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Statement by Paul Murphy, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, at the opening of the Review of the Good Friday Agreement, 3 February 2004

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Text: British Government ... Page compiled: Brendan Lynn

Statement by Paul Murphy, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland,
at the opening of the Review of the Good Friday Agreement,
3 February 2004


I am very glad to see all the parties elected to the Assembly represented here today. I am looking forward to hearing the opening statements that will be made in this forum, and I know that Brian Cowen is too. As you know, we have proposed that the two Governments and the parties should each limit their contributions to ten minutes. I hope that we will be able to stick to that timetable this afternoon.

You will see that microphones have been provided. We thought this best, given that the table is very long and the acoustics of the room are not good, so that some delegates might have difficulty being heard. I would like to assure you that the system is internal to this room only, and the proceedings are of course not being recorded.

The Validation, Implementation and Review section is an integral part of the Belfast Agreement. It had long been anticipated that, under its terms, a Review of the operation of the Agreement would take place around this time, four years after the institutions began to operate in December 1999. We had, however, hoped and expected that the Review would take place in a context where devolution was functioning rather than in suspension.

It is widely acknowledged that devolution was a success. It brought government closer to the people of Northern Ireland. Ministers from all parties showed their effectiveness, and were able to draw on their close understanding of the social, economic and cultural challenges faced by Northern Ireland. All concerned worked hard and achieved a great deal for the common good of Northern Ireland's people.

From my perspective, the most welcome outcome from the review would be for me to lose responsibility for those matters which should, quite properly, be devolved.

The British Government's approach to the review discussions is straightforward. We want to see a return to devolved Government in Northern Ireland on a stable and inclusive footing, on the basis of the Belfast Agreement. We remain committed to the Agreement's vision of a genuinely peaceful and inclusive society in which the rights of all are respected. We remain pledged to implement our commitments under the Agreement, in the context of full implementation by others.

But we all know that, at present, there is insufficient confidence to enable the institutions of devolved government - and with them the full apparatus of the Belfast Agreement - to operate as intended.

The Government believes that it is just as clear what is required if that confidence is to be rebuilt. The Prime Minister spelt it out in his speech in Belfast in October 2002 after the institutions were suspended. There must be a complete end to all forms of paramilitary activity, bringing the transition from violence to exclusively peaceful and democratic means to an unambiguous and definitive conclusion. And there must be a matching commitment on all sides to the stability of the institutions of devolved government.

It is our hope that the review can help facilitate the process of rebuilding that trust and confidence, through dialogue.

In the terms of the Agreement itself, this review is concerned with the operation of the Agreement. The review is a chance for us all to consider how the Agreement has functioned, and how its operation might be improved for the future.

We have had submissions from each of you which begin to set out your ideas. We expect to hear more detail in the weeks ahead. It is clear from the material we have received that most parties see a variety of ways in which they believe the effective operation of the Agreement ought to be addressed. The Government has said that the fundamentals of the Belfast Agreement must remain in place. That remains the case. At the same time, there is an onus on all of us to look constructively at ideas, from whatever source, for improving the operation of the Agreement.

So I hope that all of the parties represented here today will approach the review in a constructive spirit, both in bringing forward their own proposals and in receiving those of others. We will do all we can to facilitate such dialogue so that we may make genuine progress. I hope, too, that we can all agree that we should make progress as briskly as possible, consistent with the need for each of the participants to be given a fair hearing. The people of Northern Ireland, and beyond, will not understand if we get bogged down in procedural or other unproductive discussions when there is serious work to do.

This is an important agenda. But from my perspective, and, I hope, from yours too, it is just as important that the review is an opportunity for real engagement about how we can move forward to stable and inclusive devolved government in a peaceful society.

I should like to conclude by saying a few words about the practical arrangements for today, and how we envisage that the proposals for the conduct of the review contained in the joint letter of the 30th of January from myself and Brian Cowen might operate in practice.

As the letter explains, we believe it would be useful to structure the agenda under three broad headings, covering the operation of Strand One of the Agreement; the operation of Strands Two and Three of the Agreement together; and the operation of other aspects of the Agreement, including the Declaration of Support and constitutional issues; policing and justice; decommissioning, security and prisoners; and issues of rights and equality.

The British Government will be available for discussions in all three categories; the Irish Government in the last two. Subject to that, our proposal is that all participants would be available for discussion in Parliament Buildings every Monday and Tuesday until Easter, with the exception of the weeks of 16 February and 15 March.

Our intention is that next Monday and Tuesday would be set aside for initial discussions around any of the issues on the agenda. We propose that from 23 February we would use the time set aside for the review to focus more closely on individual subjects. Depending on the subject matter, both myself and Brian Cowen would be happy to engage in discussions in bilateral, trilateral or wider formats at your request. No doubt there will also be discussions at which the Governments are not present and I very much hope that such dialogue will be helpful in building confidence.

In order to assist the process, the two Governments propose to produce a draft schedule for handling the subjects for review over the coming weeks. It is our intention to circulate this to the parties, through the Contact Network we have established, by this Thursday. I hope that this will meet with general approval. If necessary we can convene a meeting of the Contact Network next week on this issue. As we said in our joint letter, we can use the Network to timetable reporting sessions under each of the three broad agenda headings.

I should also make clear that we would like the content of all review discussions to be treated as confidential, in order to promote frank and open exchanges. It is obviously for individual participants to decide whether they wish to make their contributions to meetings public. But we consider the rule should be that participants should only reveal the substance of other parties' contributions with their prior consent.

I should conclude by saying that both Brian Cowen and I, as well as our officials, will be available after this session until around 5:45 to meet with a party or parties in any format they wish to discuss any general issues relating to the review.

I would now like to ask Brian to make his opening statement on behalf of the Irish Government. After that we might move clockwise around the table, starting with the Alliance Party.


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