26th November 2002
"Agreement cannot and must not be renegotiated" - Ó Caoláin
British-Irish Agreement (Amendment) Bill, 2002.
Speaking in the debate on the British-Irish Agreement (Amendment) Bill, Sinn Fein Dáil leader Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said the legislation showed that the British government had unilaterally suspended the institutions on the basis of Westminster legislation which was outside the Good Friday Agreement. Deputy Ó Caoláin said:
I speak to this Bill on behalf of Sinn Fein under strong protest. We should not have this piece of legislation before us. It is necessitated by the unilateral suspension of the All-Ireland Ministerial Council, the inclusive Executive and the Assembly by the British government. That government gave itself powers under suspension legislation passed at Westminster, powers that form no part of the Good Friday Agreement but have been used now yet again to dismantle the political structures which the people of Ireland supported in a referendum in 1998.
The British-Irish Agreement of 1998, was a bilateral agreement between two governments and was a key part of the Good Friday Agreement negotiated between the two governments and the political parties. I stress again the British government has acted unilaterally in suspending the institutions and thereby undermined the Good Friday Agreement. I regret to say that, in my view, the Irish Government accepted that unilateral suspension meekly and with only token dissent.
It is the responsibility of the Irish government to represent the national interest. This suspension is against Irish interests. Behind the diplomatic language of the exchange of letters reproduced in the Bill is something with which we are all too familiar - bad faith on the part of the British government. Unfortunately we are equally familiar with weary acceptance of that bad faith on the part of the Irish government. It is time we saw a much more robust approach.
Let it not be forgotten that the Good Friday Agreement is every bit as important to the citizens of the 26 counties as it is to citizens of the Six Counties. Changes were made to fundamental articles of the Constitution by the people in this state. The quid pro quo for those changes were the very institutions which have been suspended by the British government. More than that, there was the expectation that the Good Friday Agreement would allow all the people who share this island to shape our political destinies together, without the negative veto of the British government/unionist axis. Yet it is this axis, which has thwarted the wishes of the people of Ireland once again.
Make no mistake, this is how republicans view the present situation. We will make every effort to help resolve the impasse. But we have no illusions about the cause of the difficulties.
On 21st September the Ulster Unionist Council passed an anti-Agreement motion. The resolution hammered out between David Trimble and Jeffrey Donaldson was meant to dismantle the Agreement. It is a wreckers' charter. In fact the resolution does not even mention the Good Friday Agreement. It seeks the exclusion of Sinn Fein from the Executive and the rolling back of such policing reform as has already taken place.
This was the real reason the suspension was declared unilaterally by the British government. It could not countenance a scenario where the Ulster Unionist Party and David Trimble would be clearly seen as the ones responsible for the crisis. Hence the contrived collapse of the Executive with the raid on the Sinn Fein office in Stormont and a wave of propaganda on both sides of the Atlantic.
Last week an initial round table meeting between the parties and the Governments took place in Belfast. Sinn Fein made clear then, and we reiterate it here, that this process of renewed talks cannot and must not be a renegotiation of the Good Friday Agreement. The negotiation must centre on the restoration of the institutions and the full implementation of the Agreement across all the range of outstanding issues. These include policing, the equality agenda, human rights issues, the courts and the judiciary and, very importantly, demilitarisation.
Since my election to the Dáil in 1997 I have felt a special responsibility to the communities in the Six Counties, especially those in South Armagh, who endure continuing occupation by the British army and their massive military infrastructure. It is a disgrace and a scandal that, five years on, the people of that area and other areas in the North of Ireland are still enduring this military occupation, and in some cases it has actually increased. The British government is in breach of its responsibilities and commitments. I believe the Irish Government must do much, much more to end the plight of these communities.
The British government, and principally Tony Blair, made a number of on delivering a process of rolling demilitarisation and other matters. These commitments were given a number of times. The British government has failed to deliver on of these.
Successive British Secretaries of State all excused their failure to deliver on commitments citing the likely impact on unionism of any further movement. We have to challenge this and question whether new commitments will be subject to the same pressures from unionism? Will we find that, after this negotiation, the same excuses will be trotted out to excuse further failures?
Despite the historic distrust between Irish republicans and any British government, there was a widely held view that this government was willing to take risks for peace - that this was a government we could do business with. This view has been seriously undermined.
I want to refute the impression given about the further policing legislation published by the British government yesterday. This legislation in fact imposes a significant new restriction on the ability of the Police Ombudsman to root out human rights abusers within the PSNI. The Police Act prevented the Policing Board from being the accountable mechanism envisaged by Patten. It gave the PSNI Chief Constable the power to refuse the Board information relevant to wrongdoing by members of the PSNI.
In our view the legislation published yesterday missed the opportunity to put the Patten Report on policing back on track. Instead the restrictions on the Policing Board which I have described have now been extended to the Ombudsman and has thus doubly undermined the accountability structures recommended by Patten. The RUC Special Branch remains a powerful force within the PSNI.
We do not yet have the new beginning to policing promised in the Good Friday Agreement. Patten has not been implemented and yesterday's legislation was a further disappointment and a missed opportunity.
Tá an Foras Teanga luaite sa Bhille seo agus ba mhaith liom díomá a chur in iúll maidir leis na gearrtha siar ag an rialtas seo ar bhuiséad an Fhorais. I must record my deep disappointment at this Government's 11% cut to the budget of Foras na Gaeilge, part of an Foras Teanga, and published in the Estimates. In the context of the difficulties of the Agreement and of the implementation bodies, which this Bill is addressing, this was a particularly regrettable move.
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