Minister Flanagan's statements on Northern Ireland in Seanad Debate26 January 2017
The Minister for Foreign Affairs & Trade, Mr. Charlie Flanagan TD, this afternoon delivered the opening and closing statements in a Seanad Debate on Northern Ireland. The texts of the statements were as follows:
Statements on Northern Ireland, Seanad Éireann, 26 January 2017
Statement by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade
Check Against Delivery
I welcome the ongoing engagement of the Seanad with matters relating to Northern Ireland, which is a key priority for all of us in both Houses, and look forward to hearing the contributions of Senators today.
This is a critical time for Northern Ireland, which is again in election mode, less than a year after the last one.
In the weeks before the election was called, I was in close contact with the Secretary of State James Brokenshire and the leaders of the political parties in Northern Ireland. I travelled to Belfast on a number of occasions to meet in person with the Secretary of State and the then First and deputy First Ministers.
Both Governments pursued all appropriate avenues to encourage the Executive parties to find a way beyond their difficulties. However, an agreement could not be found and the Secretary of State - as required under statute when the joint office of First and deputy First Minister cannot be filled - called an election, which will take place on 2 March.
The circumstances that contributed to the break-down in trust between the two parties in the Executive gave rise to a good deal of public acrimony and risk a divisive election campaign. As it gets underway, I have urged the parties to remain measured and respectful in their electoral rhetoric, so that the political institutions are not damaged in the longer term. The people of Northern Ireland expect nothing less than an effective Assembly and Executive at Stormont, underpinned by a genuine spirit of partnership.
In my discussions with party leaders, I have strongly emphasised the imperative of the swift resumption of the power-sharing institutions after the election period. In support of this, I will remain closely engaged with the political parties and the British Government in the weeks ahead.
In the weeks leading up to the dissolution of the Assembly, the question of compliance with the terms of the Good Friday Agreement has been a key focus of debate.
The interlocking political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement are at the heart of the Agreement, and are the delivery vehicle for many of its commitments.
Within this framework, the devolved power-sharing institutions are vital - both for effective government in Northern Ireland and for the overall functioning of the Agreement. For instance, without the devolved institutions, the North South Ministerial Council cannot operate and North-South cooperation on a wide range of matters is compromised. This has tangible and serious impacts on all people across this island.
It is therefore of vital importance that the institutions of the Agreement return quickly to full operation after the election. In this regard, the relevant legislation provides a narrow window of three weeks from the date of election to when a new First and deputy First Minister must be nominated.
If the institutions are the heart of the Good Friday Agreement, then the principles of the Agreement are its lifeblood, and vital to the success and sustainability of any power-sharing administration in Northern Ireland.
Those principles were articulated in the Agreement and are worth recalling today:
“full respect for, and equality of, civil, political, social and cultural rights, of freedom from discrimination for all citizens, and of parity of esteem and of just and equal treatment for the
identity, ethos, and aspirations of both communities.”
These principles constitute the essential template for political and civic relations on this island and indeed between Ireland and the United Kingdom.
There has been discussion about deficits and shortcomings in upholding these principles and the need for parties that comprise the Executive to fully live up to the commitments made in the Good Friday and successor agreements.
I fully understand the rightful insistence on the principles of equality and parity of esteem being respected. And I also understand the frustration in the nationalist community when these principles are disrespected. It is a great pity that the spirit of partnership that Martin McGuinness sought to espouse as deputy First Minister was not reciprocated in equal measure.
While acknowledging the deficits, we also need to find solutions. I therefore hope that in the weeks ahead specific proposals to address the deficits in this respect agenda will be brought forward for consideration and discussion.
As typically occurs at moments of challenge in Northern Ireland, there have in recent days been calls on the two Governments to discharge their obligations under the peace process.
I can assure the House that neither I nor this Government needs any encouragement to fulfil our responsibilities as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. That serious and solemn responsibility is hard-wired into the performance of my duties as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade. The Taoiseach and I have been steadfast in acting to pursue the full implementation if the Good Friday Agreement. I may touch on this in more detail in my closing remarks.
Looking beyond the Assembly election, Northern Ireland will still have to manage the challenges of the UK’s decision to leave the European Union. The Government will be fully supportive in this regard. In the upcoming negotiations, protecting the gains of the peace process and upholding the Good Friday Agreement is one of the four major priorities for the Government. We are continuing our comprehensive preparations for these negotiations, including through the All-Island Civic Dialogue.
The Taoiseach and I will co-host a second Plenary meeting of the Dialogue on 17 February and a series of sectoral consultations are underway at present. On 13 February, I will convene a sectoral consultation on human rights under the Good Friday Agreement, to look at how these are fully upheld and sustained following the UK’s exit from the European Union.
All-island consultation through the Dialogue and engagement with the Northern Ireland Executive through the North South Ministerial Council are essential in addressing the challenges of Brexit. In this regard, the Northern Ireland Executive is primarily responsible for politically representing Northern Ireland’s interests and it is very important that this direct representation can quickly resume following the Assembly election.
The risks posed by Brexit are of course not the only considerations facing the North, but they are an example of why fully-functioning and effective political institutions are needed. Northern Ireland requires these institutions to protect what has been built and to secure a peaceful and prosperous future for all.
In the coming days, the Taoiseach will welcome the British Prime Minister to Dublin. Top of their agenda will be the welfare of Northern Ireland and its people, and the related need to protect the interests of the island of Ireland in the forthcoming Brexit negotiations. None of their discussions will be easy but I can assure this House that no two issues are receiving as much priority attention in Government. Our commitment as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement is a constant one, in good times and – as now - when they are more challenging.
I want to expressly acknowledge the commitment of all parties in this House to the Agreement. That spirit of cooperation, from those of all parties and none, has been an enormous support to successive Governments over the last three decades in achieving and sustaining peace on our island.
I look forward to hearing the perspective and analysis of the members of this House this afternoon.
Statements on Northern Ireland, Seanad Éireann, 26 January 2017
Closing statement by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade
I thank Senators for their contributions today.
The Good Friday Agreement secured peace on our island and transformed relationships that had been a source of so much conflict and suffering in the past.
All parties to the Agreement have a duty to ensure its full implementation, as a transformational accord that was resoundingly endorsed by the people on both parts of the island.
As a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the Government is unstinting in its work to achieve this.
I want to again acknowledge that with cross-party support all Governments since 1998 have been committed to this solemn duty.
On the matter of those elements of the Good Friday and succeeding agreements that are not yet fully implemented, it is worth I think recording the status of some of these in some more detail as we close today’s debate.
The question of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland was raised in this debate. The Good Friday Agreement provided for the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission to consult and advise on defining rights to reflect the particular circumstances of Northern Ireland. Between 1999 and 2009 there were three consultation processes - all engaged with supportively by the Irish Government of the day. On each occasion there was insufficient consensus between the parties in Northern Ireland to proceed with codifying rights specific to Northern Ireland.
At the Stormont House talks in 2014, on behalf of the Government, I supported a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland but there was again insufficient consensus. There was however a commitment by all parties to a number of important principles including “to promote a culture of tolerance, mutual respect and understanding.” All parties need to continue work to fully integrate this commitment in governance in Northern Ireland and – in my view – a Bill of Rights focussed on the specific circumstances of the North given its history could be a powerful symbol of a commitment to a better future.
A North South Consultative Forum is a further important outstanding provision. In 2008, the then Government sent proposals for such a Forum to the Executive, but there was no reply. Between 2009 and 2011, three consultative conferences were hosted in Dublin to support the establishment of the Forum. While the issue remains on the agenda of the North South Ministerial Council, the Northern Ireland Executive has not been able to give its assent to the establishment of the Forum. At the Stormont House talks in 2014, I made a further proposal to establish the Forum. However, the focus of the Executive parties was on other issues in those talks. There remains an undiminished obligation to implement the agreed commitment to a North South Consultative Forum and the Irish Government’s commitment to it is undimmed.
Respect for linguistic diversity and the Irish language has rightly been raised as central to the Good Friday Agreement and indeed can be seen as something of a litmus test for mutual respect. Both Governments re-iterated their support for this in the Stormont House Agreement. An Irish Language Act in Northern Ireland to be enacted by the British Government was provided for in the St. Andrews Agreement in 2006. Successive Irish Governments have advocated in favour and continue to do so. However, to date, there has been no agreement within the Executive to take forward what is now a devolved matter. The Government will continue to support the Irish-language on an all-island basis, including through financial support for the work of Foras na Gaeilge.
The St. Andrews Agreement also provided for a review to identify additional areas for North South cooperation. Again the Government supported a provision in the Stormont House Agreement on this. The Taoiseach has raised the issue at successive Plenaries of the North South Ministerial Council. A number of new areas of North South co-operation have been mooted, for instance on Higher Education. However, taking new areas forward would require Assembly and Executive approval and this has not as yet been forthcoming.
In review meetings with the Secretary of State and the First and deputy First Ministers, I have raised the need to maintain political attention to realising each of these outstanding commitments. I did so most recently in December. It is vital that there is more substantial discussion and progress with these outstanding commitments in the period ahead.
The institutions, principles and procedures of the Good Friday Agreement are the bedrock of the peace process.
As a co-guarantor of the Agreement, the Government has worked relentlessly in support of the implementation of all provisions.
I want to assure this House that the Government will continue to discharge its duty in this regard, so that the full potential and promise of the Agreement is realised.