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12-11-1999 Taoiseach addresses National Committee on Foreign Policy


I am delighted to be with you today to have this opportunity to address such a distinguished gathering on our efforts to secure peace in Northern Ireland.

It is particularly appropriate that I do so here, at this forum, with its non-partisan, non-ideological heritage, and its focus on a neutral examination of policy, because the US Administration under the committed leadership of President Clinton, has been such a support to all of us, from all sides and traditions, through this long and difficult process. And Senator George Mitchell as Joint Chairman, together with General John de Chastelain and Prime Minister Hari Holkeri, contributed so much to the successful conclusion of the multi-party negotiations which led to the Good Friday Agreement.

The Review of the implementation of the Agreement commenced ten weeks ago and George Mitchell returned to Northern Ireland this week to continue the Review which will conclude shortly. George has once again shown his immense value to this process in his conduct of the Review, and his great personal qualities of patience and wisdom have been of tremendous benefit.

The Review takes as its starting point three principles:

  1. an inclusive Executive exercising devolved power;
  2. decommissioning of all paramilitary arms by May 2000; and
  3. decommissioning to be carried out in a manner determined by the International Commission on Decommissioning.

The aim of the Review is to determine how to overcome the difficulties which exist in the practical implementation of those principles. Senator Mitchell has the full support of both the Irish and British Governments and the good wishes of most people in trying to bring the review to a successful conclusion.

I do not wish to overstate the position one way or another. Political progress in Northern Ireland and the successful implementation of the Agreement depend on the willing co-operation of all the pro-Agreement parties to overcome the difficulties that exist. Senator Mitchell has expressed his conviction as to the sincerity of all the parties. Serious engagement has been taking place. The Agreement is the foundation on which democratic institutions can be provided, equality and rights can be guaranteed and people can be allowed live in peace and security.

The Good Friday Agreement was the culmination of the efforts of many people, from all traditions to achieve a balanced and fair accommodation in a centuries old conflict. At community level, the years of conflict have left a residue of suspicion that has been difficult to overcome. But times are changing. There have been advances in the way in which the communities address their differences. In this regard I very much welcome the agreement reached in Derry between residents and Apprentice Boys on the parade to be held in December. There is also far less violence in Northern Ireland as a result of paramilitary activity than there has been for many, many years. The paramilitary ceasefires have played an important, confidence building role and their value and importance should never be underestimated. At a political level, the Agreement has brought about a situation where there is real and genuine engagement between political representation of the republican and unionist traditions. A situation which only a short time ago would have been considered unthinkable.

The Agreement was overwhelmingly endorsed by the people of Ireland, North and South. It reflects what the people of Ireland want, to live in peace with one another, to work constructively together for the betterment of everyone on the island, to reconcile difference and to accommodate and welcome diversity.

When the Agreement was signed, I said then that the new situation created by it would involve, for everyone, changes in our ways of thinking, greater tolerance and generosity, and a more sympathetic understanding of the needs of others. We would have to foster confidence in all sections of the community. We have made considerable progress in implementing the Agreement in a whole range of areas. We have had follow-through in international agreements, and legislation in Dublin and London, to underpin the operation of the agreed North-South bodies, implementation of Human Rights provisions and the publication of the Patten Commission Report on Policing. Yet the process of engagement that was required to reach the point we are now at, in terms of further implementation of the Agreement in the crucial areas of the formation of the Executive and progress on decommissioning, could, in the long-term, be seen to be crucial in developing understanding and confidence. It also may, if ultimately successful, provide a more stable foundation for the institutional arrangements provided for in the Agreement.

These institutional arrangements are unique. They provide for the democratic governance of a divided society. A society that has suffered from the consequences of 25 years of conflict and that has a history and folk memory of generations of conflict. At times it is tempting to become impatient when progress is slow. Those of us involved in ordinary everyday politics are used to making decisions and acting quickly to resolve difficulties. But we do not have to work in the political environment that is Northern Ireland. We have come to understand deeply the difficulties politicians of all persuasions have there. Partisan politics are a fundamental part of the democratic process. But politicians in all truly democratic societies work for the benefit of all of the people. We want to move to a situation in Northern Ireland where politicians act as they do in all democratic societies.

Interacting with one another for the benefit of all of the people, making decisions for the benefit of all of the people, using their democratic authority to negotiate for all of the people. This can only be done where there is a framework for governance in place which has the confidence of the people.

Throughout the negotiations that led to the Good Friday Agreement it was obvious that to command widespread acceptance, any settlement would have to address seriously all of the issues that had created and fuelled conflict for decades.

Inequality and an inadequate response to human rights abuses were part of the nationalist experience in Northern Ireland. It was, therefore, clear from the outset that, for an Agreement to be secured to which nationalists could give support, commitments on the protection and promotion of human rights would be of crucial importance.

The "new beginning" promised in the Agreement had to go beyond the creation of new institutions and structures, important as these undoubtedly will be. It had to put in place measures for the creation of a new society based on partnership, equality and mutual respect in which the protection and vindication of the human rights of all parts of the community would be a vital part.

Human rights were central to the negotiations and are an integral part of the Agreement. The Agreement contains an extensive and comprehensive range of commitments and undertakings that will, I believe, prove to be far-reaching in their impact.

In the Agreement, the parties affirmed their commitment to rights that many people in the United States and elsewhere would take for granted - the right to free political thought; the right to freedom and expression of religion; the right to pursue democratically national and political aspirations; the right to equal opportunity; the right to freedom from sectarian harassment.

In collectively naming these rights the parties sent a powerful message to their communities that the abuses of the past had no place in the new future to be built together.

The British and Irish Governments undertook to establish new independent Human Rights Commissions in both jurisdictions to ensure not only that human rights will be protected and vindicated, but also to contribute to the creation of a human rights culture throughout the island of Ireland.

The Human Rights Commission is up and running in the North and my Government is currently legislating to establish the Human Rights Commission in the South. Both Commissions will then work together in a Joint Committee which will act as a forum for consideration of human rights issues on an all-island basis. The remit under which the two Commissions will operate is a wide one. They will look at the adequacy and effectiveness of legislation; they will promote awareness of human rights; they will be able to take and to pursue cases and to conduct investigations.

In an important and exciting project, the Northern Ireland Human Rights Commission is currently embarking on a widespread consultative process, in which it hopes to engage all sections of the community in the North, before making recommendations to Government on a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland.

The British Government committed itself to, and has since achieved, the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights into its domestic legislation. This important development will allow people in Northern Ireland to seek to vindicate their rights under the Convention in local courts rather than having to pursue cases in a slow and expensive manner abroad.

In the Agreement, the Irish Government undertook to examine the question of incorporating the Convention into our law, and we expect to reach a definitive decision on this in the near future. We have also been working to fulfil our commitments under the Agreement in terms of enhancing our equality legislation and we have recently put in place comprehensive new infrastructure to underpin employment equality and equal status law. This consists of two new bodies, the Equality Authority and the Office of the Director of Equality Investigations.

An Equality Commission has been established in the North and took up its duties at the start of October. The Commission will address the question of equality not only on the basis of religion, but will also tackle discrimination based on gender, racial origin and disability.

Our friends here in the United States have played a key role in promoting equality in Northern Ireland, particularly in the field of employment. I know that you will welcome the creation of the Equality Commission and will draw satisfaction from the extension of anti-discrimination law in the North to place a statutory duty on public authorities to promote equality of opportunity and to outlaw discrimination in the provision of services and goods. It is also vital that this Commission and the Human Rights Commission should have adequate resources, in personnel and finance to fulfil their mandate effectively.

In Northern Ireland the question of policing has become a highly emotive one. In a divided society, a police service, such as the RUC, drawing 93% of its membership from one side of the community was unlikely to engender the widespread support required to be able to operate effectively. Also, to put it bluntly, many nationalists had had bad experiences of the RUC and had little faith in their capacity to deliver fair and impartial policing without substantial change.

The contentious nature of policing was recognised by the parties to the Agreement, who agreed that a Commission should be established to look at future arrangements and make proposals as to how a police service enjoying widespread support from the community as a whole could be brought about.

As I mentioned earlier, the Policing Commission, under Chris Patten, published its Report in September. The Commission looked at a broad range of questions, including accountability, composition, recruitment, training, culture, ethos and symbols. The Report was the fruit of an extensive process of consultation and analysis, and was informed by wide-ranging and diverse expertise. This, of course, included expertise from the United States - in the persons of Gerry Lynch of John Jay College and Kathy O’Toole, with her experience with the Boston police. The Commission also took steps to inform itself of the best practice in policing currently in this country, on which it drew substantially in drawing up its recommendations. It is a remarkably comprehensive, thorough, fair and balanced document and I have warmly welcomed it. If implemented in full, the proposals in the Report have the potential to bring about a police service fully representative in ethos and composition of the community it serves and to make a vital contribution to the Agreement’s overall objectives of peace, stability and reconciliation.

I know that aspects of the Report are difficult for many people. I am conscious that some of what it proposes will cause pain and hurt to good people in the unionist community who have lost family members who served in the RUC during the conflict. I understand that some of them will see proposals to change the badge and symbols of the force as lacking in respect for sacrifices made and grief endured. I, and my Government, recognise that, in many respects, the sacrifices made by RUC officers held the line against a descent into barbarism for all of us in Ireland, North and South, and in Britain.

But I say to those in the unionist community who are concerned, just as in the Agreement the parties recognised that the victims of the conflict could best be remembered through the achievement of lasting peace and reconciliation, so surely the best memorial to those who gave their lives as police officers, is the creation of a police service to which all parts of the community can give support. Surely the most lasting tribute to them would be to create the sort of society in which no other family will endure what they have had to endure and in which the values of civilisation will be upheld and honoured.

The recommendations in Patten can bring about a professional, effective, accountable, representative and widely-acceptable police service. This is in the interests of all of the people, unionist and nationalist alike. The opportunity for a new beginning to policing, identified in the Good Friday Agreement, is now there to be seized.

Since the Agreement was reached in April 1998, we have made great strides towards realising its promise and towards building a new future together. But much remains to be done.

There are still areas of Northern Ireland which are poisoned and disfigured by sectarian hatred. There are still families who live daily with the threat of sectarian attack hanging over them. We have yet to find a way, through dialogue and mutual respect, to resolve the continuing dispute over parades - particularly at Drumcree. We have seen the murder of human rights lawyer, Rosemary Nelson, who I know had many friends here in the United States. There remain extremists on both sides who would wish to see the Agreement fail and who are prepared to perpetrate the most outrageous deeds to seek to bring this about.

But it is clear that the resolution of these problems can only come about through the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and through the creation of a peaceful, stable and equal society. One with human rights, equality, justice and tolerance at its core. I can assure you that my Government will leave no stone unturned in our efforts to bring it about. The best hope for the future of Northern Ireland depends on the successful implementation of the Agreement. We want to realise the benefits which will come from the full implementation of the Agreement for all of the people of Ireland, North and South. We will never have a better opportunity to achieve a lasting accommodation. I believe that we can find a way through. I would ask today for your continuing support and prayers for our efforts. We are coming to the end of a century of great achievement for the people of Ireland, but also one in which many people suffered great loss. A successful outcome to the peace process would bring renewed hope to everyone as we enter the new millennium.