Dáil Statements on Northern Ireland
17 January 2017
Statement by the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charles Flanagan, TD
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Thank you, Ceann Comhairle.
I want to thank all Deputies for their contributions this afternoon. Northern Ireland is a shared concern and a priority for all sides of this House and this was reflected in the very strong consensus today on the imperative of proceeding on the basis of the Good Friday Agreement.
The Government views as a solemn responsibility our role and mandate as co-guarantor of the Agreement. As provided for in our Programme for Government, we have been unstinting in our efforts to uphold the principles of the Good Friday Agreement and to advance the full implementation of all its provisions. This we will continue to do, working closely with the British Government and all of the parties to the peace process.
This Government’s engagement and commitment has been constant – in times of stability and in times of crisis – but obviously there have been intensified contacts with the parties and the British Government in recent weeks by both the Taoiseach and I.
It has been increasingly clear in recent weeks that the situation was extremely serious and the circumstances that led to the resignation of the deputy First Minister on the 9th of January are to be regretted. Elections will now take place on Thursday 2 March. In my conversation yesterday with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, we agreed that both Governments should continue to work closely together in the weeks ahead, looking to the post-election period, when a new power-sharing Executive will need to be formed within a limited timescale.
The Assembly election campaign is now underway and on behalf of the Government I have urged all parties in the election to be measured and responsible in their rhetoric so that the political institutions of the Good Friday Agreement will not be damaged in the longer-term. I will continue to underline this imperative in the weeks ahead, in support of the institutions of the Agreement, and the principles upon which it stands.
We must never forget that the Good Friday Agreement - and the political institutions it provides for: the power-sharing Executive; the Assembly; and, the North-South and East-West institutions - was finally achieved in 1998, following decades of horrendous violence, murder, fear and social breakdown, suffered in particular by both communities in Northern Ireland.
It is critical that, following the Assembly election, each of the institutions of the Agreement can operate, deliver and deal again with the issues of concern for people, and that this should happen smoothly and promptly.
I am pleased to report from my discussions with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, that both Governments are agreed that there must be a singular focus on supporting the devolved institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.
Alternatives to devolved government – such as direct rule - are not being contemplated. This provides very important reassurance to all communities in Northern Ireland that they can rely on the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement and rightly expect their elected representatives to work together through these institutions to address the issues faced by citizens.
A number of Deputies have rightly raised concern at the impact of current situation for preparing for and dealing with Brexit. The interests of the island as a whole and protecting the gains of the peace process have been and will remain as two of the four major priorities for the Government in the upcoming Brexit negotiations.
As the Taoiseach has already outlined, the All-Island Civic Dialogue is a valuable part of our Brexit preparations. The ongoing sectorals and the Plenary, which he and I will co-host on 17 February, are crucial opportunities for people across the island to contribute their perspectives, experience and ideas on how we might best deal with the challenges of Brexit.
I am pleased to announce that on 13 February, I will convene a sectoral consultation on the human rights aspects of the Good Friday Agreement, which are so central to the peace process, and must be protected and sustained, regardless of the UK’s status in the EU. The Civic Dialogue does not of course replace the need for devolved institutions which allow Northern Ireland’s particular interests and concerns to be represented by those with a direct local mandate. The Northern Ireland Executive has a crucial role to play not least in engagement with both Governments.
Brexit – however it proceeds and we have heard some further detail on the UK position from Prime Minister May today - presents some of the most fundamental and challenging questions for our island, that we have seen in a generation or more. Citizens in Northern Ireland would be understandably aggrieved if their elected representatives could not deal with the critical responsibility of representing and pursuing Northern Ireland’s unique circumstances and interests in this seismic negotiation.
The formation of the Executive after the election, and the related re-starting of the work of the North South Ministerial Council, is therefore not only a political imperative for both Governments, it is also an onerous obligation on the parties in Northern Ireland.
Another responsibility that weighs heavily on all of us is dealing with the legacy of the past. Like many others, I am frustrated that we have still not reached an outcome on the Stormont House Legacy Institutions – more than 2 years on. I want to acknowledge that there has been positive work and discussions ongoing over the last number of months but victims and survivors deserve that we – the two Governments and the Northern Ireland political parties – collectively finish the job.
Whatever happens in the weeks ahead, I want to assure all with a stake and an interest in this, that the Irish Government will remain steadfast in its determination and efforts to ensure that these legacy institutions are established at the earliest possible opportunity.
The issue of unimplemented elements of the Good Friday Agreement and the successor Agreements has rightly been raised by several speakers today.
As Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I was to the fore in the negotiations in 2014 that led to the Stormont House Agreement, during which the Government advocated for progress on outstanding commitments from previous Agreements.
Several of these are referenced in the Stormont House Agreement including provisions on the Irish language, the obligation to promote a culture of tolerance, mutual respect and mutual understanding at every level of society and new priorities for North South cooperation. Unfortunately, as the Taoiseach has already said - these renewed commitments, have not been adequately demonstrated and that is something which much be addressed if the devolved institutions are to thrive.
In the two years since Stormont House, I have engaged with the Executive parties and the British Government, as appropriate to support progress with these outstanding commitments from previous Agreements. Indeed at the last two meetings Review Meetings – most recently in mid-December – I have specifically raised these issues so that these outstanding commitments, which go to the heart of the Good Friday Agreement, remain on the political agenda.
[I might add that at that Review meeting on 14 December last there was a very positive discussion involving the former First and deputy First Ministers and the Secretary of State and myself; indeed the constructive quality of the discussion provided no hint of the speed with which matters subsequently unravelled within the Executive.]
Now, as voters in Northern Ireland are being asked to go to polls for the second time in eight months, the parties need to be mindful of their heavy responsibility to re-establish the devolved institutions on the far side of polling day. A scorched earth approach to campaigning, that agitates and divides for partisan purposes, will only hamper the essential task of all parties re-engaging in a spirit of partnership and mutual respect in the democratic institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.
In this regard, as a co-guarantor of that Agreement, the Irish Government will continue to work with the British Government and the political parties to fulfil the full promise of that Agreement and to advance political stability, reconciliation and economic prosperity in Northern Ireland.