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Northern Ireland Issues (Continued)

Tuesday, 11 December 2012

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 786 No. 1

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Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade (Deputy Eamon Gilmore): Information on Eamon Gilmore Zoom on Eamon Gilmore I thank the Deputy for raising this issue. The return of violence to the streets of Belfast, the intimidation of public representatives and the attacks on members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI, during the past eight days are matters of deep concern to the Government, Members of this House and Irish people everywhere who support the peace process. The scenes of violence and intimidation remind us of the need for steady support for the peace process and the principles of the agreements and the visions they offer of a society based on respect for difference and tolerance for the traditions and multiple identities on the island.

As the Deputy is aware, the protests followed a decision by Belfast City Council on Monday, 3 December on future arrangements for the flying of the Union flag over City Hall. I note that the motion passed represented a democratic and legitimate compromise and that the regime for flying the flag on designated days applies elsewhere in Northern Ireland to flags flying over public buildings and offices. I accept and support the right of people to protest peacefully, but violence and attacks on political representatives, places of worship and the police are totally unacceptable. In particular, I condemn the attacks that have taken place on the homes of elected representatives of the Alliance Party and their families and the death threats issued against the deputy leader of the Alliance Party, Ms Naomi Long, MP, who represents the people of east Belfast. Such threats are appalling, disgraceful and totally unacceptable. They are an attack on democracy and have no place in the politics of the island. Other dreadful incidents have included the burning down of an Alliance Party office in Carrickfergus and, most seriously, an incident last night in which a petrol bomb was thrown into a police car outside Ms Long's office in east Belfast. The PSNI is treating the attack as attempted murder. To date, 32 PSNI officers have been injured in protest-related violence. The ongoing violence is causing disruption to business and community life. As the Deputy stated, we should spare a thought for retailers in Belfast who have been particularly affected in the final weeks before Christmas.

The Taoiseach and I discussed this matter with the US Secretary of State, Hillary Clinton, when we met her on Thursday last. I have spoken to the Northern Ireland Minister for Justice and Alliance Party leader, Mr. David Ford, MLA, and conveyed to him the support of the Government for the PSNI and solidarity with those members of his party who have had to endure assaults on themselves, their families and property. I also discussed the situation with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Ms Theresa Villiers, MP, this afternoon. Officials from my Department continue to remain in close contact with members of the political parties in the North, the PSNI and British officials and have been monitoring events closely during the last week.

This is the moment for responsible political leadership and we must all be conscious that our interventions should seek to calm rather than inflame tensions. I welcome the unanimous motion passed by the Northern Ireland Assembly yesterday morning which unequivocally condemned the rioting and the campaign of violent attacks on elected representatives and expressed sympathy to all those who had been attacked or threatened. I support those who have called on the leaders of loyalism to exert their influence and defuse the spiral of violence which is endangering life and the rule of law.

Last week was a great opportunity to showcase progress in Northern Ireland with the visit of Ms Clinton. The census figures released today show a very different Northern Ireland, one where the numbers in employment have increased by 14% since the previous census was conducted. That is double the rate of population increase. They also show a society which is not only more prosperous but which is also increasingly at ease with a complex sense of identity and which is less inclined to define itself with simple labels - British or Irish, Catholic or Protestant. Northern Ireland has developed a justified reputation for dynamism. This is underlined by the opening of flagship visitor attractions at the Giant's Causeway and the Titanic Quarter, the hosting of the Irish Open at Portrush and the fact that Derry will be European City of Culture next year. These are precious gains, the result of long and patient efforts by individuals across society. The Government will continue to do all in its power to protect these gains and build on them and to support the political leaders in Northern Ireland as they work to move beyond the current tensions. We will remain heavily engaged in the ongoing work of securing the peace, conscious that, while great progress has been made, more needs to be done to realise the objective of a truly reconciled society on the island.

Deputy Brendan Smith: Information on Brendan Smith Zoom on Brendan Smith I welcome the Tánaiste's reply. A number of weeks ago at a committee meeting to discuss the Estimates we discussed the huge progress made on the island since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. I referred to the constant need for vigilance, but little did I think we would see a return to headlines such as "Democracy under attack", which appeared in this morning's edition of the Irish News, or to loyalists trying to kill police officers. A number of my fellow members of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and I recently travelled to east Belfast to meet various groups. Loyalist leaders conveyed to us their concern about the need for further investment in their areas and progress to be made in education and the creation of employment opportunities. It was made clear to us that some of the communities in these areas were very poorly represented. I understand the Tánaiste visited a number of the communities in question in the same week we made our trip. It is welcome that he has conveyed the concerns of the Republic to the Northern Ireland Minister for Justice, Mr. David Ford, MLA, about the attacks on the Alliance Party and the threats made to some of its elected representatives. As the Tánaiste noted, in the past week we have again witnessed violence, intimidation, a series of illegal protests, arson attacks on political offices, thuggery outside Belfast City Hall and the putting in place of illegal roadblocks. We all genuinely believed these were things of the past. The Government must remain ever-vigilant in ensuring constant contact is maintained at political and official level in order to see to it that the current tensions will be eased. The Unionist leadership must give a clear message to the thugs to whom I refer that there is no place in the Ireland of today for street protests of this nature or such inappropriate and despicable behaviour.

Deputy Eamon Gilmore: Information on Eamon Gilmore Zoom on Eamon Gilmore I agree with the Deputy that there has been great progress in Northern Ireland. There must be constant vigilance in order to ensure peace is maintained and built upon. That is why I remain in regular contact with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. My Department maintains regular contact with the political parties and members of civil society in Northern Ireland and has been closely monitoring the events which have taken place during the past eight days. As stated, we continue to stand together with the people of Northern Ireland to ensure they will never again suffer through violent conflict. The Government condemns the outbreaks of violence on the streets of Belfast and the attacks on members of the Alliance Party and PSNI officers. The parties in Northern Ireland must learn to resolve issues around flags and symbols in a respectful and consensual way.

On the release earlier today of the Northern Ireland census figures, I highlight the fact that this matter cannot just be about arithmetic, with the larger group, in whatever form, holding sway at the perceived expense of the minority. Abuses by the majority are what gave rise to the Troubles and we must guard against any perception that one community will lose out as the religious composition of Northern Irish society evolves. The principles of tolerance and respect for difference and diversity are fundamental to the Good Friday Agreement. The clearly expressed wish of the majority of the people in Northern Ireland is that there should be peace and stability. That is what the wider community and its political representatives have been working towards. It is important that the tremendous progress made towards the normalisation of the security situation in Northern Ireland since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement is sustained and enhanced.

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