Tuesday, 3 November 2009
Developments in Northern Ireland: Statements
I am pleased to have the opportunity to address the House on Northern Ireland matters.
As the Taoiseach indicated when he appeared before this House in July, it is important to acknowledge our collective achievements in bringing peace to this island while also guarding against complacency. At the heart of everything we have achieved, as well as our current work and all that we hope to do, is the Good Friday Agreement. The Taoiseach has described it aptly as the "bedrock of our peace". It is as relevant and necessary in Northern Ireland today as it was in 1998.
The genius of the Good Friday Agreement, supplemented by the St. Andrews Agreement, is that it addresses all of the essential relationships and elements required, not only to bring the conflict to an end, but also to build sustainable, permanent peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland and on these islands. It provides us with a forward looking, future-oriented agenda and the necessary framework to achieve it.
The consolidation of our peace requires that all of the elements be respected and implemented. The story of the past ten years has been a case of, to coin a phrase, "Much done, more to do". If we are honest, we must acknowledge we have wasted too much time and lost too much momentum over the past decade in debates about preconditions and sequencing. We need to work together to realise the full implementation of the Agreement across the board. The balanced progressive implementation of all aspects of the Agreement is the best way to complete the journey from conflict to a shared future of permanent peace and reconciliation.
The Government, together with the British Government, is a guarantor of the Agreement. We are conscious of our responsibility in ensuring that the full promise of the Agreement is realised and we are continuing to work hard to achieve its full and effective implementation. This responsibility is both serious and shared. However, the political parties in Northern Ireland also have a fundamental and indispensable role to play in the implementation of the Agreement. This role is of particular importance in the many areas where powers have been devolved to the Assembly. Here the Governments can act as influencers, supporters and persuaders but it is the parties in the Assembly and the Executive who must develop proposals, engage others in debate on them and reach agreement. I urge all parties to live up to their responsibilities in this regard.
At the core of the Agreement is a commitment to partnership, equality and mutual respect. This commitment is manifested in the institutions of the Agreement - the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, the North-South Ministerial Council and the British Irish Council.
The Assembly and the Executive were established with power-sharing as their core principle. They are a vital to ensuring that all sides of the community can have trust and confidence in the system of devolved government. Given Northern Ireland's past, the significance and centrality of the system of joint decision-making which is now in place cannot be overestimated and should not be taken for granted. In many cases this system is neither easy nor straightforward. Political partnerships of all kinds require work. A power-sharing coalition between parties from different traditions with different aspirations is very challenging but it is not impossible and it is worth the effort. The key ingredients are the political will and leadership required to make it work. Power-sharing and devolution is in the best interests of Northern Ireland and its people. It is this system which they voted for in 1998 and it is the resulting democratic legitimacy which keeps everyone on track when times are politically fraught and differences seem unbridgeable.
It is worth noting that the most immediate challenges facing Northern Ireland are not issues which divide people along Nationalist and Unionist lines, rather it is the everyday political challenges of delivery that face the Executive and Assembly - questions which politicians in every parliament face - and for which the people of Northern Ireland look to the Assembly for answers. I refer to questions such as how to attract investment and increase employment, how to develop transport infrastructures, and how to ensure that people feel safe and secure in their homes and neighbourhoods. These are the questions that the political leaders of Northern Ireland can and must answer together for the benefit of all their constituents.
The establishment of devolved institutions within Northern Ireland was a major achievement. Their consolidation will require the Assembly and the Executive to demonstrate that it can sustain the delivery of tangible outcomes for the benefit of all the people of Northern Ireland.
Ten years after the Patten report, it is evident that significant advances have been made in transforming policing in Northern Ireland and in creating a service which is representative of the people and trusted by people from all sections of the community.
The former Chief Constable, Hugh Orde, did tremendous work in this regard and I take the opportunity today to commend him for it. I also want to wish every success to the new Chief Constable, Matt Baggott, who comes to Northern Ireland with an excellent reputation in terms of his commitment to effective community policing. The devolution of policing and justice powers is important in its own right but also as a statement of what Northern Ireland is and how far it has come. It is a statement to those small few on the extremes still intent on division and violence to say that we will not be dragged backwards and are resolute in moving forward. It is also important to demonstrate to the wider world that Northern Ireland is a politically stable place with a normal policing and security infrastructure. The vital importance of political stability in attracting investment has been emphasised in recent weeks by the United States Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, and by her special economic envoy to Northern Ireland, Declan Kelly.
Many of the preparations for the transfer of policing and justice powers from Westminster to Stormont are well advanced. I welcome the agreement reached recently on a significant financial package for devolution and I commend Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, and Secretary of State, Shaun Woodward, for their hard work and the long hours committed to securing this outcome. The financial package provides a robust basis to move forward. I urge all the parties in Northern Ireland to work together to ensure that the transfer of these powers takes place as soon as possible. The progress made in building cross-community support for policing and justice must be consolidated and built on now and the completion of the devolution of policing and justice is the best way to do this.
It is also important not to lose sight of the significant work that needs to be done at a societal level. We must be honest about the scale of the work needed to create a truly shared and reconciled society in Northern Ireland. It may be the work of several generations to successfully tackle sectarianism and build lasting reconciliation but we need to make progress now and build on it every day. There is an important and continuing role for those at community level but there is also responsibility at political level to set an example and for political leaders to challenge attitudes and prejudices within their own communities. Throughout the Government in Northern Ireland there is a need to develop strategies in support of a shared and better future in Northern Ireland. I encourage the Executive to take the lead and to agree to publish a comprehensive strategy to promote reconciliation. 4 o'clock
Parades remain one of the most difficult issues on the road to a shared future. The issue of parading is of fundamental importance to both communities in Northern Ireland. It raises deep and sensitive emotions related to self esteem and mutual respect. In the past decade, the contention around parading has been reduced, with much of the progress due to the work of the Parades Commission, together with local engagement and effective leadership at community level. Unfortunately, several parades retain the potential to destabilise the situation each summer.
Parades need to be addressed in a mutually respectful way, acknowledging the importance of the interlocking issues of rights and responsibilities on all sides. Solutions can neither be imposed nor dictated and should not be demanded as a prerequisite for progress in other areas of the Agreement, nor can they can they be presented as a win for one community over the other. The parading issue can best be dealt with by full and ongoing engagement by the parties in Northern Ireland and at community and local level. Leadership and compromise will be required to arrive at agreement on any improved framework for managing parades. It is essential that as we seek to move to a better future we do not leave behind those who have suffered most in the past. We have an obligation to those who suffered most as a result of the conflict and we have an obligation to try to heal wider society. The question of how to respond to the difficult outstanding issues from the Troubles was examined in detail by the Eames-Bradley Consultative Group on the past, which reported to the British Government earlier this year. The Government is working closely with its British counterpart to consider how the recommendations might be taken forward. Much work has already been done to develop our understanding of the past. The two Governments agreed at Weston Park in 2001 to the establishment of inquiries in certain important and representative cases.
Inquiries into the deaths of Robert Hamill, Rosemary Nelson and Billy Wright are well advanced. In this jurisdiction, the Smithwick inquiry into the murders of RUC officers Harry Breen and Bob Buchanan is also well underway. As the House is aware, the promised inquiry into the death of Pat Finucane has not been established by the British Government. I reiterate the Government's view that a proper, independent inquiry should be established, as recommended by Judge Cory.
We await also the publication of the report of the Saville inquiry into the events of Bloody Sunday. The long delay between the closing of the public phase and drafting the report has been difficult on the families. It had been hoped that the report would be published before Christmas but it now seems that it will be further delayed until March next year. The Government continues to urge the British authorities to do all they can to ensure the needs of the families are respected and the report is published as soon as possible. Looking back at the scars and divisions of the past is difficult and raises many sensitivities. However, the best way we can honour the dead and serve the living is through building a peace which respects the suffering of the past and which contributes to the construction of a better future for everyone on these islands.
In the Agreement the parties dedicated themselves "to the achievement of reconciliation, tolerance and mutual trust, and to the protection and vindication of the human rights of all". These principles are reflected in two important institutions which that agreement created within Northern Ireland, an equality commission and a human rights commission. It is important to acknowledge what these organisations represent. They are a statement that Northern Ireland has learned important lessons from its past and has put in place structures to ensure previous mistakes and injustices are not repeated. The commissions continue to have great relevance in promoting and protecting rights and equality of opportunity in Northern Ireland. It is incumbent on all of us to work actively in support of their important work.
One significant piece of unfinished work in this area is the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. This is not a question of British rights, Irish rights, or even Northern Irish rights. Still less is it about orange rights or green rights. What is needed is a statement of universal rights specific to the present and historical context of Northern Ireland. Such a Bill of Rights is necessary to underpin the foundations of mutual respect and parity of esteem which are essential to stability and progress in Northern Ireland. The work of the Bill of Rights Forum and the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission have advanced our understanding of the issues related to a Bill of Rights. We look forward to the British Government's consultation paper on this issue in the coming weeks. I emphasise the Government's commitment to seeing this important part of the Agreement implemented and I urge all parties in Northern Ireland to engage constructively with the consultation process.
The promotion and protection of the Irish language remains a priority for the Government. We will continue to support Foras na Gaeilge, the North-South implementation body charged with promoting the language on an all-island basis, and to ensure its continued effective operation.
The Government will also continue to press for the full implementation of Good Friday Agreement commitments relating to the Irish language which fall to the British Government and the Northern Ireland Executive, including the introduction of an Irish language Act and the enhancement of the Irish language in Northern Ireland. I encourage all parties in Northern Ireland to take a fresh look at the Irish language issue. While the language is a valid expression of Irish identity, it should not be seen as the exclusive preserve of one community. The Irish language forms part of the very landscape of our island. It is reflected in the names of mountains and rivers, towns and villages, roads and streets throughout Northern Ireland, as well as in the names of many of its people from both traditions. I encourage all with an interest in the culture and history of their home place to view it as an integral and treasured part of that rich and diverse cultural heritage. In the same spirit, the Government is pleased to support the Ulster Scots Agency in its important work and to promote and celebrate the Ulster Scots tradition on both sides of the Border.
The balanced progressive implementation of all aspects of the Agreement requires the North-South and East-West institutions to reach their full potential as well. Since the restoration of the devolved institutions the British-Irish Council has once again begun to operate as initially intended with representation from all the Administrations on these islands. For its part, the Government is fully committed to engaging constructively within this framework to the mutual benefit of all the peoples of these islands.
In terms of the North-South relationship, I am pleased to say we are increasing all-island co-operation through the North-South Ministerial Council, with a busy programme of ministerial meetings agreed for the months ahead. In addition to four plenary meetings of the council since restoration of the Northern Ireland institutions in May 2007, there have also been some 44 ministerial meetings. Each of these has included Northern Ministers from both nationalist and unionist backgrounds, as well as their Government counterparts. Cross-Border engagement is now a regular feature of ministerial life North and South. We are putting our shoulders to the wheel, delivering substantial initiatives designed to improve the lives of all those we represent, North and South, and to develop our all-island economy. This is the basis for the Government commitment to help upgrade the A5 road to Derry and Letterkenny and the A8 road from Belfast to Larne. It is what underpins our support for Project Kelvin, a €30 million cross-Border initiative, being taken forward with the European Union, to provide high-speed and low-cost broadband to the north west and surrounding areas.
Current economic difficulties compel us to intensify our efforts in the area of North-South co-operation and examine where economies of scale can be achieved by planning, investing and providing services on a cross-Border basis. We have made a good start in this area. For example, patients in certain Border areas can now access general practitioner and cancer services in the other jurisdiction. However, there is more we can do to provide better and more accessible public services. We will continue to intensify the North-South programme of work and identify new areas where closer co-operation can bring tangible benefits, economic and social, to people on both sides of the Border. There is more work to be done on North-South institutions. The North South Parliamentary Forum and the North South Consultative Forum remain works in progress and must be advanced to completion.
I express my thanks to all the Members of the House from all parties and none who have throughout the years played a very constructive role in respect of the peace process. I look forward to the continued advice and support of the House in the work that has yet to be done as we work to achieve the full promise of the Agreement and a better and shared future for all on this island.
I welcome the Minister. Before discussing matters pertaining to Northern Ireland, it is appropriate to mention that President Vaclav Klaus has signed the Lisbon treaty into being in the Czech Republic. I am sure all Members will welcome the coming into being at last of the Lisbon treaty in the near future.
I thank the Minister for his comments on Northern Ireland. This debate was listed on the Order Paper as statements on developments in Northern Ireland and consequently it covered a wide range of issues. Members were unsure as to what precisely would be discussed. However, the workings of the Good Friday Agreement should be discussed in this House and I regret to note this is the first time Members have had an opportunity to speak in this House on the North-South Ministerial Council and the North-South institutions. I firmly believe the Seanad should be used to debate the conclusions of meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council as it is an ideal forum in which to have such debates and discussions. The Oireachtas should be informed fully of what goes on at such meetings on a regular basis. The Minister should arrange for this to happen on a more regular basis. As I noted, this is the first time Members have discussed what goes on at North-South Ministerial Council meetings, which is a matter I intend to address.
Certainly, as the Minister noted, the establishment of a devolved parliament in Northern Ireland has allowed politicians to deal with the ordinary business of political life on items such as the economy, tourism, law and order and all the other matters with which any government must deal. I welcome the progress that has been made in this regard. The Minister also noted that the parades issue continues to be a problem, which undoubtedly is the case. This issue must be addressed by full engagement from all sides and tolerance and a recognition of the concerns of each side should be paramount at all times when trying to reach agreement on this issue, which has caused so many problems through the years.
I recently read the communiqué on the most recent plenary session of the North-South Ministerial Council, which discussed issues of great importance in respect of co-operation between North and South. It spoke of the close co-operation on the recent outbreak of swine flu, which is an issue that affects the entire island of Ireland. It also spoke of the framework for the removal of waste that was illegally dumped in Northern Ireland and significant progress has been made in this regard. There also has been progress on the introduction of mutual recognition of driving disqualifications and a co-ordinated approach on the introduction of lower blood alcohol limits. The latter certainly is an item that has taken up a considerable amount of time in recent weeks. It is a matter that, particularly in respect of penalty points and driver disqualifications, should be addressed by the North-South Ministerial Council. Moreover, I suggest that agreement on this issue should be possible in the near future. The council also discussed the important subject of intensified co-operation in respect of child protection and Internet safety. In addition, progress was made on suicide prevention, including proposals for revised media guidelines to incorporate advice on new technologies, including Internet-related suicides.
The development of a draft all-Ireland animal health and welfare strategy also was discussed and progress was made on co-operation in this regard. In addition, a joint programme of research has been commissioned by the Loughs Agency for the development of a European-wide research programme on the use of genetic techniques to identify the origins of salmon caught at sea. This is another area which is highly important for fishermen and the marine community on an all-Ireland basis. Education and approaches to the integration of newcomer children in schools also has been discussed by the North-South Ministerial Council and continued co-operation is ongoing in this regard. Tourism is a major issue on which there has been considerable co-operation in the recent past and early decisions are required on the achievement of efficiency savings in the business plans of the North-South bodies and Tourism Ireland.
As for the impact of cutbacks in the South on the North-South Ministerial Council, the Minister should state whether cutbacks that may impinge on the council and associated structures will be communicated to Oireachtas Éireann before being discussed by, or communicated to, the Northern Ireland Executive. Members of the Oireachtas must be informed of matters that will affect the North-South Ministerial Council. The council's 13th conclusion welcomed "the establishment of two working groups, by the Oireachtas and the Northern Ireland Assembly respectively, to progress discussions on the establishment of a North South Parliamentary Forum". I have concerns regarding what I consider to be-----
Is that all? I have only started. I have concerns regarding the quangoisation of North-South relations. I fear that bodies have been created without concern for either value for money or proper public scrutiny. Such bodies were created in more financially extravagant times and both value for money and a focus on proper public scrutiny are required in the Oireachtas and the Northern Ireland Assembly.
I wish to turn to the issue of violence within Northern Ireland. There is relief that the brutal murders of Sappers Patrick Azimkar and Mark Quinsey from London and Birmingham, respectively, as well as that of Police Constable Stephen Carroll in Craigavon, have not marked the beginning of a new campaign of violence. However, I note the comments of Deputy Chief Constable Judith Gillespie that dissident republican groups pose a severe and increasing threat. She stated "we are obviously very concerned at the level of threat and it behoves us...to work together". The issue of law and order and co-operation to tackle dissidents is extremely important. In addition, it is feared that dissident republicans were linked to or were behind the recent importation of 120 million cigarettes near Dundalk. I know of smokers who buy their cigarettes for half the price that obtains in shops. Such people need to be made aware that such cigarettes-----
----- may be funding dissident terrorist groups. This message must go out to people.
Fine Gael believes in the importance of achieving devolved policing in Northern Ireland. It understands the sensitivities but appeals to all sides to avoid sectional interests in this regard. Certainly, Fine Gael in government will look forward to working with a Northern Ireland Executive that includes a Minister with responsibility for devolved policing.
I conclude by welcoming the statement from the INLA that it has ended what it calls the armed struggle. However, I note it has not decommissioned its weapons and made no mention of that. As for remaining non-decommissioned weapons, the threat and risk remains because for as long as there are guns in the system, a risk exists. This option must be closed off definitively and absolutely and the INLA should decommission its weapons. While I welcome its statement, one must be on one's guard at all times regarding the risk posed by the remaining dissident republican groups.
I welcome the Minister and take this opportunity, as Leader, to congratulate him for all he did for the safe return of Sharon Commins and her friend. I wish the Minister well, along with GOAL and all those who worked hard on this matter. I also wish the Minister well with regard to Father Sinnott. We all hope and pray that he will return to his congregation and his family in the not too distant future.
I have served with many eminent Members of the House from Northern Ireland. The first Deputy First Minister, Seamus Mallon, was a Member of this House in 1982, as were former Senators John Robb, Brid Rodgers, Gordon Wilson - who we all loved and respected - Edward Haughey, Maurice Hayes and Sam McAughtry. All made an immense contribution over the past 28 years. As a member of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and the British-Irish Council, it is great to see the Minister of Foreign Affairs in this House to listen to the statements of Members on Northern Ireland.
It is important to recognise the progress made in recent years in Northern Ireland and that the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement are becoming firmly embedded. Northern Ireland is experiencing a period of sustained stability and promise but there is more to be done. Since the restoration of the institutions in 2007, the Executive and the Assembly have been dealing with the day-to-day issues of Government and representing the needs of all the people of Northern Ireland. Responsibility for jobs, health care, transport and education now lies with the Executive. This is an important step in normalising Northern Ireland's society. It is our sincere hope that policing and justice powers will also be devolved shortly.
As the Minister outlined to the House, elements of the Good Friday Agreement and the commitments made at St. Andrews remains outstanding. It is vital that we step up our efforts to ensure these are implemented.
I draw to the attention of the House to the need for an Irish language Act for Northern Ireland. The British Government committed to an Irish language Act at St. Andrews. This is now a devolved matter, dealt with by the Executive and the Minister of Culture, Arts and Leisure. An Irish language Act will provide a meaningful framework for the Irish language in Northern Ireland. Irish is part of our living culture as well as an integrated part of our shared history. An Irish language Act will ensure that it is part of our shared future, for all to appreciate and enjoy.
The Minister has spoken about the importance of relationships and, as parliamentarians, we have a significant role to play. At the East-West level the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which just met for the 38th time, goes from strength to strength. A good relationship between Ireland and Britain remains essential to the stability of Northern Ireland but the relationship has grown so much beyond that. The assembly has played an important part in helping to develop and deepen relations on an East-West basis and foster co-operation, collegiality and camaraderie. The participation of representatives from the DUP and UUP at the assembly is particularly welcome and is a further sign of how far we have come. When we met, we meet as equals with the aim of improving relations and opening new channels of communication.
Considering the North-South dimension, I am pleased the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement has been up and running for almost two years and has made a valuable contribution. I am mindful that Members of the Oireachtas are tasked, along with our colleagues in the Assembly, with making progress towards a North-South parliamentary forum and I look forward to further positive developments in this regard. In these economically challenging times, effective North-South co-operation is crucial. It is heartening that, through the North-South Ministerial Council, the Government is co-operating with the Executive to deliver effective services for people on both sides of the Border. There is great scope for further co-operation on a North-South basis. The potential to deliver services and efficiencies is immense.
Colleagues on all sides of the House, but particularly Fianna Fáil Members, are strongly of the view that, as expressed in our submission for Seanad reform, we should examine the possibility of entering an arrangement with the Northern legislative Assembly, whereby the Assembly and Seanad Éireann would exchange the right of audience of up to ten members of each of the sittings. This would involve the right of audience with no voting rights. I endorse that and look forward to the day when colleagues from the Executive will address this House and vice versa.
One of the most heartening appointments Barack Obama made was the appointment of Senator Hillary Clinton as the United States Secretary of State. She will be the person representing America in Northern Ireland. The Secretary of State visited Dublin and Belfast on 11 and 12 October. Secretary Of State Clinton met the President, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs in Dublin. In Belfast she met the First Minister and Deputy First Minister, delivered an address to the Assembly, officially reopened the city hall and spoke at a business event at Queen's University. In her speech to the Assembly, she urged the parties to move forward with the devolution process and reminded the Assembly of its duties to lead Northern Ireland responsibly. She drew particular attention to the link between peaceful stability and economic development and reiterated the commitment of the United States Administration to Northern Ireland. I look forward to the day when we will see Senator Clinton addressing this House on matters of importance for North-South, the Good Friday Agreement and the British-Irish Council. In my lifetime as a Member of this House, outside of the membership of Dáil Eireann and Seanad Éireann no one has done more for the peace initiative in Ireland than former US President, Mr. Clinton. I look forward to the Secretary of State playing a role in the meaningful way in which the Clintons have been accustomed to doing. I reassure the Minister of the support of Seanad Éireann in seeking to ensure the full and effective implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.
I wish to share time with Senator Mullen. I welcome the Minister and I welcome his words. I regard myself as the only northern representative here. My mother came from County Armagh, my father came from County Down, they met in Dun Laoghaire and I was born in Dublin. Those who live far from the Border think of the North as a different country. I will exclude the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Martin, from this. On one occasion I went shopping for a wedding present in Dublin with a Limerick person. I suggested getting some Irish linen but she said that this was from the North and suggested buying some of our own. She has suffered for this remark ever since every time I remind her of what she said. I say this because someone referred to those leaving this country to shop up North. It was a slip of the tongue but we become partitionist the further away from the North we live and the more we regard shopping in Newry as being disloyal to the country. I regard Newry and Dundalk as being in the same country. We must ensure we solve the problem by reducing our costs, getting the economy right and watching how we handle the matter, not by systems under which we regard shopping in the North as something of which we should be ashamed.
On another occasion here I mentioned being in Dundalk when a shop in which I was involved was closing. I asked some of the butchers there where they were going to get work and they said they did not know. I stated they could go across the Border, to which they replied their pay was one third of what they could earn there. This is a reminder of how much higher our costs are than in the North, which explains to a very large extent why Northern prices are so much lower than here. Earlier today Senator Mullen stated the Society of St. Vincent de Paul had stated we had the second highest food prices in Europe. We must become more competitive as that is how we will solve the problem.
Some take for granted the peace and stability achieved in the North. However, they are very fragile. Recently I read that the man thought to be the UDA brigadier in north Antrim and Derry had admitted that the dissident republican killings at Massereene barracks and the murder of Constable Stephen Carroll, to which Senator Cummins referred, had placed considerable strain on the loyalist organisations' ceasefire. Another leading loyalist from north Antrim stated the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness's statement that the murderers were traitors to the island of Ireland had helped to stop an escalation of the violence. Let us remember that violence is never far away and that even in our economic circumstances we should do our utmost to support peace in the North. The Minister has done so today by reminding us of the work taking place.
I was also reminded of the Patten commission and what it did. Senator Cassidy spoke about the various former Northern Members of the House, one of whom was Maurice Hayes who worked with the Patten commission which established the Police Service of Northern Ireland. What a change has taken place. The viewpoint of both communities was that the RUC was a sectarian force. Now, they look on the PSNI as something they are much more likely to recognise as a fair, moderate and even-handed police force.
I would love if we in the South and Northern Ireland could be encouraged to join the Schengen travel arrangements. It would not be easy for us to do so on our own but the benefits would be large. It appears that one needs, if not a passport, then photo identification to travel from Northern Ireland to the island of Britain. On that basis, it seems it would be quite easy for Northern Ireland and us in the South to work together to join the Schengen travel arrangements and give both sides the benefit of being able to travel throughout Europe without needing a passport in going from one country to another. I urge the Minister to consider putting this matter on the agenda and see whether we can coax Northern Ireland to do the same.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire agus tréaslaím leis as ucht an dea-obair a rinne sé, go háirithe i gcás saorú na hoibrithe deonacha le Goal le déanaí. Táimid uilig ag iarraidh agus ag súil go mbeidh toradh chomh dearfach le fáil i gcás an Athair Sinnott.
Tá áthas orm faoin méid adúirt an Aire maidir leis an Ghaeilge. Aontaím go huile agus go hiomlán leis chomh fada agus a bhaineann sé le obair Fhoras na Gaeilge. Tá sé an-tábhachtach go n-amharcfar ar an Ghaeilge mar oidhreacht gach duine sa tír, idir Caitliceach agus Protastúnach, Náisiúnaithe agus Aondachtóirí agus is cóir don Rialtas aon rud ar féidir leis a dhéanamh chun sin a chur chun cinn. Is cuimhin liom nuair a bhí mé san ollscoil agus i ndiaidh sin gur minic a raibh daoine diúltach faoin Ghaeilge mar go ndearna siad nasc intleachtúil idir an Ghaeilge agus cúrsaí poblachtánachais agus míleata. Tá sé an-tábhachtach go ndéanann muid uilig ár seacht ndícheall chun a cinntiú go n-amharcfar ar an Ghaeilge mar acmhainn chultúrtha, shaibhir ar leí an tír ar fad í, ó Thuaidh agus ó Dheas.
Aontaím chomh maith leis an méid adúirt mo chomhleacaí an Seanadóir Quinn faoi siopadóireacht sa Tuaisceart. I am often very surprised at the implication that the practice of going shopping in the North in response to the economic crisis is somehow less than patriotic. We need to view our economic well-being on an all-Ireland basis. I did not have time to check this because it was Senator Quinn's comments that prompted the reflection, but I seem to remember rather unfortunate comments being made by some who would have regarded themselves as Nationalists about Austin Curry when he was a candidate for the Presidency of Ireland, that he should go back to where he had come from. This reflected the contradictions in the minds of some when they have not fully thought through a positive nationalism for themselves.
I welcome the Minister's statement that he is looking forward in the coming weeks to the British Government's consultation paper on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. Does he consider the British Government is stalling on the issue? Does he believe there will be progress? The public consultation document will bring the United Kingdom closer to fulfilling its commitments to introduce legislation under the Belfast-Good Friday Agreement. Is the Minister concerned about this process, given that no legislation is scheduled to be introduced at Westminster prior to the dissolution of Parliament?
Is the Minister concerned about the process of creating a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland if there is change of Government in the United Kingdom? It is known that the Conservative Party supports a UK Bill of Rights, whereas the Labour Party supports a distinct Bill for Northern Ireland. Given that 83% of people in Northern Ireland believe it is important that Northern Ireland has its own Bill of rRghts and that the Human Rights Act 1998 is operative in Northern Ireland, it is important that there be a Bill of Rights particular to Northern Ireland. That is the type of Bill that should be promulgated considering the recent traumatic history of our neighbours.
The caveat I insert is that any proposed Bill should remain faithful to the important international rights instruments comprising the UN Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights and the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights. However, it is important to have a localisation of international human rights precisely because it is such an important part of normalising political and cultural discourse in Northern Ireland and because of the normative influence such a Bill of Rights would have in championing authentic cultural and human rights. I state this because I am quite conscious that sometimes the concepts of rights and human rights are abused and that one ends up with people taking liberties with authentic human rights in the name of human rights.
I welcome the Minister. It is interesting to receive an update and have a discussion on developments in Northern Ireland, particularly on standing agreements. This House has been spoken about and has spoken to itself about its future function. One of the functions that has been strongly mooted is a stronger role in Northern Ireland affairs, not only in assessing the ongoing political situation but also in having identified roles. Senator O'Toole has mentioned how we lack a direct link between the British-Irish Council and this Parliament. In much the same way as we seek interaction with members of the Cabinet after European Council meetings there could and should be a role for this House in respect of ministerial meetings of the British-Irish Council. I put that to the Minister for his consideration.
There have been many positive developments which the Minister outlined in his speech. All Members of the House take succour in the fact that the process is in a relatively healthy state and is going in the right direction, especially the further moves in decommissioning by the INLA and the move by the UDA towards finally getting rid of the gun in Northern Irish politics. This is something that all right-thinking democrats on this island should welcome.
The further progress of the peace process depends on the development of the three strands of the Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement. The most important relationships are those within Northern Ireland. The publication in September of the Department of Justice Bill is an important final piece of the jigsaw in bringing about a fully functioning Northern Ireland Assembly. We would all like to see that legislation placed on the Statute Book as quickly as possible.
Those of us who have had the opportunity of visiting Stormont regularly - my party is an all-island party and we have one member of the Northern Ireland Assembly - are struck by the fact that in Stormont there used to be a Northern Ireland Senate. This was removed when the former Northern Ireland Parliament was removed in 1972 and is now used as the main committee room of the Northern Ireland Assembly. It is one of the more poignant aspects of the Stormont building that there is a plaque outside it dedicated to the memory of two members of that Senate who were killed as part of the ongoing conflict. A Member of this House, Senator Billy Fox, also suffered in the same way. We should never forget those who committed themselves to public life and paid the ultimate price.
The addition of Unionist parties to the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, formerly the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body, in the last number of meetings is welcome. The presence of DUP and UUP members ensures the body has a full complement. It was interesting that at the last meeting, which was held a number of weeks ago in Swansea, there was a presentation from the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission headed by Monica McWilliams. Following on from the comments made by Senator Mullen, it is important that this aspect of the Good Friday Agreement and St. Andrews Agreement is also followed through because we need not only a rights Bill in Northern Ireland but also a charter of rights such as was envisaged in those agreements so that we can have a consistent approach to rights across this island. Our own Irish Human Rights Commission must continue to work in parallel with this body and must be given the necessary resources to carry out its work.
The final aspect of developing relationships and maintaining progress on the peace process is the North-South element. I mentioned already that this House could be more involved in the British-Irish Council. The Office of the Ceann Comhairle and the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly have been making progress on the idea of a parliamentary assembly between Northern Ireland and the Houses of the Oireachtas. We should encourage that work to be completed as soon as possible because it is an important part of the jigsaw which has so far been left hanging. If we have as many opportunities as possible to interact with those from Northern Ireland and discuss and develop common areas of policy, the tragedy that was Northern Ireland for 30 years can finally be confined to the pages of history books.
I welcome this opportunity for a discussion on developments in Northern Ireland and welcome the Minister. Much of his speech could not be disagreed with. It was a reasonable summary of what has happened to date, the position on the institutions, policing and justice, and other areas of controversy that are slowly but surely winding their way towards resolution. I agree with the Minister's comments welcoming the progress on policing and justice within the last couple of weeks. The so-called Gordon Brown package seems to represent considerable progress. I welcome the fact that the position of the Irish Government is as strong and robust as ever in demanding an inquiry into the death of Pat Finucane. I am glad to see the Minister is maintaining the pressure in so far as it can have any effect and can bring about the outcome we all want to see in that regard.
Like other speakers, I would like to see Members of both Houses engaging on a more practical, everyday level with our counterparts in the North on the issues that preoccupy people both here and in the northern part of the country. This debate is important, but I hope a time will come reasonably soon in which we can move on from the set-piece speeches we make, although I am not denigrating those in any sense, and engage on a practical level with the political and economic questions facing people both North and South. We also need to engage with the possibilities and challenges involved in genuinely working together towards an all-Ireland economy and similar aspirations.
Senator Boyle and others mentioned the need for closer parliamentary co-operation. The only opportunity I have had to travel since I was elected to this position has been to the North. I was delighted to be part of a delegation to Stormont, along with the Leader and the other members of the Committee on Procedure and Privileges, to meet members of the corresponding committee of the Assembly. It was an extremely useful day. We in the Labour Party also have our political affinities and connections in the North. We and the SDLP are both members of the Party of European Socialists and we engage with it in this regard. I am aware that members of Fianna Fáil also have aspirations with regard to the SDLP. We are all engaging with politicians in the North, but we need much more of this.
Senator Quinn is right. There still remains an extraordinary psychological barrier for many people, including those who should know better, when it comes to Northern Ireland. Even on a basic, practical level, people need to travel more to the North. I know people are already travelling to the North for reasons that may upset some from an economic point of view, but we need to know the North better by being in it more. We need to engage on a political, cultural and linguistic level. We need to go there and invite people from the North to this part of the island far more frequently than we do.
Mainly thanks to Senator Mary White who has taken up a good minute and a half of it.
The economic crisis changes the parameters of the debate. I note the Minister's statement that "the most immediate challenges facing Northern Ireland are not issues which divide people along Nationalist and Unionist lines". He is correct in this regard. The challenges are much greater, and the political parties in the North are not particularly well equipped to deal with differences on economic questions. We have the same problem in this part of the country. The problem with our party political configuration in the South is the polar opposite of that in the North.
That point was made by James Connolly 100 years ago.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Seanadóir as a chuid ama a roinnt liom. Cuirim fáilte roimh an deis chun ceist na Sé Chondae a phlé sa Seanad, go háirithe an próiseas síochána agus cur i bhfeidhm Chomhaontú Aoine an Chéasta agus Chomhaontú Chill Rímhinn.
I welcome this opportunity to address developments in the Six Counties in respect of the Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement. I participated in the talks in Hillsborough and St. Andrews on these agreements. It is also important that we address the need for all-Ireland development, an end to partition and national reunification.
The most pressing issue in terms of implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement is the transfer of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast. This is a long overdue and absolutely essential element of the Good Friday Agreement. For the new dispensation to function in the North we need a new beginning to policing and justice.
While progress has been made on funding the transfer of these powers, new obstacles have been thrown up by the DUP over the past several days. Many citizens will be concerned at the DUP's insistence that the issue of contentious Orange parades be resolved as a precondition to its final agreement to the transfer of policing and justice powers. It has always been Sinn Féin's position that the issue of parades can only be resolved through dialogue between the loyal orders and local communities. Irish republicans respect the rights of the Orange institutions to parade but this has to be done on the basis of equality and mutual respect and tolerance.
While the overwhelming majority of Orange parades take place without rancour or dispute, a small number each year give cause for concern. The Orange Order should engage in dialogue with local residents to resolve these contentious parades. Regardless of the structure put in place to mediate contentious parades there can be no resolution or agreement without dialogue.
I urge the Leader to facilitate an all-party debate on the North. As someone who has had the opportunity to participate in the important negotiations in Hillsborough and St. Andrews, it is ridiculous that I cannot address other significant issues.
I concur with the previous speaker on the importance of this issue to those of us who live in the North. I confuse people everywhere I go when I say I am geographically north but politically south. From spending seven years at a Belfast university, I have seen the benefits of the agreements first-hand. It is interesting to observe the real South as it discovers the challenges of Border life in terms of shopping trips and commercial activity.
I recognise the importance of cross-Border activities such as Project Kelvin. I understand a spur to Newry has been suggested for that project. Perhaps the Minister would consider a spur to the Inishowen Peninsula. I appreciate much good work is being done by the North-South Ministerial Council but we do not know in advance of meetings what issues will arise at them. The council's proceedings are discussed in Stormont and Members of these Houses would also like to contribute to the debate. We do not underestimate the abilities of the Minister or his officials but we have first-hand experience of these issues because we live this life.
I could throw a rock into the Foyle from my house. The Foyle is not being exploited for tourism or enterprise. Third parties are making claims on which I cannot get confirmation. Some people claim we are conducting a flag wrapping exercise to take over the Foyle by stealth but we are simply saying that, of all places in Ireland, the north west needs economic development. The Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission is a wonderful body which deserves our Government's active participation but we should expand its powers so that it can deal with all issues pertaining to the Foyle and its tributaries, from planning permission to jet ski and angling sites.
I produced a report for the Council of Europe on teaching history in areas of recent conflict. In the Soviet era, teachers were told to teach a single truth. Catholics and Protestants in the North have long held to their respective single truths, although that is beginning to change. The chairperson of the education committee in the North recently agreed with me that schools should be a safe haven, although he did not realise that I raised the issue with sarcastic intent. I ask for the Minister to comment on my report, which will probably be sent first to the Minister for Education and Science via the Council of Ministers.
I am currently investigating the issue of hate music. The Lambeg drum was used in Riverdance as a symbol of togetherness but it is also an element of the marching season. Sport and the arts can be used for division as well as reconciliation.
My grandfather was held for 13 months in 1920 and 1921 as an internee in Ballykinlar. British troops are to withdraw from the base at Ballykinlar by 2016 although, as I said to Jim Wells, perhaps 2014 would have been an easier date to commemorate. When the base is handed over to Stormont I ask that some mechanism be found for commemorating both internees and the soldiers of the 36th regiment who were sent to the Somme.
We need more time to debate this important issue thoroughly. This is my first time to address Deputy Martin in his capacity as Minister for Foreign Affairs but I hope I will have further opportunities to debate Northern Ireland with him because a considerable number of substantive issues remain to be solved.
I first spoke about Northern Ireland as a Senator during the tragic times of the late 1980s. Thankfully we have moved on from those atrocities and can now deal with matters on a more constructive basis. However, it would be remiss to assume that all the problems have been solved.
Last night I listened to an interesting radio programme on the importance of symbols such as the Easter lily and the poppy. We must recognise that language is important in Northern Ireland. One person's problem could be someone else's solution. Senator Doherty has raised the question of Irish unity on a number of occasions over the past several months. This issue is worthy of debate, although it is one which needs to be debated in the broader context of the developments of the past 60 or 70 years. The use of language remains important when debating the North.
I must conclude although I have not yet made a contribution. I hope the Minister will come before the House again soon to discuss this developing topic at greater length. A large number of economic, social and political issues were raised and need to be addressed.
I thank Senators who contributed to the debate and note the difficulty created by the short timeframe for the debate. I have undertaken with the Leader and other Senators to make a debate on Northern Ireland and other issues a regular feature of my Department's engagement with the House. We can learn lessons from this debate but it has been a good start. Senators are assured of my Department's continued engagement.
The Seanad is an important forum for the discussion of Northern Ireland. I was taken by Senator Cassidy's recollection of some of the former distinguished Members of Seanad Éireann from Northern Ireland, all of whom made a distinctive contribution to the House and Irish life. Not only did they broaden the relationship between North and South but they also contributed on many general issues. Former Senator Maurice Hayes, for example, played a key role in the National Forum on Europe and a range of other bodies on which he has served. It is worth recalling this when considering the efficacy of this House and its importance in political life and influence, for which it has not been given credit.
People may take for granted the presence in the Seanad of individuals such as Seamus Mallon and Gordon Wilson who changed opinions in the South and helped shape our perspectives and educate us on broader North-South issues and our respective cultures and so forth. It is worth bearing their contribution in mind for future debates. It is not for me to become involved in the debate on the future role of the Seanad, an issue on which I have strong views. It is an issue that is broader to democracy.
The only relevance of the debate about the future of the House arises in the context of the architecture we have established in Northern Ireland through the peace process to achieve balance between different perspectives and opinions. The reason we had strands one, two and three and insisted on decision by power-sharing and cross-community representation was to ensure we could facilitate the full flowering of democracy in the context of Northern Ireland's unique past. The implication of this is that one should always be careful about dismantling institutions in a democracy. While we can certainly enhance and reform institutions, we should always seek ways to use them in the best manner possible to broaden participation in democracy across society generally. I did not intend to digress.
Senator Cummins raised a number of important issues. On penalty points, the mutual recognition of driver disqualifications between the North, the South and Great Britain will come into force next year. A project plan is under development to achieve mutual recognition of penalty points within an agreed timeframe. Both Administrations are also committed to co-ordinating their approaches to the introduction of lower blood alcohol levels for drivers in each jurisdiction. The Northern authorities published a consultation document in April which advocates a reduction in blood alcohol levels in that jurisdiction. It is important for road safety and enforcement on both sides of the Border to have the same blood alcohol levels, if possible.
Senator Cummins also raised child protection. This issue was added to the agenda of the North-South Ministerial Council last year. We are grateful to have an opportunity to make progress on child protection through the council. There has been a valuable exchange of information on ideas and issues such as Internet safety and the development of a protocol for the movement of vulnerable children and families across the Border. Work is also continuing on advice and guidance material for parents, carers and employers aimed at strengthening safeguarding arrangements on both sides of the Border. This co-operation complements the excellent working relationship between the Garda Síochána and Police Service of Northern Ireland on the management of sex offenders.
Swine flu is a good example of important co-ordination and co-operation between North and South. The Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, and her Northern counterpart, the Minister for Health, Social Services and Public Safety, Mr. Michael McGimpsey, met at Farmleigh at the beginning of June to discuss co-operation following the outbreak and have been in regular communication since then. The two departments and the Health Service Executive have worked closely together for some time on infectious disease emergency planning with particular emphasis on pandemic influenza. In addition, various individuals on both sides of the Border, including the chief medical officers, have been in regular contact.
Given the importance of the North-South bodies to the peace process and developing relationships, North and South, we must do everything possible to maintain their budgetary position. This will be a difficult task and where there is room for efficiencies, these should be found, where possible. However, the North-South bodies are unique constitutional political entities. In the overall scheme of things, they do not impact significantly on the budget. We must not lose sight of the uniqueness of the political entities established by the Good Friday Agreement. The North-South bodies are jointly overseen by the relevant bodies, North and South.
Senator Cummins asked if changes would be reported to the Oireachtas. We must work jointly with our colleagues in the North. The North-South bodies form an integral part of a delicate institutional balance, as was acknowledged in an bord snip's report. I have spoken to all Ministers along similar lines. I am, however, favourably disposed to the proposal to make regular reports to the Oireachtas.
Senator Cummins referred to the "quangoisation" of North-South relations. I sound a note of caution about using this language in referring to unique constitutional bodies. The purpose of our work is to develop a framework and structure to ensure we have ongoing formal and important dialogue, North and South. Removing or abolishing bodies would be a step backwards.
Senator Cassidy raised the issue of the Irish language and the establishment of a North-South parliamentary forum. We would dearly love to see more progress on such a forum. It is a matter for the Parliaments and good discussions have taken place on it. A parliamentary forum would help to develop stronger relationships among parliamentarians, North and South, and contribute to the overall enhancement of shared understanding of each other's backgrounds. Only good would come from it and it would not present a threat to anybody or any community. It is an important part of the Good Friday Agreement which we would like to come through.
I am interested in Senator Cassidy's reference to an arrangement between the Assembly and Seanad. This issue could be explored in future. I accept his comments on Secretary of State Clinton and her genuine personal commitment to the peace process. Her appointment of Declan Kelly as special economic envoy from the United States to Northern Ireland has been well received in the North. Mr. Kelly has been very active since his appointment, as has Secretary of State Clinton since her appointment, having visited the North and South. Her key point has been that political stability is essential for economic prosperity. Related to this is the whole area of the devolution of policing and justice, an issue about which I spoke at length earlier.
Senator Quinn gave a very fresh oversight and a good perspective on North-South shopping and the volatilities which can often ensue. He made an important point which we should not ignore. It creates challenges and we have to be creative in terms of how we respond to the economic realities. There is no doubt there are challenges.
On the Schengen issue, we are committed to free movement between these islands and, in particular, on the island. The Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform, Deputy Dermot Ahern, is the key Minister and discusses common travel areas and related issues with his British counterpart on an ongoing basis. It would be difficult for the island to move into Schengen on its own without Britain. There are always concerns about the EU's external border, which is another issue. We will keep the wider issue under review. It is a reasonable point.
The issue of the paramilitary threat and activities was also raised. We are concerned about the threats which are emerging. They are significant and highlight the absolute need to fill the vacuum and underpin the importance of the policing and justice issue. Significant investment has been made by all parts of the community, in line with the Patton recommendations, to transform the whole policing environment in Northern Ireland. That has happened and the final leg is the devolution of policing. It is important, in the context of the threat the dissidents present to peace and stability, to get that over the line.
In light of comments from all Senators on this issue, I want to take the opportunity to pay a warm tribute to the Garda Síochána and the PSNI who have an excellent working relationship which has reaped significant benefits in terms of the saving of lives and the foiling of many attempts by the dissidents to kill and maim people. It has been an excellent relationship and I give full credit to all who have been involved in nurturing it and ensuring its continuance.
Senator Keaveney referred to her student days in Belfast. She spoke very fast and was the most effective Senator in getting everything said within three or four minutes, which is probably as a result of her Northern background. I acknowledge the point she made on Project Kelvin. I was going to say those in the North are insatiable in terms of the project because there is always an extra spur or leg somewhere involving it, but it is a great project which will transform-----
-----the broadband issue.
We have made good responses to some of the representations on Lough Foyle. Heads should not be nodded in the negative because my officials have worked extremely hard on the ferry service. It has been very effective. The issue is how we manage this and all work together to realise the potential which is there.
Senator Boyle identified the need for a stronger role for the Senate in Northern Ireland and the Bill of Rights issue, which is important and we look forward to a consultation paper on that. Senator Alex White referred to the inquiry into the death of Pat Finucane. We are pursuing it with the British Government. It is important and a variety of inquiries have taken place so far which, to be fair to all concerned, have been extensive and comprehensive. The Eames-Bradley initiative raises the broader question of how we deal collectively with issues from the past, which will not be easy and poses significant challenges.
I referred to the issue raised by Senator Doherty. I take his comments on the issue of parades. I accept it is ultimately about dialogue on the ground. A number of parades continue to cause difficulty and have the potential to cause further difficulties. Each summer I receive a report on all the parades from our people who attend them across the North to get a sense of the progress which has been made over the years. I pay tribute to all those who steward the parades in various locations, including members of Senator Doherty's party, other community bodies and civic society, who have worked hard to try to lower the temperature and prevent violence. I take the Senator's point that continuing efforts between the Orange Order, the community and all involved are needed to reduce the potential threat. I also note his wider comments on parades, that is, he respects the right of people to parade but that there is a context in terms of how it is done.
I have covered everything at this stage. Senator Bradford-----