Dáil Éireann - Volume 451 - 04 April, 1995

Ceisteanna — Questions. Oral Answers. - Arms Decommissioning.

[941] 25. Miss Harney asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs the Government's views on the comments by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. Sir Patrick Mayhew, in Washington on the way in which the problem of decommissioning terrorist arms in Northern Ireland might be tackled. [5457/95]

49. Miss Harney asked the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs if the Government has considered engaging the assistance of a neutral country for a possible intermediary role in the surrender of arms by paramilitary organisations; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4921/95]

Mr. Spring: I propose to take Questions Nos. 25 and 49 together.

I am aware of the comments by the Secretary of State in Washington last month in which he stated that, before British Ministers will participate in exploratory talks with Sinn Féin, there would need to be a reliable assurance from Sinn Féin that constructive discussion — particularly in achieving substantial progress on decommissioning of arms — would be facilitated by ministerial participation. The Secretary of State also set out his views on conditions to be met for Sinn Féin participation in substantive talks.

The Government fully appreciates the deep concerns to which the arms issue gives rise, and the anxiety to ensure rapid progress regarding the stocks of weapons held by paramilitaries on both sides. Dealing with the paramilitary arsenals is clearly an essential element in the peace process and crucial to the achievement of a lasting peace.

The Government believes, accordingly, that the decommissioning of arms is one of a number of very important issues which must be addressed. I believe that there is a very widespread acceptance in principle of the need for progress in this vital area, and that the debate should now focus on how we can [942] create the conditions which will enable this objective to be achieved. However, as the Taoiseach and I have both emphasised, the peace process is not a single issue agenda. Progress in this particular area may be made easier with the growth of confidence and in the context of movement across a range of issues. The objective of permanent peace is most likely to be achieved by a process which involves movement on a number of fronts.

Given the complexity of the issues involved in decommissioning it is clearly desirable that the necessary discussions on this item should get under way as quickly as possible. We welcome the fact that Sinn Féin seems now to have broadly met the criteria set out by the Secretary of State in Washington for ministerial participation in exploratory dialogue. It is our hope that technical or presentational difficulties in wording an agenda will not hold up for much longer the involvement of both sides in such dialogue. For our part we will continue to encourage all the parties to show the necessary flexibility to ensure that the peace process can continue to move forward.

As regards the Deputy's question about third party involvement, the practical arrangements for decommissioning arms will be a matter for discussion between the relevant parties. Obvious issues of verification will arise and it may be that, down the road, there will be a role for third parties. For our part we are quite open and flexible on that aspect and will be willing to look at it at the appropriate time. I see the immediate priority, however, as the achievement of meaningful progress in direct dialogue between the British Government and the parties concerned, and repeat my hope that there can be exploratory dialogue on this and other relevant issues with British Ministers as soon as possible.

Ms O'Donnell: On the question of decommissioning of arms, does the Minister agree that the language used is contributing to the paralysis and that [943] one must not lose sight of the fact that there is a difference between arms held illegally and those held legally by a state protecting its own interests? What models have been proposed so far? The Taoiseach recently mentioned a variety which could be used in handing over or decommissioning arms. In that context would it be appropriate at this stage to consider using the United States as an honest broker?

Mr. Spring: On the question of decommissioning of arms, it is important to remove the stocks of paramilitary weapons; that is the essential key. I also look forward to further reductions in the military presence in Northern Ireland in line with the new situation prevailing as a result of the ceasefire. These are different issues and they should not be confused but, ultimately, both will have to be addressed. I do not think we will have great difficulty in coming up with the right model or modalities; the body involved could well be the OSCE or some of the Nordic countries. It has been suggested that I should look at how arms were decommissioned successfully in fraught and difficult circumstances after the Greek civil war in the 1940s. We must ensure that dialogue and discussions take place between Sinn Féin and the British Government at ministerial level. That is the first hurdle to be overcome and I hope we are making progress. We should not be side-tracked.

Mr. R. Burke: I welcome the fact that the Minister emphasised that, while there is a need for decommissioning, this cannot be a single item agenda only. The present hair-splitting performances of the British Government on this issue is not helping in commencing the necessary talks to build on the peace process. Does the Minister accept that congressional opinion in the United States is becoming increasingly frustrated, as are we in the Republic, at the delays in the British Government entering talks at ministerial level with republicans, [944] especially as it has done so with loyalists without, as far as one can judge, the loyalists having to be forthcoming on the question of decommissioning? I also welcome the fact that the Minister mentioned the need for a reduction in the military presence, including the RUC and loyalist armaments legally held by those who felt threatened down through the years.

Mr. Spring: The administration in Washington takes a keen interest in what is happening in Northern Ireland, has held itself out as a friend to both the Irish and British Governments and wants to assist in a positive way. This goes to the heart of the administration; President Clinton and Vice-President Gore are personally engaged with the Department of State and others and we welcome their involvement. At this stage the question is not “whether” but when and how it can be done. I hope, with an awareness of the complexities and difficulties involved, that the issue of decommissioning can be dealt with in a practical way. While it is an important part it is not the whole picture. The peace process is not a single item agenda. It is important that we find a way to resolve the difficulties and I am confident that they will be. The determination of both the British Government and Sinn Féin to engage in dialogue will assist in breaking the impasse and I hope this will happen within a short period.

Mr. R. Burke: Does the Minister agree that the removal of the causes of the conflict should be given equal priority as the decommissioning of weaponry and that it is necessary to commence meaningful talks at the earliest date to find a long-term solution to the intractable problems on this island?

Mr. Spring: I am sure the Deputy has studied all my remarks from my address to the Irish Association in February 1993—

Mr. R. Burke: I do nothing else.

[945] Mr. Spring: ——night time sleeping material. We have to get to the root causes to find a solution and it will not be found in a technicality. That is what both Governments have been trying to do and is what led to the Downing Street Declaration and the publication of the Framework Document.

Mr. Lenihan: I welcome the fact that the Minister has expressed the view that the intervention of a third country or international agency at a certain stage might be a suitable way to break the logjam. Without prejudice to the continuation of talks on many political fronts in the development of the peace process, does the Minister agree that such intervention by a third country or an international agency should be advanced up the scale of priorities and that the decommissioning of arms and demilitarisation should form part of a confidence-building measure to allow the British and Irish Governments to proceed with political talks? The two should run parallel rather than have a logjam.

Does the Minister agree that it is not just a matter of decommissioning terrorist arms, that 4,000 RUC reservists and a number of others in Northern Ireland hold weapons legally for their own protection which are not under the control of the RUC and that this presents a further complication? In addition, there is a need to discuss the concept of demilitarisation with a view to reducing the number of arms to reduce tension. Does the Minister agree that this is not a simple matter of saying to the paramilitary groups that they should commence a decommissioning process, that it would be much better at this stage to try to persuade the British Government that it would be a good idea to ask an international agency to consider the question of decommissioning and demilitarisation and that this could proceed while the two Governments proceed with political business?

Mr. Spring: One of the lessons of history is that nothing is simple when it [946] comes to Northern Ireland. The precise arrangements for the decommissioning of arms are a matter for discussion between the relevant parties. The question of a role for third parties may be a matter for discussion down the road. That would be my preference as I see a role for third parties assisting the process. On the other hand, there will be many tracks. For instance, discussions will have to take place on the questions of policing, the new assembly, the framework documents, relations between North and South and between east and west, which we should do everything we can to encourage.

On the question of arms in Northern Ireland, tragically it has been a violent society with a difficult history from the 1920s. In that respect the South has had a privileged existence; we have been able to maintain an unarmed police force and I hope this will continue. With the threat of violence reduced — and I hope removed from the equation — this will present an opportunity for all sides to ensure that arms held legally and illegally are taken out of commission. Many arms are held because of the threat of violence. I hope, with the removal of the threat of violence, arms can be taken out of circulation.

Mr. T. Kitt: Noting that Mr. Adams is reported as saying he has lost confidence in Mr. Major, will the Tánaiste accept that this is a very delicate period in which the British Government should be encouraged to take that ultimate step? Like my colleagues, I agree the debate should be as broad as possible and that we should not get bogged down on the issue of decommissioning. Does the Tánaiste agree with Prime Minister Major's reported statement to the US Senate Majority Leader, Mr. Bob Dole, that the deadlock over talks could be resolved in a matter of days? When does the Tánaiste believe the deadlock can be resolved so that we can move on to the next vital stage in the process?

[947] Mr. Spring: In relation to the latter part of Deputy Kitt's question, I am not aware of statements emanating from the British Prime Minister in Washington but obviously I would welcome any positive indications from him along the lines suggested by the Deputy. If he is saying that the logjam can be resolved in a matter of days, that is encouraging and we will certainly do all we can to ensure that happens. In relation to Mr. Adams expressing a lack of confidence in John Major, I do not recall Mr. Adams ever saying he had confidence in Mr. Major. The reality is that they have to deal with one another. Hopefully, the British Government under Mr. Major, will see fit to have meetings at ministerial level with Sinn Féin. As far as I am concerned, the war is over. Sinn Féin wants to be involved in dialogue and inclusive negotiations. They have a role to play and we should do everything we can to facilitate that.

Ms O'Donnell: In relation to the Tánaiste's statement that he believes the war is over, will he not agree that the decommissioning issue is the last card for militant republicans? That is why it is the issue it is last to cede and, for that reason, great care must be taken to move it along in parallel with the other issues. People must not be forced to suspend their critical faculties on this issue. To move it along in a balanced way, we must not be afraid to express reservations or healthy cynicism, where appropriate, when it comes to dealing with Sinn Féin.

Mr. R. Burke: And the Unionists.

Mr. Spring: I would not want the Deputy to believe that we were submerging our critical faculties in relation to this difficult situation. We must be positive and flexible and must encourage both sides to try to resolve the difficulties that exist. I believe we can overcome those difficulties and I want to put it firmly on the record that the Government is fully committed to the removal of all paramilitary weapons. We have [948] said that publicly and we want that done. There are many cards to be played before this process is ultimately brought to a conclusion. One of the great achievements of recent years is that we have set out to bring as many people as possible with us, right across the divide, because ultimately we must reach a solution that has cross-community support. On the basis of the Framework Document and other documents on the table, there is a prospect of having such cross-community support for a resolution of the conflict in Northern Ireland for the first time ever.