Wednesday, 2 February 2005
Northern Ireland Issues: Motion.
Paul Bradford (Fine Gael)
I welcome the debate and thank Senator Minihan for presenting it to us. I have listened to his comments on Northern Ireland on many occasions in this House and he has been consistent and fearless in the manner in which he has presented his point of view. No democratic political party can find any difficulty with this motion and it will be passed by the House. The question we must ask ourselves is where the peace process can go from here.
I congratulate Senator Dardis on his fine contribution. However, I disagree somewhat with his contention that we were all duped. Over the course of the past eight or ten years, those of us who have engaged with Northern political figures and attended the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation all recognised that much of what needed to be said could not be said. We all acknowledge that the Good Friday Agreement left some questions unanswered and that the concept of fudge had to become part of the political foundation. However, it was inevitable as the process moved towards completion that the difficult questions would have to be asked.
Those questions are now being posed at an interesting time in the political process and peace process and in the history of this country. In approximately 11 years time, at which point I hope most of us will be alive if not Members of this House, the country will commemorate the centenary of the 1916 Rising. Already some political parties are talking about their plans for that commemoration. It is an occasion which everyone is entitled to commemorate in the manner of their choosing. However, we should reflect a little before considering 1916 as some type of starting point in Irish history. One can talk about 1916, 1921, 1922, 1798 or 1801. Everyone has their own starting point.
However, in the calendar year of 1998, Irish people, North and South, voted for the Good Friday Agreement. That is the new starting point for modern Irish history. All of Ireland had a say democratically and all Irish people, Unionist, Nationalist, Catholic, republican, dissenter and whatever other tags one wishes to use, conclusively decided that the political roadmap for this island is the Good Friday Agreement. The political task before us in the Seanad and our colleagues in the Dáil, Westminster and Belfast is to implement that Agreement. This is a simple task in some respects but a complex one in another sense.
Since 1998, week by week, month by month and year by year, that is the struggle which has been under way. It is a struggle that must continue. I compliment the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, and the British Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, because they have been the main figures on the political stage since 1998. We cannot move away from the core objective which is the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, under which we accepted compromise as did Unionists and Nationalists in Northern Ireland.
There is no need to talk of the glorious deeds of 80 or 100 years ago. We must respect what happened in the past and those people who took various positions, be it in 1912, 1916, 1921, 1922, 1937 or whenever. We are today's generation and must write the next chapter in the history book. The first page in the chapter must start with the Good Friday Agreement of 1998 and it is upon that Agreement our focus must remain.
Despite the constraints of time, it is important to address the issue of language, as several Members have done. We have spoken of republicanism and how that word has been "kidnapped" by one political party. Perhaps we should blame ourselves for allowing that to happen. Republicanism is a valid creed. Senator Ryan made the point that he did not see any monarchists in this House and that, therefore, every Member is a republican. Sinn Féin is not a republican party but rather an ultra-nationalist party.
The latter is also a valid political creed. I disagree with much of what that party stands for and almost everything it attempts to do politically and the manner of those attempts. However, Sinn Féin is entitled to be considered an Irish Nationalist party, just as there is a nationalist party in the UK. It is not a republican party because to be such necessitates an absolute and endless respect and consideration for other people's point of view and democratic entitlement to differ. Sinn Féin seems to have a difficulty with this.
I wish to put on record that I do not believe for one moment there was no Sinn Féin or Sinn Féin-IRA involvement in the bank robbery before Christmas. I do not believe for one moment there is not some degree of linkage between the membership of Sinn Féin and that of the IRA. We all know that link is there. However, I believe that the vast majority of Sinn Féin members and their elected representatives want an island that is at peace. Most supporters of that party who voted for the Good Friday Agreement want to see it implemented.
However, as in case of the Cumann na nGaedheal Party and earlier versions of the Fianna Fáil Party in the 1920s and 1930s, Sinn Féin must ask itself fundamental questions. There will not be 100% unanimity on the answers because the process which led to the Good Friday Agreement and the Agreement itself will not satisfy every member of Sinn Féin. However, the Irish people have voted for it and we must insist on its implementation.
I agree with what my colleague, Senator Brian Hayes, said regarding the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. I was fortunate to serve on that body from 1994 to 1997. It was an excellent example of not just getting people around a table but almost forcing them around a table to listen to each other. For once we had a room in which politicians seemed to do as much listening as talking, which we sometimes find difficult to do. It was difficult on occasions to listen to political arguments from standpoints with which we felt very uncomfortable. As Senator Dardis said, while it may not have been difficult it was somewhat uneasy to meet for the first time the players, particularly from the republican field of politics, of whom we had our own mental picture. Those were the little rivers we had to cross politically to try to bring peace to Ireland. We must continue to focus on the Good Friday Agreement and what it contains and prohibits. It certainly prohibits criminality of all forms. It is not a question of definition. We all know what constitutes a crime. It is not a question of playing with words. Criminality is absolutely prohibited by the Good Friday Agreement, which was approved by the Irish people.
We must return to talks. On my previous occasion in this House and sadly also in the other House on too many occasions, we had to speak about the politics of the latest murder in Northern Ireland. We cannot go back to that phase of Irish history. We need inclusivity with every political party around the table. However, we must be absolutely firm in our dealings with those who speak for the republican parties that criminality, including kidnappings, bank robberies and so-called "punishment beatings", have no place in the modern Ireland.
The mandate was given in May 1998 in the referenda on the Good Friday Agreement. This is the starting point to which we must stick. The political discussions need to be renewed and progress needs to be made. I wish the Minister of State and his Government colleagues well in this task. It is the biggest issue not just facing the Government but also the country. Peace on this island in its limited form has allowed us to create the Celtic tiger. It played a big role in the economic and social advancement of the country. If Ireland is to progress North and South the peace process needs to be back on track as soon as possible.