Wednesday, 25 November 2015
Northern Ireland: Statements
I welcome the opportunity to open the debate on Northern Ireland and the outcome of the political talks in Belfast, which were convened by the UK Prime Minister, Mr. Cameron, and me in September. These talks were brought to a successful conclusion on 17 November last. As Deputies know, the result of the negotiations was the document entitled "A Fresh Start: The Stormont House Agreement and Implementation Plan." I acknowledge the positive engagement by the parties in the process and their determination to sit down and resolve issues through negotiation. In particular, I would like to acknowledge Peter Robinson's important contribution to the peace process down through the years. I would like to wish Peter well in his forthcoming retirement.
I would also like to thank the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, and the Minister of State at the Departments of Education and Skills and Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Sherlock, as well as the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, for their dedication and close co-operation in steering this process to a successful conclusion. Indeed, I thank all of the Members who participated in the debates. However, I believe a key enabler of this latest agreement was the people of Northern Ireland themselves. For months now, they have been ahead of their elected representatives on this issue. On all sides, ordinary people made it abundantly clear that they expected their political leaders to put an end to stop-go crisis management of the devolved institutions. They have said loud and clear that they want a Government that delivers every day on everyday issues that matter to them.
This Government has clearly set out its vision for a Northern Ireland with a shared society governed by efficient, effective, representative devolved institutions that co-operate to build the island economy through overseas investment and through joint efforts in trade and tourism. The people of Northern Ireland deserve political institutions that work to build a world-class infrastructure and that focus on delivering high-quality, citizen-centred public services.
Political leaders must now step up to that challenge. They must not be found wanting in delivering on their commitments and in implementing the full range of measures that have been agreed. These measures include tackling welfare reform and making hard choices to secure a balanced and sustainable budget. They include dismantling the final toxic traces of paramilitary structures, which have no place in a civilised, inclusive society bound by the rule of law. They include measures that must be taken - and that will be taken - to root out organised crime on both sides of the Border. And they include the challenge of dealing with the legacy of the past. Workable and effective arrangements must be put in place to allow the truth about the past to be brought out for victims, survivors and families affected by the Troubles.
We should see this agreement as an investment in the future and must acknowledge the great strides that have been made in moving Northern Ireland towards a more peaceful and more prosperous future. The Irish Government will continue to invest in the all-island economy and the people of the Border region and the north west, as set out in our recent capital plan. Our commitments under this agreement will see the completion of the first part of the A5 motorway, which will help unlock the full potential of the north west of the island. We will provide support of €2.5 million for the north west gateway initiative, which will be complemented by matching funding from the Northern Ireland Executive. We will also continue to explore the development of further cross-Border greenways and blueway leisure routes, including the Ulster Canal, and remain committed to the concept of the Narrow Water Bridge, which has the potential to provide jobs and a significant boost to tourism in the surrounding area.
And as we move to normalise politics and society in the North further, it is important that there be a proper and full debate on critical issues that could have a major impact, such as the UK's future within the European Union. The EU has been a very positive contributor to the peace process and I firmly believe that our common membership of the EU project is in all of our interests.
It is almost one year since the Stormont House Agreement was put in place. Then, it was hoped that a way forward had been found to deal with finance, welfare reform and the legacy of the past. Within a very short space of time, difficulties emerged.
This, compounded by the serious trust issues arising in the wake of two savage murders in Belfast, had a destabilising effect on the Northern institutions.
The findings of the UK's assessment of paramilitary groups by an independent panel were very unsettling. Particularly disturbing was the finding that Provisional IRA members believed that the Provisional Army Council oversees both Provisional IRA and Sinn Féin with an overarching strategy.
When Prime Minister Cameron and I convened the latest round of talks, a key objective was to address the trust and confidence issues arising from the impact and legacy of paramilitary activity. The latest agreement makes a resolute commitment to the primacy of the democratic political process in Northern Ireland and the ending of paramilitarism and its links to criminality. Furthermore, all the parties to the agreement commit to work collectively to achieve a society free of paramilitarism. The promise is clear in the text: "In committing to these principles the parties do not agree simply to a passive acceptance of these values but to an active fulfilment of them."
The paramilitarism that is deeply embedded in communities must be tackled with equal determination on all sides. The arrangements set out for a strategy to disband paramilitary groups must be put in place promptly. Together with the UK Government and the Northern Ireland Executive, we will appoint a four-member international body to monitor and report on the implementation of a strategy to end paramilitarism.
This Government will play its part in tackling organised crime on a cross-Border basis. Under the agreement, a joint agency task force will be established to co-ordinate and enhance efforts to tackle cross-Border organised crime. We will bring to justice those involved in this insidious and savage threat that corrodes the core of a decent society.
The Government will also take a range of additional measures to bear down on paramilitaries and on organised crime, whatever its origin. These include further investment in An Garda Síochána and establishing a second special criminal court to improve how the justice system deals with those charged of subversive or serious organised crime offences. We will also review the existing legislation with regard to this area and strengthen it where necessary.
The impact of the many atrocities perpetrated in the North and South lives long in the memory of the people and it is felt to this day. I was acutely aware of this when I laid a wreath on behalf of the people of Ireland in Enniskillen just over two weeks ago on Remembrance Sunday. Many families continue to deal not only with the awful pain of losing a loved one but also with the struggle for answers decades after these traumatic events. In many cases, the pain is compounded for those affected by events in which collusion with agents of the State has been alleged or proven.
Important progress was made on taking forward aspects of the Stormont House Agreement dealing with the legacy of the past. I regret that it did not prove possible to resolve all of the key issues at this stage. I share the deep disappointment of the victims and survivors and their families. Let me assure them that the two Governments will persist in their efforts to secure an agreed basis for the establishment of the institutions dealing with the past envisaged in the Stormont House Agreement. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, will set out our position in detail in this debate. Our fervent hope remains that these mechanisms will assist the transition to long-term peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
This latest agreement offers the promise of a fresh start. It is a promise to the people of Northern Ireland that the burden of thuggery, intimidation and sectarian hatred will be taken off their backs once and for all. It is a promise that peace can mean more than the absence of violence, 21 years after the ceasefires. It is the promise of a prosperous and inclusive society that can flourish to its full potential. These public commitments are clear to all. Accountability for their delivery is understood by all, and failure to deliver will be judged harshly by all.
I welcome the opportunity to speak on recent developments in Northern Ireland and the successful completion of the recent talks. The Irish Government and the Labour Party have welcomed the agreement that has been reached. I pay tribute to the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, the Minister of State responsible for North–South co-operation, Deputy Sean Sherlock, and their colleagues on their work over recent weeks. Progress has been made in key areas that will allow the Assembly and Executive to return to work.
On paramilitarism, I spoke in this House a couple of weeks ago about the need to strengthen North–South co-operation in this area. I welcome the provisions that have been included in A Fresh Start. The Government is committed to intensifying its focus on combating paramilitary activity and organised criminality and to working in close co-operation with the Northern Ireland Executive on this. There is no need for paramilitaries. The godfathers of crime who are presiding over paramilitarism are not doing so for any patriotic motive but simply to line their own pockets. However, the onus will ultimately be on those with influence over paramilitary groups to get them to work with the new structures and fully support the rule of law.
On the financial and welfare reforms, I welcome the fact that agreement has been reached, yet I must question why it has taken so long. Over two years ago, it seemed a deal on welfare reform could be agreed within the Northern Ireland Executive. Again, less than 12 months ago, following the Stormont House Agreement, the welfare package was on the table. On both occasions, Sinn Féin backed away from the agreement and argued against what was on offer. Despite this, what has been achieved this time? What is so different in A Fresh Start on welfare reform that was not contained in previous reforms? The one major change that has been introduced, namely to allow welfare reform to be legislated for at Westminster, appears to be a fairly spectacular delegation of responsibility by Sinn Féin. Rather than confronting the issue in Northern Ireland and taking responsibility for its decisions, it has simply ceded decision-making power to the British Parliament where its members do not even take their seats. What does that say about a party that has consistently called on the Irish Government to stand up to the troika, the European Union and international bodies? In my mind, it says that Sinn Féin would not be remotely capable of taking responsibility itself, unlike this Government, which negotiated concessions that reduced our debt burden by tens of billions of euro. At the first sign of a major political challenge, Sinn Féin has, at best, simply walked off the pitch. At worst, it is an enormous act of political cowardice.
Speaking before the agreement was reached, I said these talks should not simply be used to achieve another quick fix to get us over the latest political hurdle. That approach has been tried and has failed all too often. There has been much progress, but I am deeply disappointed that it was not possible to reach agreement on dealing with the legacy of the past. Admittedly, further progress was made in this general area. Ultimately, however, the failure to agree key mechanisms leaves many issues unanswered, and leaves many victims and their families and relatives deeply disappointed. This failure to agree could come back to haunt us. It concerns me that we could after all end up in negotiations in which an increasing number of things get traded off in order to make further progress in this area. That approach has not worked in the past. At some stage, we will have to agree on these matters. The Irish Government remains convinced that they should be and need to be addressed. We will continue to work for agreement in this area. I call on the parties in this House to support us in those efforts.
I wish to mark the decision of the First Minister of Northern Ireland and leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, Mr. Peter Robinson, to step down.
As with many politicians in Northern Ireland, he has travelled a journey that culminated in him sharing power and serving as First Minister since 2008. In recent years, he has shown a determination to make politics work and to bring much needed investment and jobs to Northern Ireland. He has also shown a willingness to build positive relationships between North and South for the benefit of all people on the island. Therefore, on behalf of the Labour Party, I would like to wish him well in his retirement.
I also want to acknowledge both the new and former leaders of the SDLP. I and my predecessor, Deputy Eamon Gilmore, worked closely with Alasdair McDonnell in recent years. He led the party at a difficult time and I know that he will continue to serve the SDLP and his constituents with distinction from Westminster. In the same spirit, I look forward to working with his successor, Colum Eastwood, who will bring youth, energy, and a new perspective to his role.
I also want to send best wishes, on my own behalf and that of the Labour Party, to Pat and John Hume. As has been acknowledged by everybody, John Hume has been a lion of the peace process and in many ways its creator. Having heard Pat speak about the current difficulties that he has been experiencing, I would like to send both of them our best wishes.
Eleven months ago, the Stormont House Agreement was agreed by the Governments and some of the parties in Northern Ireland. It provided a basis for preventing the imminent collapse of the Executive and Assembly, and it was presented as a decisive move forward. What it did not represent was a decisive move away from the behaviour which caused that crisis in the first place. The main players carried on as before and lurched into the inevitable impasse of recent months.
This new agreement is welcome because it removes the immediate threat of long-term collapse of democratic institutions established as the result of the overwhelming support of the people of this island. It provides a fresh start only in terms of the implementation of the previous deal. It does not provide a fresh start, or anything close to it, for the people of Northern Ireland. The core dysfunction of recent years is not addressed in this agreement. Unless this is challenged, unless the parties start working together and the Governments re-engage, the destructive cycle of crises will continue and the people of Northern Ireland will be the biggest losers.
One element which is new in the agreement is the commitment to focus on addressing paramilitarism in Northern Ireland. The cult of the so-called big man who can enforce silence and discipline is a curse which has held back communities which want to unite to build a shared peace and prosperity. The extra resources and procedures for monitoring and challenging paramilitarism and cross-Border gangsterism are very welcome. Only a few weeks ago some elements here were denying there was any problem. They were claiming that anyone who expressed concern was playing politics. Today, they are promoting a deal which recognises the sinister remnants of groups which have brought nothing but misery to this island for far too long. We strongly support the new commitment to disrupt their network and show that no one is untouchable. We are very surprised that the agreement does not give explicit parity to the threat posed by loyalist paramilitarism. As has been seen too often, particularly on the streets of Belfast, this sinister element remains and must also be tackled with the same force as provisional and dissident paramilitarism.
It is a major failing of this agreement that it fails to address the right of families to know who was responsible for the deaths of their loved ones. The British Government remains in clear breach of its commitments in the Weston Park Agreement to allow the open and independent investigation of crimes, such as the murder of Pat Finucane which traces to collusion by British forces, the Dublin-Monaghan bombings and many others. Equally, the provisional movement has continued to deny basic justice and closure to many of its victims, including cases of abuse and murder which happened well after the ceasefires and the Good Friday Agreement.
So far, the Irish Government is the only party to this issue which has fulfilled its commitment to transparency about the past. Allegations of Garda collusion were subject to rigorous independent investigation, and the policy has been that the truth must be allowed to emerge no matter how uncomfortable. Unfortunately, the British government and Sinn Féin have stood in the way of dealing with the past to protect their own interests. Each continues to focus on the victims of others and does the absolute minimum on anything involving their side. We share the outrage of victims' groups about how this issue has been brushed aside. At a minimum they are entitled to see the proposals tabled by the parties to this agreement in order that we can all see how serious these negotiations actually were. The cover-up must stop.
The continued failure to agree the Bill of Rights and Act, as well as the restoration of the civic forum is a disgrace, and each represents a breach of an agreement supported by an overwhelming majority of the Irish people in a free referendum. Clearly, Deputy Adams’s description of the equality agenda as the “Trojan horse” of the provisional movement has caused damage, but equality measures are not an option for those who participate in the Northern institutions. They are an essential requirement. It is, at best, unfortunate that the Governments did not insist on tougher measures to secure their implementation. The agreement does contain a fig leaf concerning the civic forum by providing for a civic advisory panel. The detail reveals that this, too, is utterly devoid of substance. Its members will be nominated by the DUP and Sinn Féin, it will represent only a few elements of civic society and, most incredibly, it will be allowed to discuss no more than two issues a year, each of which will be cleared in advance by the DUP and Sinn Féin. The civic forum was kept in suspension because when the DUP and Sinn Féin took control of the Executive, they wanted to limit alternative voices. In tandem with the limiting of access to information for other parties in the Executive, they said that the civic forum was not needed because the First and Deputy First Ministers would be available to civic society. It has taken some remarkable neck for Sinn Féin suddenly to start calling for the restoration of the forum when it refused to restore it and it has now agreed a meaningless and politically compliant replacement.
The financial measures included in the agreement have received a lot of attention in the past week. Many claims have been made about what they amount to, but the only thing which is clear is that there has not been a commitment to major new funding for Northern Ireland. Through the concentration of what was a six-year programme into four years, unidentified savings and an amount of wishful thinking, there has been quite a bit of hype from the parties about the outcome. Before any of this can be trusted, let us see the detail. The claims made last year about mitigating welfare cuts turned out to be false. There is no reason to believe that this time it will be any different. That much of the welfare mitigation will come directly from funding for other public services is of real concern. So too is the fact that €125 million will be available only if it appears through a clampdown on welfare fraud, which is unlikely to secure anything close to that figure. There has already been some analysis of that.
In this agreement, Sinn Féin decided to hand power back to London to avoid having to vote for measures it was enabling. This is a profound confirmation that it puts party interests before the ideology of which it claims to be the sole representative on this island. The handing of power back to London was enforced by Sinn Féin and the DUP with an aggressive manoeuvre in the Assembly. It is quite extraordinary. The material was published three minutes before the debate, and standard scrutiny procedures were suspended. This puts even our own debate-averse Government in the shade when it comes to marginalising democratic assemblies. I have never come across anything like this before.
Whatever about the politics, what really matters is that the Agreement entrenches a deeply damaging approach to public services and social protection in Northern Ireland. Everyone now agrees that Northern Ireland is still dealing with the legacy of paramilitarism and cross-Border criminality that is undermining its society and economy. It has the worst poverty rates on these islands and ever-increasing rates of dangerous marginalisation. It is well behind in terms of the UN development index.
Northern Ireland desperately needs an investment plan, and the failure to deliver this is the most important failure of this Agreement. While the British Government’s refusal to see the need for investment is more significant, we have to note the Taoiseach’s refusal to set an example or to show that delivering peace and progress through development is something to which his Government is committed.
The financial commitment made by our Government is considerably down on what was previously envisaged. More important, there is a continued refusal to fund important North-South projects.
In this agreement, the Government says it will again review or remains committed to the Narrow Water Bridge project. We should not be reviewing the project; we should be building it. Even 20 years ago, how much would we have given if communities North and South had come looking to build permanent connections and a vision of joint development? They came looking and the Government has left them there.
This is a deeply flawed agreement which nonetheless deserves to be supported for two reasons. First, it puts off the immediate threat to the long-term position of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive and it promises a means of addressing the destabilising and criminal paramilitarism which should by now have disappeared.
Fundamentally, this agreement will change little unless we see an end to the behaviour of recent years which has delivered institutions focused on the interests of two parties rather than the public interest. The most effective way to tackle this would be for the leaders of the two Governments to end their disengagement and start treating Northern Ireland as a subject worthy of their active attention. That the UK Prime Minister, Mr. Cameron, attended no negotiation and merely held a meeting with two of the leaders is appalling. How can we build a united society in Northern Ireland if we do not even try to engage with its problems and ignore so many of its representatives?
The Taoiseach's disengagement is equally damaging and a direct reversal of the policies of his predecessors of all parties.
I acknowledge the contribution of the Northern Ireland First Minister, Mr. Peter Robinson, whom I dealt with in respect of the devolution of justice in negotiations for over three years. He was straightforward and he went through his political journey. He was a pragmatic member of the DUP and brought that party to the negotiating table and within the fold of the Good Friday and Weston Park frameworks.
While I do not agree with the policies she imposed, the commitment of the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Ms Villiers, should be respected and acknowledged. I would also like to acknowledge the contribution of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, who has given a genuine and active personal commitment to negotiating an agreement and to ongoing involvement in issues concerning Northern Ireland.
This agreement is called A Fresh Start. Let us all hope that this does not translate into more of the same. I compliment the backbenchers of Sinn Féin because they always compliment my speech through the continual engagement they show.
I commend everyone who has worked diligently to find solutions to the recent problems facing the North and the all-Ireland political institutions, including Peter Robinson and Martin McGuinness. The leader of Fianna Fáil may have missed that the North has a Deputy First Minister, whose name is Martin McGuinness.
They were central to that process. I thank the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charlie Flanagan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock, for their work. I also thank the US Senator Gary Hart for his ongoing interest. I am hopeful we will see practical support from the USA for the agreement.
Mr. Peter Robinson played a leadership role and I commend him on it. He had a particular imperative, personal as well as political, to do a deal at this time, but that should not take away from the significance of what has been achieved. Those in Sinn Féin certainly wanted a more comprehensive agreement and we did our best to get that, but others were not prepared to deal with all the issues at the moment. For that reason alone there is a need for a consistent and ongoing focus on the necessary processes of change, especially on the part of the Government. As I have said many times, the Taoiseach needs to have a more proactive engagement and interaction with the British Prime Minister. The Government needs a clear and consistent strategic plan.
For our part, those of us in Sinn Féin will continue to work with the DUP and Peter Robinson's successor, all the other parties, the two Governments and other parties in this Dáil to deliver on the latest agreement and the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and other agreements.
There was some criticism of the agreement in the House yesterday, particularly from the Socialist Party on the one hand and Fianna Fáil on the other. This was echoed today by the Tánaiste. The Tánaiste's remarks were incoherent, barely comprehensible and have no credibility whatsoever. At least the Socialist Party is consistent. The Socialist Party is against the Good Friday Agreement and all the other agreements, although I note it is not against partition. Fianna Fáil has called for a suspension of the institutions. There is clearly no sense to that proposition. The Fianna Fáil leader also spent some time yesterday defending the SDLP and the UUP. For the record, the relevant UUP people have left the Northern Executive for electoral reasons. That is their right. The SDLP and the UUP voted against the agreement. That is also their right, just as it is the right of those in Fianna Fáil, if that is their position, although it is difficult to know exactly what their position is.
I extend my best wishes to Alasdair McDonnell, the former leader of the SDLP and his successor, Colum Eastwood. Let us be clear: without the agreement last week, the door would have been open for a return to British direct rule and the full weight of a Tory assault on the welfare state. The majority of citizens support the political institutions and want them to work. However, constant crises and lack of progress has understandably frustrated and disillusioned many, including members of Sinn Féin and representatives of Sinn Féin.
Negotiations were necessitated by the rejection by Unionists of the Stormont House Agreement and the failure of the British and the Irish Governments to implement outstanding commitments. The British Government has sought to implement its brutal austerity agenda on a society emerging from decades of conflict division and underinvestment. This is not acceptable to Sinn Féin.
Two brutal murders were shamefully used to destabilise the political institutions, attack Sinn Féin and seek to disenfranchise republican voters. These sentiments were echoed in this Chamber as well. The families of Jock Davison and Kevin McGuigan deserve justice. There can be no place for such actions in society.
The negotiations were difficult, but most negotiations are difficult. I welcome the Government's commitment to invest in capital projects in the North. I have a particular interest in seeing the development of the Narrow Water Bridge and other cross-Border all-island projects brought to reality. I look to the Government to fund those projects.
Additional money from London was also secured, allowing the Northern Executive to minimise the worst excesses of British Government austerity. This includes £834 million over the coming four years to support working families and citizens in need. An extra £877 million of additional funding has also been secured to support the unique needs of a society emerging from conflict and division and an economy that faces a legacy of underinvestment and partition. However, the Tories are planning cuts to public services. George Osborne is expected to unveil some of these in his spending review today. I note he has scrapped his proposal to cut working tax credits. This is an important development but let us have no doubt that he and his Government remain wedded to austerity, just as the Government here is, both the Labour Party and its sister party, Fine Gael. The associated policies in this State have seen a rise in inequality and poverty. They have resulted in the current accident and emergency crisis and a rise in homelessness to unprecedented levels, all on the watch of the Government. If a person votes for the Labour Party, he gets Fine Gael.
Sinn Féin rejects the notion that cutting welfare and public services is good for the economy. Whether in the North or in this State, we stand for investment, fairness, equality and proper public services on all parts of the island. The Northern Executive does not have the necessary resources to meet the full scale of Tory cuts and therefore the campaign against Tory cuts must continue. However, Unionists should be mindful that austerity is now the price of the union. Lower and middle-income families from the broad unionist constituency will bear the brunt of Tory policies alongside their neighbours. Sinn Féin believes that the continued operation of the political institutions, that is, institutions which actually deliver, is the best way to promote the peace, build an anti-austerity campaign, maintain control over public services, grow the economy and support those most in need.
As we have heard, some may disagree with this approach. I would ask them whether they want to let the Tories impose water charges, increase student fees, impose prescription charges, impose privatisation, slash public services and cut free travel for pensioners, as the Government here did. Despite all the other scenarios that may emerge, they would be the most likely social and economic consequences if the talks had failed or the advice of the Fianna Fáil leader had been taken and the institutions suspended.
It is time for the Fianna Fáil leader, in particular, and others in leadership here to get over their obsession with Sinn Féin. It is time to stop being jealous of our achievements and deal fairly and constructively with all of these issues. Of course, this can be done in a robust and forthright way. Let us be clear. These are not solely Sinn Féin issues. All of us have a duty and responsibility to encourage progress, harmony and equality.
For our part, Sinn Féin will not hand over political institutions and hard-won agreements to the Tories. We will continue to campaign, North and South, against austerity and to support the most vulnerable in society. We will campaign for the return of powers to grow the economy and end the union.
Tragically, as others have noted, the intransigence of the British Government in defending its state apparatus by denying victims access to truth means that legacy issues from the conflict have not been resolved. Many victims' groups are deeply disappointed with that outcome. Many have campaigned for decades. Some, such as the Ballymurphy families, the family of Pat Finucane and the victims of the Dublin-Monaghan bombings, have been campaigning for as long as 30 or 40 years.
At Stormont House last year, all of the parties and the two Governments agreed a set of interlinked mechanisms to support victims, provide disclosure and promote reconciliation. These dealt with the rights of all victims and their families, but the British Government moved away from this agreement and refused to disclose information under the guise of national security. Many of these events happened 30 or 40 years ago and there is no threat whatsoever to national security. The Taoiseach claimed that he had addressed these issues in meetings with the British Prime Minister. That is fair enough, but it is not good enough. When I raised these matters with the Taoiseach yesterday, he drew our attention to the manner in which U2 has publicised the campaign of Justice for the Forgotten. I agree with him that U2 have done more to highlight Justice for the Forgotten internationally than the Government.
The agreement also makes it clear that there is no place for paramilitary organisations in the Ireland of 2015 and commits to measures to deal with criminality. I appeal to all of us here to move beyond propaganda and rhetoric and join with us in dealing with these concerns. There is a lot of other work to be done. There is no bill of rights or charter of rights, no civic forum and no Acht na Gaeilge. If we apply ourselves we will achieve these measures in the time ahead. Why should Irish-speaking children in the North have to wait for unreconstructed Unionism to decide whether Irish language rights are permissible?
I again call for regular, perhaps monthly, debates on the North to deal with Government proposals and have discussions on all of our obligations and commitments. We are approaching the centenary of 1916. All of the parties here have commitments to a united Ireland in their policy documents. That needs to be part of the vision that guides us, rather than the bickering and point-scoring that goes on when we debate these matters. I look forward to the Taoiseach agreeing, as a matter of routine, to regular debates on the North and all matters relating to it.
I found the crass opportunism of the Tánaiste, in particular, and Deputy Martin in using these important issues to have a swipe against Sinn Féin utterly pathetic. That said, it is ironic that we are discussing an agreement entitled A Fresh Start when the reality is that what is being dished up is more of the same.
It is obvious that we are all glad there is no longer wholesale violence on the streets of Northern Ireland. In that sense, peace reigns, but the reality is that it is only on the surface. There is no peace for the victims of austerity who are already dealing with years of neoliberal policies, whether they come from Protestant or Catholic working-class communities. There is no peace for those faced with the announcement of hundreds of job losses. The idea that cutting corporation tax and imposing public expenditure cuts will make things better is an absolute joke. In any case, dividing the spoils at the top is not the same as ending sectarianism and injustice from below.
I want to put on the record the very serious issues that are being ignored in Northern society. Earlier this month, HM Prison Maghaberry was described as a prison in crisis and the worst that the Chief Inspector of Prisons had ever seen. He called it Dickensian. Serious mistakes are being made because of the inadequate way in which the problems there are being addressed. We are part of an ad hocgroup, comprising Members of the Oireachtas, which regularly visits the prison. We visit republicans and loyalists - we do not care what they are. While the issues in the two communities are uncannily similar, it is quite clear that there is an overriding problem in terms of a cultural legacy issue in the prison. The staff are still predominantly Protestant. There are very defined links between the Prison Officers' Association and the DUP, which causes problems. It is also clear that there is an undue influence from the British security services and MI5 which operates to destabilise the present. It is a very dangerous shift. A system of control and a potential end to the segregation that exists there would be a retrograde step and is certainly not the way forward.
I also want to condemn the petty, point-scoring approach of the Government and Fianna Fáil in dealing with this serious matter. This is not about political point-scoring. Rather, it is a serious assessment of whether the Stormont House Agreement offers a way forward and a better, more prosperous and sustainable future for the North. That being said, however, let us consider the agreement. Despite the fact that I do not like the petty politicking of the Government in attacking Sinn Féin, as Deputy Adams says, there has to be robust argument on this issue. I do not accept that this is the best we can get. Twenty thousand job losses in the public sector is a disaster. Proportionately, it is more than were cut from the public service here in terms of the population. We saw the disastrous effects that had on health, housing and education. I do not believe anybody who is opposed to austerity should stand over it. I do not accept the review of state assets involved, which is code for moving towards their privatisation.
I accept that there are some concessions in the agreement, but many of the social welfare cuts will still go through. We have to fight them root and branch. We should not sign up to an agreement that involves any attacks on the vulnerable or the privatisation of or cuts to public services. We need to resist such things, but we cannot resist them if we are managing, signing up to and implementing them.
James Connolly once described Parliament as a dung heap, and said that one can stand on top of it to shout louder, but whatever one does one should not fall into it. The problem is that sometimes political institutions become that dung heap. They become a trap that people can become caught in and gag on from fighting over the issues that matter. I am afraid that is what is happening with this agreement, which is not a fresh start; rather, it is a fresh austerity offensive.
It would appear that the sectarian backdrop to the Northern Ireland Assembly is being used as a cover-up for practices that would not be tolerated in a properly functioning state. The British and Irish Governments seem to be happy to ignore certain behaviour as long as both sides of the sectarian divide are talking to each other and sitting at the same table.
The Irish Government does not want to know what went on behind the scenes during the sale and purchase of Project Eagle and, God knows, neither does the Northern Assembly. I found it interesting that the Taoiseach was so eager to heap praise on the outgoing First Minister, Peter Robinson.
There are interesting times ahead and his words might be quoted back to him. With regard to whether we will ever get the truth about Project Eagle, we know the National Crime Agency is looking at it. I fear those who serve and protect the State may find the truth too unpalatable and I am not so sure we will get to it with regard to Project Eagle and what went on.
With regard to prisons, we were in Maghaberry again last Monday and we were a bit shocked at what we heard there with regard to the work of the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, for which there had been great hope. The prisoners have accepted the ICRC's proposals but it appears as if the authorities have not. There is a serious lack of political will for the introduction of a progressive prison system in Maghaberry and the Government here should show more interest in it. It is very problematic. There is talk about a new regime being introduced, which is damaging to the ongoing process and very worrying for the future. We all know that sometimes things can happen in prisons which have an impact on society outside, and we should show a stronger interest in what is happening. Of all the institutions in Northern Ireland none has changed as little as Maghaberry since the Good Friday Agreement and none needs to change so much.
When the Stormont Executive collapsed during September, leading to a further round of talks aimed at resolving the regular political crisis in the North, it led to the suspension of the Northern Irish Government due to allegations made about Sinn Féin and the DUP. Overshadowing the collapse were demands by the UK Conservative Government that the Executive introduce major changes to social welfare provision. This latest deal has been openly criticised by the Green Party, the SDLP and independents. Much clarification is needed on the deal, given the amount of money that is supposed to be there for compensation, which I believe is very dubious and needs to be clarified before the deal should even be signed.
Fundamental change in the structures of Northern Ireland is needed to deal with these episodic crises. I have always said the current model of devolution has failed to realise the ambitions of the Good Friday Agreement. It has also failed to bring about the political, social and economic changes which have been demanded by the very many people affected by austerity. If we are to avoid the cycle of crisis, a radical change is required including - something the Government has not spoken about - the introduction of a formal opposition, with the parties with the most seats forming the Executive. Incredibly, we still designate MLAs as Unionists and Nationalists. This should be abolished and done away with.
The reality is the Executive is implementing a home-grown austerity programme in the form of the Stormont House Agreement. A total of 20,000 jobs will be stripped from the public service. The Executive has borrowed approximately £750 million to fund these redundancies. Another issue which is not being spoken about much is the sale of profitable state assets such as the Belfast Harbour Estate and Translink. Anybody who believes in a socialist ethic cannot believe we would agree to the privatisation of the Belfast Harbour Estate or Translink. A central plank of the Stormont House Agreement, and its only economic strategy, is the lowering of corporation tax, which is incredible in the sense it will cost between £350 million and £500 million. If this bright idea were scrapped for starters, we would probably not have to speak about social welfare cuts. We should not be surprised that sectarianism still exists when we have not got beyond the narrow margins or confines of-----
Before elaborating on the detail of the agreement we reached last week, I will briefly recall where we stood just two and a half months ago. A situation had evolved, and at the time I described the power-sharing institutions as being at the edge of the precipice. A collapse of the institutions was a very real prospect, an outcome that would have represented a grave setback for the delivery of peace, prosperity and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
With the strong support of the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, we worked with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to urge the political leadership in Northern Ireland to pull back from the brink and to resume round-table talks aimed at resolving the impasse. I acknowledge the contribution of all parties around the table in this regard, and the US Administration and Senator Gary Hart in particular. Although the US did not directly participate at round-table level, it made a very important contribution to bring matters towards agreement. After ten weeks of hard work and commitment on the part of everybody involved I believe we have reached an agreement which may not in itself be a final destination but represents a significant step towards normalising politics and society in Northern Ireland. I agree with Deputy Adams and I believe the stark consequences of not reaching agreement was not a road down which any party wanted to proceed.
We have achieved a credible roadmap for implementing many aspects of the Stormont House Agreement and tackling the continuing impact of paramilitarism. Not only have we moved away from the edge of the precipice, we have also found firmer ground on which to build our efforts to bring greater reconciliation and economic prosperity to the people of Northern Ireland and to communities throughout the island.
I will now turn to what the agreement contains. It sets out a plan for ending paramilitarism and tackling the scourge of organised crime. Significantly, the parties have made a firm commitment to achieving a society free of paramilitarism, to working firmly for the disbandment of all paramilitary organisations and their structures and to challenging paramilitary attempts to control communities. A strategy to achieve this will be put in place by the Northern Ireland Executive and an international body will be established to report on progress on ending continuing paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland.
The Irish and British Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive have also committed to reinforce our efforts to tackle organised crime associated with the legacy of paramilitarism. We have agreed to establish a joint agency task force to identify strategic priorities for combating cross-Border organised crime and to oversee operational co-ordination. In addition, a trilateral cross-Border ministerial meeting will take place next month between my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, the Northern Ireland Minister of Justice, Mr. Ford, and the Secretary of State, Ms Villiers, to agree new measures to enhance law enforcement co-operation further.
This agreement is also about financial stability and reform. Pursuing economic prosperity and job creation is critical to building a peaceful society in Northern Ireland. In recognition of this, the Irish Government has committed to providing further funding for important infrastructure projects, such as the A5 road as well as for investment to stimulate economic growth in the north west. This is not only important for economic development in Northern Ireland but also for building an all-island economy that creates jobs and ensures prosperity. It complements the Government's focus on spreading the benefits of a recovering economy to the regions and our series of regional Action Plans for Jobs.
It is a matter of regret to me that the fresh start agreement did not include agreement on the implementation of the provisions of the Stormont House Agreement dealing with the legacy of the past. I share the deep disappointment of the victims and survivors of the Troubles and their families, including the Ballymurphy, Kingsmill, Dublin and Monaghan and Pat Finucane groups, and many others well-known to us on all sides of the House.
I am particularly disappointed given that great progress was made during the talks on many of the details of the establishment of the new institutions. I make it clear that we were very close to agreement on a range of issues, including ensuring the operational independence of the historical investigations unit and guaranteeing the anonymity and inadmissibility of information provided to the independent commission for information retrieval, ICIR, while making clear that there would be no amnesty for any criminal offences. I will repeat that, lest there be any misunderstanding: there will be no amnesty for any criminal offences. We also managed to reach a large degree of agreement on placing the implementation and reconciliation group on a statutory footing and settling on the purpose and functions of the this group. Much progress was made on the detail and operation of the oral history archive. The Irish and British Governments have also agreed on the international agreement necessary for the establishment of the ICIR. Therefore, many of the building blocks are in place for the establishment of the new legacy institutions. The crucial issue where agreement could not be found was on striking the right balance between the disclosure needs of families and the national security requirements being sought by the British Government. In the absence of agreement on this key issue, my expressed preference during the talks was to reflect in the Fresh Start agreement the range of legacy issues on which agreement was possible and reached, while also frankly acknowledging the area of disagreement where further progress was required. I felt this was important to demonstrate the amount of work done and agreed on legacy issues throughout the talks and to show victims and survivors that all parties involved were very serious about reaching a final agreement on positive outcomes for them. It was not the Irish Government that pressed for an agreement that completely left aside the legacy of the past. However, when it became clear that the choice was between having an agreement that uncoupled the past and having no agreement at all, the Government, with great reluctance, agreed to have a less comprehensive deal that would at least ensure that the devolved institutions were protected and placed on a stable and sustainable footing.
What is important now is that we find a way forward that banks the good progress already achieved during the talks and secures a solution to the remaining key issue of disclosure and national security in a way that meets the concerns of the victims, the survivors and their families. Leadership and greater flexibility will be required if we are to reach agreement on the matter. I remain convinced that the institutional framework agreed in the Stormont House Agreement offers the best possible way of bringing whatever healing is possible to those affected by the Troubles. For this to be achieved, it is vital that these new institutions have the trust and confidence of the victims and survivors and their families. The needs of victims and survivors will therefore remain central to the Government’s work.
I am determined that all efforts be made to find a solution to the key outstanding issues. My officials and I will continue to be in contact with representatives of the victims' groups, some of whom I met last night, over the coming weeks so that their views can be reflected in upcoming discussions between the Governments and with the Northern Ireland political parties. We are determined to achieve the establishment of these institutions so that we can in a fundamental way deal with the past, foster reconciliation and build a society for future generations that is free from hurt and suspicion. This is essential if the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement is to be realised.
Work will therefore continue on the vital issue of dealing with the legacy of the past, but the Fresh Start agreement is none the less a further milestone in Northern Ireland's journey towards long-term peace and stability. It tackles, once and for all, the destabilising role of paramilitary organisations. It places the institutions on a sound financial footing, which is so important for economic stability and development, and provides enhanced support for building an all-island economy, creating employment and prosperity for all.
I acknowledge the contribution and leadership of Mr. Peter Robinson, having regard to his recent decision to retire. I wish him well. I also acknowledge the work and leadership over a long number of years of Dr. Alasdair McDonnell, the former SDLP leader. I join with the Tánaiste in wishing good health from our Parliament to Mr. John Hume and his family, acknowledging as we always do his major role in the peace process. Deputy Martin asked the Government to re-engage in the process, but there has been no disengagement. The Minister of State, Deputy Sherlock, and I, along with our respective party and ministerial colleagues, continue to regard this issue as being of extreme importance. Now it is time for implementation of what we agreed. It is time for the Northern Ireland Executive and the respective parties to show that they can deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.
I join with the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, in extending my very best wishes to Mr. Robinson on his retirement, which will take effect fairly shortly. I also wish Dr. Alasdair McDonnell every good wish in the work he continues to do in Westminster on behalf of his constituents in south Belfast. He worked exceptionally hard over the years as an SDLP Assembly member and as a Member of Parliament, and I am sure that work will continue to benefit the people of Northern Ireland, particularly his constituents.
I note in the Minister's remarks a certain disappointment and frustration with the lack of progress on some of the issues. That was very evident in the replies he provided to parliamentary questions last night, particularly with regard to the literal going back on some of the progress made in dealing with legacy issues and the Stormont House Agreement of almost 12 months ago. There is also the need to deal with victims. Unfortunately, there is no fresh start for the people who have been injured and the families of victims and survivors, who have suffered enormously and continue to suffer. One comment brought to my attention came from Ms Sandra Peake of the cross-community victims' group Wave. She states "Where is the fresh start for the bilateral amputees, the blind, the paraplegic and the severely traumatised?". In fairness, the Minister's remarks and replies to the parliamentary questions I tabled indicated such frustration as well. Since progress has not been made in putting in place meaningful measures to address the real concerns and suffering of so many people, will the Minister, the British Government and the Executive parties in Northern Ireland consider some deadline for achieving a satisfactory outcome on those issues? It is only when deadlines are imminent that there seems to be progress on many of the major issues necessary to bring further political stability to Northern Ireland.
I welcome some aspects of this agreement, and I know the Minister, his colleague Deputy Sherlock and others have worked extremely hard to reach that agreement, as they did last year prior to the signing of the Stormont House Agreement on 23 December 2014. Other speakers have referred to the significant welfare cuts that will, unfortunately, come about and the major job losses in the public service. As co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, it is incumbent on the Irish Government to ensure that this latest deal is fully realised, as it is incumbent on the British Government to do the same. The series of issues that have been parked cannot go off the agenda. The Minister has indicated that he will have meetings this week on those issues and I hope he, with members of the British Government and the Executive parties, can provide some momentum and achieve what was impossible to realise in the recent agreement.
In any debate on Northern Ireland in this House, we should also refer to the very important work undertaken on an ongoing basis by the Independent Commission for the Location of Victims' Remains.
I referred to that in a debate earlier this month when Columba McVeigh's family had a Mass offered for him in Carrickroe in County Monaghan in my constituency to celebrate what would have been his 60th birthday, had he not been murdered by thugs, criminals and murderers who masqueraded as republicans at that time. Exceptionally good work has been done by the commission and it is incumbent upon all of us who have an interest in trying to ensure the remaining bodies are recovered to continue to generate awareness among the public that if there is any information that might be of assistance in locating those remains, it should be given to the relevant authorities. Every day that goes by makes it more difficult to have a successful outcome to those searches. As a Parliament representing the people, we should appeal to people who have any scintilla of information, however irrelevant it might seem at this time, that could be useful in assisting the work of the commission to make it available to the authorities without further delay.
I also wish to speak, as I have consistently done over the years in this House, about the total non-response of the British Government to the unanimous motions passed here in May 2008 and in 2011 regarding the Dublin-Monaghan bombings and the need for an eminent legal person to have access to the papers and files pertaining to them. We are all aware that in the period known as the Troubles, there were many days of terrible anguish, suffering and murder on this island caused by paramilitary groups, some masquerading as republicans and some masquerading as loyalists. Unfortunately, many people were murdered through the collusion of the British state forces as well. I think of the Dublin-Monaghan bombings and of the bombing in Belturbet in my county in December 1972. Again, we have the British Government trotting out the lame excuse of national security considerations in regard to the details that might become available to the institutions that were proposed in the Stormont House Agreement 12 months ago. It is essential that the institutions and methods proposed in the Stormont House Agreement would be advanced and that the British Government would co-operate fully and not put a roadblock in the way of those institutions which could be so beneficial if they were established.
We are all aware that, unfortunately, in May 1974, 33 people were murdered in Dublin and Monaghan and nobody has been brought to justice. There have been many instances of nobody being brought to justice for horrific crimes. It is also important that we constantly remind ourselves of the very good work carried out by Anne Cadwallader in her publication Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland, where she refers to 120 murders committed by loyalist paramilitaries and the clear evidence that some of them were armed from UDR depots. Only one person of those 120 had an association with a paramilitary group. One person was a member or was associated with the IRA at that time. The rest were all innocent people involved in the GAA, the SDLP and general community activities. They were murdered by loyalists and in many instances those loyalists were armed from UDR depots. It is appalling that no progress has been made in bringing about justice and having the thorough, necessary and genuine investigation into those murders.
With regard to the potential for cross-Border development and the development of the all-Ireland economy, that provision is made through the Good Friday Agreement. As I have said on a number of occasions in this House, the one mandate that all of us have as public representatives on this island, both North and South, is from the enactment of the Good Friday Agreement by the overwhelming majority of the people on both sides of the island in May 1998. Over 94% of people in our State voted in favour of the Good Friday Agreement and more than 72% of the electorate who cast their vote in Northern Ireland voted in favour of the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. It is a powerful mandate for democratic politics to implement the Good Friday Agreement to bring benefits to the people of all the island. We need development in regard to furthering the work of the existing all-Ireland bodies and we need new all-Ireland bodies to be established as well. There are huge areas for potential, whether in the delivery of health services, educational development or the provision of educational services.
One relatively small project in the scheme of public funding would be theNarrow Water Bridge project, which would unite two communities that have been divided in the past. We know the potential of that infrastructural development is enormous and it would bring huge benefits to the north east. It would also be a very important message to deliver together, that North and South can work together in creating new infrastructural development and delivering jobs for the people in the north east. We also need further progress as rapidly as possible on the A5 road development. Donegal, in particular, needs that infrastructure. It needs that link with our capital city. County Monaghan, part of my constituency, would also benefit from the development of the N2. They are all pieces of infrastructure that are needed and which, if put in place, would give a clear message that the all-Ireland dimension is beneficial for everybody on this island. It is not just about political assemblies or structures but also about delivering for the people through enhancing the infrastructure in their area, making their area more attractive for inward investment and the creation of much-needed employment and jobs in areas that traditionally have had difficulties due to the Troubles we had for many decades.
I, too, welcome that we are having these statements and this debate on the North in the Dáil today. Like others, I wish that this were a more regular feature of Dáil business and I urge the Government to ensure it is.
These latest negotiations were in the first instance a direct result of the crisis created by the economic and political policies of the British Government in particular, supported by the Administration in Dublin. As other speakers have acknowledged, two brutal murders in Belfast were seized upon for political reasons and this moved the crisis to an even deeper level. The negotiations have been difficult. There is no point in saying otherwise.
In economic terms, Fine Gael and her sister party, the Irish Labour Party, made common cause with the British Conservative Party in their relentless pursuit of austerity. Like the Irish Government, the Tories have used the cover of recession to cut public services and benefits and to plan further swingeing cuts to supports for working families and the poor. Through disastrous austerity policies, the Irish Government has increased inequality, work poverty, homelessness, the numbers on hospital trolleys and emigration. The British Government, the Tories, seeks to do likewise in the Six Counties. It is receiving the full support of Fine Gael and its sister party, the Labour Party, in this ambition.
We have two Governments clearly on the side of austerity. That is the position and that is the context in which this negotiation took place. Therefore, getting a positive deal was always going to be a challenge. However, Sinn Féin stood up for ordinary citizens, as we have consistently promised to do. We have secured additional moneys for the Executive which will help minimise some of the worst excesses of Tory austerity.
We make no pretence. It will do simply that.
We succeeded in securing in excess of €800 million over the next four years to support those most in need. That is what this agreement does. Other colleagues have legitimately raised their concern about Tory cuts, and I join them in echoing that concern. I also join them in echoing the need to fight austerity in Ireland, North or South, whether it is from the Tories in government in Dublin or the Tories in government in London. The money that was secured represents an increase on those moneys that were promised in the previous Stormont House Agreement. The truth is that Tory cuts, and the ability of Mr. Osborne, the chancellor in London, to inflict austerity on the citizens of the North, is a direct consequence of partition. It makes no sense for anybody in this Chamber to rail against Tory austerity in the North and to be mute on the issue of partition. If one truly wishes to see an end to Tory austerity, or the prospect of it, in the North of Ireland, one must work to end partition and to re-unify our country.
We also secured in excess of £500 million of additional funding to support the unique needs of a society emerging from decades of conflict and division, and an economy that faces the legacy of under-investment and partition. As I have said, we, in Sinn Féin, do not agree with the policies of the two Governments. We reject the idea that cutting supports and public services is good for the economy or our citizens. Austerity is wrong and it has failed. Furthermore, those in the Tory Government who inflict austerity on the North have no mandate in any part of Ireland, from any section of our people or from any community. Therefore, austerity in the North is clearly the price of the union.
For its part, Sinn Féin stands for investment in growth and prosperity, for fairness and equality, and for supports and services for those in need, and therefore, we support and take the option of minimising and frustrating Tory ambitions for wholesale austerity and cutbacks in the North of Ireland. We believe that the continued operation of the political institutions, for all of their flaws, is the best way to build a strong platform against austerity cuts by the Tories. It is the best way to maintain a level of control over our public services. It is the best way, potentially, to grow the economy and to support those most in need.
I will say a few words on the issue of the harmonisation of the corporation tax rates across Ireland because Members have raised legitimate concerns in that regard. I point out, and I am sure everybody who has contributed to this debate has read the agreement, that such a harmonisation is contingent on "affordability". This word is in the agreement for a purpose. I also point out the absolute imperative at this stage to secure fiscal powers for the Executive and the Assembly in the North. At this juncture, it is absolutely essential. We cannot ask those elected to the Northern Ireland Executive to oversee economic development and generation and to oversee adequate public service provision with two hands tied behind their back. The argument now must be made with one voice - republican, loyalist, Unionist and Nationalist - from Ireland that those fiscal powers be returned to the Executive in Belfast. The Irish Government needs to focus seriously on creating an all-island economy. Recent reports have shown just how important and positive an all-island economy can be - a win-win North and South.
I am conscious that some, particularly in Fianna Fáil, called for the institutions to collapse in the course of the recent crisis. All that would achieve is political disenfranchisement of those who in many instances in the North - I am thinking particularly of the Nationalist community - were disenfranchised for generations in a partitioned Ireland. It would also allow for full-blown unrestrained Tory austerity on communities in the North. This would be a social, political, and economical disaster. Fianna Fáil may wish to reconsider that rather petulant position.
On the issue of the past, everybody has expressed their disappointment that full agreement was not reached on these matters. That disappointment is shared by us in Sinn Féin.
Let us put on the record the cause of the failure because there was agreement on the mechanisms for truth recovery and to afford some level of closure and comfort for victims and survivors, irrespective of the community from which they come. That agreement was there and then in comes the British Administration with concerns, it said, around national security. Actually, it had nothing whatsoever to do with national security and everything to do with the ongoing refusal of the British Government and the British system to disclose, tell the truth and give the information that families from across the community require to establish what happened to their loved ones. That is a matter of disgrace on the part of the British Government. Dublin and all of us elected here need to take a much firmer line and much more vocal approach in saying that loud and clear.
Previous speakers have said that things happen in the North that would not happen in a properly functioning state. I could not agree more. I remind those Members that the North is not a properly functioning state.
The North is not a properly functioning state and, by way of a newsflash for those who did not notice, Ireland is partitioned, the Border is a contested border and the consequences of partition are felt, North and South. Those who are frustrated by the rounds of negotiations who say, "Not this all over again", should bear in mind that in order to achieve full normalisation, full democracy and full economic potential, we need to address the issue of partition. Those in government, those in Fianna Fáil and others in opposition might factor that into their thinking and analysis from hereon in.
A "bad deal, fit only for a land of pound shops and food banks", is how the trade union movement vividly and accurately described last year's Stormont House Agreement in advertisements in newspapers. Now, after a year of political crisis in the North, we have "A Fresh Start" agreement, which, in reality, is a worse deal again. Far from a fresh start, it is a rotten continuation of austerity and sectarianism.
Hypocrisy abounds in this debate. The Fine Gael, Fianna Fáil and Labour parties all are guilty of gross hypocrisy for crowing about the austerity Sinn Féin is implementing when they are in favour of that austerity, both in the North and in the South. The hypocrisy of Sinn Féin also has to be highlighted. After months of bombastic posturing on the issue, we have the incredible situation that they, together with the DUP and the Alliance Party, have, Pontius Pilate-like, attempted to wash their hands of responsibility for welfare reform by simply voting to hand power to implement those vicious cuts to the Tories in Westminster.
Voting to give them power to implement cuts, while continuing to say the campaign against Tory cuts must continue, is not a very effective way of stopping them. The £585 million supposedly to mitigate the worst effects of welfare reform is less than the previous amount agreed, while there are more welfare cuts than previously agreed. The £585 million is not new money but will come from cuts to other public services, and the effect of welfare reform on the poorest in Northern Ireland will be devastating. Reports in Britain show a rise in homelessness, child poverty, mental health problems and even suicide rates among claimants.
The agreement reaffirms that the Northern Ireland Assembly will borrow £700 million to introduce an estimated 20,000 job losses in the civil service through the voluntary exit scheme, which will have a devastating impact on the Northern economy. Whether they are lost through voluntary or compulsory redundancies, the jobs are no longer there for young people leaving education in a context where the private sector is particularly weak. The new agreement warns of challenging cost reductions for all departments and a commitment to "structural reform in the big spending areas of education, health and justice". What does this remind people of? It is the language of the troika, not of those who oppose austerity. "Structural reform" in health is the threat to close mental health day care centres, residential homes and even the threat of closure that lies over the accident and emergency department at the Mater Infirmorum Hospital in Belfast.
Austerity is a political choice to make the unemployed and workers rather than the super-rich pay for a crisis they did not cause. The choice has been made primarily by the Tories in Westminster but also, in the next round, by the DUP and Sinn Féin. Parties cannot credibly claim to stand against austerity in the South while implementing austerity on this island. It has not worked for the Labour Party in the South and it will not work for Sinn Féin in the North. Those who support Sinn Féin and who are overwhelmingly opposed to austerity should ask Sinn Féin how it will be different in the South if, for example, Sinn Féin is in a coalition with Fianna Fáil and the Labour Party and the EU seeks cuts. Added to all this austerity is the incredible reference to the reduction in corporation tax, which is there for a reason and which will cost £300 million per year. This is not a fresh start for young people, workers or the unemployed. More austerity, perpetuating sectarianism and more tax cuts for the rich is not a fresh start.
Given that in many parts of the world, families and communities are experiencing violence and living in war zones, the peace achieved in the North is very valuable. However, in the rush to have it signed so it could be called the Good Friday Agreement, issues were left unresolved. Those issues are still unresolved and are not resolved by the Stormont House Agreement. While they remain unresolved, they will lead to discord and disagreement.
The failure on the part of the Richard Haass group on flags was a continuation of the failure of previous groups. The agreement is kicking it to touch for another 18 months, and the same applies to the parades issue. Section F regarding the shared outcomes contains very fine rhetoric about principles, ideals, cultural expression and an "open, tolerant and mutually respectful society" and "shared identity". What do these fine words mean to those who feel disenfranchised, disengaged and disillusioned by politics in Northern Ireland? I am thinking of the men and women from both loyalist and republican communities who opposed the Good Friday Agreement, as is their right. Putting these people in prison on very lengthy remands, not giving them due process or bringing them to court, not engaging with them on the unresolved political issues and leaving very serious prison issues unresolved is not helping to create the conflict-free environment which the prisoners want. There is an obvious lack of will on many sides to resolve these issues.
Some £44 million went to the projects promoting reconciliation and they are doing very fine work. However, their work will continue to be incomplete while questions remain unanswered. Some 40 years after the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, issues still remain unresolved. The Justice for the Forgotten group are getting more publicity and recognition through the U2 concerts and music than they are getting here or in other political circles. They are tired of continually receiving the same answers from the Government: that the Irish Government fully supported the all-party Dáil motions in 2008 and 2011, that the British Government would provide full access to all the original documents, that the Irish Government had raised it with the British Government on a number of occasions, and that the British Government is actively considering how it can respond.
Collusion is an issue. While the new historical investigations unit and the independent commission are being presented as the way forward, there must be full, open disclosure. We must see how the flow of information can be facilitated. Irish voices must be stronger in challenging the British Government to demand a definition of "national security". While disclosure will embarrass the British Government, saving its blushes or embarrassment is not a matter of national security. There seems to be more emphasis on the infrastructure projects than on addressing these very important legacy matters and the way in which sections of society feel abandoned by the Good Friday Agreement.
I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for the opportunity to speak on this very important debate on recent developments in Northern Ireland. I welcome the debate on the agreement between the parties in the North. While there will be problems and difficulties along the way, it is important to sit back and calmly examine where we all came from. It hit me last Monday night when I arrived at the 3Arena for the U2 gig. The first people I met when I walked in the door were Margaret Irwin and other members of Justice for the Forgotten, the families of the victims of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, who were guests of U2. The theme of the event was peace, justice, truth and reconciliation. It is a reminder to us all in today’s debate that in order to move on, build a new Ireland and a new, inclusive and democratic society, we must do business with our political enemies and hammer out agreements that most people can live with. This is where we are.
I have concerns about welfare issues and the health, education and other services for people with disabilities. The Tory Government holds the purse in the North, and this is where people should direct their anger. I am very interested in the concept of a so-called fresh start and implementing aspects of the Stormont House Agreement. I commend Peter Robinson and, unlike some of my point-scoring colleagues, I also mention the fantastic work Martin McGuinness did. People who play politics with the peace process are not going anywhere. If people risk their lives and take major political decisions, we have a duty to support them. I would love to have a single corporation tax rate for the island and I welcome the tax harmonisation. I hope the companies pay the 12.5%.
There are all sorts of scams whereby companies do not pay the 12.5%. The agreement refers to investing in the future. We must tackle these issues and be strong. Let us work together on dealing with crime North and South of the Border. I will not take any lectures from Tories or Tory supporters in this country when they talk about crime but have no problem spending billions of pounds building Trident nuclear weapons and will not invest in services for people with disabilities, teachers or education. It is an important step, and we need to focus. While we can fight like hell on the socioeconomic issues, I welcome this important step in resolving the conflict on the island.
I am delighted to have the opportunity to respond to the statements so far. I have listened with interest to the debate and we must bear in mind that the agreement is entitled A Fresh Start. The agreement is not a final destination but represents a step forward towards normalising politics and society in Northern Ireland. I share the articulation of the disappointment on the issues around legacy.
As a result of where I am and where my generation is in relation to the legacy issues, we bear a certain responsibility for dealing with the past. Is it going to take another generation, or a generation beyond that? When I look at the pupils and students who are here as visitors today, I wonder whether we will have to wait for someone of their generation to finally crack the legacy issues and to deal with the past. Successive Irish Governments, regardless of their political persuasions, have sought to lean in towards the British Government on these issues in a forceful and genuine manner. If we are going to talk about it in a rhetorical way, it is important for all of us - from a party political point of view - to be honest with each other about just what that will mean in real terms. It will involve the British Government and people from other party political perspectives opening up the closets and seeing where the skeletons are, and if we are honest with ourselves, we will admit that it is incumbent on us all to look deeply at just what the issues of disclosure and national security mean. Are they used as mere words to protect entities against the letting in of the light?
There has been much mention in this Chamber of the campaign that is being run by U2. It would appear that many Members of this House have been at the U2 concerts that have taken place in recent days, at which there has been a particular articulation in relation to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. I can say in good stead with a degree of integrity that this and previous Governments have consistently sought to ensure the mandate given by this House on the issue of disclosure in this regard is fulfilled. We will continue to do that. The agreement is incomplete if we always have to come back to the legacy issues and the need to deal with the past. It seems to be an iterative process on this island. I do not mean to be ageist when I say that my generation fails to understand why these issues cannot be surmounted. We need to deal with them assuredly. We need to ensure we speak for the victims. If we can get beyond these issues, we can achieve a greater degree of transparency.
When I talk to ordinary citizens in the Six Counties of the North, it does not appear to me that they are as engaged as they might be with the issues at Stormont. The constant cry I hear from ordinary people of all persuasions is "they need to get on with it up on the hill". That is what people seem to want. They want normal, normative politics and a real economy. Every Government needs to move towards assisting and facilitating that, and cajoling for it, in every possible way. As Minister of State with responsibility for North-South co-operation, I can say we have made a real commitment in the form of the additional £25 million that is being provided for the A5 project. It is important that we unlock the potential of the north west of this island. It could be argued that there is a disparity in growth and economic prosperity between the regions to the east and the west of the River Bann. We need to do more to unlock the potential of the north west, particularly the Donegal-Derry region. That is what we are working towards.
As a Minister of State with an economic Ministry, it is no harm for me to say on the record of this House that my colleagues and I recently visited the Bombardier facility in Belfast. Two companies from the South of Ireland - Dawnlough from Galway and Takumi from Limerick - are sub-supplying parts and components for the aerospace and aeronautical industry into Bombardier. That is the island or the Ireland that I want to see. I want big companies like Bombardier, which is a significant player in the global aerospace industry, to source their materials from as near as possible, and preferably on the island of Ireland. Such an approach will sustain jobs in the North and the South, sustain a real economy and really knit the two parts of this island together in the way that needs to happen. It will allow us to move beyond some of the empty rhetoric that is sometimes employed when we talk about the North, the South or North-South co-operation.
As I have said, we feel that this is an iterative process. We feel strongly that the legacy issue remains outstanding. We feel an obligation to the families, the victims and those people who want to deal with the past in a transparent way. We will continue to feel that way and I believe those who step into the breach long after people like me cease to inhabit positions of this nature will continue to do so. At what point do we ask ourselves certain questions? Do a certain number of generations have to pass while people seek justice before these matters are forgotten and written out of history? At what point in the next number of years can we get beyond this issue or deal with it in a substantive way? As long as it is not dealt with, it will continue to cast a shadow over everything we are doing to try to bring about the normalisation of society and, as has been said here, move towards a society that is beyond conflict.
I want to acknowledge the roles of the First Minister, Peter Robinson, and the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness. I want to say in a personal way that they are tough negotiators and formidable politicians. I would say that when it came to hammering out a deal on real economy, the restoration of normal politics and the restoration of the institutions, they had the best interests of the people of the North at heart. There are still many flaws and issues that need to be dealt with, however. I am not going to critique people in another part of this island, in the context of my vision for a greater degree of traction on the issues that are still outstanding, other than to say that this deal offers the potential for realpolitikto reign supreme within the Stormont institution. It has to be recorded for historical purposes - I am thinking of the future historians who will parse through these debates - that the issue of welfare legislation will now pass to Westminster for this period. That is a fact.
I will conclude by responding to those who have spoken about sister parties. I have never witnessed a debate that featured so many references to Westminster, George Osborne and the Tories. To be honest, maybe it is time for us to look at the abstentionist policy.