Statement by Dermot Ahern on Northern Ireland to Seanad Éireann (Irish Seante), (2 February 2006)
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Statement by Dermot Ahern, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, on Northern Ireland to Seanad Éireann (Irish Seante), (2 February 2006)
"I am glad of this opportunity today to address the Seanad, which has been such a consistent source of encouragement and support for the Government's efforts in the peace process.
As you know, yesterday I was in London to co-chair a meeting of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference with Secretary of State Peter Hain. I was accompanied at that meeting by the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform.
The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference is an important institution of the Good Friday Agreement. It is one of the ways in which the two Governments co-operate bilaterally to great effect and it particularly recognises the Irish Government's special interest in Northern Ireland and the extent to which mutual issues arise in that regard. We had very useful discussions yesterday on a range of important matters, including policing and security issues and North/South economic co-operation. I will brief Senators in more detail on our discussions, particularly on the latter issue, later in my statement.
It is timely that Northern Ireland is on your agenda today. I believe we are at a critical moment for the peace process: a moment where politics must assert its primacy as paramilitary activity ends. The Eighth Report of the Independent Monitoring Commission which the Governments published yesterday, clearly signals that the time is ripe for politics to come to the fore. Let me again acknowledge here today the valuable work undertaken by the IMC.
The Report published yesterday provides us with the first comprehensive assessment of the IRA since its July 28th statement.
It outlined significant progress in switching-off of the IRA's paramilitary machine, ending paramilitary activity and directing the IRA's membership towards exclusively political engagement.
It indicated that there have been no shootings, no assaults, no so-called 'punishment' attacks or other authorised paramilitary attacks, no sanctioned robberies, no evidence of recruitment for paramilitary purposes, and no evidence of paramilitary training, on the part of the IRA since its July statement.The report sets out genuinely positive indications regarding the IRA's strategic intent, in particular that "the present PIRA leadership has taken the strategic decision to end the armed campaign and pursue the political course which it has publicly articulated".
However, the IMC also reported indications of continued criminality on the part of individuals who are current or former IRA members. Equally, we cannot ignore the reports of any intelligence-gathering that is illegal or outside the bounds of conventional political activity.
Let me say clearly that we take these findings very seriously. It is essential that they be addressed and resolved by the Provisional leadership. While a great deal has been achieved - as the IMC Report acknowledges - continued effort is required, and will be expected.
It goes without saying that law enforcement agencies in both jurisdictions will continue to pursue vigorously those elements in paramilitary organisations continuing to engage in criminality. The ongoing work of the CAB and ARA is clear testimony to that.
In sum therefore, the IMC has produced a comprehensive report and it should be read and assessed in a comprehensive manner, taking into account its findings as a whole.
We also published a report from the IICD - the Body charged by the Governments with responsibility for overseeing the decommissioning of weapons.
I want to state clearly that the dedication, commitment, professionalism and authority of the IICD are beyond question.
The report published yesterday focussed on the main loyalist paramilitary groups, noting some progress in contacts but, regrettably, no actual product in terms of decommissioning of arms.
The IICD also referred to reports received regarding the retention of arms by some individuals and groups within the IRA. Having investigated these reports, the IICD concludes that its previous assessment remains correct - namely, that the IRA did in fact decommission the totality of its arms last September.
These reports each confirm that the strategic decision to pursue politics through peaceful means has been taken by the IRA leadership and is not in question. In short, they make a persuasive case for politics.
The transition to politics is not an easy transition. I understand that the process in which we are now engaged is particularly demanding on those who have always pursued their political aims through politics alone and who have abhorred violence from whatever source. I understand it as a Republican who shares their abhorrence of violence and their belief in peaceful politics.
That transition challenges the collective political leadership on these islands - the two sovereign Governments and the political parties in Northern Ireland - to re-assert the primacy of politics after too long a period of political deep-freeze; it challenges us all to assume our responsibilities, and to begin seriously engaging with each other on the small number of outstanding issues still requiring resolution.
It challenges the IRA leadership to ensure that the absence of IRA paramilitary activity identified by the IMC is sustained, and that the outstanding concerns expressed regarding criminality and intelligence-gathering are tackled and resolved in the period ahead.
Finally, it challenges the leaderships of the various loyalist paramilitary groups to follow the path already taken by the IRA.
Both Governments have reiterated that they will respond positively to those seeking genuine efforts at transformation within loyalism. As we move towards devolved Government, we are determined that the process must leave nobody behind. But loyalist paramilitaries too must cease the shootings, the assaults and other paramilitary activity, engage fully with the IICD and take the necessary steps to decommission their weapons, and also to press ahead with the current transformation initiatives.
These are challenges we must each variously meet if we are to succeed in delivering on the commitment we have made to the people of this island to restore the devolved institutions at the earliest possible date.
We have come a long way in recent years. And we have done so on the basis of sustained political engagement to resolve political issues, combined with effective law enforcement to tackle paramilitary and criminal activity by both loyalist and republican groups.
The case for talks
At the beginning of this year I issued a statement saying that we would be embarking on a concerted effort to re-establish the Northern Ireland Assembly in 2006. I said that local devolved government was the clear will of the people of Northern Ireland and that the political parties and those of us in Government had a duty to deliver on that will.
I want to reiterate that message here today.
We are now clearly at the point where attention must focus on the restoration of the political institutions. As the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Blair said after their meeting at Farmleigh last week; 2006 is the decisive year for the peace process. Peter Hain and I will begin talks with the parties next Monday with the aim of setting out the arrangements and timetable for the restoration of the institutions as soon as possible.
We recognise that we are setting ourselves an ambitious goal. But we are very conscious of our responsibilities as Governments and we are fully prepared to exercise them. We believe that the task of building confidence and restoring normal politics demands effort, support and a willingness to take risks by all parties. It demands that the commitment to pursue politics exclusively through peaceful and lawful means is fully adhered to. It demands that all parties engage actively and collectively in efforts to restore the institutions needed to secure long-term peace and prosperity in Northern Ireland.
Since the Good Friday Agreement, there has been and there continues to be, very significant progress in Northern Ireland. There has been unprecedented peace, prosperity and growth. However, alongside those positives, sit significant economic and social challenges. The current suspension of the devolved institutions is clearly hampering Northern Ireland's ability to tackle those challenges. There is no substitute for locally elected politicians working in a partnership government for the benefit for the people they represent.
The simple fact is that Northern Ireland cannot afford complacency or prolonged stalemate. It cannot thrive, socially or economically in a political vacuum. We want to see positive politics and the restoration of the devolved institutions in 2006 and we will spare no effort to bring that about.
In 2005 - despite what by any standards was a very bad start - we made real progress.
The unprecedented commitment by the IRA last July to end its armed campaign and the confirmation by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning in September that the IRA had put all its weapons beyond use were welcome and historic, if overdue,developments.
They changed the context within which the Governments had been working to restore trust and confidence in a political process which had been hampered by a series of events over a number of years.
They gave us a basis on which we could begin to re-engage with the parties to restore and fortify that trust and confidence and to rebuild political momentum.
We had a busy Autumn and Winter working with the parties. The Taoiseach and Prime Minister Blair and Peter Hain and I met on a number of separate occasions to consider the way forward. Peter and I made ourselves jointly available for a series of stocktaking talks with parties on 14 and 24 November 2005 at Hillsborough. Those meetings complemented the many bilateral meetings with all of the parties which both Governments had in November and December.
During the course of those meetings, and through our regular contact with them, we have listened carefully to what the parties have said to us on the way ahead. We recognise that there are differences of view as to how and when restoration of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement can be achieved. We also recognise that the climate of trust and confidence between some of the parties is not currently what we would wish.
However, we are clear in our determination to build on the progress made in Northern Ireland over three long and difficult decades and particularly in the years since the Agreement, to work with the parties to restore power-sharing Government to the people of Northern Ireland.
The current overall security situation on the ground in Northern Ireland is testimony to how far we have come in that time. As of last month, troop numbers are at their lowest level in 30 years. Watch-towers and observation posts have been taken down in South Armagh, Derry and Belfast and more are to follow. In Forkhill and Newtownhamilton, military installations that have dominated the centre of the towns for years are being dismantled. This process of demilitarisation and normalisation is ongoing and is scheduled to be completed by 1 August 2007.
The welcome fact is that the people of Northern Ireland are now living in a much more benign and safer environment, less overshadowed by violence and by the threat of it - and the tangible outcome is that many communities are now moving swiftly away from militarised abnormality towards peaceful normality. All in all, these are very positive developments.
There are, of course, other significant challenges ahead. Support for policing is critical to ensuring an inclusive democracy in Northern Ireland in which all sections of society feel secure. Furthermore, a normal society requires a normal police service, operating with the support of all political parties and with the active cooperation of the local community which it serves.
Enormous progress has been made in implementing the Patten reforms and there is now genuinely no obstacle to full endorsement and engagement with the PSNI. There is now also a widespread demand on the ground in nationalist areas for proper, effective, accountable policing.
Therefore, for the benefit of the communities it represents, and for the benefit of the wider political process, it is time for Sinn Féin to endorse the new policing arrangements, to cooperate with the police service, and to take its place on the accountability mechanisms set up on foot of the Patten Report - namely, the Policing Board and District Policing Partnerships.
Political engagement and proper accountable law enforcement are key to a stable society. But what about the stability of the economy? The political stability and economic prosperity of this island are instrinsically linked. While we work with the parties towards restoration of the institutions, we are forging ahead with North/South economic co-operation. I have consistently made this a priority in my discussions with the Secretary of State. Yesterday, in London at the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, we discussed how we can give practical expression to our agreed aim of developing an all-island economy.
We announced that we will undertake a comprehensive study to identify areas where future economic co-operation would deliver mutual benefits. This study will draw on the joint contribution we have already prepared under the Revised Lisbon Strategy. It will examine ways of developing economic co-operation in a strategic way so we can build up the elements of an all-island economy. It will look at areas such as skills, R&D and innovation, competitiveness, trade promotion and investment.
This is an area of enormous potential for this island. Just last month, for example, the Taoiseach invited Northern businesses to participate in the trade delegation he led to India earlier this year. The mission was hugely successful and we are looking now for further opportunities to work with the North on trade promotion.
A world-class and joined up infrastructure will be an important element of a competitive all-island economy. We had a good discussion yesterday on all-island co-operation on infrastructure development and spatial planning. We are both conscious that infrastructure investment on the island over the next ten years will be in the order of Euro 100 billion. This represents an enormous opportunity for us to work together to get maximum return on our investment. For example, we are already working closely with the authorities in the North to make sure that the investment that we are making under the Transport 21 Plan into key cross-border routes, is linked into what is happening on the other side of the border.
North/South Co-operation is a vital pillar of the Good Friday Agreement. It brings balance to the political settlement that the Agreement represents.
We should not forget that the North/South dimension was a key priority for this Government in the negotiations on the Good Friday Agreement, given that in endorsing the Agreement, we were also removing Articles 2 and 3 from our Constitution.
When it was up and running, the North/South Ministerial Council saw Ministers from both parts of the island, representative of both traditions, taking decisions together on a regular basis for the benefit of the people of the island. Ministers from both parts of the island made outstanding efforts in the operation of the North/South structures. While we came to those meetings from different political cultures and traditions, we had a common commitment to advance cooperation to the mutual benefit of our people.
I am determined, notwithstanding the continued suspension of the institutions of the Agreement, to sustain that cooperation, which has brought us so far, and which makes so much sense.
Next Monday, when Peter Hain and I sit down in Hillsborough for a full day of talks with the parties, we will clearly set out our intentions for the process.
I accept that progress may not be immediate, but we are determined to try and build the confidence needed to move politics forward.
At all stages in negotiations - in Northern Ireland or anywhere else - periods of progress tend to alternate with stalemate, optimism with pessimism. And it is our job, as the two sovereign Governments, to take the rough with the smooth and to lead the process forward.
The Governments, starting at the talks next week, will work to convince all sides of their political responsibility, as leaders of society, to now finally complete the journey to our shared goal of a fully inclusive, stable and peaceful Northern Ireland."
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