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Stormont House Agreement does not convey an amnesty – Minister Flanagan
The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charlie Flanagan, TD, has addressed the Seanad on the political situation in Northern Ireland. All-party Talks are ongoing to facilitate agreement on the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement and to tackle the legacy of paramilitarism. Minister Flanagan clarified to Senators that contrary to some recent reports, the institutions for dealing with the past set out in the Stormont House Agreement would not convey an amnesty. He stated:
“I wish to clarify one point. Some media coverage over the past week has suggested that the institutions for dealing with the past agreed at Stormont House would somehow convey an amnesty. This is not true. The new institutions as agreed provide for different ways of dealing with the past.
“The new Historical Investigations Unit provides for police investigation and, where there is an evidential basis, the prospect of justice.
“The Independent Commission for Information Retrieval, to be established by the two Governments, is intended to allow individuals to seek information about troubles related deaths where there is no realistic prospect of prosecution; information provided to the Commission for this purpose would not be admissible in court.
“However, the Stormont House Agreement makes it clear that no individual who provides information to this body will be immune from prosecution for any crime committed should the required evidential test be satisfied by other means and this will be reflected in the Agreement establishing the body.
“In addition, an Oral History Archive will be established. These bodies will be overseen by an Implementation and Reconciliation Group, with a mandate to promote reconciliation, a better understanding of the past and to reduce sectarianism.
“I believe that taken together these four mechanisms provide an opportunity to deal with the legacy of the Troubles in a way which upholds the rule of law and facilitates justice, acknowledges and addresses the needs of victims and survivors, is human rights compliant, and above all promotes reconciliation.”
23 September 2015
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I welcome this evening’s debate and thank the Proposer - Senator Cummins - and the House for the opportunity to outline the Government’s position on the current political situation in Northern Ireland.
I speak to you this evening following the resumption of round table talks with all five main parties on Monday and which continue as we speak. Getting to this point has not been easy.
The last few weeks have been difficult and challenging as Minister of State Sherlock and I, working closely with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, met bilaterally and trilaterally with the parties in an effort to bring them all around the table.
I am very happy that we have managed to achieve this and am hopeful that with committed collective engagement we can have a successful outcome to the talks.
This is not to underestimate the challenges ahead. A collapse of the institutions in Northern Ireland remains a real possibility and therefore it is incumbent on all of the five main parties in Northern Ireland, with the support of the two Governments, to seize this narrow window of opportunity and work hard to ensure a positive outcome.
This is not only essential for politics in Northern Ireland but first and foremost for its people who deserve a functioning government. My focus will continue to be on facilitating a constructive talks process and doing all I can to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement and its institutions are respected and protected.
The key objective now is to make progress in intensive focussed negotiations on the key issues the Taoiseach and Prime Minister Cameron set out, namely the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement and tackling the legacy of paramilitarism. The parties have already begun addressing these issues in the resumed sessions of the talks on Monday.
These opening exchanges in nature were general and I am under no illusions about the hard work that will be required in the detailed sessions programmed for the rest of the week.
However, it is my assessment that all of the parties were broadly constructive in the discussions on Monday in seeking to outline what they see as the direction of travel towards resolving these difficult issues.
The issue of the impact legacy of paramilitarism and associated criminality are clearly key concerns that will need to be addressed in a robust way if the talks are to succeed.
The aim must be to create the circumstances where, in the not too distant future, we have a generation in Northern Ireland that has not known sectarianism or the vestigial shadow of paramilitarism.
In order to facilitate the resumption of round table talks, the Secretary of State announced last Friday a British Government assessment of the current profile of paramilitarism in Northern Ireland.
This is a one-off assessment which will be completed in the coming weeks and does not pre-empt the discussion of paramilitary issues in the talks.
I expect the assessment group, made up of Lord Carlile, Rosalie Flanagan and QC Stephen Shaw to report within a few weeks.
I have made clear in my remarks to the parties that talks around the issue of paramilitarism cannot be delayed until the outcome of this British Government assessment is known.
While the assessment may be of assistance to the Northern Ireland parties as they consider how best to tackle the impact and legacy of paramilitarism, it does not replace the need to begin focused work on how the shadow of paramilitarism over communities in Northern Ireland can be eradicated for good.
The work on tackling the legacy of paramilitarism may have several aspects to it; it may, for instance, include some future monitoring arrangement, perhaps modelled on the former Independent Monitoring Commission, as well as the crucial need to set out a vision for a Northern Ireland beyond the shadow of paramilitarism and its associated criminality and a plan for how to realise it.
This is one major focus of the talks.
The Irish Government, together with the British Government, will be actively contributing to finding a way forward on these issues but ultimately it is vital that the parties agree a shared vision and a common plan which will move society in Northern Ireland to full normalisation.
I would add, for clarity sake, that the British Government assessment is a separate matter from the request made by Minister Fitzgerald to the Garda Commissioner.
As you know, the Gardaí focus on the circumstances in this jurisdiction. The Garda authorities work very closely with their counterparts in the PSNI on an ongoing basis in respect of the security threat and across the range of other policing challenges facing the two services.
In light of recent developments with regard to the murder of Kevin McGuigan, Minister Fitzgerald asked the Garda Commissioner to maintain that liaison with the PSNI in respect of their investigation and to let her have a fresh assessment in light of any evidence emerging from the investigation.
It is, of course, absolutely essential that the PSNI would be allowed to carry on their investigation into Mr. McGuigan’s murder without fear or favour.
The associated issue of criminality has been raised by many of the parties as an issue of serious concern and as an issue that must be addressed by the talks.
All politicians on this island have an interest in ensuring that crime, of whatever type and whoever carries it out, is tackled effectively.
I welcomed the Secretary of State’s announcement that there will be enhanced support and resources for tackling criminality in Northern Ireland. This is very much in keeping with the Government’s strong determination to tackle crime, including organised crime, as a priority.
Where cross-border crime is in question there is already very strong North-South cooperation involving the police and other relevant agencies from the two jurisdictions.
Indeed, next week Minister Fitzgerald and Northern Ireland Minister David Ford will host a conference on organised crime in Sligo which will be attended by representatives of An Garda Síochána, the PSNI, customs services and asset recovery agencies.
Organised crime, whatever its nature and whoever is carrying it out, inflicts great damage on our communities and there is a shared determination to tackle it.
I am glad that the talks in Northern Ireland have enabled us to highlight the great work we are doing to combat this scourge on society and to refocus on the indispensible need for North-South cooperation in this area.
Of equal importance in the talks is the need to fully implement the Stormont House Agreement. This agreement, concluded in December 2014, offers a blueprint to overcoming current difficulties in the Executive, especially around financing, welfare reform and dealing with the legacy of the past.
While financing and welfare reform is an internal issue for Northern Ireland, I have continually encouraged the parties to resolve their difference for the sake of Northern Ireland’s economic stability and the sustainability of public services.
This is not only vitally important for the people of Northern Ireland but also for developing and creating an all island economy which benefits all our citizens.
It is also crucial that we complete the work started by the Stormont House Agreement on establishing institutions to deal with the legacy of the past so that justice and truth can bring what healing is possible to victims and survivors of the troubles and their families.
My officials and I are working intensively with the Secretary of State and the Northern Ireland Office to ensure the rapid establishment of the institutions, including the Independent Commission for Information Retrieval, the Historical Investigation Unit and the Implementation and Reconciliation Group.
An international treaty between the British and Irish Governments is required for the establishment of the Independent Commission for Information Retrieval.
Throughout these negotiations, which are well underway, the Government has focussed on the need to underpin the independence of the Commission and to put the families of the victims and survivors at the centre of everything the Commission will do.
When it comes to the Historical Investigations Unit, I have repeated Ireland’s strong commitment, as set out in the Stormont House Agreement, to ensuring that Irish authorities cooperate fully with the HIU.
This will require domestic legislation which will be brought forward by my colleague, Minister Frances Fitzgerald, in the coming months.
I wish to clarify one point. Some media coverage over the past week has suggested that the institutions for dealing with the past agreed at Stormont House would somehow convey an amnesty.
This is not true.
The new institutions as agreed provide for different ways of dealing with the past.
The new Historical Investigations Unit provides for police investigation and, where there is an evidential basis, the prospect of justice.
The Independent Commission for Information Retrieval, to be established by the two Governments, is intended to allow individuals to seek information about troubles related deaths where there is no realistic prospect of prosecution; information provided to the Commission for this purpose would not be admissible in court.
However, the Stormont House Agreement makes it clear that no individual who provides information to this body will be immune from prosecution for any crime committed should the required evidential test be satisfied by other means and this will be reflected in the Agreement establishing the body.
In addition, an Oral History Archive will be established. These bodies will be overseen by an Implementation and Reconciliation Group, with a mandate to promote reconciliation, a better understanding of the past and to reduce sectarianism.
I believe that taken together these four mechanisms provide an opportunity to deal with the legacy of the Troubles in a way which upholds the rule of law and facilitates justice, acknowledges and addresses the needs of victims and survivors, is human rights compliant, and above all promotes reconciliation.
The last number of weeks have demonstrated once again that Good Friday 1998 was not the end of the journey but it was a seismic moment when we forged a new shared path for how we would address the different aspirations and identities on this island.
It requires constant care and attention and my focus in the course of the coming weeks will be on ensuring the Good Friday Agreement can be fully implemented and all its institutions can operate effectively.
A key component of the Good Friday Agreement is North South Cooperation. It is important that this cooperation is allowed to continue despite the difficult political situation in Stormont.
North South Cooperation is vitally important not just for police cooperation but also in the areas of tourism, transport and trade. I know several members of this House also have direct experience of the useful cooperation that takes place in the North South Inter-parliamentary Association.
I have spoken in recent weeks to the leadership of all the Executive parties. I have heard very clearly the frustration that they feel – all of them. But underneath that, I have discerned a deep and steely resolve to save the power-sharing Institutions.
Every party is “up for Talks” because – whether they are articulating it or not – every party knows what is at stake: the survival of the power-sharing Institutions themselves.
There is undoubtedly a realisation that the consequences of failure would constitute a serious set-back for the people of our island.
If despite our best efforts, the institutions do collapse, then under the legislation elections would follow. Regrettably, such early elections would take place in a divisive context and the issues of contention would remain to be resolved in their aftermath.
It is therefore far better to resolve them now. All the parties, with the support of the two Governments, must seize the current opportunity, engage constructively and in a spirit of mutual respect and seek to resolve the current difficulties for the benefit of the people they represent.
I know that my fellow politicians in Northern Ireland have invested too much in this project of transformation to allow it to fail. And so, it is incumbent of all of us to go forward in a spirit of positivity, knowing compromises and courage will be required from all participants.
I know that I can count on the support of all in this House as we seek to bring the current talks to a successful conclusion.
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