Statements on Northern Ireland: Statement by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Charlie Flanagan
Before elaborating on the detail of the agreement reached last week, I would briefly like to recall where we stood just two and a half months ago.
A situation had evolved which, at the time, led me to describe the power-sharing institutions as being at the edge of the precipice. A collapse of the power-sharing institutions was a very real prospect, an outcome that would have represented a grave setback for the delivery of peace, prosperity and reconciliation in Northern Ireland.
With the strong support of the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste, I worked with Minister of State Sherlock and with the Secretary State for Northern Ireland to urge Northern Ireland’s political leaders to pull back from the brink and to resume roundtable talks aimed at resolving the impasse.
After ten weeks of very hard work and huge commitment on the part of the two Governments and the Northern Ireland parties, I believe we have reached an agreement that is not in itself a final destination but represents a significant step towards normalising politics and society in Northern Ireland.
We have achieved a credible roadmap for implementing many aspects of the Stormont House Agreement and tackling the continuing impact of paramilitarism.
Not only have we moved away from the edge of the precipice. We have also found firmer ground on which to build our efforts to bring greater reconciliation and economic prosperity to the people of Northern Ireland and to communities right across the island.
Let me turn to what the agreement contains.
It sets out a plan for ending paramilitarism and tackling organised crime. Significantly the parties have made a firm commitment to achieving a society free of paramilitarism, to working for the disbandment of all paramilitary organisations and their structures and to challenging paramilitary attempts to control communities.
A strategy to achieve this will be put in place by the Northern Ireland Executive and an international body will be established to report on progress towards ending continuing paramilitary activity in Northern Ireland.
The Irish and British Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive have also committed to reinforce our efforts to tackle organised crime associated with the legacy of paramilitarism. We have agreed to establish a Joint Agency Task Force to identify strategic priorities for combatting cross-border organised crime and to oversee operational co-ordination.
In addition, a tri-lateral cross-border Ministerial meeting will take place next month between Minister Fitzgerald, Minister Ford and Secretary of State Villiers to agree new measures to further enhance law enforcement cooperation.
This agreement is also about financial stability and reform. Pursuing economic prosperity and job creation is critical to building a peaceful society in Northern Ireland.
In recognition of this, the Irish Government has committed to providing funding for important infrastructure projects, such as the A5 road, as well as for investment to stimulate economic growth in the North West Region.
This is not only important for economic development in Northern Ireland but also for building an all island economy that creates jobs and prosperity. It complements the Government’s focus on spreading the benefits of a recovering economy to the regions and our series of regional Action Plans for Jobs.
I very much regret that the Fresh Start Agreement did not in the end include agreement on the implementation of provisions of the Stormont House Agreement dealing with the legacy of the past. I share the deep disappointment of the victims and survivors of the Troubles and their families.
I am particularly disappointed given that great progress which was made during the talks on many of the details for the establishment of the new institutions. We were in fact very close to agreement on a range of issues, including:
- Ensuring the operational independence of the Historical Investigations Unit;
- Guaranteeing the anonymity and inadmissibility of information provided to the Independent Commission for Information Retrieval (ICIR) while making clear that there would be no amnesty for any criminal offences;
- Placing the Implementation and Reconciliation Group on a statutory footing and settling on the purpose and functions of the this group; and
- On the detail and operation of the Oral History Archive.
The Irish and British Governments have also agreed the international agreement necessary for the establishment of the ICIR. Therefore, many of the building blocks are in place for the establishment of the new legacy institutions.
The crucial issue where agreement could not be found was on striking the right balance between the onward disclosure needs of families and the national security requirements being sought by the British Government.
In the absence of agreement on this key issue, my expressed preference during the talks was to reflect in the Fresh Start Agreement the range of legacy issues on which agreement was possible, while also frankly acknowledging the area of disagreement where further progress was required.
I felt that this was important in order to demonstrate the amount of work that was in fact done on legacy issues throughout the talks and to show victims and survivors that all parties involved were very serious about delivering positive outcomes for them.
It was not the Irish Government who pressed for an agreement that completely left aside the legacy of the past.
However, when it became clear that the choice was between having an agreement which uncoupled the past and having no agreement at all, the Government most reluctantly agreed to have a less comprehensive deal that would at least ensure that the devolved institutions would be protected and placed on a stable and sustainable footing.
What is important now is that we find a way forward that banks the good progress already achieved during the talks and secures a solution to the remaining key issue of disclosure and national security in a way that satisfies the concerns of the victims and survivors and their families.
Leadership and greater flexibility will be required if we are to secure such an agreement.
I remain convinced that the institutional framework agreed to in the Stormont House Agreement offers the best possible way of bringing whatever healing is possible to those affected by the Troubles.
For this to be achieved it is vitally important that these new institutions have the trust and confidence of the victims and survivors and their families. The needs of victims and survivors will therefore remain central to the Government’s work.
The Government remains committed to finding a way forward so that the establishment of the new institutional framework on the past can take place on an agreed basis as envisaged in the Stormont House Agreement.
I am determined that all efforts are made to find a solution to the key outstanding issues and I will be meeting the Northern Ireland Victims Commissioner in Belfast tomorrow as part of my own reflections on this imperative. My officials will also be in contact with representative of Victims Groups in the coming week so that their views are reflected in upcoming discussions between the Governments and with the Northern Ireland political parties.
We are determined to achieve the establishment of these institutions so that we can in a fundamental way deal with the past, foster reconciliation and build a society for future generations that is free from hurt and suspicion. This is essential if the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement is to be realised.
While work will therefore continue on the vital issue of dealing with the legacy of the past, the Fresh Start agreement is nonetheless a further milestone in Northern Ireland’s journey towards long term peace and stability.
It tackles, once and for all, the destabilising role of paramilitary organisations. It places the institutions on a sound financial footing which is so important for economic stability and development and provides enhanced support for building an all island economy, creating employment and prosperity for all.
Now it is time for implementation – for the Northern Ireland Executive and the respective parties to show that they can deliver for the people of Northern Ireland.
Through the implementation of the Agreement, there is an opportunity to demonstrate that power-sharing devolution can provide good government and can offer a vista of hope for future generations.
It is for the parties to this Agreement, with the support of the two Governments, to ensure that this new opportunity, this fresh start, is fully embraced.