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A week after the officially accepted announcement of the IRA's decision to achieve its aims by purely political and democratic means, on 5th August 2005, the Irish Times carried an article by Gerry Adams. That article contained an unarguable statement of fact beside the expression of a legitimate aspiration. Adams wrote:
"The Taoiseach has given a commitment that MPs elected in the Six Counties will be able to speak in the Dáil. As MP for West Belfast I should have the same right to speak on the Rossport Five in Co. Mayo, or homelessness in Dublin, or drug problems in Limerick as Michael McDowell or Dermot Ahern have to speak on issues in Belfast or Derry. We want to see this done with all speed."
Adams did not claim that the Taoiseach had given a commitment that he would have the right to speak in the Dáil on those internal matters, he just expressed a reasonable wish that someday he should be able so to do.
Immediately all the usual suspects went into overdrive, conflating the statement of fact with the aspiration to produce a storm of misdirection and misrepresentation.
The very same issue of the Irish Times published an article by its Chief Political Correspondent, Mark Brennock, which contained Ahern's denial that he had ever given any such commitment:
"…a spokesman of the Taoiseach indicated last night that Mr Ahern's commitment was considerably less than this, and that he did not envisage northern MPs speaking in plenary Dáil sessions.
"While not commenting directly on Mr Adams assertion, the spokesman said Mr Ahern would seek to pursue an arrangement whereby Northern Ireland MPs would be invited to attend Oireachtas committees to discuss matters relating to Northern Ireland and the Belfast Agreement.
"Ultimately, the spokesman said, this was a matter for the Oireachtas itself to decide after discussions between the parties. The spokesman said Mr Ahern had spoken of such a system in the Dáil last December and had said it 'would not involve the granting of any rights or privileges, and there would be no constitutional implications or question of cutting across the architecture and operation of the Good Friday agreement'".
Two days later on August 7th the Sunday Independent was claiming in an editorial that Adams had referred in his article to a commitment given in a private meeting between himself and Ahern. It commented:
"One of these contradictory accounts must be wrong. Either Mr Ahern or Mr Adams left that private meeting with a completely inaccurate impression of what was discussed and what was agreed.
"This indicates either disingenuousness or duplicity on the part of one, the other or both of them. Whoever is to blame, it should not be happening. It is not the way affairs of State should be handled."
In the same issue of the Sunday Independent, Bruce Arnold's lapdog, John A. Murphy, rushed to condemn any concession to the northern component of the nation's right to a role, however understated, in the political life of the nation:
"What Gerry Adams brazenly demands is unconstitutional. Bunreacht na hEireann clearly limits its jurisdiction to the 26-county area. Admitting Northern MPs to the Oireachtas would amount to representation without taxation. More important, such a step would violate the spirit and the letter of the Belfast Agreement. In this fences-rushing move towards an embryonic all-Ireland parliament, SF contemptuously flouts the basic principle of the requirement of Northern majority consent for any change to the constitutional status quo."
Now the commitment to which Gerry Adams referred in his article was one which the Taoiseach gave publicly in the Dáil, while being questioned by Sinn Féin TD, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, on 13th May 2003. The exchange between Ahern and Ó Caoláin will be reproduced below along with the 2002 recommendation of the all-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution to which their remarks were substantially addressed. That should clear up the confusion which, having originated in malicious misrepresentation in the press, was compounded by the statement of an anonymous Sinn Féin source, claimed by the Irish Times to be Gerry Adams' "chief spokesman". The SF spokesman's statement appeared in the Irish Times on 9th August 2005:
"Mr Adams is on holidays but his chief spokesman yesterday confirmed that the Taoiseach was correct.
"He confirmed that the Taoiseach's offer referred to addressing Dáil committees rather than the Dáil itself.
"Mr Adams's spokesman indicated the 'confusion' may have arisen over the fact that on occasion Oireachtas committees meet in the Dáil chamber and that Northern MPs could possibly speak at such a committee gathering.
"'Perhaps Gerry wasn't qualified enough in what he wrote or didn't explain himself enough', he said.
"'That said, we are still seeking speaking rights in the Dáil. We are happy enough that the offer on committees is a step in the right direction but we will be looking for full speaking rights', he added".
Next day, in response to waters that had already been muddied, wells that had previously been poisoned, the Irish Times published a typically anti-national editorial:
"The acknowledgment by Sinn Féin that its president, Gerry Adams, was mistaken in saying the Taoiseach, Mr Ahern, had given him a commitment that their MPs, elected in Northern Ireland, would be entitled to speak in the Dáil, is to be welcomed. That clarification will reassure unionist politicians that the constitutional framework of the Belfast Agreement remains intact. And concerns on both sides of the Border that the Government entered into secret side-deals with Sinn Féin, in advance of an IRA commitment to end all paramilitary and criminal activity, will diminish.
"It is difficult to understand why Mr Adams misrepresented the situation, last week, in an article published in this newspaper…
"The fact that three days were allowed to elapse before Mr Adams, through a spokesman, acknowledged his misunderstanding of the situation suggests an element of political gamesmanship. Last year, when a deal appeared likely, the Taoiseach told the Dáil he was prepared to recommend that Northern MPs should be invited to attend committee meetings when they were discussing matters relating to Northern Ireland or the Belfast Agreement. It would, however, be up to the Oireachtas to make that decision. And there was no question of MPs being given a right to address the Dáil in plenary session.
"This matter had been under discussion for years. And there was never any hint that those Sinn Féin MPs who refused to take their seats at Westminster would be granted an automatic audience in the Dáil. There was certainly no question—as Mr Adams had it—of their being given quasi-ministerial licence to speak on controversial issues such as major construction projects, drug abuse and social housing in this State… "
There was in fact more than a "hint" of a long overdue acknowledgment of the North's right to a place in the political assembly of that Irish nation of which it is the once and future vanguard. That is in the recommendation of the All-party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution to which Taoiseach Ahern committed himself in the Dáil on May 13th., 2003. But of that, more later. In the meantime . . .
Sinn Féin's Dáil leader, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, replied to the farrago of misrepresentation (which an anonymous Sinn Féin source had foolishly appeared to endorse) with a letter to the Irish Times which was published on August 13th. It is a letter which is both polite and politic. Ahern is thrown a bone and let down lightly to drool over it. In addition to some other matters his acquiescence, if not his active goodwill, will be required by Sinn Féin in coming weeks as the IRA attempts, in the face of Unionist intransigence, finally to completely disarm. So, while the facts of the matter are adequately clarified, the politics of the matter, in a manner most politic, are understated to Ahern's advantage. This magazine does not have any reason to be polite or politic in respect of the Taoiseach. We will not understate the politics of the matter when we come to the recommendation of the All-party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution to which Taoiseach Ahern committed himself. But of that, more later. In the meantime . . .
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin wrote:
"Your editorial of August 10th, 'Sinn Féin and the Dáil', contained a string of misrepresentations. Let me make clear the Sinn Féin position on Six-County representation in the Dáil.
"We are working towards an All-Ireland Dáil, representative of 32 Counties and with jurisdiction over the whole island. Obviously, for that to happen, British rule in the North will have to come to an end. Does that mean nothing should be done in the meantime? Certainly not.
"Following the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern asked the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution to examine the issue of Northern representation. It took the committee until 2002 to report. It looked at a range of options. It recommended that MPs from the Six Counties would have 'a limited right of audience within the Dáil'. This 'might technically be effected through the Dáil periodically forming itself into a Committee of the Whole House for the purposes of selected debates'. MPs would 'speak in periodic debates on Northern Ireland matters and on the operation of the Good Friday Agreement'.
"At no time did Sinn Féin state that such a facility whould be open only to Sinn Féin MPs, as your Editorial suggested. Clearly SDLP members would avail of it and while unionists, initially, would be unlikely to participate, their attendance would be especially welcome.
"The Taoiseach has committed himself and his Government to taking forward the committee's recommendations. The Government parties and Fine Gael voted for a Dáil motion in these terms in 2003, even though Fine Gael leader Enda Kenny is now rubbishing the idea of Six-County representation in the Dáil (Michael Collins must be turning in his grave)…
"The Sinn Féin president's original comment in the Irish Times article is as correct as the Taoiseach's follow-up comment. The Taoiseach has given a commitment for Northern MPs to speak in the Dáil, albeit on Dáil Committees as opposed to plenary sessions of the Dáil. That, in anybody's book, is still speaking in the Dáil. If others wish to split hairs on the issue in pursuit of a story that doesn't exist, then that is a matter for themselves… "
And so to the meat of the matters in hand.
First, the Taoiseach's public commitment to the All-Party Oireacthas Committee's recommendation on Northern representatives having speaking rights in Dáil Éireann. We have quoted this exchange before and will no doubt quote it again in days to come. It may not be politic to do so. It is political.
At Question Time in the Dail on Tuesday, 13 May 2003, Taoiseach Bertie Ahern was answering questions on among other things the "Committee on the Constitution". Sinn Fein TD, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, asked the following question and received the following reply:—
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:—"Focusing on another area of the work of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution, I wish to ask the Taoiseach if he recognises that following the unilateral suspension of the Assembly elections by the British Government, people in the Six Counties have no democratic forum to which to send their representatives? What steps are being taken by the Taoiseach to pursue the recommendations of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution regarding access for elected MPs in the Six Counties' constituencies to the Houses of the Oireachtas? I missed the Taoiseach's initial response to the questions so may I ask whether changes envisaged in order to accommodate these important steps require constitutional change through referenda or whether, as I and others believe, such changes might not be necessary and that what is required is a decision by the Taoiseach and his Cabinet to allow for the facilitation? Will the Taoiseach recognise the importance of filling the current vacuum and allowing northern elected MPs the opportunity to have rights of attendance and rights of participation in specific debates accommodated at the earliest opportunity?"
The Taoiseach:—"Some of these issues may ultimately require constitutional amendments but others do not. The All-Party Committee on the Constitution set out what could be done in regard to the right of audience and the right to participate in debates in this House. There was an all-party agreement on that early last year. The Government agreed to that. I have since asked party leaders for their views on the matter. The Government is in favour of the right of MEPS to attend and participate in committee debates on the EU and for Northern Ireland elected representatives to participate in debates on the Good Friday Agreement and other relevant debates. Some of those mechanisms can be put in place if there is agreement in the House.
"On the more long-term issue, the all-party committee raised the issue of Seanad Éireann. That will be further developed when a report is published later this year on the long-term position and that has my support. As soon as there is agreement in the House, I am prepared to move on those issues."
Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin:—"Will the Taoiseach take ownership of this matter?"
The Taoiseach:—"Yes, most certainly."
The striking emphasis there is of course mine. And let this be emphasised again (and again and as often as may be required):
"The Government is in favour of the right of MEPS to attend and participate in committee debates on the EU and for Northern Ireland elected representatives to participate in debates on the Good Friday Agreement and other relevant debates."
In May 2003 Mr. Ahern and his Government were in favour of MEPs having the right to attend committee debates, specifically "committee debates on the EU". At the same time there is no mention of committees in respect of Northern Ireland elected representatives participating "in debates on the Good Friday Agreement and other relevant debates". What the Taoiseach committed his government to in that respect was the recommendation of the All-Party Committee on the Constitution. So what did the All-Party Committee recommend?
First of all it should be noted that the Committee was at that time composed of the following eight TDs and four senators:
Brian Lenihan, TD (FF), chairman
Jim O'Keeffe, TD (FG), vice-chairman
Brendan Daly, TD (FF)
Thomas Enright, TD (FG)
Séamus Kirk, TD (FF)
Derek McDowell, TD (LAB)
Marian McGennis, TD (FF)
Liz McManus, TD (LAB)
Senator Denis O'Donovan (FF)
Senator Fergus O'Dowd (FG)
Senator Kathleen O'Meara (LAB)
Senator John Dardis (PD)
In that it was and is a typical Parliamentary Committee as these are constituted by the Dáil. It has twelve members, four of whom are Senators. The current Committee on Agriculture and Food, chaired by Fianna Fáil's Deputy Johnny Brady has fifteen members. It looks like four of them are Senators and are members only of the Joint Committee unlike the TDs who are members of both the Select and Joint aspects of the Committee. On Thursday, 25th March 2004, twelve of the Senators and TDs of the Joint Committee had a meeting at which they took evidence from Mr. John Sadlier and Mr. Tim Morris from the Department of the Environment, Heritage and Local Government and Mr. Michael O'Donovan and Mr. Matthew Sinnott from the Department of Agriculture and Food. That was this Dáil Committee behaving as a Dáil Committee, like any other. Please bear that in mind. It is important to remember what a Dáil Committee is, and how it operates.
The All-Party Committee on the Constitution reported on the relevant phase of its work in 2002. The foreword to the Report stated:
"Following the conclusion of the Good Friday Agreement, the Taoiseach asked the committee to examine 'how people living in Northern Ireland might play a more active part in national political life'. The committee considered that this issue and the cognate issue of emigrant participation in our political institutions could be dealt with most effectively in the context of these Articles."
The issue of emigrant participation is "cognate" only in an altogether abstract sense that is infinitely remote from the practical political import of the Northern issue. The chapter in which both issues are considered, Chapter 4—Northern Ireland and emigrant participation in national political life—is really two chapters and is in fact laid out as such with the consideration of Northern Representation coming first, followed by a recommendation, followed by an entirely separate discussion of emigrant issues with its own separate recommendation. The chapter begins:
"Immediately after the conclusion of the Good Friday Agreement, the Taoiseach requested the All-Party Committee to consider the question of the participation of people from Northern Ireland in national political life. The committee has taken the view that the issues involved cannot be considered fully and satisfactorily in isolation from its wider remit, and accordingly has decided to approach them in the context of its examination of the Constitution's provisions on the National Parliament."
The discussion throughout is dominated by the Committee's strongly expressed agreement with the SDLP's submission that—
"…the 'broadest possible interpretation' should be taken of the question put to the committee, and emphasised that 'national political life' should not, particularly in the context of the new beginning brought about by the Good Friday Agreement, be defined purely as occurring within Southern institutions.
"It pointed out that 'that part of Irish national life which persists in Northern Ireland and over which the Assembly and its Executive will exercise devolved powers will be the responsibility of representatives from both ... traditions'.
"Secondly, 'involvement in the wider national political life will be made a reality through the North/South Ministerial Council'. The SDLP also underscored the potential value of two other possible institutions to which the Agreement requires that consideration be given: a joint North/South parliamentary forum which would involve members of the Oireachtas and members of the Assembly and an independent consultative forum 'representative of civil society, comprising the social partners and other members with expertise in social, cultural, economic and other issues'."
It was still just about possible, in 2002, to believe that such a future as is outlined in those paragraphs might somehow, someday, come to pass. Sinn Féin was not then and is not now, for politic rather than political reasons, prepared to state the plain fact of that future: that it is a fantasy. In consequence, the Committee's recommendation on Northern participation in national political life is over-determined by wishful thinking and formulated in great measure by way of understatement. It still recommends much more than the Taoiseach is presently willing to admit to. Yet it is still the scenario to which he has publicly committed himself and his Government to work towards (to put it mildly). And this is, in its entirety that Recommendation of the All-Party Oireachtas Committee on the Constitution.
"There should be no change in the franchise for Dáil elections.
"The committee acknowledges that the immediate emphasis of the Sinn Féin submission, in particular, is on the possibility that Northern Ireland Westminster MPs might have a limited right of audience within the Dáil. This would not require a constitutional amendment, and might technically be effected through the Dáil periodically forming itself into a Committee of the Whole House for the purposes of selected debates, most obviously for instance on Northern Ireland matters and on the operation of the Good Friday Agreement. The frequency and organisation of such debates could easily be altered as no constitutional amendment is required over time, in the light of experience.
"We accept that any addition to the Dáil of participants, even if temporary and non-voting, other than those elected from constituencies within this state, could be held to be inconsistent with the thrust of our approach. We also accept that any participation in the Dáil by Northern representatives might potentially run the risk of opening up basic constitutional issues settled in the Good Friday Agreement. However, we think that in this case those risks are relatively mild and should be kept in perspective. The expertise and experience upon which Northern MPs could draw could certainly enhance the quality of certain important Dáil debates. Such an initiative would be strongly welcomed by certain Northern representatives and their supporters, and would address the continuing desire of many nationalists for further concrete expression of their Irish identity and their membership of the wider national family. The Dáil could consider taking the necessary procedural steps to allow MPs elected for Northern Ireland constituencies to speak in periodic debates on Northern Ireland matters and on the operation of the Good Friday Agreement. The committee is of the view that any such participation should take place on a cross-community basis with parity of esteem for the different communities in Northern Ireland.
"An alternative which is worth considering is that ministers in the Northern Ireland Executive, and perhaps also members of the Assembly, might be invited instead of or as well as Westminster MPs. However, on reflection this is a more problematic option. The numbers involved might be much greater, which would cause practical difficulties. More particularly, drawing upon those serving in institutions established by the Agreement, and especially ministers, might be held more directly to cut across the balance within the Agreement, and lines of accountability and reporting, above all in relation to the North/South institutions. For that reason we would prefer the involvement of MPs from Westminster, which is also a sister sovereign legislature."
Clearly the Committee's recommendation goes well beyond the Taoiseach's currently preferred option of Northern representatives addressing Dáil Committees, like the fifteen-member Dáil Committee on Agriculture and Food. A similar fifteen- or even twenty-member Committee on The North And How To Have Nothing Much To Do With It simply does not square with the All-Party Committee's recommendation that there is nothing preventing the Dáil "periodically forming itself into a Committee of the Whole House for the purposes of selected debates, most obviously for instance on Northern Ireland matters and on the operation of the Good Friday Agreement". That extraordinary scenario is now the bottom line of any set of proposals for realising the Taoiseach's declared aim of increasing the participation of Northerners in the political life of the nation.
As a politic first step it may be enough to be getting on with. As a matter of politics it begs the question: why should it be necessary for the Dáil to periodically perform this extraordinary feat of forming itself into a Committee of the Whole House? Why not go the extra distance, little and all as it is? And politically the projected institutions of the Good Friday Agreement are no longer a complicating factor in the argument.
When Sinn Féin's reasons for maintaining its polite stance of the moment towards the Taoiseach have been exhausted, and its stance towards him has been repoliticised, the Recommendation of the All-Party Committee is one weapon it will still have very much to hand in the struggles to come. We very much look forward to that one being dropped on Dublin.
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