Tánaiste reiterates support for Northern Ireland talks

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Ceann Comhairle,

I welcome the opportunity to speak on the situation in Northern Ireland.

First, I fully support the talks that are under way and hope they conclude successfully.

I am encouraged by the updates from the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Charlie Flanagan, and the Minister for North-South Co-operation, Sean Sherlock.

To be a fully peaceful and democratic society, Northern Ireland requires a functioning Assembly and Executive.

But in order to be truly successful, the talks must be ambitious, comprehensive and robust.

They cannot simply be about another quick fix.

That approach has been tried - and has failed - all too often.

All issues - dealing with the past, welfare reform, paramilitarism, criminality - must be dealt with once and for all.

This takes me to the recent reports by the British Government and An Garda Siochana regarding paramilitary organisations.

These reports arose from the murder of Brian McGuigan in August, and ongoing criminal activity by a range of paramilitary groups.

The assessment by the British Government of the IRA is clear.

The Army Council continues to exist and exerts control over Sinn Fein.

It asks fundamental questions about our democracy if a party that is in government in the North, and aspires to government in the South, continues to operate in this way.

Vote Sinn Fein, get the Army Council.

There has to be a break from all forms of paramilitarism and criminality.

That doesn't just mean words, it requires actions.

It means allowing relevant authorities to investigate, co-operating with them, and ending paramilitary activity in all its forms.

When I became Tanaiste, I emphasised the need to tackle crime by paramilitary organisations in the Joint Statement of Priorities with the Taoiseach.

We must now recommit ourselves to doing so.

That means escalating and expanding co-operation, and developing a specific strategy for addressing crime in border areas.

An Organised Crime Task Force already exists at ministerial level and there is much North-South co-operation between relevant agencies.

But the Labour Party supports the position outlined by the Minister for Foreign Affairs to establish a new cross-border taskforce to more comprehensively tackle organised crime in the region.

If Sinn Fein are similarly supportive, they should not only endorse this proposal, but the National Crime Agency in Northern Ireland too.

That would be the single biggest step they could take to demonstrate a real commitment to ending criminality.

In addition, Ceann Comhairle, I want to dwell on the upcoming centenary of the Easter Rising next year.

Commemorating the events of Easter Week as the State is doing is both appropriate and natural.

We've put in place a commemorative programme which reflects not just the events, but the differing perspectives on them.

We've come a long way since 1966.

I think we should also consider addressing some of the legacies of 1916.

And one of those is partition.

The politics of this country up to 1916 revolved around attempts to arrive at a solution to the national question on an all-island basis, albeit within the United Kingdom.

But, following the Easter Rising and subsequent events, a partitioned island emerged, creating two separate states.

I am proud to be Tánaiste of an independent Irish state.

Yet I also believe that the people of the island, North and South, suffered from the creation of what were two sectarian states.

And close to 100 years living in separate jurisdictions on a partitioned island has also had its own impact.

During the first half-century, the two States largely ignored the issue and existed in splendid isolation from each other.

The next 25 years were spent coping with the horror of a bitter and brutal sectarian conflict.

And the last 25 years have been about managing a peace process to ensure that the previous quarter century never happens again.

Over that period, the most radical and effective new thinking on partition came from John Hume and the SDLP.

They restated the problem as being the division between the people living in Ireland rather than the contemporary malfeasance of the British State.

Their outlook forms the basis of the Good Friday Agreement and the structures that flow from it.

But that analysis is challenged by those who assert the idealism of the 1916 Proclamation while ignoring the political reality on the ground.

That continues to this day.

It is why, for example, Sinn Féin - the self-styled republicans - have no viable strategy to bring about a united Ireland.

Winning a border poll is no answer to the question posed by Hume, unless you simply wish to create the same problem in reverse.

One recent example highlights how the contradiction of the republican position leads to nonsensical positions.

It saw a Sinn Féin councillor label the IRFU as 'West Brits' for using "Ireland's Call" as the representative anthem of the all-island rugby team doing us proud at the World Cup.

Surely, a Sinn Féin representative genuinely interested in bringing unionist and nationalist, North and South together would be supportive of an all-island institution like the IRFU?

In fairness, Sinn Fein have come a long way in recent years.

They lay wreaths at memorials now, not blow them up.

But there are over 1,000,000 people loyal to the UK living on the island of Ireland.

And that is to ignore the strong relationship the rest of us have and continue to have, 1921 notwithstanding, with our sister island.

But after partition, undoing the border, rather than ameliorating the factors which gave rise to it, became the sole goal of nationalists.

As we approach the centenary of the 1916 Rising, we might do well to consider these issues again.

It is over 30 years since the New Ireland Forum met.

We have come a long way since then.

The principle of consent remains paramount.

Yet I remain of the view that the long-term future of the people of this island would be better faced together.

And were that possible, it would not be on the basis of the domination of the one tradition over the other.

It would involve us nationalists recognising the essential British identity of unionists, and unionists perhaps embracing a greater sense of their own Irishness.

So, in the context of the 1916 commemorations, we should set ourselves the challenge of convening a new forum or body.

One that is separate to, but supportive of, the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, specifically to discuss the island's future.

The men who fought in 1916 were idealists.

Those who died, on all sides, were victims.

We have tragically had many more victims since then.

What better tribute to them all than to have a sensible discussion about our common future?


Last modified:03/11/2015