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Ceisteanna — Questions. Oral Answers. - All-Party Talks.

Wednesday, 8 May 1996

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 465 No. 1

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[38]

 1. Mr. B. Ahern Information on Bertie Ahern Zoom on Bertie Ahern  asked the Taoiseach Information on John Bruton Zoom on John Bruton  whether he has a particular indicative time-frame in mind for all-party talks. [9175/96]

 2. Miss Harney Information on Mary Harney Zoom on Mary Harney  asked the Taoiseach Information on John Bruton Zoom on John Bruton  if he will report on the indicative time-frame he envisages for all-party negotiations as outlined in his speech in Finglas in Dublin on 30 April 1996. [9200/96]

The Taoiseach: Information on John Bruton Zoom on John Bruton I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

The Government believes the principles and procedures set out in the ground rules paper offer the necessary reassurance to all parties that the talks commencing on 10 June will be both meaningful and substantive. I suggested in my speech at Finglas that agreement on an indicative time frame could perhaps give an added focus and dynamic to the talks.

The British legislation provides, as a matter of prudence, for negotiations over a period of up to one year with the option of a second year. As I indicated in Finglas, however, there may be value in aiming for a more concentrated time-frame than that. I added that it would be most important that such a time-frame would not place undue pressure on any of the participants.

I would encourage all the participants to consider my suggestion carefully in the interests of advancing the all-party talks towards their ultimate objective — a political agreement to underpin lasting peace.

Mr. B. Ahern: Information on Bertie Ahern Zoom on Bertie Ahern I thank the Taoiseach for his helpful reply. There is a view that it would be very difficult to sustain intensive all-party talks for a year, a year and a half or two years and that it might be more useful to have a shorter period. As I and the Taoiseach stated [39] the Unionists referred to this in one of the discussion documents they published last year.

On the broader question, does the Taoiseach agree that not any constitutional Nationalist party North or South has advocated the inclusion in all-party talks of parties associated with organisations engaged in violence? Will he further agree that all parties in this House continue to be committed to the terms of the Downing Street Declaration, that there is not a basis for the suggestion that democratic opposition to violence or threats of violence is weakening in this House or elsewhere and that organisations actively involved in bombing in recent months or making bomb threats will preclude from the political process political parties associated with them who hope to be involved in the all-party talks on 10 June?

The Taoiseach: Information on John Bruton Zoom on John Bruton The answer to all the Deputy's questions is yes. I am not aware of any suggestion by any party in the House that those currently engaged in violence or threatening violence should be represented at the talks. There is a common commitment to the Downing Street Declaration by the parties here.

Miss Harney: Information on Mary Harney Zoom on Mary Harney If the all-party consensus re-emerged after his Finglas speech, why did the Taoiseach feel it necessary to deliver the speech he made last Thursday? Does he accept that speech was unhelpful and insensitive at this time?

The Taoiseach: Information on John Bruton Zoom on John Bruton It is very important that there be honest and open discussion of the assumptions which underlie policy positions adopted. The cause of peace is not served by failing to identify honest disagreement where it exists. I would have thought this was a view with which the Deputy agreed given her concerns about the necessity for open debate in many other areas of national life. What I said was correct and the points I made about the necessity for [40] balance and the dangers of a lack of balance in statements about this matter were reasonable and necessary for me to say in the context of remarks made earlier.

Mr. B. Ahern: Information on Bertie Ahern Zoom on Bertie Ahern I thank the Taoiseach for his reply to my earlier questions but will he agree that organisations involved in bombing, making bombs or making bomb threats will preclude from the talks political parties with which they are associated?

The Taoiseach: Information on John Bruton Zoom on John Bruton There is no difference between making threats and the reality because they have the same political purpose and intimidatory nature. It is very important that there should be neither violence nor the threat of violence. This applies on all sides; it applies to the concerns expressed frequently about stocks of weapons which can be seen by some people as threatening. It is important to understand that what we hope to achieve is not just an absence of violence but also the removal of the threat of violence whether implicit or explicit.

Miss Harney: Information on Mary Harney Zoom on Mary Harney Tuesday night's speech pointed the way forward and looked at the bigger picture but Thursday night's speech did not fit in with it. Given the widespread concern that the loyalist ceasefire may be about to end, has the Taoiseach made any arrangements to meet with the PUP and UDP or does he intend to meet them? Does he believe that such a meeting could reassure those parties with a view to ensuring that the ceasefire is not broken?

The Taoiseach: Information on John Bruton Zoom on John Bruton The Deputy should read what I said in Mullingar and consider whether she disagrees with it. If she agrees with it perhaps she could explain on what principle she believes such statements should not be made. If she examines what I said she will find that it represents a point of view in regard to pluralism with which she has agreed on many occasions. I am, therefore, surprised that the Deputy, who is [41] frequently an advocate of openness, transparency, answers, clear statements and debate about other matters, would not wish people to be equally clear about the assumptions on which they are working——

Miss Harney: Information on Mary Harney Zoom on Mary Harney Why was the speech necessary?

The Taoiseach: Information on John Bruton Zoom on John Bruton ——in regard to the most important issue of all, that is peace on this island. We will not advance the cause of peace by failing to discuss honestly and in a respectful fashion such differences as we may have. The Deputy is being somewhat opportunistic on this occasion, as she was earlier, in the way she has raised the matter, particularly as she now seems to be the only one who wants to prolong this debate.

Miss Harney: Information on Mary Harney Zoom on Mary Harney The Taoiseach seems to want to prolong the debate. Will he comment on my question about the ceasefire and a meeting with the UDP and the PUP?

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy Zoom on Seán Treacy Let us try to avoid repetition.

The Taoiseach: Information on John Bruton Zoom on John Bruton I have no problem in meeting any of the political parties who wish to meet me. If the parties in question wish to meet me I will be happy to meet them.

Mr. R. Burke: Information on Ray Burke Zoom on Ray Burke The issues of legislation and decommissioning are important in the context of clarity and the removal of the threat of violence during the talks. When I raised the matter last Tuesday the Taoiseach said for decommissioning to take place certain changes in legislation would need to be made in both jurisdictions in regard to, for example, carrying out forensic tests.

Does the Taoiseach agree that this is in direct contradiction to the Mitchell report which states that decommissioning should be exempt by law from forensic examination and that information obtained as a result of the [42] decommissioning process should be inadmissible as evidence?

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy Zoom on Seán Treacy The Deputy is introducing new matter. This question deals with the timeframe for all-party talks.

Mr. R. Burke: Information on Ray Burke Zoom on Ray Burke The Taoiseach referred to forensic evidence being used in a defence but it would still be forensic evidence. Will the Taoiseach clarify the issue?

The Taoiseach: Information on John Bruton Zoom on John Bruton The Deputy has misread my statement. I said that certain changes in law would need to be made with regard to carrying out forensic tests. At present there is no barrier to carrying out forensic tests on decommissioned weapons. There is no plan to make provision for carrying out forensic tests on decommissioned weapons. For that assurance to be given changes in legislation are necessary.

I also made the point that, given our written Constitution, there is the possibility that some people might claim their potential defence could be disadvantaged by the absence of such tests. It would be necessary in making changes to the law to take account of such claimed legal difficulties for potential defendants. Given that we have a written Constitution, we must be careful when framing legislation to do nothing to prejudice the right of any defendant to a defence in any situation, however rare or theoretical.

Mr. R. Burke: Information on Ray Burke Zoom on Ray Burke This is a complex issue and I can quote what the Taoiseach said last Tuesday. He made the point that the issues are complex, particularly with regard to people who might wish to use “evidence based on particular weapons”.

An Ceann Comhairle: Information on Seán Treacy Zoom on Seán Treacy We are having a number of breaches of procedure. Quoting at Question Time is not in order.

Mr. R. Burke: Information on Ray Burke Zoom on Ray Burke Will the Taoiseach give [43] an assurance there will be no forensic tests on decommissioned weapons?

The Taoiseach: Information on John Bruton Zoom on John Bruton There are no plans in the legislation we are preparing for the carrying out of forensic tests on decommissioned weapons. So that the legislation will be consonant with the Constitution, it is necessary in framing it to take account of a number of legal complications which might arise. For example, potential defendants might claim they are disadvantaged by the absence of a provision for forensic tests and might claim, in order to establish a margin of doubt, that if such a test had been possible they might have gained an advantage in proving their innocence.

There are those who may believe that legislation on this issue is a simple matter. However, given that we have a written Constitution, there are certain problems which need to be taken into account in drafting the legislation. That said, there are no plans to provide for forensic testing of decommissioned weapons.

Mr. D. Ahern: Information on Dermot Ahern Zoom on Dermot Ahern With regard to the indicative timeframe for all-party talks, Mr. David Ervine of the PUP commented that decommissioning was not and should not be on the agenda for any talks between the Taoiseach or the Government and the PUP or UDP. Will the Taoiseach suggest forcefully to those parties that the Mitchell principles on decommissioning should be adhered to by them? Will the Taoiseach comment on the view that there would be a hardening of positions in the run-up to the elections preceding all-party talks?

The Taoiseach: Information on John Bruton Zoom on John Bruton In reply to the first question I would refer the Deputy to the Joint Communiqué agreed with the British Prime Minister which stated in regard to the opening of talks on 10 June that all participants would need to make clear at the beginning of the discussions their total and absolute commitment to the principles of democracy and non-violence set out in the report [44] of the international body, that is the Mitchell report. They would also need to address at that stage its proposals on decommissioning. Confidence building would also require that the parties have a reassurance that a meaningful and inclusive process of negotiations is genuinely being offered to address the legitimate concerns of their traditions and the need for new political arrangements with which all can identify.

With regard to the Deputy's second question, I cannot say whether there is a hardening of positions for electoral purposes. As we move into an electoral phase there will be a tendency for people to paint their positions in bolder colours than might otherwise be the case. However, I do not believe any party should change its basic principles because an election is taking place and I am sure that is not the case with regard to any of the parties contesting the elections in Northern Ireland. The overwhelming majority of people on both sides of the traditional divide in Northern Ireland want a settlement. They want their politicians to seek a settlement and will be impatient with them if they do not seek and obtain one. They want peace to be underpinned by such a settlement. People should stress the fundamental requirement of a peaceful settlement in their comments.

Miss Harney: Information on Mary Harney Zoom on Mary Harney Does the Taoiseach see merit in Archbishop Eames's suggestion for an independent body to examine the re-routing of parades to avoid the sectarian tensions and difficulties that arise with a small number of them?

The Taoiseach: Information on John Bruton Zoom on John Bruton With regard to demonstrations of traditional loyalties it is important that people should have respect for those who do not necessarily share those loyalties. Parades should be conducted with respect for those with a different point of view. Archbishop Eames has made valuable calming contributions to public debate on many occasions. I hope his contributions on this matter will continue to be as helpful as in the past.

[45]Mr. B. Ahern: Information on Bertie Ahern Zoom on Bertie Ahern On the question of the indicative timetable there seems to be some agreement among the parties in the North that a shorter timetable would be useful.

Does the Taoiseach agree that there is merit in electing a US chairman, with President Clinton's confidence, to take charge of the talks, whose remit would include securing agreement between the parties during the next six to nine months?

The Taoiseach: Information on John Bruton Zoom on John Bruton Senator Mitchell and the other members of the international body made a truly remarkable contribution to the peace process. The clarity and simplicity of their report was very helpful to both Governments in finding a basis upon which a fixed date for all-party talks could be agreed. We would be most anxious to avail, in the appropriate way, of the contributions that members of the body can make in the future. However, it is best to submit this matter for discussion rather than taking unilateral decisions at this juncture.

Dr. McDaid: Information on James McDaid Zoom on James McDaid In the unlikely event that representatives of Sinn Féin are present at the talks on 10 June and as the Entry Into Negotiations Bill allows for an extension until May 1998, will Sinn Féin be permitted to take part in the negotiations during that period should the IRA call a ceasefire?

The Taoiseach: Information on John Bruton Zoom on John Bruton I have no doubt that the Deputy's question is legitimate but it is important not to think in such terms. We must work ceaselessly and energetically to ensure that all relevant parties are present from 10 June. All that is required for this to happen is that the IRA reinstitute the cessation of violence which existed from August 1994. That cessation was introduced without agreement on a fixed date for all-party talks which is now in place. If a cessation of violence was justifiable and reasonable in August 1994, it is doubly justifiable and reasonable that one now be put in place.

Obstacles such as the precondition of [46] a gesture on decommissioning were preventing agreement on a date for the talks and have been removed. If the maintenance of a cessation of violence was justifiable while those obstacles remained in place, it is doubly justifiable following their removal and the agreement for the commencement of all-party talks on 10 June. This is an historic opportunity, and, while the Deputy's question is reasonable, well framed and astute, it is better that we do not enter into speculation about an event which it is hoped will not eventuate.


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