Over the last three years there has been a growing and increasingly dangerous complacency about the situation in Northern Ireland.
On the rare occasions that Northern issues are now addressed in the Dáil by the Taoiseach we hear statements about how everything is in hand and lots of meetings are happening.
We also hear Deputy Adams express his general support for a government policy which has given his party a much freer hand.
I welcome this debate because it gives an opportunity to challenge this complacency. It is not just that sectarian tensions and dissident activities are giving rise to widespread concern – more fundamentally the entire momentum of peace, reconciliation and development is being lost.
The Good Friday Agreement was an undeniably historic breakthrough. Its anniversary was unfortunately allowed to pass unmarked last year because the governments were concerned that they would have to acknowledge the central role of others.
The Agreement was a victory for the vast majority on this island who always believed in our shared interests and in constitutional methods.
The generosity of the Irish people remains an inspiration in how they offered a hand to those who bombed and killed for decades without ever receiving public legitimacy. It was a great demonstration also of how much can be achieved through genuine political leadership.
The benefits of the Agreement are real and have been sustained. However it was never intended as a conclusion. In the words of Seamus Mallon, one of the great democratic heroes of the fight for peace, it was “a new dispensation” – it gave this generation an opportunity to permanently overcome divisions and to work together for lasting prosperity and social progress.
There was nothing inevitable about the success to date of the peace process and there is nothing inevitable about its longer-term course.
And while we hear various figures tell us how well they are getting on and how institutions are in place – let’s not forget the objective of the process is not for politicians to get on and avoid constantly collapsing basic institutions, the goal is to deliver tangible action on behalf of people.
The undeniable reality is that today the majority within Northern Ireland say that they do not have an increased influence in how they are governed and they believe that the Assembly is achieving little. Every survey confirms a growing detachment and disillusionment.
You don’t need to know much about history to know how dangerous this is -how it provides an atmosphere in which those who promote division find it easier to get listened to.
In the South there has also been a collapse in levels of interest in Northern matters. In the media, the Oireachtas and amongst the wider public the North increasingly only gets attention when things go wrong.
When I first pointed out the dangers of this complacency and disengagement I was roundly attacked by the government, Sinn Fein, the DUP and some parts of the media.
Since then even they have been forced to admit that all is not well. Last year we even saw the DUP and Sinn Fein exchange attacks on each other concerning why they are failing to use the Executive to deliver action on behalf of all.
Today we are facing the harsh reality that we have reached a defining moment.
Sectarian tensions are very important but they are only one part of what is a rising challenge to the entire process of reconciliation and development. This challenge is faced within each of the three strands of the Agreement.
The process is becoming ever more concentrated on the elites, distracted by their partisan concerns and leading to a marked increase in public disillusionment. The focus has been on managing rather than developing institutions. Opportunities to address shared problems are being missed – and in some areas we are seeing a retreat from the policy of deeper cooperation.
This has had an inevitable, negative and growing impact on public attitudes.
It is not just that we are failing to take advantage of the many and obvious opportunities which peace and a shared blueprint have brought. The failure to take these opportunities, to build deep understanding of other communities, to aggressively target development, to work to bring the concerns of marginalised groups and areas onto a shared agenda – each of these poses a long-term threat to what has been achieved.
Over the last two years I have delivered a series of speeches on both sides of the Border calling for action on the growing dysfunction of institutions ever-more beholden to narrow party interests. In particular I have addressed the dangerous vacuum being created within Northern Ireland. That critique stands. Last summer once again we saw the two largest parties adopt a highly selective approach to the legitimacy of the system they are supposed to guarantee.
The only way of dealing with the matters included in the Haas process is indeed through inclusive talks. However the refusal of the two governments to participate directly in the process, and their refusal to play any role in challenging the dysfunction of the Executive, gave the Haas process little hope of reaching a comprehensive conclusion.
I strongly reject the idea which our government signed up to that the Hass process is an internal Northern Irish matter which the governments should not be directly involved in.
The idea that a basis for challenging sectarianism and dealing with issues of the past is nothing to do with us is completely unacceptable. It is a rejection of the basic dynamic which delivered every one of the major breakthroughs of the last decade and a half.
As we’ve seen even this week, for the unionist side the Republic is very much part of the historical narrative about communal divisions and the campaign of the Provisional movement.
During my time as Minister for Foreign Affairs I made substantive outreach to loyalists groups and communities an active part of our work. Showing the goodwill of Dublin and dispelling old myths had, I have no doubt, a very positive impact.
Equally, we played our role in supporting communities who proudly give their allegiance to the tricolour.
Everything to do with building lasting peace, reconciliation and growth on this island is a legitimate concern of the government elected by Dáil Éireann and to step back from this is absolutely wrong.
It also removes a dynamic which has time and again proven how it can deliver breakthroughs.
I believe the Haas proposals are positive and should be accepted, though let no one forget that they include quite a few areas being pushed forward into another review. That the parties are still meeting is welcome, but the time has long since come where the governments should assert their legitimate roles in the process and seek a significantly increased involvement.
I would point out that the last time this issue was surveyed the majority in Northern Ireland accepted that the Dublin government had a legitimate interest in Northern Irish affairs. No one has pointed to a single example of where we have been anything other than constructive and progressive in our engagement.
The Taoiseach appears to have a good personal relationship with Prime Minister Cameron. We need this to be used for some practical benefit and getting him to reverse his policy of de-facto disengagement with Northern Ireland is the most important thing he could try to achieve.
The exclusion of the Republic from the “New Economic Pact” for Northern Ireland remains a disgrace, as does the Taoiseach’s disinterest in it. Developed between Sinn Fein, the DUP and Whitehall it has been presented as the definitive blueprint for the development of Northern Ireland’s economy.
The ‘Pact’ is welcome and it includes many important commitments – but what it also does is whitewash out of the picture any North/South dimension whatsoever. Even though common development was a core part of the objectives and funding in the 2007 National Development Plan – and we maintained most of the proposals even in the toughest of times – the ‘Pact’ does not include even a single mention of the Border Region or cross-border cooperation.
There is no comparable example in the last 16 years where there were no North/South or East/West discussions before such an announcement.
This is another area where for their own reasons the government and Sinn Fein have had no problem with a process which is increasingly proceeding without Dublin’s proper involvement.
This moving away from the spirit and practice of enhanced cooperation is reflected in area after area and is having a wider influence.
One of the mistakes which we are making is to again wait for crises before considering Northern issues. What is happening is that we are missing many opportunities to deliver for communities on either side of the Border. The failure to develop the cross-border bodies is in danger of allowing them to be frozen and marginalised rather than the evolving and dynamic entities we need them to be.
Since 1998 the operation of the existing bodies has proven that there is no slippery slope by which communities will wake up and find themselves living in a different state without the consent of the majority. Cross-border bodies are not about constitutional slight-of-hand, they are about securing economic development and social progress for all communities on this island.
The review of existing bodies has been strung out over three years so far and no proposals to extend them are being discussed.
Decisions to abandon North/South infrastructural projects are exactly the worst thing that could be happening.
We have gone from communities asking for greater barriers to them asking for improved links. Yet in project after project the governments are failing to take up the opportunity.
The failure to fund the Narrow Water Bridge is the most high profile example, but there are many others. The bridge would have a uniformly positive economic and social impact but it is being let fail for the want of a relatively small amount of extra public funding.
This is worse than a shame it is a disgrace.
What would we have given 30 years ago for all communities North and South to be united in calling for new links? Are we really so complacent that we think we don’t need to embrace the spirit of joint development seen in this and other projects?
The failure to prioritise the economic development of the border region has to stop and the most effective way of doing this would be to establish a Border Development Zone.
I should also say that the withdrawal of An Forás Teanga from the direct funding of some language development projects in the North is not welcome. We need more direct engagement on the language not less. I welcome the First Minister’s defence of the right of the language to be seen as non-partisan.
The obvious next step is for the DUP and Sinn Fein in the Executive to put aside their bickering and agree a language plan so that they are no longer the only administration in Europe failing to meet its obligations relating to minority languages.
In opposition Fianna Fáil has never wavered in maintaining the same level of commitment to developing the peace process which we showed in government.
The structures of the Agreement are fundamentally sound, but they were never meant to stand still. The absence of a more active approach to cross-border bodies is a major deficiency at the moment.
We have already outlined some areas where we believe such bodies should be developed and we will publish details of more.
In that the Taoiseach has indicated his willingness to hold further debates on the North we would like a specific session to be set aside to discuss the development of cross-border bodies and more general cross-border cooperation.
An important point which is rarely mentioned is that supporting the minority communities on this side of the border was a significant part of the early confidence-building measures undertaken by our government. We undertook investment in order to ensure the ability of protestant communities to protect their own identities.
One element of this was investment in small protestant schools in the border region. National policy in relation to giving extra teachers to enable small schools to be viable was significantly influenced by the disproportionate benefit which would flow to marginal communities.
Everyone should realise that the government’s new agenda of targeting small schools for extra cuts is having a terrible impact on schools under protestant patronage – particularly in border communities. Many are being pushed to the edge of viability.
There are many strong reasons to invest in small schools, but protecting religious diversity and marginal border communities is a powerful one which the Taoiseach should stop ignoring.
Where there are existing clear-cut provisions of agreements there is no excuse for failing to implement them. The failure of the British government to proceed with the Finucane inquiry is unacceptable.
We fulfilled our commitment by opening up An Garda Siochana to a rigorous and public inquiry. It was not a comfortable thing to do, but we did it. It is long past the time for our government to make a formal complaint about the failure of the British government to honour its commitment.
There are other areas where a selective approach to implementing agreements is undermining essential confidence. In 2007 it was agreed to review the working of the Civic Forum set out in Section 56 of the Agreement. To review the Forum was reasonable; to leave it in suspension for seven years is inexcusable.
It has once again demonstrated the eagerness of those who have taken hold of the reins of power to exclude any competitors. The First Minister and Deputy First Minister have actually said in public that they meet community groups all the time so there’s no need to reconvene the Forum. As we can see on the streets, it is exactly the groups who should be involved in the Forum who are most likely to feel they are excluded from public discourse in the North.
I welcome the SDLP’s initiative on this and their refusal to let the issue drop.
For things to change in the North they require greater generosity and restraint. They require leaders to be willing to move the agenda on and to be consistent is respecting institutions which are trying to serve the whole community.
You can’t say you support the police if you attack them every time they pick-up one of yours. Equally you can’t be selective in your demands for transparency about the past.I have no doubt that there is a wide growing gap between the bulk of the population of this island and leaders who act as if there is nothing more to be achieved. People understand the logic of peace and reconciliation and are largely getting on with it insofar as they can.
What is missing is a determination and focus from our leaders to take the process forward rather than allow it to be overtaken by forces fed by neglect and a sense of disillusionment.
The great historical opportunity to build a lasting and constructive cooperation between all of the traditions who share this island is still there. Enormous progress has been achieved and is still in place.
However no one can realistically deny that a sense of drift is present. There has been disengagement and a reduction to formalities which has let serious problems intact and waiting to break out into new crises.
It’s time to end the complacency and return to a position where our government again assumes the role of being an active and interested partner in all elements of the still on-going peace process.