Seanad debates

Thursday, 8 May 2003

10:30 am

Photo of Dermot AhernDermot Ahern (Minister, Department of Communications, Marine and Natural Resources; Louth, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Seanad for this opportunity to report on the latest developments in the peace process. Members on all sides of the House have always expressed their overwhelming support for the Good Friday Agreement. I share the sense of regret and frustration that we have so far not succeeded in achieving the definitive progress that is essential to underpin the Agreement and assure the stability of the political institutions in Northern Ireland.

The Good Friday Agreement was negotiated by representatives of all traditions on this island – Nationalist, republican, Unionist and loyalist. The Agreement truly belongs to all people and all traditions on this island. The pro-Agreement parties and both Governments have a fundamental obligation to uphold the will of the people and secure the Agreement. We all have a collective responsibility to make the Agreement work. This is not a policy option; it is the will of the people of both parts of the island, democratically endorsed in the 1998 referendum. I assure Members that this is what the Government has been seeking to do in recent months. I assure them further that this effort, despite the current setback, will continue.

Following the suspension of devolved Government last October, Prime Minister Blair and the Taoiseach expressed their commitment to the full implementation of the Agreement. At that time, however, it was clear that devolved Government could not be made to work effectively in circumstances where there had been a breakdown of trust between those involved. We simply could not go on as we had done in the past. There was an obvious need to move forward decisively and bring completeness to all the outstanding issues if we were to guarantee the future. The issues can be distilled down to two points, namely, the necessity to remove concerns around the commitment to exclusively democratic and non-violent means and the need for each community to have confidence in the commitment of the representatives of the other to the full implementation of the Agreement.

During the past six months, the two Governments and the parties made enormous progress in our effort to reach a solution. Throughout this period, the two Governments worked in partnership, and with the parties, to try and drive the process forward and to ensure finality and clarity in our work. However, on Thursday last, we had to acknowledge that this phase of our efforts could not be brought to a conclusion at this time. Prime Minister Blair subsequently announced that he had made a decision to postpone the Northern Ireland Assembly elections that had been rescheduled for 29 May. The Taoiseach has stated clearly that the Government disagrees with the British Government on the postponement of these elections. He reiterated this view, which I know is shared by the vast majority of Members of the House, on this matter on several occasions directly to the British Prime Minister. Yet another postponement of the elections causes more problems for the process than it solves.

While we do not agree with or endorse this step, the closest of partnerships between the two Governments is essential to achieving continuing progress in Northern Ireland. That partnership remains strong and will continue. It is of enormous value as we work to overcome the current difficulties. The Prime Minister and the Taoiseach met at Farmleigh on Tuesday and restated their commitment to the shared objective of completing the full implementation of the Agreement.

The deficit of trust between the parties remains the crux issue. The two Governments will, in the coming weeks, focus their efforts and those of the pro-Agreement parties on remedying that deficit. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland will meet shortly, and with the parties in the near future, to try and advance matters.

The Joint Declaration and associated documents, published last week, indicate clearly the work that the Governments have been engaged in for the past six months. The Taoiseach has had a copy laid before the House. The declaration contains many elements which are not conditional upon action by others, for example in the areas of policing, criminal justice, equality, human rights and some aspects of demilitarisation.

These will now be taken forward as part of the ongoing implementation of the Good Friday Agreement to which both Governments remain fully committed. Progress will be reviewed, where appropriate, within the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. The Joint Declaration is a document of considerable content and substance. It genuinely sought to bring completeness to a considerable range of issues, including effective demilitarisation of Northern Ireland by April 2005 as well as a resolution of the "on-the-run" issue.

I regret that we did not manage to release the Joint Declaration in the context that was intended and understood by all the parties. Vitally, this would have included – from the very beginning of the negotiations last November it was understood by those concerned that it would have to include – a response from the IRA that there would be a definitive and unambiguous ending of all paramilitary activity. While the focus has been on the IRA, it was always clear that what we want is an end to both republican and loyalist paramilitary activity. The negotiations throughout the six months from last November proceeded on this basis and with that clear understanding. The necessity for such clarity was as essential at the conclusion of the negotiations as it was when we embarked on this project.

We were told that the IRA statement received by both Governments on 13 April, and which has now been published, was definitive and would not be further amended or elaborated upon by the IRA. We welcomed the statement at the time and said that it contained many positive aspects. We also said that it showed obvious progress and a clear desire to make the peace process work. However, as will be obvious from a reading of this statement, there are several fundamental aspects in vital areas that both Governments felt had to be clarified in the context of the completeness that we were seeking to achieve. The statement was not clear and unambiguous as has been asserted. If it was, we would have been more than happy to embrace it and move on. However, it was not and so we had to embark on a protracted process of clarification. We did this in a genuine attempt to advance matters.

Specifically, we needed clarity regarding the circumstances in which the IRA would bring about the complete and final closure of the conflict. For example, was this in the context of a united Ireland or in the context of full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and other commitments? This is an important distinction which was not at all clear from the IRA statement. We also needed clarity as to whether it was the IRA's intention to put all arms beyond use. We needed further clarity that IRA activities of the type referred to in the Joint Declaration were at an end.

As the Taoiseach indicated to the Dáil last November, these activities include military attacks, training, targeting, intelligence-gathering, acquisitions and development of arms and weapons, other preparations for terrorist campaigns, punishment beatings and attacks, and involvement in riots. Moreover, the practice of exiling had to come to an end and exiled individuals had to be free to return in safety. These were basic questions to which we needed clear-cut answers that everybody could understand.

Unfortunately a great deal of time elapsed while the process of clarification was under way. Elections were also getting closer. Overall, the environment in which clarifications were being sought, and eventually being given, was deteriorating. I assure the House that we applied every effort to try to achieve a satisfactory solution. This involved our sustained and undiluted attention. It also involved a huge commitment by the Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and their officials, and also by the Taoiseach and the Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Justice, Equality and Law Reform and their officials, who were actively and constructively involved at all stages in this effort.

At every point we sought to support, encourage and bring satisfactory closure to this initiative. If the Taoiseach had thought for one moment that we had achieved the clarity essential for our purpose, he would have said so. So too, would the British Prime Minister, Mr. Blair. The two Governments are deeply committed to this project. We wanted this initiative to work. We wanted a successful outcome. We wanted a major act of IRA weapons decommissioning, which was in prospect. However, we knew also that, even though we were very close to success, we could not pretend that we were satisfied when we were not.

It is a matter of regret that obtaining essential clarifications to basic questions was so protracted and that clarity on alleged IRA activities, an issue of such fundamental importance to confidence and trust and on which everything ultimately rested was not forthcoming. I remind the Seanad that it was precisely the issue of alleged IRA activities that undermined and eventually brought down the Executive last October. It is not a case of being unrealistic in our expectations and needs. Such alleged IRA activities were the crux of the issue last October. Seven months later they remain central to the problem.

The various statements by Gerry Adams were helpful and brought matters to a new level of clarity in respect of two vital aspects: first, the ending of the conflict; and, second, the decommissioning of all paramilitary weapons. This has been acknowledged by both Governments. However, it did not prove possible to have sufficient clarity to convince everyone that paramilitary activity, the third issue, was definitively at an end. This is an issue that must be resolved in a satisfactory way and in a manner that everybody can understand.

If the significance of Gerry Adams's clarifications were obvious and clear to many, they were not so clear to many others, including to Unionists, who must be persuaded if we are to make progress together. Convincing the two Governments is the first imperative but convincing and assuring moderate and reasonable Unionists is clearly also essential. Without the support of moderate and reasonable Unionists, it is difficult to imagine how we are going to re-establish the devolved institutions and allow the Good Friday Agreement to reach its full potential.

At the same time, Unionists need to assure Nationalists that they are fully committed to the full operation of the Agreement, particularly in terms of the sustained operation of all of the institutions. If the clarity required of the republican movement is forthcoming, it also needs to be clear that the phase of the stop-start operation of the Agreement has come to an end, that Unionists will fully and comprehensively engage in all the interlocking institutions of the Agreement, including the North-South Ministerial Council, and that they will accord full respect and legitimacy to the democratic mandates of their partners in government.

It is important that the dialogue on these issues, which had been ongoing, is brought to a point where any doubts that exist in this regard are dispelled. The Government welcomed the publication on Tuesday last of the IRA statement of 13 April as well as a further statement on the matter. It is helpful that this latter statement confirms that Gerry Adams's answers accurately reflect the IRA's position. The problem, however, is that Mr. Adams's answer to one of the questions was unclear, which means that this latest statement does not take the issue of IRA activities any further than Gerry Adams has done. This, therefore, remains an issue to be satisfactorily resolved.

It is a great pity that the endorsement by the IRA of Gerry Adams's clarifications was not forthcoming at any stage during the period of 14 April to 1 May when these clarifications were being sought. Indeed, it was made clear to us that there was no question of asking or expecting the IRA to do anything or say anything of the sort. Its statement of 13 April was supposed to have said it all. An IRA endorsement would have been helpful, though I cannot say decisive, had it come earlier. It is important, however, not to now minimise its significance and potential.

We embarked on this task knowing that it was going to be difficult and that it might prove protracted. In the frustration and disappointment of recent days there is a natural tendency for recrimination. I will not engage in any such recrimination. Yes, there is disappointment, but we have to move on. The work that we have done in recent months will have lasting value and purpose. The gains we have made – there have been gains – must not be lost.

The Government also deeply appreciates the assistance of President Bush and his Administration, particularly Ambassador Richard Haass who has worked closely with us in recent months. The successful negotiation of the Good Friday Agreement was the first time in modern Irish history where, working together, the different traditions on this island managed to agree a fair and balanced accommodation worthy of everyone's support.

As the two Governments reiterated yesterday, the Agreement is our template for future relations on this island; it will not be renegotiated. We know that politics in Northern Ireland can work. Despite people's frustrations with politics and the political process – I spent some time at the weekend on the streets of Armagh, took some soundings from people there and I fully concur with their sentiments – there is no alternative.

We have achieved more than most people ever imagined we would. The outstanding issues have now crystallised as follows: how can we ensure that the IRA will cease all paramilitary activity and how can we restore the institutions permanently?

As we have done on many occasions since this process began, we will work with determination to resolve these difficulties. In the meantime, we expect all parties and groups to do their utmost to ensure a peaceful environment, particularly in the course of the forthcoming marching season. In itself, this would be a major contribution to achieving a restored climate of trust and confidence on which we can build. We urge everyone, from all communities, to continue to constructively focus on the visions and ideals of the peace process and on the attainment of the key objectives of the Good Friday Agreement.

This process, in which we have been engaged for many years, is at the centre of the Government's political priorities. We have had our ups and downs. Last week was a temporary setback. However, rather than slacken the pace at this time, we now need to pick it up and finish the job. The Government is completely dedicated to doing just that.

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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On a point of clarification, we were scheduled to sit until 4 p.m. However, due to a lack of ministerial presence – I accept that Ministers have other duties – we will conclude at 3.30 p.m.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Fine Gael)
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I agree with that. Perhaps the Chair will tell me when seven minutes have elapsed so that we can reduce our contributions. There are colleagues from all groups who wish to contribute and we should facilitate that.

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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Is the Order of Business amended?

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and thank him for his excellent contribution. He has put a very important statement on the record this afternoon. In terms of outlining the background to the situation that has developed in recent weeks and highlighting, in succinct terms, the efforts of the Irish and British Governments – who worked together in seeking additional clarification from 13 April to 1 May concerning the statement they first received from the IRA – what the Minister said is extremely important and I certainly welcome it. The Government has the support of Members on this side of the House in its ongoing efforts to break the impasse that has clearly been reached in the Northern Ireland peace process. Both Governments will continue to have our support.

What is most important is that, despite the difficulties and lack of success at this point, one thing that has shown itself to be robust and strong enough to ride out all the difficulties is the Anglo-Irish process. That is absolutely central. Whatever moves have to be taken between now and autumn to restart this process must be taken jointly, by both Governments acting together. That is the most important driver in the new relationship that exists between Britain and Ireland since 1986, when the Anglo-Irish Agreement was negotiated. That is the important aspect that I encourage the Government to facilitate it, as I know it will, as we move forward.

The Minister said that he visited Armagh at the weekend. I spent the last bank holiday weekend in Portrush and Coleraine getting, I suspect, a different perspective, given the terrain and the geography of north Antrim. There was a deep frustration among Unionists who occupy the middle ground and who want to see this process work. This frustration was caused by the fact that they were given a commitment by the Prime Minister of Britain, Mr. Tony Blair, in 1998 that the process would deliver on the issue of decommissioning and that it would also deliver a situation were the IRA would ultimately go away.

We all know the commitment we entered into in the Good Friday Agreement and the Weston Park talks and that remains. We do not have to read between the lines of the Minister's statement. It is absolutely clear that the Irish and British Governments are frustrated, as are the people of Northern Ireland who want to see this process work, when they see a paramilitary outfit, elected by no one, still holding the process to ransom.

I accept and welcome that the IRA has moved fundamentally on its position but when we voted for the Agreement, we all accepted that it would be no more. The Minister has made it quite clear that we need clarity from it concerning its activities, which invoke huge authority and power. It wants power in its communities to, in a sense, act as a republican police force. That cannot happen in the new Ireland and it has to understand this. We all know its past. I said recently that it was a very ugly past. It has no future in Ireland because what it offers is a repudiation of everything for which the Good Friday Agreement stands. I was very happy that the Minister expressed those sentiments in such clear and unambiguous terms.

There was also frustration about David Trimble among the people I met. They felt he was not working the Agreement as he should. Many middle ground Unionists want the Agreement to work and are frustrated at the lack of leadership he has shown to his party at times. I concur with this. That balance has to be struck in all our remarks. Mr. Trimble has to lead his party in selling the benefits of the Agreement to Unionists as well as Nationalists. He has shown great courage in sitting down with Sinn Féin in government, something we will not do, on all sides. However, he has to sell the tangible benefits of the Agreement to his community, namely, that Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution have been diluted to such an extent that they express the principle of consent which is at the heart of the Agreement; that devolution had been restored to Northern Ireland; that he is the only Unionist leader who ever managed to get concessions from republicans, particularly the IRA, in terms of decommissioning, albeit two small acts. He has to sell this message in the same way that we, as democrats, in this assembly have to say clearly to Sinn Féin and the IRA that the IRA's days are numbered.

The Minister referred to the elections. It was a very difficult call for the Government to make because the problem with advancing to the election stage was that the outcome was not guaranteed. In effect, people would not have been elected to an assembly because if the composition had been more difficult in terms of the extreme Unionist and Nationalist sides, it would have been virtually impossible to make a deal stick. The number of months we now have to make one final push at this effort, ultimately leading to an election, could give us the breathing space we need because I do not believe, were an election to be held at the end of this month, it would help the situation. I fully understand what the Government has said in this regard but there was no way out, the election had to be postponed because there was nothing to which people could be elected.

The recent reports from the Stevens inquiry have been shocking but at least we know what has happened. Will prosecutions come from the Director of Public Prosecutions in Northern Ireland of those individuals involved? For instance, we do not know this about many republican atrocities, or about many of those let out of prisons in Northern Ireland. We are all trying to come out of a very difficult situation where shocking things were done in our name and the names of loyalism and many groups on this island, from which we have to break forever. The way forward is to back the Government's efforts to support the process and go into the autumn trying to get it back on the road and the Assembly working again, while also delivering on the many other aspects of the Agreement that have yet to be delivered. As long as the Government continues to do this, it will have the support of my party.

Rory Kiely (Fianna Fail)
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As the Order of Busines has been amended, statements will conclude at 3.30p.m. What is the time limit for contributions?

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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Contributions are not to exceed seven minutes. We agreed to this. I thank Members for agreeing to this arrangement.

I very much welcome the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dermot Ahern. There is no doubt that he has vast experience of this issue, living as he does so close to the Border and having been acquainted directly with much of what has been happening in Northern Ireland over many years. The Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, Deputy Fahey, will be present at 2.30 p.m. and the Minister of State at the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Brian Lenihan, at 3 p.m. I thank the Minister for coming and all the Members coming in to speak. There are many more whom I know our Whip was keen to bring into the discussion also.

I very much agree with what has been said about the speech which the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, has delivered. It was straightforward, to the point and painfully honest. In a situation such as this that kind of honesty is greatly to be recommended. There is no doubt that in the last two or three weeks we have all grown up to the fact that there is not going to be a fairy tale ending to this story. I do not suppose that any of us every really thought there would be but when people came home with the Good Friday Agreement and there was the euphoric vote, North and South, everybody was determined to make it work, to enhance life, work together and walk into the wonderful sunset that we saw on the horizon. In our heart of hearts, however, we knew that was not the way life worked out. It never does but we were determined to put might and main into making it work. That goes for all parties because it did evoke a very generous response across the political spectrum.

There is no doubt that there has been quite an enormous set-back recently because the process went so near to the brink. The Taoiseach has briefed the Opposition parties very thoroughly on the matter but even without being intimately involved we all knew what was happening. I met people last weekend in my own town who would not be particularly political but they knew this was coming, that it was very near completion. This has led to a huge sense of disappointment but as the Minister rightly said, we have achieved a lot and now the question is how to restore the institutions, keep our optimism up and what we are going to do about it. As he said also, politics works in Northern Ireland, people are going about their daily lives in terms of housing, education, lighting and sanitary arrangements as well as the development authorities and North-South bodies. All of this has patently worked with vibrancy. It is not just a matter of thinking perhaps this will work out, it has worked strongly for everybody.

We want a return to a normal way of living about which we know in our clinics and representations and meetings with Ministers and county councillors, as well as the North-South institutions. This has made a huge difference to the fabric of people's lives. Every so often Paul Murphy, Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, takes the correct democratic approach when he says he does not want to be making decisions for the people of Northern Ireland, that he wants the people of Northern Ireland to be making the decisions for themselves. Prior to the past two or three weeks we had made great strides. We covered a huge amount of ground and positions were clarified. People understood better the background from which others were coming and how far they had come.

Let us remember that we are trying to overcome history of hundreds of years, not something that happened in the last ten, 15, 20, 50 or 80 years. We are trying in a true historic sense to overcome the events of many centuries. It was never going to be easy for people to give up their entrenched positions, generously welcome others in and openly say, "Come in to my parlour." It was going to be hugely difficult as the last step proved to be but we have gained huge clarity about the position of the IRA, Sinn Féin, the republican movement, the middle ground Nationalist movement as well as about how the Unionist position has advanced. There has also been great generosity on that side which is not espoused and talked about often enough. There is still a need for further generosity, however. There is a need for David Trimble to go the last one-eighth or one-tenth of a mile.

A tardiness has been exhibited so far vis-à-vis the IRA position and this matter needs to be addressed in more concrete terms. Nobody wants anyone to be humiliated. That is not how history is forged. Humiliation does not make for good feeling, it does nobody any good if people have to be shriven in public. That has been a great difficulty. I come from a background of teaching history at senior level and I have thought a great deal about this matter. I am aware that the public shriving of a body within the political system – abasement is too strong a word, but the complete confessional way of saying what will or will not happen – is a huge step for those on both sides in this saga.

There is only one further step to be taken. We hope that we will have the opportunity to debate this matter on a more joyous occasion. However, we can affirm the good, strong, positive movements that have been made. We hope we can build on these and bring them to completion in the autumn.

Photo of Brendan RyanBrendan Ryan (Labour)
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I share a sense of frustration and feel the need to restrain my language at a time like this. Such a feeling is common to everyone and it was evident in the Minister's contribution. The Irish and British Governments made heroic efforts in this area and I do not want it suggested that any comments I make are bit meant to be party political. That is not the case; they are simply reflections that are part of a political debate that this country needs to continue.

I used to be somewhat less careful in my language when discussing Northern Ireland. Some of my most recent remarks have resulted in my being reprimanded by representatives of political parties – not the governing parties – who felt that I was impartial on the issue of Northern Ireland and that I had betrayed my impartiality by some of my remarks. It is rewarding to know that people at least hear what we say.

On the assumption that people will read the record of these proceedings, I wish to state that I have listened carefully to the assertion by Sinn Féin, in particular, and others, of the need to look forward. Everyone would agree with that sentiment. Whatever else is involved, there is a problem of a lack of comprehension. Sinn Féin also needs to realise that it is dragging along with it a body which forces us all to look back. We are not seeking humiliation for anyone, we are merely asking if we can leave behind a body which was part of the conflict and which Sinn Féin accepts is not part of the future? That is the issue the Republican movement has failed to clarify. We all have our views about what this body did, and whether or not it should have done it, and no doubt everyone in this House has the same view. I simply want to see the organisation to which I refer being left behind. I do not want it obliterated, humiliated or dissolved, but I want it consigned to history. I want to see it definitively stated, in a way that makes sense to ordinary people, that the organisation in question is part of history.

We must also have clarity that this is a defining issue, not just for the republican movement but also for mainstream unionism. The Unionists must see a decisive break with the past and when such a break is made – clearly, unambiguously and definitively – we must engage in normal politics from that point and leave this issue to history. That is what all of us want to do, but there must be an assurance that there is a body of unionism which will state that it is entitled to and has been given a commitment that the organisation to which I refer is part of the past. That body of unionism must then state that, having been given the commitment, it will exist and govern without seeking references to the past. That is a big effort to make, given the history of the past 30 years, but we are entitled to ask for it. We are also entitled to be frustrated.

I accept that much progress has been made by the republican movement. To say, however, that the IRA is determined not to do anything which would undermine the process reserves for that organisation the right to make that judgment. What the IRA has stated is not adequate. It must state that it is determined to stop all paramilitary activity. It can use whatever language it wishes and I do not care if it dresses it up in wonderful republican rhetoric. That is not the issue. There must be an unambiguous assertion that a historic breaking-point has been reached and that one particular organisation – which everybody, including the Sinn Féin leadership, accepts is part of history – agrees that it is its role to be part of history. The members of that organisation can judge the content of such a statement as they see fit and we can judge it in a different way.

On the last occasion on which we discussed Northern Ireland, I said that it is difficult to encourage people to fully accept that a ceasefire is permanent if, after almost ten years, there are still well-maintained weapons dumps. The latter appears to qualify the position. It is also difficult to get people to move forward if there are ongoing activities which suggest that there is a permanent renewal of preparation for the possibility of conflict – that is what targeting and surveillance are all about – or if they see that, rather than participating in a reformed policing service, a group reserves the right to act as the police service. It is particularly difficult to allow people to be liberated from history if we do not obtain a decisive statement that an organisation, which has been consigned to the past, has been parked in history. Otherwise we cannot move on in the way that Sinn Féin, in particular, believes we should.

Photo of Martin ManserghMartin Mansergh (Fianna Fail)
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I warmly welcome the contribution of the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and I express my appreciation for the ongoing critical bipartisan spirit coming from the Opposition parties, which has been helpful for many years. I am naturally disappointed that there has not been a breakthrough. I compliment the Governments on the determination, commitment and leadership they have shown. I had hoped, because the prize was so big, that perhaps we would get the breakthrough. In the Joint Declaration we can all see for ourselves the progress that was, and is, promised on policing, demilitarisation, decommissioning and institutional stability.

There is no doubt that the stop-start nature of the process post-Agreement was not satisfactory, even if it was a vast improvement on what went before. Stability and momentum are badly needed. The Northern Ireland economy, not to mention the people, suffers from institutional instability. Indeed, the absolute primacy of politics over economics that obtains in the North has relatively few parallels elsewhere. Equally, the continued interruptions do not serve the momentum that most of us wish to see and that republicans, for as long as I can remember in dealing with them, have always demanded.

There is an understandable desire North and South that the process of democratisation should be completed, five years after the Agreement and nine years after the Downing Street Declaration. If one looks at paragraph 10 of the Downing Street Declaration, inclusive political participation was the prize or trade-off for a complete and permanent end to violence – John Major and Albert Reynolds demanded this. Demanding completion, as the British Prime Minister did last autumn with the support of the Taoiseach, obviously ran a risk of temporary breakdown. On the other hand, the prospect of further and recurring breakdown at regular intervals was not an inviting prospect either.

I recognise the disciplined contributions made by the republican movement. It made it clear in its statements that it was prepared to go much further in effectively acknowledging what everyone can see for themselves that the war is over, and in decommissioning all weapons. At one point the movement had suggested that any decommissioning of weapons involved surrender, humiliation etc., and I am glad that it has gone far beyond that. Of course, decommissioning is nothing of the kind and the strong political position of Sinn Féin, particularly in the North, could not make that clearer.

I will not personally criticise the IRA statement for being ambiguous; it simply does not go the full way. While I understand its reluctance to let go, I think and hope that over the next few months the realisation will come that it is essential. To adapt the phraseology of Terence McSwiney, those prepared to sacrifice the most will gain the most. There is no doubt that paramilitarism is winding down and this needs to be completed. The point has been made many times but it cannot be reiterated too often that punishment beatings, shootings, exile, etc., are not even remotely consistent with human rights.

I accept that a lot is asked of unionism to work with those who sought to force their hand and killed many of their people. Unionism also needs to be self-critical. Unionist tactics over a number of years have driven many in the Nationalist community into the hands of Sinn Féin. To me, this cannot have been the intention of unionism. Unionism has not given the SDLP a chance and stability would be needed to have that. People now talk about an arrangement involving the SDLP and Unionists. That was available for the best part of 20 years from the Sunningdale Agreement, but unfortunately the opportunity was not availed of. Even if it is not in pole position in the Nationalist community, I am glad that the SDLP was prepared to fight the election and fight it with vigour. We all know that the party has made an immense contribution over the years and it is difficult to fault its analysis.

I find it hard to understand the apparent reluctance and inability in moderate unionism to face Paisleyism head-on. Has any thought been given to the impact of a Paisley-led victory on the standing of Northern Ireland, not only in Britain but further afield? For anyone who has pride in the Protestant tradition in Ireland, as I do, I find it dismaying that someone capable of the sort of outburst we saw last week should be remotely in prospect of gaining majority support in the Protestant community in the North. I am sure some of his DUP colleagues would have been embarrassed by the reappearance of the old Adam.

The British Government deserves some credit for pursuing the Stevens report and needs to pursue it further. I think it should take as its model what happened in post-Franco Spain. I had the privilege of meeting Balthazar Garzón a couple of weeks ago. He has done a great job of bringing within the rule of law both agents of the state and agents of terrorism, ETA.

There is obviously a danger of a vacuum developing over the summer. I appeal to all sides not to be defeatist. They are going to have to hold the ring and it will require considerable effort from all sides. This effort must be made for the sake of what is so clearly within reach.

Photo of Paul CoghlanPaul Coghlan (Fine Gael)
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I welcome the Minister of State to the House. I thank the Minister for Communications, Marine and Natural Resources, Deputy Dermot Ahern, for his thoughtful and important statement. There is no doubt that a climate of fear and distrust has existed. I largely concur with everything that has been said by other speakers. Members of this House, and all true democrats, are totally and exclusively committed to democratic means in politics. We all feel frustrated as, in the words of the Taoiseach, we came within a whisker of final completion and resolution.

Like the Government, I disagreed with Prime Minister Blair's call regarding the election. In our political lives, while we may not always relish an election and may not want to face up to the results, I do not think we can turn the clock back – we are either constitutional democrats or we are not. Perhaps the situation in Northern Ireland is somewhat different.

The Joint Declaration is a huge body of work and we all welcome it. As has been said by the Minister, there is much in it that is not conditional on action by others and I welcome this. Great credit is due to the two Governments, despite our differences with the British Government regarding its call on the election. It is great that the Governments have met so quickly and so fruitfully. As democrats we are committed to ongoing dialogue as the only way forward. Hopefully the Governments will have immediate talks with the pro-Agreement parties in the North. They will get on with much that can be done.

Peace requires the total end of all paramilitarism and we need to see demilitarisation as well. I hope that among the items on which the Governments can agree, and on which the British Government can act immediately, would be the removal of the remaining spy posts and watchtowers, to which Senator O'Brien referred, that dominate the countryside of south Armagh. The presence of these installations has disturbed the playing of national games and other sports fixtures in that part of the country.

I congratulate the two Governments on working well together. They have they have to pick up on the pieces despite the hiccup. There is no going back for anyone.

I do not want to speak about republicanism, on one hand, and unionism, on the other. We must assist people on both sides to overcome their distrust of each other. As far as Nationalists and republicans are concerned, there is no going back. I believe and accept that assertion. Those whom we know well and who in recent years have been part of the democratic process in the Lower House have shown they accept that. Irrespective of anybody's past or anything in the past we all want to look forward.

I accept that to some, perhaps not to us, there is a deficit of trust. The best guarantee we can have of a bright future is that both sides will continue to work together. Without wishing to be critical of unionism, though Senator Mansergh reminded me of it, I do not understand why moderate Unionists cannot stand up to Paisleyism and bury it once and for all. The best guarantees that Unionists and republicans can have is in working together – in an all-encompassing way – to make the peace process work. There seems to be more reticence at present on the part of moderate unionism, which makes me sad, than on that of republicans, who have shown greater commitment.

We must bring to an end not just republican paramilitarism, in so far as it exists. Republicans have shown that, as far as they are concerned, that the conflict is over and that their arms are beyond use. However, we cannot afford to forget about loyalist paramilitary activity. It is as though too much emphasis has recently been placed on the activities of one side. Everyone in this House wishes to be helpful. I hope that more moderate people – Unionists and Nationalists – will develop even greater conviction in terms of wanting to make the peace process work.

There have been arguments about words, but to most people the argument is about all other activities. To some the situation has been clear, but to others it has not been clear. Despite the hiccups, everything that has been said has been helpful, particularly on the republican side, and both Governments have openly acknowledged that. The Governments deserve our respect and support.

Thankfully, gains have been made. In so far as the two Governments are concerned, they are committed to working together to ensure that those gains are not lost. We welcome that and wish them well in their future efforts with both communities.

John Dardis (Progressive Democrats)
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I commend the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, on his contribution. It has been echoed by virtually every speaker and I will also echo it. There is nothing wrong with that, as it shows a unanimity of view and purpose within the Oireachtas which is welcome.

Like the Minister, I share that deep sense of disappointment and frustration that we did not achieve completion of the peace process. The reason the frustration and the disappointment was so great was that we felt we were within touching distance of the finishing line and that we could look forward to a permanent peace and one in which the democratic institutions could be restored. It was understandable that in the previous debate on this matter, many Members vented their frustration at the lack of clarity which was evident within the so-called republican movement, although we all hope to be, and are, republicans in this House.

Photo of Brian HayesBrian Hayes (Fine Gael)
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John Dardis (Progressive Democrats)
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The other matter was the frustration on the "theology"– if I can use that word – of terrorism, where Sinn Féin purports not to speak for the IRA. When it did speak, however, the IRA confirmed that what Mr. Adams had to say reflected what it stated. There appear to be interminable sophistries and tautologies at play. That is part of the frustration. There is also the thesaurus of Sinn Féin, in which words mean what it says they mean and not what they are commonly believed to mean. Our frustration should not divert us from the goal of a permanent settlement, one to which all can subscribe, where the democratic institutions will be re-established and where all will participate enthusiastically for the benefit of Northern Ireland.

I applaud the Taoiseach, the British Prime Minister, the Secretary of State and the Ministers for Foreign Affairs and Justice, Equality and Law Reform on the resolution they have shown. It must have been difficult at times for them to continue to have faith that they would see the process through despite the disappointments and the frustrations which they must have experienced to a greater degree than us.

The Good Friday Agreement has to be the template for all future relationships on this island and between the islands. It is simply not an option for it to be renegotiated. As has been stated, it was overwhelmingly endorsed by the people. It was not a question of giving a mandate but a democratic imperative. The message from that referendum was that it was a democratic imperative that the Good Friday Agreement should be the template upon which everything was based. That places an onus on the British and Irish Governments to maintain a unity of purpose, to implement the agreement in full and to achieve completion, notwithstanding the difference of opinion with regard to the elections.

While it would be preferable for the elections to be held, and there should not be slippage in any democracy, I share the view expressed that there is some little degree of unreality in electing persons to a parliament that does not sit. On balance the elections should have taken place.

I am pleased that the work is continuing. The Tánaiste met the leader of the Social Democratic and Labour Party this morning and other meetings have been ongoing with the Taoiseach and others. Apart from the obligations on the Governments, those on the republicans and the unionists have to be stated explicitly. Northern republicans have to commit themselves exclusively to democratic and non-violent methods and to an end to paramilitarism, which has been the nub of the issue on that side. There is an obligation on Unionists to make the institutions work. It would be wrong to think that the presence of peace alone can be sustained without the accompanying presence of democratic institutions and the power sharing Executive because otherwise the whole edifice would crumble. We want the Assembly and the power sharing Executive restored without vetoes on their operation and when the completion comes, there will be no need for those vetoes. It is difficult to come to terms with people who do not appear to want to run their country.

The Joint Declaration came close to completing the peace process. It would help if we knew what elements are agreed or, more particularly, the remaining elements that are not agreed in order that when we revisit the issue in the near future we will not have to restart, as we have done frequently in the past, arguments which have been recycled ad infinitum. Apart from that, I do not believe there is any need for that review system to operate. We need a definitive and unambiguous ending of paramilitary activities from the IRA. That applies not just to the IRA, but to all paramilitary organisations – republican and loyalist. We have an end to the conflict and decommissioning of weapons. The outstanding issue is the matter of paramilitary activities.

We are back to the issue of the need for clarity. I note that in the Dáil yesterday the Taoiseach said it was not unambiguously clear that we had an end to paramilitary activity. It is important to re-establish trust and escape from the labyrinth of sophistry and words that mean different things to different people. We need simplicities. If we have learned anything about Northern Ireland, it is that simplicity and honesty are very much appreciated, particularly by those of the Unionist tradition.

We have come so far in this matter that it would be unthinkable not to go the final step. We have heard the barbarisms catalogued time after time during the years. It is no good to say so and so was responsible for the atrocities of Darkley, Enniskillen or Bloody Sunday or cite the Stevens inquiry. While atrocities should be condemned, we should not use them as crutches for a particular point of view.

Because we have come so far we can afford to wait a little longer in hope completion. The peace process is robust enough to withstand delay, not indefinitely but into the immediate future. I hope the work that has been done will continue and that the resolve of the Governments will continue to give us the final peace for which we hope.

Photo of Paul BradfordPaul Bradford (Fine Gael)
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I thank the Minister for what he said. I support what the Government is attempting to do and has been doing for some time, building on the work of previous Governments.

It is important that we keep reminding ourselves that we have a peace process. I was elected to the Oireachtas in 1987 and on every occasion between that date and 1994 when we discussed matters north of the Border we spoke about bombs, killings and terrorist atrocities of the worst type. There has been dramatic progress which we should not forget. Matters in Northern Ireland are not yet perfect. The unacceptable face of paramilitarism is still evidenced in punishment beatings, kidnappings and exclusions. This cannot continue but we cannot ignore the fact that huge ground has been covered. Who would have thought in the autumn of 1993, not a full decade ago, the progress that would have been made ten years later? We must acknowledge that all Governments and all parts of the Northern equation have played their parts in that process. We must now turn the successful peace process into a long lasting political one. People have travelled many miles down that road and gone almost as far as is necessary. Everyone who has taken steps in that direction should be commended.

If we were living in a perfect world, all of the paramilitary organisations would, some day, announce their surrender. However, that is not going to happen. This does not happen in any process throughout the world, it did not happen in the Ireland of the 1920s and 1930s and it is not going to happen now. We are not going to hear an official statement of surrender from any group. In a perfect world the paramilitary groups on all sides would tell us where the arms are hidden and those arms would be destroyed on one dramatic day. Because we live in an imperfect world that is not going to happen either. We must ask ourselves how do we get around these factors and put in place the mechanism to assure everybody that the war is over.

The most recent IRA statement was very significant. Its language was significant. A short few years ago we would not have believed that such language would be put in print. I am not a wordsmith and do not know how the language can be tweaked further to bring about what is required. I readily accept what the Minister and Senator Mansergh have said. A little extra step remains to be taken. Let us encourage everybody to take it. To bring an end to the political vacuum and ensure there is no going back to where we have come from we must ensure the Good Friday Agreement is fully operative.

On my most recent visit to Northern Ireland some weeks ago, I spoke with politicians from the various parties. The issue of policing was stressed. I recall the former deputy leader of the SDLP, Séamus Mallon, saying policing was the most important issue in the politics of Northern Ireland. What is good enough for Séamus Mallon is good enough for me. I welcome the fact that there has been progress on policing. I congratulate the SDLP on its courageous stance on the issue. That party signed up to something it knew was not totally perfect, as is the case with all such arrangements. I hope Sinn Féin can also walk the extra mile on policing and take part in a body which will preside over the policing of communities across Northern Ireland, whether Nationalist, Unionist, republican or loyalist. Policing is a crucial part of the long-term answer.

I do not like to speak about long-term answers. When one is dealing with a difficulty that has been evident for generations, words such as "final solution" or "final settlement" can frighten people who live on the political edge. Those who have always been on the wrong side of the argument or in a minority can be fearful that the solution decided today may not be satisfactory. Our aspiration should be to have the Good Friday Agreement working fully and the political process restored. Our desire should be to ensure the present group of politicians in Northern Ireland will work together, the communities live together in peace and harmony and, in 25 or 50 years' time, the next generation will take whatever steps they deem to be necessary. I am not looking for a solution. I am looking for the Good Friday Agreement to be fulfilled on all sides, progress on policing and the creation of the conditions which will ensure there will be no going back to violent methods.

Members of this House have always condemned the military activities of the paramilitiary groups. I have done so as much as anyone. They were and always will be wrong. However, we must ensure the conditions which allowed some to believe they were doing right when they were actually doing evil will never be created again. We must build fair play and justice across the communities. We must build trust and goodwill. We must talk about compromise and progress rather than surrender, about trust, not triumph.

We have come a long way. In the past week some have spoken about tiredness and despair with the process. Let us remember from where we have come. If we had not had a ceasefire in 1994, there would probably be a thousand more coffins lying in the graveyards of Northern Ireland. We have made marvellous progress. I say, "Well done" to everyone who has played a part in that process. One or two further steps remain to be taken. If there is sufficient goodwill on all sides – it must be on all sides – North and South, progress can be made. I wish the two Governments well in their ongoing endeavours. Senator Brian Hayes has made the valid point that in all of the difficulties of recent months it is notable that the Governments have continued to work effectively together.

Maurice Hayes (Independent)
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I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan, to the House and I thank the Minister, Deputy Dermot Ahern, for his clear, helpful and constructive statement. It was also a privilege to listen to the perceptive and thoughtful analysis of Senator Mansergh, who contributed so much in a previous incarnation to these activities.

The important part of the statement is that the Governments are sticking together. Progress has been made over the years when the Governments have worked in double harness and it is important to maintain that approach. It is also important that the Government maintains its lines of communication and continues to have access to and be accessible to all parties while maintaining their trust. If that means acting as an honest broker, so be it.

No one in the North has clean hands, no one has a monopoly of virtue. There have been remarkable acts of courage on all sides and there has been fallibility on all sides. We should not demonise or canonise anyone. We should look forward without recrimination from where we are now.

It is, however, a pity that we did not go the full mile over the last few weeks. The IRA statement was a great advance on anything that had come before. Mr. Adams's serial expansions of it were extremely helpful and would nearly have satisfied me. What was lacking then and what is available this week is a single sentence from the IRA saying his statement represented what it had to say. It is a pity that was not available last week.

It is a pity that the Unionist leadership, Mr. Trimble in particular, could not have been more graceful in accepting the extent of the advance the republican movement has made. We have now come to the stage, five years after the Good Friday Agreement, where the chips are down. The other parties to the Agreement implicitly believed they were doing a deal with the republican movement and were not particularly interested in the theological differences between one part of it and another. The people who voted for it voted for peace on that basis. It is now time for the republican movement as a whole to commit itself to the democratic process. That means not having a body outside that process that is not amenable or accountable to the ballot box. The important thing is not that one abjures interfering in the democratic process but that one does not retain the power or potential to do so in the future. Finality is required.

I am glad the Minister paid tribute to the constructive contribution of Ambassador Haass. He has been entirely helpful and very thoughtful in relation to the process. We should think of this as a temporary hiccup. We should look at the progress that has been made and realise this is not a time for despair or panic. We need, however, to use the coming weeks and months as constructively as possible.

I accept that the arguments on the holding of an election were finely balanced. Personally, I think it was a mistake not to have an election because elections are important signposts in a democratic system and we remove them at our peril. It gives the impression that we will only have an election if the people we see as the good guys win. It destabilises those people who had been deeply sceptical about the political process but have been encouraged by politics and democracy if we say that we can change the rules when we feel like it. That was a mistake but I appreciate why it was done.

The effect on the middle ground of nationalism should be thought about. There is a great sense of disillusionment and anger. There are people who are beginning – unfairly in my opinion – to doubt the validity of Unionist commitment to power sharing. They also wonder if there is anything the IRA can do that will satisfy unionism. Middle ground unionism needs to convince those people that its demands are not demands that cannot be met and that it will work the institutions once they are guaranteed.

Policing is tremendously important. What do we get from decommissioning if the aspects of paramilitary activity on both sides, particularly the loyalist side, that impinge on the ordinary person are punishment beatings and vigilantism? The only way those can be dealt with is by having a decent community police force. There is no point in saying that we will wait until there is an ideal society and then join an ideal police force. There cannot be even a partially ideal society without policing. It is a key to making progress and it is a step that Sinn Féin owes to the process.

Where are we now? The important thing is to keep the lines open, to encourage people to talk to each other and encourage those who are speaking not to do or say silly things in the middle of what is traditionally a difficult period in Northern Ireland. People are still working together in local government and I congratulate Councillor Alex Maskey on the excellent way he has carried out his functions as Lord Mayor of Belfast. The Government must stick to its line and I encourage all parties to keep the peace.

Photo of Francis O'BrienFrancis O'Brien (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome the Minister to the House. The deadlock that grips the peace process is a source of great frustration to all those who have the interests of this island close to their heart. The way in which the process stalled on the verge of an historic advance was a cause of particular concern for people in Cavan and Monaghan. The Border counties witnessed the many years of conflict at close quarters and they enjoyed the first fruits of the strides towards peace that were taken with courage and determination by the political leaders, North and South, in recent years.

This debate is an important opportunity for this House to state forcefully its support for the Taoiseach, who has devoted his considerable energy and skill to the ongoing dialogue necessary to bring this difficult process to the conclusion we all desire. The Taoiseach has worked hard and clung to the vision of lasting peace and security for the island, the ultimate goal of all those with influence to bring to bear on this situation. He has remained loyal and true to that vision in trying circumstances. He has not compromised the objectives he set out for himself as leader of this State. He has been consistent in the requirements he has laid down for progress to be made and has shown himself willing to listen and respond to all sides and to go the extra mile for peace. The Taoiseach has forged a productive relationship with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, and the leaders of the parties in Northern Ireland and has been clear and straightforward in his dealings with all sides. We should encourage and applaud him in his efforts.

The deferment of the Assembly elections is regrettable, but they can be held if a formula can be found to give renewed impetus to the search for a workable peace deal. The revival of the devolved institutions should also be considered as a realistic target. It is regrettable that the IRA statement endorsing the clarification by the Sinn Féin leader, Gerry Adams, did not come at an earlier stage. However, it is significant and has the potential to move things forward.

The Good Friday Agreement was an historic accomplishment and showed what could be achieved with determination, commitment, courage and imagination. These qualities are still required to ensure the full implementation of the Agreement. Reassurance is needed on all sides. All the parties involved must indicate their willingness to implement the terms of the Agreement in full. The historic institutions, provided for under the Agreement, must be made to work. This can only take place in an atmosphere where violence and the threat of violence has been permanently removed and where a high profile and obtrusive British military presence is no longer required and can be withdrawn.

The most painful aspect of the current situation is that the parties are so close to bringing the negotiations to a successful conclusion. The willingness of all those participating in the talks to work long and hard has never been in doubt. With a great and historic conclusion to their efforts in sight, surely they can muster a renewed effort. Where clarity is called for, it can be provided.

A magnificent peace dividend was promised when the Good Friday Agreement was implemented. Some of that dividend has been enjoyed by the people of the Cavan-Monaghan constituency. A good deal of progress has been made to remedy the social and economic disadvantages with which they have had to live for many years because of the troubles in Northern Ireland. However, more benefits can be obtained, but these will not come about until the outstanding obstacles to a resolution of the difficulties lying in the way of the full implementation of the Agreement are overcome.

There has always been a high level of cross-community co-operation in my constituency. The people have always been willing to come together to advance their local communities, share a neighbourliness and to span all religious and political differences. It is the wish of the people of Cavan-Monaghan that something of that spirit can be harnessed and put to productive use in the difficult but, I hope, final negotiations that lie ahead. Ultimately, it is about being good neighbours, getting along with one another and respecting each other's tradition. Much could be achieved in the weeks ahead if these principles were adhered to.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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I wish to share my time with Senator White.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach:

Is that agreed? Agreed.

Photo of Paschal MooneyPaschal Mooney (Fianna Fail)
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A couple of years ago, the BBC broadcast an interesting television series entitled "Endgame". While it may have been premature, recent events prove that we have reached the endgame. Sadly, there is another phenomenon unique to Northern Ireland is also ongoing, called "wordgames". It is clear that in the last couple of weeks, culminating in the second statement by the IRA, we are involved in word games. It is regrettable that the second IRA statement was not produced a little earlier.

It is time to look forward. I am glad there will be a period of reflection and that recrimination has been confined to words. It is a matter of rhetorical flourishes rather than riots in the streets. I compliment the Nationalist population in Northern Ireland, who feel deprived as a result of the deferral of the elections, that it did not take to the streets in the numbers in which they have done over the past 30 years leading ultimately to violence in many cases, which in turn has spread to loyalist areas.

It is important that we put on the record our absolute support for the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I am pleased to note the presence of the Minster of State, Deputy Brian Lenihan. His father had a long, proud and illustrious record in bringing peace and reconciliation, not only between the two parts of the island but also in the context of the totality of the relationships – a term he coined in 1981 – between the two islands. I hope and urge that the two governments will not only sustain the momentum created by recent initiatives but that Sinn Féin and the Unionists, especially the Trimble Unionists, will attempt to forge a consensus. It will be difficult over the summer because of the parades season, but a political season will commence in the autumn when there is a definite possibility that the deferred elections will take place.

The Taoiseach succinctly and rightly said we were within a whisker of achieving the end of a conflict that has been ongoing for 800 years. We were so close to a resolution that it would be unparalleled in the history of relations between the Unionists and Nationalists on this island and between Britain and Ireland if we were to deprive all the people of these islands of real and lasting peace because of an indulgence in word games. I commend the Leader for allowing this debate to take place.

Photo of Mary WhiteMary White (Fianna Fail)
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It is with a heavy heart that I participate in this debate. I have been overwhelmed with sadness since I heard the declaration by the British Prime Minister that the elections would not proceed. That was a serious mistake. However, my heart has been lifted by the cross-party consensus in the House. I thank Senator Brian Hayes, Senator Coghlan and Senator Ryan who gave a good example.

The Oireachtas is united in supporting the people in Northern Ireland. The Nationalist population in particular need to know of our steadfast support. They look to us for progress. Yesterday morning I called for the report of the Stevens inquiry to be followed up. The chairman of the Bar Council of England and Wales called for a public inquiry. On 24 April, The Economist magazine referred to the activities revealed by the Stevens report as Britain's dirty war and also called for a public inquiry. The army and police officers in Northern Ireland named by Sir John Stevens are suspected by him of collusion in the murders of Pat Finucane and the student, Brian Lambert.

I was overwhelmed by sadness when the election was postponed as we are trying to push constitutional politics in the North. I am hopeful today having witnessed the empathy across the House. I would like the Minister of State to ensure the Government will pursue the putting in place of a public inquiry based on the Stevens report and the publication of the Barron report into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. People are frustrated that there is no report which gets to the heart of the bombings. The Government should also demand that a date for elections is set. Apart from this, there is no point in repeating all that has been said already.

An Leas-Chathaoirleach:

When is it proposed to sit again?

Photo of Mary O'RourkeMary O'Rourke (Fianna Fail)
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On Tuesday, 13 May at 2.30p.m.