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Statement by the Taoiseach Mr. Bertie Ahern, on the Outcome of the Mitchell Review of the Good Friday Agreement, 23rd November 1999

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Statement by the Taoiseach Mr. Bertie Ahern, T.D., on the Outcome of the Mitchell Review of the Good Friday Agreement, Tuesday 23rd November 1999

Today we stand at the threshold of a transformation in the history of this island and these islands. It is now eighteen months since the people, North and South, so overwhelmingly endorsed the Good Friday Agreement. We knew then that its implementation would not be easy, but I doubt if any of us expected so prolonged and frustrating a stalemate. But, finally, the path ahead has been mapped. The only outstanding question is whether we can all together, North and South, nationalist and republican, unionist and loyalist, summon up the resolve needed to take that path.

The successful conclusion of the Mitchell Review would have been impossible without the patience, wisdom and commitment of its extraordinary chairman. Many well-deserved tributes have been paid to George Mitchell. But no words, however glowing, would be enough to convey just how much we all owe him.

The contribution of the parties was also enormous. They all worked extremely hard during the Review, and each showed courage and determination. The slow development of mutual trust and confidence did indeed prove to be essential. But over and above that, the leaders of both the Ulster Unionists and Sinn Féin have taken risks and displayed leadership of the highest order in moving towards an accommodation on issues which are profoundly difficult for them and their communities. The SDLP have offered support and insight at all times and will play a central role in the new institutions. I wish David Trimble and his supporters the best of luck in their efforts to win the backing of the Ulster Unionist Council.

What we all want to see is the full implementation of the Agreement, in all its aspects. We said during the Referendum campaign that it had to be accepted as a package. Understandably, perspectives on the individual elements differ. But those elements will stand, or fall, together. All must be delivered in accordance with the terms of the Agreement.

The Review was about finding an agreed basis both for the achievement of devolution and the establishment of the institutions, and for the achievement of decommissioning. It has long been clear that both are essential if the Agreement is to work. That is why I particularly welcome and endorse Senator Mitchellís key conclusion, in which he said that he believed "that a basis now exists for devolution to occur, for the institutions to be established, and for decommissioning to take place as soon as possible."

Next Thursday, 2 December, is the date on which powers will be devolved and the British-Irish Agreement will enter into force. The North/South Ministerial Council, the Implementation Bodies, and the British-Irish Council will all be formally established on that day. Very early inaugural meetings of the new institutions will be held.

With the entry into force of the new Agreement, the Anglo-Irish Agreement of 1985 will cease to exist. The Government has always looked forward to the day when a new and broadly-based agreement, negotiated by and with the support of both traditions, would replace and transcend that Agreement.

Furthermore, on 2 December the Government will also meet to make the declaration necessary to bring the amended Articles 2 and 3 of our Constitution into effect, as the Agreement requires us to do. Some people have asked what will happen if, over time, other elements of the Agreement do not stand. This question in fact arose during the Referendum campaign of last year. In the course of the negotiations on the Agreement and its implementation, all sides have been asked to take risks. We are playing our part. I confirm that the amendments, once made, will stand. It is my firm view that the new Articles 2 and 3 are a clear and updated expression of our peopleís basic principles.

The Good Friday Agreement is based on the principles of inclusivity, equality and mutual respect. I welcome the Ulster Unionist Partyís recognition and acceptance of these principles and of the legitimacy for nationalists to pursue their political objective of a united Ireland by consent through exclusively peaceful and democratic methods.

The institutional and constitutional aspects of the Agreement are at its core. But, as I said earlier, all elements must be implemented. In particular, although decommissioning is a voluntary act and cannot be imposed, it is essential, as all parties have recognised.

The consistent position of the Irish Government has been that we want to see the earliest possible decommissioning. There is now agreement that the right and indeed only context for the achievement of decommissioning is the implementation of the Agreement as a whole, including the establishment of the institutions. As the Independent Commission has said, that will "create a new context in which the situation will be transformed." Conversely, as Senator Mitchell has said, it is certain that if the institutions are not established there is no chance of decommissioning.

I agree with Senator Mitchell in his belief that, in the context of the full implementation of the Agreement and in the transformed situation which it will bring about, there will be decommissioning. It is vital that all parties continue to exercise their influence, singly and collectively, to achieve that end - and again I pay tribute to the leadership they are already offering in that regard.

The role of General de Chastelain and his Commission will be central in taking the decommissioning process forward, as all parties agree. The Commission will be meeting the authorised representatives of the paramilitary organisations after their appointment, and will report very shortly afterwards. Let us now be prepared to wait and see what the Commission then says about the detailed issues involved, and not involve ourselves in speculation.

We are planning for, and we expect, success. The whole Agreement is based on mutual confidence, partnership and the sense that everybody is acting in good faith in implementing all of its terms. If there is difficulty either in relation to devolution or decommissioning we are by definition in a very serious situation. In those circumstances, where the Agreement was in significant respects not being implemented, the Governments would have to step in and assume their responsibilities, including through appropriate suspension arrangements. But, let me repeat again, we are not planning for failure. Our focus is on success and on ensuring that each of the provisions of the Agreement is implemented, as the people voted for last year. That is the task that is ahead of us, and that is the task we must all now press on with.

Despite the massive public support for the Good Friday Agreement, as expressed in the referendums, and despite the appalling outrage that was the Omagh bombing, a handful of dissidents continue to threaten the peace. The Government will take further vigorous pre-emptive action to frustrate the activities of any dissidents who do so. We will at the same time continue to refute a deeply flawed and outdated political analysis which misleads people into attempting futile but potentially lethal attacks that risk killing innocent people, whether in Northern Ireland or elsewhere. We have the laws in place to deprive them not only of their liberty but of their property and those laws will be used to the full in the case of any dissident group or individuals who store arms for use or otherwise attempt to destabilise the peace. The British authorities will, I am certain, continue to move with equal determination against dissidents on all sides there, including those responsible for continuing sectarian attacks.

We all have a chance to greet the dawn of the new Millennium with a new beginning in Ireland, leaving the tragedy and conflict of the past behind us. We now have an agreed method of peacefully resolving deep-seated differences about the future, agreement on what needs to be done if democracy is to function, and agreement on how best we can help each other North and South. All sections of the people of this island can live in harmony, and be a beacon of hope to many other countries in the world which have also experienced a difficult recent history, which face actual or potential inter- traditional conflict, and which envy the advantages that both parts of Ireland freely enjoy in the European Union.

This is a time for all of us to hold our nerve, to see through to its conclusion the peace project we all embarked on together, to encourage the doubters and the faint-hearted, and to confound the nay-sayers and the prophets of doom. To those who say it cannot be done, let us show them that it will be done. Unionists and nationalists need each other because, in co-operation, permanent peace can be established, and all the people can enjoy a quality of life and a harmony and security in the community that they have too long been denied. With the greater confidence that state of affairs will bring about, many side problems, previously thought insoluble, can be resolved.

A little over ten years ago, few thought the Berlin Wall would ever come down. I look forward to the day when walls will no longer be necessary to separate communities in Northern Ireland, because both traditions will be cherished and, more importantly, will cherish each other. I believe that we now recognise in a new and different way the legitimacy of one anotherís traditions and aspirations, and should now take concrete steps to make mutual respect a living reality.

The Agreement offers a bold and generous vision of tolerance and partnership between those who together share the island of Ireland. Moreover, it offers a framework within which profound differences can be accommodated without coercion and on the basis of consent. Those of us from within the Irish nationalist tradition value the unionist tradition. We have come to understand, to cherish and to respect its authenticity and validity. It is a vital and irreplaceable strand of that diversity of cultures and identities which makes up Ireland as it really is. All over the world, we can see the tragic consequences of policies of domination and exclusion. The future of Ireland can be, should be, and I believe, will be, radically different.

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