Tánaiste’s opening statement to the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the GFA
Speech21 February 2019
***Check against delivery***
- 1. Introductory remarks
Thank you for the invitation to meet with the Committee today.
It is very good and timely to have this opportunity for a discussion on the full range of issues related to the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and the Peace Process.
There are a number of areas that I would like to address in my opening statement and then I look forward to a discussion with Committee Members.
I want to acknowledge at the outset the very important and constructive role that this Committee plays
- in expressing in a very tangible way the cross-party support in the Oireachtas for the Good Friday Agreement;
- in working to support the full implementation of the Agreement; - and in engaging with stakeholders, North and South, East and West, to consolidate peace and deepen reconciliation.
I know that the Members of this Committee have a deep commitment to the Agreement, with countless hours of engagement with those working in communities and at interfaces in Northern Ireland; with the Committee seeking always to build understanding across communities, and to encourage and facilitate steps forward in the process of reconciliation which is at the heart of the Agreement.
As Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I know what this involves, what it demands, and I see the impact and value of the Committee’s engagement on behalf of both Houses in supporting the process and the Agreement through whatever challenges arise.
This Committee - with the important provision for MPs representing Northern Ireland constituencies to participate - is also of course a very practical expression of the all-island engagement that the Good Friday Agreement enables. It is very good to see many Northern representatives here today together with Oireachtas colleagues.
- 2. Impact of Brexit
Although we have many settings now in the Oireachtas through which we are addressing the challenges of Brexit, the protection of the Good Friday Agreement and the achievements of the Peace Process is one of the Government’s most fundamental concerns, as it is for everyone here, so I want to address this today first.
As Members are aware, the Government remains firmly of the view that the best and only way to ensure an orderly withdrawal and protect the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts is to ratify the Withdrawal Agreement, agreed between the EU and British government.
The Taoiseach’s recent joint statement with President Juncker was clear that the backstop is an integral part of the Withdrawal Agreement. It was also clear that “the backstop is not a bilateral issue, but a European one”.
I reaffirmed this with Michel Barnier once again at our meeting in Brussels on Monday.
It is important always to be clear that the backstop is intended as an insurance policy for avoiding a hard border in all scenarios.
We hope it will never need to be used, or, if it is, that it will be replaced quickly by a future relationship agreement. But the Government remains convinced that it is necessary, and I know that this view is shared across this Committee.
The EU is committed to exploring and seeking to agree alternative arrangements with UK to replace the backstop in the future. We want a comprehensive future relationship in place by the end of 2020 so that the backstop never needs to be used, and we want to get on with that work once the Withdrawal Agreement is ratified.
However, there are currently no credible alternative arrangements, put forward by anyone, inside the negotiations or elsewhere, which achieve the shared goal of the UK and the EU to avoid a hard border.
The backstop is a necessary guarantee, based on legal certainty, and not just wishful thinking.
As well as ensuring that there will be no hard border on the island of Ireland, we believe that these arrangements represent a good outcome for Northern Ireland.
This view is shared by a number of political parties in Northern Ireland and by business, farming and trade union leaders from both communities. Their cross-community engagement to explain the importance of the backstop as the necessary insurance for jobs and the economy is most important and welcome.
In November, the British Government signed up to the Withdrawal Agreement, including the backstop as it now stands, and to the other important provisions to provide for the protection of the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts.
The EU has listened to British concerns - the European Council in December, and the joint letter from Presidents Tusk and Juncker, provided important reassurances.
If the UK's proposals for the future partnership were to evolve, the EU would be prepared to reconsider its offer and adjust the level of ambition of the Political Declaration, while respecting its established principles.
A no deal Brexit is of course the worst possible outcome and would not be in anyone’s interests.
The Government is preparing comprehensively for this scenario and we are advancing no deal legislation, with vital cooperation from Opposition parties, which will be published tomorrow. This will ensure that we can deal domestically with the undoubted serious challenges a no deal exit would raise.
However, the focus of our engagement at EU level remains on securing the deal that has been reached with the British Government through the Withdrawal Agreement.
It is important to recall as well the protections in the Protocol for the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts:
- The Protocol expressly and fully respects the constitutional status of Northern Ireland and the principle of consent as guaranteed by the Good Friday Agreement.
- The Protocol also underpins North South Cooperation and protects the all-island economy including through the avoidance of a hard border; and it provides for the maintenance of the Single Electricity Market on the island.
- The Protocol makes legally-binding the commitment by the UK to ensure no diminution of the rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity set out in the Good Friday Agreement, including through the maintenance of EU Directives in the area of non-discrimination.
- Consistent with the Citizenship provisions of the Good Friday Agreement, the Protocol confirms the EU citizenship of Irish citizens in Northern Ireland, and that they continue to enjoy access to EU rights, opportunities and benefits.
- Ensuring the access of those entitled to Irish citizenship in Northern Ireland to specific EU benefits, such as in the areas of healthcare and education, will be addressed during the period of transition and in the context of the future relationship; this is reflected in the preamble of the Protocol.
- The Protocol also importantly provides for the maintenance of the Common Travel Area, ensuring that the current bilateral arrangements can continue whereby Irish and British citizens can live, work, study and access healthcare, social security and public services in each jurisdiction.
- In addition, the Protocol confirms the EU and UK commitment to the PEACE and INTERREG programmes, which have contributed in such significant ways to supporting the Peace Process in all its dimensions over the last 25 years, and which are a major practical expression of the European Union’s solidarity and support for peace and reconciliation.
- The Government warmly welcomes the Commission’s proposal for a special new PEACE PLUS programme to build on and continue the work of the successive PEACE and INTERREG programmes; the firm commitment of the UK government to the PEACE PLUS Programme is also welcome.
So the Protocol - as the Government, the EU as a whole, and the UK have always sought - protects the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts from the challenges that Brexit poses.
- 3. Restoring the GFA Institutions to full operation
The commitments and obligations of the Good Friday Agreement remain for both Governments under any scenario.
The Government continues to engage with the British Government - as co-guarantor - to secure the full implementation of the Agreement and the effective operation of all of its institutions, including the Northern Ireland Assembly and power-sharing Executive, and the North South Ministerial Council.
The continuing absence of these vital institutions of the Agreement is a source of deep concern for the Government, as it is for the British Government.
Since the Assembly elections in March 2017, the Government has worked tirelessly with the British Government and the political parties in the North – in successive phases of talks - to secure an agreement that would see the devolved institutions fully operational once again.
We have also consistently engaged to seek progress with the implementation of outstanding commitments from previous Agreements, including an Irish language act as envisaged under the St Andrews Agreement.
Unfortunately, as everyone here knows, the necessary agreement between the parties has to date not been secured. However, we will keep working until all the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement are operating effectively again.
The two-year absence of the devolved institutions cannot continue.
As everyone here is acutely aware, there are pressing decisions and issues across a range of areas, which require a functioning Executive and Assembly.
These Institutions are also urgently needed to represent the interests of all of the people of Northern Ireland, most significantly at present on the challenges raised by Brexit.
These institutions are the most powerful symbol and expression of what the Good Friday Agreement has achieved in Northern Ireland - cooperation and power-sharing between both communities on the basis of equality, respect and parity of esteem.
There could be no more persuasive advocates - in Brussels, in London, in Dublin and indeed in Washington and beyond - for the unique interests and needs of Northern Ireland, than a power-sharing Executive working to address the interests of everyone they represent.
No one says this is easy, but there is no other available way to address the political and identity divisions in Northern Ireland, and to deliver for all the people. We must get the power-sharing institutions back working again.
The Government is equally anxious to see the North South Ministerial Council operating again – in order to oversee and develop North South cooperation on matters of mutual interest, including the resumption of that constructive engagement to address the all-island challenges raised by Brexit that was commenced at the NSMC in the second half of 2016.
So, the Government will continue to do everything possible, in accordance with our responsibilities as a co-guarantor of the Agreement, to secure the effective operation of all of its institutions.
To this end, Secretary of State Bradley and I met with the leaders of the five main political parties at Stormont last Friday, further to our respective consultations with each of the party leaders in recent weeks and months.
This meeting sought the parties’ views, at this stage, on how a new talks’ process could most constructively be commenced in the period ahead.
Each of the party leaders confirmed their wish to participate in the Institutions again and provided views on the necessary basis for an effective talks’ process.
It was agreed that the two Governments will engage further with the parties to seek an urgent way forward with a new political process that can secure an agreement for a functioning Executive and Assembly, and NSMC.
Following these further consultations, I in no way underestimate the way to go to achieve a resolution.
However, I continue to believe that an agreement can be achieved and that there is an increasingly urgent need for talks with a credible basis to commence.
I will continue to work with Secretary of State Karen Bradley and with each of the party leaders to get the necessary political process underway as soon as possible.
- 4. Constitutional issues
I am acutely conscious of a view currently being expressed that - because of the ongoing challenges of the Peace Process, or because Brexit is raising so many challenges for the island as a whole – therefore, now is a moment to move ahead with consideration of constitutional status issues as provided for under the Good Friday Agreement.
I respect, and the Government respects, everyone’s right on this island to make the case for the constitutional future that they wish to see for Northern Ireland - whether you are nationalist, unionist or neither.
The Good Friday Agreement – and the two sovereign Governments - explicitly recognise and validate the legitimacy of both of these constitutional positions, which are deeply held.
And people of course have the right to take part in discussion and dialogue and engagement on the kind of future they’d like to see.
The Government hears, and shares, and is working to address the real concerns, worry and frustration that people in the North feel about the acute challenges that Brexit raises.
However, the Government is also very clear that we cannot and will not seek to use Brexit to advance any kind of constitutional agenda. These are separate and distinct issues.
At present, the Government does not believe that sufficient support exists for a border poll that would result in constitutional change.
The Government’s priorities are therefore, firstly, to secure the effective functioning of the devolved institutions and the North South Ministerial Council and, secondly, to ensure the protection of the Agreement and the achievements of the Peace Process, as the UK leaves from the EU.
That is our only agenda as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, and the Government believes that this is an important message to clearly convey at this time.
- 5. Promoting Reconciliation
One aspect of the Good Friday Agreement that is perhaps less prominent in political exchanges but no less important for the future of everyone on this island is the commitment to the achievement of reconciliation, following the tragedies and suffering of the past.
I recognise that this has always been a major area of focus for the Committee’s engagement - as it has been a continuing priority for successive Irish Governments.
Reflecting this, the Government has provided for a substantial increase of €1m for my Department’s Reconciliation Fund this year, bringing the total budget to €3.7m.
In 2018, the Reconciliation Fund made grants to over 150 projects, supporting organisations across the community and voluntary sector. The vast majority of funding goes to projects and organisations in Northern Ireland because this is where the greatest need for reconciliation lies.
The groups supported by the Fund are building meaningful links across communities, addressing the issues that are impacting on their lives - including sectarianism - and working to create better understanding between people and traditions on this island, and indeed between Ireland and Britain.
Reconciliation is a vital component of the Peace Process and the Government is committed to supporting this work at community level through the Reconciliation Fund, and through Ministerial engagement with representatives of different community traditions.
- 6. Dealing with the Legacy of the Past
Finally, Chair, I would like to speak about the pressing need to deal with the legacy of the past and address the suffering of victims of violence.
This was envisaged under the Agreement when it was signed almost twenty-one years ago, but victims and survivors are still waiting for a system that can deal comprehensively with their legitimate needs and expectations.
Addressing the past is also necessary element of reconciliation, particularly for those individuals and communities who suffered most through the dark days of the Troubles.
The new policing dispensation in Northern Ireland also cannot continue to be weighed down with legacy issues, when the PSNI’s focus needs to be on policing for today, and in ensuring that cross-community confidence in the new policing arrangements achieved through the Patten reforms is maintained and advanced.
We saw once again last week the almost endless difficulties that legacy issues raise with the concerning announcement that the PSNI have discovered significant new material for investigations being conducted by the Police Ombudsman.
My thoughts are first and foremost with all of the families affected, as they have to wait now for even longer to see the reports of the Police Ombudsman.
This development makes clear once again that the Stormont House Agreement framework – agreed by the two Governments and political parties - is urgently needed to provide a comprehensive process for addressing legacy investigations and issues in Northern Ireland, focused on the needs of victims and survivors.
We are still working to get this in place - it must be achieved.
Significant progress was made in the political discussions that took place since 2014, and a public consultation on draft UK legislation was conducted by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the latter part of last year.
There was significant engagement with this consultation from individuals and groups across Northern Ireland, and importantly also from victims and survivors in this jurisdiction and indeed in Britain.
The responses to the consultation are now being reviewed by the British Government and I am informed that this process is nearing completion.
The Government’s concern is to see that the process continues to advance to implement the Stormont House legacy framework in full, including with a move ahead to legislative phases in both jurisdictions as needed and as soon as possible.
We also continue to press for confirmation of the necessary resourcing for legacy inquests to proceed in Northern Ireland, consistent with the Article 2 obligations on the UK government.
I will continue to proactively engage with the Secretary of State and with all of the political parties to secure the implementation of the Stormont House legacy framework as speedily as possible.
The drafting of legislative proposals in this jurisdiction to support and implement the Stormont House framework is also advancing, led by the Minister for Justice and Equality.
The Government has already published a general scheme of a Bill to provide for enhanced cooperation with legacy inquests in Northern Ireland, and a draft Bill is currently being finalised. This legislation will be of immediate relevance for the ongoing inquest into the Kingsmill massacre at the Belfast Coroners’ Court.
Draft legislation is also being advanced to provide for the establishment of the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval, which will conduct its work on an all-island basis.
There are also a number of cases which remain of particular concern for the Government and the Dáil. These include:
- the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and other attacks in the South, where the Government continues to pursue the request to the British Government set out in successive Dáil Motions;
- the Ballymurphy massacre where an inquest is continuing in Belfast; and
- the case of Pat Finucane, whose 30th anniversary was marked last week. The Government’s position remains that an independent public inquiry should be established into the murder of Pat Finucane, in line with the commitments made at Weston Park in 2001.
The Taoiseach and I have been glad to have the opportunity to meet with many of the victims’ families in these cases in recent months.
We have reaffirmed the Government’s unwavering commitment to seeking progress and supporting their right to truth and justice, consistent with the supporting Motions adopted by the Dáil in each case.
More broadly, the Government will keep working to secure the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement framework, which can provide victims’ families with a way to access whatever truth and justice is possible in their case. Implementation would be
an important step towards achieving a truly reconciled society in Northern Ireland.
I believe that can be achieved, and I strongly welcome the Committee’s ongoing engagement on legacy issues, which are of such importance for people directly affected by the violence and conflict, and integral to the Peace Process founded on the Good Friday Agreement.
Thank you Chair, and I look forward to discussing these and any other issues of interest on the Agreement with the Committee now.
21 February 2019