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8 January 2004 Edition

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McDowell's role is bad news for Peace Process - Fianna Fáil/PD Government undermines Good Friday Agreement

Michael McDowell

Michael McDowell

On its last day before the Christmas recess, the Dáil passed a Bill endorsing an agreement signed by Justice Minister Michael McDowell and the British ambassador. This will allow the British Secretary of State to expel a Minister from the Executive in the Six Counties without a cross-community vote in the Assembly. MÍCHEÁL MacDONNCHA reports on a debate and a serious development in the Peace Process that has received little media coverage.

News coverage of the end of the pre-Christmas Dáil session was dominated by Michael McDowell's latest venomous attacks on Sinn Féin. But much more significant was McDowell's pushing through the Dáil on its last day before the recess, of legislation which undermines the Good Friday Agreement. It was the occasion of a heated debate between the Minister and the Sinn Féin TDs.

The debate on 18 December got little media coverage but it was on a Bill that could have profound long-term consequences for the Agreement and the Peace Process. Sinn Féin vowed total opposition to the Independent Monitoring Commission Bill 2003 and set the tone at the start of Dáil business, when four of its TDs raised aspects of the non-implementation of the Agreement by the British and Dublin Governments. Seán Crowe (Dublin Southwest) raised the failure of the British Government to publish the Cory report, their refusal to co-operate fully with the inquiry into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and the ongoing series of loyalist attacks.

Aengus Ó Snodaigh (Dublin South Central) highlighted a lack of progress by the British on the human rights and equality agenda, including the repeal of repressive legislation and policing. The Irish Government's failure to release the republican prisoners in Castlerea was highlighted by Martin Ferris (Kerry North), who reminded the Minister that the High Court had confirmed they were qualifying prisoners under the Agreement. Louth's Arthur Morgan condemned the failure of the British Government to demilitarise the Six Counties.

The debate moved on to the Independent Monitoring Commission Bill, which Sinn Féin described as "completely outside the terms of the Good Friday Agreement". It is an enabling Bill for a British Act of Parliament that is not only outside the Good Friday Agreement but undermines it. The Northern Ireland (Monitoring Commission) Act 2003 was not even referred to by McDowell when he spoke on the Bill in the Seanad and in the Dáil.

The Irish Government's Bill effectively endorsed the British legislation and ratified the agreement between the Irish and British Governments signed by Michael McDowell and the British ambassador, Stewart Eldon, on 25 November.

The case against the new legislation

Opposing the Bill on behalf of Sinn Féin, the party's Dáil leader, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin, said: "The British Act is disgraceful legislation and the agreement signed by the Minister is, with respect, a disgraceful one, which should never have been entered into by an Irish Government.

"The very name of the Bill is a falsehood. The Commission will not and cannot be independent. Politically, it was established as a sop to the Ulster Unionist Party dissidents, the very group since made politically irrelevant by the result of the Assembly election. The Commission will, in effect, be a creature of the British Government and will rely on information from British Intelligence, the British Army and the PSNI to fulfil its functions. This is the effect of the Bill and the British legislation to which I have already referred.

"The McDowell-Eldon agreement, this legislation and the British legislation will be open to constitutional challenge as being in clear breach of the Good Friday Agreement.

"It is often forgotten that as well as amending Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution in 1998, the people in this jurisdiction amended Article 29 to state that the State may be bound by the Good Friday Agreement and that any institution 'established by or under the Agreement may exercise the powers and functions thereby conferred on it in respect of all or any part of the island of Ireland', notwithstanding any other provision in the Constitution. This important change in the Constitution was made on the basis of the Agreement as signed by the two Governments and the institutions as set out in the Agreement. The McDowell-Eldon agreement, as implemented by the British legislation and now proposed to be endorsed by this enabling legislation, undermines the Good Friday Agreement, on the basis of which the people voted to change Articles 2, 3 and 29.

"Strand one, Article 25 of the Good Friday Agreement provides that the Assembly, voting on a cross-community basis, may remove a Minister from office. The Northern Ireland (Monitoring Commission) Act, the British equivalent of this legislation, allows the British Secretary of State unilaterally to remove a Minister from office when a motion for exclusion cannot attract cross-community support. This is in clear breach of both the spirit and the letter of the Good Friday Agreement. The British Act goes further and allows the British Secretary of State to exclude someone from office in 'exceptional circumstances'.

"The so-called Independent Monitoring Commission is designed to facilitate this undermining of the Agreement by the British Government. It is unacceptable that an Irish Government should be party to this through the McDowell-Eldon agreement. The so-called independence of the Commission is glaringly exposed in Article 6 of that agreement, which lays down that the mechanism by which the commission considers claims of misconduct by Ministers only involves the members of the commission appointed by the British Government. The only shared position is the 50/50 sharing of the cost of the commission's work. Let us make no mistake, the British Government is in the ascendancy and has overall control.

"This legislation is a recipe for the continuation of the British and Unionist serial collapsing of the institutions and postponement of democratic elections. As we speak, the Assembly remains in suspension by order of the British Government at the behest of unionism, despite the renewed democratic mandates secured at the recent Assembly elections.

"I do not intend to waste time addressing the detail of the functions of the commission, except to state they are a sham. There is not even the pretence that the activities of the British Government and its armed forces will be monitored in any way. The British Government will face no sanctions, nor will the Irish Government for any failures on its part. I will not address the personnel of the commission as established in shadow form. Suffice to say that if it was composed solely of Nelson Mandela, it could not be independent.

"Article 5 of the McDowell-Eldon agreement purports to address the issue of demilitarisation, or 'normalisation' as it is described. It is a legislative trick because it is entirely negated by section 15. The Commission shall monitor any programme undertaken by the British only after they decide to undertake such a programme once 'satisfied with commitments that have been given on an end to paramilitary activity'. Otherwise, the Commission can only monitor so-called normalisation at the request of the British Government — so much for its so-called independence.

"The Bill and the shabby agreement come before the House on the very day the Government proposes to publish its section of the Cory report and while the British Government continues to refuse to publish its section, and one week after the Barron report exposed the British Government's refusal to cooperate with the inquiry into the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, yet we are being asked to establish a commission which will rely on the same British military, police and intelligence services for information. Such information will be supplied to the British Secretary of State, who may use it to expel a Minister without a cross-community vote in the Assembly.

"The British refused to co-operate with Mr Justice Barron, citing national security interests, yet the McDowell-Eldon agreement enshrines British national security interests in Article 13.

"The so-called Independent Monitoring Commission will not decide what those interests are. If the British say no to any request from the Commission on the basis of national security, that will be the end of the matter.

"The Irish Government has stated that it is against any renegotiation of the Good Friday Agreement. Regrettably, this Bill and the British legislation that preceded it are rewriting that same agreement and without negotiation."

PDs make northern policy

In response, McDowell failed to respond to any of the substantive issues raised by Ó Caoláin. Instead, he resumed his attacks on Sinn Féin, this time unearthing the old chestnut about republicans regarding the Army Council of the IRA as the legitimate government of Ireland. That former position, long superseded by ideological developments within republicanism, is occasionally trotted out by McDowell and others to present republicans as a threat to the institutions of the 26-County state. (Of course, his real concern is the electoral threat of Sinn Féin). McDowell, who the previous day had attended the Downing Street talks with Ahern, Blair and the political parties, focused solely on Sinn Féin "to address the real issues of polarisation which have been magnified by the outcome of the election".

Ó Caoláin responded that on the issue of arms "no party has used its influence more and to greater success than Sinn Féin in addressing this issue.

"It was not Minister McDowell, or his colleagues in the Progressive Democrats, who took the risks or made the difference. His moralising and his lofty lecturing carried and still carries no weight in the achievement of all that has been achieved in recent years."

When McDowell repeated his legitimacy argument, Ó Caoláin came back:

"The Minister demonstrated once again that he believed he had Sinn Féin over a barrel. That is a foolish notion on the Minister's part and he should be very careful because he is the only one looking over the barrel and he might fall into it. We in Sinn Féin are democrats and are committed to the sovereignty of the people and to the democratic institutions established by them. If the Minister has not heard this from a Sinn Féin spokesman before, I state it clearly in my seventh year in this House, those institutions include this Dáil and the institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement. I wish to make that patently clear to the Minister."

The Bill was opposed by the five Sinn Féin TDs and by Independent TDs Finian McGrath and Tony Gregory.

The debate and its context raise an interesting question. Fianna Fáilers may be content to sit back and watch the PDs sling mud at Sinn Féin, hoping it may be some advantage to the government parties in the run up to the EU and local elections next June. But republicans should be asking Fianna Fáilers are they also content to allow the PDs to make their policy on the Six Counties and the Peace Process?

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