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Statement by Bertie Ahern on the Publication of 'Proposals by the British and Irish Governments for a Comprehensive Agreement', Belfast, (8 December 2004)

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Text: Bertie Ahern ... Page compiled: Martin Melaugh

Statement by Bertie Ahern, then Taoiseach (Irish Prime Minister), on the Publication of 'Proposals by the British and Irish Governments for a Comprehensive Agreement', Waterfront Hall, Belfast, (Wednesday 8 December 2004)


The Prime Minister and I have come here this afternoon with real purpose. We could have issued our proposals without travelling to Belfast. But we have come here because we feel obliged to give full expression and to lend the full weight of our political support for these proposals.

This is not just another of the many press conferences that the Prime Minister and I have hosted over the years. Today is different. And we want people everywhere to understand this.

We had obviously wished to be able to present our proposals in the context of full agreement. But we are not quite at the point of total success. Our work must, therefore, continue to secure agreement and closure on what, by any standard, is a hugely impressive, indeed a landmark, package.

The comprehensive proposals that we are publishing today are those that both parties have been considering. There are of course other matters of concern to individual parties that are being dealt with separately by the respective governments. They cover the key issues that must be resolved to finally and definitively assure peace and political stability in Northern Ireland.

The Good Friday agreement made a real difference to the politics of this island and to the lives of all its people. Today’s comprehensive proposals would bring closure to all issues left incomplete from that time. And there were many such issues which were not, or could not, be resolved at that time.

We believe that at this point, after many weeks and months of negotiation, our efforts will benefit from wider public appraisal. Detail is important. But the wider dimension is vital and must be fully appreciated. Specifically, we have in prospect:

  • ending paramilitary activity. No one, anywhere on this island, should turn their back on the prospect of achieving such an outcome.
  • completing the process of IRA arms decommissioning
  • in a rapid time-scale. The early realisation of this part of the proposals will remove an issue which has come to dominate and impede the prospects of political progress.
  • securing a basis for the full operation of the institutions of the Agreement, on an inclusive basis. The prospect of everyone going forward together on the basis of the Good Friday agreement wilt contribute hugely to certainty and stability.
  • improving the accountability and effectiveness of these institutions, white also staying within the fundamentals of the Agreement. This is an important initiative from which the Agreement will greatly benefit;
  • achieving the support of the republican community for the new policing arrangements. This is an enormously significant and historic prospect which will bring assurance and benefit throughout Northern Ireland; and
  • getting ahead with the many other important commitments that have been stalled because of the absence of overall agreement.

These proposals should, of course, also be read in conjunction with the governments’ Joint Declaration of May 2003 which outlines in considerable detail the other many issues that must be separately addressed in the context of overall closure, including moving ahead rapidly with reducing the military presence. In the context of assured peace everyone will welcome Northern Ireland being progressively normalised.

We have made it clear that the Irish Government would play its part in addressing those few areas that are relevant to us in that context. A comprehensive deal is a comprehensive deal. It means all issues being fully addressed, by everyone. Otherwise it is a piecemeal deal. And that means major issues being left unaddressed. We would never have made progress if we followed such an approach.

For everything to work in the context of overall agreement, each of us, governments and parties, must fulfil their obligations, some of which, taken in isolation, present the most profound difficulties. I am satisfied that the combined impact of these and other changes would fully realise the vision of a new beginning promised by the Agreement. What is even more impressive is that we have largely secured agreement on this comprehensive and ambitious package. Compared to where we were one year ago, the comprehensive agreement now on the table represents a dramatic surge towards final closure.

In the aftermath of the Assembly elections, many people saw politics in Northern Ireland as being hopelessly polarised, with little prospect of accommodation between the two major parties. But this is far from the case. Sinn Féin and the DUP have sought to constructively face up to the responsibilities placed upon them by their enhanced leadership mandates. While the form and nature of engagement over the last year was slow and, at times, frustrating, the fact of the matter is that we are now on the brink of an accommodation that would have been regarded as impossible a few years ago.

And while the focus inevitably and unavoidably has been on these larger parties, I wish to pay tribute to the commitment of all the other parties - the SDLP, UUP, Alliance and PUP - for the work they have done, in the Review and elsewhere, to bring us to this point.

The earlier risk-taking of those in leadership positions in 1998 and afterwards greatly contributed to the opportunity we have today to forge an irreversible accommodation between unionism and nationalism. In the context of the real opportunity that now presents itself, it is simply not acceptable that we could fall short.

I recall very well that a core recommendation of the Mitchell report on decommissioning in January, 1996 was that the process should ‘suggest neither victory nor defeat" and the modalities of decommissioning should not require any party to be seen to surrender. This wise counsel of Senator Mitchell remains equally valid today. It should be a guide to us all at this time.

The forms of transparency that are proposed in the Government’s proposals have nothing to do with surrender or humiliation. Certainty and clarity are two-way streets. They apply equally to partnership politics as they do to the process of arms decommissioning.

As we maintain our efforts on this initiative, everybody needs to play their part in creating a climate that is conducive to getting matters over the line. We ask people to reflect on the package that both governments have tabled today. We need everyone’s support to fully secure this comprehensive agreement.

After two years of exhaustive efforts to forge a comprehensive agreement, neither I nor the Prime Minister is willing to settle for anything less than the people of Northern Ireland deserve. Many, many, people on this island have lost loved ones in circumstances that never can be justified. Their understandable pain and hurt was made manifest in the South over recent days in regard to the question of the early release of those who F were convicted in the case of Garda Jerry Mccabe and Garda Ben O’Sullivan.

Nothing can console families for the loss and injustice that they suffered over the years. I am truly sorry for all these good and innocent families and for the anguish and suffering they have had to endure.

I hope that the full knowledge of the extent of this comprehensive agreement will help clarify the context in which we have been working.

Thank you.


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