Thursday, 28 November 2002
British-Irish Agreement (Amendment) Bill, 2002: Second Stage.
The Government is bringing before the House a Bill to amend the British-Irish Agreement Act, 1999. I express my gratitude to the House for its recognition of the urgency involved in passing this important legislation. Given this urgency, the approval of the House for an earlier signature motion will also be sought.
The Northern Ireland Assembly was temporarily suspended on 15 October. This suspension has necessitated the remedial legislation before the House today. This legislation will ensure the North-South Implementation Bodies established under the Good Friday Agreement are able to continue their work during the period of suspension of the Assembly.
The suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly six weeks ago came as a disappointment to all of us committed to the Good Friday Agreement, in letter and in spirit. In a joint statement issued following the announcement of suspension the British and Irish Governments expressed their firm belief that the Agreement offered the only viable future for all the people of Northern Ireland.
One of the reasons the suspension of the Assembly is so disappointing is that devolution has largely been a success in Northern Ireland. The overwhelming majority of the population of Northern Ireland, both Unionist and Nationalist, voted for it in 1998. There have been difficulties associated with the implementation of certain other aspects of the Agreement. Nevertheless, it is clear the people of Northern Ireland feel positively about being represented by their own locally elected Assembly. Moreover, it has been a source of great satisfaction to those of us involved in parliamentary politics in this part of the island to see the positive contribution the legislative Assembly has made to political life in Northern Ireland.
The Executive has also served the people of Northern Ireland well in tackling the day-to-day tasks of public administration. Locally elected Ministers, representative of both traditions, have together taken important decisions which affect the daily lives of all the people of Northern Ireland. These arrangements, which bring inclusive government to the people of Northern Ireland, offer the best hope for future peace and stability in the region.
It is, therefore, our hope devolved government in Northern Ireland will be restored as soon as possible, well in advance of the Assembly elections scheduled for May next year. In the meantime, all of us who are committed to the full and rapid implementation of the Good Friday Agreement in all its aspects need to approach collectively the problems which face us, problems of damaged trust and frustrated expectations. Our priority now must be to address these problems with the participation of all those who support the Agreement. They have legitimate concerns which must be heard and, together with the British Government, we are engaged in consultation with them in the hope of encouraging the conditions in which suspension will be lifted.
The progress that needs to be made demands the full and constructive engagement of all those committed to the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Such engagement was clearly in evidence at last week's round table talks in Belfast, which I was pleased to attend. I will travel to Belfast later with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Cowen, for the second round of talks and look forward to further progress.
It is my sincere hope the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland will be restored as soon as possible. Pending their restoration, this remedial legislation is necessary to protect the North-South bodies and ensure they can continue to perform their important public functions. I take this opportunity to set out for the House exactly the reason this is the case and what will be the effect of the legislation.
The North-South bodies were established by an international agreement between the British and Irish Governments in accordance with the provisions of strand two of the Good Friday Agreement. That international agreement was then given effect in domestic legislation by the British-Irish Agreement Act, 1999. Under the terms of the international agreement, the North-South bodies were placed under the direction of the North-South Ministerial Council. The Council brings together Ministers from both parts of the island to develop formal North-South co-operation across an agreed range of sectors. At North-South Ministerial Council meetings Northern and Southern Ministers jointly direct and mandate the work programmes of the bodies in accordance with their statutory functions as laid down in the international agreement. The bodies are accountable to the Council for the fulfilment of their mandates and also require Council approval for a wide range of administrative matters such as annual budgets, operating plans, staffing levels and the appointment of board members.
Due to the suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly, it is, unfortunately, not possible for the Council to meet. In the absence of Council meetings, the North-South bodies are unable to receive the necessary ministerial direction for their work and approval in relation to their administrative affairs. The system put in place to ensure their proper accountability, therefore, cannot function as it should. The continued successful operation of the North-South bodies would be affected in such circumstances.
The two Governments are determined that the temporary suspension of the Assembly should not jeopardise the achievements of the Good Friday Agreement and, therefore, in order to protect and maintain the North-South bodies during the period of suspension, the two Governments last week signed a supplementary agreement which amends the agreements under which the North-South bodies were established.
This supplementary agreement will enable the two Governments to take decisions in relation to the North-South bodies which would ordinarily be taken by the North-South Ministerial Council. It was concluded by an exchange of letters between my colleague, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, and the British ambassador. The text of these letters forms a Schedule to the Bill. It is now necessary for us to give effect in domestic legislation to these agreed temporary changes in the governance of the North-South bodies and that is the purpose of the Bill.
The North-South bodies, together with the North-South Ministerial Council to which they are accountable, are a key element of what was agreed on Good Friday 1998. The Agreement is unique in that it recognises and reflects the totality of relationships in these islands, one of which is the relationship between the two parts of this island. The provisions for formal North-South co-operation contained in strand two of the Agreement are a recognition of the importance of this relationship. In the North-South Ministerial Council and the North-South bodies we at last have a forum in which the relationship can be expressed and developed.
Prior to the suspension of the Assembly the North-South Ministerial Council had met on a total of 65 occasions in a wide variety of locations across the island of Ireland. At these meetings Ministers from North and South jointly mandated formal co-operation across an agreed range of sectors, including agriculture, education, environment, health, transport and tourism.
The Council has also met four times in plenary format, twice in Dublin and twice in Armagh. These have been historic occasions. Ministers from both parts of the island have gathered around the table to discuss matters concerning the people of Ireland, North and South, and agree ways in which the two Administrations can work together for the benefit of all. The Government looks forward to renewed engagement with our Unionist and Nationalist ministerial colleagues in the North-South Ministerial Council following the restoration of the Assembly.
This formal North-South co-operation has been advanced in an open, transparent and business-like manner. All Council decisions are by agreement between the two sides. The Northern Minister participating in a meeting of the Council is always accompanied by a Minister from the other tradition. In this way, North-South co-operation, which at times has been fraught with political difficulties and characterised by fear of hidden agendas, has been able to proceed in a calm, non-controversial, almost routine fashion. I acknowledge the full and constructive role that the Ulster Unionist Ministers have played in this inclusive process.
The same could be said of the North-South bodies, which are the subject of the legislation. The work of the North-South bodies to date can be described as one of the key outworkings of the Good Friday Agreement. These six bodies represent a new direction in public administration on this island. They are statutory bodies which perform necessary public functions, not separately in either jurisdiction, but on a cross-Border and all-island basis. They are jointly funded and directed by the two Administrations on the island, acting as one, in the form of the North-South Ministerial Council.
Despite the fact that they are the result of such a genuine innovation in a potentially controversial area, the North-South bodies have attracted little controversy since their establishment in December 1999. They have set about discharging their mandates in a professional and business-like manner, to the benefit of all who avail of their services across the island. I thank the staff and board members of the North-South bodies for their work in this regard. Drawn from all traditions on the island, they have come together to work on projects which are of benefit to people, North and South alike. Such day-to-day co-operation promotes mutual understanding and serves to break down barriers between people. I commend their efforts and achievements.
The six North-South bodies are Waterways Ireland, the body responsible for maintaining the island's inland waterways and developing them for recreational use; the Food Safety Promotion Board, which is charged with raising public awareness of food safety and nutrition matters; the Trade and Business Development Body, which operates under the brand, InterTradeIreland, and which has responsibility for the development of cross-Border trade; the Special EU Programmes Body, which manages and delivers a number of EU funding programmes, including PEACE II and INTERREG; the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission, which includes The Loughs Agency, responsible for the management of Lough Foyle and Carlingford Lough; and An Foras Teanga, the Language Body, which is made up of twin agencies – Foras na Gaeilge and The Ulster Scots Agency.
Together with Tourism Ireland Limited, the all-island tourism company, these North-South bodies employ almost 700 people and have a combined annual budget of approximately €140 million, of which the Government contributes approximately two thirds. With headquarters and regional offices spread throughout the island, they are engaged in major programmes of work across the wide range of sectors in which they operate.
I would like to highlight a few of the key responsibilities and achievements of the North-South bodies. Waterways Ireland is the largest employer of the six bodies, with a total staff of 350 people. Based in Enniskillen and Scariff, County Clare, it manages the island's navigable inland waterways system and is charged with the development and renovation of our rivers and canals for recreational use. A major project to upgrade the Shannon-Erne waterway, enabling cruisers to travel all the way from the top of the Erne navigation to the Shannon Estuary, has been completed by Waterways Ireland.
The Food Safety Promotion Board has its headquarters in Cork. It is responsible for the current series of television advertisements aimed at raising public awareness of the importance of healthy nutrition. The North-South trade and business development body, InterTradelreland, is making a valuable contribution to our economic development. lnterTradeIreland is located in Newry, in a purpose built headquarters which was recently opened by the Tánaiste. In discharging its responsibility for enhancing cross-Border trade on this island, the body has put in place a number of important and innovative programmes. These include North-South business graduate placement programmes and an equity network programme aimed at boosting growth in the small and medium enterprise or SME sector. I was pleased to participate in its work. Senator O'Rourke and all Ministers found the work of these bodies tremendously helpful and constructive. Their success lies in the fact that they are so businesslike. We have not heard much about them because they are simply getting on with their business.
The Special EU Programmes Body has offices in Belfast, Omagh and Monaghan. It is responsible for the management and delivery of aspects of the PEACE and INTERREG EU funding programmes to Northern Ireland and the southern Border counties. By 2006, the EU will have provided over £1.3 billion in financial support to Northern Ireland and the southern Border counties through these programmes. Part of the strategic focus of the PEACE programme is to reinforce progress towards a peaceful and stable society and to promote reconciliation. Last week, the body held the launch of the new INTERREG programme in Newry. This Bill will help to ensure that the delivery of these important programmes to projects and groups on both sides of the Border is not affected by the temporary suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The SEUPB will continue to play its important part in building peace and stability on this island.
The Loughs Agency of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission is responsible for the management of Foyle and Carlingford Loughs. Since its establishment almost three years ago, the agency has developed an impressive body of work. This includes initiatives to improve the management of fish stocks in the two loughs. The agency has been involved in the development of new genetic monitoring techniques for the assessment of salmon stocks, which will be of great benefit to the fisheries industry in the loughs.
The Loughs Agency has also established an advisory forum. This forum consults with representatives of shellfishing, draft and drift net fishing, fishery owners, tourism operators, environmentalists, local businesses and authorities and those working in forestry and agriculture in the areas surounding the loughs. In this way, those involved in local enterprise in all fields have an opportunity to have an input into the agency's policy decisions. In addition, the Loughs Agency has plans to engage the general public with its work and construction of a new interpretative centre at Prehen on the shores of Lough Foyle is well advanced. This centre will allow for the transmission and dissemination of information on the loughs and the work of the Loughs Agency to the general public. The centre is due to open in the near future.
An Foras Teanga, the Language Body, comprises Irish Language Agency, Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster Scots Agency. Foras na Gaeilge took over the functions of Bord na Gaeilge in promoting the Irish language with the key difference, of course, that Foras na Gaeilge operates throughout the island of Ireland. Headquartered in Dublin, foras opened a regional office in Belfast earlier this year. The Ulster Scots Agency recently launched, both in Belfast and Dublin, a series of informative leaflets on the Ulster Scots heritage in America. It has also hosted a conference of Ulster Scots organisations in County Antrim.
The seventh North-South body which comes under the direction of the North-South Ministerial Council, is the all-island tourism marketing company, Tourism Ireland Limited. Tourism Ireland is responsible for marketing the island of Ireland abroad as a single tourist destination. Like the six Implementation Bodies detailed above, Tourism Ireland operates under the direction of, and is accountable to the North-South Ministerial Council. It requires the approval of the council for its annual budget and other operational matters. Therefore, the absence of North-South Ministerial Council meetings would adversely affect the work of Tourism Ireland in the same way as it would the work of the other North-South bodies.
It is essential that Tourism Ireland be able to carry out this work which is of such great importance to the economy of this island. The temporary suspension of devolved government in Northern Ireland should in no way hinder this vital work. While Tourism Ireland is covered by the terms of the supplementary agreement, there is no necessity for it to be mentioned in the Bill before the House today. The position of Tourism Ireland is somewhat different from that of the other six North-South Bodies. It is not an implementation body covered by the 1999 British-Irish Agreement Act but a company whose two shareholders are Bord Fáilte and the Northern Ireland Tourist Board.
In the supplementary agreement which we signed with the British Government and which is scheduled to the Bill, Tourism Ireland is mentioned in addition to the other North-South Bodies. Provision is made for it to be accountable to the two Governments for the period during which the supplementary agreement is in force. In the case of the Irish Government, the Minister for Arts, Sport and Tourism will act on its behalf in this regard.
The work of the North-South bodies, of which I have here given only a few brief examples, is vital to the economic and social progress of this island. We are determined that this work be able to continue uninterrupted. As the Taoiseach said recently, the ultimate prize before us is peace and stability on this island. Our best hope of attaining this prize lies in full and honest engagement on all the issues which confront us now.
Over the past week, this crucial engagement has taken place on a number of levels. The round table talks which began in Belfast last week are to be reconvened for a second session later today. Last Friday, the Taoiseach attended, in Scotland, a summit level meeting of the British-Irish Council. Yesterday, Senator Maurice Hayes chaired a meeting of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. The forum provided a valuable opportunity for the sharing of views and concerns with regard to developments in Northern Ireland and the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. It proved a constructive complement to other discussions currently taking place.
Such comprehensive engagement will be vital in the rebuilding of trust and confidence between the parties. The Government is committed to doing everything within its power to assist in this process. We wish to see the institutions restored as soon as possible. It is our role now, working closely with the British Government and the parties, to do all we can in this regard while also ensuring that we can press ahead with the full implementation of all outstanding aspects of the agreement.
During the current difficulties, it is crucial that we do not lose faith in the transforming power of the Good Friday Agreement. Formed around the principles of equality and mutual respect, it has given the people of Northern Ireland an unprecedented chance to live in peace and stability. It remains the template for political progress in Northern Ireland and its full and rapid implementation is our goal. In the meantime, we must also make the necessary provisions to ensure the continued successful operation of the North-South bodies, pending the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly. These provisions are contained in the Bill and I commend it to the House.
I am pleased to speak in support of this important legislation which is designed to copperfasten the progress made by the North-South bodies which were set up as a result of the Good Friday Agreement. In a sense it is disappointing that this legislation is necessary but as a result of what we hope will be a temporary suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly, steps must be taken to ensure that the political clock does not turn back or, indeed, stop. This legislation, which will have the support of every fair minded Member of the Oireachtas, demonstrates our belief that there is no going back where the Good Friday Agreement is concerned, that the historic political changes and opportunities it brought about are here to stay and that the two Governments and the people they represent will continue to work for the full implementation of the agreement.
The passing of the Good Friday Agreement by a huge majority of the Irish people, North and South, in 1998 has brought about dramatic opportunities, changes and hope. As in all conflict resolutions, where real progress and change can be painstakingly slow, different people with different agendas can see the same agreement in different ways and respond accordingly. For some it can be a bridge too far and they will attempt to block progress in every fashion. For others the steps taken will never be enough and they will criticise the limited nature of change. The Good Friday Agreement is no different. Many people at the extreme ends of the opposite sides of the political spectrum have no great interest in making the agreement work. At best they will be lukewarm about its implementation and at worst they will do their best to see it wrecked.
What we are saying this morning is that there can be no going back. The progress made by the agreement, limited as some may believe it to be, is still real, lasting and positive progress. We must also call on all concerned to show the simple, although important, qualities of patience, understanding, generosity and trust which are now needed as much as ever but which, unfortunately, have not always been evident. It is disappointing that in recent years when change was taking place slowly but surely, when great political debate was occurring, the Northern Ireland Assembly was in session and the Governments were meeting, a significant number of political commentators and a minority of politicians did not demonstrate the generosity required.
Some on this island seemed happier with the old certainties where everything appeared to be black or white. The language of condemnation was the everyday parlance and they had their dictionary of condemnatory terms. The people concerned are not ready to adapt to the new circumstances which we must grasp with both hands. We must be generous in our response to those faced with changing a lifetime's tradition. We should trust the politicians who are taking the painful steps forward to bring about change, including the Taoiseach, the British Prime Minister, the former First Minister, David Trimble, his deputy, Mark Durcan, and the leader of the Sinn Féin Party. We must trust such people who have taken bold steps and walk with them to ensure progress continues.
The Good Friday Agreement provided for greater levels of co-operation in six main areas: transport, agriculture, education, health, environment and tourism. It was decided that structures should be put in place to carry out the policies agreed by the North-South Ministerial Council and that these structures would be Waterways Ireland, the Food Safety Promotion Board, the Special EU Programmes Body, the North-South Language Body, and the Foyle-Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission. It was also agreed that Tourism Ireland would be created to market the island of Ireland as an international tourism destination.
The Implementation Bodies have enormous scope to promote genuine and meaningful co-operation in these areas of responsibility and bring about much needed change and progress in the way this island co-operates on matters of common interest and concern. It is vital, therefore, that what we hope will be a temporary suspension of the Northern Ireland Assembly does not bring the work of the Implementation Bodies to a standstill. By passing this legislation we can ensure that co-operation and constructive change can continue.
It is fair to say nobody – apart from a tiny minority who are, sadly, stuck in a warped version of history and will always prefer the bad old days to any constructive change or concession – would like to stop the work of the Implementation Bodies. Nobody but those negative people can fail to see the great opportunities the bodies can offer to the entire island of Ireland and all its people, regardless of their political history and tradition.
Agriculture, for instance, is still an industry of huge importance and our greatest national resource. Farmers, North and South, have many – if not all the same – concerns and worries as the industry undergoes fundamental change and challenge at home and in Europe. Last year the island faced the foot and mouth disease crisis and there was outstanding co-operation between the Minister for Agriculture and Food, Deputy Joe Walsh, and his Northern counterpart, Bríd Rodgers. Every farmer, North and South, benefited from this co-operation.
There is now a recommendation from the Centre for Cross-Border Studies that an all-Ireland expert advisory group should be reconvened to assist in dealing with any future animal health issues affecting the island as a whole. This type of common-sense, constructive proposal is what co-operation is all about. The Centre for Cross-Border Studies noted also that "health threats and problems do not obey political boundaries." Accordingly, it is surely appropriate that there should be maximum co-operation.
The health services on both parts of the island are a source of continuous debate. There is an endless list of problems. Against this background, however, maximum space is required for both parts of the island to work together to ensure the health of the island's citizens, Irish people, North and South, will take precedence over any political badges or systems.
The same can be said in relation to our education services. We pride ourselves in this State on having an education system which has produced possibly one of the brightest and best educated young workforces in the world. However, there are still schools and communities which, because of their geography or perhaps history, suffer from under-resourcing, a lack of ambition and under-achievement. The same no doubt applies also in Northern Ireland. Together we can work to find ways and means of giving every child on this island better and more equal opportunities.
Greater North-South environmental co-operation is needed. In this respect I would like to raise the subject of waste management. The issue has reached crisis level in this State and I am sure the situation in Northern Ireland is no different. As a member of a local authority, I am keenly aware that every local authority in the Republic has been considering various waste management systems which could be put in place. We have debated the merits and demerits of incineration, land-fill sites, recycling and thermal treatment. All these options are being considered, with others. The Minister for the Environment and Local Government, and his predecessor, appear to some degree to favour incineration, but most local authorities have alternative plans. I find it hard to accept that we cannot agree to a single, national system of best practice. Surely what is right for County Donegal should be right also for Cork? In attempting to arrive at this best practice solution we need to co-operate fully with the authorities in Northern Ireland. Waste management problems and all issues threatening the environment should have no political boundaries. It is imperative for us to work together to make the island a more environmentally friendly place for all its citizens.
The work of Tourism Ireland must be commended. It makes no sense in wasteful duplication for advertising and promotional revenue to be spent worldwide, when it could be done on a joint basis. Fortunately, this island still remains a Mecca for international tourism and there is no doubt that a long-term political settlement in Northern Ireland would greatly enhance the numbers who travel here on holiday. It is a small island geographically and every potential tourist, whether from the United States, Germany, Japan or elsewhere, should be encouraged to travel as freely and as widely as possible around the 32 counties. We will all benefit from the work of Tourism Ireland. This type of practical common-sense co-operation must be welcomed and encouraged by all fair-minded citizens.
I wish to comment on the current political situation. The Minister referred to the meeting last week in Belfast where I understand he will attend a further session later today. I wish him well. It is good to note that progress was made last week, although we must accept that it will be slow. Where trust has broken down, as sadly it has to some degree, it takes time to rebuild. I wish the Minister well in his endeavours. It was also good to note a degree of willingness in last week's talks to agree to making further progress on arms decommissioning. While decommissioning is not the whole problem, it is part of the solution. The efforts of the Taoiseach and his Ministers are to be welcomed and I hope further progress will be made today.
I note with satisfaction that the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation has been reconvened, a matter we raised in the House some weeks ago. Some have described it as a talking shop, but such a forum can be effective when dealing with critical issues like peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. When people sit down together to talk, it often proves to be the best way forward, even if they may bore each other to death in the process. There is no doubt that everything that can be said has been said before, but reinforcing ideals, aspirations and opportunities is helpful. From 1994 to 1996 the forum did much good work. In the coming months it is not scheduled to meet as frequently as before, but every time the political parties face each other at those sessions nothing but good can come about. I wish its participants well in their work.
I am happy to support the Bill. While it could be described as minor in one sense, it is important in the broader aspect. Let us ensure the work done as a result of the Good Friday Agreement will continue through the Implementation Bodies. As the Minister of State said, one of the greatest examples of their work is that they continue to operate with very few people taking notice. The work is being done quietly but effectively and that is how peace on the island can be progressed. I commend the Bill, as the Minister of State did, and I look forward to seeing the fruits of his endeavours with this legislation and today's talks.
I welcome the Minister of State. We appreciate that he spent most of yesterday, until 8 p.m., here for a debate on overseas development aid and also attended the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. He is here again this morning before heading to Belfast, which takes some commitment. All sides of the House appreciate that.
I also appreciate the various briefing documents on this technical Bill. It is sadly necessary, though if the Assembly had not been suspended there would have been no need for it. Be that as it may, we must be positive in dealing with the Bill, as Senator Bradford and the Minister of State were, even if it is a pity that we must deal with it.
I remember the day we went to Armagh. It was an historic day that will always stay with me, as will the meetings; I was honoured to be at two of those meetings. I noticed yesterday at the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation that the people who made the most outstanding contributions were those who stated at the beginning that we all have a mandate as a result of the vote, North and South, on the Good Friday Agreement. Various things can happen, with institutions breaking down and winding up, but we are abusing the electorate if we do not work might and main to follow through on the Good Friday Agreement. That is the will of the people and the vox populi cannot be disregarded. That guiding star is worth dwelling on as it invigorates us.
When the Taoiseach spoke to the Seanad about the North a couple of weeks ago, on the eve of the talks between the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Northern Secretary, I wondered how those at that level keep the faith which enables them to press on. I refer to the Taoiseach, the British Prime Minister and all of us in public life who are determined that we will not falter. People say a step forward is taken and then one step backwards, but I prefer to say it is a step forward and then a step sideways. We should keep in mind that this process is for the good of the island – it is intended to reduce the level of violence and to stop killings and the other nefarious activities which disrupted the lives of those in Northern Ireland. It is to the credit of the people in Northern Ireland that they turned out in such numbers to vote in favour of peace and the Good Friday Agreement.
This Bill is technical in nature and gives effect to the six North-South Implementation Bodies the Minister of State mentioned – Waterways Ireland, the Food Safety Promotion Board, the trade and business development board – InterTradeIreland, the special EU programmes body, the Loughs Agency of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission and An Foras Teanga, which includes the Ulster Scots Agency. It is interesting that An Foras Teanga covers the whole island as the teaching of Irish in some Northern schools was often a bone of contention.
These bodies were set up in December 1999, so three years on they need reaffirmation. However, while this is a reaffirmation it is also a statement in itself. The Bill, technical though it is, is a statement of faith and resolution because it says that these North-South Implementation Bodies, which come directly from the Good Friday Agreement, the Ministerial Councils between North and South and the Assembly, which is sadly now suspended, are part of what is going to make Ireland work together for the future. Senator Bradford was right to emphasise that the Assembly and its Ministers went about their business, as did the North-South Ministerial Council and these bodies. Those activities are no longer a great wonder, which is a fine tribute. If one said daily that it was marvellous that certain people were meeting and working together, then it would be a wonder in the wrong way. People have knuckled down, established headquarters and plans, received budgets – we contribute two thirds of those – and they are busy, which is great. I thought the Assembly and its Ministers were powerful also.
Over many years people's spirits were deadened because they had no direct involvement in the governance of Northern Ireland, apart from from those involved at local level. However, people like Martin McGuinness, Peter Robinson and Bríd Rodgers were appointed as Government Ministers; going about their daily business as Ministers meant they were pivotal forces in the community and centrepieces for people's concerns. The MLAs did their democratic business and it all knitted together in a wholesome way. Of course it was not Pollyanna time; every action did not have a rosy hue. That would be nonsense because no democracy operates in Pollyanna fashion. However, there was a comprehensive approach to the daily activities in Northern Ireland, many of which were linked to daily activities in the Republic. It also made economic sense, which is the key consideration when one leaves aside Nationalist considerations and the worries of various other parties. For example, Sir Reg Empey dealt with me and the Tánaiste – he had a woman on each arm – and we had a very satisfactory arrangement regarding the refurbishment of the gas interconnector outside Dundalk and the whole gas project for North and South. The Cabinet pledged money to this project over three years.
First Minister, Mr. David Trimble, Deputy First Minister, Mr. Séamus Mallon and Sir Reg Empey all petitioned me on the same matter, in the normal time honoured way of doing political business. They petitioned me about the North-South gas project which came to pass in a satisfactory way. As this was not covered by any of the Implementation Bodies, I stray a little, but it is proof that gas which flows should flow north as well as south.
Waterways Ireland is an important cross-Border body. When the Shannon Erne waterway was first opened, I travelled by boat from Enniskillen to Athlone. Seven of us made a most beautiful journey in a friend's boat and stopped at several places along the way. The further extension of the waterway is a very good idea and was discussed at the the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body in Manchester this week. As gas flows, so water flows, and has always done. Waterways Ireland is a very natural body and links to the development of tourism. The revitalisation of small harbours and villages on the banks of our rivers and lakes will be of huge importance to the tourism industry. There is something very satisfactory about imagining a body of water which has flowed from time immemorial and harnessing it, as the Shannon was harnessed for electricity, in a natural way to reawaken the surrounding countryside to the power of water and the beauty it can convey.
The Bill is important in a psychological way. Public servants here and in the areas where the bodies have their offices have worked with might and main to see this dream become a reality. They need reassurance that their lives are not to be tossed aside and that the work they have been doing is valued and has a continuance about it which is recognised. They must be reassured that their work will be carried on and that they will be recompensed properly during the suspension of the Assembly. The Bill recognises their work and I wish them well. While public servants advise politicians, they must then take political decisions as they come and make them work. The Bill will have a resonance of reassurance for public servants.
I note Senator Bradford's assurance that his party supports the Bill. The Minister of State can be assured that this House will assure its swift passage through the Seanad. This morning we agreed that an earlier signature motion would be passed without debate in order that the President can sign the Bill as an early measure. We thank her for this. I thank the Minister of State for coming to the House with this important Bill.
It is a sign of our diligence.
The Labour Party supports this legislation enthusiastically and will be happy to facilitate its speedy passage. It is a matter of regret that we must pass this Bill, but it is the correct decision. I agree with the Leader and Senator Bradford when they say we had taken these things for granted. They were no longer issues. There were no longer news reporters or television cameras present when Ministers met because the meetings were taken for granted. We had a couple of bumps at the beginnng. I remember the procession of ministerial Mercedes heading for Armagh.
Someone said it reminded him of a Mafia funeral. It was not the most auspicious of beginnings, but once things quietened down they worked extremely well and, as the Leader said, became mundane and ordinary. Getting things done is the essential part of politics which large sections of the world find boring.
The Minister of State paid tribute to the work of the Ulster Unionist members of the Executive. Did the Democratic Unionist Party not participate in any way in the North-South Ministerial Council? It sems a strange ommission to pay tribute to one Unionist party and not another. I am not being picky, but wonder if there is a reason for the ommission of the DUP.
This is an interesting idea and an indication of the degree of compromise we have all come to accept. Where does parliamentary accountability come into this matter? A ministerial council makes executive decisions which are implemented by implementation bodies, and I appreciate the distinction in terms of Tourism Ireland. However, ministerial authority without parliamentary accountability is never a good idea. Irish Ministers are accountable to this Parliament and British Ministers are accountable to Westminster. Since a British Minister is now part of the body which deals with Waterways Ireland it would be perfectly possible to ask questions in Westminster about the condition of the Shannon Estuary, for example.
I do not raise this point to be awkward or negative because I support these developments. Nevertheless, it is an interesting point. It shows what happens when one is prepared to compromise. We have made the correct decision. Nevertheless, we have opened the possibility of questions being asked in Westminster about matters which are, theoretically, within this sovereign jurisdiction.
Can the Minister of State tell me what is the relationship between the Implementation Bodies and the relevant Oireachtas or Westminster committees? Can they be asked or summoned? Can An Foras Teanga, for instance, be required to speak to the relevant joint committee here on matters that concern the Gaeltacht, language or education? Can the same body be required to come before a committee of the Westminster Parliament? I understand that it does not have joint committees so there would be two committees – a committee of the House of Lords and a committee of the House of Commons.
What started off as an intra-island phenomenon has become an inter-island phenomenon between two sovereign states. It is probably as a good picture of the complicated relationship between this island and the neighbouring island as one could get. It demonstrates that, whatever our history, we are by geography, language and culture linked so closely to the neighbouring island that any pretence that we are not is dishonest. This particular issue has brought up the complexities of our relationship with the neighbouring island and it is an intriguing one.
These bodies are extremely important, there is no doubt about that, but they are important as much because of their symbolism as what they do and I would not for a second understate what they do. Their symbolic value lies in demonstrating that things are often better done together. As I have said, the practicalities of doing things together are quite intriguing because of the anomalous position of the absence of a devolved Executive or Assembly in Northern Ireland. Nevertheless, the symbolism still exists. Each of the bodies has done its work with considerable tact and effectiveness in the sense that nobody has got any impression that anybody is bullying anybody else or trying to force people to do things they would not freely choose to do.
In addition to the importance of the symbolism is the importance of people from two Administrations getting to know each other on a personal level. The Leader must know far better than I do the degree of contact she would have had with Ministers of the Northern Ireland Executive on a level that would not have been conceivable five years previously.
People who were strangers to us are suddenly on first name terms and that creates a whole new culture. It is the creation of that whole new culture that makes the anomalies I have just teased out easy to handle. Twenty or 25 years ago, when we were perhaps less secure in our own identity and self-confidence, the practical implications of what we are now doing would probably have generated enormous amounts of heat. There is no problem now because we have grown up and moved on. I presume that our working with the EU has got us used to the idea of shared sovereignty and other such things.
The process has been extremely successful, as have the bodies. Some people in the Irish language lobby were concerned that some uniqueness would be lost by virtue of the all-Ireland dimension, but I do not believe that is the case. I have seen some of the leaflets produced by the Ulster Scots Agency and while I am still a little dubious whether the language that is called Ulster Scots is actually spoken anywhere, the issue of Ulster Scots culture and its impact on the United States has been completely understated in this part of the island.
I concur with the points made by Senators Bradford, O'Rourke and Ryan. The Bill is technical and short, but it is important to ensure that the bodies established under the North-South Ministerial Council can continue to operate.
I have just finished David Trimble's biography by Henry McDonald. In the context of the talks that took place, it was interesting to note that there were 18 proposals originally for 18 different bodies, and I think Mr. Trimble took great pleasure in narrowing them down to six. So says the biography.
Sinn Féin representatives listening to this debate should remember that under the Sunningdale agreement of 1973, the Council of Ireland, which was an attempt to represent and legislate for the North-South dimension, was totally opposed by the IRA and Sinn Féin and by the Ulster Unionist Party, and was ultimately brought down by the loyalist workers' strike. It is of historic interest to realise that the Council of Ireland was much more substantial than today's bodies in terms of its authority and power. One must ask what the violence on our streets and the appalling terrorism that we witnessed for 30 years was all about when one considers that we had the equivalent of the Implementation Bodies and more in 1973.
Much more significant powers existed in the Council of Ireland. There was a much greater all-Ireland dimension. To take Senator Ryan's point, there was also greater accountability if one looks at the history of that period in terms of parliamentary accountability. I am not making this point from a prurient party political point of view but to illustrate to Republicans that a resolution could have been achieved in 1973 and that we did not have to go through the past 30 years to arrive at this point. However, we are here now and we all welcome the fact that we are, and we want the process to continue. Certainly the six Implementation Bodies have done tremendous work. I heard the Minister of State's speech and he rightly praised the work that is taking place in the six key areas. That work should continue.
Senator O'Rourke, other Members and I attended the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body meeting on Sunday and Monday last weekend and a very good point was made on the Northern Ireland Civil Service by a Conservative MP, Lord Glentoran. He made the point that there is much concern in the Northern Ireland Civil Service regarding who is responsible for what issues since the suspension of the Executive and the Assembly. It is very important that bodies about which we are talking in this Bill are up and running and that they continue to do so. There should be no doubt about what they have to do.
Not only was it hugely demoralising for politics in general that the suspension was brought about, but demoralising for the civil servants in Northern Ireland who had to deal with the matter when the line of command suddenly changed to the Secretary of State or one of his Ministers of State in Northern Ireland. That point must be made.
Given that the Irish Government will continue to play its role and the British Government will now take the place of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive in particular, I presume that the bodies will continue with their existing work policies. Will there be a new policy agenda? While we all hope the Assembly and the Executive will shortly resume work, is it the case that the programme planned by the North-South Ministerial Council will continue or will there be new initiatives? The council ultimately derives its authority from the Dáil and the Assembly. What effect will the suspension of the Assembly have on new policy decisions?
I wish the talks well and I hope the deadline of February-March will be met so that elections can be held next May. However, the worst case scenario is that in the absence of agreement there will be no Assembly or Executive and a decision will then have to be made on the holding of elections. What will be the status of the bodies established under the council in such circumstances?
Section 7(4)(a) gives power to the Taoiseach to nullify this legislation. Procedurally, it would make more sense for the Oireachtas to nullify it. We have never established in law the precedent that the leader of the Executive, the Taoiseach, can nullify a Bill passed by the Oireachtas. I ask the Minister of State for his views on this.
We all hope that new elections will be held next May. What happens if a new Assembly is constituted but the Executive is not? In the scenario where such an Assembly comprised Sinn Féin as the largest Nationalist party and the DUP as the largest Unionist party, what would be the status of the bodies established under the council? Section 7(4)(b) provides that the day the Taoiseach may nullify the legislation "shall be the earliest practicable day after the termination of the Agreement in accordance with its terms on the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly.". While the Assembly might meet there may be no agreement on the formation of the Executive. In view of this, is it not logical that for the legislation to be nullified the Executive must be reconstituted? Why is reference only made to the restoration of the Assembly? What would be the status of the legislation where the Assembly has met but may still be in suspension and there is no agreement on the Executive?
It is intriguing to note the content of the two letters included in the Bill, one from the Minister to the British Ambassador and the other from the ambassador to the Minister. Both have the same content. It is interesting how officials on both sides of the Irish Sea can arrive at the same formula of words. It is a great feat and it proves that telepathy is at work in Whitehall and Dublin.
Along with the conflicts in the Middle East and South Africa, the Northern Ireland conflict has long been considered as one of the most intractable. Centuries of sporadic violence and more recent troubles have convinced many in Northern Ireland that their future will always be trapped in the past.
The Good Friday Agreement has brought a fresh sense of optimism that the people of Northern Ireland can finally leave behind the deep rooted culture of internal conflict and hatred of the people of the South. We need to create a new and better society for this and future generations. The vision of a future based on teamwork, mutual respect and inclusiveness, set out in the Agreement, has received the overwhelming backing of the people on both sides of the Border. The voice of the people is clear. The old days of exhausted opportunities constitute a disgraceful history which has no place in the political scenery of the future. The task we face is to provide the practical support and encouragement to help people at local and neighbourhood level to keep nudging the peace process in the right direction, changing the language to one of respect and shifting the sectarian way of thinking to a new found respect for differences.
In its four and a half years of existence the Good Friday Agreement has sustained many blows, yet, somehow, this pact, which established a devolved Government in Northern Ireland and set a peace process in motion, has always been salvaged and maintained. Its resilience has owed much to the Taoiseach's determination not to let it fail. It survives also because of the lack of a viable alternative because peace of a kind, with all its attendant benefits for the people of the North of Ireland, has prevailed. At the height of the Troubles almost 500 people a year died from sectarian violence. Last year there were 19 deaths and this year the figure is expected to be still lower. This is why, despite the difficulties facing it, the Agreement and the institutions it established, the Assembly and Executive, matter so much.
Matters have not been helped by the remarks attributed to David Trimble, Leader of the UUP, who told the Chicago Sun Times that if Catholicism and anti-Britishness were removed, the Republic of Ireland would not have a reason to exist. Last March Mr. Trimble also caused controversy in his speech to his party's ruling council when he was reported as describing the Republic of Ireland as a pathetic, monoethnic and monocultural state. These remarks ignore the country's valuable Ango-Irish and Jewish traditions and the emerging multi-cultural dimension, especially in the capital city.
When preparing this address I was struck by the experience of Cardinal John Henry Newman, one of the greatest Britons to come to Ireland since St. Patrick. Cardinal Newman was a timeless writer and visionary. In 1854 he wrote of Ireland, emerging from the dark shadow of the great Famine of the 1840s, as follows:
I look forward to a land both old and young; old in its Christianity, young in the promise of its future; a nation, which received grace before the Saxon came to Britain, and which has never quenched it; . I contemplate a people which has had a long night, and will have an inevitable day. I am turning my eyes towards a hundred years to come, and I dimly see the island I am gazing on, become the road of passage and union between two hemispheres, and the centre of the world. I see its inhabitants rival Belgium in populousness, France in vigour, and Spain in enthusiasm;.
Ireland is at this dawn and the Good Friday Agreement is the culmination of this vision. Men and women have served peace in many ways. The selfless endeavours of Senator Mansergh, Gerry Adams, John Hume, David Trimble, John Major, Tony Blair and the Taoiseach will not go unrewarded by history. It should be recalled that on the saddest day for any family, the Taoiseach gave his time to support the Agreement and to put the Government's stamp on it. That also will not go unrewarded.
I will try to cover as many points as I can. We will deal later with any outstanding issues.
The parliamentary authority issue was raised by Senator Ryan. The bodies are jointly responsible to their respective Ministers, North and South, and each Minister is responsible to the Oireachtas and the Northern Ireland Assembly respectively. The annual reports of the bodies are laid before the Oireachtas and the Northern Ireland Assembly.
The Senator also mentioned the commencement order. The Bill allows for the Taoiseach to make a commencement order to bring the legislation into effect. When the Northern Ireland Assembly is restored, we hope to be in a position to have responsibility for the bodies restored to the North-South Ministerial Council as envisaged in the original legislation.