Private Notice Questions: - Northern Ireland Talks Initiative.

Wednesday, 6 February 1991

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 404 No. 7

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Proinsias De Rossa: Information on Prionsias De Rossa  Zoom on Prionsias De Rossa  asked the Taoiseach if his attention has been drawn to the comments made yesterday by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland Mr. Peter Brooke, in which he indicated that he may have to abandon his attempts to initiate dialogue between the democratic political parties in Northern Ireland; if he will outline the current position of the Government in regard to the initiative; if the matter was discussed at the meeting of the Anglo-Irish Conference in Dublin last week and the outcome of any such talks; if he intends to seek a meeting with Mr. Brooke or to take any other steps to try and assist the initiative; and if he will make a statement on the matter.

Mr. Spring: Information on Dick Spring  Zoom on Dick Spring  asked the Taoiseach if he will make an urgent and comprehensive statement to Dáil Éireann in connection with the statement made yesterday by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland which suggested that the future for dialogue within the North of Ireland is bleak.

Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  asked the Taoiseach if, in view of the recent pessimistic statement of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, he will outline in detail the obstacles standing in the way of the proposed talks between the parties in Northern Ireland, with particular reference to the timetable and nature of the involvement of the Irish Government in discussions on matters arising in these talks.

The Taoiseach: Information on Charles J. Haughey  Zoom on Charles J. Haughey  I stated in the Dáil last week that the initiative of the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland continued to be the subject of ongoing discussions [1801] between all the parties involved and that the Government support the initiative and would like to see it succeed. That remains the position.

In the joint statement issued following the meeting of the Anglo-Irish Intergovernmental Conference in Dublin last Thursday, both sides reaffirmed their commitment to the value of substantive political talks embracing the three sets of relationships: within Northern Ireland; between both parts of Ireland; and between the Irish and British Governments.

Both sides considered that the gap between the participants had diminished. The Conference noted that further exchanges with the political parties would now take place in the hope of resolving outstanding issues.

In view of the further talks being undertaken by the Secretary of State the next of which will be his meeting tomorrow with the Unionist parties, and the great sensitivity of the entire process I do not consider it advisable to go into further elaboration at this stage of the confidential discussions which have taken place. I would like to say, however, that the Irish Government have not recently raised any new points. While we must be fully involved in any process that might lead to a new agreement or structure to transcend the existing agreement, we have not sought at any stage involvement from the outset in the internal talks. I remain hopeful about a successful outcome and, for our part, Deputies may be assured that we will continue to show as much flexibility as possible in the interests of ensuring peace and stability on this island. I would like to quote with approval something Secretary of State Brooke said last week:

We are more likely to build a structure which would stand the test of time if we actually pay proper attention to the foundations.

Proinsias De Rossa: Information on Prionsias De Rossa  Zoom on Prionsias De Rossa  I am sure the Taoiseach will agree that the collapse of this initiative would cause severe difficulties in Northern Ireland, indeed perhaps [1802] drive people into even further entrenched positions. Therefore it is important that we take a stance which is seen to be helpful in having the talks get under way. The Taoiseach will be aware that there are reports that the two issues causing greatest problems are the timing of the Irish Government's involvement in talks and the question of whether the Unionists should attend meetings with the Irish Government, as representing simply the Unionist Party, or as part of the United Kingdom delegation.

Can the Taoiseach indicate whether the Irish Government have put forward proposals which would help to overcome these perceived obstacles? Can he also indicate what occurred at the Intergovernmental Conference on Thursday last which seems to have created a change in attitude by Mr. Brooke? I am aware there was high optimism on Wednesday last that things were looking good for talks getting under way. Yet, since the meeting on Thursday last this optimism seems to have evaporated very quickly.

The Taoiseach: Information on Charles J. Haughey  Zoom on Charles J. Haughey  First of all, I should just like to say by way of comment that I do not think people should be too pessimistic or misrepresent what Secretary of State Brooke said. Let us recall that, in journalistic parlance, he was door-stepped when he made these comments. Whereas one of them might appear to be pessimistic in implication, a lot of the other things he said are not. I might refer to some of them here. I might quote from another statement in which he said:

No game is over until the last ball is bowled.

I suppose we are not all cricket aficiondos in this House.

Mr. Deasy: Information on Austin Deasy  Zoom on Austin Deasy  It sounds more like Mrs. Thatcher.

The Taoiseach: Information on Charles J. Haughey  Zoom on Charles J. Haughey  I think we know what he means.

Again, on Thursday last the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland said:

[1803] I am absolutely clear in my mind the Irish Government would wish to see talks commence on a basis which was in fact acceptable to everybody and that they are striving sensibly and constructively towards that end.

In reply specifically to Deputy de Rossa I should just like to say: yes, we are, have been doing so continuously and are still exploring and putting forward proposals informally to enable things to happen. I do not want to go into detail. Deputy De Rossa is not quite right in his analysis of the position but I do not think that is important.

Mr. Spring: Information on Dick Spring  Zoom on Dick Spring  On a lighter note it might be more useful if the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland would refer to putting the odd ball in the net as opposed to bowling in Northern Ireland.

I am very aware of the sensitivity of this topic and also of the Government's efforts in recent years to promote dialogue and discussion. Would the Taoiseach give us some clarification of the change in attitude. It is fine to minimise the doorstep statement of the Secretary of State but, at the same time, he did say it may be time to pull down the shutters in relation to the talks about talks which sounds to me to be a fairly pessimistic tone and conclusion on his part. Last week the Taoiseach himself was quietly optimistic. The joint statement on Thursday last, after the Intergovernmental Conference, certainly gave no immediate indication that there were any difficulties on the horizon but the tone seems to have changed yesterday in advance of the meeting between the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and the Unionist leaders. Can the Taoiseach offer any indication why that happened?

The Taoiseach: Information on Charles J. Haughey  Zoom on Charles J. Haughey  No. I would broadly agree with what Deputy Spring is saying, except on one account. I do not go along with the idea that the atmosphere or situation has suddenly become much more pessimistic in outlook. If the Deputy [1804] takes what Secretary Brooke said in its totality, that would not be the conclusion one would come to. Deputy Spring is quite right with regard to the outcome of the Intergovernmental Conference. As I said in my reply, both sides said that the gap between the participants diminished. The Irish Government, as a party to this process, have not adopted any attitude or taken any action that would contribute to a worsening of the situation. As far as we are concerned there is not a worsening of the situation. The Secretary of State will meet with the Unionists tomorrow. We will have to wait to see what comes out of that. I assure Deputies that we have been flexible all along and have taken a number of different steps and made a number of proposals and concessions to try to get the thing brought to finality.

Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  Will the Taoiseach not agree that if this initiative fails, it is likely that the Unionists will then try to proceed in the direction of integration in the UK, which is a cul-de-sac, thereby driving the SDLP into the opposite direction and driving the two groups in Northern Ireland further apart? Will the Taoiseach further agree, while accepting the need for discretion, that if this initiative has failed, it will be too late then to discuss the obstacles that caused that failure, and that it is important that there should be some public understanding of the obstacles so that whatever pressure or enlightenment can be brought to bear to remove those obstacles can be discussed publicly here? Would the Taoiseach agree that the specific modalities for the involvement of the Irish Government in the results of these discussions should not be an obstacle to the commencement of these discussions? In view of the fact that the SDLP are free at any time, if the discussions are going badly, to withdraw from them, thereby bringing the Irish Government back into play immediately through the Anglo-Irish Conference, would the Taoiseach not agree that the involvement of the Irish Government should not be an obstacle, that sufficient safeguards exist to bring the Irish [1805] Government back into play if the talks commence, and that it is of grave importance that the talks should commence?

The Taoiseach: Information on Charles J. Haughey  Zoom on Charles J. Haughey  I want to remain calm about this. The last point made by Deputy Bruton has disturbed me. There should not be a question that the attitude of the Irish Government is in anyway responsible for impeding this process. No party in the proceedings has been more oncoming, forthcoming or accommodating Taoiseach, that this initiative does not us not jump to any conclusion that the first people to blame in these matters are the Irish Government. I hope that was not inherent in what Deputy Bruton was saying, because exactly the opposite is the case. Modalities are not important or significant from our point of view. The essence of the discussion is important, and again I would draw attention to what Secretary Peter Brooke said, that we should build on sound foundations. That is very important. With regard to the other points made by Deputy Bruton, I would not necessarily accept that if this initiative fails the inevitable outcome is integration. I do not think it is.

Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  Nor do I.

The Taoiseach: Information on Charles J. Haughey  Zoom on Charles J. Haughey  Things have moved too far now and people have come too close together for us ever to go back to some totally sterile and futile situation. Even if the outcome of failure were to be integration, that is not the main consideration. We should not contemplate failure, because the result of failure would be very catastrophic in other ways. It is not really that the final outcome would be integration that is the problem, it is the fact that the process would fail. We should not contemplate failure but we should keep on and on. President Bush's phrase has become popular now — we should go the last mile to ensure success.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on James C. Tunney  Zoom on James C. Tunney  Now that we have given 20 minutes to this very important question perhaps the House would agree to bring this to finality. It [1806] seems to me that maximum information has been given——

Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  We should have had a debate on this.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on James C. Tunney  Zoom on James C. Tunney  ——and in so far as we are not likely to elicit any further information, perhaps a final short question——

Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  We should have had a debate, as I sought.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on James C. Tunney  Zoom on James C. Tunney  The Chair is controlled by what——

Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  It is too serious.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on James C. Tunney  Zoom on James C. Tunney  ——is here as a Private Notice Question. It must be dealt with that way. A final short question each would perhaps satisfy the requirements. Again in the order in which the questions were put, I invite Deputy De Rossa to ask a final short question.

Proinsias De Rossa: Information on Prionsias De Rossa  Zoom on Prionsias De Rossa  It will be as short as I can make it. I hope, as does the Taoiseach, that this initiative does not fail, but I am afraid that I do not take the same benign view of the outcome, if it does. Integration will become a very real option if the initiative fails. Apart from that, the Taoiseach indicated in his reply to my first question that my analysis was wrong. I am not too sure whether the Taoiseach means my analysis with regard to the obstacles or my view that the high optimism that was there last week has declined. Could the Taoiseach explain? It is important that the public should know what are precisely the obstacles if they are not the two which I have outlined. It is important that the public know precisely what process is under way. Public opinion can play a part in assisting people to reach a considered conclusion, and perhaps can exert pressure on the various parties involved, to come to their senses and sit down and talk.

[1807]The Taoiseach: Information on Charles J. Haughey  Zoom on Charles J. Haughey  The talks are confidential and therefore it is not possible for any side to give a complete detailed indication of what is taking place. That would jeopardise the whole process. I have been as oncoming as I can, subject to that general embargo, with the Dáil. Timing, in the strict sense of timing, as weeks versus months, is not an issue as far as we are concerned. We do not and never did, despite some popular misconceptions on the point, expect to be involved in the preliminary discussions between the parties in Northern Ireland. Subject to those two points, I do not want to go any further, but the essence of the thing is that there are four different sets of people involved and they all have to agree. The House may be attributing too much significance to what Secretary Brooke said, bearing in mind the other things he said as well.

Mr. Spring: Information on Dick Spring  Zoom on Dick Spring  Given the Taoiseach's acceptance of the fact that the results of these talks would be horrendous and would play right into the hands of the paramilitaries who are destroying any prospect for peaceful co-existence in Northern Ireland, it is difficult not to be pessimistic since yesterday's statement. What fall back position do the Government have if the present attempts to have talks breaks down in the interest of ensuring that political dialogue is maintained in Northern Ireland between the British and Irish Governments?

The Taoiseach: Information on Charles J. Haughey  Zoom on Charles J. Haughey  That is a difficult question for me to answer because I do not wish to contemplate the talks breaking down or to be put in the position of saying that if these talks break down there are other things we can do. I would certainly not contemplate anything like a cessation of all activity if this initiative fails. I would be glad to give the Deputy an undertaking that we will immediately explore other ways of keeping dialogue going, now that it has got so far with regard to this initiative.

Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  Would the Taoiseach agree that his statement that he does not [1808] contemplate the failure of these talks is at direct variance with the statement yesterday by the Secretary of State when he quite clearly did contemplate the imminent failure of these talks? Would the Taoiseach confirm that the main sticking point in these discussions is an insistence by the Unionists that there be some progress in the internal talks before the Irish Government become involved in discussion with the parties, whereas on the other hand the Irish Government want a cast iron guarantee as to the timing of their involvement, regardless of whether progress has been made? Would the Taoiseach not agree that in the event of no progress being made, it is open to the SDLP to withdraw from the talks anyway and that this in itself would bring the Irish Government in, and furthermore, that there is a ten-week limit at the end of which the Irish Government will become involved, regardless of what has happened in the meantime? In view of the fact that there are quite substantial safeguards already agreed as far as the interests of the Irish Government are concerned, would the Taoiseach agree to make one last effort to get these talks going? Would he agree that his reference to President Bush's going one further mile might well be instructive because although President Bush did go one further mile he did not reach his destination? The Taoiseach might learn from that and seek to make whatever concessions can be made now rather than after the talks have failed.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  The Taoiseach. An focal deireanach.

The Taoiseach: Information on Charles J. Haughey  Zoom on Charles J. Haughey  The Deputy has raised a number of matters and I do not want to be drawn into dealing with them seriatim. Some of the things he said are not absolutely correct. The Irish Government are not categoric about timing. I have made that point again and again. We are not categoric in the sense of weeks or months or dates or anything of that kind. Timing is not the basic issue. On the other points Deputy Bruton made, I fail to understand fully what he was at. I do not think we [1809] should go into these talks on the basis that if something does not happen people can withdraw and we can start all over again.

We should try to get as much as possible settled and have, as Secretary Brooke said, a firm foundation for everybody going into the talks so that nobody will feel short-changed when the talks begin. There should be fairly clear understanding of what is involved. I repeat that we have been and continue to be flexible and are still putting forward proposals of different kinds with a view to removing the final difficulties. One does not know exactly what Secretary Brooke had in mind when he made that remark about putting up the shutters.

Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  Would the Taoiseach——

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on James C. Tunney  Zoom on James C. Tunney  Deputy Bruton——

Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  This is a matter of grave importance and I am speaking as the Leader of the main Opposition party.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on James C. Tunney  Zoom on James C. Tunney  Deputy Bruton, just bear with me for one second. The House is governed by the rules which govern Private Notice Questions. We have given almost half an hour. The Chair appreciates the seriousness of the questions and the Deputy has had an adequate opportunity of presenting questions and receiving answers. I suggest that we now move on to the next business.

Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  I represent 55 Deputies in this House, more than any other Opposition party.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on James C. Tunney  Zoom on James C. Tunney  The rules of the House must still be obeyed.

Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  There is no rule that the Leader of the Opposition is not entitled to ask important questions.

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on James C. Tunney  Zoom on James C. Tunney  There is no rule which states that he is entitled. I am sorry about that but we must proceed.

[1810]Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  Could I have one further supplementary, please?

An Leas-Cheann Comhairle: Information on James C. Tunney  Zoom on James C. Tunney  I thought there was agreement that when I indicated a final round of questions that would end it. I find that Deputy Bruton now wishes to depart from that. However, a final question.

Mr. J. Bruton: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  It is a very short question, Sir. Would the Taoiseach not agree that it would be better that these talks should start, even with the possibility of failure, than that they should not start at all?

The Taoiseach: Information on Charles J. Haughey  Zoom on Charles J. Haughey  There is no doubt about the answer to that question. There is always the possibility of failure, no matter when or how they start.


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