Dáil Debate on the Situation in Northern Ireland. Closing Statement by Minister for Foreign Affairs09 February 2010
I want to thank Deputies for their contributions this afternoon. I welcome the expressions of support and goodwill across the chamber for this agreement. Such unity of purpose in this House has been a great strength of the peace process and will remain important as we encourage the parties inNorthern Irelandto build on the progress reached at Hillsborough.
The spirit of partnership which has marked the relationship between the two Governments as guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement was once again demonstrated at Hillsborough. I want to pay tribute to the role that the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister played in convening the talks and creating the conditions that enabled the parties to break the deadlock.
The Taoiseach and Prime Minister worked very closely throughout this period and stayed in close touch with the talks throughout, applying appropriate and judicious degrees of encouragement, advice and pressure as we moved to final agreement.
In particular, I want to pay tribute to my counterpart – Secretary of State Shaun Woodward. He and I have worked together to secure the devolution of policing and justice not just for the past two weeks but for the past 18 months. His commitment has been extraordinary and I thank him for it.
However, it was the Northern political parties who were at the centre of what happened at Hillsborough over the past fortnight. This is their Agreement just as it is their Executive and their Assembly. This deal was essential to enable the Executive and Assembly to move forward. Its implementation is the primary responsibility of all of the parties inNorthern Ireland.
Reaching agreement on a time-table for the devolution of justice and policing powers to the Northern Ireland Assembly was the centre-piece of this agreement. This was a major item of unfinished business from the St. Andrews Agreement. The transfer of these powers on 12 April will represent the consolidation of devolution at Stormont and the completion of the transformation of policing begun with the publication of the Patten Report in 1999. The appointment of a Minister for Justice, accountable to the Northern Ireland Assembly, will signal a strong vote of confidence in the robustness and sustainability of the devolved institutions.
The DUP and Sinn Féin occupy a joint office which is at the heart of devolved government in the North and thus their capacity to engage with each other and reach accommodations is crucial to the stability of the Institutions.
The fact that they, facilitated by the Governments, have been able to conclude this comprehensive agreement around a number of contentious and sensitive issues in therefore a major step forward. I want to also put on record appreciation for the leadership and political will displayed by First Minister Peter Robinson and deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness that made this agreement possible.
Government is about more than concluding agreements – the real business of Government is implementation.
And in that process of implementation, the role of the other parties in the Assembly and the Executive is a key element. This was already acknowledged by both Sinn Féin and the DUP in last Friday’s Plenary meeting. Questions such as the better functioning of the Executive and progress on the outstanding issues from St Andrews can only be taken forward successfully on a inclusive basis, taking advantage of all of the talent, expertise and good will available in the Assembly.
There are a number of areas which will be covered in the working group to be established on outstanding commitments from the St Andrews Agreement. One of particular interest to this House is that of the Irish language.
The Good Friday Agreement and the St Andrews Agreement recognised the importance of respect, tolerance and understanding of the linguistic diversity and culture ofNorthern Ireland. The Irish Government is committed to assisting the development of the Irish language inNorthern Irelandand the implementation of outstanding commitments made in the St Andrews Agreement including an Irish Language Act.
We also look forward to early agreement on an Irish language strategy. Since language issues are a devolved matter, this is an area where the Government works directly with the Northern Ireland Executive including through the North/south body, Foras na Gaeilge.
Engagement continues with the British Government on relevant non-devolved areas such as broadcasting and through the British Irish Council. I am pleased that only last week Minister Ryan and his British counterpart signed a Memorandum of Understanding which will facilitate the continued availability of Irish television services, including TG4, inNorthern Irelandafter digital switchover.
As the House will be aware, the promotion and protection of the Irish Language is a key priority for the Irish Government in this jurisdiction and our work in this area can have a positive effect on the island as a whole. I know that the 20 year Strategy for the Irish Language (2010-2030) will have a beneficial impact on speakers of the Irish language on the whole island and the Irish Government will look at how these synergies can be optimised.
I also want to reiterate the need for tolerance and respect for both the Irish language and Ulster Scots language and culture inNorthern Ireland.
I have previously urged a more open approach to the Irish language by those who erroneously see it as something threatening. Far from being feared, the languages and cultures of this island ought to be shared and celebrated. I look forward to a more mature and less politicised discussion about the Irish language, building on the improved dynamic and mutual respect that enabled agreement to be reached in Hillsborough last week.
In moving forward, we need to build and consolidate trust between communities, in a spirit of equality and tolerance for each others political aspirations, cultural expression and inheritance. Much has already been achieved in building sustainable relationships where once there was mistrust. However, more needs to be done to knock down the barriers which physically and metaphorically separate too many in the North.
One of the issues which goes to the heart of the remaining divisions is that of parading. While most parades pass off peacefully, there remain a handful of contentious parades and another small few which retain the potential for difficulty. Against this background, the agreement between the parties at Hillsborough sets out a process for an improved framework for the management and regulation of parades. Their aim is to bring forward agreed outcomes which can achieve cross community support. This in itself would be a significant step forward.
The core point is that any enhanced framework would have at its core the principles of local people providing local solutions and respect for the rights of those who parade and those who live in the areas through which parades pass. This includes the right for everyone to be free from sectarian harassment. Until new arrangements have been agreed and put in place, the Parades Commission will continue to do its valuable work.
An ambitious timeframe has been set for this work. The First and deputy First Minister have now appointed representatives to the working group provided for in the Hillsborough Agreement. It will report back with agreed outcomes within weeks. These outcomes will, in turn, provide the basis for widespread public consultation, leading to responsibility for parading being devolved to the northern institutions and Assembly legislation before the end of the year. The agreement between the parties to move forward on an agreed basis has the potential to transform the situation, lifting the stresses and pressure on communities arising from parades.
Realising this potential will require generosity of spirit and respect for others on the part of all stakeholders. There is also a duty of care on those who take this work forward to ensure that the rights of all are equitably accommodated. The Government will remain close to this process as it progresses through the various stages.
As colleagues have recognised, the Hillsborough Agreement provides a new platform upon which we can build stronger and deeper North/South cooperation over the months and years to come. There have been more than fifty meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council since the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly in May 2007. Every single one of those meetings has included Ministers from the unionist and nationalist traditions inNorthern Ireland, as well as their Irish Government counterparts.
This is a hugely significant level of engagement between elected representatives in both parts of the island on the economic and social issues of most concern to those we represent. The era of ‘back-to-back’ development has truly been consigned to the past. Ministers, North and South, no longer hesitate to pick up the phone or meet in person, discuss common challenges, argue options and agree shared approaches to the difficulties we face. That is politics as it should be. The political compromises reached at Hillsborough will free up time and space to tackle the bread-and-butter issues of most concern to ordinary people.
And the Government is determined to work closely with our Northern Ireland Executive colleagues to tackle those issues on an all-island basis, wherever possible and helpful.
We will continue to take a North/South approach to meeting the infrastructural needs of the island, as evidenced by our support for the upgrading to dual-carriageway status of the new A5 road toDerryand Letterkenny. And we are stepping up our efforts as well to build a smart and dynamic ‘InnovationIsland’ by increasing our collaboration through the US-Ireland Research and Development Partnership and under the EU’s Seventh Framework Programme.
We are intensifying our cooperation in areas like health and education, with North/South studies completed or in train on how we can achieve economies of scale and deliver improved services.
And we are looking forward to examining closely with our Northern Ireland Executive colleagues ways in which both our administrations can save money by eliminating duplication on the island. It is simple common sense that we can do more together, for less, if we pool our talents, our resources and our time in the many areas in which we have shared ambitions and targets.
We are looking forward to completing the St. Andrew’s Review of North/South Bodies and Areas of Cooperation as soon as possible; ensuring Ministers can address issues of most pressing concern through the North/South Ministerial Council. We are also determined to bring into being the North/South Consultative Forum and the North/South Parliamentary Forum, which will each have a valuable role in advising the Government and Northern Ireland Executive on socio-economic and cultural issues with a North-South dimension. The time is now right to make progress on all these outstanding issues and we look forward to doing just that over the months ahead.
In closing I want to thank all members of the House for their contribution to this debate and to record my own appreciation for the continued and consistent support for the Government’s efforts inNorthern Irelandwhich has been shown by all parties in the chamber. I look forward to their continued support in the weeks and months ahead.
09 February 2010