Ceisteanna—Questions. Oral Answers. - Northern Ireland Peace Process.

Tuesday, 21 February 1995

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 449 No. 4

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  4.  Mr. B. Ahern  Information on Bertie Ahern  Zoom on Bertie Ahern   asked the Taoiseach  Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton   where the Summit with the British Prime Minister will be held; the format the summit will take; and the form the presentation of the results of the Summit with the British Prime Minister will take. [3773/95]

  5.  Miss Harney  Information on Mary Harney  Zoom on Mary Harney   asked the   Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton   asked the Taoiseach, in view of the imminent publication of the Framework Document, the steps, if any, he is taking to assuage Unionist fears by seeking to address the people directly on the matter. [

The Taoiseach: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 and 5 together.

I am pleased to inform the House that the British Prime Minister and I will hold a special summit meeting in Hillsborough, County Down, tomorrow to formally present and publish the Joint Framework Document. I would hope to make a statement in the House tomorrow afternoon.

[844] The Joint Framework Document will undoubtedly challenge the two traditions on this island but it will do so in an even-handed way. Neither tradition need fear its contents. As I have emphasised at every appropriate opportunity, it is a framework for discussion and not a blueprint to be imposed. Its purpose is to facilitate, not pre-empt, dialogue and at the end of the day, the people on this island, North and South, will have the final say. I will of course be taking every oportunity to reinforce this message in the coming period. Naturally, I would urge everyone to give the most careful consideration to the document when published.

Mr. B. Ahern: Information on Bertie Ahern  Zoom on Bertie Ahern  I thank the Taoiseach for his reply and wish him well in the important talks tomorrow. Hopefully, they will be successfully concluded. Will the Taoiseach explain why the Government does not intend to publish the proposed constitutional changes at the same time as the Framework Document?I ask that question because I am sure the Taoiseach will agree that the British authorities through their media consultants are making all sorts of claims and they will continue to be made tomorrow. The public need to be in a position to judge exactly what is involved. I understand the Taoiseach cannot give details of the Framework Document. Will he advise the House if at this stage he has been given advance information on the contents of the parallel document covering strand one?

The Taoiseach: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  Regarding the latter part of the Deputy's question, it has been accepted by successive Governments that we have not been involved in the preparation of that document within strand one. It has been accepted by the previous Government and this Government that it is a matter within the competence of the British Government and, therefore, I am not in the position to give details about it and I have not been involved in its preparation. It is important that distinction should be clearly maintained here. On the first [845] part of the Deputy's question, it is true that wordings were discussed between the previous Government and the British Government for illustrative and discursive purposes in regard to the outworking of the commitments being given in regard to constitutional change, but those discussions were never finalised. There was no formal agreement on them. At this stage the Government is agreeing on a general statement in the Framework Document about the effect we would wish constitutional changes to achieve in the event that they are put to the people as a consequence of agreement having been reached in Northern Ireland. We are not proposing and have not finalised — nor would it be proper for us to finalise with an external authority — details of the wording of possible amendments to our Constitution.

One of the factors we have taken very much into account is that the precise wording of amendments to our Constitution is a matter for this House and there would be difficulty in getting to a point of entering into bounden commitments on precise wordings outside this House. It is my impression that the previous Government, quite properly, did not intend to do that either. To the best of my knowledge, the discussions the previous Government had were general and did concern specific wordings, but the procedure we are adopting now is one of making a general statement in the Framework Document as to what the changes would be designed to achieve, rather than referring to exact wordings of particular sections.

Miss Harney: Information on Mary Harney  Zoom on Mary Harney  While I accept what the Taoiseach said, I believe that in the case of Northern Ireland it is always better to be specific in relation to these matters and to choose words carefully. Are the commitments in relation to Articles 2 and 3 up for negotiation? I am delighted the document will be published in Northern Ireland. What plans does the Government have to ensure the document is widely distributed and explained to the public in Northern [846] Ireland? Does the Taoiseach have any plans to address the business or community associations or have Government representatives addressed community groups in Northern Ireland to explain the document and to point out its even-handedness and sense of balance?

The Taoiseach: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  I stress that the Government is anxious to facilitate the opening of discussions on the framework document and any visits to Northern Ireland would be designed to achieve that end. Obviously one has to be careful to ensure that any intervention is not counter productive either. I assure the House that I am anxious to ensure that all in Northern Ireland see this framework document as something to facilitate discussion and negotiation. It is important to stress that the principal fruit of this document will be that it will enable the people of Northern Ireland to have sovereignty over their own affairs vested in themselves and they will have an opportunity to shape their future at local level. There is an opportunity for both traditions in Northern Ireland to achieve that objective.The Deputy's question was a multiple one and I may have missed one or two points.

Miss Harney: Information on Mary Harney  Zoom on Mary Harney  Will Articles 2 and 3 be up for negotiation?

The Taoiseach: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  The Government will make a statement about what we are willing to do in circumstances where agreement has been reached on other matters. In a sense we are creating in that statement part of the framework. We will not negotiate that aspect but, obviously, that does not mean the Government is unwilling to listen to representations. That this Government and the previous Government were willing to put the issue on the table at all, is a clear sign that they were willing to listen to suggestions from Northern Ireland where concerns about this were expressed. It is important to recognise, given that constitutional amendment [847] proposals are a matter for this House and ultimately a matter for the people, that the commitments we enter into are ones freely made by ourselves, not ones we have been bound to make by some legal instrument or international commitment.The Constitution of this country is our property as a people.

Mr. B. Ahern: Information on Bertie Ahern  Zoom on Bertie Ahern  The previous Government had reached a certain stage on the constitutional position. If I understand him correctly, the Taoiseach states that constitutional position stands. Is the Taoiseach suggesting that the final constitutional considerations — I accept it is a matter for this House and the Irish people in the final analysis as to what will change — are part of the discussion phase of the framework document? I do not like the idea that the framework document might become a talking shop document. Certain principles that have to be covered in a framework document and other aspects have to be there for discussion purposes. I would like the Taoiseach to be clear on the constitutional issues. There has to be an understanding between the two Governments on how far and if and when we would move on the constitutional position and that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed. What is the status of the arrangements we made in Government in regard to constitutional change?

The Taoiseach: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  There is an understanding between the Governments as to steps we would take on the Constitution and in the British Government's case in regard to their constitutional legislation contingent on an agreement being reached. On the status of agreements, discussions or papers exchanged by the previous Government the position, as I understand it, is that there are two elements here. There are the commitments given in the framework document itself which are similar to commitments given by this Government. The second is another document which, I understand, the previous Government [848] was discussing, which was an intended elaboration of the situation. That is no further advanced than it was at the time. We have decided to concentrate — I believe properly — for the reasons I have already given in my earlier reply on getting the framework document agreed rather than getting into lengthy discussions about elaborations and so forth as to the wording that was exchanged between the British and the preceding Irish Government on the precise changes in Articles 2 and 3.

Mr. M. McDowell: Information on Michael McDowell  Zoom on Michael McDowell  I understand the notion of contingent understandings and nothing being agreed until everything is agreed. Will the Taoiseach indicate whether there is any sequence involved? Is the understanding he has in mind contingent on some things happening first and then other things happening or, alternatively, is there the notion of a joint initiative north and south of the Border on a different referenda on the same day? Is there any understanding on the sequence in which the steps involved in the framework document would be put in place?

The Taoiseach: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  It would be fair to say that certain elements of sequence are implicit in the whole arrangement. Obviously, the first step, apart from the publication of the document, is agreement being reached between the parties there on the matters covered in the framework document. The next step is the delivery of the commitments by the Governments in regard to the changes in the Constitution here and changes in legislation in Westminster. That is the provenance of the statement about a triple lock existing; the triple lock being a sequence of steps that have to be taken before the agreement is delivered. A sequence is agreed in that sense. Obviously there is a fair measure of flexibility in regard to timing and there are other elements that can be put in to build confidence in the process as it proceeds. There is not a prescriptive detailed timetable agreed in this document and that is only proper because it [849] is important to recognise that this is simply the two Governments' contribution to finding a solution. It creates a framework and within the framework the detail will be filled in most appropriately by the parties directly involved.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  May I remind the House, as I normally do, that on Tuesday only 30 minutes are provided for in our Standing Orders for dealing with questions to the Taoiseach. There are still a few questions to be disposed of and the time is fast running out.

Mr. B. Ahern: Information on Bertie Ahern  Zoom on Bertie Ahern  By its nature some aspects of the framework document must be flexible for discussion purposes. The two Governments cannot find themselves in a different framework every week. There have to be principles which they will stand over. To avoid confusion in regard to the constitutional aspects, would it not be better to make known the initial understandings of this Government and the British Government, so that people are clear not only on the constitutional status of Articles 2 and 3 but also on section 75 of the Government of Ireland Act and of the legislation of 1973. May I ask the Taoiseach——

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  Sorry, this is going on too long and we are not proceeding by way of question.

Mr. B. Ahern: Information on Bertie Ahern  Zoom on Bertie Ahern  Will the Taoiseach give a commitment that at an early stage the constitutional provisions as understood by the Irish Government will be made known to the people so that they may make a judgement on them?

The Taoiseach: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  We will be making very clear in the Framework Document and in answer to questions arising from it the exact constitutional commitments we are giving; there will be no lack of clarity in that regard. I am not prepared at this point to agree — I suggest it is a fine judgement — to produce the precise wordings that were discussed between [850] the previous Government and the British Government, mainly because they were not finalised or brought any further in subsequent discussions since November 1994. What we have concentrated on since has been agreement of the Framework Document and for that reason we are not ready to come forward with precise wordings.

In addition to what I said about the precise wordings of the Constitution being a matter for this House and not for negotiation with any overseas Government, a danger which would arise from publishing precise constitutional wordings at this stage is that we would end up in an endless hair-splitting exercise in regard to legal wordings and so on. Anyone who has been a student of Irish history will recognise the inherently divisive character and indeed our strong national ability to get ourselves very much entrenched in difficult situations on precise wordings. We will be giving clear commitments in regard to the intent of those words. When agreement has been reached, and that may be some distance away, we will have to turn those commitments into precise wordings. I have no doubt that at that stage the precise wordings that were in discussion between the previous Government and the British Government will be extremely helpful to the Government in putting precise constitutional wording on the political commitments we are giving.

I am not in a position to say it would be appropriate now to publish that document. I have discussed the matter with the Deputy privately and I think he may have a point, but I believe I have a point and on balance it is probably better not to publish it. I recognise that, in asking the questions, the Deputy is anxious to be as helpful as possible to the process.

Mr. B. Ahern: Information on Bertie Ahern  Zoom on Bertie Ahern  That is correct.

The Taoiseach: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  I know it is correct, but I have come to a somewhat different judgment as to the appropriate way to [851] proceed. I know that the Deputy's pressing of the question is designed to be helpful.

Mr. R. Burke: Information on Ray Burke  Zoom on Ray Burke  I welcome the fact that the document will be published tomorrow.That is important. On the last point made by the Taoiseach, will he accept the fact that the wording will not be published has the potential to be a major recipe for confusion? All the talks were carried on under a structure of the three strands and on the basis that nothing was agreed until everything was agreed. What is the status of the strand one document to be published tomorrow?Is there a likelihood that the assembly or any structure will be put in place before discussions on the framework are complete, or does the agreement still stand that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed and that the structures under strand one cannot be put in place until discussions on the framework, constitutional changes and so on are complete?

The Taoiseach: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  As I said in answer to Deputy Ahern, neither this Government nor its predecessor has been involved in elaboration of detail in regard to the strand one paper which is to be published tomorrow and therefore I am not in a position to give detailed answers to the questions arising from that document. My understanding is that the status of that document would be the same as the Framework Document.It would be a document as to the Government's contribution to what it believes might be agreed, but it would be also, as is the Framework Document, subject to discussion leading to agreement.

Mr. R. Burke: Information on Ray Burke  Zoom on Ray Burke  Can it be agreed separately from the Framework Document?

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  Order. That must be the end of questions to the Taoiseach.

[852]Mr. R. Burke: Information on Ray Burke  Zoom on Ray Burke  I would simply like an answer to that question.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  We are well over time.

The Taoiseach: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  I do not want to leave that question unanswered. Basically the two documents are feeding simultaneously into a process of discussion leading towards agreement. It is hoped they will complement one another, that one will assist the other. The Framework Document deals with strands two and three and the internal document deals with strand one, each forming part of a three stranded approach——

Mr. R. Burke: Information on Ray Burke  Zoom on Ray Burke  Together with the Constitution they will form a package.

The Taoiseach: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  ——which, as the Deputy correctly said, is based on the principle that nothing is agreed until everything is agreed.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  Let us proceed to priority questions.

Dr. O'Hanlon: Information on Rory O'Hanlon  Zoom on Rory O'Hanlon  On a point of order——

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  There should be no point of order now, Deputy.

Dr. O'Hanlon: Information on Rory O'Hanlon  Zoom on Rory O'Hanlon  I put down a question to the Taoiseach on whether he would attend the Washington conference, but the question was transferred to the Tánaiste and Leader of the Labour Party.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  I am sorry, Deputy, that does not arise now.

Dr. O'Hanlon: Information on Rory O'Hanlon  Zoom on Rory O'Hanlon  The Taoiseach knows exactly where he is going and should not transfer the question to the Tánaiste.

The Taoiseach: Information on John Bruton  Zoom on John Bruton  I am not going.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  I am proceeding to deal with questions nominated for priority to which a time limit applies.


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