Seanad Éireann - Volume 172 - 16 April, 2003

Northern Ireland: Statements.

  Mr. B. Hayes: I thank the Leader of the House for organising this debate at such short notice. It is important that we should at least publicly reflect on the current situation in Northern Ireland before the House goes into recess for Easter. I thank her sincerely for organising this debate.

  Last week was an important week historically for this country. At one level it was five years since the Good Friday Agreement was negotiated, but it was also an important week in the history of my party. Some 80 years ago last week to the very week Cumann na nGael was established in Dublin, nine months after the first Free State Government was established. In a sense my party was a Government first and a political party second.

  The great success of that first and second Government of the Free State was twofold. One, it immediately brought about a civilian control of the Army which was not even achieved in the first Dáil in 1919. Second, by 1930 the Army was half the size it was in 1922. That underlines the importance W. T. Cosgrave and the first and second Governments gave to demilitarisation and taking the gun out of Irish politics. I reflect on that historical point this evening so that we can all point the way to progress in Northern Ireland.

  While the current impasse is depressing it is also encouraging from the point of view of where we go forward from today. I am greatly encouraged by the fact that both Governments are together on this issue. Both Governments are demanding action, acts of completion – call it [1211]what one will – not only in respect of the final bits of the Agreement that need to be implemented or because we want consistency in the way forward in terms of implementing the Agreement, but also because the final acts of completion from the republican and loyalist armed groups need to be resolved. It is in that context I put this debate.

  If we ask Unionists to sit down with Sinn Féin, as we do, we must understand that there is a price for that and the price is full and complete decommissioning, acts of completion and the end of paramilitarism on this island once and for all. That is the consistent view of the Irish people, as expressed in the Good Friday Agreement. We must uphold the wishes of the Irish people, North and South, in the acceptance of that Agreement in 1998.

  Sinn Féin is an important part of the peace process. It has helped the IRA move hugely over the past ten years with the help of others, Senator Mansergh and many other important contributors. I fully accept that. Sinn Féin and the IRA must now make the decision once and for all to put their paramilitary past behind them and look to the future only as a political party. That was the same context in which W. T. Cosgrave and the first and second Governments operated in the 1920s and it brought us down the road of accepting democracy in this country.

  Ultimately, when Sinn Féin and the IRA make the decision to abandon paramilitarism we will have democracy on this island. I support the work of both Governments in their efforts in Northern Ireland over the coming weeks to bring about the democracy that we all want in this country.

  Ms O'Rourke: I thank the leaders of all the parties and the two other Members who will contribute to this debate. We met informally this morning after the Order of Business and decided that we wanted to express our opinion and that it was correct we should do so. We are all determined that we will be careful, bearing in mind that I informed the Taoiseach's office of this proposal and it was approved by it.

  It is important to consider what the Taoiseach said about this matter in the Dáil yesterday. It was clear that he had worked very hard on it, particularly since early March when the process entered what we believed would be the definitive stage. I was touched by the offers of support and encouragement by all parties in the Dail and I thank Senators for the support that has been offered on a cross-party basis.

  There is no doubt this is an extremely tense time in the process. It is interesting that the negotiations are taking place on the fifth anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. Easter is a symbolic time of renewal, rebirth and affirmation for people of all religions and political parties. It is also symbolic that we are discussing this issue while nature is exhibiting itself in such a fine way across the country. In this period of [1212]renewal, it is important to consider the phrase “acts of completion” that was used by the Taoiseach. Matters have been considered with heightened awareness since last Thursday, when it was hoped the necessary words could be issued to give weight to the acts of completion. The latter come to pass, but that should not lead us to believe that it will not happen. If one is optimistic, one looks on each challenge in an optimistic way. This challenge should draw the highest form of response from all parties, particularly Sinn Féin and those it influences within the IRA.

  There is no doubt that paramilitary activity and capability should be brought to their final act of completion. For five years we followed the progress of the Good Friday Agreement. agreed to the establishment of and participated in the North-South bodies, enthusiastically supported the joint ministerial groupings and members of all parties supported the forum chaired by Senator Maurice Hayes. Senator Mansergh also did much work on this matter. The various parties have all supported the Taoiseach, the British Prime Minister and President Bush, who visited to Northern Ireland.

  It is clear that, after five years of patience from everyone involved, the road to peace will not be immediate nor will it be like the end of a fairy story in which everyone lives happily ever after. That could not happen. There comes a point in such a process when, if added weight and impetus are to be given to the cross-Border institutions and the work we want to do together, we need certainty from the current talks in order to give fluency to subsequent decisions and actions to be undertaken on a North-South basis. There is much at stake and for those who will spend Easter reflecting, talking and encouraging and I hope that the end will be an act of affirmation. We look forward to that.

  Mr. Ryan: I was not here yesterday or this morning because I was in Geneva, at a UN human rights conference. The conference was held in the United Nations building, which formerly housed the League of Nations. It is a formidable structure, a classic 1930s building on a huge scale. It is worth remembering what happened to the League of Nations, in spite of all the optimism which Ireland, through Éamon de Valera, invested in it. The League collapsed in the greatest war the world has ever seen.

  Good things do not happen inevitably. The best intentions in the world do not mean that what we desire will happen. The League of Nations is a very good example of the fact that things do not always happen because they are good things we wish to happen. We will all have to reiterate that line.

  I will be restrained today. When I think of the things I and others say here in normal party political banter, all of us still feel we have to tip-toe a little around one party and my patience is wearing thin. I stuck my neck out for some of the people involved in that party's activities in the [1213]North because human rights were still central and there were issues of injustice. Other people did likewise and I am not claiming a singular role. However, as I have said to the party directly, it is wearing out the patience of those who were the closest it had to allies at a time when doing so was very difficult. I opposed extradition and section 31 because it was the wrong way to go, even though if all the republican movement's grievances were entirely as it presented them, none of those grievances, singly or together, would have justified the killing of one human being. They were not of that scale or intensity and we all have to live with that.

  I would not have believed 20 years ago that any leader of Ulster unionism, however uneven his path, would have come as far as David Trimble and an entirely new leadership of the Unionist movement have come in an attempt to reconcile what most of us feared was irreconcilable. It is worth remembering that it is almost nine years since the first IRA ceasefire, but that organisation still has weapons and explosives in usable condition. The latter must be the case or there would not be a question of putting them beyond use. I accept that the ceasefire has been almost universally observed and maintained almost 100% at the level it defined. Punishment beatings and so on are not part of the role of any paramilitary or law enforcement organisation. The IRA must begin to realise that the retention of usable weapons for the best part of ten years – it is nine years since the first ceasefire – is a statement that others are entitled to look at in a different way.

  One cannot have a successful construction of institutions and trust if someone claims victory. I do not want to claim victory and I will not do so, but I am entitled to claim the truth. Our current problem relates to what is true – the issue is truth. As I said at the beginning, on this occasion I will restrain myself but, like many others in Irish politics, I am very close to a position where some of the truth that we keep within ourselves about our thoughts will have to be said publicly, and it will not be very nice.

  Mr. Dardis: A Chathaoirligh, you more than most people in the House will recognise how far we have come in these debates, for you will recall the many occasions – almost weekly – when we had to stand before the House to condemn the latest incidence of barbarity, atrocity or slaughter. Thankfully, we have come out of that, though we are reminded of the final case in Omagh, which surpassed in its barbarity much, if not all, that went before. On these occasions, we are also reminded of the words of sanity and reason, not to mention the Christian love, that emanated from Senator Wilson when he spoke of how ridiculous it was to be fighting over what he said was a “little cabbage patch”.

  We all hoped that the declaration that we awaited last week would come through and that the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Blair would be [1214]able to bring finality to the peace process, for that is how I regard it – not as finality to the peace but that we should have peace without there being a process any longer. I also made the point last week on the Order of Business that the judgment of history will be particularly severe on those who do not grasp this opportunity. What we saw was depressing. I quote the famous phrase, “But when the floodwaters have subsided and we look across the landscape, we see again in all their glory, the dreary steeples of Fermanagh and Tyrone.”

  There was disappointment, and I share Senator Ryan's frustration. There was anger, and I was one of those who was angry, for we had held the line for so long. We were described as appeasers – I remember being described as such – because we thought that the prize of peace was worth that. We were let down. Five years ago we had the landmark Good Friday Agreement, and the overwhelming majority of the people on this island endorsed that. Those who continually assert that they have a democratic mandate might reflect on something that was not merely a democratic mandate but a democratic imperative for politicians North and South. We changed our Constitution to copperfasten the mandate and the peace process. Everyone was prepared to take a leap of hope, trust and confidence, but what we have had repeatedly is inches. It brings a cross-party resonance to the phrase “not an inch”. It is no longer the custody of one party.

  I am really getting very tired of the interminable theology of partition and the semantics that attend it concerning the meaning of the principle of consent. Those of us involved in the first Forum for Peace and Reconciliation can recall how long it took in drafting a report to try to get that matter incorporated. Ultimately, of course, it was not to be incorporated.

  Prime Minister Blair, the Taoiseach, Deputy Bertie Ahern, and President Bush must be totally exasperated at this point. I am with Mr. Blair when he speaks of the need for an end to ambiguity. We need no more nuances, ambiguity or sophistry. We need plain simplicity. We are so conscious of the sensitivities, and rightly so, that we are very reluctant to apportion blame, but it is becoming increasingly difficult not to do so. I am trying to be moderate in my language, but I am getting angry and frustrated.

  We have rights, including the right to demand that we do not sit like rabbits transfixed by the headlights of a car while the driver decides whether he will run us over or pass us by on one side. After all the circumlocution, the doublespeak, the ambiguity and the lies, we are reduced to stark simplicity. We simply want to hear that the war is over, that there is finality and that the ordinary political process will assert itself. I recall the words of Senator George Mitchell at the conclusion of his account of his experiences in Northern Ireland. He spoke of bringing his son back to sit in the Chamber and hear the ordinary langu[1215]age and the ordinary work of politics, for that is what must prevail.

  I was offended by the suggestion that the Government had been spinning when it appeared that the declaration would not come forward. If we have had spinning, then we have had it non-stop for the past ten years. It is equally offensive to hear the call for decommissioning of weapons in Iraq. For goodness sake, think about home before thinking about Iraq. People say they are opposed to war, but there is a war here, and they must say that it is over and that the weapons are gone and will not be used. That stark simplicity is all that we are waiting to hear. I support both Governments in everything that they are trying to do in that respect.

  Dr. M. Hayes: I too am grateful to the Leader for arranging the debate and to the other leaders for allowing me to participate in it.

  It is difficult that we are not totally informed of what is going on. We must deal with what we see, the public press and what we can infer from people's body language. None of us wishes to make a delicate situation more difficult to resolve. Senator Dardis asked us to remember the past, and I too remember. When we look back, we must marvel at how far we have come, and that is particularly true in Northern Ireland. I pay tribute to those on all sides who helped bring that about. However, having gained so much, what a tragedy it would be to lose any of that progress.

  I do not want to sound patronising. It is not a question of applying deadlines or anything else, but there is a sense that completion should be achieved now. We must ask ourselves where the optimism is that was there last week. Where was it when Northern Ireland was being paraded as a template for conflict resolution around the world?

  I ask people on all sides to recognise their own work in constructing the process and their responsibility to the process itself above other requirements. People must face up to the logic of their own position. Yesterday morning I was on the Shankill Road in Belfast among some people whom one might not immediately recognise as pillars of the democratic process. However, they were saying almost the same thing as Senator Dardis. They wanted to know that the war was over so that they could get on with politics and the arrangement of life.

  The sad thing is that we all know that the war is over. We all know that to all intents and purposes we are not going back to where we were. If that could be recognised and made manifest in some demonstrable way, it would advance matters enormously. It is quite clear that one cannot have a peace process without the Unionists or at least a sufficient number of the Unionist population to support it. At the moment they are sceptical and require reassurance, and they are entitled to that. It is equally true that one cannot have a peace process without republicans, and [1216]they too need to come in. Where, on the one hand, Unionists in particular, but also the rest of us, want to hear that the war is over, on the other hand republicans need to know of a wholehearted Unionist commitment to the process so that, when they do come in, things will go from there.

  It is not by any means the end of the world if we do not get everything buttoned up this week or next, but it makes things more difficult, one reason being that people are going into an election. That election should be held, but the electorate is entitled to know what they are being asked to vote on. The best we can do at the moment is commend the Governments, particularly for sticking together on this matter, but also for their patience, ask all the parties to consider the mutuality of their interests in the process and their commitment to make it work, and wish them all well.

  Dr. Henry: I am grateful to the Leader for allowing time for this short debate. I was at a meeting of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation in Dublin Castle when the Canary Wharf bomb went off. It was late in the meeting and few people were there. I could see that the members of Sinn Féin who were present were devastated by what happened. They did not expect the bomb which was beyond their knowledge or control.

  However, we must say to them that they have to look at the significant progress which has been made, not just in Northern Ireland, but on the whole island of Ireland and between this island and our neighbouring island. They must say to those members of the IRA whom they know that they can no longer have a role as an armed force.

  The disappointment for all of us is significant because much work has gone into the process and everyone has to be congratulated, particularly, as Senator Maurice Hayes stated, the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister for having held together so well and for so long. This has been important because Governments can fall out over things. However, the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister have kept together in a splendid manner.

  Sinn Féin has to stop talking about the Unionist veto. We all have a veto. We all have rights. None of us wants a private army on this island. We are the people who are saying that this clear declaration has to be made. I hope they will go back and use whatever influence they have so the progress we have made will not be lost.

  Dr. Mansergh: I thank the Leader and the Opposition leaders for this opportunity to address this important issue. Our support goes to the Taoiseach, the British Prime Minister and all the parties and officials involved. I know from experience how long, protracted and difficult these discussions can be. However, in the end they proved fruitful. When we look back over ten or 15 years, we can see that significant progress has been made. Whenever one goes into the [1217]international arena one hears talk about the process. President Bush used the phrase, “the incredible progress of the Northern Ireland peace process”, to describe it. I attended another conference last week where the Northern Ireland peace process was seen as one of the successes compared with others which are in grave difficulties.

  If there is hesitation and difficulty at the moment, it is partly because of the sheer ambition of the hurdle that is now to be cleared. It is about some of the issues that have been discussed, but it is also about policing and completing the participation in policing. It is also about dismantling many of the military installations, about justice and equality and putting the institutions back on a firm and stable basis. I have lost count of the number of times the institutions have been suspended or their operation partially interrupted. The stop-go course is not serving anyone's interests. At the early stages of the peace process, I remember being preached to about the importance of maintaining momentum. It is difficult to maintain momentum if there is stalling on completing what each party has to do. One cannot expect other people to complete their entire agenda while one holds back on one's own agenda.

  It is nine years since the first ceasefire and five years since the Good Friday Agreement. A line has to be drawn under the past. The republican tradition, much of which is honourable and underlies this State, dates from a pre-democratic past. In a Northern Ireland context, the conflict, however deplorable, arose out of a type of one-party state, the denial of civil rights and so on. We can argue about the rights and wrongs of all that but those circumstances have fundamentally changed. We have a democratic framework that has been established by the concurrent self-determination of the people of Ireland, North and South. It requires clarity and an exclusive commitment, not merely from the political parties, but also from organisations associated with them. All the main players, be they republican, loyalist and everything in between, have given that commitment. It is necessary for the organisations associated with them to act in consequence.

  It is a difficult hurdle. I know the difficulties involved in taking that step and even some of the risks and dangers for some of the people involved. It is essential that the step be taken. Naturally I would prefer if that step were taken tomorrow rather than next week or next month. I have no doubt it will be taken. However pessimistic I might be in the very short term, I am optimistic in the short to medium term because there is no other course open to anyone.

  In my understanding, the word “republicanism” means democracy. It does not mean something opposed to democracy or an alternative to it. We all have to give our support and hope that the important and somewhat tense discussions will have the desired result. We hope thereafter that we will see a new stability and quality of [1218]peace that unfortunately we have not fully seen to date.