Private Members' Business. - Decommissioning Bill, 1996: Second Stage (Resumed).

Wednesday, 5 February 1997

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 474 No. 4

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Question again proposed: “That the Bill be now read a Second Time.”

Mr. Crawford: Information on Seymour Crawford  Zoom on Seymour Crawford  I wish to share my time with Deputy McGahon.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy  Zoom on Seán Treacy  I am sure that is satisfactory and agreed. Agreed.

Mr. Crawford: Information on Seymour Crawford  Zoom on Seymour Crawford  The origins of this Bill are in the joint communiqué agreed by the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister on 28 November 1995 when it was agreed to launch the twin track process with a view to making parallel progress with the decommissioning issue and all-party negotiations. We were fortunate to have the services of Senator George Mitchell and his two colleagues to provide an independent assessment of decommissioning. [773] That body was asked also to report on the necessary arrangements for the removal, from the political equation, of illegally held arms, to identify and advise on a suitable and acceptable method to fully decommission and report where there was a clear commitment on the part of those in possession of such arms to work constructively to achieve that end.

The whole issue of decommissioning has taken up much of the time of the negotiations in Northern Ireland. One cannot but be aware of the anxiety felt by people in all parts of this island and in Britain on the need for decommissioning. Large quantities of arms are held not only in the North but in the Republic. I have seen proof of that both before and after the ceasefire.

The situation in Northern Ireland is complex. We must have a ceasefire if we are to make progress. The only way we can move forward is through a ceasefire, decommissioning and a build up of trust on both sides of the religious and political divide. Much work has been done by both Governments towards this end. That they got agreement for all party talks on 10 June 1996 was a major step forward and meant this problem we have lived with for almost a century could be dealt with in a meaningful way.

Unfortunately, the IRA which has many links with Sinn Féin decided to plant bombs in Canary Wharf and Manchester. There was also the tragedy in Limerick which involved the death of the late Jerry McCabe. He was gunned down when IRA activists tried to take money out of State property. I strongly believe that had the money not been in crates and had been transferred to their own transport, Jerry McCabe would be alive today. It would be claimed the money was taken by rogues or scoundrels and it would have been used by all types of people some of whom even refuse to claim expenses at council meetings and try to show up everybody else as rogues.

Section 5 clearly states that an amnesty linked to decommissioning would enable arms, bombing material etc. to be given up in an organised way and that the people giving them up would not be liable to legal action by the State.

One cannot help but refer again to the bombings at Canary Wharf and Manchester and the killing of a garda in Limerick. We all want to see a return to peace, which led to prosperity and goodwill in the North. In north County Monaghan the ceasefire enabled the reopening of roads which had been closed and had frustrated farmers and local communities and divided parishes and people. In many cases the closure of roads did more to increase activity by the IRA-Sinn Féin than it did to stop the bullets and bombs. I never want to see those roads closed again. If the Bill enables the organised decommissioning of arms to take place then it will give hope.

The achievement of peace in Northern Ireland has to be the main goal of the Government and Opposition. It is important to save lives. Thankfully [774] fewer lives have been lost since the ceasefire than were lost during previous years. The ending of the ceasefire has led to much rancour and anxiety. For example, policemen, SDLP and Unionist councillors and others must look under their cars in the morning to see if bombs have been planted. In some cases there are hoaxes, but it is very sad that we have had to return to these days in the name of Irish freedom.

The ceasefire showed during its 18 months that jobs could be created and industry and tourism could be promoted on an all-Ireland basis. The agreement by the two tourism bodies on a joint logo is one example of what was achieved. The ceasefire gave young people something to live for. For example, they could go out at night and take part in normal activities without anxiety. John Hume, the Reverend Roy Magee and many others have devoted much of their life to try to achieve a peaceful solution to the conflict in the North. It must be dreadful for them to see people and organisations, particularly the IRA, stalling and drawing back from the peace process. People on the other side are not all that innocent either, but thankfully there has not been a total breakdown in the ceasefire.

We must do everything possible to ensure all avenues are left open so that consultation and meetings can take place between the people in the middle ground. If those who occupy the middle ground in politics in Northern Ireland, across the water and in this State continue to work closely together they will show those on the fringes how much better it is to be involved in the political process than to be isolated. It is important to point out that these groups have isolated themselves and that if they had been able to control their members and had not continued to make bombs in County Laois and other areas then the ceasefire would not have broken down.

This Bill can act as an important measure in achieving peace. Its introduction has proven that the Government is prepared to live up to its commitments in this area. The Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, the Minister for Justice, Deputy Owen, and all those involved in the peace process must be given full support both inside and outside the House. There is nothing to be gained from politicians making snide and derogatory comments outside the House. I hope we can quickly regain the momentum which existed so that the next generation can look on this island as a great place to live. We have an economic boom, and one can only imagine what could be achieved if we had peace. It would lead to further prosperity and enable us to take our rightful place in Europe. During the last six months of 1996 Ireland held the Presidency of the EU. We are all proud of the good job done by the Government which showed what smaller countries in Europe can do in furthering the momentum towards the introduction of a single currency and how they can play their part in a much larger Europe.

[775]Mr. McGahon: Information on Brendan McGahon  Zoom on Brendan McGahon  I thank Deputy Crawford for sharing his time with me. On the night the ceasefire was announced I said in the House I did not believe it. I also referred to the very muted response given to it by the late Neil Blaney, the person in this House who was probably closest to the mindset of the IRA. He gave the ceasefire a very lukewarm reception because he did not believe it either. The reason he did not believe it is that the raison d'être for the IRA is a united Ireland and there is no way it will ever renounce that.

Sadly, I have been proven correct. What we were offered was a mirage, a phoney peace, which attracted many gobshites who believed the IRA, the worst killing machine in Europe since Adolf Hitler. I do not believe the IRA is sincere in its efforts to achieve peace. I live two miles from the Border and last Sunday I visited Newcastle in County Down where, as Deputy Crawford said, the benefits of peace are there to be seen. The potential benefits of peace for my county, which has suffered grievously because of its proximity to the Border, are tremendous. I do not doubt the desirability of peace but I question how one can marry Unionism with republicanism, given that one seeks integration with Great Britain and the other seeks a united Ireland.

In a perfect society a united Ireland would be a logical solution, but one million Unionists do not agree with this. They see decommissioning as the central issue in any possible solution to coexistence in the North. Can one blame them for being cynical given the murder of postman Patrick Kerr in Newry for £30,000 or £40,000 within weeks of the so-called ceasefire, the murder in Canary Wharf of two Pakistani people who did not know what the conflict was about and the murder in Adare of an Irish policeman, the sixteenth Irish policeman butchered by that band of killers, the IRA?

The IRA has taken the lives of 16 members of the Garda Síochána and seven members of the Army. These are the people who now proclaim peace and exhort the people of Ireland to seize the opportunity for peace, as emblazoned on notices around the country. Can anyone blame the Unionists for doubting their sincerity? I join them in doubting their sincerity. I will only accept that the IRA believes in peace if it decommissions its weapons of death, not necessarily to the British Government but to our Government or a United Nations peacekeeping force. If that happens I will respect the IRA's statement that it believes in peace. Until then there will be no movement in the Unionists' statement of no surrender.

Senator George Mitchell is doing a fair job with the rival contenders at the talks who cannot seem to agree on a set menu for lunch. That man is in danger of going mad listening to the rationale used in Northern politics by terrorists gangs. Part of the problem is that our Government and the British Government give recognition to this killing machine, the IRA, and to the UDA and the [776] UDF. We refer to Sinn Féin as if it were some type of legal organisation. Ten years ago the Supreme Court decreed that the IRA and Sinn Féin were indivisible; they were one organisation. As part of the game we play in politics we give them recognition and pretend they are a separate organisation. Until the IRA realises it cannot bomb its way to a united Ireland by killing other Irish people of a different persuasion, no progress will be made because the Unionists will not believe anything until decommissioning takes place.

I commend the Bill but I fear it will not produce the desired results; I hope I am wrong in those sentiments. A more serious attitude should be adopted towards those who hold kangaroo courts at the side of the road and callously snuff out people's lives. That was done to a young farmer in my county, Tom Oliver, the father of seven young children — I believe the youngest was four. That man was callously killed by the organisation now claiming in a hypocritical way that it wants peace. They should put their money where their mouths are and hand in their weapons. We can then all breathe a little easier on this island.

Minister of State at the Department of Justice (Mr. Currie): Information on Austin Currie  Zoom on Austin Currie  It is not my intention to follow Deputy McGahon down the road he has just travelled. He will not be surprised to know I agree with some of the sentiments he expressed but disagree with others. The Deputy said he hoped he was wrong in his sentiments. He is wrong in one respect, namely, his failure to believe that the republican and Unionist traditions can be reconciled. I believe it is possible for the republican and Unionist traditions to be reconciled. I say that as someone with 25 years' experience of politics in the North and seven or eight years' experience here. The only future in relation to Northern Ireland is a partnership based on the reconciliation of the Unionist and Nationalist traditions. There is no other solution and I hope Deputy McGahon agrees with me.

I thank all the Deputies who contributed to the debate. There has been a broad welcome for the Bill and recognition of the fact that it seeks to be consistent with the terms of the report of the international body which inspired it. That report was itself welcomed by all sides in this House on its publication. It was seen then — and continues to be seen now — as the best framework possible for taking forward the issue of decommissioning. There was also recognition in the debate that the Bill can have a positive part to play in the Northern Ireland talks and the broader peace process.

Two general issues touched on those wider considerations raised in the debate which I wish to address before dealing with some other specific points raised on the terms of the Bill. The first of those more general issues was the concern expressed by Deputy Bertie Ahern that the passage of the legislation might be used to create further preconditions to the participation of Sinn [777] Féin in the Northern Ireland talks. In making that point Deputy Ahern equally acknowledged our obligation in this House to show good faith and to take the legitimate concerns of others seriously.

The Government firmly believes that enactment of the Bill will be an important demonstration by this House of our commitment to the report of the international body and our willingness to work with others to give it effect. It will provide a framework against which the decommissioning issue can be meaningfully addressed in the context of the Northern Ireland talks and enable any agreements reached there to be given effect in this State.

In bringing forward this Bill, the Government's objective is to make a positive contribution to the Northern Ireland talks and the broader political process. Of necessity, the Bill is enabling in character in certain important respects and does not, therefore, prescribe in detail how and when decommissioning should take place.

The passage of the Bill will not create new preconditions for participation in the talks. The basis for the participation of all parties in the talks is set out in the Joint Communiqué agreed by the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister on 28 February 1996 and the Ground Rules for Substantive All-Party Negotiations agreed by the two Governments on 26 April last. They will remain unaffected by the passage of this legislation.

A close reading of the Bill will show that, consistent with the report of the international body, it has been prepared with a view to putting into effect agreements reached by the parties within the talks framework as to how decommissioning should be effected and not with a view to imposing peremptory decommissioning.

That brings me to the second general issue I wish to address — the fact that certain provisions of the Bill are enabling only, something which appears to be of particular concern to Deputy O'Donoghue. That was a matter of conscious and deliberate choice. The key considerations in that context, which derive from the terms and recommendations of the international body's report, are that decommissioning, in the sense the term is used in that body's report, can be effected only by the persons who have actual possession of arms and in circumstances where they are prepared to decommission; and that the international body recommended that the details of decommissioning should be determined by the parties themselves.

The international body specifically acknowledged that the methods or modalities of decommissioning would need to be subject to negotiation and that the independent commission established to oversee the decommissioning process — whose precise role will, incidentally, also depend crucially on the method or methods of decommissioning eventually adopted — should be acceptable to all parties and appointed by the Governments on the basis of consultations with them.

The enabling character of the provisions of the [778] Bill concerned with the modalities of decommissioning and the Commission need to be seen in that broader context. They make it clear the two Governments do not wish to prejudge the issues involved and are open to adopting any approach on the precise modalities and details of decommissioning, consistent with the report of the international body and which may be agreed to by the parties. It is the enabling character of those provisions which will enable legal effect to be given to agreements between the parties to the talks.

While the Bill contains enabling provisions on the modalities of decommissioning and the commission, it also contains substantive provisions on issues such as forensic testing and the prohibition on the taking of proceedings arising from the decommissioning process, as Deputy O'Malley recognised. These substantive provisions enact into law the recommendations of the international body relating to these matters which are properly a matter for Government and primary legislation.

Deputy O'Malley raised the question of the agreement between the two Governments establishing the commission, referred to in section 3. That agreement, as the Deputy surmised, does not yet exist. Contrary to what he said, my advice is that the definition in section 1 or the terms of the long title do not require that the agreement should be in existence at the time of the enactment of the legislation. Progress in the talks will obviously have a significant bearing on when decisions relating to the commission are made and put into effect. Section 3(1) provides that the subsequent provisions of that section, which relate to the commission, will come into effect on such day as the Minister for Justice, after consultation with the Secretary of State, may appoint for enabling the agreement to have full effect. I shall deal later with the question raised by Deputy O'Malley concerning the definition of “Secretary of State”.

It will therefore be possible for the Bill to be enacted before the agreement between the two Governments setting up the commission is concluded. Furthermore, section 9(2) provides that the Act, other than section 3, “shall come into operation on such day or days as ... may be fixed therefor ...”. This naturally includes section 4, which provides for regulations in relation to the commission, including its functions and role generally. Deputy O'Malley also raised a question about the definition of “Secretary of State”. He is correct in concluding that the definition of that term in section 1 is not confined only to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. This reflects the legal position and convention relating to the use of that term in the United Kingdom. “Secretary of State” is defined by their 1978 Interpretation Act to mean “one of Her Majesty's Principal Secretaries of State” and can mean any such secretary of State. The Northern Ireland Arms Decommissioning Bill, 1996 uses the term in that sense.

[779] In regard to section 5, Deputy O'Malley asked if it is the intention that compliance with any one of the four conditions listed in the section would be sufficient to bring about a prohibition on proceedings. This is neither the intention nor the effect. All four conditions will have to be met before the prohibition applies. This is to ensure that the existence of the “amnesty”, provided for in section 5, is not misused for unlawful purposes inconsistent with the purpose of decommissioning and to avoid doubt as to the circumstances in which the prohibition on the taking of proceedings will have application. Were it, for example, only necessary for one of the conditions to be met, it would be open to anyone found in unlawful possession of firearms at any time during a period that might be specified for the purposes of decommissioning under the regulations to claim the benefit of the section. That would not be acceptable to the House. That is why it will be necessary for all the conditions to be met before the prohibition on the taking of proceedings will apply. The precise nature of those requirements will be a function of the regulations and arrangements made under the Act. Those remain a matter for discussion with the parties.

In her opening remarks, the Minister for Justice referred to the fact that there had been significant changes and developments in the political situation since the international body's report was published just over one year ago. Multi-party talks have been under way for some months in Northern Ireland in accordance with agreed procedures and mechanisms and under the eminent chairmanship of the authors of the international body's report. While progress in the talks has been regrettably slow to date, they continue, in the view of the Government, to offer the best means of securing an overall agreement on the future of Northern Ireland acceptable to both communities and all sides. That is why the Government continues to work for early progress into substantive negotiations within the three strands within the framework of the talks.

The Government also remains committed to the principle of fully inclusive negotiations and wants to see an early and unequivocal restoration of the Provisional IRA cessation of violence of August 1994 so that fully inclusive negotiations can become a reality. It recognises that progress on decommissioning requires the participation of all parties to the talks process. It believes that, when the Provisional IRA make that possible by restoring the August 1994 cessation, the report of the International Body can provide a realistic way forward to a position where the gun will be removed from Irish politics forever.

I hope the passage of this legislation will assist progress in the talks and the peace process more generally. I commend it to the House on that basis.

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