Below is a speech I made on how the Irish Government’s box-ticking, hands off approach to Northern Ireland is allowing opportunities for growth and reconciliation to slip away. We need to return to the sense of drive and determination shown by Albert Reynolds and John Major in the period leading up to the Downing Street Declaration.
Brendan Smith TD speaking in Dáil Éireann
Dáil Statements on Government’s Priorities for the Year Ahead: (Resumed)
Wednesday, 12 March 2014
Brendan Smith: I will deal with Government priorities as they should relate to Northern Ireland. While I believe the Government has wrongly allowed itself to increasingly be seen as more of a bystander than an active participant on issues concerning Northern Ireland, the Government is not to blame for the recent problems. Leaving the peace process in the hands of two parties focused on partisan interests is not a policy to bring much needed benefits to the people of the entire island.
Levels of trust are falling and, worst of all, opportunities for growth and reconciliation are being missed. It is these opportunities I wish to focus on in my contribution today. The Government needs to seriously refocus its priorities now and make it a priority to re-engage on all issues relating Northern Ireland, the North-South bodies and the all-island dimension.
Last December, we had the opportunity to hear the former British Prime Minister, Mr. John Major, outline how he and Mr. Albert Reynolds worked closely in partnership to achieve the Downing Street Declaration. That work was carried out during a very difficult period in the history of both islands and it was the tenacity, commitment, leadership and courage of both political leaders that achieved that very important declaration.
Similarly, the Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement were victories for constitutional republicanism. That commitment and that leadership were shown, and this is what is needed at present to deal with the important issues confronting the people in the Six Counties, which are of critical importance to the entire island.
The Government, and the Tánaiste in particular, needs to abandon the box-ticking exercise it is currently engaged in, namely, focusing on holding formal meetings, and it needs to start to develop concrete proposals for new North-South activity. The development of all-Ireland frameworks should be a core priority not just for the Taoiseach, Tánaiste and their Departments, but for all Departments and all State and statutory agencies.
The cross-Border bodies that were established following the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 have been successful. I believe their potential has not yet been maximised. Of course there are other areas where we should be developing a framework for new all-Ireland bodies. We need to be fairly vigorous in that respect. In developing an all-Ireland framework, we need to be very conscious of the importance of the message sent out to communities, North and South, where there are major infrastructural projects. In the area of all-Ireland bodies, it is surely time for us to develop the further and higher education sectors on an all-Ireland basis.
I am glad the Minister of State, Deputy Kathleen Lynch, is with us this evening. In the area of health, there is potential to maximise opportunities and deal with issues right across the board in an all-Ireland context. That area needs to be given momentum and priority. I represent two of the Ulster counties and we need cross-Border development to maximise the facilities and services north of the Border and also to provide services south of the Border, where applicable, to people from the Six Counties.
There is potential to work together and develop centres of excellence in whichever jurisdiction once all the people have access should the need arise. With regard to infrastructure projects, it is very regrettable that the Narrow Water Bridge project has not progressed. Substantial funding was committed by the European Union but there was a shortfall of a few million euro, which should have been made up by the Northern Ireland Executive and by our Government because it is a project that would be very beneficial for the east coast counties of Louth and Down and stretching to the broader region, where more visitors are needed.
In the overall context of public funding, it is a relatively small amount, and it would be a shame if that project were lost. A substantial part of the funding was provided by the European Union. Some funding had to be made up by both the Northern Ireland Executive and the Government here but a relatively small amount of funding could have got that project to construction stage. In 1989, in much more difficult economic and political circumstances, the Government was able to progress the restoration of the Ballyconnell-Ballinamore canal, which is now the Shannon-Erne Waterway.
It involved an investment of £30 million. In 1989 and 1990, the relationships between North and South and between east and west were far removed from what they are today. The Government at the time was determined to bring that project to fruition, and it succeeded. It has been a major catalyst for tourism development in Fermanagh, Cavan and Leitrim, and further afield in the South. It would send out a strong message to communities on both sides of the Border if the Narrow Water Bridge project was to be advanced, and it would cost a relatively small amount of money.
My colleague, Deputy Seamus Kirk, has continually highlighted the potential of this project and the need to advance it when we have favourable political circumstances, despite the economic challenges. I know there are competing demands for public expenditure. However, it is a project where the European funding is substantial and should not be lost. Likewise, we need to progress the proposal to restore the Ulster Canal, which runs through my constituency and a number of counties north of the Border.
The same is true of the A5 road. Representatives from the northern side of the Border and County Donegal are as anxious as my colleagues here that the project is advanced. On a recent visit by the Good Friday committee of the Oireachtas to County Derry and Letterkenny, County Donegal, numerous public representatives and interest groups highlighted to us the need to ensure that the necessary investment goes into the A5 and that there is an adequate road network between County Donegal and the capital of this country, which does not exist currently.
There are a number of outstanding commitments under the Good Friday Agreement. We have mentioned these in the House on many occasions but I refer again to the need to re-establishment the civic forum, which is provided for under the Good Friday Agreement. We need Acht na Gaeilge to be introduced without further undue delay. A bill of rights needs to be established for the North of Ireland and an all-island charter of rights needs to be developed as well.
There is a need to establish the North-South consultative forum. When one considers that well in excess of 300 submissions were made to the Hass talks by civil society, it shows that civic society wants to buy into the political process and have the relevant fora in which to make their contribution. Both Governments have also failed to address the need for a victim-centred truth and reconciliation process.
The British Government has also failed to act on its Weston Park commitment to hold an independent inquiry into the killing of the human rights lawyer, Pat Finucane. That was an international agreement, and the British are not honouring their side of that agreement.
Mr. Finucane’s sons have continued his work in his name and the memory of all those who were brutally murdered. They make the simple point: how can we deal with the past if there is no process of examining it?
In her excellent book, Lethal Allies: British Collusion in Ireland, Anne Cadwallader of the Pat Finucane Centre has catalogued some of the tragic and distressing stories of the victims of collusion by state forces. While reading about their stories is difficult enough, hearing them told to one in person brings home the deep pain and hurt felt by the surviving families. It is very clear to all of us that those issues need to be addressed.
Late last year, I was in Armagh and heard the story of the killing of Dinny Mullen from his daughter Denise. I listened to Seamus Mallon outline the terror inflicted on so many people in counties Armagh and Tyrone due to collusion from so-called state forces including the British Army, the UDR and the police in the North, which resulted in very many innocent deaths. The people who suffered so much must have justice.
I am realistic enough to know that in many instances it will be very difficult to bring some of the inquiries to a conclusion. The past on this island is touched with sadness and tragedy. It represents a grave challenge to all of us who are working towards building a future free from the sectarian passions and violence that tainted the lives of previous generations. However, that does not mean we should run away from difficult questions. It does not mean that all victims were the same and that all who lived through those decades share the blame. In reality there were those who took up the gun and resorted to ruthless violence for their own ends, while the vast majority sought peaceful means to achieve legitimate aims. It is very clear to all of us that dealing with the past must be victim-centred.
Abandoning justice for victims would be an abdication of our moral and civic responsibility to those who endured during those grim days. That would be a betrayal of our duty to the men and women who were always committed to peaceful means. The history of the Troubles cannot be left to those who bloodied their hands on either side of the conflict, be they perpetrators of state violence or paramilitaries on either side.
We are approaching the 40th anniversary of the Dublin-Monaghan bombings of 1974, which resulted in the deaths of 33 civilians and the wounding of almost 300 people, the highest number of casualties in any one day during the conflict we refer to as the Troubles. The loyalist paramilitary group, the UVF, claimed responsibility for the bombings. There are various credible allegations that elements of British security forces colluded with the UVF in those bombings. The Joint Committee on Justice called the attacks an act of international terrorism.
In July 2008, the then Government Chief Whip, Pat Carey, moved a motion on this matter that had the unanimous support of all parties and Members of this House, and a similar motion was also passed in 2011. We are still awaiting a British response to those motions.
As we are approaching the 40th anniversary I had the opportunity recently to meet with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland and with the British Labour Party spokesperson on Northern Ireland, Ivan Lewis. I impressed on both men as strongly as I could that the British Government must be forthcoming and respond to the request of a sovereign Parliament which has asked that the necessary inquiries be progressed, and that access by an independent international judicial figure be allowed to all original documentation held by the British Government relating to the atrocities that occurred in this jurisdiction.
That was the recommendation of Mr. Justice Barron when he produced his report, into which so much work went subsequently by the justice committee of this House. We know that substantial progress has been made in the area of policing since the Good Friday Agreement. There was progress up to the past 13 or 14 months with regard to parades. According to a recent report in the Irish News, and from recollection,I believe it referred to almost 200 sensitive parades that were permitted last year despite failure by the organisers to complete forms correctly. It is not acceptable that the Parades Commission would allow incomplete applications to be processed, finalised and approved.
There are clear guidelines for the Parades Commission to ensure that parades are properly notified. To my recollection, only two parades in 2012 were not properly notified to the authorities, so the massive increase in non-notified parades has to be a cause of concern and emphasises again the need for the Haass talks to be progressed. The parades issue did significant damage to the economy of Belfast and beyond, particularly around Christmas 2012 and into the early part of 2013.
We do not want parades to cause the issues they have consistently caused for small communities where there is thuggery and intimidation through the misbehaviour of a number of people taking part in those parades, which are not properly organised and where the organisers take no responsibility for organising them properly. More than 3,600 people died in the troubled era that scarred this island for more than three decades.
The wave of violence that consumed so many lives in the North has left a dark legacy for an entire generation. Out of that bleak period, the Good Friday Agreement emerges as a shining light. For the first time since 1918 the entire island voted as one, and voted overwhelmingly in favour of moving beyond the bloody battles of the past towards a shared future. That Agreement was not a free pass to the individuals who chose the route of violence that terrorised the North over 30 years.
To conclude, I would have thought greater effort would have been made to try to complete the Haass talks and to reach agreement coming up to St. Patrick’s week. I commend the Alliance Party, the SDLP and Sinn Féin on the huge effort they put in to try to reach an agreement when Dr. Haass was here chairing and leading those talks.
I said months ago and it is still my opinion that the two Governments should have been more active participants in those talks. When we look back on the recent history of our country, and in particular go back to the Downing Street Declaration of 15 December 1993, the two sovereign Governments, under the British Prime Minister and the Taoiseach of the time, Albert Reynolds, drove that process.
Similarly, with the Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrew’s Agreement, it was the two sovereign Governments driving the process that brought it to a successful conclusion. There is great potential in the Haass talks to deal with those particular issues that continue in many respects to scar individuals and communities throughout the North of Ireland and that have a downside for all of this island. After St. Patrick’s week, we go in again to an electoral process North of the Border, with European and local elections, and then we are into the marching season. There is an urgent need to bring to a successful conclusion the Haass talks that offer so much potential for all of this island.