Statement by Paul Murphy on the 'Proposals by the British and Irish Governments for a Comprehensive Agreement', House of Commons, 9 December 2004
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Statement by Paul Murphy, then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, to Parliament on the 'Proposals by the British and Irish Governments for a Comprehensive Agreement', House of Commons, (9 December 2004)
"Mr Speaker, yesterday my Right Honourable Friend the Prime Minister and the Irish Prime Minister travelled to Belfast to publish an important set of documents: their proposals for a comprehensive agreement in relation to the political process in Northern Ireland. I want to explain to the House the background and the significance of these proposals.
Just over a year ago, the elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly changed the political landscape. Sinn Fein and the Democratic Unionist Party became the leading parties of their respective communities. At the time there was much speculation that bringing these two parties to agreement together would be a difficult, if not impossible, task. In the months since the election, our efforts have been dedicated to building the trust and confidence necessary to enable these parties to lead an inclusive and stable Executive.
In February, we began a Review of the Good Friday Agreement involving all the parties. We spent many months discussing possible changes and improvements to the operation of the political institutions. In June the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach met the political parties at Lancaster House and identified four areas which needed resolution to enable devolution to be restored in Northern Ireland.
First, there had to be a complete and decisive end to paramilitary activity by the IRA; second, the process of decommissioning illegal weapons had to be completed within a clear timescale; third, in this context unionist parties must agree to operate the power-sharing institutions in a stable and sustained fashion; and, finally, we had to create the conditions in which all parts of the community in Northern Ireland could support and participate in policing.
The documents published yesterday, copies of which have been placed in the libraries of both Houses, represent a series of statements which would have been published in sequence by the Governments and the other relevant organisations if there had been an overall agreement.
These proposals include commitments in the form of a statement from the IRA that the causes of the conflict would be removed by the implementation of this agreement and that IRA paramilitary activity would cease immediately and definitively; and that decommissioning of lRA weapons would be completed by the end of December this year under the supervision of the Independent International Commission on Decommissioning. I shall return to the issue of decommissioning later.
There were further commitments to the effect that after a period during which the good faith of the earlier commitments had been demonstrated, an inclusive power-sharing Executive would be established in March 2005. This restoration would take place on the basis of agreed changes to the operation of the institutions under strands 1-3 of the 1998 Agreement.
Finally, the proposed agreement sets out a timescale in which republicans would support policing and the policing structures established under the Good Friday Agreement, in the context of the devolution of policing and justice powers, as envisaged by the Agreement.
Mr Speaker, any observer of the political process since 1998 will recognise how significant and substantial is the progress represented by these commitments. Before I turn to the outstanding area where agreement has not yet been reached, I want to pay tribute to all of those involved. The leaderships of the DUP and Sinn Fein have negotiated tirelessly and in good faith. I have no doubt that they want to reach a final accommodation. I also want to pay tribute to the Ulster Unionist Party, the SDLP, the Alliance and the PUP, all of whom have made essential contributions and without whom the progress we have already seen in Northern Ireland would not have been achieved. And, as always, our partnership with the Irish Government has been close and decisive in driving this process forward. The progress of recent months owes much to the energy and determination of officials of both Governments.
But the House will know that despite this remarkable progress there remains an outstanding issue which could not be resolved. That is the transparency with which the decommissioning process should be carried out. This issue will be very familiar to Right Honourable and Honourable Members who have followed the twists and turns of recent years. They will understand the significance of the promise of a completion of IRA decommissioning by the end of the year. But both Governments also recognise that public confidence in the process is critical to the success of any settlement and the wider political stability of Northern Ireland.
For that reason the Governments set out in the documents published yesterday a proposal which we regard as a fair compromise. Under this proposal, set out in Annex D to the document, photographs of weapons to be decommissioned would be shown privately to political parties in January and published at the time the Executive came to be established in March. We believed that this proposal should be acceptable to all.
Mr Speaker, I would have liked to be telling the House today that a final comprehensive settlement had been reached which would enable devolved government to be restored. That is the shared aim of all parties in this House and, more importantly, the firm desire of the whole community in Northern Ireland. Despite the efforts of so many and the remarkable progress made, we are not quite there yet and that announcement will have to wait a little longer.
But I am absolutely convinced that the day when the final piece of the jigsaw can be put in place is not far off. I remain optimistic that we will be able to resolve the outstanding issues and restore devolution. We have published the proposals now so that the people of Northern Ireland can discuss and debate the issues.
The Governments will continue to press forward so that the remaining gap can be bridged. To that end I will be meeting the Irish Foreign Minister, Dermot Ahern, and we will both engage jointly with the parties next week. There will also be a meeting of the British Irish Intergovernmental Conference on Thursday 16th December. My Right Honourable Friend the Prime Minister and the Taoiseach will have the opportunity to meet again at the European Council the following day.
Mr Speaker, the outstanding issue is about more than photographs. It is about confidence and trust between the parties. We will strive to encourage and build that trust. I know that in these efforts to move on from the legacy of the past I can rely on the support and goodwill of the whole House. Anyone who has followed the political process in Northern Ireland over the past number of years will appreciate that yesterday was a very significant milestone in that journey towards lasting peace and stability."
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