Tuesday, 11 May 2021
Ceisteanna Eile - Other Questions
58. To ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade the outcome of discussions he had with members of the Northern Ireland Executive and the UK Government on the need to implement the Stormont House and the Fresh Start agreements in full. [1573/21]
The Stormont House and Fresh Start agreements need to be implemented to deal with legacy issues. I welcome the coroner's report today on the Ballymurphy massacre. A sense of relief was so evident as I listened this evening to the families of those innocent people who were murdered by state forces. The anguish and suffering those families were put through as a result of the heinous crimes committed by the British army was horrific. Unfortunately there are many other families still grieving the loss of a loved one who have not gotten the truth and in some instances, they have been subjected to appalling lies and smears. Legacy issues must be dealt with.
I propose to take Questions Nos. 58 and 73 together.
The position of the Government with respect to the legacy of the past in Northern Ireland has been clear and consistent for a number of years now. The Stormont House Agreement framework was reached collectively by both Governments and the political parties after intensive negotiations. To be completely accurate, the UUP did not support it but the other parties did. It is vital that we make progress on this for the victims and families who have been waiting for so long and for society as a whole, as we seek to build deeper reconciliation. The Government has continued to engage on this issue since the Stormont House Agreement was reached in 2014 and to work for that important progress. We want to see the agreement implemented.
In March of last year, the UK Government issued a written ministerial statement that proposed to significantly depart from the Stormont House Agreement. Since then, I have spoken regularly with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland to express our strong concerns and to reiterate the importance of a collective approach consistent with the Stormont House Agreement, and one which is compliant with international human rights obligations. I reaffirmed those critical principles to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland when we met last week in Dublin and strongly advised him against any unilateral action on these very sensitive issues.
Media reports last week of possible plans to introduce a statute of limitations have caused significant upset, shock and concern in Northern Ireland. In my time as Minister for Foreign Affairs, I have met with many victims and survivors from both communities. I know how hurt they are at the idea of being denied a route to pursue justice on behalf of their loved ones.
As per the Stormont House Agreement framework, there is a need to take a comprehensive view of how to achieve progress and reconciliation for society as a whole but the needs of victims and families must be at the heart of the process.
I join Deputy Smith in welcoming the report released today on the Ballymurphy massacre. I have had the privilege of meeting the families who have been involved in decades of campaigning for justice. Today's ruling was hugely significant and important, making it absolutely clear that none of the ten people killed over that three-day period nearly 50 years ago was guilty of anything. They should not have been killed in the way they were.
I thank the Minister for his response. I remember meeting the Ballymurphy families in the Dáil in 2014. If memory serves me, a motion was passed unanimously in the House in 2015 in support of the families. I very much welcome and do not doubt the Government's commitment to dealing with legacy issues but the British Government must be equally committed, which has not been the case so far, unfortunately. The Minister used the phrases "strong concern" and "critical principles" and referred to the unacceptability of unilateral action by the British Government. I am glad that the Minister has reiterated those comments in the House this evening; it is extremely important. I mentioned that there was an agreed motion on the Ballymurphy massacre and he will recall that there were also agreed motions on the Dublin and Monaghan bombings in 2008, 2011 and 2016. In those motions we called on the British Government to give an independent legal expert access to papers relevant to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. Sadly, the British Government has not responded to the request of a sovereign parliament. We must pursue that vigorously again because we will soon reach the 47th anniversary of those terrible atrocities.
On Ballymurphy, the significance of the report that was released today should not be underestimated. This happened over a three-day period almost five decades ago. The families involved are representative of many families across Northern Ireland from different backgrounds and communities who have been tortured for decades because they have not been believed, understood or listened to and they have not managed to establish the truth. In order for reconciliation to be as powerful as it needs to be in the context of Northern Ireland and its future, we must ensure that we have a structured system that can establish the truth where possible and pursue justice, where possible. Many victims' families recognise that the pursuit of justice in a court may not be possible in many cases but they certainly want that opportunity. That is what the Stormont House Agreement delivers and we will continue to support that.
I agree with the Minister. I know families who have lost loved ones and who have never gotten justice. They have never gotten the truth regarding who carried out the atrocities. In December 1972 in my own home area of Belturbet, County Cavan, two young teenagers, Geraldine O'Reilly and Patrick Stanley, were killed by a bomb. RTÉ will broadcast a programme tonight about the bombing of Belturbet. Last year I brought information to this House that had been passed to me by senior academics from the University of Nottingham. Their research showed clearly that there was collusion with state forces in Northern Ireland regarding the transport of that bomb from County Fermanagh into County Cavan on that tragic night. The Minister for Justice is pursuing that matter with the northern authorities at my request.
In every opportunity the Minister has to meet with members of the British Government, and when working with members of the Northern Ireland Executive, it is absolutely important that it is emphasised that we must get the truth. These families have said to me that they are getting older and that they need to get the truth as soon as possible.
For legacy to work, the approach must be built on consensus. That is the real challenge here for politicians to deliver. We must work closely with the British Government and work with all parties in Northern Ireland, so that we can bring all the communities in Northern Ireland with us. If we are going to establish the truth, people will have to come forward and speak about things which they may not have spoken about for decades. We will have to ensure PSNI files are made available. We will have to do our part on this side of the Border also. We have passed legislation to allow members of An Garda Síochána to contribute to inquests in Northern Ireland, which is legally a different jurisdiction.
Both Governments must work together to deliver a structure that can manage the legacy of the past in a way that contributes positively to reconciliation in the future. That is why I have been so direct in saying that neither Government should take unilateral action. We must work through this together. Most importantly, we must bring along political parties in Northern Ireland and victims’ groups and their families have to be at the heart of everything we do, first and foremost. No other issues should be prioritised over those objectives.