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Speech by Dermot Ahern, 'Implementing the Agreement: towards completion', Joint Lecture Series, University College Dublin, (10 May 2005)

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Text: Dermot Ahern ... Page compiled: Brendan Lynn

Speech by Dermot Ahern, then Minister of Foreign Affairs, 'Implementing the Agreement: towards completion', Joint Lecture Series, University College Dublin, (10 May 2005)


"I wish to thank the Institute for British-Irish Studies for your kind invitation to address this distinguished forum.

I commend John Coakleyand Patricia McCarron for the excellent work that the Institute is doing in providing a platform for informed debate on Northern Ireland and, indeed, wider British-Irish relationships.

I wish you continued success in your endeavours – not least on your forthcoming Conference on the North/South dimension which will be addressed by the Taoiseach.

Tonight's programme is a welcome opportunity to generate some broad-ranging discussion on the Good Friday Agreement, its implementation and its completion.

It is worth recalling that the Agreement was a key milestone in the history of this island. It was a document of transforming impact and potential. It represented a wide-ranging and challenging agenda for change across many aspects of life in Northern Ireland.

The scale and ambition of the Agreement is reflected in a number of its key elements:

  • it affirms the right to self-determination of the people of this island, by agreement between North and South, without external impediment;
  • it vests decisions on the constitutional status of Northern Ireland in the people living there, based on the consent of a majority;
  • it opposes any use of force or the threat of force to achieve political ends;
  • it mandates absolute equality for all citizens and asserts the parity of esteem of both traditions within Northern Ireland;
  • it provides an ambitious agenda of change and reform in the areas of policing and criminal justice;
  • it enshrines the centrality of human rights in all aspects of life in Northern Ireland;
  • it mandates political equality through structured power sharing and effective cross-community safeguards;
  • and it provides for structured North-South cooperation as an expression of the commonalities and affinities on this island.

In short, the Agreement provides a level playing pitch for the future governance of Northern Ireland. Henceforth, the administration of Northern Ireland is to be run according to the principles and mandates laid out in the Good Friday Agreement.

By securing equality in all its dimensions, the Good Friday Agreement seeks to remove the key cause of instability that has afflicted Northern Ireland since its creation.

The transforming significance of the content of the Agreement was considerably reinforced by the manner in which it was solemnly and democratically endorsed.

The Agreement is unique in our history as a document that has been put before all the people of this island for their consideration and approval. Its endorsement in an island-wide democratic act gives it particular status and significance for everyone who considers himself or herself an Irish republican.

No other claim can compete with the fact of its endorsement. There are no valid alternative claims to legitimacy or authority. The only other document in the history of Irish nationalism to enjoy a direct mandate by the people – and, in that case, of this part of the island - is the 1937 Constitution.

It is only through these documents, and the structures they establish, that legitimate democratic political power can flow. As a republican I accept the legitimacy and the authority of both Bunreacht na hÉireannand of the Agreement

As we survey the post-electoral landscape, a key question is whether those affiliated with the Provisional IRA abide by the rules, laws and decisions that flow from the Good Friday Agreement and our Constitution or seek to obstruct or influence those rules, laws and decisions by means other than democratic politics.

The bottom line is this –

  • Implementing the Agreement depends on the Provisional Movement heeding the will of the Irish people.
  • Accepting that Irish people – in the first act of all-Ireland self-determination since 1918 - backed the Agreement.
  • Delivering on our legitimate expectation of an end to paramilitarism and criminality.
  • Accepting once and for all that the Irish Republic, the Irish nation and Irish sovereignty lives in the Irish people and nowhere else.
  • By obstructing the will of the people they have set a boundary on the march of a nation.
  • A boundary which impedes our drive for equality, human rights and an all-island economy.A boundary which must be removed – once and for all.

To deal with these issues, the Taoiseach, on the 24th January – following the Northern Bank raid - met with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness.

He outlined the Government view that the continuing existence of IRA paramilitarism was now the greatest obstacle to the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

He informed the Sinn Féin leadership that further progress towards securing inclusive political institutions depended on the Provisional Movement dealing with this issue, once and for all.

Subsequent to this presentation, Gerry Adams on 6 April launched an internal debate within the Provisional Movement

I accept the importance of this debate for the members of the Provisional movement and its potential to assist the wider peace process.

I hope that the internal debate is not limited to a question of abstinence from certain kinds of paramilitary activities that, when uncovered, cause political embarrassment to Sinn Féin. I hope that the discussion is not about how the Provisional IRA submarine can go deeper to avoid detection for a time but is about fully decommissioning its weapons and capacity and accepting true republican values. That it is about removing itself from the equation for good in deference to the wishes of the people of this island.

I welcome the fact that the Provisional movement has opted for this debate. Too often in the past the response of the Provisional IRA to demands of political negotiation seemed tailored to answer particular points, but never to resolve the underlying issue. Had the issue of paramilitary activity been resolved substantively, it would not have re-surfaced with frustrating regularity to scupper successive political advances.

Hereinlies the challenge for the Provisional movement: to resolve the issue of paramilitarism without the immediate political pressure of intense negotiations, but in a way that is definitive. An ambiguous outcome offered as a take-it-or-leave-it will merely repeat the weary cycle of Sinn Féin salesmanship followed by unionist rejection and collapse.

After so many such cycles since 1998, the Provisional leadership and, more importantly, the wider public will be acutely aware of what will constitute a convincing outcome. There should be a statement of closure describing the outcome of the process, which must be compatible with the Good Friday Agreement and our Constitution. The method by which that outcome is validated within the Provisional IRA will be critical, for in that method one will be able to assess its seriousness and completeness.

And there will be the verifiable record of what happens and what does not happen. Will all weapons and the capacity to use them in a campaign be fully decommissioned and will this be duly verified by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning? Will paramilitary activities as defined by paragraph 13 of the Joint Declaration cease for good? Will the Independent Monitoring Commission progressively report that that is the case over a sustained period of time?

What will the outcome say of the relationship between the Provisional movement, the PSNI and complete regard for the rule of law in both jurisdictions?

The fact that this debate within the Provisional movement is happening now has raised the question why it was not concluded years ago, for example after the Good Friday Agreement was endorsed by the people in May 1998

I believe that the time it has taken to engage in this debate reflects the fact that the Provisional movement is actually a very conservative one. One of the most daring and courageous political acts by nationalists in this peace process was in fact taken by the SDLP when, at Weston Park, it endorsed policing and agreed to serve on the Policing Board.

At the time there was no complete certainty that the structures and arrangements set out in the Patten Report would work. There was no certainty that the Board members could agree on the range of what up to then were highly divisive issues. There was no certainty that the changes to policing were to be deep and enduring. The SDLP took a huge political risk, and by their skill and determination have made a major contribution to the peace process.

The courage and determination shown by the SDLP has been vindicated. The progress that has been made towards the creation of a community-based police force has been one of the most welcome and exciting successes of the Good Friday Agreement. The senior Canadian police officer, who has been given the job of monitoring the reform of the police service in the North, has made it abundantly clear what he believes has taken place, describing it as "remarkable and unparalleled in the history of democratic policing reform".

If the sceptics had been told back in 1998 that a Policing Board would be formed with representation across the political divide in Northern Ireland, and that this Board would successfully govern the conduct of policing policy across a range of contentious issues, they would have been totally incredulous. Yet that is exactly what has happened. The Policing Board has fulfilled its mandate of holding the Chief Constable to account. The Board also supervises and monitors the effectiveness of the District Policing Partnerships which are the engine of community policing, itself the very heart of Patten.

We are rapidly reaching the point where the number of Catholics in the Police Service will reach 20%, more than double the 1998 figure. The Police Ombudsman, Nuala O' Loan, is operating as an effective vehicle for dealing with complaints against the police and has reported a steady decrease in the number of complaints against police officers since 2001.

What recent events have shown is that communities across Northern Ireland want to see effective policing and want to see an end to vigilante justice. Sinn Féin itself has admitted that these events have sullied their political cause and delayed the full implementation of the Agreement.

A decision by Sinn Féin to fully support the Police Service in Northern Ireland would in itself be a major step forward in the implementation of the Patten report and the Agreement. As the Government has stated previously, such a decision will also involve offering positive encouragement to young nationalists to join the Police Service or the part-time reserve.

It will also mean contributing constructively to the Policing Board and the District Policing Partnerships and, of course, an end to all the subtle and not so subtle forms of discouragement that are still inhibiting ordinary people from dealing with the police. And, of course, a decision to support the Police can only be convincing if it happens in the context of ending paramilitary activity and crime

We are still waiting for Sinn Féin to make that jump and when they do they will have had the assurance that the heavy lifting has been done already by the Governments, the SDLP, the rest of the Board, the Policing Partnerships and the PSNI leadership under Hugh Orde.

The conservatism of Sinn Féin has also meant that it has approached the political challenges of the peace process extremely carefully. One detects indeed a degree of uncertainty too. There are certainly those who realise that a political deal with unionism is an absolute essential to improving relations on this island between both traditions. But there also seem to be those within the Provisional movement who wonder if a deal with unionism is either possible or desirable, who may think that the real deal can only be done directly with the British Government. Some recent statements from Sinn Féin would seem to indicate such a perspective. I believe that any such narrow strategy is gravely mistaken.The true objective of Irish republicanism has to be a local political relationship with unionism based on mutual respect and on the principles set out in the Good Friday Agreement.

However benign in its governance and however influenced by the Irish Government in its administration, Direct Rule will never complete the transformation in relationships between the two communities that is necessary to help normalise society in Northern Ireland.

I also believe that the caution of the Provisional movement does not properly reflect the ambitions of Northern nationalism. Those ambitions are reflected in the progress made on the policing issue, in large part, as I have said, thanks to the courageous leadership of the SDLP, and also the individuals from within nationalism who have joined the PSNI. It is an ambition based on the notion that there is no area of life in Northern Ireland – be it economic, social or political – that is off limits. Nationalists want to be involved and engaged in all the available opportunities that are on offer.

This perspective of constructive engagement is open to the challenge that Sinn Féin's electoral success speaks for itself. But I think that one has to be careful here. I believe that its electoral success, such as it is, is based on a number of factors, not least the sense that nationalists are rewarding it, not for its conservatism, but for its progress – however, incremental: progress away from violence and paramilitarism progress toward engagement with unionism; and the promise of further progress ahead, including in regard to the question of policing and complete adherence to law and order.

As we move forward, what then are the obligations of unionism? The Good Friday Agreement was a document of transformation across many aspects of life, involving obligations on all sides, including the two Governments. At its core, however, was the achievement of two related imperatives – total closure on paramilitarism and, in this context, all parties embracing partnership politics in the new institutions.

If the outworking of the internal debate within the Provisional movement provides that closure, and does so in a clear and decisive way, the political leadership of unionism – now held by the DUP – must reciprocate in a meaningful and substantive way. Given the confidence-shattering events of recent months, and the pressures of an electoral campaign, I can understand why stated positions may have hardened.

Nevertheless, if the IRA is decisively removed from the equation in the manner that I have outlined earlier, and if that outcome is validated and verified by the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning and by the Independent Monitoring Commission, the Irish Government will expect the DUP to commit itself to inclusive power-sharing within the Assembly and the Executive and to fully work the North/South institutions of the Agreement

The proposals on Strands 1,2 and 3 published by the two Governments in December provided a basis on which the DUP was willing to participate in the institutions. These proposals, which were consistent with the fundamentals of the Agreement, included participation in an inclusive Executive. Several of the parties may in the coming months wish to revisit aspects of these proposals. We will listen carefully to their views. However, insofar as the Irish Government is concerned, the principle of inclusion – and the mechanisms used to achieve it – remains an essential element of the overall political architecture.

In the final analysis, I believe that the DUP is capable of making a power-sharing accommodation with nationalism. The DUP is fundamentally a devolutionist party. It realises that the long-term interests of the citizens of Northern Ireland are not best served by prolonged Direct Rule. It knows that local Ministers, who are locally accountable, will provide better government for the people of Northern Ireland, including within the agreed North/South framework. Indeed, Peter Robinson and Nigel Dodds have already shown themselves to be able Ministers.

In the negotiations last year, the DUP also displayed an informed and sophisticated understanding of the socio-economic challenges that confront Northern Ireland in the coming years, not least in addressing its infrastructure deficit. The sooner the issue of IRA paramilitarism is resolved and the political impasse is ended, the quicker that all of us, working together in partnership, can collectively get on with the job of dealing with the common challenges and opportunities that face both parts of the island. Let me conclude by directly answering the question posed in the title of this lecture series, "Implementing the Agreement; towards completion". For the question is clearly what will most quickly bring us to that completion.

The answer is, not when we in nationalist Ireland catch up with the Provisional movement, but when the Provisional movement eventually catches up with us. We constitutional republicans have established in the Good Friday Agreement the template for future relations on this island between North and South and between nationalists and unionists living within Northern Ireland.

When Sinn Féin and the Provisional movement implement those elements chiefly falling to them – particularly in regard to paramilitarism and policing – we can then all collectively devote our energies to ensuring that the full potential of all other aspects of the Agreement is realised.

The realisation of that potential requires the unionist leadership, in turn, to fully accept the principle and practice of partnership politics, both within Northern Ireland - with those who are exclusively committed to peace and democracy - and, through the North/South framework, with democratic nationalism on this island.

These are the challenges that both Governments will address with renewed purpose and vigour in the coming weeks and months. The Taoiseach has already had a lengthy phone conversation with the Prime Minister over the week-end. I have also spoken to Peter Hain, the new Secretary of State, and look forward to meeting him soon. In partnership, both Governments will pursue renewed engagement with the parties to find a political way forward.

In this regard, all of the parties elected to the Northern Ireland Assembly will have an important role to play and we will listen carefully to what each one of them has to say. The results of last week's Westminster and Local Government elections did not validate the thesis that Northern Ireland has, in party political terms, become a bipolar world. A number of parties – not least the SDLP and UUP - have significant mandates and all of them will be respected. The restoration of the devolved institutions in Northern Ireland will best be achieved if we harness the goodwill and creativity of all the parties and the Governments will seek to engage with them on that constructive and inclusive basis.

There has not been a lot to cheer about in the peace process since last December. However, one consequence of the evolution of recent events is that it has become very clear what needs to be done if progress is to be made. I believe that this clarity will ultimately assist us in achieving conclusive outcomes that will both provide, as envisaged by the Good Friday Agreement, the definitive end of paramilitarism and the underpinning of stable and inclusive politics in Northern Ireland.

Thank you."


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