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Statement on Northern Ireland


Ceann Comhairle:

We went to Hillsborough yesterday in the light of the accommodation that appeared to have been reached between the Ulster Unionist Party and Sinn Fein following months of intensive discussion.

As I made clear on several occasions prior to yesterday, I did have some concerns and some hesitation particularly in the area which eventually transpired to be the sticking point and that is in regard to the decommissioning of weapons.

But I believed, and Prime Minister Blair believed, that we should go to Belfast in the hope and expectation that the deal could be sealed.

By any standards, many of yesterdays statements and developments represented a very encouraging day for the peace process in Northern Ireland.

Paradoxically, it was also one of the most frustrating.

While a major breakthrough was made, its overall confidence building impact was eroded on account of a matter of detail or, more particularly, lack of detail.

Yesterday, we were seeking to address the complex issue of closure of the Northern Ireland conflict and the generation of confidence and hope for the future.

This morning, I would not be honest if I did not say that I am deeply disappointed that our efforts stalled.

But most of all I am frustrated. Frustrated that on this last chapter of the peace process, the difficulty that has been encountered is essentially a matter of some technicality and detail.

I am not saying that it is an easy issue but in the context of all the other complex issues that we have handled, I cannot believe that it will not be possible to resolve it.

We will continue our efforts with the British government and others to try and find a solution to the problem.

Perhaps others will inevitably arise, but as I said last night,in so far as I am aware this one issue - in the area of decommissioning - is what remains to be resolved.

It is vital that there is a clear understanding of the point we had reached before the difficulty arose.

Early yesterday, the British Government announced that elections would be held in Northern Ireland on 26 November. The Government and many people on this island North and South felt strongly that these elections should have taken place last May.

Now that they are going ahead, the people will have their say.

But what we were seeking to ensure was that these elections would take place in a positive environment that would best assure the re-establishment of the Assembly and Executive.

Through intensive engagement, an agreement was reached between the UUP and Sinn Fein that suggested the possibility of new hope and confidence for the future. In addition, a major act of decommissioning by the IRA would help to underpin this confidence and trust.

We welcomed the engagement between Sinn Fein and the UUP. It offered real prospects that an accommodation could be reached.

And despite the difficulties of yesterday, it is vital that these two parties continue their dialogue and the building of confidence between them.

I know that the other parties felt frustrated by the twists and turns of recent weeks and by their sense of exclusion. However, the goal was to assure the re-establishment of the Assembly and Executive in which all could then play their part on an inclusive and enduring basis.

The statement by the leader of Sinn Fein, Gerry Adams, yesterday morning, which was endorsed by the IRA, in my view is a defining moment which must not be obscured by what subsequently transpired.

My family and political roots are in republican politics. I was nurtured in the republican tradition.

Both personally and as Taoiseach, therefore, I am in no doubt about the object and purpose of these statements.

And I believe that the same applies to the British government and to Mr Trimble.

Yes, the language was theirs. But the underlining intention is indisputable. And we must consolidate and build on this advance.

The Governments had repeatedly made clear what was required to complete the transition to a peaceful and democratic society in Northern Ireland.

Yesterday's statements represent a recognition of that reality.

In my view, they are saying that the Republican movement is moving on.

Crucially, they are saying that the Good Friday Agreement is the framework for full and final closure of the conflict.

They are saying that peaceful and democratic means are the way -the only way of the future.

Both Governments are satisfied what we mean by paramilitary violence. We mean the language of the Joint Declaration.

And the mechanism of the Independent Monitoring Body, the draft legislation for which was approved by Government yesterday, is there to give confidence.

The process we are involved in is complex. The clamour for easy one-liners is understandable, but not always helpful.

I have no doubt in my mind that yesterday's statements are intended to usher in a new era for Irish republicans and I want to acknowledge them clearly as such.

The announced re-establishment of contact with the IICD by the IRA and the act of decommissioning by the IRA were welcome.

As General de Chastelain said, it was larger than the quantity put beyond use in the previous event. It comprised light, medium and heavy ordnance and associated munitions. It included automatic weapons, explosives and explosive material.

We know from the Commission that what was decommissioned yesterday was capable of causing death and destruction on a huge scale.

In assessing the significance of this act we need to recall that the IRA once said there would never be any decommissioning not a bullet, not an ounce.

Regrettably, the level of detail of the items decommissioned,despite the further details provided at his press Conference by General de Chastelain, did not reach what David Trimble felt was required.

Why you may reasonably ask did the IRA insist that General de Chastelain should maintain so much confidentiality about the material being put beyond use?

That for most of us is an absolutely reasonable question to ask. I cannot none of us can - answer for or explain the thinking of that organisation. But their view is likely to be that the absence of confidentiality would damage rather that enhance the process of resolving the arms issue fully within their organisation.

I sincerely hope that in respect of yesterdays act at least, the IRA will revisit their thinking on this issue.

The point might also be reasonably made that if the two Governments have more detail they should simply publish what they know. This is something to which the Prime Minister and I gave some thought yesterday and discussed at some length.

We had to be mindful, however, of the possibility that if the confidentiality which enables General De Chastelain to proceed with his task were lifted by the Governments, it could have the effect of damaging the prospects of fully resolving the arms issue in the longer term.

It is frustrating that while all the elements necessary for success are in place we have not quite made it simply because there the opportunity open to us yet to describe what the IRA has done in a way that will fully convince Ulster Unionists of what has been achieved in terms of putting arms beyond use.

I am not saying definitively that the Governments are ruling out the possibility that more descriptive account of what has been happening in relation to arms given by them would perhaps solve the problem.

But what I am saying is that to make that decision yesterday, and without allowing the IICD the opportunity of seeking resolution directly in their contacts with the IRA, would have been too high a risk to take.

I am not going to participate in a recrimination game. Everybody has their sensitivities and needs at this vital stage in the process. We must continue our work reasonably to address these.

I hope that once this difficulty is addressed we can finish what we started out to do yesterday.

And in doing so, I believe that we can assure the stability of the Agreement and the implementation of all the elements of the Governments' Joint Declaration.

Yesterday, we were within an ace of the success we have all been working for. What is important is that we are still within an ace of success.

This House has always adopted a balanced and responsible approach when it comes to discussing the affairs of Northern Ireland.

I welcome and appreciate this support.