of human rights protections also have major implications for Ireland, North and South.
All these issues argue in favour of the Government to be fully and consistently engaged in a strategic manner, in keeping with its constitutional obligations, as well as its responsibilities under a series of agreements. There is a clear onus on the Government to contribute fully to the development of the A5, the Ulster Canal, the bridge at Narrow Water, as well as other capital projects. That has been made clear by both the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. The British Government must also face up to its economic obligations. It is not clear whether the British Government will ever accept its role as a participant in the conflict but the Government must insist that it does. British political and economic policy towards the North must change if we are to see political stability and proper commitment to real power sharing and to sustaining the institutions, which requires a workable budget. Let us have no doubt about that. Without a proper budget, the Executive cannot deliver the economic dividend that is required. Today's bad news about the job losses at Michelin show the challenges that face working people.
Important contributions that are being made by civic society should not be ignored. They include Punching Above Our Weight by the Confederation of British Industry, CBI, Growing the Economy and Living Standards by the Unite union, the substantive Irish Congress of Trade Unions submission to last year's Stormont House negotiations and the content of the recent Equality Coalition conference in Belfast.
Our opponents here lecture us on the need to build trust. At the same time, they patronise, insult, engage in the most vile, offensive and untruthful invective against us and our party. Let me assure the House that Irish republicans need no lectures from Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael or the Labour Party. We will work with them. We know the business of building peace is challenging but that is our priority. In the short time available, we need to see energy, vision and inspiration. In short, we need to usher in a new phase of the peace process and that is Sinn Féin's focus.
I would have liked much more time to speak on the issue but I do not have it. The two recent reports on the status of Northern Ireland paramilitaries and criminality have thrown into focus public concerns that paramilitarism remains in existence. As the previous speakers have indicated, there can be no tolerance by this Parliament for violence of any kind. I am not altogether comfortable with any suggestion that a violent campaign was necessary to force a peace process into place in the first instance to improve life for the citizens of the North.
Between 1968 and 1994 more than 3,500 people died and another 35,000 were injured in Northern Ireland as a direct result of what is called the Troubles. Society in the North is still embittered and segregated and the quality of life for many has not changed at all. A united Ireland, which so many believed they were fighting for, is further away than ever. The civil rights movement of the 1960s had undoubted benefits for the Catholic Nationalist minority; a significant case in point being fair employment legislation from the 1980s, as a result of which more Catholics and Protestants worked together than ever before.
Some sports have proven to be highly effective unifiers. However, such integration is limited. One only has to look at working class communities, which I have visited on a number of occasions and which were most affected by the Troubles, to see the proof. Resource competition is segregated, as is housing. The vast majority of Protestant and Catholic children continue to be educated separately. Fears prevail that simply cannot be overcome.
The effects of the conflict on the economy of Northern Ireland have been well documented. Low wages and low labour productivity rates are directly connected to the Troubles and their legacy. Manufacturing employment went into serious decline when violence levels increased, hence increasing the province’s dependence on Great Britain for subsidies to maintain its standard of living. Such was the relevance of the subsidies that at one point in the 1980s, it was estimated that without them the living standards of Northern Ireland would approach that of Mexico and Argentina. As the private sector shrank, as foreign investors were put off by violence, the public sector increased sizeably and there was a significant duplication of services.
A report by the consultants, Deloitte, estimated that in terms of lost opportunity, the violence in Northern Ireland resulted in the loss of approximately 27,600 jobs from 1983 to 2000 and the loss of potential investment amounting to approximately £225 million and a further £1.461 million in tourism revenue. The social and economic problems that have grown out of the missed opportunities are still having a detrimental effect on generations in terms of poverty and joblessness. Those households are predominantly concentrated in working class areas where poverty levels continue to rise. Areas of Belfast have some of the highest rates of child poverty in the United Kingdom. A report estimated that by 2020, 39% of children in the North would be living in relative poverty. A significant number of households have experienced intergenerational poverty or joblessness and are far removed from job-readiness and the labour market.
Historically, Northern Ireland has been neglected in terms of investment and infrastructure. It is interesting that another direct legacy of the Troubles is the fact that almost half of the working age population in receipt of incapacity benefit have been diagnosed with mental and behavioural disorders. A significant proportion of those people reside in areas close to what is known as the peace lines and grew up surrounded by violence.
History will decide the full legacy of the Troubles but there can be no denying that a huge conflict still exists in Northern Ireland and the peace process did not bring about socioeconomic security and peace of mind to a considerable proportion of the population. The working class is as divided as it ever has been.
The objective of socialists and people like me was to reunite working classes, irrespective of their creed, colour or political persuasion. Unfortunately, because of what has happened, we are far from that if one considers the current position in Northern Ireland. I always have agreed with the philosophy and ideal that working people across the Thirty-two Counties in Ireland need unification, not a particular group of people because they wish to be part of a republic or part of a Thirty-two-County solution. The same problems exist for working people throughout the Thirty-two Counties.
Over the summer months, the news pertaining to the killings of Jock Davison and Kevin McGuigan shook people's confidence as to whether they thought the IRA had gone away, the peace process was moving on and things were developing and moving on. This has shaken the confidence of a great many people nationwide as to what they can foresee for the future and what they envisage about how things can proceed. However, much of the sometimes hysterical reaction in this House to some of the aforementioned incidents and attempts to try to score political points, possibly with a view to the forthcoming general election, serve no purpose. I believe the people will look beyond that and will make their own decisions on these issues. I have heard from many people that they will make their decision regardless of what the Government tries to say or regardless of how it attempts to engage in political point scoring on these issues.
One vitally important point across the entire peace process is it is only by making politics work and making the process of peace work that one can undermine the existence of paramilitary organisations across the Six Counties and across the two states, that is, by making sure it works, matters can be dealt with fairly and openly and people can get the answers they deserve. Under the Good Friday Agreement, one sees victims and families seeking answers 20, 30 or 40 years later but they still cannot get closure and cannot get responses from the British Government, which is and has been a party to the conflict all along. It continues to undermine the process and to undermine the finding of the truth and closure for those families and victims. This does much more to undermine stability than anything else, other than trying to coax parties to work together or whatever in Stormont and so on. These are the matters on which Members and the Irish Government should be concentrating. The Government should be forcing the British Government to live up to its responsibilities and to ensure that by doing so, paramilitaries can be undermined right across the board, regardless of who they are and who they claim to represent.
If one considers the recent Stormont House Agreement Bill published by the British Government, it contains nothing that will provide any of the answers or solutions I believe the families and victims need. There has been no consultation on the Bill. Victims were not consulted and have been ignored completely in this regard. Moreover, the British Government has set it up in such a way that it will have all the opt-outs it will need. As Members have seen repeatedly over the past 40 years, the British Government will be able to hide behind the issue of national security. It will allow the British Government to not deal with issues, not negotiate and not forward information to families. These are the matters on which the Government should be arguing and fighting the British Government tooth and nail to make sure that when it is passed, the legislation will provide for what the Stormont House Agreement was meant to provide, that is, mechanisms for dealing with the past, dealing with historical inquiries, dealing with information for victims and dealing with information in respect of events that took place over the years of the Troubles.
If the Government continues to not engage with the British Government in this regard, we will revert to these crises continuously for ever more, probably until the whole conflict reignites in a disastrous way for the entire country. Consequently, the Government must engage fully. It must get the British Government to accept it was a party to the conflict and it must put it up to the British Government every step along the way to ensure that what emerges from the Stormont House Agreement will provide what is needed for people right across the North. This is of vital importance.
The Taoiseach spoke earlier about welfare being a matter for Stormont. In that case, how did the Minister allow it to be included in the Stormont House Agreement? How did the Government allow this to happen unless it was looking at its own political aims in this regard? The Government should make sure that welfare is removed from the Stormont House Agreement and that the British Government lives up to its obligations in order that the legislation actually reflects the needs of citizens right across the State.
The Good Friday Agreement has been perceived worldwide as an example of how to achieve peace and how to get conflicting sides around the table to engage in dialogue that leads to agreement and gives communities an opportunity to live their lives in peace. I acknowledge the work done by both the political figures and by those whose names are not in the public domain, including members of the clergy, the Civil Service, individuals and communities. However, for peace to last, it must be accompanied by justice and one aspect that struck me was the haste to have everything signed by Good Friday, perhaps so it could have the name, "the Good Friday Agreement". This haste has resulted in issues being unresolved, with flags and parades being two that spring to mind immediately. There undoubtedly are people in both loyalist and republican communities and circles who feel let down by the Good Friday Agreement and who thought their principles and values were not validated, respected or recognised in the agreement. While Members are aware the vast majority of people agreed to the Agreement in the referendum, 360,000 people rejected it and I believe a sense of complacency set in and the views of those 360,000 people were left unresolved, particularly in the North. This sense of abandonment continues to this day and consequently, one can see dissent in both loyalist and republican circles. Moreover, one can see increased numbers of so-called dissidents in jails in Northern Ireland. I wish to make the point in the Chamber, as I do on visits to prisoners in the North, that I do not believe in the use of physical force. However, there is an injustice in the way in which these male and female prisoners are left in jail in the North on remand for excessively long periods. As Members are concerned about an Irish citizen in a similar situation in an Egyptian jail, many Irish men and women are in a similar situation in the North. This issue, as well as other issues in the prisons, is not contributing to a conflict-free environment in prison or in society, nor is the perceived view of those prisoners that neither the legal system nor the parole commission system in the North is serving their issues or is being just to them. I am a member of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade and we receive delegations from conflict areas who come to Ireland to learn about the process that led to the Good Friday Agreement, the latest one being this afternoon. However, Members must be honest about the outstanding issues that remain to be addressed.
Those living in Border areas know about the illegal activity that goes on in smuggling, fuel laundering and extortion but one does not see the number of convictions that is proportionate for the extent of this illegal activity. I represent a constituency that has been damaged and ravaged by drugs and find it completely reprehensible and a complete violation of republicanism, in particular, that the value of republicanism has been used by certain groups that are involved in this sort of activity. I refer to the conclusion of the Villiers report about the main paramilitary groups operating during the Troubles still being in existence and a feature of life in Northern Ireland, albeit that they have undergone significant change. However, a worrying factor is that the leadership of some groups does not have control over the members. There is no place for paramilitary groups in a democracy and this issue must be addressed. While the Villiers report is quite negative in places, I wish to consider the positive developments in communities, some of which have been making presentations before the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement in recent weeks. Some of these are involved in issues pertaining to the legacy of the past. However, I again make the point that people, families, individuals and communities still are waiting on answers and the British Government and other groups are allowed to continue to make excuses on this matter. In this regard, I think of the Dublin-Monaghan bombings, Ballymurphy, the murders of Pat Finucane and Rosemary Nelson and at Darkley hall and the Widow Scallan's pub. Other groups have also appeared before the aforementioned committee and are funded through the reconciliation fund promoting lasting reconciliation and building sustainable community relations. These include groups such as the Pat Finucane Centre, the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation, the Bloody Sunday Trust, WAVE Trauma Centre and Crossfire Trust. Despite much positive work that is going on, there still are sectarian and racist tensions with intolerance and hatred remaining. How does one go about re-establishing the trust and respect? That means real dialogue and means taking on the difficult and contentious issues. I suggest the bill of rights could be a way forward but there is disagreement on where responsibility lies. Surely, it is the responsibility of all political parties in the North to be the drivers, with the co-operation of the British and Irish Governments. It was a central provision of the Good Friday Agreement and it would be based on the European Convention on Human Rights.
Respect for human rights, parity of esteem and so on is the way forward.
Through the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, we have also met groups who are funded through the community relations council and I take this opportunity to acknowledge the work they are doing. Those who feel disenfranchised because of political and economic decisions, including the so-called dissident groups, republicans or loyalists, will have to be listened to if we want to have a just and lasting peace.
The Villiers report brings into the open what most people already know, namely, that all the main paramilitary organisations which operated during the Troubles still exist. The report was commissioned in the aftermath of the killing of Kevin McGuigan in east Belfast on 13 August and of Jock Davison in the markets in June. The Anti Austerity Alliance and the Socialist Party condemn both murders, just as we stood opposed to the murderous campaign of all paramilitary groups and of killings carried out by the state in the past. The aforementioned murders would likely have quickly slipped out of the headlines but for the announcement of the Chief Constable of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI, on 22 August that he believes the Provisional IRA still exists and that its members were involved in Kevin McGuigan's murder. His statement confirmed what most working class people in the North believe, namely, that paramilitary groups still exist and still prey on the most deprived and neglected communities. Of course, this is not just a question of republican groups. The loyalist UDA was almost certainly responsible for the murder of Brian McIlhagga in Ballymoney in January this year. In June, Derry man, Paul McCauley, died nine years after being assaulted at a family barbecue, for which again the UDA is thought to be responsible. Recently, the UDA, allegedly, crucified one of its victims, nailing him to a table. The loyalist Ulster Volunteer Force also remains active. Last year, it repeatedly shot Jemma McGrath in east Belfast, in an attempt to kill her. On top of this, the various dissident republican groups continue with their dead-end campaigns.
There is a punishment shooting or beating every third day in the North. There have been 600 recorded sectarian so-called incidents at the peace lines over the last year alone. The Villiers report states that the main paramilitary groups and their leaderships are committed to peace and acting to restrain and manage members of their organisations. This approach is not dissimilar to the famous words of former British Home Secretary, Reginald Maudling, who in the early years of the Troubles said he would settle for achieving an acceptable level of violence. Today, the British state has effectively settled for an acceptable level of violence and the existence of paramilitaries as long as these organisations do not pose any threat to stability and are focused on carving up and controlling working class communities as part of the peace process. Catholic and Protestant working class people should not have to settle for an acceptable level of violence, which is maintained by dozens of permanent so-called peacelines, thousands of armed police and the local enforcement activities of paramilitary groups interested primarily in control of their areas.
It should be remembered that in a period of relative peace, 150 people have died since 1998. Between 2001 and 2012, there were more than 1,500 shooting incidents and more than 1,000 bombing incidents. Even if yet another agreement is cobbled together, it will not deal in any fundamental way with the paramilitary control over working class communities. Only one force is capable of pushing the paramilitaries to one side and ultimately breaking their grip. That force is a united and organised working class. Working people are united in their trade unions and on many occasions have followed a union lead to strike and demonstrate against sectarianism and the paramilitaries. One of the hidden stories of the Troubles and the peace process is the role of trade unionists in confronting paramilitary and sectarian killings on a number of occasions. For example, in March 1989 when socialists and the Mid-Ulster Trades Council called for strike action following the murder of three Protestants by the IRA, workers from the Unipork factory and others responded in their hundreds. When Maurice O'Kane, a Catholic welder, was murdered by the UVF in Harland and Wolff in 1994 shops stewards immediately called thousands of workers out and left the shipyard empty. There are countless of other examples which show the power of ordinary people and the power of the trade unions to take on sectarian forces. Today they could and should organise against paramilitary racketeering and intimidation.
We can have no confidence in sectarian parties, paramilitary organisations or the British and Irish Governments to maintain an acceptable level of violence indefinitely. A peace process based on sectarian forces is one riddled with crisis and division that will pave the road back to conflict. An alternative agreement must be built, based not on the coming together of sectarian leaders at the top of society but of ordinary working class communities coming together in the spirit of solidarity and prepared to find a solution based on compromise to the issues that divide communities. The building of a new type of politics, the politics of a united workers movement, is necessary for this to happen. This means building a new party of working people. A new generation born since the ceasefire of 1994 will make this happen. Young people in the North are fed up with austerity, living in a socially backward state and with being imprisoned in Northern Ireland's past. They are rightly impatient to live in a society where they have the right to live in peace, free from intimidation, division and bigotry. The sectarian parties have failed to resolve the problems of poverty and division that face ordinary people. It is time to build a movement that will solve those key issues.
I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the House on the current situation in Northern Ireland. In his statement, the Taoiseach outlined the priority which this Government attaches to peace and stability in Northern Ireland. Work to deliver a reconciled and peaceful Northern Ireland as part of a prosperous and inclusive island of Ireland continues every day across government, regardless of the news cycle.
Our focus is, of course, on the current political talks in Belfast, which I co-chair with the British Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers. Progress has been made and there has been an intensification in engagement over recent days. The Government believes that the best agreement is one that all five Northern Ireland parties can support and commit to implement and we are working to that objective. Specifically, we aim to reach collective agreement on the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement and a shared approach to end the impact and legacy of paramilitarism. I welcome the opportunity to update the House on progress on these issues but must emphasise that as negotiations are still ongoing, I am not yet in a position to speak in definitive terms about the likely or final outcome.
The implementation of the Stormont House Agreement, which was concluded under the auspices of both Governments in December 2014, is a central element of the talks. The agreement offers a template for overcoming serious difficulties in the Executive, especially around financing, welfare reform and dealing with the legacy of the past. While financing and welfare reform is primarily an issue for the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, I have continually encouraged the parties to resolve their differences for the sake of Northern Ireland's economic stability and the sustainability of public services. I accept that the British Government has a key role to play in this area and its engagement will, I hope, continue to recognise the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland as a society dealing with the legacy of conflict.
The Good Friday Agreement states in its opening words that the tragedies of the past have left a deep and profoundly regrettable legacy of suffering. More than 3,500 lives were lost in the course of the Troubles, which is an appalling legacy that has left wounds of memory that will never fully heal but we need to continue to do everything possible to ease the hurt and comfort the survivors. Working with the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, I am determined that the work begun by the Stormont House Agreement on establishing institutions to deal with the legacy of the past will be completed so that justice and truth can bring what healing is possible to victims and survivors of the Troubles and their families. I am working intensively with the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland political parties to ensure the timely establishment of these institutions, including the Independent Commission for Information Retrieval, the Historical Investigations Unit, the Implementation and Reconciliation Group and the Oral History Archive. The Stormont House Agreement set out the political framework for these institutions but we are now working through in more operational detail how they will be established and function. Given the sensitivity of the issues concerned, this is not without contention and I do not propose to comment on the detail of proposed drafts or solutions currently on the table. Instead, I will offer some observations on what this Government wishes to see reflected in any final outcome on legacy issues. There will, in any event, be a need for legislation in this jurisdiction on a number of elements so we will have ample opportunity to discuss the detail in this House when the relevant Bill is introduced by my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality.
The Historical Investigations Unit, HIU, will be a new independent body with full investigatory policing powers. It will take forward investigations in Northern Ireland into outstanding Troubles-related deaths, including cases from the PSNI's Historical Enquiries Team process and the legacy work of the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland.
For our part, we want to see a HIU which faithfully reflects what is envisaged in the Stormont House Agreement and is, therefore, victims-centred, independent and transparent and provides every opportunity to ensure effective investigations which are human rights compliant. Building on the excellent experience of the existing North-South police co-operation, the Government is committed to ensuring full cooperation by the relevant authorities in this jurisdiction with the HIU and, if necessary, to bring forward legislation to give effect to this commitment.
The Independent Commission on Information Retrieval, ICIR, will enable people from both jurisdictions to seek and receive information about the death of their loved ones during the period of the Troubles. The work involved in setting up the ICIR includes the conclusion of a bilateral agreement between the Irish and British Governments as well as legislation in both jurisdictions. The overriding priority for the Government is to establish a commission which is fully independent and, therefore, has the trust and confidence of the victims and survivors and their families.
A key element of the suite of legacy mechanism is the Implementation and Reconciliation Group, IRG. It will receive any potential evidence base for patterns and themes from the other mechanisms dealing with the past and commission work in this area from independent academic experts. The IRG will also encourage and support other related initiatives that contribute to reconciliation, better understanding of the past and reducing sectarianism. The framework also includes an oral history archive to provide a central place for people from all backgrounds and from throughout Britain and Ireland to share experiences and narratives related to the Troubles. The archive will be independent. It will be free from political interference.
As two high-profile murders in east Belfast in the summer and assessments from An Garda Síochána and the PSNI and MI5 made clear, the pernicious impact and legacy of paramilitarism continue to haunt many communities on both sides of the Border. The Taoiseach has made the Government's view clear and I reiterate it. Twenty one years from the first paramilitary ceasefires and 17 years since the Good Friday Agreement, it is long past time that such groups should carry any capacity for any form of threat. The transition to a fully normalised society in Northern Ireland must be taken forward definitively.
The Garda Síochána's review and the British assessment have acted as a catalyst, injecting fresh momentum into the efforts to collectively address the impact and legacy of paramilitarism. Addressing this issue will require a multifaceted approach across many sectors and two jurisdictions. However, any prospective outcome is likely to include an agreed vision for Northern Ireland beyond the shadow of paramilitarism, a commitment by all parties to work collectively to achieve it and some form of monitoring arrangements to measure progress on achieving these key objectives.
The effective tackling of criminality and organised crime associated with the legacy of paramilitarism by the forces of law and order will also be a key component of any agreed outcome. Involvement in violence and intimidation, large-scale smuggling operations, fuel-laundering, drug-dealing and extortion are destroying lives on both sides of the Border. This cannot be tolerated in a democratic society.
Building on the already very successful co-operation between the Garda Síochána and the PSNI, any agreed outcome to the talks should seek to further deepen North-South co-operation to tackle the scourge of this criminality. The Government's objective is to secure agreement on new arrangements for enhanced co-operation, involving all of the key agencies that will more comprehensively crack down on cross-Border organised crime.
In considering what needs to be done to remove the culture of paramilitarism, we must not forget that dissident republicans, who completely reject the peace process, pose the biggest threat to security right across the island of Ireland. An Garda Síochána and the PSNI have been most successful in their efforts to thwart the murderous efforts of these terrorist groups and we must all commend and support that vital work of cross-Border co-operation.
As ever, the Irish Government, mindful of its role as co-guarantor of the Belfast Agreement and conscious of its duty to the people of this island, is providing support and encouragement for these talks to succeed. The Government is determined to ensure that the full promise of the Good Friday Agreement is realised and we will spare no effort to achieve this.
I believe that there exists and remains a willingness on all sides to solve the issues around the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement and dealing with the legacy and impact of paramilitarism. I have no doubt that, with the necessary will and determination, agreement is possible. I urge all the parties to engage fully and in a meaningful and positive way over the coming days in order that devolved institutions can get back to the business of delivering good government and effective services for the people of Northern Ireland.
Each speaker in this debate has referred to the need to deal with the legacy of the past. Last Sunday in my constituency in County Monaghan a mass was celebrated for the late Columba McVeigh, a young man who was taken away and brutally murdered by thugs, criminals and murderers masquerading as republicans. That mass was celebrated by Fr. Sean Nolan in the Church of the Sacred Heart in Carrickroe to mark what would have been Columba McVeigh's 60th birthday last month. His late mother, Vera, along with all his family members and friends, campaigned tirelessly to have her son's remains recovered. She wanted a Christian burial for her son before she passed on to heaven herself. Sadly, and to this day, Columba McVeigh's remains have not been found. He is one of the people we refer to as "the disappeared". Apart from the McVeigh family, three other families have loved ones in that grouping we refer to as "the disappeared". They are Joe Lynskey, Seamus Ruddy and Robert Nairac. Their bodies have not been recovered.
Due to the good work of the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains, 12 bodies have been recovered. It is important to record in this House the extremely good and important work that commission has undertaken since it was established following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. The first commissioner to serve here was my former constituency colleague and friend, the late John Wilson, who also served as Tánaiste. The people who have held that role since on both sides of the Border have done exceptionally good work in extremely difficult circumstances.
I again raise the issue this evening that we, as a Parliament, should appeal to people who have a scintilla of information or knowledge about the murder and burial of those four people, whose remains have not yet been recovered, to come forward to the relevant authorities and provide that information. Every day that passes makes it more difficult to recover those bodies. We cannot imagine, under any circumstances, the terrible grief and suffering those families go through when they have not had the opportunity to give their loved ones a Christian burial or when they cannot go to a grave to lay a flower or say a prayer. We must never forget those families and those people who were brutally murdered.
It is important in debates such as this that we also appeal to statutory authorities or governments to provide information that can help to lead to the prosecution of those people responsible for horrendous murder and violence. I have had the opportunity to raise with the Minister, as I had with the Secretory of State, Theresa Villiers, and with the British Labour Party's spokesperson on Northern Ireland, the absolute need for the British Government to respond positively to the unanimous requests of this House, made both in 2008 and 2011, in regard to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. This House passed motions unanimously on both occasions asking the British Government to give an eminent international legal person access to the relevant files and papers relating to those terrible atrocities.
Again, I reiterate that call this evening. There were many awful days of tragedy on our island during the period known as the Troubles. That day in May 1974 represented the greatest loss of life on this island due directly to the Troubles. That loss of life occurred in our capital city, Dublin, and in Monaghan town in my constituency. That day was, in effect, a mass murder of innocent people. There is a very good reason the British Government has a moral and political obligation to give access to the files and papers relating to those murders. There is very good evidence available, as referred to by the late Mr. Justice Barron in his report for the Oireachtas sometime ago, as to where the trail leads and that there was collusion by British state forces with the people who carried out those murders. I know the Minister has raised this matter successively with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the British Foreign Secretary. We need to keep it very much on the agenda. People need to know the truth. When the families of the victims of those particular atrocities speak to me or to other public representatives, or when they talk openly about their great loss and the grief they continue to suffer, they say the least they need to know is the truth. The same goes for the Belturbet bombing of 1972 in my home area in County Cavan. It is important when dealing with the legacy of the past that we deal with all these particular issues.
The recent report by the Police Service of Northern Ireland and MI5 on paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland contained serious findings which have profound repercussions for the island. The report stated:
All the main paramilitary groups operating during the period of the Troubles remain in existence: this includes the Ulster Volunteer Force (UVF), Red Hand Commando (RHC), Ulster Defence Association (UDA), Provisional Irish Republican Army (PIRA) and Irish National Liberation Army (INLA).
It is absolutely horrendous these paramilitary groups remain in existence on our island 17 years after the endorsement of the Good Friday Agreement by the overwhelming majority of the people on all of this island. Paramilitarism in any community, and from whatever source, can no longer be ignored or indulged. Paramilitarism manipulating and controlling political parties is nothing short of a direct threat to our democracy. It is imperative we renew and revitalise the hope and energy of the Good Friday Agreement. We are all aware of the major effort made by various Governments, organisations and parties to bring the Agreement about.
Through parliamentary questions and other debates in the House, we have highlighted the need for additional resources for An Garda Síochána to confront criminality in the Border region. In particular, I reiterate my calls for a cross-Border agency to get to grips with the challenge. Last March, I introduced legislation in the House proposing the establishment of a cross-Border agency, the remit of which would be to deal with this criminality. I welcome the Minister’s statement in the print media yesterday in which he outlined the establishment of such an agency would be part of the talks process. This commitment needs to be backed up by real action. The Dáil will debate my legislation on the establishment of such an agency on 27 November which I hope the Government will support. It will present the Minister with an opportunity to back up his statements on the negotiations under way in Stormont with real action. If my legislation requires amendment or improvement, I will be willing to engage on that.
The PSNI and MI5 report on paramilitary activity painted a bleak picture of members of the Provisional IRA engaged in criminal activity. It also highlighted the criminality of other paramilitary organisations. The Border region is bearing the brunt of this through illegal cigarette smuggling and fuel laundering. The latter activity can have serious environmental impacts. Sadly, in past three years in the Border area in County Louth, we have had the deaths of two members of an Garda Síochána while on duty.
The Bill put forward by Fianna Fáil proposes the establishment of a cross-Border agency that will build on existing links between statutory agencies, both North and South. It would enable authorities on both sides of the Border, including environmental bodies, to target and eliminate organised criminality. It is vital the Minister gives the commitment to such an agency as a core part of any agreement from the current talks, which I hope the five parties and both Governments will bring to a successful conclusion shortly.
It is important we work to ensure we realise the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement. Many people on this island put a major effort into bringing about the Agreement. Those of us who were privileged to campaign for its acceptance by the people in May 1998 were overjoyed that, in this State alone, more than 94% of those who voted endorsed it. That was a significant figure. Similarly, well in excess of 70% of those who voted in Northern Ireland endorsed the Agreement.
As I said earlier today during Question Time, the mandate all of us have as public representatives is to ensure we work to implement the Good Friday Agreement, along with the subsequent agreements, including the Stormont House Agreement. I hope everyone participating in the talks will be able to deal with the outstanding issues to ensure Northern Ireland can advance so we can have the real cross-Border and all-Ireland economic development we need to create jobs and a better society for our people. This will also ensure many pockets of deprivation and poverty will be eliminated and dramatically reduced, particularly in areas in Northern Ireland. Different groups come to the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement to outline the particular challenges they have in areas of particular disadvantage. That is what the electorate wants us to be talking about. The legacy issues, the paramilitary activity and the criminality have to be dealt with and rooted out of our society once and for all.
I welcome that we are having statements and a debate on the North. Like other speakers, I wish it happened more often and that more time was given for the North to be a regular feature on Dáil business. As an Irish republican, the North is not an abstract issue that can be ignored or set aside. It shaped my politics. What I have seen, heard and experienced has honed my political outlook and brought me on a journey to this institution.
I welcome the fact that Stormont voted in favour of legislating for marriage equality on Monday. While 53 MLAs voted in favour of the joint SDLP-Sinn Féin motion and 52 voted against, there will be no moves to legislate for marriage equality because the DUP, Democratic Unionist Party, used its petition of concern on the legislation. It is disappointing the DUP used this power to block the extension of fundamental rights to a minority group, as well as opposing inclusivity and equality. There is a responsibility on all of us to continue to fight for equality for all citizens in the North and across this island.
The Good Friday Agreement has had a hugely positive affect on politics on these islands. It is a cross-party and international agreement between two Governments. The current crisis in the political institutions in the North has been created by the negativity and disengagement of the British Government, the lack of leadership among unionism and the lack of creative conditions for a better future.
At the heart of the problem, however, is the failure to deal with the past and the present. Positive change in people's lives was promised and is still demanded.
The talks are intensifying and we all hope they can come to a satisfactory conclusion but all outstanding commitments of the Good Friday Agreement, previous agreements and agreements subsequent to it, need to be delivered on. More than 17 years have passed since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, yet we still do not have an Acht na Gaeilge because unionists have said they will not agree to it. We still do not have a bill of rights for the North or a formal role for the community sector and civic society.
Two weeks ago, the Good Friday Agreement committee, of which I am a member, met to discuss the lack of a bill of rights. In a post-conflict situation, human rights are even more important and a key component and a bill of rights is essential to building confidence in any peace process. It appears to be quite clear that the public has bought into the idea of a bill of rights but the British Government seems intent on producing a watered-down British bill of rights as opposed to one based on the European Convention on Human Rights, which would have a rights-based legislative approach. This narrow approach of the British Government would, if implemented, be a blatant breach of the Good Friday Agreement and must be opposed by all political parties on this island and the Irish Government.
In recent weeks we have seen the British Government attempt to depart from the Stormont House Agreement on legacy and victims' issues. The Stormont House Agreement clearly sets out the need to provide justice and truth recovery mechanisms for the families of victims of the conflict, but this needs the Irish and British Governments to pass legislation. The draft legislation being put forward by the British Government on dealing with the legacy of the past would allow them to regulate the handover of what they term "sensitive" information to historical inquiries. This is a clear breach of the Stormont House Agreement. It is a blatant piece of stroke politics designed to hide the British State’s role as an active and central participant in the conflict and, in particular, its collusion with loyalist death squads, including those who planted the Dublin and Monaghan bombs.
It is undeniable that elements of the British security establishment with a political oversight that ended up in Downing Street armed, trained, supplied intelligence to, directed and controlled these loyalist death squads. The British Government has continually failed to meet its legal responsibilities on dealing with the past. The British Government needs to shoulder its responsibilities in this latest round of negotiations but so does the Irish Government. They need to stand with the victims of British state violence and collusion and support the right of families to full disclosure in their long pursuit to get truth and justice for their loved ones. This latest attempt by the British State to use the fig leaf of security to cover their wrongdoings needs to be stopped in its tracks as it will compound the hurt of victims and their families.
The British Government is refusing to hold a public and independent inquiry into the killing of the human rights solicitor, Pat Finucane, who was shot dead in front of his family by the UDA on 12 February 1989. Collusion was a matter of institutional and administrative practice by successive governments. The British Prime Minister, David Cameron, has admitted there was collusion in Pat Finucane’s murder and apologised to the family. However, the Finucane family wants the public inquiry that the Irish and British Governments promised.
In the Weston Park Agreement the British Government committed to holding a public inquiry into his murder but it has failed to do so and reneged on the commitment. The failure to hold such an inquiry is a repudiation of the international agreement between the Irish and British Governments. The Finucane family has now lodged an appeal against the judgment and an order of Mr. Justice Stephens on 8 September that the British Secretary of State was justified in reneging on this commitment made at Weston Park. A full and independent international tribunal of inquiry, where all documents will be examined in public and witnesses compelled to attend and cross-examined by the lawyers of the Finucane family, remains the only model capable of uncovering the truth behind Pat's murder.
There is an onus on this Government to go beyond polite requests to David Cameron that are brushed aside and ignored by him. Teachta Adams raised the issue with the British Prime Minister during the Stormont House talks and the Taoiseach decided not to comment. I call on this Government to put in place a vigorous political and diplomatic strategy to raise this case with our international friends, including those in the United States and Europe, at every opportunity.
The difficult political situation is being inflamed by the social and economic cuts imposed by the British Government. The British Government continues to cut the block grant to the North by a further £1.4 billion and an estimated £120 million per year will be taken from the pockets of the poorest families as a result of Conservative cuts to tax credits.
The North is in a post-conflict cycle and has unique needs and expectations but the British Government refuses to accept this fact. Despite what the former British Prime Minister, Margaret Thatcher, once said, I think we can all agree that Belfast is not as British as Finchley. Tory advisers based in London refuse to face up to this and their austerity dogma is deepening the political instability in the North. The British Government must provide a workable and sustainable budget for the Executive in order for it to deliver public services and protect the most vulnerable and must devolve fiscal powers to the North. Sinn Féin will not be a part of the institutions if their function is to implement mass social spending cuts that Tories in London are dreaming up.
The MI5 report shows that there are still elements of British intelligence and other State agencies fighting a rearguard action to try to stop the rise of Sinn Féin. The MI5 assessment that the IRA still exists and the army council exerts influence over Sinn Féin is a partisan, self-serving exercise by the British security services. The report was subject to cherry-picking, distorted and contained unsubstantiated claims by a shadowy intelligence agency that was part of the conflict in Ireland. Any real journalist worth his or her salt would have to question not only the source but examine the strength of the evidence. That evidence, if one reads the report, was based on the statements of informers, Internet gossip, chitter chatter, posts on Facebook, pub talk and journalistic imaginings.
MI5 colluded with loyalist death squads in the wholesale slaughter of Irish citizens. The Garda Commissioner, Nóirín O'Sullivan, is on record as saying the Garda has found no evidence in this jurisdiction that the provisional army council continues to meet or to exist in the form that was once assumed. For some reason the fact that former IRA members have now become involved in purely peaceful political activities as Sinn Féin members has caused hysterical outrage in some quarters.
Sinn Féin is committed fully to and supports policing North and South. There is no alternative or halfway house. We are committed fully to policing and the peace process.
I am grateful for the opportunity to speak during this important debate on the North of Ireland and the recent Villiers report. Long before many of the political elite in this State woke up, I supported through thick and thin the peace process and the whole concept of conflict resolution. This was long before it became popular and mainstream. In recent weeks, we have seen the usual suspects coming back and trying to undermine the movement towards democratic change on the island. On a more serious note, we have seen the peace process wreckers emerging from the woodwork. Tonight I challenge them all in this House to get out there and support our peace process. That is the important point in this debate.
It is our peace process and we have a lot of work to do to facilitate the healing of our people and bring them together on this island. However, politicians have to lead on the issue and not use the peace process to score political points. We need a Government that is very proactive and engages more often with the British Government and other people on this island, particularly those in the North.
We can never take the peace process for granted.
With regard to the report and this debate, let us look at the facts. I would always have concerns about major players in a conflict which lasted over 30 years, especially MI5, being allowed to dominate the narrative of this report. However, when one looks at sections of the report, the facts are clear. Of course, we all oppose criminality and I warmly welcome the recent comments by the Minister regarding an all-Ireland cross-Border force to deal with this issue. That is the sensible, logical way forward. However, one cannot be selective. One cannot forget that in the violent conflict in the North there were three sides - republican-Nationalist violence, loyalist-Unionist violence and British state violence. We must not forget that. I raise this in the context of the report. The Government and this House must face up that reality. We cannot ignore the role in the past of loyalist violence, British violence and, in particular, British state violence. In my constituency, for example, I regularly meet members of Justice for the Forgotten. This group was formed in 1996 with the aim of campaigning for truth and justice for the victims of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings which were carried out on 17 May 1974 and in which 34 people, including an unborn baby, died. It was the greatest loss of life in a single day during the Troubles. The group's membership includes the overwhelming majority of those bereaved families and many wounded survivors. The survivors of the Dublin bombings of 1972 and 20 January 1970 united with those of 1974 into a single organisation demanding to know the truth as to why their loved ones died and why so many others were maimed. When one meets those families, the talk is not about revenge but rather about truth and justice. Justice for the Forgotten also represents the bereaved families and survivors of the Belturbet, Dundalk and Castleblayney bombings, as well as families and survivors of the Miami Showband massacre. Justice for the Forgotten supports all of these victims as part of its work. I urge the Minister to keep in regular contact with that group and to work closely with it.
The reason I raise this is that no person has ever been prosecuted in connection with any of the cross-Border bombings. Indeed, an official silence was maintained about these events until the early 1990s. Over the years the bereaved families have come to question the complicity of British state forces in the North in the bombings, the actions of the Irish State in pursuing those responsible and the integrity of the Royal Ulster Constabulary, RUC, and Garda investigations. I was a member of the Oireachtas justice committee which dealt with these issues. The first Barron report was produced in 2003 and was followed by the second Barron report in 2004. I raise these issues because it is most important that we examine them and the context relating to them.
To return to this debate on paramilitary groups in the North, an assessment was commissioned by the Secretary of State on the structure, role and purpose of these groups. That assessment focused on those who declared ceasefires to support and facilitate the political process. We, as politicians and democrats, must push the political, peaceful and democratic process. I am not a big fan of many of those involved in producing the report. However, I accept the sections of the report that point in a direction where there is much truth. In addition, I do not go along with the recent hysteria in which there were major attacks on the Garda Commissioner regarding her views on these issues.
In the report, No. 2 of the key judgments concludes that the most serious current terrorist threat in the North is not posed by these groups. With regard to roles, section v. states, "Members of the PIRA have been directed to become involved in the politics of the Provisional movement." Under the heading "Purpose", the report states, "It is our firm assessment that, to different degrees, the leaderships of the main paramilitary groups are committed to peaceful means to achieve their political objectives." The report further states, at No. 14:
The PIRA of the Troubles era is well beyond recall. It is our firm assessment that the PIRA's leadership remains committed to the peace process and its aim of achieving a united Ireland by political means. This group is not involved in targeting or conducting terrorist attacks against the state or its representatives. There have only been very limited indications of dissent to date and we judge that this has been addressed effectively by the leadership.
I have listened to the debate for the past number of weeks but I never heard people highlighting these sections of the report. I raise this issue because we must focus on the facts and get away from the distractions. We must focus on people who are anti-peace and who are trying to wreck the peace process. Some of them can be politicians and some can be mavericks or dissidents, as they are known.
I reject any form of violence, and it is important that all Members of the House state that. We also have a duty to work towards achieving peace and reconciliation. We must focus on the real goal, which is a new, peaceful, democratic Ireland. We cannot indulge in political snobbery. Of course, many of the groups emerging from this conflict have baggage and have done terrible deeds but the vast majority - 90% in my opinion - want to try to make amends, move on and implement the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement. Undoubtedly, matters must be very difficult for somebody who was sitting in a pub when their brother or father was blown to bits or if they were watching a football match and somebody came into the pub and sprayed it with bullets. That is horrific. However, the reality is that we must go about making peace. One does not make peace with one's friends, one makes peace with one's enemies.
I must commend Sinn Féin and how it has worked with the DUP in the Northern Executive. Recently, I attended a meeting with one of the cross-Border groups and I was very impressed by the relationship that has developed between the Ceann Comhairle, Deputy Seán Barrett, and Mitchel McLaughlin of Sinn Féin, who is Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly. In fairness, I am also very impressed by some of the Unionist politicians who are trying to reach out and do their best. They are taking hits for it and I accept that. Likewise, Sinn Féin is taking hits from other people as well. The idea is to focus on the objective. We have secured the cessation of violence. The next objective is to carry out the healing and get on with building a modern Ireland. However, we must do this with a lack of political snobbery, which I often encounter in this House and which really upsets me.
We all have much work to do. There is much healing and forgiving to do on all sides. There must be respect for all of the victims. I am always impressed when I meet the victims by how they are getting on with it. They constantly talk about truth, the right to mourn and the right to justice. Very few of them use the word "revenge". I am blown away by that. We are human beings and if somebody touched a member of our own families, we know how we would feel. There is much forgiving to do on all sides. The bottom line, however, is that there must be respect for all of the victims, as no victim is more equal than others. Only then can we move forward and build a new, modern, inclusive Ireland.
I urge Members to support the peace process, stop the moaning and whingeing and get on with the real job. I hope the Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, takes those views on board.
I thank Members for their contributions, all of which will be the subject of careful consideration on my part. I will return to Belfast early tomorrow morning to co-chair the talks as they reach a critical phase. I will take with me a strong message of support from this House - support for the Good Friday Agreement and the need to safeguard its political institutions; support for victims and survivors in their quest for justice and truth; support for a Northern Ireland that is free from paramilitarism and organised crime; support for deepening cross-Border and inter-agency co-operation to tackle organised crime; and support for political institutions that deliver for the people of Northern Ireland and for the benefit of the island of Ireland.
The First Minister, Mr. Peter Robinson, and Deputy First Minister, Mr. Martin McGuinness, have recently spoken of the need for an outcome in days, rather than weeks.
It was always the intention that the talks be focused and intensive. There is no doubt the negotiations have intensified in recent days, and I expect this to continue this week. The urgency indicated by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister in recent days reflects my own sense that an agreement can be reached very soon.
I must also acknowledge that while good progress is being made, significant challenges remain, with a number of crucial gaps needing to be bridged between the parties. It is, therefore, not just a question of timing but also one of substance. It is important that both elements of the talks - the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement and the impact of the legacy of paramilitarism - are meaningfully addressed in any agreed outcome. The Government strongly believes that the best agreement is one that is forged with all five Northern Ireland parties participating, and one they can support and commit to implementing. That is the objective to which we are working.
It must not, however, be an agreement that simply carries us forward a few months. I know the people of Northern Ireland are fed up of moving from crisis to crisis, from crisis to agreement and back to crisis again. The seemingly perpetual political paralysis has understandably undermined public confidence and faith in politics and the political institutions. Current talks have the capacity to move Northern Ireland towards a brighter future by agreeing a collective long-term vision for Northern Ireland, a vision that achieves the endorsement of all the parties to the talks and, above all, a vision that engenders and inspires a collective will to deliver: to deliver clear blue water between elected politicians and paramilitary organisations, and to work towards the eradication of paramilitarism for all time; to deliver consensus on a new approach to tackling organised crime, putting in place arrangements that build on the strong cross-Border co-operation between law enforcement authorities and agencies, both north and south of the Border; to deliver the institutions envisaged in the Stormont House Agreement for dealing with the past, ensuring that they serve the needs of victims and survivors of the Troubles; to deliver a shared society governed by efficient and representative devolved institutions which co-operate to build on the all-island economy and to oversee investment and joint efforts in trade and tourism; to deliver political institutions that work to build a world-class infrastructure in order to provide high quality, citizen-centred services, such as an education system that promotes integration; and, in a phrase, to deliver the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement.
This is the vision the Government has set out for Northern Ireland and is working with all of the parties to achieve. The Government will continue to ensure that it discharges its commitments under the Stormont House Agreement, notably with regard to the setting up of the institutions dealing with the legacy of the past. The Government is also working closely with the Northern Ireland Department of Justice, as well as the British Government, to examine ways to further enhance measures for cracking down on the criminality and organised crime associated with the legacy of paramilitarism, particularly in the Border area.
The Government's commitment to North-South economic co-operation also remains a priority. The recently announced infrastructure and capital investment plan, with a dedicated section on North-South infrastructure, re-affirms the commitment of this Government to investing in infrastructure projects, such as the A5 Derry road and the restoration of the Ulster canal. All of these efforts are part of the Government's wider objective to fully implement the Good Friday Agreement, to protect the institutions and safeguard and build on the progress we have made since 1998 for the benefit of everybody on this island. The Irish Government, mindful of its role as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and conscious of its duty to the people of the island, will, therefore, spare no effort in providing support and encouragement for a successful outcome to the present talks. Conscious of the mandate I have received from the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Cameron, I shall continue, with the support of the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, to work intensively with the Secretary of State, Ms Theresa Villiers, MP, and the five Northern Ireland parties to the end of reaching a satisfactory conclusion to these talks that will, undoubtedly, chart the progress and the way forward for a better future for everybody on this island.