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Priority Questions. - Northern Ireland Issues.

Wednesday, 27 March 2002

Dáil Éireann Debate
Vol. 551 No. 3

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 27. Mr. Currie Information on Austin Currie Zoom on Austin Currie  asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs Information on Brian Cowen Zoom on Brian Cowen  his views on the usefulness of a referendum regarding the constitutional position of Northern Ireland in the near future; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [10345/02]

Mr. Cowen: Information on Brian Cowen Zoom on Brian Cowen The constitutional balance struck in the Good Friday Agreement is a careful and sensitive one. In enshrining the principle of consent, and in recognising it is the current wish of a majority of people in Northern Ireland to remain a part of the United Kingdom, the Agreement also puts in place a mechanism through which, when the time is right, support for a united Ireland can be measured and through which effect can be given to any resulting vote in favour of change.

As the Deputy is aware, Mr. David Trimble has recently proposed that a poll on the constitutional question should be held at an early date. In doing [636] so, he has suggested that it might be timed to coincide with the Assembly elections due to be held on 1 May 2003.

While the Agreement enables the Secretary of State to direct the holding of a such a poll, it leaves him with discretion as to its timing. Specifically, it states that he shall use his power “if at any time it appears likely to him that a majority of those voting would express a wish that Northern Ireland should cease to be part of the United Kingdom and form part of a United Ireland”. I do not believe such an outcome is likely at present. Furthermore, I share fully the concern, as expressed by the Taoiseach, that a decision to hold a poll in the short-term would be a serious distraction from our efforts to achieve implementation in full of the Good Friday Agreement. This must continue to be our highest priority in the period ahead.

The institutions are working effectively and a new beginning in policing is under way. Important steps have been taken on decommissioning and demilitarisation. Progress is being made across the range of issues. However, even the most optimistic observer will acknowledge that it will take us years, not months, to ensure the new arrangements under the Agreement are firmly rooted and can grow and flourish as its authors envisaged.

To continue to advance towards our goal, we need a sustained period of stability and calm. The precipitate holding of a poll would, inevitably, be divisive and polarising at a time when we are trying to consolidate support for the principles the Agreement enshrines – partnership, equality, reconciliation and mutual respect.

If, at some point in the future, it becomes appropriate, within the terms of the Agreement, for a referendum to be held, the question of its timing will be one for the most careful consideration and judgment.

Mr. Currie: Information on Austin Currie Zoom on Austin Currie Does the Minister agree it is easy to understand why Mr. David Trimble would want a referendum coinciding with elections next year? He probably has in mind a chapel gate election like that called by Lord Brookeborough in 1949. Does the Minister agree that any such suggestion is a recipe for instability and would raise the political temperature to a dangerously high level? I agree with the Minister that what is required is a bedding down of the new partnership institutions in the North and between North and South and that the leaders of the Northern Ireland Executive can prove their capacity to work together in Government and cope with the political, social, economic, cultural and other problems of Northern Ireland and thereby bringing about reconciliation. Does the Minister agree this is the way forward?

Will the Minister join with me in condemning those who talk irresponsibly of a sort of rabbit solution to the problem whereby nationalists would outbreed unionists? Such suggestions are dangerously irresponsible and will he join me in [637] disowning people who make them? While the Minister, like myself, believes in a united Ireland brought about by agreement some time in the future, does he agree that no outcome is inevitable? The future depends on people within the North and in the North and South working together in partnership.

Mr. Cowen: Information on Brian Cowen Zoom on Brian Cowen I agree fully with the sentiments Deputy Currie has expressed and with all he has had to say. The Good Friday Agreement is the culmination of a huge amount of work over many years by many people. The thinking that came into it was to try to break out of this unfortunate prison in which Northern Ireland politics has been locked for too long, namely the zero-sum mentality in which there are either winners or losers, and move towards a creative, modern and pluralist solution to counter this majoritarian type of thinking which has served, and will serve, both communities very poorly.

I agree with the Deputy in regard to the fascination with demographic analysis. The question of referring to the possibility of how a nationalist majority may emerge is politically primitive and in no way should be regarded as providing the basis for stability, peace and prosperity on the island. I also agree with the Deputy that the focus of the work at hand – we have plenty of work to do – is on the need to effect reconciliation between a deeply divided society and on the recognition that all must and can play their part. We have agreed to the route map by which we can achieve peace and reconciliation without determining the ultimate destination or outcome. That will be a matter based on the principles of self-determination and consent on which we are all agreed. Therefore, trying to reiterate, redefine or re-engage on that particular question, which is an unusual principle, serves no useful purpose and would, as the Deputy said from his experience and knowledge of the situation, lead only to an unnecessary heightening of tensions and a reversion, in pure psychological terms as well as everything else, to a tribal siege mentality which has no part to play in the outworking of the Good Friday Agreement which provides us all with the opportunity to move beyond the zero-sum mentality and find a winner in all situations, rather than a winner takes all situation.

Mr. Currie: Information on Austin Currie Zoom on Austin Currie I am glad the Minister agrees with me on everything.

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