Tuesday, 11 May 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 5, inclusive, together.
I spoke with the First Minister, Mrs. Arlene Foster, on 28 April to wish her well after her announcement that she would be stepping down as First Minister of Northern Ireland and as leader of the DUP. I have had a positive working relationship with Arlene in a variety of roles over the years. In particular, I valued our constructive engagement, notwithstanding our differences, in our respective roles of Taoiseach and First Minister. I conveyed my best wishes to Arlene and her family for the future.
On 9 April I had phone calls with the First Minister, Arlene Foster, and the deputy First Minister, Michelle O'Neill. We discussed the current unrest on the streets of Northern Ireland and related issues. We agreed there was no excuse for violence and the attacks on police officers and others. I stressed the needs for ongoing dialogue and support for the peace process and the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. I also welcomed the statement from the Northern Ireland Executive, published on 8 April 2021, condemning the violence and unrest on the streets. We agreed to keep in close contact on developments.
As previously outlined to the Dáil, I have also spoken with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on a number of occasions, in particular, regarding Covid-19 and our respective approaches to the implementation and easing of restrictions.
As ever, I thank the Taoiseach for his full response.
There are number of key issues to discuss but like others, including Deputy McDonald, I believe it is important to note the verdict of the investigation into the Ballymurphy massacre and the need for continuing engagement between the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister on all issues relating to legacy and the slightly worrying comments out of the Queen's speech to Parliament today.
Specifically, in respect of this question, I wish to raise the absolute need for deep engagement on the part of the Taoiseach and all Ministers in the Government with our partners in Northern Ireland in the coming weeks and months. Significant transition is about to take place and we all know the issues and the serious concerns that are at the back of many minds. How will the Taoiseach proceed to ensure that all meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council go ahead in the coming weeks and months? How will he reset relations with the new First Minister in the coming weeks? As for the issues the people of Northern Ireland are currently facing, how can we ensure that the Irish Government plays an proactive role in ensuring that fears are allayed and that we get back to enjoying the most normal relations possible in the interest of everyone on this island, regardless of their political background or lack of one?
We dealt earlier with how we finally have an element of justice for those who were killed in Ballymurphy in 1971. We feared the possibility of unilateral action from the British Government in respect of an amnesty for killings involving state forces. We believed we were in a bad situation in respect of relationships and what have you. Obviously, Brexit has been absolutely destabilising and has destabilised unionism but we need to ensure that, for the want of a better term, we can put the show on the road and that the Good Friday Agreement is enacted in every way possible. We have the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. We must ensure that the North-South Ministerial Council meets whenever necessary.
Therefore, we must engage with all those who may be leaders within unionism to ensure that we can deliver. I accept that there is a leadership contest under way but we must get our ducks in a row to ensure there is continuity. That means having straight conversations with the British Government, the Northern Ireland Executive and with leaders of unionism, in particular.
I welcome the coroner's conclusions regarding the Ballymurphy massacre. It is a vindication for the families who have campaigned so hard down through the decades. It is a real scandal that the British state prevented the truth from coming out for 50 years. Today also, the British Government has declared an amnesty for its troops, which is a slap in the face to the Ballymurphy families and others. There must be no obstacles placed in the way of families campaigning for truth and justice around these issues.
In conclusion, the coroner criticised the British army troops of the infamous Parachute Regiment. The truth was told about Derry and it is now being told about Ballymurphy. I ask the Taoiseach to raise with the First Minister the point that the truth must also be told about the paratroopers' shooting of civilians on the Shankill Road.
In response to Deputy Richmond's questions, it is extremely important that the meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council proceed and that all parties to the Good Friday Agreement honour their obligations under it. That involves full attendance at the sectoral meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council. I was glad that that did happen in the transport sector in terms of the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan's sectoral meeting in the presence of Ms Nichola Mallon and the First Minister.
In respect of the new First Minister and whosoever is elected, my door is always open and I will work to constructively engage, as I have always done and will continue to do. I believe the only way we can work on this island is for all politicians from all persuasions to engage in the democratic process and dialogue, as well as to seek to reach understandings on common ideas and projects. The shared island initiative that we have undertaken is designed to be a constructive dialogue and engagement with all sectors on the island of Ireland. This includes research projects, industrial joint projects, education and infrastructural and amenity projects like the Ulster Canal and the greenways projects and much more. We have provided half a billion euro in funding to enable us to do that. We are working on a whole range of projects in that regard.
We will do everything we possibly can to allay the fears of certain sectors of society in the North. However, we also need to move strongly in respect of working with the British Government and the Northern Ireland Executive on educational disadvantage, school completion and supporting young people in communities that do not have a tradition of school completion or progression to further and third level education. We must take the initiatives to alter that once and for all and create a new paradigm for young people born into certain communities within Northern Ireland who have not had that experience or tradition. That needs to change in terms of the future of Northern Ireland.
On legacy issues, I believe that the framework is there in terms of the Stormont House Agreement of 2014. There can be no unilateral changing of what has been agreed between two Governments and all of the political parties in the North. In my view, the victims and those killed by state security forces, the IRA and loyalist paramilitaries need justice and there must be accountability. We have always been conscious of the needs of victims and the need to prioritise their needs in dealing with legacy issues. The legacy issues have dragged on for far too long. Too many families are without closure or the satisfactory provision of information and transparency around the death of their loved ones, often in very brutal and savage circumstances.
In my view, that is something we have to continue to keep in mind. It is about the victims, what they have gone through and what their families have gone through in particular.
That also applies to Deputy Barry's question. The truth should always win out in respect of atrocities carried out by whomever, and particularly in terms of either the Parachute Regiment or other state security endeavours. There have been lots of comprehensive inquiries under way in regard to collusion. Operation Kenova - or Project Kenova, or whatever title it has - is going on at the moment. It is a very widespread investigation in terms of Stakeknife and all that and the engagement between elements within the paramilitaries and state security services. We need the truth to all of this. We need to understand what happened and the victims and families, in particular, need to understand. They have waited far too long for all of this to come out.