Remarks by Minister Cowen at the Plenary Meeting of Review of the operation of the Good Friday Agreement
I would like to thank Paul and his team for making the practical arrangements for today's meeting, and to thank you all for being here. We look forward to constructive and mutually respectful discussions with all parties in the coming weeks.
As the Secretary of State outlined, it is the two Governments' view that the fundamentals of the Agreement must remain in place. The review is about the operation of the Agreement.
This process of review was envisaged and provided for within the Agreement itself. As a co-guarantor of the Agreement, the Irish Government looks forward to hearing the views and proposals of all parties, consistent with its remit.
The review, as envisaged by the framers of Paragraph Eight, was to be in a context where the institutions would have continued to operate in parallel.
I deeply regret that this is not the case. Nevertheless, I believe that the review of operation which we will undertake together can be a valuable opportunity for us to take stock and collectively assess where the operation of the Agreement can be improved and made more efficient and successful in practical terms.
In that context, we wish to see as early a return as possible to fully devolved and operating inclusive institutions in Northern Ireland, with an end to the use or threat of force, no matter from what source that originates – just like the British Government.
While the restoration of devolved government on an inclusive basis is a key priority for both Governments, it is also important to recognise that the Good Friday Agreement is wider than devolution and that both Governments have responsibilities to meet in ensuring, to the extent that they fall within their competences, that the non-devolution aspects of the Agreement continue to be implemented.
We are fully committed to the Agreement's vision of striving towards reconciliation and accommodation within the framework of democratic and agreed arrangements, while acknowledging, of course, the substantial differences between the legitimate political aspirations of those represented here.
In the coming weeks, all parties will put forward their views on all aspects of the operation of the Agreement, and we will listen carefully and respectfully to every contribution.
The Good Friday Agreement is both an international treaty and a part of the Irish Constitution. It will come as no surprise to anyone here, therefore, when I say that we take its provisions very seriously.
In the Agreement representatives of both traditions agreed for the first time on common ground rules on how to manage our differences and to live together on this island, and between the two islands. These ground rules were endorsed in referenda and were thereby confirmed as the democratic mandate for the future.
The gaps that previously existed between British and Irish perspectives on the constitutional aspects of the Northern Ireland question have now been bridged. The people in our jurisdiction overwhelmingly approved the changes required to our Constitution. The institutions of the Agreement reflected and codified this change.
It is now, as the Agreement puts it, the “birthright of all the people of Northern Ireland to identify themselves and be accepted as Irish or British, or both, as they may so choose”. This birthright is now constitutionally guaranteed, and is part of the fundamentals that are part of the common basis on which we work.
As both Governments have stated publicly, the fundamentals of the Agreement are not up for negotiation.
But almost six years since it was signed in April 1998, we are aware that, in the light of experience gained, there may be practical, sensible proposals that would improve what has not been an optimum operation of the Agreement. For our part, we are certainly prepared to positively engage with those who wish to table such proposals.
The proposers of such changes will have the opportunity in the review to try to persuade others of their merits and we are open to considering changes which would be capable of attracting a wide measure of consensus among the parties.
Without being prescriptive, the fundamentals of the Agreement would, in our view, include the constitutional principle of consent, partnership government in Northern Ireland on an inclusive basis, the interlocking institutions of the Agreement, including its North/South and East/West dimensions, the entrenchment of human rights and equality for all, the removal of the use and threat of paramilitary violence, no matter what its origin, the normalisation of security arrangements on the ground and the consolidation of the new policing and criminal justice arrangements.
We worked very hard last year on a number of these issues, where progress has not been as rapid as we wished, and where these deficits contributed to a major erosion of trust and confidence. The two Governments later completed our joint assessment of the outstanding areas of the Agreement to be implemented, and published it in the form of the Joint Declaration.
The non-conditional aspects of the Joint Declaration are moving ahead and I fully support that. We believe that the review of operation which we are beginning today can complement that ongoing process of implementation.
Paul has spoken of the practical arrangements, with which we are in agreement, and I would reiterate the point that if there is any issue which you feel needs to be raised with either or both Governments today, we will try to accommodate you. And, of course, we will also be available next week for further contact and engagement.
As we engage on the broad range of issues, I would encourage you to take work forward on a collective basis where possible. Great strength can be derived from co-operation and mutual acceptance of key issues.
On a related point, I would also urge people not to become too hung up on procedural issues – nothing less than brisk engagement on all sides will be tolerated by the public, who are watching the review for political progress, not for further tactical delays and sterile wrangling.
In our engagement in the review, we want to make progress. We want to see a peaceful, stable and inclusive Northern Ireland.
I have no doubt but that we will hear differing views on many subjects during the course of the review. However, we want to see everybody's mandate respected and we want to see the spectre of paramilitarism removed no matter what quarter it comes from.
The Agreement offers a generous vision of tolerance and partnership between those of us who share the island of Ireland. Moreover, it offers a framework within which profound differences can be accommodated without coercion and on the basis of consent.
We may not have fully availed of the potential of that framework over the last five years. In fact, we may have squandered some opportunities.
The review provides an important opportunity for sensible course correction, to put right the deficits of implementation and to renew the fresh start we all want to see to relationships on this island.