Wednesday, 7 May 2014
Northern Ireland Issues
I welcome the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, to the House and ask him to pass on my comments and views on the Adjournment matter I raise to the Taoiseach at his convenience. I have raised the need to reconvene the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation arising from my concern not simply at the events of recent days in Northern Ireland but at the drift which has occurred in recent weeks and months which should cause all of us to reflect on the fact that the relative peace which we have had in the northern part of the island since 1994 is not a permanent given and must be worked upon and further developed and bedded down.
You were in this House 20 years ago, a Chathaoirligh, in May 1994 when a ceasefire had not been declared. You will recall that in both this House and in the other House statements were required on a monthly and sometimes a weekly basis in response to various atrocities, murder and mayhem on the streets of Northern Ireland. Then in the autumn of 1994 the IRA ceasefire was declared following years of hard work by various politicians from virtually every political party. That helped lead to a process whereby we have enjoyed a relative peace on this island since then.
One of the developments which played a significant role in building a political process and getting people from different backgrounds into one room was the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. It was at the instigation of the then Taoiseach, Albert Reynolds, that the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation met for the first time in October or November 1994. Over the course of the next two years or so it met on approximately 40 separate occasions. The representatives of virtually every political party in the Republic of Ireland and a significant number of political parties in Northern Ireland came together to discuss problems and solutions and tried to plan for a shared future based on mutual respect, trust and peace. It was a unique forum. As a participant I found the divergence of views interesting. Of note was the respect in which submissions were held and the robust nature of the debate and engagement on some occasions. It all added to a mix which worked in getting people to think about future co-operation on this island. The forum served a significant purpose.
Sometimes the phrase “a political talking shop” has negative connotations. One could suggest perhaps that the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation was a political talking shop but I have always thought it was a case of the more talk the better in the context of Northern Ireland politics. At least when people are around the same table no matter what their background or where they are coming from politically or going to, having people speak face to face means progress is at least possible. A huge amount has been achieved but, uniquely, the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation did not conclude, it simply adjourned. The then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, was in charge at the time. The official position was that should a future set of circumstances require it, the forum could meet again. I previously suggested that it would be an ideal vehicle to tease out and consider the prospect of a truth and reconciliation commission. What we have seen recently in Northern Ireland must be a warning shot that we cannot be sure of permanent peace on the island and that work is required. We must recognise the victims and the atrocities and that much healing is still required.
I do not expect a significant statement from the Minister of State, Deputy Cannon, but I would urge him to encourage the Taoiseach to contemplate bringing together again all the political parties who wish to be involved in the process. They all have something to add. One difficulty I have perceived during the past decade is that dialogue is very much Government to Government, in addition to one or two of the political parties in Northern Ireland – depending on whoever is in charge at the time – making the political running. All of those who are interested in the topic have something to say. The forum brought all voices - some politically strong, others weak - to the table and made significant progress. I respectfully suggest that 20 years after the IRA ceasefire and what we all hoped would be the beginning of a new island and a new Ireland – to some extent that has been achieved – we should look back at what worked well. The Forum for Peace and Reconciliation did work very well. It could work equally well in the course of the next few months and years to discuss other matters, not just in terms of the current political situation but in terms of the need for a truth and reconciliation commission, the need to engage with victims, and to ensure a stable political environment on the island. I ask the Minister of State to please pass on my comments to the Taoiseach at his convenience.
I thank Senator Bradford for raising this issue. He has spoken with a great degree of knowledge and passion on the subject of achieving a lasting peace on our island. The Forum for Peace and Reconciliation was established in 1994 following the first IRA ceasefire, and consisted of membership from across the Houses of the Oireachtas, as well as from political parties in Northern Ireland.
It met for the first time in Dublin Castle, chaired by Mrs. Justice Catherine McGuinness. Its terms of reference were, "To consult on and examine ways in which lasting peace, stability and reconciliation can be established by agreement among all the people of Ireland, and on the steps required to remove barriers of distrust, on the basis of promoting respect for the equal rights and validity of both traditions and identities". A draft report entitled, Paths to a Political Settlement, was published in 1996. However, as some Members will recall, the forum was suspended following the Canary Wharf bombing in February 1996. While it reconvened briefly in 1997, the then ongoing multiparty talks, referendum, elections and establishment of the institutions meant that no further meetings of the forum took place until it was reconvened again in November 2002. The context on that occasion was the suspension of the institutions in October of that year. The forum met on a handful of further occasions but has not met since February 2003. Several serving Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas were delegates to the forum in 2003, including Senators Bradford and Norris, as well as Deputies Eamon Ó Cuív and Jan O'Sullivan, and contributed to the important work which it was doing at that time.
The political and institutional context has changed significantly since. Since 2007, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Northern Ireland Assembly have been operating and delivering power-sharing government for the people of Northern Ireland. Without doubt, there have been significant political challenges over the period since, including in recent weeks and months. As we committed to at the time of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, the responsibility and priority of the Government now, working with the British Government, is to support the power-sharing institutions in Belfast as they face the challenges of everyday government and the additional challenges of dealing with the legacy of the Troubles. Taken together with the other institutions established under the Agreement, including the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council, these are the appropriate fora in which to further lasting peace, stability and reconciliation, as the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation had done previously over a number of years.
The Good Friday Agreement set out the guiding principles for peace, stability and reconciliation in Northern Ireland, namely, devolution, power-sharing, agreement on sovereignty, human rights, parity of esteem, support for the rule of law and the continued shared responsibility of the two Governments to guarantee these principles. However, we must acknowledge that the full potential of the Agreement has yet to be reached. As is the case in any comprehensive political agreement, full implementation is essential to the integrity and balance of the whole.
The Government is also working to consolidate and to continue to implement the outstanding elements of the Good Friday Agreement and its related agreements, including an Irish language Act for Northern Ireland, a bill of rights for Northern Ireland and a North-South consultative forum. In terms of the North-South consultative forum in particular, many Members will share the view that the establishment of such a forum would stimulate more informed public debate on key societal challenges, North and South. For that reason, the Government will continue to press for its establishment as an essential part of the framework to deliver peace and reconciliation.
Most recently at the plenary meeting on 8 November 2013 of the North-South Ministerial Council, the Government expressed support for the re-establishment of the North-South Consultative Forum as a valuable and, as yet, unimplemented provision of the Good Friday Agreement. In terms of the work of the North-South Ministerial Council across government more broadly, we have been working hard and to great effect with the Northern Ireland Executive to advance areas of practical co-operation. We have intensified work since November 2013 focusing on potential new areas of North-South co-operation. Northern Ireland’s First Minister, Peter Robinson, commented recently that North-South relations are better than they have ever been. The Government shares this view.
Members of this House and of Dáil Éireann are playing a valuable role in facilitating discussions on the current political situation in Northern Ireland. The Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement regularly hears from a wide range of groups in Northern Ireland and undertakes visits there. The establishment of the North-South Interparliamentary Association in July 2012 was a welcome recent development arising from the ongoing implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Under the leadership of the Ceann Comhairle and the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, the association has provided new opportunities for discussions between Members of the Houses of the Oireachtas and members of the Northern Ireland Assembly. The association has had exchanges of views with a wide range of experts on EU issues, health matters and economic co-operation.
The British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly is of much longer standing, having been established in 1990, in the aftermath of the Anglo-Irish Agreement. It is going from strength to strength. At its meeting last month, it considered a report on the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement on its 15th anniversary and heard presentations on the workplace of the future.
I welcome this opportunity to debate Northern Ireland in Seanad Éireann. While I greatly appreciate the sentiment and concern behind Senator Bradford's suggestion, the Government believes the Good Friday Agreement institutions must be let get on with their work. Members of this House, and of the Dáil, have several different avenues where they can contribute to the promotion of peace and reconciliation on this island and across these islands. The peace and reconciliation thus far achieved on this island has been hard won and will continue to be consolidated by this Government as it continues the work towards the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement as the best underpinning and framework for lasting peace, stability and reconciliation.