Wednesday, 17 February 2010
Power Sharing Agreement in Northern Ireland: Motion
That Seanad Éireann commends the Government for its role in brokering the recent power sharing agreement in Northern Ireland.
On behalf of all Members I welcome the Minister. I congratulate him, the Taoiseach and their assistants for their marvellous work during the talks that took place in the North of Ireland. I congratulate them for their efforts during recent weeks and months. They put many long hours into ensuring that parties had the space and the confidence to reach this important agreement.
As all Members know, the Minister noted that Mr. Sammy Wilson called this a "deal made in Ulster". It is an agreement that speaks to the enormous progress that has taken place in Northern Ireland in recent years. The principles of mutual respect, partnership and equality which are the very core of the Good Friday Agreement have been given renewed expression in this agreement. The working relationships built up between parties and individuals in the Executive and the Assembly during these negotiations will have gone a long way towards reducing some of the barriers of mistrust and suspicion which, in the past, hindered change and progress.
We all know that there is still some way to go before Northern Ireland can leave behind the divisions of the past. However, it is clear that the parties approached the talks with a willingness to find common ground and deliver a deal that was fair to the two main communities and representative of their needs. This attitude has ensured the agreement they have reached is sustainable and can deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. As the Minister outlined in his statement and will outline again today, the deal covers issues at the very heart of a modern society, particularly policing and justice. Ordinary people, particularly in Northern Ireland, attach the highest importance to feeling secure in their homes and on the streets. They want to know they can expect fair treatment in the courts and that their rights will be upheld.
Elected representatives from communities across Northern Ireland will be directly responsible for delivering legislation and policies on policing and justice issues. Their knowledge of their communities which elect them puts them in the strongest position to deliver efficient solutions that will serve the needs of their constituents. The deal reached is comprehensive and will allow a new Minister for Justice the scope to deliver practical policies, with the support of the Executive and, no doubt, the vigorous scrutiny of the Assembly and the public.
The Hillsborough agreement also addresses the sensitive and contentious issue of parading. For many years parades and public assemblies have been in the news for all the wrong reasons. In seasons gone by, they have been marked by fierce disagreement and, occasionally, violence. The deal puts in place a framework which will culminate in legislation in the Assembly on managing parades. The agreement on parading is one which could only have been achieved between the parties. It recognises the rights of those who parade, as well as those who live in areas in which parades take place. It recognises that there can be competing rights and crucially - echoing the Good Friday Agreement - that everyone has the right to live free from sectarian harassment.
The Good Friday Agreement underlined the central importance of tradition and the expression of cultural identity by the two main communities in Northern Ireland. Those who negotiated the Agreement understood that, without a culture of tolerance and respect for different traditions, Northern Ireland could never achieve mutual understanding or lasting recognition. Sensitivities still persist in Northern Ireland around public expressions of cultural identity. Parading is just one example of this. The use of flags and emblems, music and the bands that perform it and the expression of identity through language can be divisive and resurrect old hatreds and suspicions. The Good Friday Agreement stressed the importance of respect for linguistic diversity, particularly with regard to the Irish language and Ulster-Scots. Much has been done through Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster-Scots Agency board to promote the development of the Irish language and Ulster-Scots. At St. Andrews the importance of language to cultural identity was underlined and a commitment was given to introduce an Irish language Act. I am confident that the spirit of partnership which characterised the talks at Hillsborough can be maintained and that further measures to protect and enhance the Irish language and Ulster-Scots can be implemented. Respect for and understanding of each other's cultures can make a real contribution to improving community relations in Northern Ireland. Huge strides have been made to bridge the divisions between communities and build sustainable relationships based on an honest acceptance of one another.
The construction by the State of the visitors centre at the Battle of the Boyne site in Oldbridge, County Meath, in recognition of the historical significance of the site, acknowledged the importance of tradition and cultural identity. The centre has been open for almost two years and received many visitors from Northern Ireland from both communities. It is making a significant contribution to breaking down the barriers of misunderstanding and mistrust and fostering lasting reconciliation between the traditions on the island. It is just one example of the practical steps we can take to build better community relations. There is a need to continue to support groups and individuals looking to enhance and embed reconciliation in order that good relations can be woven into the fabric of government and society.
It is unacceptable that sectarian attitudes persist. It is an utter tragedy that there are still incidents of sectarian violence in Northern Ireland, as they cast a shadow over the huge progress made in recent years. It is equally unacceptable that a small criminal minority of so-called dissident republicans continue a sporadic campaign of violence against the PSNI. The cowardly attack on Constable Peadar Heffron who in many ways was a great example and personified the new beginning in policing in Northern Ireland was particularly despicable and evil. The devolution of justice and policing powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly will further underline the futility of these violent actions which have no legitimacy, serve no cause, have no community support and will not succeed in derailing the new political dispensation in Northern Ireland.
I am heartened by the Hillsborough agreement. Its spirit has the power to inspire the placing of a renewed focus on the ethos of the Good Friday Agreement - mutual respect, partnership, equality and tolerance - and to help Northern Ireland to lay the foundations of a better and shared future for all.
I second the motion. However, in doing so, coming from where I do, I would still like to be able to be blunt and say I continue to have concerns. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Michéal Martin, and many others put a significant amount of time into the efforts being made in the North and were available at the crucial time. Many have invested a significant amount of time in the process in the past 20 years. I commend all those who were involved in any way.
My one regret with regard to the all-party agreement being lauded is that it is not an all-party agreement. It has been the tradition during the years for a couple of sides to get together to drive something forward, leaving others out in the cold. If one looks at the history of the DUP, traditionally it has been the "No" party. Now the party which traditionally has been the "Yes" party feels it has been left out in the cold. While I am glad we have an agreement, that matters have moved on and that agreement on policing and justice issues is so close to fruition, I am not glad that we have returned to having committees made up of two parties - three plus three - rather than having six members from many parties. If any committee set up in these Houses was to become a monopoly or duopoly, people would be concerned. It is important that I express this concern.
One of the main reasons we need progress on the issues involved is the significant dissident threat posed. Not a day goes by without there being a bomb scare or someone's life being threatened. Last night I was talking to somebody involved in the Northern Ireland customs service. While on the way to attend a function here, the person concerned received a telephone call to warn them that two threats had been made against customs service staff dealing with money and diesel laundering along the Border. There are real risks, as nobody knows better than Peadar and Fiona Heffron. I stood in the Royal Victoria Hospital with their family wondering if Peadar would survive. I was only on the fringes of it, which is not where anybody wants to be. They are in the centre, watching him trying to come back. I am very glad to hear he is at the stage where he is able to order in pizzas and is doing his upper body physio, which is very positive.
However, in this day and age, so far into the peace process, there should not be a situation where somebody is fighting for their life and their life will never be the same again. This is particularly so in this case, when he was so much a symbol of how things had changed - a Gaelic-speaking, Gaelic football-playing PSNI officer. I reiterate the point that if anything comes out of this, the message has to be the opposite of what was intended. The intention of that attack was to stop anyone else from that background joining the PSNI. Every one of us should say clearly that we are advocating that the type of person Peadar Heffron is is the type who should still come forward and give of their services for their part of their island and, indeed, their country.
There is no room for complacency or for giving succour to terrorism. It is time to move on. I welcome the new start that has been made with the appointment of a new leader of the SDLP. I wish Margaret Ritchie well, and I also wish Mark Durcan well in his new role. I would not rule out new beginnings with Fianna Fáil going into the North. We have three fora there and opportunities will arise. Much of the time, we are too worried about what people are thinking, we are worried about rocking boats. We have to balance not rocking boats with actually presenting new opportunities and ideas, and letting people find those new opportunities.
There are real issues for people in the North, such as jobs, housing, infrastructure and who will pay for maintaining the economy into the future. We all know it is public service jobs and social welfare in the main in the North. We have to take on the issues that matter to people. I commend the PSNI, the Garda Síochána and the Customs Service on the work they are doing on cross-Border crime, and I commend those involved in cross-Border education, cross-Border health and cross-Border infrastructure, in particular in terms of train links and the funding that has been recommitted for the N2-A5 road.
I reiterate that I have a problem with the fact people using the euro were being exploited. These are simple straightforward issues we should now be moving to deal with. The Assembly should be dealing with issues that impact on people's lives, such as television signals in Donegal that cannot be received in the North and vice versa. In this regard, there are mutual solutions as we move towards digital television, and the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, is involved in that. There is also the development of the Foyle to maximise its potential into the future and there is much work in regard to trying to drive regional development, although these are long-term processes.
One of the major problems in the North is that one side has three heads and two tails, and the other side has five heads and 14 tails. That is the assumption that is made because one side does not meet the other side unless one gets to third level education. The development in Omagh, where there will be a campus of five or six schools, is positive. While the schools will not be integrated, they will share facilities, which is an important move forward.
We must think of this issue not just as a problem for "them up there" but as a problem for "us" on the island of Ireland. We do not know the other side. We look at our history but what are we taught? I can easily say, given the report I did on how to teach history in areas of recent conflict, that in the North the tradition would have been that if one was in a Protestant school, one learned about the wives of Henry VIII, and if one was in a Catholic school, one learned about British oppression during the Famine. We have to be able to teach "the other side" here as well as there. We have to put ourselves in the shoes of the other people and get to know each other.
For either side, no one will click their fingers and "the other" will disappear. We have to get to a stage where we understand each other and are able to live side by side. This comes down to us, here and there, looking at how we teach history, particularly on interfaces and on the Border. That can drive critical thinking and can drive people to analyse what they see. This presents better employees and employers into the future, which is what is really needed in the North. What I am asking for is an intervention that is useful for getting to know each other but also to develop that critical thinking and the creativity this will yield for employers and employees.
I also wish to raise the issue of parades and culture, which was touched on by the Leader. This was one of the biggest issues coming towards the end of these negotiations, as I understand it. I cringed when I heard the solution. People were saying: "It is not your road or my road anymore. It is our road, so I will march down our road", which I assume must be the Garvaghy Road. My problem is that we are not doing enough to get the understanding of what is "our road". If I hear the Lambeg drum, how do I react? When someone else hears the bodhran, how do they react? Is music being used as a weapon for perpetuating conflict? Can it be used as a tool for progressing peace? Those are the interventions we need to be very active about in preschool, primary school and right through the school curriculum because we will not change this overnight given that generations of people are involved.
As the Minister, Mr. Sammy Wilson, told me, when I was commenting on a report which suggested that people felt schools should be safe havens away from the awfulness of the community, the research of Dr. Alan McCully of the UNESCO centre at the University of Ulster at Coleraine was very clear that the children in schools do not necessarily want to be changed, but they want to know the bigger picture. They do not want the school to be a safe haven away from reality; they want the school to be at the centre of explaining to them what it is all about.
On the issue of culture, I intend to prepare a report on that issue of music and culture and how it can be used in areas of conflict to perpetuate conflict. However, we should also take the wider brief and work with education, both here and also as a current 32-county problem.
I conclude by wishing the parties in the North the best for the future, and I want to be as inclusive as possible in that. We should have a regular slot every quarter to discuss issues of mutual concern. What is good for one part of Ulster is good for all of Ulster. I look forward to a better Ulster and a better Ireland in the coming decade.
I welcome the Minister. I also welcome Senator Keaveney's remarks. While I remember Fianna Fáil policy in the 1970s and early 1980s, she is now espousing the policies we were espousing at that time. Fianna Fáil has come a long way, and I compliment it on the changes it has made in regard to Northern Ireland.
The Independent Members have an amendment to the motion, which I commend. I hope the Government will accept it as an all-party motion because Northern Ireland is an area where there has been all-party consensus in the past and we have agreed in many areas, which is only right. I hope this consensus will continue into the future and that we will witness the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and see communities, which were so divided, work together in a spirit of peace and reconciliation to build a greater quality of life for all people in Northern Ireland.
I welcome this opportunity to reflect on the recent achievements and the progress on the path to peace. Fine Gael welcomes the agreement reached between the parties in Northern Ireland on the devolution of justice and policing powers to the power-sharing institutions. It was the clear wish and hope of the vast majority of the people in Northern Ireland that this deal be reached. The positive outcome to the lengthy negotiations has averted the prospect of a prolonged period of instability and uncertainty. It required intensive efforts from each party and I compliment each party and both Governments for their efforts. I hope they have secured a complete and enduring agreement.
The challenge now for the parties is to work together to deliver on the implementation of the remaining elements of the Good Friday Agreement so the people of Northern Ireland can be convinced the political process can deliver real improvements to their lives. The Northern parties can be assured that Fine Gael will continue to play its part in supporting and assisting full implementation of the agreement. April 12 will be a historic and defining day in Northern Ireland. Fine Gael agrees with the Independent Monitoring Commission that the devolution of policing and justice powers brings important benefits to Northern Ireland, not least in allowing closer integration of law enforcement with other domestic policies in which it is involved.
The IMC also made the point that dissident groups tried to exploit the uncertainty on this issue and to argue that politics was not succeeding in Northern Ireland when the reality is very different. They have failed in their attempts to create a divide. With regard to the position of Minister for Justice, I am confident that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister will find a strong candidate who will be acceptable to all shades of opinion, as would be everybody's wish.
Fine Gael, as always, stands ready to support the forces of law and order in confronting the threat of dissident republicans. The Government will have the full support of the party in regard to whatever action is necessary to take these terrorists out of society as they pose a serious threat to this State. As I stated on the Order of Business some weeks ago, I am deeply concerned at reports that the Real IRA is actively recruiting new members from this jurisdiction. I heard this said on a number of occasions in regard to a number of counties. It is of paramount importance that young men and women are not lured into these organisations by some romantic notion of Irish republicanism and the continuation of an armed struggle. It is essential that people understand and see that co-operation and power sharing are the only show in town and form the normal and effective way of delivering for everybody.
We must ensure the Army and the Garda Síochána have the necessary resources to monitor the activities of these dissident groups in this State. A concentrated effort to disrupt their recruitment methods and other activities will prevent the atrocities in which these groups have been and are engaged.
Senator Keaveney referred to the recent absolutely despicable attack on Mr. Peadar Heffron, a man fluent in the Irish language and involved in playing Gaelic games. Irrespective of whether he speaks Irish or plays Gaelic games, these types of attacks on the PSNI are despicable and should be a thing of the past. We in this jurisdiction must do everything we can to ensure the perpetrators of these acts are dealt with at every possible opportunity should they try to take refuge in this State.
When speaking about Northern Ireland, it would be remiss of me not to pay tribute to the former leader of the SDLP, Mr. Mark Durkan, whose fearless leadership of the SDLP not alone benefited his party, but, more importantly, benefited all the people of Northern Ireland. I was delighted to meet Ms Margaret Ritchie earlier who was present in the House at 5 p.m. when this debate was due to commence. My party leader and several Front Bench members attended the SDLP conference last Saturday-week. Ms Ritchie's appointment comes at a critical time for politics in Northern Ireland. I wish her well in the future.
It is essential that this House is kept abreast of developments in the North-South Ministerial Council, as proposed in the amendment tabled by the Independent Senators. This is the least we can expect. It is hoped the Leader of the House will ensure this happens regularly.
Another positive step in the path to peace in Northern Ireland came with the announcement by the INLA, the Official IRA and the east Antrim brigade of the Ulster Defence Association that they have put their weapons beyond use. The completion of the decommissioning process removes a key obstacle to political progress in Northern Ireland and fulfils the clearly expressed democratic wish of the Irish people, North and South, when they endorsed the Good Friday Agreement in 1998.
I compliment the Minister on his efforts in this regard. I know he put many long hours into the process. He will have the support of Fine Gael in progressing the Good Friday Agreement and tackling the situation of dissident republicanism which I believe is a threat to this State at this time.
The tabling of this motion is an opportunity for the House to welcome the agreement reached between the Northern Ireland parties on the devolution of justice and policing functions. It is another important step towards the normalisation of politics in Northern Ireland.
I had the good fortune of being a curious bystander on the Monday of the week the agreement was reached as I was attending a meeting of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly in Stormont. The comings and goings of people between Stormont and Hillsborough gave me a sense of the level of discussions between the parties. While the position in terms of reaching agreement was still uncertain at that time, there was a willingness to come to an agreement. That an agreement has been reached is be welcomed, in particular given the difficult political circumstances. This is an election year in Northern Ireland. To have reached agreement when the opportunity of scoring political points exists is to the credit of all involved. We have an opportunity of extending this as the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly meets in full session next week in Cavan. It is hoped the experiences of the agreement can spread throughout the three strands. This motion and forthcoming meeting of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly presents us with an opportunity to consider where we stand in terms of development in this regard.
It is true to say that with the devolution of the justice and policing functions, much progress has been made within Northern Ireland. Through the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and its work, work between the east-west strand has developed significantly. While there has been much progress on the North-South strand, in particular in regard to the all-island bodies in the food and tourism areas, much remains to be done in particular on the interparliamentary side. We look forward to the establishment later this year of a North-South parliamentary forum.
The normalisation of politics in Northern Ireland is to be welcomed. I had an opportunity to meet the British ambassador during a visit to Ireland recently of the Northern Ireland Westminster Committee. I pointed out that a recent Minister for the Environment in Northern Ireland could be criticised by the Green Party in Northern Ireland on political grounds, namely, that he is a climate change denier. Northern Ireland politics appears always to have been built on the denial of one issue or another. It was good to have a political issue on which to have disagreement.
The motion before us welcomes the process. The friendly amendment tabled by Senators O'Toole, Harris and Quinn in regard to the civic forum is another important element. Just as the parliamentary forum between North and South needs to be developed, the existence of a parallel structure in Northern Ireland is important in terms of our development of cross-community relations. While there has been a half-hearted attempt and, perhaps, over-politicised effort to do so in the past, what has been suggested by bodies such as Co-operation Ireland needs to considered at this stage, namely, the involvement of non-governmental organisations in a civic forum, not so much as an antidote as a good contrast to the type of increasingly normalised politicking that goes on in Stormont, similar to how the Seanad is to Dáil Éireann, which is our argument in this Chamber. I am not too sure if everyone present would agree with that.
I agree that in welcoming the most recent agreement we need to be aware of the threats that exist. Despite recent disarmament measures taken by a number of paramilitary organisations, a small but significant number of people still have recourse to violence to achieve political ends. Every effort must be made to isolate them further within Northern Ireland and elsewhere on the island of Ireland. The bipartisan nature of our approach to Northern Ireland policy will be useful in achieving this. While there is no immediate violent intent or involvement in terms of pursuing other extreme opinions, it should be noted that, according to a recent opinion poll, at least 5% or 6% of the Northern Ireland electorate have an irredentist approach towards their own community. They will be contesting future elections and the extent to which they will be able to stymie or frustrate further progress is something about which we need to be concerned. The only way of avoiding this is by showing that politics can work.
I join in welcoming the new SDLP leader, Margaret Ritchie, and wish her well in her function. While it does not conform to normal modes of government, the success of the inter-party government in Northern Ireland is dependent on having a multi-party approach to get us through this period. In the final part of the process of devolving police and justice functions we will see for the first time in Northern Ireland's history the possibility of engaging in normal politics. That is something Members of this House, as well as the Minister and his Department, should be encouraging most strongly.
I welcome the Minister and acknowledge the extraordinary energy, commitment and expertise he has shown recently in working in concert with all the parties in the North and their party leaders, as well as with the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister. I thank him for doing this important work which should be recognised. I am sure he would be the first to say others put in a huge effort at the same time. Politics did itself proud in that period in the North.
Yes. I move amendment No. 1:
After "Northern Ireland." to add the following:
"Recognises the efforts of the Taoiseach to advance the establishment of the civic forum and determines that there be a report to the Seanad at least once each session on developments in the North South Ministerial Council."
The amendment proposes a minor addendum which I have discussed with the Minister, to the effect that there should be a report to the Seanad "at least once each session", rather than "at least once every two months". The Minister has said he is happy to accept the change, which means there will be a report three or four times a year. I understand that is acceptable.
I chair the ad hoc parliamentary group of Co-operation Ireland which has made a number of trips, North and South. We have been in contact with the Department of Foreign Affairs and seen formally at first hand the workings of the Middletown autism centre. In fact, we made strong representations to the Minister for Education and Science on the matter and I am glad to note the matter has been resolved. We also met Waterways Ireland and the Commissioners of Irish Lights to discuss other issues. That group should have a right of audience at the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, if this can be arranged. As it should be easy enough to have some people there informally, I ask the Minister to revert to me on the matter.
I was here in 1987 when a distraught John Hume was in the Members' bar. I did not know him that well at the time - I knew him through my involvement with the INTO and was friendly with his family. None of the parties was talking to him in 1987 or 1988 because, as he explained to me, he was talking to Gerry Adams. It is important to recognise this and remember that people did take chances and risks to move matters along. They did move from that point, although there was a lot of opposition. At the time significant media organs in the South challenged and took apart both of them for talking to each other. It is worth recognising, however, that those talks brought us to this point.
I am not making a party political point, but I have a simple rule which I have learned from my years in politics. If the people elect candidates to this House or the Dáil, that is it. I am delighted that Senator Doherty of Sinn Féin is present. I do not agree with his politics much of the time, but Sinn Féin voices both here and in the Dáil are important. There should be no middle line in terms of their involvement; although we can argue and disagree on points of policy, their commitment to the parliamentary system must be recognised.
I am delighted that the Minister can accept the amendment. It saddens me, however, that we do not receive reports on the North-South Ministerial Council. Before tabling the amendment yesterday, I checked what was going on this month at the Council. I would like to mention the issues I would like the House to discuss from now on. The two Finance Ministers, Deputy Brian Lenihan and Mr. Sammy Wilson, met today to discuss the implications of NAMA for the North. They also discussed related banking sector issues, matters affecting both the North and South, including the development of a special EU programme to be overseen by the two Ministers. That is the first anybody has heard of the matter either here or in the other House. On 5 March the two Enviroment Ministers, Deputy John Gormley and Mr. Edwin Poots, will meet to discuss the issue of illegal waste dumping in the North by Southern operators, as well as flooding and climate change. Also in the first week in March the two Transport Ministers, Deputy Noel Dempsey and Mr. Conor Murphy, will discuss the issue of road safety. There have been many road accidents in the Border counties, both north and south of the Border. They will also discuss the drink driving limits in both jurisdictions. All of this is hugely important.
One thing that kills debates in this House is that one has various spokespersons, but the North-South Ministerial Council cracks that nut. The Minister may come and explain what has been going on for the last month. In the past fortnight I have dealt with financial, environmental and transport issues. One should be able to get a lively debate going to ensure the people are fully informed. The Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Foreign Affairs should be enthusiastic about this because it is a really important issue. The parliamentary group of Co-operation Ireland has met the North-South Ministerial Council secretariat on a number of occasions and I am flabbergasted at the amount of work being done. It is a pity, therefore, that we do not receive reports on the Council. Last month I suggested we should celebrate the first ten years of its operation, but we did not do so.
I am well aware of initiatives being taken by the Government, including by the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, on the advancement of the Civic Forum, a crucial link between political structures and the public and which gives a voice to ordinary people. I understand another meeting is planned to be held at Farmleigh House. It should be met with bells and whistles to let the people see what can be done because it is a win-win for everybody. The most important matter is how can the all-island parliamentary forum be advanced. This is a huge barrier to cross; therefore, we must take baby steps, but let us do so. It is proposed to meet on a conference or convention basis and the more we hear about this the better. We should move forward and make things happen.
One of the downsides of the peace process is that it has taken our eye off the ball as regards what is happening in communities. There is a lot of violence in communities in the North; meanwhile the two governments have pulled back from investing in local peace initiatives. They should reconsider because it is a major issue. Building bridges deep into the community is important, but it is not happening at parliamentary or community level. It is happening at the top level in the full glow of the cameras, but we need to provide support for communities in the Short Strand or at other flash-points. In that way people could work and deal with each other and make decisions together, which is very important. I know I am running out of time and I have only touched on a major topic. It bothers me when people feel that we are there. We are not. We have made major advances but there are significant problems.
I want to say one thing about the dissident republicans. It appals me when people who kill other people for a political objective are described as republicans. It is a complete undermining of the Tone republicanism which we grew up to believe in. I do not know what to call it. It is some kind of out of control nationalism or chauvinism. It is not republicanism. Words are important in this situation because republican was always intended to be where Catholic, Protestant, dissenter and all others could share their own space and engage positively with each other. That is what we hope to achieve.
I believe the Minister has done some service in that direction, as also have all the parties in the North. I was very impressed by the speech at a critical time made by the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, MP, MLA, in which he outlined what he saw as his role in the North. It softened things and I would not take from the major input made by the SDLP over all those years also.
I second the amendment. Further to the words Senator O'Toole used to describe the Minister, I was reminded at this morning's meeting of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Affairs where he explained why he was unable to attend some of those important meetings in Europe because he was so involved in Hillsborough at that time. It is a reminder of the work he put into it.
I declare my own link with the North very clearly. My mother came from north County Armagh on the banks of Lough Neagh and my father came from south County Down. My only sister married a Portadown man. I have strong links with Northern Ireland. I only discovered in recent years how my mother and father met. He was working in Dún Laoghaire and telephoned home to Newry through the operator. He discovered that the operator in the post office in Dún Laoghaire had a northern accent. He chatted her up and made a blind date with her. When I mentioned this story in the post office in Dún Laoghaire I discovered that the book is still there and it states "left upon marriage" in my mother's handwriting from 1931.
Exactly. The entire Northern Ireland thing is difficult to explain to anybody outside. Some years ago at a board meeting of the Food Marketing Institute in Chicago I was asked to explain Northern Ireland in seven minutes. It was just after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. A number of people from North America said that they then understood for the first time. The explanation was basically one that people had not understood, which was that at the same time as North America was being settled by the settlers, mainly from England, the Ulster plantation took place. The Ulster plantation rewarded the soldiers from the other island with stretches of land. They took the best land in general and ousted those natives who happened to be of a different religion. People could not understand why we talk about fighting religions. It is not religions. It is traditions that are there and the ease with which people seem to believe there is a simple solution. The work that went into arriving at that solution last month is worthy of recognition and I am delighted we have done that today.
It is interesting talking about it today. Some people are concerned that it is not an agreement. Certainly the SDLP has a concern that it is an arrangement rather than an agreement. It does not please everybody and that party is concerned because it might only be held together until the British general election scheduled to take place by May. On that basis it is quite concerned. The issue of parades is something that frightens both sides and on that basis it was very difficult to get an agreement or an arrangement, whatever one likes to call it. It is a problem that is not easily solved in any situation, but democracy is about trying to get two sides to agree on that basis.
I hope the recent developments in the North serve the purpose of starkly reminding us that we should not take it for granted that these things happen easily. The stability that has been achieved in the North is always difficult to maintain. However, it has changed and improved the lives of so many people up there. It is a very fragile situation and violence is never far away, as has been mentioned today. Our economic circumstances here make us blinkered to our own interests. However, we should do our utmost to support peace in the North. Opinion polls suggest there is popular support for power sharing in the North. Even if it may not be working ideally, it is clear that the public want differences to be resolved by debate rather than by violence. We have a challenge down here.
Last week Senator Keaveney and I attended a round-table discussion hosted by the Institute for British-Irish Studies in the Royal Irish Academy. It was interesting to hear the views expressed there. Most of the discussion was on business and they talked about the objective of business being to try to get people together. I am very concerned that the further one goes from the Border, the more likely one is to be partitionist. I have a concern about those people who claim to buy Irish when referring to the Twenty-six Counties rather than the Thirty-two Counties. There have been and still are campaigns that exclude the North.
As I have previously told the Minister, in my business approximately 18 years ago we established a system of encouraging people to buy Irish. We put shamrock labels in front of the products on display in the supermarket and we had a computer system that identified at the checkout how much a customer spent on Irish goods. What jolted me was the number of people in our own company who asked what they should do with something from Northern Ireland. It never entered my mind that there would be a question about whether we should regard something from Northern Ireland as not being Irish, yet that question was asked. It has happened so clearly in recent times with the amount of travel to the North because for various reasons a significant number of people are travelling from the South to the North, crossing the Border for the first time in many cases. Many people have called to say it is unpatriotic. I believe the Twenty-six Counties and the Six Counties are all Ireland. We must avoid having people believe it is somebody else.
I have also previously told the story of going to buy a wedding present some years ago. I went to Kilkenny Design and picked a present for a couple getting married. I selected some linen. The Limerick person with me asked whether we should not buy some of our own. I asked what they meant. Were they suggesting my mother and father were not Irish? There is a mindset. I mentioned Limerick because it seems the further one gets from the Border, the more likely one is to regard those from the North as different and people we have not got to know. That is why I support the amendment so strongly. We are talking about not just a parliament but a civic forum, involving getting together, getting to know those across the Border and getting to regard the North as part of ourselves. If we can encourage more of our people on this side of the Border to get to travel to the North and more of those in the North to come to the South, then the more we get to know each other, the more likely it is we will be able to achieve success in that area.
At the meeting last week I gave this example. Someone looking at the Iarnród Éireann website will discover that three hours away is the city of Cork, which is a fine city, and there are 15 trains per day to Cork. However, Belfast is a bigger city than Cork on the same island and yet there are only eight trains going there. Iarnród Éireann is responding to a need.
There are none to Donegal. I mention it because it is an interesting point. Those of us in Dublin in particular have not learnt that we are all-Ireland. We are one island. While more people travelling to the North to shop will present a major challenge to our economy-----
Last week Senator Keaveney said she comes from north of Northern Ireland, which she does, of course. The more we regard Northern Ireland as somewhere else that we do not regard as part of our own, the bigger the problem we have. We must find some way to ensure that does not happen.
I wish to make one further point in support of the amendment. The Seanad has benefited from and been helped greatly in the past by those of its Members from Northern Ireland. Before my time Seamus Mallon was here. In my time, Gordon Wilson was the first such Member I knew. The day before I came here for the first time 17 years ago, Gordon Wilson phoned me because I was the only one in the House he knew. I showed him around even though I had only been shown around the day before. I think of the likes of Gordon Wilson, then later Sam McAughtry and Maurice Hayes in more recent years. I wrote down the names a few minutes ago, just in case I forgot them. I am disappointed that just at the moment we do not have any Member from Northern Ireland. The only way this can happen until such time as there is a reformed Seanad is by way of a Taoiseach's nomination. However, I urge that in the future the Taoiseach's nominees should include a representative from the North. There may be some other way of achieving this. There are those who say that people from the North do not have a vote here, but in fact Northern-based Trinity and NUI graduates have a vote in this House on that area. If a person is a joint graduate of Trinity and the NUI, then he or she has two votes.
I mention this because I believe the Seanad can do something in this regard. The amendment we have tabled is to the effect that we should have at least one report each session. I appreciate the fact that the Minister and the Leader have accepted that. It reminds us that Northern Ireland is part of Ireland. We should welcome the fact that we regard the whole as one island. Let us avoid being partitionist, as we tend to be on occasions.
I dtosach is mian liom fáilte a chur roimh an Aire anseo agus tréaslú leis de bharr na hoibre atá déanta aige. Ar ndóigh thug sé gliondar croí dúinn gur éirigh chomh maith sin leis nuair a bhí na comhráite ar siúl sa Tuaisceart, agus buíochas mór le Dia go bhfuil an dul chun cinn sin déanta.
I compliment the Minister and the Taoiseach on the role they played in the recent negotiations. This was a prime example of democratic dialogue in action and we could not have imagined that happening some years ago. We should also compliment the British Prime Minister on the role he played and the First Minister, Deputy First Minister and all the parties involved because, ultimately, we are still on a road to a conclusion and one shudders to think what might have happened had the talks not succeeded.
While many people had given up at different stages of the negotiations, it was quite evident that the Minister, the Taoiseach and everyone directly involved were in for the long haul. We are dealing here with very complex issues. There are the historical, imaginary and symbolic issues to be considered, each one of which is important in its own right. It is interesting that we are succeeding less in compromising than coalescing in the different strands of the complex issues with which we are dealing. Again, I believe this should not be underestimated. I was particularly interested to learn today that Sammy Wilson, for instance, had a meeting with the Minister for Finance. They were discussing issues of mutual concern. I am sure there are so many of those types of arrangements that never come to the fore. We have seen before when issues arose in Europe that both jurisdictions were prepared to work together for the good of all the island. There is no better example of such progress than Tourism Ireland. The fact that it is marketing the whole island sends out a message that I believe is very important, especially outside Ireland.
We all remember the bad old days when Bord Fáilte was endeavouring to promote Ireland. It would have been doing a fantastic job, and then some incident would occur which meant that straight away all the work was wiped out. As a result the whole island suffered. It is interesting, then, that Tourism Ireland is working so well. We had its representatives before an Oireachtas committee last week where we discussed with them the opportunities and difficulties they envisage for the future. Interestingly, it was no longer issues in Northern Ireland that were foreseen as problem areas but rather world recession and its impact on both parts of the island. It was seen to be in our joint interest to work together and one felt that it was good that Tourism Ireland had been set up when it was.
As I was watching the debate on the monitor, I saw that a number of speakers addressed the symbolic issues. In fact, Senator Donie Cassidy mentioned them as well. I am referring specifically to the issue of culture. Very often there is a misunderstanding here. I have had a number of experiences in recent times which were particularly edifying. Some year ago, during the peace process I invited David Irvine to some discussions and we assembled a group of 200 people. We had Tim Pat Coogan as a speaker and the discussions were chaired by the then Senator Martin Mansergh. The type of people who turned up were not the usual audience one might expect. They came from industrial and cultural backgrounds in the main. One thing we discovered was how much we had in common. Very often the heritage, which is so old, is much more unifying than the political divisions. We brought along the Hounds of Ulster, a new group that had come on the scene and which was involved in building bridges between both traditions. We also asked President Mary McAleese to attend. What was happening on stage was less interesting than the great session that took place afterwards in the bar where all those interests worked together.
Two years ago I was contacted by Orange Order representatives in the North who wanted to come here to discuss with me how we might work more closely together because they said their traditions were weakening. A delegation came here to the Oireachtas and I brought them to the headquarters of Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann and chatted there with them on the common ground that existed. One of the best examples of progress I can give derives from the fact that I had letters, in another context, from the five political parties in Northern Ireland, from Sinn Féin to the DUP, asking that we bring Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann north of the Border. If anybody had suggested 20 years ago that there could be any question of that happening, one would never have believed it. It was especially significant that each of the political parties was willing to welcome such an event in celebration of the diverse traditions and cultures. In effect, it would mean that some 250,000 people or thereabouts would gather together for nine days. One thing that is certain, wherever there is music and common cause, there is seldom division. The division may exist in the background, but it is not central to the activity itself.
The reason I mention all those events is that I believe this is the best thing we can do to advance progress along the lines I have indicated. Ultimately, it is the small initiatives that are put in place over time that will be seen to be important rather than big developments. Sometimes the less said about it, the better because there will be an organic development arising from that. Later on we can wonder where we came from because events will have occurred and we shall have seen that common cause.
I have always regretted that the parades issue arose in the manner in which it did. Part of the problem might have been the way that parades had been perceived and presented in the past. If one sees a parade in the context of a celebration, festivity and so on, it will not cause the same ripple effect. My understanding from speaking to people in the North is that this is the way they want to see 12 July celebrated in future years. I would like to believe, therefore, that where the local people make the decisions, based on the great progress made under other particular headings, we shall see the parades able to continue in the future without giving offence to anyone.
I very much agree with the point made by Senator Cummins about all political parties sharing in what has happened. We can all agree that had we not had a bipartisan policy on Northern Ireland down through the years, we would be having a different type of debate. The fact there was a unifying but non-threatening voice coming from here seeing itself as a facilitator was important. My great hope is that some day we will work together in a single structure on this island. I have not used the term "united Ireland" because terminology can often send out the wrong message. Bearing in mind all the areas in which we co-operate, I see no reason our Unionist friends and leaders should feel threatened in the future once we respect each other's traditions.
I hope some time in the future we can look on expanding the areas of co-operation. I always admired the Reverend Ian Paisley for the particular reason that one always knew what was on his mind and he spoke about it openly. In the future we should do likewise and endeavour to continue on the road to a final conclusion. What has happened in recent weeks has not harmed us but done us good. It has enabled us to reflect on what we have achieved, where we are and what we might achieve in the future.
I welcome the past two week's developments in the North, especially what has been achieved in policing and justice. No society can hope to attain any form of normality or legitimacy without control of something as basic and fundamental as policing and justice issues. They go to the heart of the kind of consensus that any society needs to have and the type of contract people have with each other on how their society is run.
It is a pity reaching the agreement took quite as long as it did. While I do not say that by way of criticism, it was frustrating at certain stages to see it dragging on for so long. It was unfortunate to see the issue of and, admittedly, the important and delicate issues tied up with the Parades Commission as the obstacle to agreement on the more fundamental question of policing and justice. It is, none the less, a great achievement that this stage has been reached. Congratulations are due to those individuals and parties, such as the Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Taoiseach and the British Government, who participated and brokered the agreement.
We have been here before. My party leader made the point in the Lower House that there must have been half a dozen occasions in recent years when we said to ourselves that was the moment at which we moved on and normality could be attained in politics, public life and society in Northern Ireland. This was what people hoped for and I certainly did.
The national question, as it is often called, or the constitutional imperative has been the fault line of politics in the North. Arguably, it was also the fault line in the South for many years too. While the seeking of a united Ireland is a noble and honourable objective, politics must move on. The issues that preoccupy all the peoples of Northern Ireland, as they do us, are fundamentally social and economic. We cannot shirk from the fact there are different options and ways of approaching economic crises and change. People in this House have different views on how we should address those pressing issues. It is no longer credible, therefore, that the fault lines that divide people are those tied up with the constitutional question.
Other Members raised the recent retirement of Mark Durkan as leader of the SDLP. That party has a proud tradition of upholding solid social and democratic politics, the kind I strongly support. Mark Durkan, a great exponent of this politics, has been a real politician, not just as a fearless and strong representative of his community but as someone who has brought forward real politics and options in respect of addressing economic issues, the most pressing that face any community. I wish Mark Durkan well in his retirement. I have known him personally for more than 30 years. We soldiered together as student politicians in the late 1970s and early 1980s when we were both rookies at the game. In the past ten years, he has achieved a huge amount as leader of the SDLP. He will continue to make a huge contribution as an MP.
Senator Quinn recalled the contributions to the process made by various Taoiseach-nominated Senators from the North and how they brought a special element into debates in the House. I know Mark Durkan has a position in another parliament but I would hope he might be considered a suitable Member of this House in the future. I know a Taoiseach's nominee seat is free at the moment and somebody probably has their eye on it. It is a pity we cannot use it to avail of the knowledge and expertise of some people from the North.
I believe Margaret Ritchie will make a terrific leader of the SDLP and will uphold social democratic politics, seeking to foster them in the future.
I thank Senator Alex White for providing me with 180 seconds from his time slot. I compliment the Minister for Foreign Affairs on the fine work he did over recent weeks to ensure this agreement occurred. I met the various leaders in Stormont in December and appreciate the personal journey many of them went on to reach this agreement and recognise the difficulties they faced. It is certainly another step on the road to a long and lasting peace.
It cannot, however, be taken for granted. Many Members will have seen last night's "Prime Time" which contained interviews with various dissident republican groups. There is still an element that will try to wreck this peace so none of us can rest on our laurels. Further work is needed to ensure peace remains.
Difficulties with parades and policing must be faced. We must examine the issue of how the Northern Ireland Executive is formed and the existing d'Hondt mechanism that ensures it fairly represents the number of seats each party has. By and large it works well but there is a deficit in SDLP representation on the Executive. I pay tribute to the SDLP's former leader, Mark Durkan, for his sterling work during his tenure.
We must examine how we can deepen the links between North and South. In the tourism sector, there is the potential to attract visitors from the North to the South. In County Meath each year more than 100,000 people from the North visit the Battle of the Boyne site and others such as Newgrange. With peace on the island it will be easier to sell international tourism. I recall when in the United States 20 years ago people refused to visit Ireland because all they knew of it was that it was, in their words, a battle zone. It is to be hoped the long and lasting peace will ensure more tourists come north and south of the Border.
We must consider a deepening of our joint development of green energy, especially wind energy and wave power. We are an island nation and we have an excellent coastline. We must consider ways to ensure North and South can avail of any green jobs that materialise. I welcome the recent agreement and I support the amendment tabled by the Independent Senators.
I wish to share three minutes of my time with Senator Norris. I thank the Minister for updating the Seanad on this important matter. I congratulate the Minister and the Taoiseach on the effort, energy and commitment to bring this agreement to fruition. I warmly welcome the recent agreement reached at Hillsborough and look forward to its full implementation. Since we have reached an accommodation on these complex issues, there may be an opportunity to focus on and give our full attention to the issues of most concern to people throughout Ireland, including issues related to sharing health and education services, hospital, cancer and general practitioner services and school transport in rural and Border areas. These are major issues requiring all-Ireland thinking. We have a shared message on such issues as road safety, suicide prevention and obesity. We should pool our resources to deal with these issues to ensure we attain the best value and that we achieve full co-operation North and South. This is the way to tackle the problem.
We must think on an all-Ireland basis. I acknowledge the Government has made its contribution by upgrading the road between Derry and Letterkenny last year. That was a project developed under the north-west gateway initiative. An alliance has developed on the education front between the Letterkenny Institute of Technology and the University of Ulster. These are fine examples of what is taking place in the north west and we must continue to work in this area.
I acknowledge the support of the EU for the peace process which we rarely acknowledge and much credit is due. We should not be slow to acknowledge the extent to which the EU has supported the cause of peace, reconciliation and cross-Border economic growth in Ireland. It is very important to progress the North South parliamentary forum, a key to continued progress. We have held consultative fora, including a very good conference last October chaired by the Taoiseach which reflected the role of the social partners and community groups. This is the way forward. We must involve the people on the ground, not those at the top layer. That has already take place and it is now time to acknowledge that this is an all-Ireland process.
I refer to economic issues. We must consider the role of agencies south of the Border such as Enterprise Ireland and the Northern equivalent, Invest Northern Ireland. There are opportunities in this area and we should plan trade missions in Ireland and pool our resources in this area.
Political progress has been made during the past 15 years and it is great that we have accommodated the complex issues. It is to be hoped this will ensure stability, but the real test will be for politicians on all sides to get down to the brass tacks of working with the people. As other speakers have remarked, we must include the civic forum in the way forward as a way to represent the people as a whole, not only people at the top.
I refer to North-South co-operation and east-west co-operation through the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. We must work on such bodies and work more to strengthen the North-South axis. This is an all-Ireland process and we should begin to think in that way. We are moving in that direction. I compliment the Minister who has a great grasp of these issues. I have listened to the Minister as the debate has unfolded. I appreciate the amount of time and work he has put in to reflect our view in terms of where we go from here. I wish the Minister well in carrying out this good work in the North. I acknowledge it is important to have regular updates, to which the Minister has agreed, and the Chamber should be used increasingly to reflect such thinking. If this takes place we will make the Chamber worthwhile as a real place for contributions to get the North-South forum working and up and running.
I thank my colleague, Senator Ann Ormonde, for a remarkable display of cross-bench co-operation. This is one of the spirits we need in the North of Ireland: the spirit of genuine co-operation, and I am unsure whether it is always there. I share the admiration expressed by Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú for the remarkable performance of Senator Cassidy, particularly in displaying his reading skills. That said, I suggest that the next time a little additional punctuation might be added by whoever prepares the script because it is a little disconcerting when one stops on a preposition or a conjunction. Still, some admirable sentiments were involved, especially the emphasis on culture.
We must be realistic as well as co-operative. Ulster-Scots is not a language under any circumstances. I know a certain amount about languages and I know how one defines them. It is a dialect. It is quite an interesting dialect, but merely a dialect. Such is the massaging that takes place. Since the Shinners and the Irish speakers get €3 million, the other side must be balanced up. I realise these things must be done but let us be honest about it and let us not pretend it is anything more than this.
I was greatly struck by Senator Keaveney's remarks about the road. She referred to "our road". If we can make it so and make such events a celebration and not a triumphalism, then all these parades should be possible. There should be no problem with them. Historically, there has been and this has been partly due to demographic change. Now parades are going through areas that are strongly Nationalist and Catholic, but in the past such areas were not so. These demographic shifts must be accommodated within the tribal certainties, a very difficult thing to achieve.
The Administration in Northern Ireland is a very extraordinary, unusual and unnatural flower. There is no opposition and although I welcome it, it is a massaged situation. It is remarkable to see people who previously called each other bigots and murderers sitting down in Cabinet together to discuss matters to the benefit of the country and both their communities. At the same time, this should be only a transitional period because democracy will not really flourish in the North until there is proper oppositional politics.
I refer to the matter of roads. Some years ago, I was up on the Ormeau Road as an independent observer and I heard the drums. However, there are drums on both sides. I was horrified by the intimidation in the North. I did not know what the immediate beating meant but it is a tribal, savage, ritualistic thing. However, I heard the drums down here during the H-block hunger strikes. They were peas in a pod, exactly the same thing. They must be disinfected from the tribalism and become a cultural matter.
I very much welcome the fact that Senator Pearse Doherty is present representing Sinn Féin. It is an excellent thing. For many years I campaigned against section 31 of the Broadcasting Act. I believed it was a mistake and, unlike Senator O'Toole, I find I have quite a lot in common with that party because its members are the remains of what I would term the hard left and there is a place in Irish politics for them. They really take issue on such matters as trade unionism in terms of international politics.
Today, I met the new Colombian Ambassador appointed to London as, I am sure, did the Minister. I raised the question of trade unions and the extraordinary murder of trade unionists. Some 60% of murders of trade unionists throughout the planet happen in Colombia and there was a 25% increase in 2008. The ambassador was very skilful and charming at massaging those figures too. On the website of the President and the foreign ministry there is a notice suggesting the Minister for Foreign Affairs wrote to the Colombian President and indicated there was no need to bother with the trade union affairs and that although they were lobbying like hell, actually he was supportive of the free trade agreement.
No, but I wish to give the Minister the opportunity to contradict it and I am very glad he has done so. I hope he will return to the matter in his speech because this is an important aside and it deals with the whole area of political massaging. In the same vein, the German Foreign Minister stated there would be a European army. The Minister and I know there will be over our dead bodies.
It is very good we have this situation at the moment and of course there should be strong co-operation. I am astonished by the people who want a 32-county republic but who object to people buying their goods in Newry. Their argument is that it is part of a different economic regime.
I am all in favour of revisionism. We need a little more of it. People who were regarded as revisionist historians in the State were attacked as if revisionism were some kind of intellectual weakness. It is not; it is an intellectual strength. If new facts are presented, any intelligent person must accommodate them. I hope the kind of revisionism that has taken place in the South will start to take place in the North. It seems it is beginning because I have heard Unionists in the broadcast media saying they now understand there is an inevitability about a united Ireland. I never believed I would hear Unionists say that, nor did I believe I would feel my own heart chime in agreement, but there is a lot more massaging to be done before we get to that time.
We will support everything done in the interest of people not losing their lives and not being mutilated or blown up. We will continue in a united way to condemn the activities of the various ridiculous and disgraceful splinter organisations which, as Senator O'Toole said, continue to murder fellow Irish people in the name of republicanism, a brand that they blemish with their activities.
I support the motion and the amendment. I also welcome the Minister to the House.
Senator Norris's final remarks summed up the position appropriately. He stated we had moved from the bomb, the bullet and divisiveness. When I reflect on the number of debates we have had in both Houses in the past 20 years, I realise it is tremendous that we do not now have to preface our remarks in every political debate on Northern Ireland with words of condemnation of the previous night's atrocity. Whenever we spoke about political circumstances in Northern Ireland in the late 1980s and early and mid-1990s, we were generally responding to some atrocity, murder or explosion. However, because of the great work done by so many on all sides, we have moved beyond this.
I welcome the recent agreement between the parties and the two Governments. Perhaps I am too optimistic but I always felt an arrangement would be arrived at. I never liked using the words "settlement" or "solution" in regard to the Northern Ireland conflict or debate because the idea that there is some "Solution" to all of the problems is fraught with danger. In the politics of Northern Ireland one man's solution is another man's difficulty. We must, therefore, move with caution, care, empathy and sympathy. This is why the process in the past decade or so has been generally successful. One could reasonably argue that it would be preferable if there was more progress and that there should be greater political responsibility within Northern Ireland. I do not want to dispute this but we must ask where we are and were coming from.
When moving from a conflict that is not only decades but generations old, we must appreciate and respect that progress comes slowly. While we must also respect everybody's long-term view on where they would like Northern Ireland to be as a political entity, we must be happy with progress made in small steps. Small steps do not threaten but so-called "Settlements" can be very worrying for those from different backgrounds who have different views on what the future should hold.
I am not sure how long the Minister will be in the Department or in government and I am not making-----
As my colleagues know, I am not into making silly political points. I hope that in the course of the Minister, Deputy Michéal Martin's time in the Department of Foreign Affairs or that of his successor there will be ongoing dialogue and changes regarding the political arrangements in Northern Ireland in so far as they affect the Republic and Great Britain. It is necessary that changes be made in small steps. This will allow people to feel much more comfortable and bring them along. I welcome the progress made. We look forward to seeing the arrangement working on the ground.
I listened with interest to Senator Quinn who talked about everyday engagement between people on both sides of the Border. We have great progress to make in this respect. During the years at meetings of my party, be it a branch or constituency meeting, with ten, 50 or 100 people present, as a little experiment I used to ask who had been to various places. When I asked how many had been to the United States, virtually every hand went up; when I asked how many had been to Berlin, 80% went up, but when I asked how many had been to Belfast, very few went up. We had and still have a slight mental block about travelling to Northern Ireland and engaging with its people. We must make progress in this regard.
When I was a member of a local authority, I often expressed my bemusement to the Minister's predecessors about signs indicating certain villages were twinned with certain towns in France. Some 95% of the landmass of Brittany appears to be twinned with some part of the island of Ireland, which is all very laudable. Some place is twinned with Nova Scotia, while another is twinned with Auckland. On the initiative of the Department of Foreign Affairs and with the active engagement of the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government, there should be a much greater effort to twin towns, villages and parishes, particularly small ones, in the South with similar entities in Northern Ireland. When I raised this matter in the Seanad some years ago, one of the Minister's colleagues – I am thankful I forget who – was particularly upset and said one part of the island of Ireland should not be twinned with another because it would be acknowledging the Border. We must think beyond this. It would be nice if people in Mallow had more dialogue with people in Magherafelt and if Skibbereen had its eye on Portadown or other such town rather than on Russia. That would be a very small step but it would allow a useful exchange of views between people on both sides of the Border. It is a question of allowing them to be more comfortable with each other.
The first time I went to Northern Ireland as a politician was probably when I was going to attend a conference organised by the SDLP held somewhere outside Belfast. I decided to stay the night before in Dundalk in the belief it was much safer and more comfortable physically and mentally, rather than park my car on the streets of Belfast. That was negative thinking but it was shared by many across the island. It may still be shared by too many and we must distance ourselves from it. The only way to do this is by having more contact, meetings and dialogue. While the putting in place of a political settlement in the North is very important, on which I commend all those concerned who were led by the Minister, we still have a long way to go to build the invisible bridges between the North and South.
Senator Norris referred to shopping in Northern Ireland. It almost became a capital sin before Christmas to shop in Newry. While there was an economic argument to be considered and ministerial responsibility and budgetary policy could be faulted, it was a little ironic, as Senator Norris stated, that some of those in favour of a united Ireland wanted to keep the Border. Senator Keaveney will know this.
It is great that we are debating this profound, lengthy and at times horrific problem in the light of a much more peaceful Northern Ireland and a much more politically co-operative solution. When one thinks of the journeys travelled by the so-called extremists, one notes this progress is one of the great miracles of our time. Colleagues in both Houses are privileged to be in a place of political dialogue at a time when such enormous steps are being taken towards peace. When history is written, the debates on the Celtic tiger, who bred it and caused it to disappear will be regarded as pathetic little footnotes. The real script on Irish history in the 1990s and the new millennium will concern the progress we made on political developments in Northern Ireland. All parties concerned can take great credit for the difference these developments have made to people's lives.
Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis na Seanadóirí as ucht an chuiridh a chur siad romhaim agus toisc go bhfuil an díospóireacht seo ar siúl. Is ceist an-thábhachtach ar fad í agus admhaím go bhfuil tuairimí na Seanadóirí rí-thábhachtach ar fad. Gan amhras, beimid ag éisteacht leo agus ag déanamh scrúdú ar an méid atá ráite acu go dtí seo.
I welcome this opportunity to speak to the Seanad on the peace process in Northern Ireland and the agreement reached in Hillsborough on 5 February. As Senators will be aware, the agreement represented the culmination of many hours of intensive negotiations and engagement on all sides. It provides the basis for the future stability and success of the democratic institutions which we all have worked so hard to create and maintain.
When we most recently discussed developments in Northern Ireland in this House on 3 November last, I began by recalling that many of the breakdowns and delays and the loss of momentum in the peace process in the last decade had been caused by a failure to fully implement the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. The St. Andrews Agreement and now the Hillsborough agreement are essentially further implementation agreements building on the framework and vision contained in the Good Friday Agreement. I use this opportunity to call on all of the parties in Northern Ireland to seize the opportunity to break the cycle of stop-start implementation of these agreements. I am confident that the public consultation process that the First Minister and Deputy First Minister have just launched will demonstrate that the vast majority of people in the North want their political leaders to take forward with confidence and determination this latest agreement and implement it in full and on time. If I can add to the phrase used by the Northern Ireland Minister for Finance and Personnel, Mr. Sammy Wilson, MP, MLA, this needs to be a made and implemented in Ulster deal. The Taoiseach was right when he stated in Hillsborough that what was needed was a return to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. I also agree with the Rt. Hon. Rev. Ian Paisley, MP, MLA, who wrote in the Belfast Newsletter last week: "What is important now is that the deal is enacted ... If the deal is worthy, own it, don't ambush it".
The motion acknowledges the Government's role in brokering the agreement. I want to take a few moments to explain what the role of the Government and that of the two Governments were in helping to facilitate the Hillsborough agreement. It was clear from early September last year that the Northern Ireland parties, in particular, the DUP and Sinn Féin, were having increasing difficulty in agreeing how to move ahead with the devolution of policing and justice powers which was long overdue. This was caused partly by and at the same time contributed to a wider breakdown in the good functioning of the Northern Ireland Executive. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the Rt. Hon. Shaun Woodward, MP, and I began to meet more regularly throughout the autumn as the two Governments intensified their efforts to encourage and assist the parties to resolve, between them, outstanding issues that would enable the devolution of policing and justice to proceed and in the process restore the working relationships at the heart of the power-sharing Northern Ireland Executive. The Taoiseach and the British Prime Minster, Mr. Brown, MP, were also in frequent contact throughout this period and the two Governments were in regular contact with the main parties.
Widespread public awareness of the impending breakdown only emerged in December, but by then the two Governments had further intensified their efforts to assist the parties, with a meeting between the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister on 17 December, at which they set out clearly the firm view of the two Governments that a reasonable agreement on the early devolution of policing and justice powers and related outstanding issues from St. Andrew's was achievable. It was clear to the two Governments at that point that there was only a number of weeks at the most for the parties to come to an agreement or else the institutions would be under threat of collapse. The aim of the two Governments throughout this phase was to encourage and assist the parties to reach agreement, but also to be prepared to intervene if the point was reached where it was clear that the parties no longer had the capacity to resolve their differences on their own. When the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister, accompanied by me and the Secretary of State, met in Downing Street on the morning of 25 January, we had anticipated that the moment to intervene had arrived and we proceeded to Hillsborough to convene all-party talks. Our role was not to impose or dictate solutions but to facilitate and encourage the parties to reach agreement. The point of departure for us was the need to continue to deliver full implementation of the Good Friday and St Andrew's Agreements.
In the first three intensive days the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister worked with the parties to begin to restore trust between them, to focus on the reasonable basis that the Governments knew was in place for an agreement on the way forward and to encourage the parties to re-engage directly with each other on the core issues. Progress was slow in this first phase, but it provided the basis for the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister to release their statement on the afternoon of 27 January, setting out what they believed to be a fair and reasonable basis for agreement and setting a deadline of Friday, 29 January, for the parties to reach agreement or the two Governments would publish their own proposals.
The second phase of the talks, led by me and the Secretary of State, built on the progress that had been made. We focused on facilitating the parties to re-establish trust and increase their confidence that both sides had the political will to do the deal which the two Governments believed was achievable and, on that basis, to increasingly take forward the serious discussions directly with each other. Once we were confident serious progress was being made, the two Governments deferred publication of their proposals to allow the parties the time and space to take forward their negotiations. What I might call the third phase was very much about Sinn Féin and the DUP negotiating and concluding the text that was published with the full support and encouragement of the two Governments at Hillsborough on 5 February.
It is important to realise that the political context for the recent talks was very different from any that had gone before. While these talks were convened and facilitated by the two Governments, in the end they were primarily conducted between the parties in Northern Ireland because, unlike on previous occasions, we have had fully functioning democratic institutions throughout the recent period of political turbulence. The members of the Northern Ireland Executive have now held office for longer than any of their predecessors since Good Friday 1998.
While the two Governments have an essential role in upholding the agreements and a continuing role in supporting the institutions and the parties as they move forward, it is the parties which had to come to an agreement on this occasion. Both the DUP and Sinn Féin attached significant importance to the fact that it was their deal, done in the end between the two main parties. This was how it had to be. The political reality, determined by the electorate at the last Northern Ireland Assembly elections, is that the DUP and Sinn Féin are the leading parties. Based on the democratic judgment of the electorate, they provide the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and, between them, can command cross-community support in the Northern Ireland Assembly. However, both the First Minister, the Rt. Hon. Peter Robinson, MP, MLA, and the Deputy First Minister, Mr. Martin McGuinness, MP, MLA, acknowledged that it was important that there was broad support for the deal, in particular, from the other political parties in the Assembly. In the final plenary, co-chaired by the British Prime Minister and the Taoiseach on 5 February, they made clear their willingness to discuss all elements of the deal with the other parties. With the views articulated by Senators tonight, I urge them to continue to work more closely with the other parties in the future. In that regard, I welcome the proposals for improving the workings of the Northern Ireland Executive and greater discussion with the other parties which are part of the agreement. I very much welcome the decision by Sir Reg Empey, MLA, and Ms Margaret Ritchie, MLA, to chair the working group provided for in the Hillsborough agreement to review the functioning of the Northern Ireland Executive and come up with proposals for improvements. I congratulate all of the parties around the table which contributed to the positive outcome reached on 5 February. The leadership displayed by the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister and their respective party colleagues was instrumental in achieving the agreement reached.
It still takes considerable political will and leadership to reach out beyond the comfort zones on either side to occupy the shared space where progress and accommodation are to be found. That political will and leadership re-emerged during the long hours we all spent in Hillsborough. I pay tribute and give full credit to the Sinn Féin and DUP negotiating teams for this achievement. The DUP and Sinn Féin occupy a joint office which is at the heart of devolved government in the North; thus their capacity to engage with each other and reach accommodation is crucial to the stability of the institutions. The fact that they, facilitated by the two Governments, have been able to conclude this comprehensive agreement around a number of contentious and sensitive issues is a major step forward.
I also acknowledge the wisdom of and leadership shown by all of the other party leaders - Sir Reg Empey, MLA; Mr. Mark Durkan, MP, MLA; Mr. David Ford, MLA, and Ms Dawn Purvis, MLA - and their teams in the part that they played. It is very important that all of the Northern Ireland Assembly parties get behind this deal, contribute to its delivery and make the devolved institutions work for all of the people they represent.
I take the opportunity to show my special appreciation to the former SDLP leader, Mr. Mark Durkan, for all that he has done to help build peace, prosperity and reconciliation.
I have known him for a long time. Like Senator Alex White, I was a student leader in the 1980s when I first met him. He has made an enormous contribution and he has much more to contribute to political life in the future.
I also wish to congratulate Margaret Ritchie on her election and to wish her every success in her new role as SDLP leader. The Taoiseach and I met with Margaret Ritchie and the new deputy leader, Patsy McGlone, and Alex Attwood in Dublin last week, and we look forward to working with them in the future. Everyone on these islands owes a debt of gratitude to the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP for their courage and leadership in concluding the Good Friday Agreement. This process is very much their creation and I encourage them to continue their support for this current phase of delivery.
In the time available I will review briefly the main elements of the Hillsborough agreement and note the progress that has already been made in its implementation. The Hillsborough agreement provides for a cross-community vote in the Assembly to request the devolution of policing and justice powers on 9 March and the completion of the devolution of policing and justice by 12 April. This will be an essential step for peace, stability and security in Northern Ireland. It will consolidate the operation of devolved government and close the circle in the transformation of policing and justice structures in Northern Ireland. The appointment of a Minister for Justice, accountable to the Northern Ireland Assembly, will signal a strong vote of confidence in the robustness and sustainability of the devolved institutions.
The agreement also provides for a way forward on parades based on cross community support for an enhanced framework. This offers the prospect of respecting and equitably balancing the rights of everybody. While most parades pass off peacefully each year, there remain a handful of contentious parades and another few which retain the potential for difficulty. The core point is that any enhanced framework would have at its core the principles of local people providing local solutions and respect for the rights of those who parade and those who live in the areas through which parades pass. This includes the right for everyone to be free from sectarian harassment. Until new arrangements have been agreed and put in place, the Parades Commission will continue to do its valuable work.
An ambitious timeframe has been set for this work. The First and Deputy First Minister have appointed representatives to the working group provided for in the Hillsborough agreement. This working group is now meeting on a daily basis and will report back with agreed outcomes within two weeks. These outcomes will, in turn, provide the basis for widespread public consultation, leading to responsibility for parading being devolved to the Northern institutions and Assembly legislation before the end of the year. The agreement between the parties to move forward on an agreed basis has the potential to transform the situation, lifting the stresses and pressure on communities arising from parades. Realising this potential will require generosity of spirit and respect for others on the part of all stakeholders. There is also a duty of care on those who take this work forward to ensure the rights of all are equitably accommodated. The Government will remain close to this process as it progresses through the various stages.
The Hillsborough agreement also provides for a working group to be established on outstanding commitments from the St. Andrews Agreement. One commitment of particular interest to this House concerns the Irish language. The Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement recognised the importance of respect, tolerance and understanding of the linguistic diversity and culture of Northern Ireland. The Irish Government is committed to assisting the development of the Irish language in Northern Ireland and the implementation of outstanding commitments made in the St. Andrews Agreement, including an Irish Language Act. We also look forward to early agreement on an Irish language strategy. Since language issues are a devolved matter, this is an area where the Government works directly with the Northern Ireland Executive, including through the North-South body, Foras na Gaeilge.
Engagement continues with the British Government on relevant non-devolved areas such as broadcasting and through the British Irish Council. I am pleased that the Minister for Communications, Energy and Natural Resources, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and his British counterpart recently signed a memorandum of understanding which will facilitate the continued availability of Irish television services, including TG4, in Northern Ireland after the digital switch-over. As the House will be aware, the promotion and protection of the Irish language is a key priority for the Irish Government in this jurisdiction and our work in this area can have a positive effect on the island as a whole. The 20 year strategy for the Irish language, 2010-2030, will have a beneficial impact on speakers of the Irish language on the whole island and the Irish Government will look at how these synergies can be optimised. This is where we can be creative and apply some of the more creative solutions in the 20 year strategy for the benefit of Irish language speakers in Northern Ireland.
I reiterate the need for tolerance and respect for both the Irish language and the Ulster Scots language and culture in Northern Ireland. I accept the points made by Senator Labhrás Ó Murchú and Senator Cecilia Keaveney regarding the role of culture and respect for culture. I have previously urged a more open approach to the Irish language by those who erroneously see it as something threatening. Far from being feared, the languages and cultures of this island ought to be shared and celebrated. I look forward to a more mature and less politicised discussion about the Irish language, building on the improved dynamic and mutual respect that enabled agreement to be reached in Hillsborough last week.
In moving forward, we must build and consolidate trust between communities, in a spirit of equality and tolerance for each other's political aspirations, cultural expression and inheritance. Much has already been achieved in building sustainable relationships where once there was mistrust. However, more must be done to knock down the barriers which physically and metaphorically separate too many in the North. Again, I accept the views expressed by Senators about the community-based interface. We have done, and continue to do, much work on that. We have not pulled back at all in this jurisdiction. In fact, our funding has been maintained in terms of the reconciliation and anti-sectarianism funds. This is something I am very keen on, and perhaps I could discuss it as a specific item with Senators on another occasion. We could discuss how we could really work on the community issue and particularly what are described as the hard-to-reach areas. The social and economic indices are still shocking in many areas and until the British and Irish Governments and the Executive collectively move in a comprehensive way to tackle the issues in those communities, we will not put in the underpinning that is essential to sustain the political edifice that has been created through the agreements. That is an issue of great interest to me and I have spoken to all and sundry about it and the need to concentrate in those areas.
The Hillsborough agreement provides a new platform upon which we can build stronger and deeper North-South co-operation over the months and years to come. I appreciate the work Senator Quinn has done in that regard with the British Irish Association, and the work he did yesterday and last evening, as well as Senator O'Toole's work on the ad hoc committee. I will take on board the suggestions they have made; they will find us open and willing to advance them. The point is well made about the North-South Ministerial Council and the lack of awareness outside of those participating, even in this House, of the progress that has been made. There have been more than 50 meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council since the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly in May 2007. Every one of those meetings has included Ministers from the Unionist and Nationalist traditions in Northern Ireland, as well as their Irish Government counterparts.
This is a hugely significant level of engagement between elected representatives in both parts of the island on the economic and social issues of most concern to those we represent. The era of "back-to-back" development has truly been consigned to the past. Ministers, North and South, no longer hesitate to pick up the telephone or meet in person, discuss common challenges, argue options and agree shared approaches to the difficulties we face. That is politics as it should be. The political compromises reached at Hillsborough will free up time and space to tackle the bread-and-butter issues of most concern to ordinary people. The Government is determined to work closely with our Northern Ireland Executive colleagues to tackle those issues on an all-island basis, wherever possible and helpful.
We will continue to take a North-South approach to meeting the infrastructural needs of the island, as evidenced by our support for the upgrading to dual carriageway status of the new A5 road to Derry and Letterkenny. We are increasing our efforts to build a smart and dynamic "Innovation Island" by increasing our collaboration through the US-Ireland Research and Development Partnership and under the EU's seventh framework programme. We are intensifying our co-operation in areas such as health and education, with North-South studies completed or in train on how we can achieve economies of scale and deliver improved services. We look forward to examining closely with our Northern Ireland Executive colleagues ways in which both our Administrations can save money by eliminating duplication on the island. It is simple common sense that we can do more together, for less, if we pool our talents, resources and time in the many areas in which we have shared ambitions and targets.
We look forward to completing the St. Andrews Agreement review of North-South bodies and areas of co-operation as soon as possible, ensuring Ministers can address issues of most pressing concern through the North-South Ministerial Council. We are also determined to bring into being the North-South Consultative Forum and the North-South Parliamentary Forum, which will each have a valuable role in advising the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive on socio-economic and cultural issues with a North-South dimension. The time is now right to make progress on all these outstanding issues and we look forward to doing just that over the months ahead.
In moving forward on these critical matters I believe that the parties have recovered the spirit of the Good Friday and St. Andrews Agreements, the vision of a better future for all the people of these islands. It is about people coming to the table with a sense of generosity and understanding, accommodating the views and opinions of others and doing so in a way that best serves everyone in the community and promotes security, stability and support for democracy. The devolved institutions can now move on to focus on the day-to-day issues that concern everyone, such as the economy, jobs, health, education, infrastructure, social services, community safety and quality of life. That better future must be built on mutual respect for people of all different traditions, equality and tolerance, and respect for each others' political aspirations and cultural expression and inheritance.
As we mark this month's deadline for paramilitary decommissioning, it is worth taking stock of the great degree of success there has been in taking the gun out of politics in Northern Ireland. Recent acts of decommissioning remind us all of the great benefits the peace process can bring and the confidence it generates in communities. This Government has expressed its appreciation for those who worked so hard to bring about the decommissioning by the UDA. I also welcome the recent confirmation by the INLA and other groups that they have put their weapons beyond use. Their recognition that politics is the only way forward is to be welcomed.
Sadly, the evil, criminal attack on PSNI Constable Peadar Heffron in recent weeks is a stark reminder that there remain a tiny, unrepresentative few whose aim is to destroy all that has been achieved. I pay tribute to Constable Heffron for all that he has done for this country and for his bravery in dealing with what I know are significant injuries. It is very important we place our deep appreciation and our best wishes for Constable Peadar Heffron and his family firmly on the record of this House.
Such attacks by so-called dissident republicans do not represent the democratic will of the people on this island. They offer nothing but pain and suffering to the people. The best response to give to such persons is to complete the devolution of policing and justice powers to secure the stability of the democratic institutions and to show that politics is delivering for all the people of Northern Ireland. All the people of these islands greatly value what has been achieved in the North in recent years. They have no wish to see a return to the bad old days. It is the duty of all political leaders on this island to continue working together in trust and partnership to ensure we continue on the path of peace.
I pay tribute to my counterpart, the Secretary of State, Shaun Woodward. He and I have worked together to secure the devolution of policing and justice, not just for the past two weeks but for the past 18 months. His commitment has been extraordinary and I thank him for it.
On the proposed amendment to the motion, I have already set out our position on the North-South Consultative Forum. On reports to the Seanad on the work of the North-South Ministerial Council, I and my colleagues in the Government are always available to participate in the proceedings of Seanad Éireann and I very much welcome this discussion. I agree with the House fully on the importance of discussing the North-South Ministerial Council and North-South issues generally in the Oireachtas. The support of elected representatives is essential to ensure broad public understanding of our efforts to promote all-island approaches and deliver shared services in Border areas. That view has been articulated by Senators in this debate. Senator Keaveney put it graphically in terms of the multiple heads and tails we each thought the other had.
One should never underestimate the importance of shared experience and meeting people. Before I was a Minister, as a back bench Deputy I was a member of the British-Irish Association and attended conferences in Cambridge and Oxford every year. I met politicians from different backgrounds in the North. I had a very interesting experience in 1992 when a group of Deputies and Senators travelled to Ballycastle to meet Unionist politicians, including David Irvine, Billy Hutchinson and the McGimpsey brothers, whom I met before. I would never understate the influence the encounter had on me in terms of understanding the perspective of Unionist politicians, where they were coming from and their ability to understand where we were coming from. The more continued collaboration and engagement we have, the better because it comes in useful. It came in useful for me during the two weeks I spent in Hillsborough and I have maintained that level of engagement and contact throughout my life in politics. It is important that all public representatives do likewise because one never knows the hour when it will become useful. We have to keep working at all levels within the community.
On the North-South situation, I was happy to have had the opportunity to brief members of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement last July on the discussions which had taken place at the NSMC plenary meeting on 6 July. As I said on that occasion, I would be glad to address the joint committee after each NSMC plenary meeting at the convenience of the committee. It is also open to committees to invite my ministerial colleagues to discuss NSMC activities in their areas of responsibility. North-South issues have also been the subject of useful debate on the Adjournment of the House. It is open to the Seanad to discuss any aspect of North-South co-operation, including meetings of the NSMC.
I am genuinely taken by the very fine contributions of the Members of the House to the debate which ranged from the importance of music, culture and the arts to better relationships between North and South and communities. Senator Keaveney, with her musical background, has a very clear commitment to that and I value the reports she has prepared and is currently preparing. Senator Ó Murchú outlined a fascinating exchange between members of the Orange Order and Comhaltas Ceoltóirí Éireann, which is the kind of engagement which makes a difference. The contribution of Senator Quinn is important, as he reminded us that the further south one goes, the more partitionist one can become. I was uncomfortable with the discussion-----
No, I was uncomfortable about the exchanges regarding groceries. People need to take a long-term approach to this issue. As Senator Keaveney said, it has worked both ways. It has created issues on both sides of the Border, about that there is no question. I follow the instincts of Senator Quinn and others. We are coming from a perspective which is all-Ireland in terms of trade, which is why the work of InterTrade Ireland is so important. As Senator Bradford and others said, the fact that people do not travel to the North and South has been an historic reality since the Troubles began. Therefore, if we examine the issue in an all-island economic context, there are many benefits for people who create jobs in the South in terms of providing solutions and services to businesses and people in the North, and vice versa. We have to look at the big picture. There were many other contributions which we will take on board and we look forward to working with the House to advance this agenda.
As there was a vote in the Dáil we did not start until 5.40 p.m. To allow time for colleagues to make their contributions, with the agreement of the House I propose an amendment to the Order of Business to extend the debate until 8 p.m.
I agree with Senator Cassidy. It is very awkward but it would be very unfortunate if the House did not hear from Senator Doherty, who is a Sinn Féin representative, one of the most significant parties involved in this situation. It is wrong that Ministers are not prepared. I do not care-----
I am not saying it is. Colleagues in the House wish to make a contribution. I am prepared to forgo the five minutes which are allocated for my concluding comments. If colleagues want to make a submission, I want them to be facilitated.
I thank Senator Cassidy for accommodating the extension of time. He gave a commitment to me earlier that he would ensure I had a chance to speak as during the last debate we were pressed for time. Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire go dtí an Teach. Cuirim leis an méid atá ráite ag na Seanadóiri eile ó thaobh an buíochas agus an moladh atá tuillte ag an Aire féin, an Taoiseach agus an fhoireann a bhí acu i gCaisleán na Croimghlinne agus iad ansin ar feadh beagnach dhá seachtain ag déileáil le na cainteanna seo. Glacaim leis an moladh atá curtha chun tosaigh anseo ag Páirtí Fhianna Fáil.
I commend the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Michéal Martin, and the Taoiseach for their involvement in the recent talks at Hillsborough Castle. I accept the motion and the amendment tabled by Senator O'Toole and his colleagues which makes the motion much stronger. Perhaps in the future we should look again at its wording.
As I listened to the Minister's contribution and those of Senators I noted that each of them paid tribute to all involved. This is very important in the aftermath of an historic agreement reached between Sinn Féin and the DUP. It is the first time the DUP has signed up in full to an agreement. We are all aware it did not go into the talks on the Good Friday Agreement and objected to it. During the talks on the St Andrews Agreement it cherrypicked parts of it and signed up to them but it did not agree with others. This is the first time we have an agreement which has been signed up to and agreed by the DUP and Sinn Féin, of which the two Governments are guarantors, with the support of other political parties. It is important, therefore, that the motion commends all those involved who got us to this stage and are taking politics on the island of Ireland to a new and better level, one that recognises the diversity of political views and respects the different traditions and political positions.
I had the privilege of being involved in the talks as part of the team at Hillsborough where I met the Minister on occasion. I also had the opportunity to be involved in the team in the talks on the St. Andrews Agreement more than three years ago. During the talks I was very conscious of a negative attitude in many sections of the media and among some political commentators who expressed their frustration at the length of time it was taking to reach agreement and the fact that the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister were tied up in discussions for three days, as if the issues being discussed were minor parochial issues that should have been dealt within a matter of minutes. The reality is that the agreement reached at Hillsborough on 5 February is substantial. It ends British involvement in a great number of policing and justice issues on the island of Ireland, as well as in the issue of parading. It is an agreement between the DUP and Sinn Féin and the other parties on outstanding issues arising from the Good Friday Agreement.
Some parties representing obstructionist Unionism had refused to honour other commitments entered into in previous agreements, in particular to have an Acht na Gaeilge. The Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Ó Cuív, will have a particular interest in the fact that the parties have agreed, in section 5 of the agreement, to look at outstanding issues. Gerry Adams announced at the weekend that the Minister for Culture, Arts and Leisure, Nelson McCausland, was to bring an Irish language strategy to the Executive before the end of the month. Also concerning the Irish language, our negotiating team secured an extra £20 million from the British Government to support Irish language initiatives within the Six Counties. In addition, much work was done on behalf of the two Governments to ensure the future availability of RTE and TG4 as we changed over to digital broadcasting.
The issues were fundamental and very important. They have divided society for a long time. The issue of parading was very sensitive. Some thought they would be able to use it as a precondition in the talks. It was not and what was demanded by rejectionist Unionism was not achieved. I listened to those Members who said the solution lay in the use of the words "our roads" but that was not the solution. It is a matter of respect. The solution is that if a group wants to march down a street in a predominantly Nationalist community, it needs to have the consent of the residents of that community. In over 90% of the marches organised by the Loyal Orders, this is not an issue because there has been local agreement and respect. However, in a number of areas, including the Garvaghy Road and Ormeau Road, that has not been achievable until now. Marches have not gone down the Garvaghy Road for over a decade and will not do so until the issue of respect is dealt with. That is the new agreed formula, on which a working group set up during the past week and a half will report in the next ten days. It is looking for a framework to gain cross-party support and investigating how we can resolve the outstanding contentious issues. There are parades which are contentious and allow tensions to boil over during the summer, when the rights of paraders are placed above those of residents. The framework is to ensure rights will be balanced. It is not about taking away rights from anybody but about ensuring all sections of society will have rights.
I want to mention, as many others have, dissident groups and the threat they pose to the peace process. We in Sinn Féin are very conscious of this threat and, as a party, have taken risks for many years. We have shown true leadership in trying to find agreement and push forward on terms which we believe are achievable through the infrastructure of the St. Andrews and Good Friday Agreements and now the Hillsborough agreement towards the eventual outcome - Irish unity. Because of the leadership we have provided we have been subject to death threats. Again this week a number of my party colleagues have been subject to such threats. Some have suffered attempts to burn down their houses, while in the past some of my colleagues lost their lives when such threats were carried out. Gerry Kelly put it clearly and succinctly last night when he spoke about dissident groups. When people have no strategy, aims or objectives and when what they are doing does not move them one single step closer to their ultimate objective, all they are are gunmen. They should stand down because they are doing a disservice to the Republican cause and people who have identified themselves as Republicans for generations.
Although we may talk about the Hillsborough agreement and the opportunities provided within it, parties in the South should not be afraid of the issue of Irish unity. I sat in the throne room when Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson announced the agreement to the world. Standing beside Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness described himself as an Irish republican committed to Irish unity. Like Ian Paisley, Peter Robinson knows exactly who he is negotiating with and the terms of the deal his party has reached. They know our objective is to achieve Irish unity. That is what we will continue to try to achieve. However, that does not scare them because we can find common ground on which we can work together to better the lives of the people we represent.
I challenge parties in the South to work towards Irish unity. The first step might be a Green Paper on the issue. When it was debated in the Dáil a number of years ago, the argument made was that we could not rock the boat, that we needed to be sensitive and careful not to upset Unionists. Unionists understand Fianna Fáil, as it states in every election programme or on every poster, is a republican party committed to the achievement of Irish unity, as are Fine Gael, Sinn Féin and the Labour Party. What we need to do is change this type of republicanism with a strap-line on a poster to active republicanism. There are a number of steps we can take in order to do this. We could consider publishing a Green Paper for discussion and in preparation for Irish unity. We could extend Oireachtas representation by extending the voting system for Seanad elections or the Presidential election to people living in the North. Many have worked and continue to work to expand on the work the Government is doing through the North-South Ministerial Council and on interventions to offer financial support to areas within the Six Counties.
I thank the Cathaoirleach for his indulgence.
I endorse everything that has been said about the extraordinary contribution made by all participants in reaching this agreement. I remember a particular soundbite that emerged in the news coverage, namely, that the Taoiseach, when he had travelled to the North and had to stay over, had not even carried a toothbrush. Whether that is true, it epitomises the total commitment of the Irish and British Governments. I applaud the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Michéal Martin, who stayed with the process throughout in co-operation with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Shaun Woodward. The tributes paid to the Taoiseach, the British Prime Minister, Mr. Gordon Brown, the DUP, Sinn Féin and the other political parties in the North, the UUP, SDLP and the Alliance Party, are well merited.
As did Senator Doherty in his fine contribution, I compliment the Leader on ensuring Sinn Féin's voice was heard in this debate. However, I want to put it on record that a core principle of Fianna Fáil, from its beginning in 1926, was, is and remains the reunification of this country. Speaking as a Fianna Fáil Senator - I know I speak for all of my colleagues - I say to Senator Doherty that we are not at all afraid of unity. I assumed that what was happening in Hillsborough was part of the building blocks towards unity, on a peaceful basis and with the co-operation and consent of both sides. It is evident from all that has been happening since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 that we are moving to some form of a new - to paraphrase his party leader - dispensation on this island. That is to be welcomed and is quite extraordinary when one thinks of all that has been achieved since 1998. Some 72% of the voters of Northern Ireland voted in favour of the Agreement.
The Good Friday Agreement also produced various bodies that are now in operation, such as the North-South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Council and the North-South implementation bodies. One of these in particular, with which the Minister for Community, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, who is here, will be familiar because it comes under his brief, Waterways Ireland is based in Enniskillen. It does significant positive work, not only in the context of maintaining our waterways, but of selling the island of Ireland abroad and the wonderful beauty and majesty of our lakes and waterways. Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív was the first Minister to commit himself publicly to the development and reopening of the Ulster Canal, which will link the entire island of Ireland through its waterways. I have no doubt that work will continue into the future and will be a wonderful achievement for the whole island.
I am very pleased that Senator Doherty devoted much of his contribution to the fringe violence going on. It is not the challenges that have been agreed on at Hillsborough that the Northern Ireland Executive or the Irish and British Governments must face, but the incipient, consistent continuous sniping by a small but very effective minority of people who believe the only way forward is by the barrel of a gun. Senator Doherty referred to Gerry Kelly. It is significant that Gerry Kelly comes from a background that supported militant republicanism, but is now firmly embedded in the parliamentary and democratic system in Northern Ireland, such as it may be. He has stated there is "no support for, or appetite for, armed actions within the republican community". That is a significant contribution.
What Senator Doherty said about the challenges that will face the Northern Ireland Executive, and by extension the Government here, if the violence continues is important. Let me give an example. We have all welcomed the INLA laying down its arms and its decommissioning process now confirmed by General de Chastelain. It might be worthwhile to recall for the record of the House what the INLA did in its 35 years of militancy. One of the most significant actions it took was that it blew Airey Neave to smithereens, just after he had been appointed Northern Ireland spokesperson in the first Margaret Thatcher Administration. I do not wish to dilute the 3,500 awful, tragic deaths as a result of violence in the North, but I firmly believe that in narrow political terms that particular action by the INLA poisoned Margaret Thatcher towards anything Irish, from 1979 onwards. I believe it strongly influenced and prejudiced her and her first Administration against realistic movement towards trying to solve the issues not only North-South, but east-west. That is just one of the legacies of the INLA.
We cannot forget either that the most significant massacre that took place in Northern Ireland was that at the Dropping Well pub, where 17 innocent people were blown to bits in 1982 by the INLA. The INLA was the most vicious group of militant republicanism that operated on this island. Thank God it has now seen the light and laid down its arms. It is important that, as Senator Doherty has said, it continues to be said in this House and in the Northern Ireland Executive that there is no room whatsoever for these people who - I will not say what they call themselves - are nothing but thugs and murderers. What happened to Peadar Heffron is an example of the sort of depths to which such groups will sink.
These are the challenges facing the Northern Ireland Assembly, but I would like to finish on a positive note. I endorse everything that has been said about Mark Durkan and wish him well in the continuing contribution he will make to Northern Ireland politics. I also welcome Margaret Ritchie, the first female leader of a major party in Northern Ireland. I pay tribute to the pioneers, Monica McWilliams, Pearl Sagar and Jane Morris who in 1996 formed the Women's Coalition and who had to struggle through the prejudice and male bastion of politics in Northern Ireland at that time. How far we have come. I pay tribute too to Mo Mowlam. In the very week that the Northern Ireland agreement was being hammered out in Hillsborough, Channel 4 transmitted the most extraordinary film, "Mo". I urge RTE to purchase this film and broadcast it on national television. Perhaps the Minister present, Deputy Éamon Ó Cuív, might play some role in that. That film brings home the tremendous commitment, energy and determination this unique woman had and the contribution she made to what we are discussing today. Lord rest her soul.