Dáil Éireann - Volume 475 - 25 February, 1997

Ceisteanna—Questions. - Northern Ireland Peace Process.

2. Mr. B. Ahern asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on his discussions with the US Congressional Group led by the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, Mr. Ben Gilman. [4890/97]

3. Mr. B. Ahern asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on his meeting with the relatives of the victims of Bloody Sunday. [4891/97]

4. Miss Harney asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with US Congressmen at Government Buildings on Saturday, 15 February 1997. [4978/97]

[626] 5. Miss Harney asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with relatives of the victims of Bloody Sunday. [4979/97]

The Taoiseach: I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 to 5, inclusive, together.

I had a very useful working lunch on 15 February with a bipartisan US Congressional delegation led by the chairman, Congressman Ben Gilman. Our discussions focused primarily on the Northern Ireland situation and on European Union enlargement.

The delegation made a strong call for a prompt restoration of the IRA ceasefire. They emphasised the importance of fully inclusive talks in accordance with the terms set out in the Mitchell report.

For my part, I underscored the Government's determination to make further progress in the Belfast talks. I also said that progress would be easier to achieve if there was peace and if the talks were fully inclusive, as the Government would wish and indeed has worked unremittingly to bring about. I stressed that nobody has a veto over such progress — neither those who are participants nor those who have excluded themselves from participation. I outlined to the delegation the substantive progress that has been made over the past two years, emphasising the importance of building on that.

In addition, I pointed to the centrality of forgiveness to the process of building lasting peace. For that to happen, the voices of victims must first be heard. The Government was pleased therefore to have met on Thursday last relatives of the victims of Bloody Sunday who were accompanied by the SDLP Leader, Mr. John Hume. The Government side was represented by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister for Social Welfare and myself.

The delegation made clear that its primary objective is the establishment of the full truth and put forward its view that a full independent inquiry with an international dimension could best achieve that aim. In response, I outlined the Government's efforts to ensure that the tragic events of Bloody Sunday will not continue to be an unnecessary source of additional grievance for the loved ones of those who died. Earlier that day I received clarification of the British Government's position arising from a meeting arranged some time previously with ambassador Sutherland. It was made clear that the British Government had not had the chance to scrutinise the evidence presented at the earlier meeting between the relatives and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland; that it had not prejudged that evidence; that no options in terms of a response have been ruled out and that if there is evidence that is substantial and new, that will be considered by the British authorities and the appropriate action will be taken.

At our meeting with the relatives, the Government side also gave on overview of our work in compiling an assessment of relevant material for [627] transmission to the British Government. Though much useful work has been done, our assessment may take some time to complete but it will be done as quickly as possible. The overriding concern here is to gather as much relevant information as can be obtained and subject it all to rigorous examination in the interests of compiling a thorough assessment. The point was understood and appreciated by the delegation from the Bloody Sunday Justice Campaign.

Mr. B. Ahern: When meeting the Chairman of the House Foreign Affairs Committee, did the Taoiseach take the opportunity to reaffirm the Government's strong support for ambassador Jean Kennedy Smith in view of the inspired attempts by British sources to undermine her position?

The Taoiseach: I had already made my view on that issue known publicly in this House and I did not see any need to reopen the discussion. We should pay no attention to inspired reports of the kind referred to by the Deputy, not should we dignify them by referring to them either in this House or in meetings of that kind.

Mr. B. Ahern: Did the Taoiseach mention the inspired reports from sources in Britain and did he indicate his strong support for the ambassador? When I questioned him on this last week he appeared reluctant to indicate his strong support for her.

The Taoiseach: It does not do any service to an ambassador serving her country very well in this country for us to constantly refer to inspired, unattributable reports in newspapers published in another jurisdiction. Such reports should be ignored, treated with the disdain they deserve and not be dignified by constant reference.

An Ceann Comhairle: The Chair has strenuously striven to avoid any reference to ambassadors accredited to this country for obvious reasons.

Mr. B. Ahern: The ambassador is serving this country very well and members from all sides of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs have reiterated their strong support for her. Will the Taoiseach reiterate that support in this House?

An Ceann Comhairle: We should avoid reference to this accredited representative.

The Taoiseach: I have repeatedly made my position clear on this matter and I will not respond to unattributable newspaper reports which should be treated with disdain.

Mr. R. Burke: Respond to the Leader of the Opposition.

[628] The Taoiseach: The Deputy should not dignify them. I have enjoyed a good relationship with the ambassador. She is a good ambassador and is doing a good job for her country. However, this should not have to be constantly repeated in response to inspired or uninspired unattributable remarks in newspapers elsewhere.

Miss Harney: Does the Taoiseach accept there is important new evidence regarding Bloody Sunday that warrants an independent inquiry without any further investigation?

The Taoiseach: Substantial evidence has been produced involving immense detail derived from public records and searches and examinations of various kinds of reports by people with different forms of expertise. It is important that it should be seen to be carefully scrutinised before making judgments of the kind the Deputy is inviting me to make. That is the most credible way to proceed and the most likely to be successful. It is the way I will proceed.

Mr. R. Burke: The Taoiseach mentioned his meeting with the British ambassador where she pointed out that the British Government had not had the time to examine the evidence presented to it, that it did not want to prejudice matters and that no options were ruled out. In our meeting with the families of the victims of Bloody Sunday they expressed their upset with the comments made by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Sir Patrick Mayhew, when, 24 hours after meeting a delegation and having been handed new evidence, he insulted the memory of those who were murdered and who were, in the words of the British Government and the British Prime Minister, to be considered innocent. When he met the British ambassador did the Taoiseach express the view of this country that Sir Patrick Mayhew's comments were at best ill-considered and at worst insulting?

The Taoiseach: I have already made my views known about the remarks made by the Secretary of State 24 hours after his successful meeting with the Bloody Sunday relatives group. I expressed my surprise at the words he used and following that I raised the matter with the British ambassador when I met her. I invited her to provide me with a clarification of the British Government's position. I am happy this clarification, which I obtained as a result of that initiative, made it clear that the evidence submitted had not been scrutinised by the British Government, that it had not been prejudged, that no options in terms of what the British Government may do in response had been ruled out and that if, following scrutiny, the evidence contained substantial and new material it would be carefully considered by the British authorities and appropriate action would be taken. I was happy to convey this to the relatives when I met them.

[629] Mr. R. Burke: I admire the Taoiseach's reply and I am grateful that he has put on record the words attributed to him at a private meeting. However, the actions of the Secretary of State are contrary to the words of the ambassador. Will the Taoiseach ensure there is an international dimension to the new and independent inquiry which is necessary in view of the discredited Widgery tribunal? The relatives of the victims, the communities in Derry and the rest of Northern Ireland and the nationalist community in this country seek such an inquiry in view of the credibility brought to the peace process by the role played by Senator George Mitchell.

The Taoiseach: The Deputy is mistaken when he suggests the clarification by the British Government of its position following my meeting with the British ambassador was obtained by me in private. I conveyed the full content of the meeting to the relatives and also made it public the day I received it. This clarification is not a private matter but one of public record and has been so since shortly after my meeting with the British Ambassador. The question of an international dimension to any inquiry that might occur would fall to be considered favourably at the appropriate time when all the evidence has been assessed fully and a case established to found such an inquiry, if that is the best course to take. The view of the relatives is that that should be the course taken. I listened with care and attention to what they had to say in the matter.

Miss Harney: Does the Taoiseach agree with John Hume when he said that to ask people to vote for Sinn Féin in the absence of an IRA ceasefire would be equivalent to asking people to vote for the killing of innocent people?

The Taoiseach: As I have said in the House on a number of occasions, I regard Sinn Féin and the IRA as parts of one and the same political movement pursuing a unified agenda. I agree with the sentiments expressed by John Hume in that matter.

Mr. B. Ahern: Following his meeting with the British Ambassador and his discussions with the relatives, is it the Taoiseach's view that we are unlikely to get a new inquiry or is the British Government procrastinating?

The Taoiseach: As I have said to Deputy Harney, it is important that any request that might be made for a particular remedy to the injustice suffered should be seen to be founded, first and foremost, on a thorough and dispassionate examination of the evidence. On the basis of its being established that there is new evidence, following such a careful study, it would not be in the interests of those concerned if one were to indicate one's view on the matter until the evidence has first been scrutinised. In the context of the credibility of any request for a particular remedy, [630] it is important to show that one did not jump to conclusions before one had examined the evidence but that one examined the evidence first and then drew the appropriate conclusion, based on the evidence.

Mr. R. Burke: One does not want to jump to conclusions. The British Prime Minister in a letter to John Hume said he considered that the people who were murdered by various units of the British Army on that day were to be considered innocent. If they were to be considered innocent, what is wrong with prejudging some of the Widgery Tribunal? It was and is known to have been a cover up and in the words of the British Prime Minister these people were innocent. Why is it that the Taoiseach and we in this House cannot say they were innocent, demand an inquiry at this stage and assemble the documentation to substantiate a strong case on their behalf? It is self-evident they were murdered and were innocent.

The Taoiseach: I have made it clear in the House on a number of occasions that I regard the victims in question as entirely innocent. I believe they have been the victims of an injustice. I believe they deserve an apology for that injustice. Their case deserves to be put in the strongest and most effective fashion possible for full vindication. The best way to do it is on the basis of the evidence and in a way that convinces independent minded people, coming to this subject for the first time, that one is justified in the request one is making. The best way to convince such people is, first, to assemble the evidence, then to make the request, not to make the request before one has assembled and studied the evidence. It is a question of ensuring that not only is one's case good but it is seen to have been prepared with the appropriate degree of care. That is the course I am following. I believe it is the best course in the interests of the relatives and has their approval.

Mr. B. Ahern: By what means will the Taoiseach assemble this case in support of the victims of Bloody Sunday? Is the case being co-ordinated within his Department or within the Department of Justice? Will somebody be nominated to deal directly with the families to assist them in bringing the case forward?

The Taoiseach: At my meeting with the relatives I nominated an official from my Department and an official from the Department of Foreign Affairs by name who would liaise with the relatives. That arrangement is continuing. My Department and the Department of Foreign Affairs are working together to assemble all the evidence, including evidence available from our own sources plus that provided to us from a number of sources by the relatives campaign. If further evidence can be made available to us it will be included in our summation of the matter.

[631] Mr. R. Burke: What is the timeframe for the preparation of these documents?

Ms O'Donnell: What means will be employed by the Irish Government to scrutinise the new evidence? The Taoiseach consistently mentions the new evidence will have to be scrutinised in detail. Is it being done by the two civil servants or is the Garda involved?

The Taoiseach: There are two named officials who are available for consultation with the relatives. The work is not confined to just two officials. The services of the Department of Foreign Affairs as a whole and the Department of the Taoiseach as a whole, as appropriate, are available for this work. If legal, forensic or other forms of expertise are necessary in assessing any of the evidence that will be called upon as and when necessary. No effort will be spared in ensuring that the case is the most thoroughly prepared and well founded case possible.

Mr. D. Ahern: Will the Taoiseach accept that the statement by the British Prime Minister in his letter to John Hume and the recent statement by Secretary of State Mayhew are irreconcilable — leaving aside the new evidence which has come forward — and do not sit side by side? Is it not the case that the Irish Government should be pointing this out?

The Taoiseach: We have pointed out our concern about the statements made by the Secretary of State. I did so in the most appropriate fashion possible. It is not for me to reconcile statements made by members of another Government.

Mr. R. Burke: How long is it expected the preparation of this evidence will take? Will it be one month, two months or three months?

The Taoiseach: Not a day longer than is necessary to do justice to the evidence concerned.

Mrs O'Rourke: They are 25 years waiting.

Mr. R. Burke: The Taoiseach is setting a target day for finalising the matter.