I and my party welcome the fact that we are holding this debate. Unfortunately a pattern has been established in recent years where we are only allowed to discuss Northern Ireland when a new crisis emerges.
We will hopefully get through this latest crisis in the very near future and the immediate threat to the Northern institutions will be addressed. However let no one be in any doubt, unless we see a major change in how the parties and governments have been behaving the cycle of instability will continue. Much worse than this, we may well lose the opportunity to embed peace, begin overcoming sectarianism and tackle deep social and economic problems.
The enormous advances secured by democratic leaders in bringing others into legitimate politics have been taken for granted. Opportunities for growth and reconciliation have been missed repeatedly. A culture of sectarianism and underlying conflict is not only unchallenged it is becoming worse in important ways. The cult of paramilitarism is alive in different communities and while it exists at a time of growing alienation and sectarian discord it remains a destabilising force.
The one thing which should by now be blindingly obvious is that if you take peace for granted, if you fail to continue the work of addressing the underlying causes of division and alienation, then you are taking enormous risks.
By every available measure the governments and parties have by their neglect and behaviour allowed core public trust to be undermined. This is not a political assertion – it is a fact established repeatedly in surveys, elections and events. It is there to see for anyone willing to open their eyes.
Too often the challenge in these negotiations has been how do we get through the crisis and get the parties to start working together. Yet the people of Northern Ireland are increasingly asking when will the parties get around to working on their behalf?
Northern Ireland has gone from having one of the highest levels of participation in elections to one of the lowest on these islands. Much of this fall is found in marginal communities and amongst the supporters of parties who see themselves excluded from all policy discussions.
The economic and social situation in Northern Ireland has deteriorated in a manner which should cause real concern.
The austerity agenda being implemented is already causing disproportionate harm to vital public services such as education without which progress is impossible.
Rates of poverty and child poverty in particular, in Northern Ireland have continued to worsen, and the gap with the UK is expanding. Nearly half (46%) of children in West Belfast are today living in poverty. Pensioner poverty in Northern Ireland is one third higher than in the UK.
As we have seen, many of those who participated in the illegitimate paramilitary campaigns continue to operate as a caste apart and pose an ongoing threat.
And yet the institutions established with unprecedented hope and popular legitimacy are constantly diverted to dealing with breakdowns in trust and general party political manoeuvring.
Two parties which rode to power by overcoming those who risked everything to secure and sustain a peace settlement have been unwilling to show the bravery needed to challenge their own or to accept the logic of peace in everything they do.
Their willingness to attack inconvenient actions by independent institutions and to show loyalty to their movement before the public interest has been corrosive.
After nearly two decades the demand of the Irish people both North and South is to move on – to end the cycle of crises and to focus on the real agenda of challenging division and delivering growth which benefits all communities.
Fianna Fáil strongly supports the effort to achieve a robust agreement. Where we differ from others is that we don’t just want a return to business as usual.
We want the parties and governments to understand the need to radically change the way that they have been working in recent years. More of the same won’t work and if that is all we get, we’ll be back for another crisis session sooner rather than later.
If parties continue to assert that all problems come from the behaviour of others how will anything change? If they won’t recognise their own failures what is to stop another crisis and yet more wasted time?
The recent reports concerning paramilitary organisations are a cause of major concern. The vast majority of Irish people believe that twenty years into a process there shouldn’t even be a suspicion that these organisations are still active in any way. Any level of activity is destabilising because of what these organisations represent and the threat which is kept alive by the cult of paramilitarism which they seek to legitimise.
We must not forget the full context in which this report has been produced and the fact that the growing dysfunction of the DUP/Sinn Fein control of the institutions was not caused by the most recent revelations.
Fianna Fáil believes that the settlement which we played a central part in securing remains the best hope for a shared future for all parts of our island based on reconciliation and progress. It involves an approach to deciding the most important constitutional issues which has been agreed by all communities and gives a transparency and certainty which has never been in place before.
The spirit in which that settlement was first agreed and then, albeit slowly, implemented is the spirit which we need now to return to.
We need the heads of government here and in London to give the deep and real personal commitment to Northern Ireland shown by their predecessors. We need the sort of commitment which recognises that this is not just any issue, but one of enormous and historic importance.
We also need the leaders in the North to show the sort of courage demonstrated by the former leaders of parties who put the public interest ahead of party and sectional interest.
In this house and in all of its work Sinn Fein has taken an ever-more arrogant approach of attacking anyone who challenges its actions. To them anyone who criticises them is an enemy of peace. Too much time is given to the ridiculous political posturing of people who want to wear the garland of peace but continue to justify and honour the bloody, illegitimate and sectarian violence they perpetrated.
There is, however, a need to respond to the latest Sinn Fein campaign of attacking me and my party. Implemented with Sinn Fein’s usual efficiency it is as empty as it was the last time it was rolled-out – in the service of a now abandoned denial that child abuse was systematically covered up within the Provisional movement.
Sinn Fein’s so-called ‘new’ personalities have played a central role. Their empty attacks have claimed that we are challenging them only because of the coming election and that we wouldn’t say anything if Sinn Fein were lower in the polls.
This is the type of empty nonsense which is being used to avoid answering substantive points. It is also the same tactic Sinn Fein has used unfailingly for 17 years.
Look back in the records and you’ll see Sinn Fein claiming that the only reason decommissioning was being demanded was a coming election. The only reason the Northern Bank robbery was being talked about was a coming election. The only reason the brutal murder of Robert McCartney was being highlighted was a coming election.
For Sinn Fein there’s never an issue too serious that it can’t be dismissed by attacking others for just being interested in elections. And no matter how comprehensive the evidence of financial irregularities, child abuse, murder or criminality by those involved in the Provisionals movement Sinn Fein never responds with anything but blanket denials and abuse of the accuser.
Let me be very clear about something, no party in Dáil Éireann has worked as hard or as long as Fianna Fáil in the cause of a lasting peace and reconciliation on this island.
We took risks when many were attacking us for talking to paramilitaries and their political parties. And we never stopped engaging and working to push the process on.
I and my colleagues spent countless hours in negotiations to get parties to accept actions which should be automatic in a democratic society.
When we went into opposition after the last general election I said to the Taoiseach in this House that peace should never be taken for granted and that he and his government had our goodwill and support in relation to Northern Ireland.
We began to express concern when it became clear that real damage was being caused by a policy of drift and neglect by the governments combined with the growing dysfunction of the Sinn Fein/DUP approach to government.
When we said in 2012 that a crisis was inevitable unless policy changed I was attacked by Martin McGuinness and Peter Robinson – both of whom fell over each other to say that everything was great. Events have proven our analysis to have been correct.
I and Fianna Fáil spokespeople have been consistent in repeating our concern in speeches, interviews and meetings in all parts of this island. And every time we’ve spoken the inevitable press release has issued from Sinn Fein either denying that there was any problem or denying it had anything to do with them.
We have also been consistent in calling for a reinvigoration of the North/South dimension, the creation of a Border Economic Development zone and a range of other actions which would rebuild trust show concrete action to tackle growing poverty and alienation. We have met with a wide range of groups and listened to their concerns and to their proposals.
For the past year we have constantly called for a Cross Border Crime Agency to be set up and our spokesperson Brendan Smith has published a Bill on this.
Given yesterday’s announcement that the government is committed to setting up a CroossBorder Crime Agency I hope the government accept this Bill when it is debated in this House on November 27th next.
Sinn Fein and those who fall for their propaganda can keep claiming that the only reason anyone criticises them is electoral politics. The more they do this the more they confirm that their arrogance and their actions are standing in the way of badly needed progress.
After years of attacking people for supposedly not paying enough attention to Northern Ireland Sinn Fein has started attacking those who do as being ‘hurlers on the ditch’.
In an act of supreme irony they have fallen into the partitionist mind-set of demanding that anyone who isn’t on the ground has no right to express an opinion. This is very similar to the approach of some unionist politicians towards the Dublin government.
Sinn Fein’s arrogance has extended to claiming ownership of the word ‘republican’. Its TDs, both ‘new’ and ‘old’, have been united in recent weeks in claiming that Sinn Fein is the “only republican organisation currently active”. In doing this they confirm yet again that there is nothing republican about them.
Irish republicanism has its root in an inclusive ideology. All of its great leaders earned and retain the respect of the Irish people because they were committed to a republicanism defined by the people and not by a party.
The sectarianism seen in Sinn Fein’s North Belfast campaign, in Deputy Adam’s comments about equality being a “Trojan horse” and in the awarding of jobs by a Sinn Fein minister can be described as many things, but republican is not one of them.
In order to avoid addressing the substance of the recent report on criminal activities by paramilitaries Sinn Fein’s leaders have focused solely on the point concerning the Army Council.
In doing so, they have avoided addressing the evidence that the core network of the Provisionals is in place and that there are significant links to criminality.
The assessment that the Provisional IRA supports the peace process and is unlikely to return to a political campaign is welcome. What this does not do is remove the right of others to question the remaining activities of the Provisionals and the impact of this.
The link of senior Provisionals to organised criminality can be seen in a number of high-profile cases. Just as important are the large number of Criminal Assets Bureau cases which are not open to public scrutiny but which show a serious pattern in relation to organised criminality in the Border region.
In maintaining its core structures and discipline the Provisionals maintain the idea of loyalty to ‘the movement’ being superior to all other duties. It remains a fact that people associated with this movement do not engage with the policing and judicial system in the way that citizens are obliged to.
A constant theme of crimes linked to the Provisional movement is that an absolute discipline is enforced. Sinn Fein goes out and calls on people to cooperate with the police but no one ever does.
Eight years after the ceasefires, a pub filled with 70 Sinn Fein members and supporters looked on as a man was brutally beaten and stabbed in front of them. They then didn’t even call an ambulance as he bled to death and sat quietly as a Provisionals squad forensically cleaned the scene of evidence.
We can look at many instances of paramilitary activity but another stark and cruel murder was the brutal gang killing of Mr Paul Quinn of Cullyhanna Co Armagh in a farm in Monaghan in 2007.Every bone in his body was broken and the scene of his murder was forensically swept and cleaned leaving no clues behind.
Why this mafia-like silence to protect men whose vicious crime was gangsterism at its worst? There was nothing political or noble in this – it was a cruel murder of an innocent man and the murderers have never been brought to justice.
Two months after the murder the Provisional IRA said that it had ‘investigated it’ and that two of its members were directly involved. But the loyalty to the movement came first and still comes first.
The same is true in relation to child abuse within the Provisional movement. Crimes with no political basis whatsoever have been covered up long past the ceasefires and decommissioning. No one has yet been brought to justice even though leaders of the movement have acknowledged the crimes happened.
All of the punishment beatings, murders and criminality must end, as there is a political and moral obligation to do so.
As to the issue of the control or otherwise of Sinn Fein by the Army Council we should remember one basic thing which is undeniable: Throughout most the major negotiations of the past twenty years Sinn Fein’s position was that it couldn’t agree anything until it had sought agreement from the Provisional IRA. It often claimed to want to agree things, but it needed to talk to the Provisional IRA first.
What matters today is that Sinn Fein is unwilling to distance itself from the Provisional IRA.
Sinn Fein continues to honour the Provisional IRA without reservation. It sells mugs and t-shirts emblazoned with “Undefeated Army”. It stills refers to its members as “Óglaigh na hÉireann” – in defiance of the people of Ireland who recognise only the army of this state as Óglaigh na hÉireann.
Since 1998 every illegal action linked to the Provisional IRA we have seen Sinn Fein’s loyalty to that organisation is absolute and it will not allow criticism of it.
Ultimately this goes to the heart of why we need a genuine commitment to end the cult of paramilitarism. If you honour a thirty year dirty campaign waged in the face of the overwhelming and repeatedly expressed views of the Irish people how can you deny the same legitimacy to others?
If you say that that campaign was the only legitimate expression of republicanism in the last half century how can you say that now only constitutional republicanism is legitimate?
The cult of paramilitarism is a curse which is holding back progress on this island. In the North it is vulnerable communities on both sides which are suffering the most. The local ‘big men’ who claim to police but are really enforcing silence must no longer be sheltered by parties who lack the bravery to put the public interest ahead of the interest of their comrades.
If we are to rebuild trust and have sustainable progress we need a number of new initiatives.
A permanent process for monitoring and publicly exposing paramilitary organisations, active or dormant, is clearly required. Unless we have this we will remain stuck in the cycle of denial and attempts to politicise legitimate security activity.
We need a more open approach to the past. There must be an end to the situation where Sinn Fein and the British Government demand openness of others but show none of it themselves. Victims have the right to know why and how their loved ones were killed.
In the institutions in the North we need a return to the principle of inclusivity. The Sinn Fein/DUP stranglehold on all processes must be ended. The Civic Forum which is an obligation of the Agreement must be restored – and the exclusion of other parties from discussions cannot be allowed to continue.
The Dublin and London governments have to understand and accept the need for their continued high-level engagement in Northern matters. Linked to this is the need for them to commit to recognising the priority needs of Northern communities. The extension of British welfare policies to Northern Ireland will cause immense social damage and it should be stopped now while there is still time.
We also need a genuine all-island development plan – one with the ambition and scale required to overcome the lasting damage of the conflict on both sides of the border. The 6-county plan developed by Sinn Fein, the DUP and London is nowhere near good enough.
Finally we need a renewed commitment to developing the North/South dimension in other areas. There are many services which would benefit from joint planning and delivery. They threaten no one’s political beliefs but they offer the prospect of practical progress in the spirit of the Agreement freely entered into by the people of this island.
We need to move on from a process focused on parties and movements to one focused on addressing the needs of people. There is no more time to waste.
The cult of paramilitarism has no positive role to play and it represents a real threat to sustainable peace and reconciliation. If we want to end the cycle of distrust and crisis then we have to demonstrate that paramilitarism will not be tolerated in any form.