Dáil Éireann - Volume 483 - 26 November, 1997

Ceisteanna — Questions. - Ministerial Meetings.

2. Mr. J. Bruton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, at the EU Employment Summit in Luxembourg. [20026/97]

3. Mr. J. Bruton asked the Taoiseach the plans, if any, he has to host a meeting in Dublin of the leaders of all the parties represented at the Northern Ireland talks. [20028/97]

4. Mr. J. Bruton asked the Taoiseach the initiatives, if any, he will take in the coming weeks to give momentum to the all-party talks in Northern Ireland. [20029/97]

5. Mr. Quinn asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his talks with the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party on 20 November 1997; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20031/97]

6. Mr. Quinn asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the chairman of the US House Committee on International Relations, Representative Gilman; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20156/97]

[856] 7. Proinsias De Rossa asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on his recent meeting with the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party; and the further meetings, if any, which are planned with leaders of the political parties in Northern Ireland. [20157/97]

8. Proinsias De Rossa asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on the outcome of his meeting with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Tony Blair, on the margins of the EU Jobs Summit. [20158/97]

9. Mr. J. Bruton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Mr. David Trimble, in London recently. [20321/97]

10. Mr. Sargent asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on his recent meeting with the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Mr. David Trimble. [20374/97]

11. Mr. Quinn asked the Taoiseach the meetings, if any, he had with the British Prime Minister at the European Employment Summit; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [20454/97]

The Taoiseach: I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 to 11, inclusive, together.

I met the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Mr. David Trimble, in London on Thursday, 20 November. We had a very good meeting which went over the primary issues in the negotiations and gave us a better understanding of the positions on both sides. I hope that, following our detailed discussions, we have laid the basis for further contacts and constructive dialogue. The intensive nature of the multi-party negotiations affords the essential context for such dialogue. It is important that all parties to the talks would engage in bilateral contacts with each other on an inclusive basis.

I met the British Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, at the EU Employment Summit in Luxembourg on Friday, 21 November. In the course of a very useful discussion, we reviewed progress on the talks and related issues, including prisoners and security issues. We also agreed on the need to generate further momentum in the talks.

I indicated in my speech to the STOP — Solidarity To Organise Peace — Group on 24 July that I would regularly consult all shades of Northern political opinion to consolidate democratic consensus around a peaceful way forward and that I would meet those Northern parties wishing to participate, to regularly review means of achieving progress. I have held separate meetings with a number of the parties. Participation at the meeting on Friday next, which is a further step in this process, was open to all the parties at the talks and this was made clear. The meeting will take place over lunch. The SDLP, the Alliance Party, the Northern Ireland Women's Coalition, [857] the Northern Ireland Labour Party and Sinn Féin have already indicated they will attend.

I will meet the British Prime Minister again at the European Council meeting on 12 and 13 December and I will meet President Clinton on 15 December to review progress.

All of my meetings and the bilateral meetings the Minister for Foreign Affairs has had at the talks, including the meeting he had recently with the Ulster Unionist Party; the meeting of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation scheduled for 5 December and the review plenary of the talks at the beginning of December, are geared toward generating momentum in the talks, which continues to be the primary arena and focus. There is widespread recognition that such an injection of momentum is necessary at this time.

I met the Ireland-US Parliamentary Group jointly led by Congressman Jim Walsh, chairman of the Friends of Ireland Group in Congress and Congressman Ben Gilman, chairman of the House International Relations Committee and co-chairman of the Ad-Hoc Committee on Irish Affairs on Wednesday, 19 November. I updated the group on the situation regarding the talks and welcomed its continuing interest and involvement in Ireland. I also expressed my own and the Government's appreciation of the positive role being played by the US Administration and the continuing engagement of President Clinton, as evidenced by his invitation to me to meet him in Washington next month.

Mr. J. Bruton: Does the Taoiseach agree there has been a considerable degree of movement in the talks held in Belfast over the past two weeks, that the strategy of having bilateral and multilateral meetings is working reasonably well? Does he further agree there is a need for the Ulster Unionists to address the issues within strand II of the talks in a substantive way; that equally there is a need for Séin Fein to address strand I in a serious way and that, if both of those objectives can be achieved, they will form a good basis on which the talks can progress? Does he agree the matter is very urgent given that we really must be able to show substantial progress before the February plenary?

The Taoiseach: I agree with Deputy Bruton. On the first point, substantial progress has been made but the longer, more detailed discussions proved extremely difficult with such large numbers. They were useful in so far as detailed papers were put forward by all parties across the three strands, but the engagement was not so intensive. The bilateral meetings are allowing people to get to the core of the central issues under discussion.

In relation to what Deputy Bruton said about the importance of strand II and the Unionists appreciating the value of those talks, in particular the reason Northern Nationalists are so committed to the North-South body and the reason for much of the conflict over so many decades, it is important that they move forward their own [858] thinking in that regard. Equally, I share Deputy Bruton's view that Sinn Féin should appreciate the useful progress made on various issues. The British Government has responded positively to a number of issues I raised last week as well as to issues raised by the SDLP, Sinn Féin and others, and that should be clearly acknowledged. I note that Gerry Adams, as leader of Sinn Féin, made some acknowledgement of that and I understand the British Government will make further progress on the prisoner's issue before the end of this week.

Mr. J. Bruton: Will the Taoiseach agree it is important from the point of view of the Nationalist community that time be devoted to dealing with equality issues in strand I concerning policing and the treatment of Irish culture in the entire society of Northern Ireland? Will he agree that these issues are, in some cases, as important as the North-South issues? In regard to strand II, the North-South issues, which are obviously important also, will the Taoiseach indicate if it is envisaged that the North-South body to be established would have a separate budget of its own or would it draw on the budgets of line Departments here and in Belfast?

The Taoiseach: All of the issues in strand I, including the importance of building trust and harmonious relationships within Northern Ireland, are absolutely paramount because whatever arrangement is finally concluded will have to be one on which people can build trust and confidence in each other. In regard to the equality and cultural agendas, there are bodies and groups which were of the view over many decades that nobody was listening to them, yet they managed to continue their work in a peaceful way. I emphasise in particular elements of the Irish language movement, cultural movements in general and some of the bodies involved in the women's movement which tried to pursue these issues over the years.

In relation to the North-South dimension, I recently stated that a number of aspects of that dimension are crucial. One of those is that people must understand we are not talking about a separate body. The North-South dimension will involve the removal of powers and functions from Departments and agencies here which will result in those powers being devolved into a new arrangement. I have not given much thought to the financing of this but it would be more desirable for such a body to have its own core administration, otherwise endless arguments could arise about the transferring of those bodies.

Mr. Quinn: I thank the Taoiseach for his comprehensive reply to a number of questions. With regard to the reconvening of the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation on 5 December, I want to put two questions to the Taoiseach. In order to advance the momentum referred to in a previous question, does the Taoiseach want to see any [859] strategy or desired objective emerge from the forum which will run from 9 a.m. to 1 p.m. on Friday, 5 December? Has he communicated to the co-ordinating group, in effect the Whips, on the precise format of the meeting?

The Taoiseach: I thank the Deputy for his question. I may have slightly misled Deputies on the last occasion this matter was raised. I did not realise at that stage that the section in my Department dealing with this matter already had been in touch with the members of the steering group; I believe I stated that they would get in touch but they already had been in touch with the Whips, as we call them. They have since taken some of their views on board as well as those of our colleagues in the North to try to make the session as meaningful as possible. What we would like to do — this is not my view but views from a number of quarters — is allow parties to make a statement. It is hoped they would not be too lengthy as this is the first meeting. I am anxious that the parties participating in the talks would be allowed make a statement on the talks and that the parties from this House would engage in a question and answer session with the Northern parties. The parties from the North are anxious to engage with the parties here on the margins of the meeting, perhaps over and after lunch.

Mr. Quinn: Having regard to what Deputy Bruton said, with which the Taoiseach did not disagree, and in the context of strand I and the necessity for Sinn Féin to move forward more rapidly than it is currently doing, what, if anything, does the Taoiseach believe the forum meeting on 5 December can do to advance that momentum and achieve the successful outcome to which all of us aspire?

The Taoiseach: I am sure the party leaders will make their own points clear. In relation to strand I, I detect — and this is no secret — that many of the parties are fairly clear on where they are going and what the parameters are but they have “parked” those issues until they see the progress that is made in strands II and III. That will not deter the participants in the forum from giving their views. I hope those of us in the forum not engaged in the talks on a daily basis can put forward their positions this side of Christmas because it is crucial that we do that.

Proinsias De Rossa: Arising from the Taoiseach's reply and from reports of the various meetings he has had, I want to ask a number of supplementaries. The Taoiseach made an important point with regard to the North-South body and the fact that this House will devolve some powers to that body. Bearing in mind that the negotiations taking place are, by and large, private, does the Taoiseach foresee circumstances in which this House can be engaged in discussing the nature of the devolution of powers to such a [860] body? In terms of the outcome of these negotiations, it is important that those of us in the Republic have full consent in relation to what we are doing. The same applies to the question of Articles 2 and 3. I have long been an advocate of the amendment of Articles 2 and 3 to delete the territorial claim in relation to Northern Ireland. The definition of the national territory needs to be altered if we are to achieve a sustainable accommodation between North and South.

Will the Taoiseach indicate what, if any, mechanisms he foresees to enable the House to engage in discussing these issues? On strand III, does the Taoiseach foresee an east-west body operating parallel to the idea of a North-South body and, if so, does he perceive such a body would have executive powers? Will he indicate what way such a body would operate because negotiations would be necessary? An intergovernmental east-west body is needed at the very least to enable a greater degree of co-operation and co-ordination between Britain and Ireland.

I am disturbed by a report that the Minister for Foreign Affairs intervened with the German Chancellor to seek to have the proposed extradition of Ms McAliskey from Britain to Germany stopped. If that report is true, his actions constitute a gross interference in the judicial process and that is not something I would like to see continued or initiated in relation to anyone else. This country engages in various ways in the extradition process with other European countries. If there is political interference in the process at any level it will render it useless.

The Taoiseach: The Deputy asked four questions. On the North-South body, I am anxious this House should be included in all the progress we make and that the bipartisanship arrangement we have had for many years should continue. That is essential in the context of devolving powers. The process of a North-South dimension in whatever will be its final configuration will be meaningful only if our agencies delegate powers, Northern agencies engage in a similar process and those powers are subsumed into an executive structure. We have been making that case for many years and that must happen. In so far as this will be debated at the appropriate time the answer to the Deputy's question on that matter is yes.

On Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution, I had discussions and there has been no change in that regard. I replied to Deputy Bruton on this matter last week. We are talking about constitutional change in the context of a balanced agreement as part of an overall settlement in line with Articles 14 to 21 of the Framework Document set down in February 1995. There may be some changes to what we signed up to on that occasion, but the changes will be within the ballpark of those articles.

There has been work on an east-west body. The structure set up by the former Taoiseach, Deputy Bruton, included an agenda on education [861] and other aspects that were set down. Further meetings were held on that recently. I am happy to tell Deputy Bruton in particular that we have progressed matters to the stage where I hope a report will be published setting out where we are at and then others will be able to put forward their views on this.

Ms Roisín McAliskey's case is a matter for the Minister for Foreign Affairs. He met her legal representatives, her family and some of those who have been engaged in the campaign for her release. He conveyed some of the views given to him by her legal representatives to his counterpart in England. That is all he has been engaged in.

Mr. Sargent: I thank the Taoiseach for his long answer to a number of questions to which I wish to ask a number of supplementaries. His meeting with Mr. David Trimble was an important development. Will he tell us what was learned at that meeting and if there are plans to have further meetings? The Green Party had discussions with parties involved in the talks and a number of questions arise from them. Will the Taoiseach give consideration to the most opportune day for holding the forum in Dublin to ensure it does not interfere with the Stormont talks? The parties involved in the talks suggested a Thursday or a Saturday as preferable days. Will the Taoiseach outline to the House or the parties the changes envisaged in strand II which the Irish Government may be contemplating or may need to consider? He should bear in mind that one of the main questions that arose in discussions my party had with parties involved in the talks was the willingness of the Irish Government and perhaps the Irish Civil Service to move towards the formation of structures within strand II.

Regarding the forum, will he agree that overcoming the obstacles to the task of the subcommittee on peace is one of the most important jobs remaining to be done to enable it to finalise its report? Regarding his meeting with the British Prime Minister, were the British Government's obligations in regard to its involvement in strand III discussed? Questions in that regard that relate to the Irish Civil Service would also relate to the British Civil Service.

I tabled a question on Sellafield to the Taoiseach prior to his meeting with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Blair. Has he noted that since I tabled that question there has been, as BNFL put it, “an unplanned release of radioactive material from Sellafield” and a dental survey in Britain and Ireland of 3,000 children found traces of plutonium in their teeth? Was the matter of Sellafield raised at that meeting and, if not, will it be raised at a future meeting?

On the EU Employment Summit, are guidelines in preparation to cover the quality of employment, which is fast becoming an issue for many people? A recent advertisement for a mechanic's job offered £73 for a 39 hour week? Will he agree that the Employment Summit [862] should consider quality of employment as well as job statistics?

The Taoiseach: That was a long question.

An Ceann Comhairle: I allowed Deputy Sargent some latitude because the Taoiseach replied to a number of questions.

Mr. Sargent: The Taoiseach took nine questions together.

An Ceann Comhairle: Omnibus questions are not in order. Deputies should ask short supplementary questions.

Proinsias De Rossa: The Deputy tabled only one of those questions.

Mr. Sargent: The reply dealt with nine questions.

An Ceann Comhairle: Only one of those questions was in the Deputy's name.

Mr. Sargent: I am entitled to ask questions.

An Ceann Comhairle: Standing Orders indicate that Deputies are not entitled to ask long supplementary questions and they outlaw omnibus questions. I let the Deputy away with asking a number of questions on this occasion, but neither he nor any other Deputy may ask omnibus supplementary questions in the future.

Mr. Sargent: The Taoiseach replied to Questions Nos. 2 to 11.

An Ceann Comhairle: Admittedly he did, that is why I allowed the Deputy some latitude, but he tabled only one of those questions.

Mr. Sargent: I would prefer if the Taoiseach answered one question at a time.

An Ceann Comhairle: I made my position clear. The Deputy should not complain if I call him to order at a future date. I will do so if he continues with prolonged statements and supplementary questions.

Mr. Sargent: They were all questions.

Mr. Currie: Can the Taoiseach remember what they were?

Mr. J. Bruton: Answer them in ten seconds.

Mr. Stanton: Repeat them.

The Taoiseach: Almost all the questions were about one meeting but I will not argue the point. The meeting with Mr. Trimble provided an opportunity to review the current state of the talks and to discuss our priorities and those of the Ulster Unionist Party. We dealt in detail with the various issues it considers central to the format of [863] the talks, the type of progress it wants to make and the obstacles it envisages. The meeting was useful. Over the years I have found the Ulster Unionist Party straight and direct in meetings. That applies to both sides in this instance.

Regarding the Northern parties and the forum generally, I do not have a difficulty about the date or time. The problem is that there are 11 parties which do not only have difficulties relating to the strands of talks. We must try to fit in with the time which appears to suit the House and most of the parties. They may wish to change the times. A specific difficulty is that some of the parties are engaged in the forum. However, the Government did not fix the date to make it difficult for them. I would be happy to consider an alternative date if the Opposition suggests one.

Strand II of the talks is the North-South dimension. This covers all aspects, Departments and agencies which the Government considers have a role. We are considering how best they can be developed by delegating powers. We are developing this area and have outlined in detail how we want it to proceed. It will continue to develop as time goes on.

Another separate aspect is the east-west arrangements, which may be integrated in the future. We have set down what is important in terms of the positions of the British and Irish Governments. The Deputy will be aware from statements by Unionists, other Northern Ireland parties and the British Government that the concept of the east-west arrangements might be wider than originally envisaged. This is described as the “umbrella” and would cover more areas than the original proposals envisaged. This matter is being discussed by the two Governments and the working groups.

Regarding EU regulations, I assure the Deputy the purpose of the criteria set down, which I dealt with yesterday, is to ensure that training, retraining, skills shortages, disadvantage and social exclusion are comprehensively addressed. All EU member states realise the real difficulty in the future will be the unemployment figure of 18 million. If we are to make a serious dent in that total, such as the target of five million jobs mentioned in the summit discussions, skills shortages and inadequacy of education standards must be addressed.

At this meeting with the British Prime Minister I did not raise the issue of Sellafield. However, I have done so in the past and the matter will remain on the agenda for future meetings.

An Ceann Comhairle: A number of Deputies are offering and I ask them to bear my earlier comments in mind.

Mr. G. Mitchell: Does the Taoiseach agree it is unwise to give those who do not want to attend the forum in Northern Ireland the excuse that the forum in the Republic will meet on the same day? The clash in dates provides an out from the [864] beginning and pre-empts the attendance of Unionists in the future. How often does the Taoiseach envisage the forum meeting?

Regarding strand III, the east-west arrangements, the Taoiseach said the entire range of important issues was under consideration. Has the Taoiseach discussed with the British Prime Minister the issue of security arrangements within the islands and specifically Partnership for Peace?

The Taoiseach: I take the Deputy's point about the timing. This is why I asked my officials at the talks to check whether delegates would attend before a date was suggested. The answer was no so the date did not affect them.

Mr. J. Bruton: Symbolically, it is not a good idea to have them both on the same day.

The Taoiseach: It is not but only one group raised it in particular.

Mr. J. O'Keeffe: There would be competing fora.

The Taoiseach: I assure the Deputy that I would ask the House to change the date if I thought we would receive a different answer.

Regarding the range of east-west issues, we have discussed almost all matters and placed them on the agenda. We have not dealt in detail with the security issue in the east-west context but it has been discussed extensively.

Proinsias De Rossa: Did the Taoiseach state that the Minister for Foreign Affairs on the margins of the Luxembourg summit did not request the Chancellor to drop the German extradition proceedings involving Róisín McAliskey?

Does the Taoiseach envisage a specific east-west body parallel to the North-South institution or body which is under negotiation in strand II? Regarding the transfer of prisoners under the 1995 Act, I understand the Taoiseach indicated to the British Prime Minister that the heads of a Bill were ready for an amendment to the 1995 Act to cover certain conditions of prisoners transferring from Britain to Ireland. As there is not much time before the Christmas recess and it is intended to pass the legislation before then, will the Taoiseach make the heads of the Bill available to the House to ensure the issues can be discussed by the parties in advance of the introduction of the Bill?

The Taoiseach: The first issue raised by the Deputy is a matter for the Minister for Foreign Affairs but I understand he raised it with his counterpart. The Minister communicated his deliberations following a meeting he had with Gareth Pierce. The Minister also had a meeting with Ms Pierce, Bernadette McAliskey, other members of the family and some of the people involved in pursuing the case over the last 12 months. The Deputy should table a parliamentary [865] question to find out more information on that matter.

The purpose of the east-west body is to progress matters. The Government is not involved directly in strand I, although we are aware of what is going on. We are trying to develop strand II in terms of what should be covered by it, how it should progress and what the Government is prepared to devolve. This is being dealt with at one level while the east-west arrangements are being discussed elsewhere with different people. I am trying to progress all these matters so people can see the full picture.

Regarding the transfer of prisoners, I will check the position regarding the heads of a Bill. I have asked that the legislation be cleared quickly and published soon. I will check with the relevant Minister if a briefing can be arranged in advance. The purpose of the Bill is to clarify the position whereby Ireland has a 20 year rule and Britain has a 35 year rule for life sentences. However, I am glad, following other meetings which we have held to try to clear this issue, that there will be repatriation of prisoners in some cases which have been dealt with over the past number of weeks. I expect three prisoners to be repatriated in the next few days.

Proinsias De Rossa: Perhaps I did not make myself clear. Is it intended to establish an east-west body similar to a North-South body?

The Taoiseach: Yes.

Mr. Currie: While welcoming the announcement that the British Army will not be patrolling the streets of west Belfast during daylight hours and hoping that will be extended to other areas of Northern Ireland and also welcoming statements made by Mo Mowlam on the policing issue but recognising this is only a start, does the Taoiseach agree that a solution to the policing issue is central and without it there will be no solution to the Northern Ireland problem and in that context the use of the phrase “police service” rather than the plural might be suggested?

Does he agree that confidence building is a two way process? In that context — I am sorry the Sinn Féin Deputy is not present — will he bring to the attention of the Sinn Féin leadership when he meets it that the return of the bodies of the disappeared would be a very important confidence building move and that even in the most primitive societies when a cessation occurred the bodies were returned so that burials could take place, which would be Christian ones in this context?

I recently read an obituary notice for a man who disappeared over 20 years ago which brought the issue very forcefully to my attention. It contained a statement of hope still but people have a right to know where their relatives are buried. Will the Taoiseach bear this in mind?

[866] The Taoiseach: For a number of weeks we have made the point, with which most people agree and which has been backed by Sinn Féin, the SDLP and Nationalists generally, that while the overall level of soldiers and their activity has decreased, it has increased in Nationalist areas, particularly south Armagh and east Tyrone.

Mr. Currie: Around Coalisland and Galbally.

The Taoiseach: The military was using the opportunity to engage in activities which it had not been able to carry out for 30 years and that was anathema to the Nationalist people. We highlighted the situation and I am pleased our point of view, which had previously been communicated by Séamas Mallon and others, was well taken by the British Prime Minister.

Policing has been a major issue for a long time and I have long been a supporter of the only good document that I have seen put forward, the Mallon document. There is argument on it but it is a comprehensive document. However, I welcome Mo Mowlam's announcement yesterday as it was a progressive move.

Deputy Currie has continually and consistently raised the issue of the treatment of loved ones who are long lost. I detect that message is slowly getting through to those who may be able to assist and I will continue to raise it wherever I have a forum to do so.

Mr. Flanagan: I refer to the Taoiseach's comments earlier on strand II of the talks when he spoke about delegation of powers and a devolved executive which will be unelected. Will the Taoiseach provide the House with information on the type of powers which will be devolved from Dublin to this body? Much of the debate has centred around powers from Northern Ireland being devolved. Will he comment on the preparations, if any, the Government has made towards the devolution of powers?

Mr. J. Bruton: The Taoiseach confirmed the Government has agreed in principle to the establishment not just of a North-South body but also an east-west body. Will the Taoiseach consider asking the Ulster Unionist Party, which favours the idea of a council of the islands, if it would look again at its non — participation in the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body which encompasses both islands and was established as a result of the work of the Anglo-Irish Council? This body did not originate in the Anglo-Irish Agreement which the Unionists objected to but it is an exact mirror of the type of body they are supporting in the talks.

Proinsias De Rossa: Will the Taoiseach take up Deputy Currie's reference to Mo Mowlam speaking about police services as distinct from a police service? It is important we deliver the message that this State would look askance at the idea of separate police forces for different communities [867] and that it would be a retrograde and sectarian step. It seems to be the demand Sinn Féin is promoting and that would be disastrous.

The Taoiseach: This is the reason — it is in line with Deputy Currie's comments — the east-west of the Bann proposal was put forward some time ago by Séamas Mallon. While it was not a perfect plan and people argued against it, it did not propose a separate force.