Report of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement entitled “Lessons from the Architects of the Good Friday Agreement”

I welcome this debate. Like Deputy Conway-Walsh, I compliment the Cathaoirleach of our committee, Deputy O’Dowd, on his work. I also compliment Deputy Conway-Walsh and all our other colleagues on the committee.

There is one word I would use about the Good Friday Agreement, that being, “transformative”. I say that as a person who grew up in a Border community, as a public representative prior to the Good Friday Agreement during the era of the Troubles and, thankfully, as someone who is still a public representative for the area now. Many was the night on my way home from doing clinics in my constituency that I travelled through County Fermanagh – I must travel across the Border to visit parts of my own constituency – and was delayed at checkpoints, etc. Thus, I arrived late at meetings and at home. It is an era that, thankfully, is now consigned to history. As Deputy O’Dowd said, there is a generation on this island today who know nothing about such experiences. It is important we know that such a time existed, but it is also important there is a generation that did not have to live through that era.

There are many people to be thanked. The Good Friday Agreement has been transformative, not only for our island, but for Britain and for the relationship between our two islands. During the Troubles, we witnessed thuggery, criminality and loss of life. Many innocent people lost their lives through the criminality and vile actions of some members of the British state forces and some members of paramilitary organisations. What happened was deplorable. Thankfully, our island is now at peace.

The Minister of State, Deputy Burke, referred to the Tánaiste’s comments at the anniversary of the Dublin-Monaghan bombings on 17 May. Forty-nine years have elapsed, yet the British Government has not co-operated in ensuring there is a meaningful investigation into the bombings. In 2008, 2011 and 2016, the Dáil unanimously passed motions asking the British Government to give an independent international legal person access to all papers and files pertaining to them. It is reprehensible that the government of a neighbouring country has not responded to the requests of a sovereign parliament.

On 28 December, other local public representatives and I attended the 50th anniversary of the bombing of Belturbet, which resulted in the killing of two innocent teenagers, Geraldine O’Reilly from Belturbet and Patrick Stanley from Clara, County Offaly. Last Friday, the cathaoirleach of Cavan County Council, Councillor John Paul Feeley, Councillor Áine Smith and I accompanied the Tánaiste as he placed a wreath at the location where those two young people lost their lives. We said a prayer in memory of them and all other victims. Like other Deputies, I have campaigned for many decades to get truth and justice for families who lost loved ones and where the truth of who carried out those atrocities has never been established. Reference has been made to the British legacy Bill. It is deplorable that a parliamentary democracy would devise such legislation. Our committee heard several times that, if some tinpot regime in South America came up with it, the whole of western Europe would be jumping up and down condemning it. That is what we have to do with the British Government now. It is deplorable that the Bill is still before the House of Lords. The Irish Government has repeatedly stated its opposition to it, as has every political party on the island. It is not that often that every political party, North and South, is ad idem on a subject.

Our committee heard from many of the key architects of the Good Friday Agreement, including Mr. Bertie Ahern, US Senator George Mitchell, Dr. Martin Mansergh, Mr. Jonathan Powell, Mr. Mark Durkan and Mr. John Major. In our engagement, the committee sought to understand how the agreement was reached and implemented and to learn from the direct perspectives of those involved.

Our committee urges the political parties in Northern Ireland to return to power-sharing as soon as possible. We need government by locally elected politicians. Every day that is delayed is a bad day for Northern Ireland and this island as a whole. The British and Irish Governments, as co-guarantors of the agreement, must continue to support efforts in this regard strongly. The committee calls for a renewed focus on reconciliation. It is clear that, while the Good Friday Agreement succeeded in ending violence, progress is still needed if we are to truly secure a lasting peace and shared society. Victims of the legacy of the Troubles must be central in reconciliation efforts. I compliment the work of the WAVE Trauma Centre and other groups that have worked with victims of the Troubles over the years, including families who have never got justice and people who are still suffering and grieving.

We had a good engagement with Mr. John Major, the former British Prime Minister, and Mr. John Bruton, the former Taoiseach. They shared their experiences from the years leading up to the agreement. It was emphasised, particularly by Mr. Major, that the personal relationship between him and the late Mr. Albert Reynolds as the then Taoiseach was key to ensuring the signing of the Downing Street Declaration on 15 December 1993. That declaration was a milestone in the journey to the Good Friday Agreement. It was about personal relationships. From the comments of many of the senior civil servants in the Departments of Foreign Affairs and the Taoiseach who were involved in the negotiations, it is clear the personal and strong relationships between members of the Irish and British Governments, including their leaders, and between officials from both jurisdictions were key to ensuring progress was made. Were it not for that strong partnership between Ireland and Britain, we would not have had the Good Friday Agreement. Witnesses before the committee strongly highlighted the important role played by Mr. Ahern and Mr. Tony Blair, especially their style of joined-up working and partnership, in their drive to secure peace on this island.

In the context of the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement, I must commend Queen’s University Belfast on its commemorative events. A number of Deputies had the opportunity to attend them. They were important, showing that, despite the difficulties – unfortunately, the Good Friday Agreement has not been fully implemented – we are in a different space now than we were prior to 1998. We must always remember that.

We have the opportunity to build on the success of the North-South bodies. Mr. Ahern and his Government were more ambitious about the range of all-Ireland bodies they wanted to introduce. It was not possible to get unionist and British Government agreement on those, but there was always the scope to build cross-Border bodies in future. Obvious areas for co-operation are education and health. There is a great deal of co-operation across all areas of government, North and South. It may not be in a formalised structure, but there are opportunities to formalise some of that collaboration and co-operation.

Deputy Conway-Walsh referred to the IBEC report, which outlined the considerable progress that had been made in building the all-Ireland economy. That has been achieved without anybody sloganeering or waving political flags of any dispensation. An atmosphere was created that allowed business to get on with its work and create jobs. I live in a community where our enterprises are, by and large, small. However, they are North-South enterprises and many of the businesses in my constituency of Cavan-Monaghan have sister organisations or part of their enterprises in Northern Ireland. Facilitated by the Good Friday Agreement, this situation has developed significantly. More can be done, though, and we can build jobs. Where there are pockets of deprivation and disadvantage in Northern Ireland, the one way we will make progress in eliminating it is by creating more job opportunities in the communities in question. An emphasis must be placed on education. The poor educational attainment rates in some communities in Northern Ireland are disappointing.

I will take the opportunity to say again that people must reflect on the progress that has been made. That is not to take away from what needs to be done. People who spoke to the committee, like Bertie Ahern, emphasised the opportunities available. He emphasised in particular that we must ensure that in the future, our work is victim centred and that we put the concerns of victims front and centre in all deliberations. We must appeal to the British Government to withdraw that really reprehensible legislation. How could anybody tell families that have campaigned for decades to get to the truth of who murdered their son, daughter, sibling or parent that all their work is in vain because with that legislation, the Government can wipe away inquests and investigations and murderers can come forward and give themselves an amnesty? That is not justice in any respect and is to be utterly condemned.