No. 54 – “The Good Friday Agreement: the Future?”
Friday, 25th February, 2005
St Columban’s College, Dalgan Park, Navan
Dermot Ahern, T.D. (FF) (Minister for Foreign Affairs)
Dominic Bradley, MLA (SDLP, Newry and Armagh)
John O’Dowd, MLA (Sinn Fein, Upper Bann)
Chaired by Michael Reade (Presenter of “Loosetalk”, LMFM Radio)
Introduction: Julitta Clancy and Michael Reade
Questions and comments (summary)
Appendix: written speech of Minister Dermot Ahern, TD
Julitta Clancy: “…. On behalf of the Meath Peace Group I would like to thank you all for coming tonight at such short notice as this talk was organised very quickly…. It is a time of great concern. When we met here last November at the talk we had on “Policing, Justice and the Bill of Rights”, there was great expectation then that a deal was going to be done and that we would see within a few months a power-sharing government back up in Belfast. But that wasn’t to be, and a number of events have happened since then. A few days ago the Taoiseach said that the peace process itself looks like it could be unravelling. Let’s see tonight where we are at. We are here because this peace process belongs to us, it belongs to the people. It doesn’t belong to the politicians or the paramilitaries, or the governments. It belongs to us and we need to be there watching it and being vigilant. This Agreement was ours. Most of us ratified it, some reluctantly, for many it was a huge compromise. Some who had suffered greatly signed up and said ‘yes’ to that Agreement. We are wondering why after almost 7 years we still have not got what we voted for in the institutions, but in many other areas, the Good Friday Agreement has brought very important developments…..On behalf of the Meath Peace Group I would like to thank the speakers who have come here tonight and I will hand over now to our guest chair, Michael Reade, presenter of the morning “Loosetalk” programme on LMFM radio, a very worthwhile programme to listen to … We thank him very much for agreeing to chair the proceedings here tonight.”
Chair (Michael Reade): “Thank you. It really is a pleasure for me to be here. Even though this talk was arranged very much at the last minute, I’m not overly surprised to see such a good attendance because of the level of interest that there is on both sides of the border in the current impasse. I wouldn’t say too much by way of commentary, especially with the eminent politicians that we have here, I wouldn’t feel it appropriate. As a journalist, what I like to do is to listen and hopefully we will be able to hear what you have to say, and what questions you have to ask and to listen to what the politicians have to say here this evening.
“… As a journalist working on radio in the south of Ireland, I can’t remember ever seeing such a … level of interest in the impasse and related events. As Julitta said, I believe there is a lot of concern, I think there are people right across this island keeping their fingers crossed that there is some way forward. On the subject of listening to people I suppose the only relatively scientific thing we have to go on is the Millward Browne IMS poll that was published in the Irish Independent today which showed two significant things. There was a lot of opinion obviously on what happened with the Northern Bank raid but in terms of how it has affected the political situation, it’s very interesting to see that the President of Sinn Fein has plummeted in his popularity, he’s down by 20%, now the least popular leader … and perhaps it’s an indication that all politics is local but Sinn Fein has held onto it’s core vote, or maybe it has not transferred yet. I am sure all of our speakers will have a lot to say on the impasse, but the topic tonight is the future, what is the future? To us it’s unknown, but these are the people I suppose who can shape that future…. I now ask the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern, TD, to begin.
1. Dermot Ahern, T.D. (FF), Minister for Foreign Affairs
[Editor’s note: text of written speech of the Minister is reproduced in the Appendix below]
“First of all, ladies and gentlemen, could I just thank Julitta for the invitation to me to say a few words. She said this was organised very quickly, and it’s true to say that, given the fact that there is a by-election on in this constituency, when I got the request in I said I’d better do this or else Mike Reade will never let me forget it on his programme! I’m not altogether sure about the description of Mike when he says that he just listens, I have to say that, having been on the other side of the phone and the microphone from him he does tend to intervene quite a lot, something that I think most politicians don’t often want! But indeed I have to say that he does conduct a very good show. I want to thank him for participating and to thank my two colleagues also.
Border deputy and constitutional republican: “For those of you who may not know where I come from or what sort of background I come from, I’m a border deputy, I was born and bred and am still living in the Dundalk area. I literally look out every morning on the Mourne Mountains. I regard myself, I have to say, more as a Northerner than as a Southerner, in that most of what would have driven me politically, over my political life, and indeed before my political life given that my own particular area was very badly affected from my memory as a youngster. And I often wonder if the border had been on a different line, perhaps a little bit further south during the start of the Troubles, where would I have ended up?
“But I do say that most of what drives me and has driven me over my political life, which stretches back to 1979, is my view as what I would regard as being a constitutional republican, as John Hume time and time again has said: the need to unite the people on this island in peace and harmony.
Good Friday Agreement: “One of the tenets of the political and armed struggle conflict was, and an excuse for it – I don’t say that I believe that this is the excuse for it – was that 1918 was the last time that the Irish people, in a single act of self-determination on the island, voted as they saw fit. That was transposed by the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. The Good Friday Agreement was the first time since 1918 that the Irish people had, in a single act on the entire island of Ireland, self-determined what they believe was to be the position in the future.
Key principles: “Built into that were a number of key principles. One of the principles was that whatever happened would be on an inclusive basis, and with the consent of the people of Northern Ireland, but also that there would be a legitimate expectation on behalf of the people who voted that all those parties and individuals who were associated with paramilitarism would end that and that the future would be looked at in a totally democratic way, that all political parties who wanted to promote their ideals that they would do so in an exclusively democratic way.
Peace process – 1988 talks: “I have to say that, as Julitta has said, seven years on from the Good Friday Agreement I think it is a source of some dissatisfaction that we are where we are today, that we aren’t further down the road in that goal. The Hume-Adams talks started seventeen years ago. I was asked by the then Taoiseach, Charlie Haughey – he had been asked by Fr. Alec Reid, who was the instigator of the Hume-Adams talks, if Fianna Fail in the Republic would mirror the talks that were taking place at that time between Hume and Adams. It was agreed very secretly – this only came out maybe ten years later – that I, Martin Mansergh and one of your own in this constituency, Richie Healy, on behalf of my party would meet with Gerry Adams, Pat Doherty and Mitchel McLaughlin. In 1988 I was only a young deputy of a year, if it had got out that I as an elected representative, a TD, was meeting these people I think I wouldn’t be standing here today, at least politically. I would have lost my position, very clearly. In fact when I asked Charlie Haughey, he told me these talks were in effect secret, he didn’t know whether word would get out. I said to him that I would participate. I indicated to him that I didn’t believe what he’d said to me that if word of these talks had got out, that in effect I would be on my own. But in any event those talks took place, and the whole tenet of those talks which I participated in was on the basis of the historical comparison between the moving of my party from conflict into constitutional politics. Most of the discussion at that time was the comparison, the similarities. And most of what we were trying to say to the Sinn Féin representatives was in very very tough times, because during those meetings there were some absolutely horrific events taking place across the border which made us, particularly myself and Richie Healy, have great trepidation in the continuation of those talks. I say all that because that was nearly eighteen years ago.
Crossroads: “I fully accept that the situation is far better since then, I fully accept it and I think we all have to give everyone credit on all sides of the political process for the tremendous changes that have taken place on our island. But I believe, as I have said quite frequently in recent times, that we have reached the stage where we are at a crossroads, and particularly I think the Provisional leadership have to accept the will of the people as expressed by the people in vast numbers in the Good Friday Agreement just seven years ago.
Provisional criminality: “I believe that Provisional criminality is the impediment to the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. We met with Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness immediately after the Northern Bank raid took place. We said to them on that occasion that we on this side of the table were prepared – and they knew this – to do some very unpalatable things in the context of an overall settlement, a comprehensive agreement whereby there would be a total end to paramilitarism and criminality. We were prepared to do that, the British Government were prepared to do that. In fact as a result of the discussions that we had in 10 Downing Street – between the Taoiseach, Tony Blair, myself, Paul Murphy, Michael McDowell and indeed the PSNI chief, Hugh Orde and Noel Conroy [Garda Commissioner] – this was before the publication of the documents, there was discussion as to what the British Government had to do in relation to issues like demilitarisation etc. As a result of our meeting it was suggested that Hugh Orde might invite Gerry Adams over in the succeeding days in order to discuss the issue of demilitarisation.
That meeting took place, it was very successful, it was a significant meeting, the first time someone from Sinn Féin met with the leader of the Police Service in Northern Ireland.
Governments prepared to do unpalatable things: “So we were moving in effect to the final hurdle, and this was something that we said after the Northern Bank raid, that we – the British Government and ourselves – had carried out and were prepared to carry out all of the issues that were on the table that we had to do. Some very unpalatable things that would cause severe difficulty to us politically in the Republic and indeed to a certain extent to the British Government.
Acts of completion: two remaining issues: “We told Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness that while we had fallen at the last hurdle in relation to the comprehensive agreement – we published the documents – that there were still 2 key remaining issues:
Full decommissioning, and
An end to paramilitarism and criminality
1) Full decommissioning: “We accept and still accept that there was in words, and also from what our security sources told us, that there was a solid movement in order to provide full decommissioning. We fully accept that that was on the table, that that was possible. Obviously we had to accept people at their word, but the strong suggestion from our security sources was that that was available to us, and we have to come back to that.
2) End to paramilitarism and criminality. “One of the other issues that we said at our meeting after the Northern Bank raid was the issue of the end to paramilitarism and criminality. Tony Blair and the Taoiseach previously, in the Joint Declaration, particularly Article 13 of the Joint Declaration, said that they had to have “acts of completion”, that everything had to be dealt with in a comprehensive agreement. And one of the key issues was the issue of an end to paramilitarism.
IRA statement, December 2004 : “As you may remember in the run up to the publication of those documents in December, it was delayed for about a week, people were wondering why it was delayed. It was delayed purely and simply because – obviously everyone knew about the photographs issue, the transparency issue – but equally so one of the key issues was in relation to the words that would be used in a statement by the IRA. It was indicated to us very late, particularly after the unfortunate words expressed in Ballymena about “sackcloths and ashes” and “humiliation”, that the issue of transparency and photographs was completely off the agenda. It was indicated to us that, while some people within the Provisional movement had no difficulty with the issue of putting in words into the statement in relation to the safety of individuals, that others had. The governments decided, in or around the 6th of December, to proceed with the publication on the 8th December with what we saw was our best estimate of a possible compromise both in relation to the photograph and also in relation to the issue of the words used in the statement about an end to paramilitarism and criminality. Subsequently the IRA issued a statement which omitted the words that we required in the statement. You may say they were only words, but the omission of those words raised a very serious question mark on our behalf, and on the British Government’s behalf, as to why they were not prepared to say these words. What they were prepared to say was that the IRA would go into a new mode, that they were prepared to ensure that their volunteers would do nothing which would endanger the Agreement. What they were not prepared to do was to follow on with additional words and say that they would not do anything that would endanger the safety and lives of public individuals. The omission of those words and the fact that they were not prepared to say those words raised a serious question in our minds.
“I say all that because our impasse at the moment is unfortunate, it’s there, whether we come back to these issues tomorrow, in a year’s time after the election, or whenever, there will still be those two remaining issues: the issue of full decommissioning and the issue of an end to paramilitarism and criminality. We said quite clearly in our meeting that [while] we were prepared to do – and still prepared to do – all the unpalatable issues, we could not solve the issue of decommissioning or paramilitarism. It was only they, on the other side of the table, who could do that.
Commitment to inclusivity: “We make it clear to this day, that despite all that, we’re still in favour of inclusivity. Given the fact that the vast majority of the people on this island, both North and South, voted for a blueprint for the future of this island, we believe they did so on the basis of including both communities. So we believe, despite all the difficulties, that we still have a duty – given the fact that we brought the process so far to the eleventh hour, to the last hurdle – that we still have a duty to investigate and to try and bring it further, and to help those who have these two key issues to deliver.
Responsibility of Provisional movement: “As the Taoiseach said in the Dail this week, in response to the statement by Caoimhín Ó Caolain, we are listening to what you are saying but really, and this is our position, it is up to you. It is up to you to convince not only the governments but also the wider community that, despite all the difficulties of bank raids and previous robberies that have taken place – and we’re quite clear were carried out by the Provisional movement – and indeed by the punishment beatings and shootings that took place as if a tap had been turned on. We got an indication on the 6th of December that it was not possible to produce a photograph, that it was not possible to put in the words in the statement, in relation to not endangering the personal safety and lives of individuals. We published the documents two days later.
Punishment beatings and shootings: “On the 7th December, for the first time in months, the first punishment shooting occurred in Belfast, again clearly indicated not by the PSNI, but by our own sources – and we have officials in Belfast resident all the time. They indicated to us clearly that it was on behalf of the Provisional IRA. After that, from then on, quite a number – about four or five – punishment beatings took place. Before the 7th December, virtually none had taken place during all the discussions that we had.
Finality: “It raises the question: while there is a peace process, there has to be finality in relation to it. And we have to ask: do people want finality to the peace process, or do they want a never-ending peace process, a peace process that is always in crisis, that rumbles from crisis to crisis? This constant crisis, it really diverts attention, in our view, from the real politics that go on in relation to economic and social policies, and the real investigation and the questioning by people like yourselves, both North and South, about the type of policies that political parties have. And I think that’s even more so in the case of Sinn Fein. To a certain extent, everyone thinks that the only issue on the agenda is the peace process, and going from one crisis to the other. But there are other issues, and to a certain extent the constant never-ending peace process does divert Mike Reade’s attention, and all the other media people’s attention, and indeed ordinary individuals, from the type of policies that are being espoused by a party like Sinn Féin.
Why are we questioning? “The very fact that we are questioning – we as a government and I as a member of a constitutional republican party who have the same ideals of Irish unity, who are prepared to work for Irish unity, but not on the basis of violence putting it further and further back, not on the basis of 30 years of what in our view was detrimental to the unification of this country – the very fact that we are questioning the authenticity and the type of trust and confidence that we thought we had with the people we were dealing with is extremely significant, and I think it has to be, I suppose, put up in lights there. But someone like Bertie Ahern particularly, who has invested 10 years of his life in this process, a huge amount of work behind the scenes, a huge amount of work that he could be doing on other issues in relation to the running of this State. People have to ask the question: why are we questioning at this juncture? Because we believe that all the other acts of completion that Tony Blair referred to in that speech to do with the Joint Declaration, that all of the acts of completion are there on the table, the two governments are prepared to do their bit, the two final acts of completion are significant ones, they are the ones that are the key because they are the ones that the people on this island voted to finalise.
North-South bodies and all-island economy: “It is unfortunate that we have a peace process that is stop-start, stop-start. It means that all the structures, particularly the North-South structures, have been hamstrung. I as a constitutional republican, my party, our supporters and I think the vast majority of the people in the Republic and indeed in the North, had great difficulty in regard to the issue of Articles 2 and 3 in the Constitution and the deleting of those, but we did that and we sold that on the basis that the North-South dimension of the Good Friday Agreement was the way forward where we could in effect deal on an equal basis with bodies in the North to the mutual benefit of all of us on this island.
“So the quid pro quo for Articles 2 and 3 were the North-South bodies and the mushrooming of those bodies. Unfortunately they have been hamstrung by the constant stop-start of the peace process which is not good from our point of view or from indeed all of our citizens’ point of view. I say this as someone born and bred in the border area… I don’t want to be over-critical of parties, but for years and years we have heard about all-island and all-Ireland institutions. I well remember, and I say this as somebody who was a minister in the area of energy and telecommunications, we have parties now espousing all-island policies in relation to electricity: literally week in, week out, the electricity interconnector in my constituency was blown up. Again in relation to transport: we have policies coming out now about all-island transport policies: literally every week the rail line was bombed and people were injured. Thankfully we’ve moved away from that.
Practical benefits of all-island economy: “The benefits of an all-island economy are there for everyone to see. For the first time in my life my own area is blossoming, the way it should have done for decades but didn’t because of the conflict on the island, because we weren’t allowed because of the conflict. Who would come to our area, either as a tourist, or as an industrialist to look at our area because of the violence? What better place to site something, halfway between Dublin and Belfast, slap bang between the two centres of population, but it’s only now that the benefits of the peace process are being seen in that area. I say those things because that’s what we are losing, and the potential, if we don’t continue at it.
Gas pipeline: “I was part of a government who dedicated 12.7 million euro towards a gas pipeline in the North. The Department of Finance told the government quite clearly – as they normally would anyway – that there was absolutely no economic rationale for the southern Irish taxpayer giving money across the border for a gas pipeline. The government decided we would do it anyway, we decided that in the interests of cross-community and cross-border cooperation we would do it.
Electricity interconnector: “I was Minister for Energy in relation to electricity particularly. As a result of discussions that have gone on between the Northern minister and myself we now will have a better and bigger electricity interconnector which we badly need in order to transfer electricity particularly from North to South. …These are all practical things that will benefit if the politicians are allowed to get on with the issue of the peace process.
Sometime back, as you know the economy is burgeoning here, there was a difficulty in relation to the capacity of electricity. As a result of a ten-year contract between the ESB and Ballylumford in the North, hundreds of jobs – not nationalist jobs, most of them would be unionist jobs – were saved…..That plant in Ballylumford was actually going to close. That’s a practical manifestation of the benefits.
Again the issue of road and rail interconnection, the issue of tourism which is now dealt with on an all-island basis, mainly for the benefit more particularly of the North rather than the South. We need to get on with these acts, these practical aspects. We can’t do it at the moment because we are hamstrung. We would far rather do it on the basis of dealing with people from the North as ministers, from both traditions, working in harmony because they know and we know that this island can be better and better.
Responsibility on all to promote the peace process: “I agree with Julitta when she said the peace process was not just for the politicians. I’ve said it constantly time and time again that we can only put on paper what we believe are the parameters that the people live to and work with. It is up to trade unions, the employers, the voluntary community sector, the farmers and all aspects of Irish life North and South to promote this peace process more and more. I do say, not in a critical way, that we have to adopt this attitude given that the two remaining key issues are something not in our part… but the sooner that the impasse is over, the work on the Good Friday Agreement in relation to north, south, east and west, will accelerate.
IRA have to go away: “I would just finally say at this gathering, I would appeal to the Provisional movement to listen to the will of the Irish people. It is the epitome of republicanism that those people who espouse republicanism would listen to the will of the people. And the people’s will was expressed, whether they like it or not, in 1998 under the Good Friday Agreement. I’ll end by saying that Gerry Adams said ‘they haven’t gone away you know’, but I say they have to go away.”
Chair (Michael Reade): “Minister, before we go on to the next speaker, just on a point of clarification: you mentioned about the photograph which is to some degree a secondary issue but obviously a very significant issue if a deal is to be reached. You said that you were told in December that it wouldn’t be possible to produce a photograph. Was there an indication as far as you were concerned that that was around the corner last December?
Dermot Ahern, TD: “There was clearly an indication, and there was discussion about a photograph. Constantly as always in these discussions it would be said to us ‘that’s a matter for the IRA’ and ‘we have to go to the IRA’. Now again I would remind people of our solid view based on solid Garda Siochana intelligence that there is no dividing line between the Sinn Fein leadership and the IRA leadership, so, as far as we were concerned, when we were discussing the issue of a photograph, it was clearly on the table, but I have to say that whatever possibility there was for a photograph was blown out of the water, I think we accept that, after Dr Paisley’s speech in Ballymena.”
Chair: Our next speaker is Dominic Bradley, MLA for Newry and Armagh, SDLP candidate in the forthcoming Westminster elections and the party’s spokesperson on Education and the Irish language…..
2. Dominic Bradley, MLA (SDLP)
“…Tá an-athas orm beith anseo I gContae na Mí leis an Grúpa Síochána anseo….. I would like to thank the Meath Peace Group for inviting me here today to speak on where now for the Good Friday Agreement. I was in the College here previously, I came as a schoolboy playing in a basketball tournament, and stayed for the weekend and really enjoyed my time here. It is nice to be back in Dalgan Park again.
“As Michael said, I am the MLA for the SDLP in Newry and Armagh. I come from South Armagh. I was brought up in a small linen village called Bessbrook which is a mixed community. I was brought up side by side with people of a unionist outlook and I am glad to say that the village is still mixed and that community relations there are excellent to this day. My mother used to say to me: “son, wherever you go don’t tell them you’re from Bessbrook.” I was a bit baffled by that so I said to her one day: “ma, why shouldn’t I tell them I’m from Bessbrook?” And she said, “they’d only be jealous of you!” So I’m proud to be from Bessbrook, from County Armagh and from South Armagh.”
Referendum on Good Friday Agreement (1998): “Just to focus in on our topic for discussion here this evening… I think it is useful to look back on where we have come from. To start with I would like to go back to the day that the Good Friday Agreement was approved by the people of Ireland, because, as a party of true republicanism, what the Irish people have willed is what the SDLP is determined to uphold. That day in May 1998 was one of great optimism for the people of Ireland, both North and South, a day when all the people of Ireland were able to vote together for the first time. Their first act of self-determination since 1918. And on that day by clear majorities North and South, the Irish people voted for partnership. They voted for progress and they voted for peace.
Situation today: “Yet now we find ourselves in the position that our institutions have been frozen by suspension. We find progress halted by the dead hand of direct rule and we find our peace threatened by criminality.
What has gone wrong? “Well we might ask ourselves at this point in time: what has gone wrong? Where has the hope and the heady optimism of 1998 gone? Some people argue that the Good Friday Agreement has let us down. But it is my absolute conviction that the Agreement has not failed us. Rather, parties and paramilitaries have failed the Agreement. First of all, we had David Trimble who tried to breach the Agreement by demanding prior decommissioning. Then we had the DUP. They tried to overthrow the Agreement by demanding renegotiation. Now we see the Provisional movement undermining the Agreement through criminality. None of this is what the people of Ireland voted for in May of 1998. None of this is what they want. All of this is a perversion of the will of the people of Ireland. There are some people who don’t take seriously what the people of Ireland voted for. Some people who believe that you can change whatever you like and fall short whenever you need to. I disagree with that. When the people of Ireland express their will, it is the duty I believe of all true democrats to follow.
Duty of Provisional movement: “That is why it is the duty of the Provisional movement now to wind up, as the Minister has said, their criminality, to scrap their guns and to work with the rest of us to secure the rule of law in every part of Ireland.
Loyalist paramilitaries: “The same applies to loyalist paramilitaries who terrorise the nationalist community and who poison their own communities with drugs. They don’t have much of a democratic mandate, but they have a democratic obligation to comply with what the people of Ireland, North and South, voted for.
Nationalists did not vote for criminality: “And just because Sinn Fein does have a democratic mandate, it does not mean that they can cite it to excuse, diminish or deny IRA crime. Because no nationalist voted for Robert McCartney’s throat to be cut. No nationalist voted for Sinn Fein to try to cover up the truth about his murder. No nationalist voted for families to be held hostage and threatened with death. When Sinn Fein hide criminality behind their mandate, they fall short of the democratic standards of the Irish people. And they insult the decent standards of their own voters. Nationalists did not protest for civil rights only to have the right to life of families threatened. Generations did not campaign for justice only to find their elected politicians covering up murder.
Criminality is wrecking the Agreement: “The SDLP respects Sinn Fein’s mandate. We have opposed silly sanctions and exclusion. It is time that Sinn Fein showed the same respect for their mandate and, instead of covering up criminality, worked to end it. Because criminality is ruining the peace process. It is wrecking the Agreement. And it is playing right into the DUP’s destructive agenda, just indeed as Sinn Fein in the negotiations played right into their agenda, they gave the DUP sweeping new vetoes. They accepted not a single extra North-South body or area of cooperation. They even colluded with the DUP to create a new form of automatic exclusion to be used against democratic parties. Why? Because Sinn Fein were not negotiating for national interest. They were protecting the Provisional movement’s self-interest. Getting a blind eye turned to their criminality. Getting an amnesty for the on-the-runs. Ensuring no sight of their decommissioned guns. And what in the end of the day was their “deal breaker”? Release of the killers of Garda McCabe. So much for an Ireland of equals.
SDLP alternative: “The SDLP offers an alternative. The SDLP offers a better way to a better Ireland. We stand strong against paramilitarism and we stand strong for the Agreement. We stand for both a lawful society and an inclusive democracy. We are convinced that this crisis can be overcome and the battle for peace and inclusive democracy won.
Message to the Governments: “Our message to the Governments is clear. Press ahead with the Agreement. Implement it in full. If you want people to know the Agreement is the only agenda, you must show them that it is the only agenda. The announcement of the closure of Girdwood and Oldpark barracks was an important step in the right direction. Now deliver more to ensure a normal, equal, shared society that the Agreement promised. Above all, get politics working again. Just because we cannot get an inclusive Executive right now, there is no reason why things should be left in stalemate. The SDLP have proposals for getting the Agreement moving. They get us out of the rut of suspension without taking us down the dead end of exclusion. They deserve to be implemented. Under our plans, we would end suspension right now. We would restore the Assembly and the North/South institutions straight away. The Assembly would then have six weeks to appoint a new inclusive Executive. If they do, well and good. But if, as may be likely, they don’t we should not just accept suspension of all the institutions just because we cannot get the Executive working right now. Instead, the two Governments should nominate people to run the departments and all of the rest of the Agreement can work on.
Message to the paramilitaries: “Our message to the paramilitaries is firm. Your day is done. We want all paramilitaries – loyalist and republican – off our backs so that our communities can get off their knees.
Message to the political parties: “Our message to the parties of Ireland is strong. Now is the time to reconvene the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation. Now is the time for all parties to set the standards for democracy on the island of Ireland for the 21st century.
We can stand together against paramilitarism, be it republican or loyalist. We can stand together for the Good Friday Agreement. We can remind the DUP, and indeed Sinn Fein, that while they have a mandate, it is not greater than the mandate that the people of Ireland gave the Agreement.
Message to the people: “Above all, our message to the people is sound. The SDLP will work for a stronger mandate to protect the Agreement. Our approach at Leeds Castle in the face of DUP wreckers could not have been better and our mandate will be stronger. If people support parties that have let the Agreement down, they will only keep letting the Agreement down. If they back people who deliver less, they will never deliver more. Above all, what gets rewarded gets repeated. The best way to force the pace on unionists and to force peace from paramilitaries is for people now to show stronger support for the approach of the SDLP. Go raibh mile maith agaibh.”
Chair (Michael Reade): “Just briefly, have the more recent talks been inclusive enough to your satisfaction?
Dominic Bradley: “I think we were probably disappointed that the approach taken by the two governments was to concentrate on the two largest parties, the DUP and Sinn Fein, and to some extent ourselves and other parties were left out in the wings. This has not been helpful. That approach has not delivered comprehensive agreement. The SDLP policy has always been inclusivity, and I’m glad to hear the Minister echoing that here tonight. It was an inclusive approach which led to the Good Friday Agreement in the first place and I think it is an inclusive approach which will lead to the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement in the future.”
Chairperson: “Thank you very much, Dominic… Our third and final speaker is Sinn Fein’s John O’Dowd, MLA for Upper Bann. He is the party’s spokesperson on health in the Assembly and also Sinn Fein’s group leader in the Assembly.
3. John O’Dowd, MLA (Sinn Fein)
“First of all I would like to thank the organisers for their invitation tonight. I used to holiday around here in my early teens, my uncle lives across the back fields here and I used to swim in the outdoor pool in this area as well, as a young child. I have very fond memories of around here, and indeed a local priest who attended to my father when he was very ill was a Columban who is buried here……so I’m back on familiar ground. I listened attentively to the Minister’s speech tonight. I was pleased that we are having a diplomatic but firm and structured conversation. Megaphone diplomacy is not going to solve this problem. Insulting each other is not going to solve this problem. I was disheartened by Dominic’s approach but during the question and answer session we can deal with all of those bits that people have on their minds tonight.
Sinn Fein will not tolerate criminality: “As a republican representative I have responsibilities, as has my party. I will answer and live up to those responsibilities as will my party. We do not underestimate the seriousness of the situation. People across Ireland are concerned that the peace process appears to be in free fall and that ten years of good work and progress is being cast aside. But let me state this again, as a republican representative, as a SF elected representative and as leader of the Assembly group in the Assembly: no republican worthy of the name, whether they be a republican in the Fianna Fail party, or a republican in the SDLP, can be a criminal. They have no room in the ranks of Sinn Féin or any other political party. We in Sinn Fein will not tolerate such behaviour. Our opponents know that, but some can barely disguise their glee at the recent turn of events. There has been trial by media. This night last week, every security journalist on this island was popping up in front of the cameras telling us the rank of each of those people who had been arrested, what rank they were in the IRA down in Cork, how long they had served in the IRA, how many years, what their rank was, what they were doing. Each and everyone of those people has been released, except for one who has been charged with membership of a dissident organisation. And that person has the same right to a fair and open trial as everyone else.
“The only Sinn Fein member arrested on that night has been released without charge, no papers sent to the DPP, nothing. And remember, in this State you can be sentenced for IRA membership on the word of a senior Garda, so if there was even an inkling of guilt there a senior Guard could have stood up in a court of law and said “I believe that person to be a member of the IRA”, and the judge could sentence him to five years. None of that happened. So I say to people here: do not listen to the Jim Cusacks of this world. Listen, and let the Garda investigations continue, and let the truth come out as to what happened.
Criticism of Sinn Fein not new: “Sinn Fein will weather the storm. We’ve been through all this before. Yes this is an intense time of criticism of Sinn Fein. I joined Sinn Fein when I was 18, nineteen years ago. I cannot remember this time when we were great pals with all the other political parties. Journalists will now tell you that Sinn Fein is going through a very bad time, they are isolated from the other parties. I never remember a time when we weren’t, I never remember a time when Sinn Fein was treated like any other political party. Yes certainly Bertie Ahern, Albert Reynolds, all have done massive work for the peace process. We have moved this country on, beyond anyone’s belief even ten years ago, but don’t try and kid me that all those political parties were doing Sinn Féin a favour. Some of the people involved in the whole peace process and across the board were genuine, so they were. I have no doubt that Bertie Ahern, Albert Reynolds and indeed the Foreign Affairs Minister are genuine in what they are doing, but they are not doing it to drag Sinn Fein in from the cold. Sinn Féin elected representatives were brought into this process by their mandate.
Irish unity: “Moving on to Mr Ahern’s comments in relation to all-Ireland work. I am delighted at the work he outlined here tonight. I am delighted that the Minister recognises the need for all-Ireland work, and I hope it continues. This morning I was in Dublin where Sinn Fein launched its campaign for a Green Paper on Irish unity. In 1992 Sinn Fein published a document Towards a Lasting Peace in Ireland, which set out our party’s present peace policy. That document set out the development and evolution of the peace process. This morning we set out our road map for Irish unity, to urge the Irish Government to bring forward a Green Paper and to begin effective planning for Irish unity now. Caoimhin O Caolain said, and I say now, that no party, including my own, has a monopoly on unification. The struggle for Irish independence is not something that is owned by a political party, or a brand useful for electoral purposes.
South Korea: “I acknowledge the Minister has said that his party is committed to unification. I acknowledge Dominic’s party a number of weekends ago in Derry published a document outlining their road map to reunification, and I welcome and congratulate that initiative. But it’s not enough. Let me use a rather different country as an example. In the mid 1950s the South Korean government set up a Ministry of Unification. The sole role of this body is to work for the reunification of Korea. For decades this body has been building links… working on economic initiatives, bringing divided communities together across the most militarised border left in the world. And driving it all is the certainty and hope of the Korean people to be united. It is a certainty I am sure my colleagues on this platform share about the future of the Irish people, whatever community they belong to. But the difference is the South Koreans are planning for it, preparing for it, facing the challenges that will come about with the merger of the two health systems, two economic systems, two education systems.
Government’s responsibility: “We’re conscious that Sinn Fein don’t know all the answers, but we want the debate to start. We want the search for the answers to begin, and the onus of responsibility for this must lie foremost on the Irish Government who need to transform the aspiration for Irish unity into a real goal and to work towards that goal. We are urging the Taoiseach to commission a Green Paper on Irish Unity as the key starting point. All strands of opinion represented in the Oireachtas should be participants in this, and that is why we want to see an all-party Oireachtas Committee on Irish Unity established. We are proposing that a Minister of State should be appointed by the Irish Government with specific responsibility of driving forward the developing policies, actions and strategies to advance the outcome of the Green Paper and to direct and coordinate the government’s all-Ireland politics. Participation by people resident in the North in the democratic life of the nation should be facilitated immediately: bring in Northern representation in the Houses of the Oireachtas and voting rights at Presidential elections. That was one matter in the deal that came apart that Fianna Fail could now move on with. Are they telling us that because Sinn Fein and the DUP can’t agree that Northern elected representatives shouldn’t have speaking rights in the Dail? That doesn’t make sense to me.
“The Irish Government in consultation with the social partners and the community sector, and the non-governmental organisations should begin a process of economic planning on an all-Ireland basis. I emphasise this is not just about the achievement of Irish unity at some time in the future. It is about making a real difference to people’s lives in the here and now. We need to see …coordination of public services, like health, education and transport, maximising the benefits for everyone who shares this island
“I want to invite ordinary members and supporters of Fianna Fail in particular to engage in this debate, and to begin very seriously to assess how the stated aim of their party can be achieved. I would like to invite anyone with an interest to borrow from our ideas and to bring forward their own. Sinn Fein has no copyright on the road map to Irish unity, but most importantly this is an opportunity for the people the length and breadth of this island to play their part in the great project of reuniting our country and our people.
Unionist and loyalist community: “We acknowledge our obligation to reach out to the people on the island who presently do not see a role for themselves in a future Irish Republic, who see themselves as British or unionist. An Irish Republic that is not inclusive of these people as it must be inclusive of new arrivals to our shore from Africa, Asia and Eastern Europe, is not the republic I want to build. We need especially to reach out to the unionist and loyalist working classes who find themselves economically marginalised and abandoned by unionist leaderships.
Sinn Fein support: “Some might ask if the republican cart is before the horse in terms of coming forward with these ideas in the current political climate… The accusations of criminality against Sinn Fein are without foundation. People looking at the Independent poll in this morning’s newspaper will no doubt be asking themselves why in a period of most sustained political and media onslaught on our political party since the historic ceasefire in ’94, our party’s support has remained static. Indeed, Pat Kenny wondered this morning on RTE radio what their continued support for the party said about these people. Pat should understand that these people are ordinary everyday Irish citizens. Sinn Fein voters do not have horns on their heads, their eyes are not closer together, they are ordinary people from every section on this island, 342,000 of them come out in a secret ballot of their own choice, go into the polling station and vote for Sinn Fein. The reality is that the people of this country, and the growing republican vote repudiate… attacks on our party, the baseless accusations made without any evidence, they compare this to their personal experience of Sinn Fein. They compare their experience of Joe Reilly, delivering for the people of Meath, as an innovative campaigner in his local community, as a tireless fighter to vindicate the rights of his constituents. They compare the slurs on the character of Aonghus Ó Snodaigh, T.D., with the picture they have of the man motivated in politics not by greed or careerism, but from a desire to better his community. In short they see through the nonsense, they see through the lies, and more and more they ask themselves: what is the agenda behind this?
“…I spent part of the day in the main shopping centre in Navan, canvassing along with Joe [Reilly] and a few other colleagues. Only one person asked me about the Northern bank robbery, everyone else wanted to know about road infrastructure, schools, hospitals, jobs, etc. That is the debate that is going on out there, not about the Northern Bank robbery. Let me tell you that Sinn Féin will continue to build political support and adopt dynamic policies. The importance of this cannot be over-stressed. It’s worth remembering that in the North we are the largest pro-Agreement party and on the island itself we are the third largest party.
DUP walked away from the deal: “So what of the IRA? No doubt the question will arise tonight, it’s already been mentioned by the Minister and by Dominic… The work of republicans – imagine a republican saying this ten or twenty or thirty years ago – the work of republicans is to create a situation where the IRA no longer exists…. Can you imagine that being said 20 or 20 or 30 years ago? I see Roy Garland in the audience. Through Roy’s experience that has to be an unbelievable statement. What the IRA offered in the December talks, and indeed in October 2003, if it had been offered in any other field of conflict across the globe, it would have been snapped up.
“The DUP decided to walk away from it. I’m glad that the Minister recognised tonight that the statement made in Ballymena by Mr Paisley – the “sackcloth and ashes” – destroyed that. It wasn’t an unfortunate statement. It was a planned statement. It was written by his son, Ian Paisley Óg, who is opposed to any agreement on any grounds, not only with republicans but with nationalists. On the platform that night with Ian Paisley and Ian Paisley’s son was Alan Murray, former head of the RUC Special Branch. Alan Murray led the raid by the PSNI into Stormont buildings 27 months ago which brought down the Stormont Executive. 27 months on from then, not one of the five people who were charged have been brought to trial, in fact two have been released without further charge, no evidence, and the serious charges brought against those people, of spying on the NIO, have been dropped. Now, people ask us to join up to that police force, people ask us to have faith in that police force! Alan Murray was the sidekick of Ian Paisley the night Ian Paisley destroyed the chance of an agreement. “
British Army presence: “Sinn Fein’s role is to remove all guns from Irish politics. When the Minister looks out his window in the morning and looks across the Mourne Mountains and across the North, I wonder does he see the British Army spy posts that ring South Armagh, does he see the British Army helicopters, does he see the British Army foot patrols as do people in my constituency? The British Army still control my constituency, after 7 years of the Good Friday Agreement.
IRA not the only difficulty: “The IRA have a responsibility to deal with the issues that the IRA have. The republican goal is to remove the IRA from the field, but they are not the only difficulty facing the Northern peace process. Dominic referred to the DUP as the wreckers. We haven’t heard that since December. When the deal fell apart, young Alan McBride, who lost his wife and his daughter in the Shankill bombing by the IRA, and who has every right to hate, despise and mistrust republicans, turned round in a media interview and challenged Ian Paisley as to why he walked away from that deal. I think that was the fear more than anything, that ordinary workingclass Protestants were beginning to question their own political leadership and that is why we are in the crisis we are in today. Thank you.”
Chair (Michael Reade): “Thank you… Very briefly, I get the impression that you implied there was some sort of slur campaign against Joe Reilly in this [by-election] campaign, did I hear that right? Has Joe Reilly been in some way targeted in this by-election campaign because of the impasse?
John O’Dowd: “No I don’t believe so.”
Chair (Michael Reade): “I didn’t understand you correctly. Now I’m going to take questions and I hope people will be as brief as possible….”
QUESTIONS AND COMMENTS (Summary)
Q1. Henry Mountcharles: “I have two questions for the Minister, and two questions for John O’Dowd.
(i) Release of McCabe killers: “First of all, Minister, you referred to ‘unpalatable things’. I wanted to know whether you were specifically including in this the release of the killers of Garda McCabe?
(ii) Sinn Fein’s economic policy: “Secondly, in my view quite rightly, you made reference to this constant crisis in the peace process and that this distracted political parties from real politics. In that context I wanted to know whether you agree with your colleague, Dr. James McDaid, who described Sinn Féin as being economically illiterate?
(iii) & (iv) Murder of Robert McCartney: “John O’Dowd, in your remarks you said, with reference to criminality, “Sinn Féin will not tolerate such behaviour” In that respect I would like to ask you a few questions: do you know the identity of the person or persons who were responsible for the murder of Robert McCartney, and would you recommend anyone who does know the identity of the person or persons who killed Robert McCartney to go to the PSNI?
Dermot Ahern, TD: (i) “In relation to the unpalatable things, yes, the release of Garda Jerry McCabe’s killers was one of the unpalatable things which was put on the agenda as one of the key issues that had to be addressed in a comprehensive agreement. It was put on the agenda by Sinn Féin and they made it quite clear that it had to be one of the issues dealt with in the acts of completion, the comprehensive settlement. It was indicated in the context of an overall settlement, that if all of the issues including full decommissioning and an end to paramiltarism etc… that the Government would look at that issue.
(ii) Sinn Fein’s economic policy: “In relation to the constant crisis, while I wouldn’t particularly agree perhaps with the hyperbole of “economically illiterate”, I do make the point very strongly that this constant crisis in the peace process does divert all our attentions, particularly in the Republic, from the economic policies of Sinn Féin. I made a statement in Hillsborough which was misconstrued. I said that I do look forward to the day when Sinn Féin are in government. I didn’t say that I wanted them in government with Fianna Fail. In fact, they would be the least likely party as far as I would be concerned with whom I would want to coalesce, particularly in relation to the issue of economic policy.
“Because I don’t think there is anybody in this room who actually knows what the policy is in relation to dramatic increases in taxation which they put into their policy document no later than the last local election. Nobody questioned them in the media. The only organ that I actually saw doing a forensic examination of Sinn Féin’s economic policies, and their desire for a 32-county socialist republic, the only organ in my view was an excellent article, or series of articles, in the Irish Examiner where they went through line by line the implications of the economic policies of Sinn Féin which was, in effect, I would say, all things to all men and women. So, while I wouldn’t describe them as economically illiterate – I do think that we have to pay respect to political parties and the policy documents that they bring out – but I do say that our attention, the public’s attention, to their other policies has been clouded and diverted by the constant crisis in the peace process.
Chair: “Thank you. John O’Dowd, if I could ask you to restrict your answer to the two specific questions asked of you…
John O’Dowd, MLA: (iii) & (iv) “…I personally do not know the name of the person who killed Robert McCartney. But I repeat what was said the day after that murder happened: anyone who feels comfortable going to the PSNI with information should do so. Anyone who does not feel comfortable going to the PSNI should contact a solicitor or a respected member of the community. Now, while that stance of Sinn Féin has been criticised, especially by the SDLP, it is worth noting that after the investigation by the Police Ombudsman into the murder of Sean Browne, a senior GAA official in south Derry … and the Ombudsman’s office found that the police investigation was a shambles, when the PSNI went to reinvestigate that murder, they published leaflets and posters stating “anyone who does not want to contact us, go to their solicitor, or local priest”…And Mr Adams turned around today and said – reflecting the views of Mr Ahern – that it “is the patriotic duty of anyone with information on the murder of Robert McCartney to bring that forward so that the families can receive justice…”
Questioner: “I think I am right in saying that unless statements are given directly to the PSNI, they are hearsay and not admissible in court. I’m sure the Minister as a former solicitor could confirm that?”
John O’Dowd, MLA: “Perhaps you could ask the PSNI as to why they issued those leaflets in south Derry when they reopened their investigation into the murder of Sean Browne?”
Dermot Ahern, TD: “While people could give statements to solicitors, the key issue is whether they would go into court and publicly give evidence. I didn’t refer to the McCartney issue, I don’t want to be accused of playing politics, but I will say this: the family clearly stated to me that they knew the people involved and that literally everyone in the community knew the people involved, that there were at least 50 people who were clear witnesses to the incident and none of them have come forward. And many of them were leading members of Sinn Féin, who worked for Sinn Féin, in the area, and are well-known as workers for Sinn Féin. So, it’s quite clear, and I am just making the point that was made to me, I am not making it in a political way, that they said to me while statements of Gerry Adams publicly exhorting people to go to the appropriate authorities, whatever they were in his mind, that the action on the ground has not been followed on by those people. And they were people saying that who quite clearly and specifically said that they voted for Sinn Féin over the years.”
Chair: “Just one point, is it acceptable to Sinn Féin if the end result in this McCartney murder is that senior members of the IRA, or IRA members of any description, are arrested by the PSNI and then taken to court?
John O’Dowd, MLA: “Whoever is guilty for the murder of Robert McCartney, whether it was a republican or otherwise, we support the terms of the family in this, that they receive justice, and in the family’s terms that is through the courts”.
Q2. Cllr. Brian Fitzgerald (former Labour TD for Meath); disappointment with Sinn Féin: “….Like a lot of people I feel badly let down, because I, like others took a lot of risks over the years to try to bring Sinn Féin in from the cold. You claimed that the only reason Sinn Féin were being brought in from the cold was because of their mandate. That is not correct. They did not have a mandate when they were brought in from the cold, because they only had then started to recognise this State, they refused to recognise our courts, they refused to recognise Dail Éireann, and in fairness to people like Albert Reynolds and the Downing Street Declaration was the real commencement of bringing Sinn Féin in from the cold. And the reason I feel so disappointed is when I read on a daily basis the refusal of Sinn Féin and their colleagues to define what is a crime. There is no doubt in our minds as to what is a crime. A crime is a crime whether we are talking about Robert McCartney, or any other person, or indeed Dominic’s colleague, John Fee, who was beaten within an inch of his life. That is a crime in my eyes.
“So please don’t come here and start telling us we are all against you. We have not been against you. We’ve bent over backwards to bring you in from the cold, as Dermot has already said. We’ve done everything possible. What I would like to ask you is, if you’re not prepared to decommission, if you’re not prepared to end criminality, will you please ask the IRA to say three words: that their military war is over, and that will go a long way in restoring peace on this island.”
John O’Dowd: “Could I just ask what political party are you a member of?”
Cllr. Fitzgerald: “I’m asking you…” [interruptions]
Chair: “He’s an independent, former Labour TD…”.
John O’Dowd, MLA: “…. I’m delighted to hear more and more people are taking an interest in the peace process… but if you had been following the whole issue right up to December, and had seen what the IRA were prepared to do, the IRA were prepared to leave the field of conflict, they were prepared to put all their weapons beyond use by Christmas, and the DUP walked away, and were allowed to walk away. This issue of criminality was brought up by Mary Harney in the Dail when she got Bertie Ahern out of the room. She brought it up in the Dail when Bertie Ahern was out of the room… Now who is the lead party in the Coalition? Is it the PDs or is it Fianna Fail?
Chair: “We’ve gone a bit away from the question…”
Dermot Ahern, TD; re IRA statement in December: “I just want to make a point. That was the first time the issue was vented in public. There was constant discussion on the issue of the words used and the inability of Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness to arrange, call it what you like, that the words “not endangering the personal safety and lives of public individuals.” They were not prepared to put those into the statement, which, well before Mary Harney got up on her feet, raised the issue as to why they were not prepared to say that …I want to make that quite clear. The efforts to try and suggest that there is some tail wagging some dog in government, that is not correct. We are absolutely ad idem in relation to this.”
Chair: “I’m just getting some information that I am sure will be of interest… apparently in the last hour there was a statement issued by the IRA stating that three IRA members have been expelled in relation to the Robert McCartney murder… I’ll take the next question.”
Q3. Roy Garland (Ulster Unionist, Belfast); re Irish unity: “I was very interested in all that has been said. I’m particularly struck by the way that John O’Dowd emphasised the Irish unity thing. I want to ask you why?
“You said that in Navan the questions people were asking were about housing, social issues and so on. It begs the question… It seems to me that many working class unionists whom you talked about would find no problem with that, in fact I think you could get votes if that was all it was about, ordinary everyday issues. But the united Ireland thing, in view of the fact that the unionist community has faced 30-odd years of constant barrage, killing, shooting and maiming, obviously a complex issue, towns and villages absolutely destroyed. I grew up in the Shankill, I know Alan McBride, I knew the fish shop that was blown up, the time that Alan McBride’s relatives were killed, in fact a distant relative of mine was killed there, I went in there as a kid with my mother, I still remember it. That community was devastated by what the IRA did. If you’re promoting unity, particularly if you still have an armed wing, and in view of the hurt that has caused, is it not first of all counter productive, and why do you insist on it as being so important, I thought you were going to say it was a sacred duty, and when it is so alienating to us as unionists, why do you persist when it seems so counter-productive?”
John O’Dowd, MLA: “I’m not the only person at the table who supports a united Ireland.
In fairness, the unionist community are not the only people who suffered during the 30 years of conflict. The uncle that I mentioned at the start, the reason he had to move was because his two sons and his brother were shot dead in the house on the one night. The unionist community are not the only people who suffered….Now, in relation to Irish unity, it is the stated political goal of Sinn Féin that we believe in reunification of the island of Ireland. We believe in it because it is economically viable, and it is the right of the Irish people to live in the one nation. Now, we want the unionist community to come in on that debate. I don’t expect the unionist community to roll over …..they have a major role to play in any re-unified State. They will make up over one million of the population in a united Ireland, they are less than 2% of the United Kingdom. Where do their economic loyalties lie? I am not lecturing unionists but in my opinion, unionism will flourish better in a united Ireland than it has done under partition.”
Dominic Bradley, MLA: “Could I come in here? The SDLP also believes in Irish unity. We believe that the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement can work within a united Ireland and that the unionist population will have the same rights and protections afforded to nationalists currently under the Agreement. But I think that the way we get to Irish unity is through cooperation, working together and persuading the unionist population. And I think it is a democratic principle that political parties have the right to persuade those who are opposed to them to come round to their point of view. And indeed the SDLP has done this down through the years. Sunningdale was opposed by Sinn Féin, by the DUP and by elements of the Ulster Unionist Party. The SDLP worked at that formula, they didn’t give it up until it was encapsulated again in the Good Friday Agreement.
“If Sinn Féin seriously want to persuade unionists that they can be trusted to be partners with them in a united Ireland, well they are going to have to become a totally peaceful and political party. The Provisional movement at the moment, as the Taoiseach has pointed out, and as those of us who live in the North know, is two sides of the same coin. There is a military wing and there is a political wing, and there is an overlap in membership somewhere there. We are aware of that. If the criminality which the Minister mentioned earlier on continues – for example my own constituent Frank Kerr was murdered in a post office robbery in Newry, constituents of mine have been beaten up in punishment beatings, horrific punishment beatings where they were battered with nail-encrusted sticks within an inch of their lives to the extent that their skin was torn off their backs – if this continues, it’s not going to convince anybody that Sinn Féin can be trusted as partners in a united Ireland. Danny Morrison once espoused the policy of “the ballot box in one hand and the armalite in the other”. That policy, as far as I can see, still continues. The ballot box is still in one hand, it might be more stuffed with votes now, but the armalite is still there as a silent threat, the paramilitary wing is still there as a silent threat, and those things are used as bargaining chips in the peace process and this stop-start element in the peace process suits that type of bargaining.”
John O’Dowd, MLA: “Could I just ask Dominic, if all these things are true, why did people in Newry-Armagh, in his constituency, go into the privacy of a polling booth and outvote his party in Sinn Féin’s favour two to one?
Dominic Bradley, MLA: “I think that nationalists in the North, like people in the SDLP and in other parties, have attempted to give Sinn Féin the space to rid themselves of criminality and of the connection with a paramilitary organisation. I believe that Sinn Féin have not yet lived up to the expectations of that mandate. “
Q4. Steve McColl (Ulster Unionist, Belfast). “I have two questions…
(i) “Question for John O’Dowd, what does the principle of consent mean in the Good Friday Agreement? What does that mean to you?”
(ii) “Question for Dermot Ahern: “how long do we have to wait on Sinn Féin? You are the government of the Republic of Ireland, not the IRA army council, surely you have responsibility to be the government, not to tolerate this group of people?”
John O’Dowd, MLA: “…. In terms of consent, what I believe consent means in the Good Friday Agreement is that the Irish people have the right to make their own decision without coercion from an outside force …
Steve McColl: “Do we have any say in our destiny?”
John O’Dowd, MLA: “Yes.”
Steve McColl: “And if we vote against Irish unity…”
John O’Dowd: “If there’s a vote of 51% for a united Ireland are you going to respect it?…I respect the right of the Irish people to make free choices without outside coercion…”
Dermot Ahern, TD: “Could I come in here? … John Hume said that the question of uniting Ireland is more about uniting the people who live on the island. It goes to the issue of consent. And I would just pose this: if the day comes when there is a 50% + 1 majority on the island, as per the Good Friday Agreement, in favour of a united Ireland, under the Good Friday Agreement that’s to happen. But we all know, our history tells us, that unless we have…. And that gives the allegiance of the desire and the hope for us who espouse a united Ireland to work to, but I am one of those people, and I think my party is one of those parties, who believe that we have to create the conditions long before that is to happen, whereby it is absolutely accepted that instead of the nationalists in the North being a small minority, or a relatively big minority in the North, that the unionists in an all-island context – post 50% + 1 – are not a very dangerous and unhappy minority within the all-island context. I haven’t read the Sinn Féin document in relation to Irish unity, I will eventually read it. I will say this before I read it – and I have to read the document – that the blueprint for anyone who espouses republicanism or nationalism is the Good Friday Agreement, for a united Ireland. It is up to us well in advance of the day that there is a 50% + 1, if that day is ever reached, to have the conditions created where, as a businessman just last night said to me, from clearly the unionist tradition, clearly even a DUP supporter, that he understood as most ordinary unionists understood that there is an entirely legitimate reason why we should work on an all-island basis for the benefit of all our people. We can work on those things but it has to be done on the basis of mutual understanding and consent. In my view, the blueprint for any nationalist for a united Ireland is not the document of Sinn Féin, or of the SDLP, or of Fianna Fail, it is the Good Friday Agreement which has the entire mandate of the Irish people.”
Questioner: “I accept what you say but you still haven’t answered my question. How long do we have to wait for Sinn Féin?
Dermot Ahern, TD: “Sorry, I was answering the first part. How long do we have to wait? The main tenet of the Good Friday Agreement is inclusion, and, whether we like it or not, the electorate in the North have dealt the cards in the last election and that is the DUP on the one side and Sinn Féin on the other. We as governments have to deal with the situation as dealt with in the democratic decision. Even the SDLP accept that we cannot move ahead to the exclusion of Sinn Féin on the basis that the principle of the Good Friday Agreement was on the basis of inclusivity of a settlement. The SDLP have some very good proposals as to how we get out of the impasse, and Dominic referred to them earlier and my Department is looking at them. The only problem is they don’t have the possibility of cross-community agreement. Similarly the unionists have proposals for a voluntary coalition, but equally so, those proposals don’t have the element of cross-community consent. So we have to find ways to move things on. But I can assure the listeners that we will proceed with all of the elements in the Good Friday Agreement that we can operate, and that can be operated in and around the issue of unfortunately the lack of movement in regard to putting back in place the Assembly and Executive….”
Chair: “Could you be more specific in that Minister? ….Will that be in 2007?
Dermot Ahern, TD: “I can’t say that. I do think that time is not on our side in relation to all of these things. Every time there has been a vacuum, there have been difficulties. I think unfortunately for the last number of weeks there has been megaphone diplomacy, and that’s not a good thing because ultimately we have to pick up the pieces. Some things have to be said but as long as we can understand that the trust and confidence has to be built. I mean I question, what would have happened if the DUP had gone into government in March and this bank raid or the punishment beatings had taken place? What would have happened?”
Q.5. Jim Owens; re helping people in other conflicts: “Minister, your brief is local but you have a global brief as well. You and the other speakers have spoken about the long years of work … working through this particular conflict and how to cope with what you called unpalatable aspects. I’m asking you how you can use this painful learning to be tolerant of other countries, in particular in the developing world, and I have a particular interest in Sierra Leone in Africa, to support them in coping with their conflicts and to recognise the incredible amount of resources and energy and time it takes. We can learn from this local issue and help other communities …. We have to acknowledge it is a big investment. … Could you as Minister comment on that?”
Dermot Ahern, TD: “Just very briefly, a fortnight ago I spent some time in New York and I met with Kofi Annan and his senior adviser and other UN officials. We offered, on behalf of the Irish Government and the Irish people, any resources, particularly in the post-Presidency situation in which we built up quite a lot of expertise. We offered the UN our services in any of the conflicts in the world that Kofi Annan wished to delegate us to. You might have seen recently, one of the Assistant Commissioners of the Garda Siochana was nominated to head up the investigation into the murder of the former Lebanese Prime Minister. That was the first manifestation of our offer to use our experience of the discussions in relation to the peace process in order to assist in other conflicts. And indeed Julitta referred to the grant that the Meath Peace Group got from my Department, we grant-aided also a specific grant to the Glencree Centre in order to allow them to bring people in from the Palestinian-Israeli conflict to Ireland on a regular basis, over a three-year period, in order to learn from the experience here in Ireland.”
Q. 6. Marie MacSweeney. “I am not affiliated to any political party or organisation. Before I make my comment, I’d like to clarify with the Minister when he talks about ‘public individuals’. I presume you mean citizens and not just people who are as important as you?”
Dermot Ahern, TD: “Oh yes citizens.”
Marie MacSweeney; re degradation of language: “Thank you. I was one of the people who voted against the Good Friday Agreement and I did that after much thought because I considered the part that provided for the release of prisoners, people who may have committed murder yesterday or last week or last month or last year, I felt that to release people like that and to reward them for their violence was to give violence energy. I was very concerned about that so I voted against it. But it was supported by the majority of the people and I supported their decision after that and I thought it would work. I expected in the beginning that the decommissioning would start very soon and I think the Minister has said that military ways should have been abandoned early on. I checked with friends of mine when I became dismayed that this wasn’t happening. I asked them did they feel that the Agreement meant that decommissioning should start soon and all my friends and people I asked said yes.
“But in the public arena something different was happening and this is where the ‘F’ word came in, the big ‘F’ word which I think has been responsible for a lot of the disasters in the peace process, and the word is ‘fudge’… One of the early casualties of the Agreement has been language, the use of language, and it’s still with us. Caoimhín Ó Caolain in the Dail last week, later on when he became converted to pacifism, said that he was against any kind of criminality and that Sinn Féin were against any kind of criminality. I think perhaps 99.9% of English-speaking people in the world would know what that meant, but we don’t know what he meant.
“And that’s part of the problem. I would suggest that the degradation of language has been a huge problem, and if there are any further proposals and plans to be made as part of this peace process and as part of the requirement for decommissioning, that the language should be luminous, that each word should be clear and unequivocal and precise so that everybody knows what they mean and everybody knows what everybody else means and we can take it from there. Thank you.”
Chair: “Thank you, I think that was a statement rather than a question so I will take another question…”
Q.7. “I’m a voter, I voted for the Good Friday Agreement … … I want to comment on the Dublin –Monaghan bombings and the fact that nobody has been brought to justice over those terrible atrocities. Also, the McCartney killing was a terrible act, a dreadful act.
Dublin and Monaghan bombings: “…that was a crime, murder, but nobody has been brought to bear… …. why hasn’t the British Government, the Irish Government, why haven’t they brought those people to bear? …The forensic evidence was there, fingerprints, everything. … Really and truly, everything to do with collusion must be put on the table. If there is any trust to be brought to the PSNI, and indeed to our own Garda Siochana……I can’t believe that our own State and the British State – that these people can go about their business with no accountability whatever.”
Dermot Ahern, TD: “Like your comment on the last speaker, I would regard that as a comment rather than a question. …
Chair: “Well, let me put the question… perhaps you would address the refusal of the British authorities to cooperate in terms of the investigation?”
Dermot Ahern, TD: “There have been inquiries in relation to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and in fact I was instrumental at Cabinet level recently in making sure that not only would the Dublin and Monaghan bombings be investigated but the ones in Dundalk which happened as well, where people were killed as well, and some times are forgotten about….. I mean there’s no easy answer in relation to why we don’t have finality in relation to that. Obviously proving cases in court is… you know we live in a democracy and the Guards may have views in relation to it… Similarly in relation to the Northern Bank, while the Government were able to give our opinion based on intelligence that the Garda Siochana had given us, the issue of prosecution ultimately will be for the authorities in the North as regards prosecuting people ultimately for that particular incident. So we have made, and this government particularly has made, every effort we can and every exhortation to the British Government to provide assistance and cooperation in relation to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, as we have done in relation to the Finucane, Nelson, O’Neill and all the other incidents where it is believed that collusion has been part of it. So I can assure you that these issues are constantly on our agenda in raising this with the British Government.”
Chair: “It’s ten o’clock. We said we’d finish at ten o’clock but we’ll take a couple more questions. We have a long list of people and we’re going to have to leave some disappointed. John O’Dowd, I think you want to respond?”
John O’Dowd, MLA: “I think it’s important to remember this. Collusion was IRA propaganda for 25 years. None of the other political parties on this island were prepared to stand up to the British Government which was acquiescing with loyalist paramilitaries on this island to kill nationalists. The Dublin and Monaghan bombings are a clear example of that there. The British Government, who are now lecturing Sinn Féin on ensuring that evidence is given in relation to the McCartney killing, is hiding evidence from the Irish Government in relation to the murder of citizens in Dublin and Monaghan. The British Government at this present time is putting legislation through the House of Commons to restrict evidence to the Pat Finucane inquiry, the Rosemary Nelson inquiry…. All that is going through, and these are the same people on the high moral ground in Westminster and every where else lecturing republicans on justice. Those are the serious questions that need to be answered. “
Q.8. John Clancy; timeframe for end to paramilitarism: “I have a question for John O’Dowd. First of all, welcome and it’s great that you have come here and we are having this discussion. The Minister has been very clear, and he said, as I understand it: an end to decommissioning is one of the prerequisites, the end to criminality and paramilitarism. Now I understand you to say that one of the parts of the peace process as far as you are concerned is creating the situation where the IRA is no longer required. …Now I’ve asked a specific question… Has that situation arrived? If it hasn’t, is it another 6 months, 1 year, 20 years, before the IRA is no longer needed?”
John O’Dowd, MLA: “No, I haven’t used the word ‘needed’…. With respect, your notes aren’t neutral. What I said was that republicans were creating a situation that the IRA would no longer be in the field of conflict….”
Questioner: “Can you answer – is it 6 months more for the IRA to be there?”
John O’Dowd, MLA: “Ask the Minister ….” [interruptions] ….Do you want me to answer the question…..?”
Chair: “Let him answer the question…”
Questioner: “I beg your pardon…”
John O’Dowd, MLA: “Exactly, show a slight bit of respect. Ask Minister Ahern. Minister Ahern is telling us that there mightn’t be talks until 2006, 2007, and indeed some political pundits in the North are telling us that there won’t be political talks until after the elections here in the 26 counties. So, I want to create the political situation where all armed groups leave the scene, including the IRA, and that’s my goal in politics…”
Dermot Ahern, TD: “Lest anyone think that I said that the talks wouldn’t take place until 2007 or after the next election here in the Republic: we are ready, willing and able to – and we accept that the public may have a different view – but we are still prepared to engage in an inclusive basis with a party like Sinn Féin, but we have to make it absolutely clear. We believe we are at a crossroads in this regard, in that 17 years on from Hume-Adams, 7 years on from the Good Friday Agreement, that it is quite clear that the move to exclusively democratic and peaceful means is now, in that the two remaining issues are decommissioning and paramilitarism.
Twin track approach: “And the fear is, and the breakdown in any trust that we as a Government had, that the British Government had, that the wider community, not least the unionist community had, is that the political project as we often hear talked about by Sinn Féin is a project, and they’re getting a mandate, there’s no doubt about that, but are they doing it on the basis that there ‘s a twin track and that they are prepared to continue the twin track approach … as long as they are able to do that and the more they can do that the better it is, that they will ultimately go exclusively political but that they will do it in their time. And in the meantime, robbery to fund very substantially their organisation, but also the threat of general going back to war, the threat that’s always unspoken and the difficulty of the soft man/hard man within the Provisional movement, this sort of thing that’s always said. We saw a bit of it in one of the tabloids this week, you know, that there are hard men in the organisation who want to go back to war and of course there are soft men who want to do all the nice things that we all want to do, and that’s to be democratic.
“Be under no illusion: there is no space between the Sinn Fein leadership and the IRA leadership in relation to this. Be under no illusion. And that raises the question with us which was confirmed by the bank robbery but also the turning on of the tap of punishment beatings and based on security advice. I mean Tony Blair did say in 10 Downing Street, that there had been creative ambiguity over the last number of years to try and bring people … we are now stating quite clearly, and we are ready, willing and able to engage in discussions again but it has to be on the clear understanding that the goal will be reached very quickly in relation to the issues of full decommissioning and paramilitarism etc.”
Chair: re IRA split: “Very briefly Minister…. on the question of a pending split in the IRA Gerry Adams said he wouldn’t be drawn, that he couldn’t speak for the IRA. What’s your opinion: are you fearful of a split in the Republican paramilitary movement?”
Dermot Ahern, TD: “I’m not going down that road because I don’t believe – particularly based on the security and intelligence advice that we get – that there’s a question of a split. There might be one or two who are unhappy and there might be one or two who go off and do their own thing but the hold that the leadership of the Provisional movement, and I include everyone, on the organisation is absolutely rock solid. I don’t think that the public should be under any illusion, and that’s why people like Bertie Ahern, who’s not particularly known for his tough stance – people often say that he’s a conciliator – he is absolutely resolute on this on the basis that he believes that the time is now for people to decide. There’s a fork in the road – is it that way towards politics, or is it that way towards a bit of politics and a bit of criminality and the threat behind it all?”
Q.9. Ann McQuillan (SDLP, Fermanagh): “…First of all, I would like to say to John [O’Dowd], I remember well the murder of your people, that was a most appalling act among many appalling acts that took place in that area at that time. I have a feeling that a few of your people were also in the SDLP?
John O’Dowd, MLA: “My father was, yes….”
Ann McQuillan: “I’m very sorry that you aren’t!”
Inclusivity and December deal: “Now, this question of inclusivity, with reference to the agreement in December, it seems to me to be very flawed. I sat on the executive of our party for 10 years at least and I have seen a lot of people, John Hume, Seamus Mallon, our present leader, a lot of people working very hard to bring peace to our country, to build and build and build what became the Good Friday Agreement.
“There’s been many disappointments, many setbacks, but we built it and those people worked for it. They didn’t just work in the last 10 years, they worked for the last 30 years, more, for that kind of inclusivity. Now when this last agreement came out I was very disappointed to see that the Agreement had been changed, that instead of the Leader and Deputy Leader being chosen as one unit, and the idea of that as I understand it was so that they would have to act as a unit. That’s now been put aside so that Sinn Fein could elect their man and the DUP could elect their man, so everybody could be in their own little corners and they could split the country as they liked into republican or DUP. Then came the matter of inclusivity. When it came to voting on those things, it was to be that the DUP voted for their man, Sinn Fein voted for their man, and if the SDLP and/or the unionists decided not to vote for them they could not become ministers. Now where is the inclusivity in that? We have heard nothing, particularly from Sinn Fein… Is the inclusivity exclusivity? Then it transpired that if Paisley resigns as leader and Peter Robinson comes in, then any other party who doesn’t vote yes is automatically excluded. Can you comment on that?” [tape break]”
Dermot Ahern, TD: “First of all, it was built into the Good Friday Agreement that there would be review after a period. … Given the political cards we were dealt with, the DUP and Sinn Fein being in effect in the driving seat in the negotiations…. but we did keep the SDLP and all the other parties fully informed on a constant basis…..there was confidentiality on some issues but the general basis was explained. I can assure you we got the Attorney General’s advice on this issue…. I know that the SDLP alleged that some of the tenets of the Good Friday Agreement were watered down. That was not the case. The Attorney General was absolutely satisfied, the principle of inclusivity was sacrosanct.
“In relation to the tactical issue of voting, again in the document it’s built in… We had to deal with the situation that people in the North didn’t really believe that Paisley would sit down with Martin McGuinness and work together as First Minister and Deputy First Minister. That had to be put up to them. We put it together in such a way that that would have happened in March of this year. We had to put it up to them, and that there would be no fall-back position.
“I can assure you that one of our overriding principles was to ensure the parties like the SDLP and Ulster Unionists were fully involved in the project…”
Dominic Bradley, MLA: “My understanding is that these changes did not come out of the review of the Good Friday Agreement, the review was never actually completed, but they came out of negotiations involving the two main parties. In the original version the joint election of First Minister and Deputy First Minister was a key part of the Good Friday Agreement, it was the flagship symbol of cooperation and we believe it was changed to suit Ian Paisley who didn’t want his name to be on the same ticket as Martin McGuinness.
“It was wrong… it sent the wrong message out. Instead of sending the message out that this whole project was about reconciliation and partnership, it sent the completely opposite message out. And you’re right when you say that parties like the SDLP who would have voted against that under the new arrangements they would have been excluded from ministerial office…..
“But on the wider issue of peace and inclusiveness, we are at the stage now where, as the Minister said, all parties must be operating on an equal footing, they must be all operating on totally democratic and peaceful means, and that means that parties which are not operating on that basis will have to ensure that they are, as the Minister said, in the very near future.”
Chair: “I’m conscious that a lot of you have long distances to travel. We’ll take one final question.”
Q.10. Pat Lynch: Re ambiguity: “This problem with the Northern Bank robbery and the attendant analysis that has taken place, up to now it’s been all politics, now it’s real, it’s about money. And the question is what republicanism means, what big ‘R’ republicanism means, and what the physical force tradition is….Up to now there has been a certain ambiguity in some of the republican parties. There now can be no ambiguity… some people have alleged that Fianna Fail started the Provisional IRA… There needs to be an unequivocal denial of any government involvement in any armed organisation…. Will something good come out of this? Will we question our values as to the physical force tradition?”
Dermot Ahern, T.D. “I don’t think that anyone other than yourself could believe that Fianna Fail started the Provisional IRA.”
Dominic Bradley, MLA: ”I believe we have come to a defining moment in the process. We talked earlier on that a certain amount of space had been given to the Provisional movement to become totally and exclusively democratic and political. That hasn’t happened but recent events have underscored the need for that to happen. People in Sinn Féin will have to start seriously addressing these problems. That is demanded by the people of Ireland and by all the parties in the country, and it’s going to have to happen sooner rather than later, and I think that good will come out.”
Closing the evening’s discussion, Michael Reade thanked the speakers for their contributions and he thanked the Meath Peace Group for a very interesting meeting. On behalf of the Meath Peace Group, Canon John Clarke thanked everyone for coming and paid particular thanks to the chairperson, the speakers and to St Columban’s College for facilitating the talk. He announced that the next talk, “Where do we go from here?” to be held on Monday 7th March, would be addressed by Professor Paul Bew, Sean Farren, MLA (SDLP) and Jim Wells, MLA (DUP).
Meath Peace Group report, May 2005 ©Meath Peace Group
Taped by Judith Hamill (audio tape) and Jim Kealy (videotape)
Transcribed and edited by Julitta Clancy
This is the 54th public talk since the series commenced in September 1993. Reports and/or summaries of many of the previous talks are available on request from the committee (contacts below) and are also on the website: www.meathpeacegroup.org
Meath Peace Group would like to thank the Dept of Foreign Affairs Reconciliation Fund for grant assistance towards the expenses of running the talks.
APPENDIX: Text of written speech of the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Dermot Ahern TD, to the Meath Peace Group, Dalgan Park, Navan, Friday, 25th February, 2005
Ladies and Gentlemen, I want to speak tonight not so much as a Minister, or a public representative, but as an ordinary Irish republican. As someone reared next to the border. Who knows at first hand how it affected communities and families. Who knows no higher mandate than the will of the Irish People. Whose personal political agenda is Irish unity, peace, justice and equality. As a republican, I believe the best way to advance this agenda is through the Good Friday Agreement. And, in 1998, the Irish people – in the first act of all-Ireland self-determination since 1918 – supported that view.
As I have already stated, that Agreement created the legitimate expectation that criminality and paramilitarism from all quarters would end. And almost 8 years later they have not.
That’s the major cause of this present impasse – nothing more complex. It is the clear and simple failure of the various paramilitary organisations, including the Provisional Leadership, to heed the will of the Irish people. In their failure they are impeding the implementation of the Agreement.
They are hindering North/South Co-operation and the agenda of peace, justice, equality and Irish unity. The continuation of this trust-sapping paramilitarism represents the single greatest impediment to realising the full promise and potential of the Agreement. I say that in sadness not in anger.
Ladies and Gentlemen, The primary impediments to implementation of the Good Friday Agreement are clear to all:
Criminality and Paramilitarism
If we are to move forward – particularly if a prospective unionist partner is to be found – these issues must be dealt with and resolved. In this context the quandary for the Irish Government is clear – we can’t order the Provisional movement to deal with these issues.Only the Provisional Leadership can – and that’s exactly what we have asked them to do. After the Northern Bank Robbery we asked the Provisional leadership to reflect on how trust and confidence – which had been massively damaged – could be restored We made it clear that the major onus now lies with them. The solution does not lie with ordinary Irish nationalist and republicans – it requires the Provisional Leadership to take a major initiative that restores some sense of confidence and positivity. Regrettably, as each day passes without a positive response, trust fades further. And while we refuse to play the politics of exclusion. And while we will refuse to feed into any victim complex – It cannot now be business as usual. It’s up to the Provisional Leadership now to fully internalise and positively respond to the challenges which it faces – bringing all forms of paramilitary and criminal activity to a definitive end. As the Taoiseach said in the Dail this week we are listening carefully and we want to hear back on these crucial issues sooner rather than later.
Peace or Process
Ladies and Gentlemen, On Wednesday as I sat with Robert McCartney’s devastated family, the Provisional Leadership laughed and staged snowball fights for the cameras. And that juxtaposition really brought home to me the depths of the present crisis. For 18 years now we’ve had a Peace Process. And after Wednesday, I like many others before, was compelled to reflect on whether the Provisional Leadership wanted a final peace – a settlement – at all, or just the never-ending Process. As you may be aware, a sceptical thesis has recently suggested that while we were focussed on the Peace – others were focussed on the Process – and the Press, and Publicity and PR and which crisis after crisis has brought? The Provisional Leadership needing support to bring them fully into the peace – but never fully getting there. This dispiriting thesis suggested that a Provisional Movement- born out of conflict – needed to maintain its resonance and allure because behind the dynamics of conflict lay only another banal Party with bland policies which must compete on the same basis as everybody else in the political marketplace I have not formed a final judgement on the validity of this thesis. I want to believe that it is wrong and honestly hope that the evolution of events in the coming period will disprove it. But the fact that I, and many other people who are committed to an inclusive process, are now reflecting on its possible validity is significant.It shows the degree of corrosion caused by recent events. It indicates the challenges that Sinn Féin and the IRA must meet if they are to repair the damage caused to trust and confidence. Because, after the Bank Robbery. After the murder of Robert McCartney by IRA volunteers,, trust and confidence have practically evaporated
But we’re not going to give up. In fact, the Irish Government intends to redouble its efforts to protect the gains of the Agreement thus far – particularly in the critical area of North/South co-operation.
One of the most regrettable impacts of the present impasse is the negative impact it has on the full operation and development of the North/South dimension of the Good Friday Agreement.
In particular it has stalled the strengthening in specific areas – and for sound, practical, commercial reasons – of the all-island economy. As a direct result of the deficits of trust and confidence caused by continuing paramilitary and criminal activity, the stop-start operation of the Agreement in recent years has negatively impacted on the development of North/South co-operation. The North/South dimension is a fundamental part of the overall accommodation which the Agreement represents.
This Government is determined to protect the achievements of the Agreement, including in the area of North/South co-operation. Obviously we would much prefer to be in a position to do business with locally-elected Northern Ireland Ministers within the North/South Ministerial Council. Unfortunately, that is not possible at present. Nevertheless, we have a duty to take forward the mandated work programme of the NSMC to date. We are continuing to identify and follow-up on new possibilities for co-operation – where such co-operation is clearly for mutual benefit.
In practice, as the Taoiseach noted recently, North/South co-operation is not just about politicians or civil servants. The private sector, trade unions, the voluntary and community sectors and the farming community are but some of the actors involved .The business community, in particular, have long recognised the benefits of closer economic links on the island. In many ways, they have been ahead of the rest of us in seizing the opportunities arising out of the new landscape created by the Agreement.
Over the past ten years, total cross-border trade has grown by over thirty-five percent. One third of all Northern Ireland companies now export to the South. These are encouraging statistics when you consider the ignoring or the lack of awareness of business opportunities closer to home which characterised the decades before the Agreement. Organisations such as the Northern Ireland Business Alliance, IBEC-CBI, and the Chamberlink venture between Chambers of Commerce on both sides of the border have all played their part in this work.The North/South Body, InterTradeIreland, was specifically established under the Agreement to tackle the barriers to North/South trade and to help businesses to realise the full potential of an all-island market. Headquartered in Newry, InterTrade has developed a range of initiatives aimed at facilitating trade and business contacts across the island. A major focus of its work is highlighting the need for improved business competitiveness in an all-island economy. Last year’s report of the Enterprise Strategy Review Group identified the key challenges in the South which must be addressed if we are to maintain the economic performance of recent years. Its prescription included enhanced expertise in international markets and increased technological and applied research and development capability. The absence of devolved Government in Northern Ireland, and the consequent inability of the NSMC to meet, means that Ministers from North and South are not engaging on these issues; are not talking to each other about agreed strategies and actions that respond to these challenges.
The losers here are ordinary citizens on both sides of the border who rightly expect their political representatives to address these challenges and arrive at policy solutions that will improve their lives. The current impasse is not just a political stall, it is also represents a failure in economic and social terms. Despite the difficulties and constraints caused by the destabilising activities of others, the Government is nevertheless determined to protect and develop the North/South axis of the Agreement and will continue in the weeks and months ahead to advance this agenda with the British Government and with the parties. The close working partnership between the two Governments has been the fulcrum of stability in this process. Both Governments are determined that a political vacuum will not be allowed to endanger progress nor to degrade the achievements of recent years. We will proactively use the machinery of the Agreement – in particular, the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference – to ensure that the gains of recent years are protected and developed. In that regard, the Taoiseach again signalled to the British Prime Minister on 1 February that the North/South dimension of the Agreement is a key strategic interest for this Government. It, moreover, was one of the main reasons the people in this State changed our constitution in 1998. The North/South axis of the Agreement represents a win-win agenda for everyone on this island. It threatens nobody’s interests or identity. Its maintenance and development is simply the application of good common sense in the interests of mutual practical benefit. The sooner the current impasse is resolved, the quicker we can all go fully back to business in the interests of every citizen on this island.
Ladies and Gentlemen. The causes of the impasse are clear. The solution is equally clear. It lies principally with the Provisional Leadership. I appeal directly to them to act on the authentic vision and ideals of Irish Republicanism – to heed the will of the Irish People, who backed the Agreement, who sought an end to paramilitarism and an end to criminality.
[Dermot Ahern, TD]
Meath Peace Group report 2005 ©Meath Peace Group