Tuesday, 30 May 2000
Dáil Eireann Debate
1. Mr. J. Bruton asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on the re-establishment of the Northern Ireland institutions in light of the out come of the UUP Council meeting in Belfast on Saturday, 27 May 2000. [14585/00]
2. Mr. Quinn asked the Taoiseach his views on the implications of the outcome of the meeting of the Ulster Unionist Council on 27 May 2000 for the situation in Northern Ireland and full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14193/00]
3. Mr. J. Bruton asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on his discussions with the Leader of the UUP, Mr. David Trimble, following the UUP Council meeting in Belfast on Saturday 27 May 2000. [14255/00]
6. Mr. J. Bruton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting in Dublin with a delegation from the Police Federation of Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14901/00]
11. Mr. Quinn asked the Taoiseach the steps the Government has taken to meet the commitment given in the Good Friday Agreement that it would continue to take further active steps to demonstrate its respect for the different traditions on the island; the further steps he will take in this regard; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [14959/00]
12. Mr. Quinn asked the Taoiseach if he will make a statement on his meeting on 23 May 2000 with the Northern Ireland Police Association, the RUC Widows' Association and the RUC Disabled Officers' Association. [15048/00]
I very much welcome Saturday's decision of the Ulster Unionist Council in favour of UUP participation in a restored Northern Ireland Executive, and I offer my warmest congratulations to Mr. David Trimble.
As I said in my statement on Saturday, I congratulate the leaders of all the pro-Agreement parties, with whom I have been in regular contact, for the courage and commitment they have shown in working with the two Governments, over a long and difficult period, to overcome the problems in the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. There now exists a secure and agreed basis for the full implementation of all aspects of the Agreement.
There is a job to be done to prove on a sustained basis that the Agreement can work for everyone. It is essential that all aspects of the Agreement be implemented in full, as set out by the two Governments on 5 May. I also look forward to the fulfilment by the IRA of the commitments it made in its statement of 6 May. It remains my hope that the loyalist paramilitaries will also find ways in which to build confidence.
The Government looks forward to working with Northern Ministers in the North-South Ministerial Council to make progress across the full range of economic and social issues of mutual concern. We also look forward to renewed activity in the British-Irish Council.
There may well be issues which will, in the future, give rise to stresses and strains. These issues must be worked through and if we are to succeed, we will need at all times to work together in a spirit of mutual respect. I hope also that, over time, we might be able to bring those who now oppose the Agreement to see that it represents a fair and balanced accommodation, which is in the best interest of all the people of this island, North and South.
I met representatives of the RUC Widows Association, the RUC Disabled Officers Association and the Police Federation on Tuesday, 23 May last, and we had a valuable and informative discussion. The Government recognises the terrible price that has been paid by individual members of the RUC and their wives and families throughout the conflict of the past 30 years, and the suffering of all victims. I made clear at the meeting the Government's full commitment to the Patten report and I referred to the concerns expressed by Nationalist parties on the policing Bill. The objective must be to have a police service which is representative of both communities and is accepted across all of Northern Ireland.
Further to the commitment given in the Good Friday Agreement to take active steps to demonstrate their respect for the different traditions on the island, the Government has provided support, under the Irish Sailors and Soldiers Land Trust,  for a number of projects including the Journey of Reconciliation and Trust Peace Park at Messines, the Royal Dublin Fusiliers Association, the Ulster Society, and the Federation for Ulster Local Studies. In addition, the Government announced an eight-fold increase in the funding available to the Reconciliation Fund, administered by the Department of Foreign Affairs, to £2 million per annum.
Last December I was also glad to announce that the Government has agreed to purchase the site of the Battle of the Boyne. The development of the site will serve to mark in a fitting way the significance of this important historical event for all of the people of Ireland, and in particular for the Unionist tradition. The interdepartmental committee with responsibility for developing the site has initiated a process of extensive consultation for the purpose, including with representatives of the Unionist tradition, with the relevant local authorities and with community groups.
Mr. J. Bruton: Will the Taoiseach indicate if there has been any commitment from the various loyalist paramilitaries to allow inspection of weaponry they are holding or to put such weaponry beyond use?
The Taoiseach: No. There has not been any progress on that matter yet. In the meetings we held in Hillsborough we met the political parties and raised the issues of what we were trying to do. I have since spoken by telephone to the political leaders and I am soon to have a meeting with Gary McMichael and his colleagues, I hope, over the next few days, but as of yet, there is no progress. Both Governments had asked the loyalist paramilitaries and their political associates to consider the full extent of the agreements on 5 May. I know there is a consultation process going on between the various groupings but as yet, other than some of the statements they have made in the public domain, there has not been any other news.
Mr. Quinn: Arising from the Taoiseach's reply, when is it intended that the next meeting of the British-Irish Council will be convened and does he have any plans in anticipation of what was decided upon last Saturday by the Ulster Unionist Council to proceed with the establishment of a parliamentary tier within the framework of the Council of the Isles? The Taoiseach will no doubt agree that much of this work had been in preparation once the institutions had been established and presumably we are more advanced now than we were when the Taoiseach last answered questions on these matters.
The Taoiseach: The Executive, will meet on Thursday and the Assembly will meet on Monday. A number of the sectoral groups held one meeting and it is hoped they will have a second one in June. The groups which were only in the course of being put together when the Assembly  collapsed on 11 February will have their first meeting soon. A plenary session of the North-South bodies was planned for June and it is hoped this will still happen although it may be difficult. As Deputy Quinn knows, the Northern holiday will start on 7 July and the Assembly will probably suspend then for the summer recess. The Government will try to have a full range of meetings during June, if that proves possible.
Mr. J. Bruton: What reason has been given to the Taoiseach by the loyalist political leaders for the failure of loyalist paramilitaries to make any move in putting their weaponry beyond use? Will the Taoiseach comment on the involvement of the IRA in punishment beatings and shootings given that on 6 May the IRA stated “Our arms are silent”. If arms are being used in punishment beatings or shootings, they are not silent. When does the Taoiseach expect the first inspection of arms to take place, in accordance with the proposals?
The Taoiseach: Loyalist political party members have been convening meetings among their organisations and membership, on which they have made some public statements. Those statements suggest they will wait some time to see what happens regarding inspections and other matters before they come to a conclusion, if they do as they have not stated they will. However, we can build confidence over time if there is movement by the IRA and the institutions are up and running. Hopefully we will then see progress from the loyalist parties.
I have no information on punishment beatings. The percentage of punishment beatings decreased substantially in the first four months of this year, compared with last year, although, as Deputy Bruton knows, the figure is still substantial. It continues to be a worrying trend in some communities. We have continued to raise this matter with Sinn Féin which has raised it with the republican movement. It has given commitments. Last year we exerted pressure for a period and the number of punishment beatings dropped substantially. It concerns me that in some communities there seems to be an acceptance of punishment beatings. Unfortunately, it seems to be a system meted out with a great deal of community support. It will take us some time—
The Taoiseach: It is barbaric. We must continue to seek a resolution which lies in policing. In the view of the RUC, not to mention the views  of others, we will not see the elimination of punishment beatings until there is a Northern Ireland police force which is acceptable to all communities. It is a matter of concern when communities take the law into their hands. We will continue to do all we can to get people to desist from this and to try to get Sinn Féin to get its supporters and members to do likewise.
The Taoiseach: Yes, within weeks. If it happens as soon as possible it would help to eliminate tensions and further difficulties for the Ulster Unionist Party. If confidence building measures are undertaken quickly, it will remove the tensions that would otherwise build up and which are unnecessary.
Mr. Sargent: In regard to the Taoiseach's reply on the RUC, I welcome the meeting with the RUC Disabled Officers Association and the RUC Widows Association. Has the Taoiseach or the Government particular knowledge of the substance of Mr. John Taylor's claims that the Secretary of State has given Unionists particular assurances in relation to policing, or is this comment reminiscent of the assurances given by Prime Minister Blair to Mr. Trimble formally on decommissioning? Does the Taoiseach agree we should avoid, if at all possible, fudging on issues which will further undermine future progress and may land us back in a situation of having to try to restore confidence again?
In relation to our jurisdiction, does the Taoiseach see merit in reconvening, not the Forum for Peace and Reconciliation as a whole but, at least, the sub-committee that needs to finish its work on the removal of obstacles to reconciliation in the South? Given the loss of understanding created by the difficulties over Orange Order ceremonies in Dublin, could that be given more attention so that we can start to, at least, build up some level of trust with the 47% of the Ulster Unionist Council and their colleagues who felt the process was not worthy of support?
The Taoiseach: I will check that last point. As I said, I have an open mind about the forum but it requires everybody to agree on it. However, I will raise it. I have asked for some of the work in our domain to be tidied up so that we will be in a position to complete some of it. Even if some parts of that work are out of date, it is still part of all that has happened over recent years and, therefore, it still makes sense to do it.
John Taylor has been helpful on numerous occasions in recent months. He was involved in the discussions in Downing Street with the British and Irish Governments. He was also a key part of the talks on 5 and 6 May in Hillsborough. He  has continued to keep in close touch with the British Government and the Secretary of State. I have not been talking directly to him but I know he has been expressing his views on aspects of the RUC. I did not hear what he said the other day and I did not see any actual report of his comments at the meeting. However, as I understand his position, he accepts fully that from September 2001 the first recruits will enter the new police service of Northern Ireland. He talks about the interregnum period and what should be in the title. Those are issues between him and the Secretary of State. Our position is clear on these matters.
I do not want to create unnecessary tension. As I said here a fortnight ago, legislation has been published and is now open for debate. A substantial number of meetings will take place before this weekend between different parties in the North with the security Minister in the North and the Secretary of State and, perhaps, with the Secretary of State in Dublin. Many meetings are taking place on these aspects. The easiest thing on God's earth is to find issues on which people can criticise each other. I know that, at times, people give each other the opportunity to do that in these meetings. However, it makes far more sense to just try to resolve them, talk them through and find resolutions. I honestly believe there is no difficulty in getting resolutions to these issues if everybody can work at it.
Mr. J. Bruton: Does the Taoiseach agree that policing and symbolic questions such as where and when various flags might be flown are often much more difficult to resolve than issues of substance because they have so much emotional content? Does the Taoiseach agree it might be useful, given that Mr. David Trimble and Mr. Seamus Mallon reflect their communities more directly than anyone else as representatives of the two main traditions, if they could be given a more active role in finding a solution to the various symbolic issues that affect policing and the flying of flags? They could establish protocols regarding these matters which might be acceptable to both communities bearing in mind that the Northern Ireland Executive was extremely successful in choosing a common symbol for itself, namely the flax flower, which was accepted by both communities as representing both of them. Given that the Executive did that itself, there may be good reason to believe that some of these difficult issues could be remitted to the Executive now that it has been reconstituted. They may be able to succeed where those more remote from the issue in London – or Dublin, for that matter – might not be so successful as sensitivities are not quite so immediate as they are in the North itself.
The Taoiseach: Deputy Bruton is certainly right on one matter – the issues of emblems and the flying of flags are sensitive and generate enormous difficulties. I am very conscious of that but feel we can find resolutions to those issues even  if it is difficult. The flag issue was debated in the discussions before the Executive was formed and it was realised that there was no statutory basis for the flying of flags, though some people thought there was. It was hoped to reach a conclusion on that issue, but it will now be back on the table within the Executive – if not on Thursday, then very soon. To be frank, there is no chance of me being able to resolve or even contribute to the resolution of the issue of flags or of what days flags are to be flown. I am conscious of that and do not think the British Prime Minister will be able to resolve the issue either. An understanding will have to be reached between the parties.
Mr. J. Bruton: Does the Taoiseach agree that any solution of which the politicians in Northern Ireland have ownership – which they created themselves – is more likely to travel than even the same solution suggested by London or Dublin?
The Taoiseach: Precisely. They will have to reach a consensus on these issues. Deputies will know that the Secretary of State, Mr. Mandelson, has taken the powers to have some of these matters decided on a statutory basis, but I imagine he will have to decide them in tandem with the parties. He will have to decide them in conjunction with the pro-Agreement parties and, in the first place, the parties in the Executive.
Mr. Quinn: In a reply to a parliamentary question on 14 December the Taoiseach indicated that the Government had agreed in principle to purchase the site of the Battle of the Boyne. Has that purchase decision been completed? Can the Taoiseach give details of whether the preliminary works, which were costed at approximately £150,000, have proceeded? What is the current position regarding that particularly symbolic project which could help towards reconciliation?
The Taoiseach: The negotiations have been done through the Office of Public Works. I do not have the details, but I believe they are completed. I know there have been some site visits – members of the Orange Order and other groups in the North have visited the site, while memorabilia in the North that might be located at the site has also been examined. The intention is to have a centre at the site rather than a museum. The Office of Public Works is working on this in conjunction with the interdepartmental group to ensure that all communities are involved, particularly members of the Orange Order. Those meetings are doing well although I am not sure if the contracts have been signed yet.
Will the Taoiseach agree that speedy action is  required on the fundamental issues of policing and putting arms beyond use and that a long delay may not occur in those matters? Ordinary people in Northern Ireland must see progress quickly in those areas. Will the Taoiseach further agree that other confidence building measures might be examined? In his meetings with the republican movement he might emphasise these again. Deputy Bruton referred to punishment beatings. These are intolerable and contradict the commitments given.
Will the Taoiseach accept that the issue of “the disappeared” remains? That practice, too, was barbaric. It is the responsibility of the republican movement. Information exists which has not been made available to the authorities. It ought to be made available. Will the Taoiseach also agree that a long list of people have been exiled from Northern Ireland for one reason or another? They are outside this country but, given that people who are responsible for the most awful atrocities are now free to walk the streets of Northern Ireland, there is no reason these exiles should not be allowed to return to their homes.
The Taoiseach: Deputy Currie asked a number of questions. I have said my piece on punishment beatings. We must continue in our efforts to encourage people away from that way of life while at the same time try to build up confidence in the police service. It is only when there is a police service which represents every corner of Northern Ireland that this problem will be overcome. We must continue pressing in that direction.
With regard to confidence building measures, particularly the inspection of arms, the quicker that happens the better. I do not see any reason it should not happen. However, I have no wish to call for it every day because that usually has a negative effect. Nevertheless, a deal is a deal and I expect it to be honoured and to see that happen sooner rather than later.
With regard to policing, specific concerns about structures for police accountability, the cover of and participation on policing boards, the police ombudsman, the district policing partnership and a range of other areas with regard to policing partnership, the human rights ethos of the new service and the oversight commissioner are enormously important. They are the main issues of the approximately 40 issues to do with policing legislation and the implementation bodies around policing. It will take some time to resolve them. The good news on that front is that today and for several more days meetings are scheduled to take place between the key players. I hope they can come to an understanding. The policing Bill is due to get its next reading this day week in the House of Commons, so much of the work must be finished by then. There is, in effect, a deadline on it.
 To the best of my knowledge there is no further news regarding “the disappeared”. The leads that were available were explored. If any more become available they will be acted on. Unfortunately, the problem has not been solved for many people but the Garda Síochána and the Government are ready to assist. The passage of time has helped in some cases but not in many.
With regard to the exiles, there will be confidence building measures as time goes on. Many of these issues will just require time to resolve. We will simply have to convince people over time that they can return. Related issues such as acts of intimidation, threats and the displacement of people have been ongoing for many years but we must continue to pursue them.
Mr. Higgins: (Dublin West): Now that the institutions are restored, will the Taoiseach agree that those institutions should be subjected to rigorous scrutiny given that the structures that have been set up are an institutionalisation of sectarian division and differences, regardless of whether the Taoiseach likes it? Will he agree there could be a grave danger that political parties, which are based on one side or other of the sectarian divide, may in certain circumstances play a sectarian card to boost their position and try to outflank others, or that Ministries could even be used in certain circumstances in this regard? Will he agree that the structures could, therefore, be agents of division rather than reconciliation? Do both Governments have proposals to go beyond the institutions, bearing in mind what I have said, and will the Taoiseach agree there is a real need for the people on the ground, the working class communities in particular, to come together to address the very serious problems that have been overlooked over the past 30 years, such as homelessness, bad living conditions, unemployment, poverty and so on?
Now that paramilitary violence is, I hope, a nightmare from the past and will not be reimposed – this is the wish of the vast majority of the Irish people – what proposals are there for the dismantling of all vestiges of the British military machine in Northern Ireland? Is there a real commitment on the part of the British Government to create a genuine community-based police force which is unarmed and without political agendas in the sense of any kind of sectarian allegiance and which is genuinely accountable to the community?
The Taoiseach: The Executive brings together in a unique way Nationalists, Unionists and republicans on the representative basis in which they received votes in the Assembly election in the summer of 1998. Democratic parties always play to their own agendas but the Executive has an obligation to work for all the people of Northern Ireland. During the short time the Executive was in place there was a genuine indication that  parties worked well together on issues such as education, health and finance. Even though members of the DUP were not in attendance, they worked constructively to assist the people of Northern Ireland. The possibility exists for parties to work and communicate together and not work on a sectarian basis. However, sectarianism exists in Northern Ireland and this will not change overnight. Issues such as names and emblems signify this fact and we must continue to assist parties in this period of democratic involvement and accountability to deal with issues in a different way than was the case in the past. Following my various meetings with the parties, I believe they are determined to try to be inclusive and work together for the benefit of everyone. However, problems occur regularly in the North which forces divisiveness such as we have seen in the past. I believe the parties mean well and wish to overcome these problems.
On demilitarisation, in the agreement of 5 May the British Government agreed to remove the military infrastructure in certain locations. This will take place over the coming months on a scaled basis in a number of areas in Derry, south Armagh, east Tyrone and Fermanagh. I understand the engineering unit, which is not based in Northern Ireland, will work in these areas but it will be a number of weeks before this will happen. As the threat of violence diminishes there will be further demilitarisation. The Deputy said that he hopes we have seen the end of paramilitary activity. So do I, but Members are aware there are groups which see a threat to their existence and activities as a result of the success of the Good Friday Agreement. These will not go out of business too easily and I wish well the Garda Síochána, the RUC and everybody else engaged in thwarting their efforts. We have seen their activities and they have capabilities. We must be vigilant and conscious that some of groups are still in business or endeavouring to be.
I was asked if the British Government is sincere about a new policing arrangement. It signed up to the Patten report, and there have been some strains and stresses since then. We have continuously indicated that the Patten report was a compromise and not written by Nationalists in the North. For years Seamus Mallon has very strongly and repeatedly indicated that the recommendations in the Patten report must be implemented faithfully, something with which we agree, to ensure the new police service is capable of attracting the support of both communities, including young Nationalists and republicans. I know it is hard for many people to understand the sensitivities involved, but we must try to understand the sensitivities on both sides. If the Patten report is not recommended by SDLP and Sinn Féin there is no chance of young Nationalists joining the police force, which would be a disaster for the work of Patten. In understanding some of the sensitivities of Unionists and issues they raise, we must try to find compromises which ensure the Patten report is fully implemented and is  recommended and sold in Nationalist and republican communities in Northern Ireland so we can have a proper police service. Because of demographics and the fact that there are not many Catholics at senior level in the force – the Patten report makes recommendations in this regard – it will be difficult. It will take some years and we cannot begin from the basis that Catholics will not join as that would lead to massive failure. It is fundamentally important we resolve the issues concerning the Patten report.
Mr. J. Bruton: Does the Taoiseach agree that many of the problems of the Nationalist community regarding policing do not arise from the acceptance by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland of Unionist views as such, but rather from the bureaucratic interests of the RUC in terms of control, the relative role of the Chief Constable as against the police authority, the initiation of investigations, and other such matters which are essentially not political issues which divide Nationalists and Unionists but rather issues concerning the relative role of the force vis-à-vis the public, and that, therefore, the issues should not be all that difficult to resolve? Does the Taoiseach agree that if one could separate the structural policing issues from the symbolic issues one might find that the former might be comparatively easily resolved between the parties?
On the last occasion the Taoiseach answered questions he referred to the inquiry by the Garda Commissioner into allegations that two members of the Garda Síochána had colluded with the IRA in the murder of 12 people. Has the commissioner concluded his inquiry into this matter?
Regarding the first question, as I have said a number of times during Question Time, dialogue will lead to solving problems in all the areas where legislation and implementation is different from what was outlined in the Patten report. Some of the issues concern the Secretary of State, some the RUC and some the NIO while other issues need to be debated in terms of working out definitions and understanding. It is also necessary to examine the police board, clarify its general functions and look at retrospective inquiries. Together with the role and terms of reference of the oversight commissioner these are all administrative issues which I hope will be resolved in the substantial range of meetings initiated this morning and which will continue for the next few days. It is the only way to resolve them. They are all extremely important. They are important to some person; they would not be on the agenda otherwise. Whether they are of concern to Unionists, the SDLP or Sinn Féin, they have to be reconciled. If this can be done calmly and quietly through dialogue and meetings rather than blow by blow across the airwaves it can be done faster.
Mr. Quinn: I wish to ask a separate but related  question. On 14 December we also spoke about another confidence building measure, for the Unionist community in particular, the establishment of the parliamentary tier emanating from the Council of the Isles in replacement of the existing British-Irish parliamentary tier. In view of the necessity to embrace the 47% who have expressed reservations, if not opposition, and the Democratic Unionist Party in the Northern Ireland Assembly, not to mention Mr. McCartney and others, the parliamentary tier with its Welsh and Scottish component parts, to which the Taoiseach is very committed, would be an arena in which confidence could be constructed and developed. Does the Government have a view on the best way forward? Are the members of the British-Irish parliamentary body prepared to broaden its terms of reference and have it subsumed into a wider parliamentary tier?
The Taoiseach: I hope that is what will happen. I have had discussions with the British-Irish parliamentary group. One could go one of two ways. One could retain the British-Irish parliamentary group and establish a second group but I am not in favour of this. It would be far better to bring together Members of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Ireland Assemblies, Westminster and the Oireachtas. I would like us to work on this during the summer and have it up and running in the autumn.
Mr. Currie: I confess to being disappointed at the Taoiseach's reply to the questions I asked him about those who have been exiled from Northern Ireland. I am sorry to say I sensed a lack of urgency, which I had not expected. Does the Taoiseach agree that many of the people concerned are in a worse position than those convicted of so-called political offences and ODCs – ordinary decent criminals – in the sense that ordinary decent criminals have been sentenced to prison for a particular length of time? The people concerned have not been convicted of any crime and are outside Northern Ireland without any indication as to when they might be able to return. There is a degree of urgency attached to dealing with this problem.
On the issue of flags in Northern Ireland, does the Taoiseach agree that part of the problem is that there are too many flags and emblems on display and that some of those calling for respect to be shown to the two national flags are members of organisations which appear to show little respect in the sense that the thousands of flags erected each July have turned into a rag by the following July and the thousands of flags erected each Easter have turned into a rag by the following Easter? Does the Taoiseach agree that in many instances flags are flown to provoke and stake out territory and that everything possible  should be done to keep the matter under control? Having said that, I recognise the tremendous symbolic nature and importance of the flying of flags but there is a very negative aspect to this practice which also requires attention.
The Taoiseach: I agree with the Deputy and it will take time to stop elements of certain communities killing, maiming, threatening and intimidating each other and all the related things which went on. One moves down the scale of trying to convince people to have respect for the community in the next area and that is what much of this is about. There are too many flags but that is done for a reason. It is done to mark out territory but that has built up over, not 30 years, but 70 or 80 years.
As regards people being put out of the North, I do not want to suggest there is no urgency about this issue but many of the groups I met indicated that those driven out by paramilitary groups were threatened for misconduct in their own communities, because people did not like them or because they crossed—
The Taoiseach: Yes. A substantial number of people were on the run from the RUC and the British army down the years. There was also rivalry between paramilitary groups who fell out with their paramilitary colleagues or people were fighting for one paramilitary group against another paramilitary group. This is an enormously complex area. I have had the pleasure, even though it was difficult, to meet all these groups over the past number of years and listened to a range of views. If we reach a stage where people stop the violence we can then deal with that issue. However, that is not exactly the case as was seen last week when an alleged member of a paramilitary group was shot by an alleged member of another paramilitary group. We are not at that stage yet so we are still on difficult ground as far as those outside the North are concerned.
Mr. G. Mitchell: Does the Taoiseach agree the negative impact of emblems was given some credence by the inability of authorities in the South to find a formula to allow the Orange Order march down Dawson Street to unveil its plaque? Does he have any indication whether DUP Ministers will take their seats on the Northern Ireland Executive?
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