Seanad Éireann - Volume 196 - 14 July, 2009
Northern Ireland: Statements.
The Taoiseach Bertie Ahern
 The Taoiseach: I am grateful for the opportunity to address the House on Northern Ireland matters. It is my first occasion to do so as Taoiseach. It is fitting that we gather to reflect on one of the great achievements of this democracy, the peace process in Northern Ireland. The achievement has been brought about by successive Governments of all parties, with the steadfast support of all shades of opinion in the Oireachtas and Irish society. It was built upon unprecedented partnership between the British and Irish Governments, and the strong support of our friends in America, the EU and around the world. In more recent years it has been greatly strengthened by a transformation in relationships between North and South and between Nationalists and Unionists on the island. At this time of great economic challenges for our country, it is important to reflect on how our democratic values and democratic institutions have successfully faced the historic challenges of bringing peace to Northern Ireland and building reconciliation between all the peoples on these islands. It is an achievement to treasure, one that is recognised and applauded around the world. It should offer us great inspiration as we face into the enormous economic problems of today.
This House has often been to the forefront in the quest for peace and reconciliation in the North. Many Members, past and present, have given strong and thoughtful leadership on this most complex and emotive of issues. In particular, the House has benefitted greatly from the participation of Senators from both traditions from Northern Ireland who have served here.
Time does not permit me to mention all those Members but I hope others will forgive me if I mention two former Senators in particular, Senators Gordon Wilson and Billy Fox. Who in Ireland will ever forget the courage and generosity displayed by Senator Wilson in the face of the unspeakable atrocity that was the Enniskillen bombing ? At a time of what must have been unimaginable personal pain he somehow found the strength to speak up for peace and forgiveness. His strength served to fortify us all in our determination to bring peace for future generations. He showed that there was a better way, that violence and hatred are not inevitable. It took far too long, and too many people suffered in the meantime, but we are all thankful that the horrendous violence and hatred that scarred this island for decades is now a thing of the past.
The other Member of Seanad Éireann who I wish to recall today is former Senator Billy Fox. Billy Fox was the only Member of the Oireachtas to be killed during the recent Northern Ireland troubles. His murder was also an attack on our democracy. The fact that we all stand here today with our democracy intact and peace secured for our people is a fitting memorial to Billy Fox and to all Members of the Oireachtas who have worked over the decades for peace and reconciliation on this island.
While we quite properly reflect on our collective achievements, we are not complacent and we fully recognise the very serious challenges that remain. Last March, in the space of a few days a small group of people who reject the wishes of the Irish people murdered two British soldiers in Antrim and a PSNI officer in Craigavon. This House joined with Dáil Éireann in expressing its deepest sympathies for the families of those killed and it reiterated its resolve that peace and stability which has been endorsed by all the people on this island would not be undermined.
The enduring image of that week in Northern Ireland was of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister standing alongside the Chief Constable of the PSNI, all three united in their determination that Northern Ireland would not be pushed back into the dark days of the past. That proved that we are truly in a new era in our history. The rejection of that mindless violence and the united response of the political parties and of civic society sent a potent message that we should not allow a return to instability and violence. Yesterday’s violent events were a further challenge to us all. The democratic institutions and the peace that we all worked so hard to achieve are being challenged by a tiny and unrepresentative group of people with no mandate and no support for their actions.
Senator Jerry Buttimer Senator Jerry Buttimer
Senator Jerry Buttimer: Hear, hear
The Taoiseach Bertie Ahern
The Taoiseach: They must not succeed.
The bedrock of our peace and of our common future on this island is the Good Friday Agreement. It is the founding document of a new era of peace, mutual respect and co-operation. It opened a new chapter of reconciliation and renewal and helped to bring to an end not just decades but centuries of mistrust and conflict. It ushered in a new era of tolerance and set out a template which affords respect and protection for all people and all points of view on this island. As set out in the constitutional amendment so emphatically endorsed by the people in 1998 it says that we will work in harmony and friendship to unite all the people who share the territory of the island of Ireland in all the diversity of their identities and traditions recognising that a united Ireland shall be brought about only by peaceful means with the consent of the majority of the people, democratically expressed, in both jurisdictions in the island. These are the principles that continue to guide Government policy today.
Through all the twists and turns of the last 11 years, it is the agreement to which we have always returned, not just to its institutions, although they are central, but also to the principles and aspirations that it embodies. Those principles and aspirations continue to guide us as we continue to work to make a better future and resolve never to return to the pain and suffering of the past. Crucially, as democrats we hold fast to the agreement because it represents the democratic will of the people of this island, North and South. The implementation of the agreement is not just an aspiration but a solemn duty given to us in an historic act of self-determination by the Irish people. I would like therefore to reflect on the progress we have made as well as the difficult challenges that still remain.
We have recently seen the second anniversary of the successful restoration of the institutions in May 2007. It is important to recognise that this is the longest period of uninterrupted operation of the institutions since the agreement. Certainly there have been disagreements and frustrations, including an extended period when the Executive did not meet, but the institutions have continued to operate and to carry out the work of government. That is a very positive sign for the future.
Alongside the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, we have also had the benefit of the full operation of the North-South Ministerial Council, NSMC, and the British-Irish Council. Last week, we held the eighth meeting of the NSMC in plenary format since 1998 and the fourth such meeting in the past two years. A further plenary meeting will take place by the end of the year. There is also active work in each of the sectors of the council, with the number of sectoral ministerial meetings already this year running into double figures.
I have also met with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister on several other occasions for talks in Dublin and Belfast, at the British-Irish Council summits in Edinburgh and Cardiff and in the United States on St. Patrick’s Day. Alongside these important formal engagements there is now an unprecedented range of contacts between Ministers, Departments, agencies and other bodies with their counterparts in Northern Ireland on the many matters that are of mutual interest to people on both sides of the border.
I know that Members of the Seanad are also developing their contacts with their colleagues in the Northern Ireland Assembly. Meetings and contacts between Oireachtas and Assembly committees are becoming more frequent and much good work can and should be done in that way. We need to build actively on that work. In that regard, the proposed North-South parliamentary forum is an integral part of the Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement. It can play an important role in building understanding and co-operation for the common good of everyone on the island. The Ceann Comhairle of the Dáil and the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly have been in contact about this on a number of occasions. Working groups have now been established in both the Assembly and the Oireachtas to take forward the necessary arrangements and the respective commissions plan to meet in October. I understand the sensitivities involved but I firmly believe we can reach agreement in a way that both respects and indeed benefits all concerned.
As with the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, improved links between elected representatives can only be of mutual benefit. In that connection, I warmly welcome the recent decision by the Unionist parties in Northern Ireland to participate actively in that forum, alongside representatives from the Oireachtas, Westminster and the devolved assemblies in Scotland and Wales. I also commend the work of the Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, which has already provided a very useful forum for discussing a range of matters. The involvement of Westminster MPs from Northern Ireland on that committee has given an innovative and valuable new dimension to the work of the Oireachtas. I hope we can build on that committee’s work to help deepen co-operation and mutual understanding. I want to take this opportunity to acknowledge the very active participation of Members of the Seanad in the work of that committee.
Alongside engagement at political and official level, it is also important to have a structured engagement between citizens and groups in civic society from North and South. While we have not yet been able to reach agreement with the Northern Ireland Executive on the establishment of the North-South consultative forum, the Government has made a proposal on how such a forum should operate. We will facilitate a further conference in the autumn with representatives of the social partners and interested organisations from North and South, which I intend will give further momentum to this important facet of North-South relationships.
Given the history of mistrust and conflict on the island, the mere facts of engagement and the building of new relationships are valuable in their own right. However, that should not be the limit of our ambitions or the sole purpose of our work. We can and must work together by agreement and for mutual benefit to deliver a programme of practical North-South co-operation that improves the lives of all the people we represent.
Last week’s North-South Ministerial Council meeting reaffirmed and reinforced that objective. We noted very good progress on major cross-Border roads and telecommunications projects, health, education, tourism, trade and innovation and on regional co-operation in the north west and along the Border. We reviewed the significant co-operation on health and social issues, such as the issues of swine flu, child protection and suicide prevention, all areas which impact very directly on lives of citizens.
We had a good discussion of the economic challenges that we all face. Over the past year we have seen significant exchange rate movements and Senators are all keenly aware that many companies here have suffered from the adverse effects of that. On the Northern side, there is considerable and understandable concern about future developments in the Southern economy and the possible implications for the North in terms of the impact on cross-Border trade and the potential implications of the banking crisis. It is clear from those discussions that we must face this crisis together.
Despite the current difficulties and concerns there are also opportunities and I have no doubt that the only way forward is to develop the all-island economy to its fullest potential. The growing dynamic of the all-island economy and North-South co-operation can make a vital contribution to the economic recovery. I am pleased that practical co-operation between the trade and development agencies on the island continues to strengthen and that we are beginning to look at developing greater synergies in the area of innovation, higher education and the smart economy.
Infrastructure is also a key area of co-operation. A major policy which demonstrates the Government’s commitment to mutually beneficial co-operation is the upgrading of the inter-urban routes from Dublin to the north west and along the eastern corridor serving Belfast and Larne. Both projects are proceeding on schedule, with the preferred route to the north west chosen and to be formally announced later this month in Omagh.
The Government’s commitment to help with funding for these projects remains firmly in place. It is in the north west and Border regions, where once we saw the awful economic and social costs of partition and conflict most vividly, that we now see the enormous potential for transformation that the peace process has brought within reach.
As well as unprecedented levels of North-South interaction and all-island co-operation, we continue to develop the east-west dimension of the agreement, including through valuable work in the British-Irish Council. That has done some considerable useful work in areas such as the misuse of drugs, transport, road safety, sustainable travel, early years education, minority languages, spatial planning, housing and health.
A feature of the discussions at recent summits has been the commonality of the problems that confront all member Administrations. We are all striving to address the consequences of the downturn for individuals, families and businesses. As an example of how we can work together to tackle the economic crisis, we have good discussions on energy co-operation and the potential contribution green energy can make to future energy needs on these islands. I particularly welcome the initiative of Scotland in putting forward energy as a work stream for the British-Irish Council.
The British-Irish Council is an essential part of the architecture of the Good Friday Agreement. As well as providing a valuable expression of the east-west dimension of relationships on the island, it also allows us to deepen our historical links with Wales, Scotland and the other Administrations in these islands.
The process of devolution from Westminster to the Administrations in Scotland and Wales has been seen as very significant in changing the relationships within Britain in recent years. These changes have important implications for this State as well and the British-Irish Council will provide an ideal forum for addressing those changes as they evolve in the years to come.
In this way, too, the Good Friday Agreement provides the essential template and the flexibility that will enable us to navigate successfully the political, economic and social changes we will inevitably see across these islands in the years to come.
I mentioned earlier the very real threat of violence which remains and one of the key pillars of the Good Friday Agreement, and an essential objective of both Governments, is the elimination of the gun and the triumph of democratic politics on this island. As well as the construction of the new democratic institutions, and the key reforms in areas such as policing, equality and human rights, this found practical expression in the decommissioning of paramilitary arsenals and the ending of paramilitary activity. This in turn created the environment for the dismantling of military installations that were built up during the conflict. We have made historic progress in helping bring paramilitarism to an end.
The Independent Monitoring Commission report in September of last year made clear that the Provisional IRA was maintaining an exclusively political path, that the army council had been allowed to fall into disuse and that military departments had been disbanded. That gave everybody further assurance that the historic transformation signalled by the IRA statement of July 2005, followed by full IRA decommissioning later that year, was genuine.
The continued successful operation of the institutions, and the clear statements by Sinn Féin leaders of support for the police, are further clear evidence of how far we have thankfully come. I am also greatly heartened by the recent progress on loyalist decommissioning. The Irish Government welcomes leadership shown by those who have helped bring about decommissioning and we urge all concerned to bring that process to a conclusion also. We remain committed, as we always have been, to working with all traditions and communities on this island to ensure the peace process leaves nobody behind.
I now believe a vital next step is to complete the devolution of policing and justice to Northern Ireland so that locally elected leaders can deal with some of the most serious and central issues faced by our society. We have already seen a radical and hugely successful transformation of the policing and justice system in Northern Ireland. I welcome the progress made to date and urge the parties in the Northern Ireland Assembly to reach an early agreement on the completion of devolution. I assure them, and this House, of the full support of the two Governments in helping to put in place this last piece of the jigsaw.
Serious challenges to the peace and to a shared future remain. The recent murder of Kevin McDaid in Coleraine is a stark reminder of the divisions between the communities within Northern Ireland. Yesterday’s violence was further evidence of the road we have yet to travel. Recent weeks have seen attacks on churches, Orange halls and GAA facilities. Families from both sides of the community have again had to leave their homes.
The continued existence of sectarianism, peace walls and deep communal divisions in parts of the North is an affront to democracy and to a civilised society.
Senators: Hear, hear.
The Taoiseach Bertie Ahern
The Taoiseach: It defies belief that this is continuing in 2009. It must be energetically tackled and confronted by political leaders and by the wider community. The Irish Government is more than willing to play its part, as we try to do in our work on a daily basis.
I am firmly of the view that over a decade on from the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland needs to move proactively to reach the goal of a shared future. People from all communities, and especially those who have been marginalised in the past, need to see hope and opportunity for their children. We all know that poverty and hopelessness provide a fertile ground for disaffection and alienation. At a time of economic crisis across the world, to which the North cannot be immune, we cannot allow old hatreds to fester and renew themselves.
The task of reconciliation and of ending sectarianism will not be easy. It will take time and effort, and it will be a long road, but it is vital for the future of everyone on this island. I know everyone in this House shares that goal.
I want to express my gratitude to Members for this opportunity to address the House on progress and recent developments in the peace process. While many challenges remain, we are living through a period of unprecedented co-operation and contacts between all of the parties within Northern Ireland and on these islands. We are finally seeing the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement come to fruition.
We continue to work closely with the British Government, with the strong support of President Obama and the United States Administration, to secure the peace and to build a better future. We will not forget the enormous suffering endured in this generation, in living memory, on this island. We recognise and applaud the huge steps, taken by people on all sides, to bring about peace and understanding. We do not ignore the serious challenges that remain. We can and we must ensure that future generations have a different, better, peaceful and common future.
In that respect, from my point of view as leader of this Government, the downturn, the current economic recession, which affects us all, reinforces our mutual dependence on each other. It reinforces the need for politics to be seen to work. It reinforces the need for those hard-pressed taxpayers’ revenues that are being provided to Administrations now, the need to avoid duplication, to work with an open mind and an open heart and to be prepared to sit down, regardless of the past, and find ways in which we can develop better public services together in health, higher education, social welfare and a range of areas. We can assist each other and show the people that politics is the better alternative.
Too often in the past, once we settled on the structures and met the agreement in the letter, we forget about its implementation in the spirit. The spirit of the agreement is about partnership, forgetting about the past, putting a line under it and being prepared to work for future generations. The great genius of the Good Friday Agreement is that it has overturned the old historical analysis where people from different traditions sought an end destination which was mutually exclusive from the other. The great genius of the Good Friday Agreement is that it commits us to a common journey, regardless of the destination, that is about signifying our mutual interest in working together and seeing co-operation rather than conflict as the means by which we can resolve our problems. That is a central place for the primacy of politics to operate.
For those in a divided society who have seen the absence of politics, it behoves those of us who are part of that profession to make it work now for a people who for too long have been alienated from the institutions of law and order and a civilised society that is central to decent and full living.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald Senator Frances Fitzgerald
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: I join with Members from all sides in welcoming the Taoiseach to the Seanad to discuss Northern Ireland. I endorse his comments, particularly in reference to the late Senators Billy Fox and Gordon Wilson, and those about the spirit of the agreement and putting it into practice for the benefit of people in communities.
It is ironic, after a period of relative calm in the North, that on the eve of these statements we saw on our television screens upsetting and violent images of youths involved in riots against members of the PSNI. In this, we see the face of dissident provocation to the peace process and the undermining of police authority. It shows there is still a long road to travel to build on respect for the police force across communities. This hatred and violence has no place in a modern tolerant Ireland and cannot and must not overshadow the trojan efforts for peace and the great progress that has been made. Clearly, a threat exists and must be dealt with on the journey to normalisation.
In our democratic system, we often see sparks fly between parties, disagreement on policies and plans, changes of position in Government policy as one party enters Government and another departs, and rightly so. It is refreshing and commendable that throughout the vibrant political process the one item which has remained constant from one Taoiseach to the next and from one Government to another is the underlying commitment in time and energy to achieving peace on this island. My party is proud of the role Fine Gael-led Governments played, be it Liam Cosgrave and the Sunningdale Agreement, Garret FitzGerald and the Anglo-Irish Agreement or John Bruton and the part he played in laying the foundations for future, long-lasting, sustainable plans for peace. Equally, Fianna Fáil taoisigh have played a critical and effective role in furthering and building political stability. The progress and success of the Northern Ireland peace process is a testament to the tenacity, determination and dedication of all the Taoiseach’s predecessors, and he continues this tradition with his own high level of commitment to the ongoing process.
The Good Friday Agreement and St. Andrews Agreement are built on the cornerstones of consent, parity of esteem, equality of representation and cross-community support. Today, the institutions of Northern Ireland are beginning to bed down. Unionists and Nationalists work side by side in the Assembly and Executive, charged with delivering for all the people of Northern Ireland. Former political enemies are united in a desire for peace and prosperity for their community, their families and children and future generations. It was upsetting to see so many young people involved in last night’s riots. The recent decommissioning by the UDA is the latest welcome development in the long walk to stability and normalisation in the society north of our Border.
The country faces challenges in building an all-Ireland economy. With these challenges come opportunities to develop industry, increase trade, improve co-operation and share ideas. Like many Senators, I have had the opportunity, as a member of the Joint Committee on Health and Children, for example, to meet our Stormont counterparts. We shared ideas and viewpoints on mental health issues, tackling suicide in our society and working together in the interests of all on the island of Ireland. Group leaders from the Seanad travelled to Stormont and met parliamentarians there. We need to see more of these types of exchanges in the future. The concept of establishing a parliamentary forum poses a real opportunity for meaningful dialogue and productive discussion.
While great credit goes to successive Irish Governments, British Governments, the political parties in the North and, crucially, the people of Ireland North and South for creating peace, the contribution of the European Union is rarely mentioned. It is appropriate, as we renew our national conversation on Ireland and Europe and move towards the second referendum on the Lisbon treaty, that we acknowledge the work of the EU in assisting peace on this island. Throughout the years of violence and division, European leaders and institutions played a key role, in public and behind the scenes, in encouraging moves towards peace and a shared future based on equality and fairness. EU funding has helped communities in Northern Ireland to work to address social disadvantage and build relationships which have been critical across communities. The engagement of community organisations in dealing with the day-to-day work of building peace and creating tolerance has been outstanding. The international community, in the EU and the US, has supported peace in Ireland and for that we are extremely grateful.
Northern Ireland is a good news story. However, as we saw last night, complacency cannot set in. A small segment of subversives, some trying to recruit south of the Border, is determined to destroy, hurt, maim, kill and end peace. We saw this in recent months with the killing of two young soldiers who simply ordered a pizza and a police constable who was savagely murdered without provocation. To these enemies of peace and democracy, let the word go out loud and clear from this House, from Government and from Irish society: You have no mandate, no right, no authority and no claim to speak on behalf of the Irish people. The Irish people have conclusively disowned you in referendums North and South.
Senators: Hear, hear.
Senator Frances Fitzgerald Senator Frances Fitzgerald
Senator Frances Fitzgerald: Your days are over. You are not the spokespeople for the people of Ireland. You are their enemies.
I urge the Taoiseach and the Government to do everything possible to track down these subversive elements and remove the threat they pose to our hard-earned peace and stability. Today, Northern Ireland faces many new economic and social challenges. If the past 40 years have shown anything, it is the resilience of the people of Northern Ireland. Members of the Oireachtas must continue to work with our Northern counterparts to build relationships in a spirit of co-operation, respect and, crucially, consent.
As the process continues and evolves, obstacles and opportunities will arise and Fine Gael looks forward to working with the Taoiseach on Northern Ireland in the spirit of bipartisanship and in the national interest.
Senator Donie Cassidy Senator Donie Cassidy
Senator Donie Cassidy: I join the Taoiseach in acknowledging the contributions of former Senators Gordon Wilson and Billy Fox, with whom Senator Ross and I had the honour and distinction of serving. I acknowledge that six Members, or 10% of the membership, of the House come from the province of Ulster. As one born in the last parish in Leinster on the Ulster border, the importance of this issue is brought home to me on a daily basis. We abhor the views expressed on our television screens last night. We did so on the Order of Business today. Nothing that has happened in recent days was done in the name of the people, North or South. We speak for nearly everyone on the island today.
Today, we see huge progress towards the goal of a better society in Northern Ireland and on the island as a whole, informed by the institutions and structures established under the Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement. While the full potential inherent in these agreements remains to be fully developed, much has been achieved. We have moved on from a politics of opposition to a genuinely new relationship between the people of Ireland, North and South, and indeed between Britain and Ireland. This is something to be cherished, nurtured and protected. We can speak and relate to each other in ways that would have been unthinkable before, standing on the shoulders of those visionaries who consistently argued for a better relationship, one based on equality between all those who share in this society and who desire a better place in which to bring up their children.
As leader of Fianna Fáil in Seanad Éireann, I acknowledge the proud record of Seán Lemass, Jack Lynch, Charles J. Haughey, Albert Reynolds, Bertie Ahern, the Taoiseach, and our founder, Eamon de Valera, with other taoisigh, in their hard work and determination to bring us to where we are today.
Continued fair political and economic progress, based upon the principles of equality enshrined in the Good Friday Agreement, will create that better and truly shared society. While differences remain between parties and individuals, and perhaps will remain for some time, there is now at least a shared framework in which differences can be addressed and resolved. The same framework has also provided immeasurable benefits in relations between the islands of Ireland and Britain.
Our very positive experience of parliamentary contacts and co-operation on an east-west basis, through the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, should encourage us to pursue greater parliamentary collaboration on this island, between North and South.
Over the past two decades, the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly has played a crucial role in the improvement of the British-Irish bilateral relationship. It has proved to be a useful forum to foster dialogue and establish important bonds between the two parliaments. Continual engagement with each other on matters of mutual concern is vital if real understanding is to be achieved.
We are in the fortunate position of being able to work at building on the peace and progress of the past decade and to focus on the wider partnership of common interests between the people of these islands. In the early days, the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body, as it was then known, acted as a link between the Oireachtas and Westminster. More recently, as the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, it has served to open channels of communication and new relationships between all of the administrations on these islands. Like myself, many Senators have benefited from the strong interpersonal relationships that they have made as members of the assembly. I am also aware of the effective level of engagement between many assembly and Oireachtas committees. I participate in the excellent work of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, so ably chaired by Deputy Treacy. Therefore, I am heartened to hear from the Taoiseach of the work ongoing in respect of a North-South parliamentary forum.
There can be little doubt that the increased level of North-South co-operation represents one of the remarkable successes of the past 11 years. In particular, we have seen a remarkable amount of progress in the two years since the restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive. Co-operation on a shared infrastructure, such as the road to Derry and Letterkenny, which the Taoiseach mentioned, and the eastern corridor between Dublin and Belfast, is critical for the future economic growth of the island. This is complemented by exciting new initiatives in areas like broadband telecommunications and co-operation in higher education and cross-Border provision of health services. It is wonderful that communities North and South are finally beginning to reap the fruit of political relations that have never been better on this island.
I join the Taoiseach in his condemnation of the attacks at Craigavon and Antrim, which tragically cut short the lives of three men. I am heartened that all parties in the Assembly and the Oireachtas were clear in their denunciation of these acts and united in their determination that the peace we have built on this island will not be undermined.
I wish to make two final points. In recent years, we have seen significant progress. Many people played their parts in that endeavour, namely, the Irish and British Governments, the Northern political parties, community leaders, representatives of civic society and parliamentarians across these islands. Many people worked hard along the way, reached out, stretched beyond their own deeply held beliefs and took risks to create a sustained peace. Collectively, they deserve the highest praise and commendation of the people of Ireland and this House.
It is a great honour and privilege to have the Taoiseach in attendance regarding this important topic. I thank him for appearing.
Senator Rónán Mullen Senator Rónán Mullen
Senator Rónán Mullen: Ba mhaith liom mo chuid ama a roinnt leis an Seanadóir Doherty, agus an Seanadóir Bacik. Níl aon cheannaire oifigiúil ag na Seanadóirí neamhspleácha, a Thaoisigh, mar sinn bíonn orainn am a roinnt.
I welcome the Taoiseach and thank him for his words. Whatever criticisms can be made of politicians where the management of economic matters in recent years is concerned, the Northern Irish peace process will be an enduring positive legacy for the Taoiseach’s predecessor in particular, the Taoiseach himself, other members of the Government and political leaders on all sides of the House. This issue has united politicians over many years and people have been willing to make the necessary sacrifices and find a common voice. That voice is vital. At a time when we are reflecting on the back-sliding of a certain minority seeking to disrupt our delicate settlement, it is important that we all emphasise the need for a firm and moral commitment across all levels of society. Now that the bullet has been replaced by the ballot, no one who wants to go backwards should ever find comfort or support in any failure on the part of true democrats to call a spade a spade. For this reason, the unity of political voices is essential in facing down those who would seek to sow discord and regenerate chaos.
The Taoiseach rightly discussed peace being secured, but peace must be constantly resecured. It is vital that there be economic development to secure that peace. Politics has delivered peace, but eaten bread is soon forgotten. Now, we all must deliver prosperity and hope so that people who have been marginalised for many years will see the tangible improvement in their quality of life that is part of the fruit of peace. It is easy for elites to get on with one another. I had the good fortune of hosting——
An Cathaoirleach An Cathaoirleach
An Cathaoirleach: Time, please.
Senator Rónán Mullen Senator Rónán Mullen
Senator Rónán Mullen: I will conclude on this point and pass over to my colleagues. I hosted a group from Northern Ireland, but people at all levels of society should feel the benefit.
Senator Pearse Doherty Senator Pearse Doherty
Senator Pearse Doherty: Cuirim fáilte roimh an Taoiseach. Cuirim fáilte roimh na ráiteas. Is trua nach bhfuil níos mó ama againn chun na ceiste seo, ceist an Tuaiscirt agus ceist aontú na hÉireann a phlé sa Seanad níos minicí. Déanann sé beag den cheist nuair nach bhfuil againn ach uair a chloig ar an lá seo.
There is no doubt that the most pressing issue in terms of the implementation of the Good Friday and St. Andrews agreements is the need for the transfer of policing and justice powers from London to Belfast. This long overdue and essential work must be completed. It is a key element of the Good Friday Agreement. For the new dispensation to function in the North, we need a new beginning in policing and justice. While much has been achieved by all concerned in this respect, we must move quickly to the next phase. I welcome the Taoiseach’s statement and urge him to use his office to ensure we move to the next phase as speedily as possible.
I note the progress made at last week’s all-Ireland ministerial council on a number of infrastructural projects. I refer to those mentioned by the Taoiseach, projects that affect my constituency in the north west, the N2, Project Kelvin and other projects that are important for the island’s economic recovery. However, I wish to refer to some projects that are not going well, such as the all-Ireland autism centre for which the Government has withdrawn funding. I urge the Taoiseach to reconsider this matter in light of what would benefit all children with autism.
We have welcomed the many positives, but we have seen some terrible shadows in recent months, two of which I will discuss. The first is the recent treatment of the Romanian families in Belfast by racists who forced them out of their homes and the city. I condemn those racists.
An Cathaoirleach An Cathaoirleach
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator’s time has concluded.
Senator Pearse Doherty Senator Pearse Doherty
Senator Pearse Doherty: I will finish with my next point. Unfortunately, we do not have enough time to debate these issues in full, but we have seen terrible incidents on our television screens. I deplore last night’s activity throughout many parts of the Six Counties. In particular, I deplore the individuals and micro-groups responsible for it. Let us be clear that they exploited a situation in which the Orange Order refuses to show real leadership and continues to force five or six marches among thousands through an area where they are not accepted by people on the ground.
An Cathaoirleach An Cathaoirleach
An Cathaoirleach: The Senator to conclude, please.
Senator Rónán Mullen Senator Rónán Mullen
Senator Rónán Mullen: Carry on.
Senator Pearse Doherty Senator Pearse Doherty
Senator Pearse Doherty: I urge the Taoiseach to support Martin McGuinness’s call and to ask the Orange Order’s leadership to engage in dialogue with the leaders of nationalism in the Six Counties and to respect the views of people on the ground.
Senator Ivana Bacik Senator Ivana Bacik
Senator Ivana Bacik: As the Independent group’s nominee on the all-party Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, I appreciate the Taoiseach’s kind words of acknowledgement of the work done by the committee’s members. It is a privilege to sit on it alongside colleagues from Northern Ireland and I look forward to continuing to work on it to end the divisions that have scarred the island for so long.
Senator Alex White Senator Alex White
Senator Alex White: I welcome the Taoiseach to the House and acknowledge what he said about the contributions of party leaders and Ministers for Foreign Affairs over the past 20 years in the context of the considerable achievements in this period. In particular, I recall the contributions of a former leader of my party, Mr. Dick Spring, in that period of the 1990s from the Downing Street Declaration until the ceasefire. In fairness to the Taoiseach, he has been most generous in acknowledging the various contributions by Members of all parties on what has been achieved.
The Taoiseach’s speech was good and I thank him for it. He will appreciate there are not many occasions on which Members on this side of the House congratulate those on the other side on their speeches.
The Taoiseach Bertie Ahern
The Taoiseach: Unfortunately.
Senator Alex White Senator Alex White
Senator Alex White: In this case, the Taoiseach has given a very fair-minded and helpful account of the Government’s management and stewardship of the peace process and what has arisen therefrom in the past two or three years. This was important because we do not get an opportunity to discuss Northern Ireland very often in the House. The Taoiseach was correct to point to the achievements and my colleague, Senator Fitzgerald, and others were correct to express their regret and revulsion in respect of events in the North last night. It is hoped these will be short lived and that the police and others will take all the steps necessary to ensure they do not recur.
Senator Doherty, in addition to the Taoiseach, was correct to state the bringing into the North of policing and justice is an important next step. It is long overdue. There are difficulties and sensitivities pertaining to policing but it constitutes a vital step that needs to be taken as early as possible to make progress and bed down the normality that has been achieved in the North.
The Taoiseach, when referring to the economic recession we are facing, implied it has the potential to reinforce mutual dependency between the North and South. I agree with his statement. He referred to the measures we can adopt together, North and South, to build a genuine all-island economy. We talk about it a lot and, in this regard, colleagues referred to the transport infrastructure projects that have been pursued and to the problems associated with health and higher education co-operation that need to be addressed.
While endorsing all the points made on what has been achieved, I ask the Taoiseach and the North-South Ministerial Council to consider east-west infrastructural developments in addition to North-South infrastructural projects. This is a time of recession and people might believe such proposals are fanciful in such a context but very often a time of pressure and recession is the very time to be more ambitious. If we consider the relative proximity of this island to its neighbouring island and the developments between Denmark and Sweden, we will realise Ireland is likely to constitute the only part of the European Union that is separated from the European mainland by the sea. Bearing in mind that this matter has been considered by many expert technical and engineering groups in Britain, including the rail companies, will the Taoiseach consider a feasibility study on some form of physical link, by way of a tunnel or bridge, between this island and the neighbouring island? This is not an entirely fanciful suggestion as it has been taken up in other parts of the world where the distances in question are much greater.
When focusing on economies, particularly city economies, we should take into account the considerable importance of high-speed rail links between cities across Europe. On more than one occasion The Economist has stated that Europe is in the grip of a high-speed rail revolution. What better project could we imagine for the future generation? I accept it is unlikely to be carried out in our generation given the sheer ambition, application and funding required, perhaps on the part of many different sources.
When bearing in mind what has been achieved on this island, we should look back less often than we used to. We can afford to look to the future and, in this regard, the Taoiseach may consider the project I propose, even at the level of a very basic feasibility study or at the level of considering whether it would be desirable in the first instance to link this island to the neighbouring island, which itself has a high-speed rail link to the European mainland.
Senator Dan Boyle Senator Dan Boyle
Senator Dan Boyle: I welcome the Taoiseach to the House. Today’s statements are informed by the events of yesterday evening. The events are disappointing and still have a capacity to shock. There was a time when the events of last night were an everyday occurrence in the North. The sense of hopelessness and despair at that time generated indifference such that there would have been no shock in respect of last night’s events. That violence born of hatred still occurs implies we have a responsibility to build bridges to ensure it occurs less frequently. This is a challenge for the political system as a whole and the Government is rising to it.
The journey we have made has been amazing. The Taoiseach, in his opening contribution, referred to the infrastructure by which co-operation is being enhanced on this island and between islands. The success of the North-South Ministerial Council, the work of the British-Irish Council and the existence of the British-Irish Inter-Parliamentary Body are a case in point. The latter comprises representatives of all political parties from all parliamentary forums on these islands. The work being done is very valuable and the work that needs to be done necessitates involving non-governmental organisations and community groups and winning the hearts and minds of the people. It is a question of bedding down the peace process in the coming years.
The Taoiseach is correct in stating bedding down the peace process has an economic dimension, especially in the times in which we live. We must constantly examine how the economic relationship with the North can be developed. There are obvious difficulties in that the two jurisdictions have different currencies and rates of corporation and other taxes. We should work to overcome these obstacles. There are natural economic hinterlands we should be trying to exploit and turn into enterprise zones. I refer to the relationships that exist between Dundalk and Newry, Letterkenny and Derry, Sligo and Enniskillen, and Monaghan and Armagh. If there is a job for us to do in trying to restructure our own economy, it is mutually beneficial to examine cross-Border economic relationships because doing so will bear fruit.
We can already point to some significant areas of success that will assist with the types of economic developments to which I refer. The work being done at Strangford Lough under the auspices of the ESB and its partners in respect of renewable energy demonstrates exactly what can be achieved mutually, both economically and environmentally.
One of the real successes associated with the ongoing work between the various political representatives on this island is that where disagreements occur, they occur not so much on constitutional issues but on issues of political policy. I was particularly pleased with the appointment of a new Minister of the Environment in the Northern Ireland Assembly because the views of his predecessor on environmental policy do not coincide with those of many others. However, that we differ only on this type of issue demonstrates the success of where we are going as a people on this island.
My party is organised on an all-island basis. There is a distinction between being organised on an all-island basis and an all-Ireland basis. Our sole representative in the Northern Ireland Assembly, Mr. Brian Wilson, represents the constituency of North Down and most of his constituents define their identity in terms of their Britishness. Our agreements on trying to make progress with regard to common purpose on this island, be it the Belfast agreement or the St. Andrews Agreement, must give due recognition to people’s identities, how they are valued and how we can share them as we proceed.
Despite the fact that we will see more events such as those of last night, they will occur less frequently and the prognosis is optimistic. The work of all public representatives on all parts of this island, with the co-operation of our colleagues on the neighbouring island, shows that this process is going in the right direction and achieving success. I am confident the Taoiseach and the Government will help to bring it to its next level. I value the opportunity to mark that progress in this House today.
An Cathaoirleach An Cathaoirleach
An Cathaoirleach: That concludes the time allowed for statements on Northern Ireland. I thank the Taoiseach for his attendance today and wish him well, North and South, for the future.
Seanad Éireann 196 Northern Ireland: Statements.