Prime Minister of Ireland

Speech made to the Assembly

Thursday, 25 January 1996

Madam President, Secretary General, distinguished guests, fellow parliamentarians, ladies and gentlemen. I thank you, Madam President, for your kind words and for your good research when preparing your welcome. I also thank your predecessor, Miguel Angel Martinez for extending the invitation for me to be here today. I am especially honoured to be here because I am a former member of the Assembly. I am also honoured to be here because I am the first Irish Prime Minister to address this Assembly since 1966, when one of my predecessors, Séan Lemass, did so. When I was a member here in 1990, there werfe only twenty-three members; there are now thirty- eight. That is a very good sign of the times.

The Council of Europe, perhaps more than any other organisation in the world, reminds us of our innate human dignity. Through its Statute and the various conventions, most notably the European Convention on Human Rights, it has helped to identify essential rights and responsibilities. These rights existed prior to the establishment of the states that we represent. They are the basis of the moral legitimacy of every authority, of every state and of every organisation such as the Council of Europe. By flouting human rights, a society undermines its own moral legitimacy.

The Council of Europe is, in a sense, a university in which countries learn about democracy, the rule of law and human rights. Just as we do not wish to exclude students from university if they are endeavouring to qualify, we should not exclude members from this university of human rights if they wish to meet the standard of human rights that this body sets.

It is, of course, important that states should be committed to the “principles of the rule of law and of the enjoyment by all persons within their jurisdiction of human rights and fundamental freedoms”, as described in the Statute. There can be no compromise. But one can only enforce those rights among people who are within the club. One can apply rules only to club members.

The Council of Europe is, above all, a place where people can talk through their problems. Only by being together in the same room – in the same house – can we solve our differences gradually. That applies especially in Ireland and I wish now to speak about Ireland.

The lessons of history in Ireland show that political differences can be resolved only through peaceful and democratic means. In the Irish peace process, my government attaches priority to achieving a political settlement that all parties and traditions in our island can support by allegiance and consent. The task will not be easy. We will have to build strong foundations of trust between communities divided by centuries of history. The absence of trust continues to be the major problem.

Against that background, the two governments have been working together to prepare the way for full-scale negotiations in which all the parties in the conflict can participate. Last November, the two governments launched a twin-track process toward those talks. We set our firm aim of commencing those talks, with all parties present, by the end of next month.

In the first track, preparatory political discussions, the two governments have been meeting all the political parties and various ideas have been discussed in that context, including the possibility of an election within Northern Ireland. At this stage, however, these are no more than ideas because the political track of discussion is not yet completed; indeed, it has almost a month more to run.

In the second track, the governments have established an international body, chaired by Senator Mitchell and with a distinguished former Finnish Prime Minister as a member, to make an independent assessment of the decommissioning of paramilitary arms. There are large arsenals of arms that were previously used by various paramilitary organisations in Northern Ireland. The continued existence of those arms is a source of mistrust and prevents the conditions for dialogue from being as good as they should be.

Yesterday, this body published its report. The Irish Government warmly welcomes that report, which, we believe, gives everyone a basis now on which to move forward, without loss of principle and on the basis of reasonable compromises. That basis is set out in the report, which deals with the issue of what to do with the arms which are a residue of the past.

That report presents a challenge to all the parties that were previously associated with paramilitary violence. It presents a challenge to change and to accept certain principles. It also presents a challenge to parties that, because of past hurts and the memories of the terrible violence that was done by the paramilitaries against their community, cannot bring themselves so far to sit in the same room with people who use violence against their community. The report presents a challenge to them too. We must recognise that if there is to be political progress in resolving the conflict, we will only make it if we are willing to sit in the same room with people who have deeply hurt us in the past. If we attempt to make peace only with our friends, we will never make peace. As Yitzak Rabin pointed out, one makes peace with one’s enemies, not with one’s friends.

The international body set out a strikingly clear set of principles, which are designed to enable all those who accept them to sit down together. It may be helpful to the Council of Europe if I were to list the principles on which talks can take place in Northern Ireland. They include total and absolute commitment to exclusively democratic and peaceful means of resolving political issues – that excludes violence absolutely; total disarmament of all paramilitary organisations; agreement that that disarmament must be independently verifiable; renunciation of all use of force, and opposition to the use of force by others, and renunciation of the threat of the use of force to influence the course of negotiations; and agreement to abide by the terms of any accord reached in negotiations, and to resort only to democratic and peaceful methods of trying to alter an outcome of negotiations; and, finally, the parties are urged that so-called punishment killings and beatings, which have continued to take place, must stop. The parties must take any effective steps open to them to stop such actions.

I believe that the unequivocal acceptance of those six principles by all of the organisations previously associated with violence, and by all the political parties that support them, would create the trust that we need to get everybody into the same room and talking together.

Any device however, despite how well crafted or logical it is – one must be aware of excessive logic in certain circumstances such as these – which attracts just one set of parties into the discussions and leaves the others, for whatever reason, outside, will not work. Unless something works, it is not much use. In that, I compliment the pragmatism that has been characteristic of the politics of my nearest neighbour. Unless something works, it is not much use – that must be applied to any new proposal introduced at this stage. If it works, fine; if it does not, let us find a different way. The truth is that both sides must be present at the talks. Both sides must be present if there is to be a partnership for peace.

I have said that accepting the six principles is a challenge to those parties associated with paramilitaries, especially to Sinn Féin. But there is an equally straightforward challenge to the Unionists, those in Northern Ireland – the majority – who support continued union with Britain. Why not sit down and talk with Sinn Féin? After sixteen months without violence, surely Unionists have become confident enough to take the risk of talking to Sinn Féin. I am reminded again of the words of Yitzak Rabin, and as Shimon Peres said to me, when he set out to negotiate with the Syrians and the Palestinians, his first objective was not to solve problem A, problem B, or problem C, but to establish that across the table there was somebody who could become his partner in peace. Unless we get people into one room who are willing to talk or to start to talk, we will never establish partnership.

I say to Unionists, “You don’t have to agree before you start talking with Sinn Féin. But you can start now, even without any agreed government format, on your own initiative.” The two governments want to create a supportive three-stranded structure for talks, but even before that structure is agreed, all parties have a right of their own accord, indeed an obligation, to talk to one another. That applies to Unionists talking to Sinn Féin.

Each party also has a right not to be put in a corner, a right not to be set some impossible political test that the people who are setting it know cannot be passed. Concomitant with that, each party has a responsibility to take the ideas put forward by others, whether traditional antagonists or not, and try to find good in them rather than reject them in an automatic way.

Momentum is vital in any negotiation. If momentum is maintained, the insoluble becomes soluble. If momentum is lost, minor issues can be elevated into road blocks, and issues of principle. The Irish and British Governments agreed to maintain rapid momentum in the Irish peace process when we set ourselves the ambitious but firm aim of starting all party negotiations by the end of next month.

New ideas can be considered within that time frame that we have set together as two governments, but they must not be used to divert or delay us from our shared, agreed objective. The absence of structured dialogue leaves fertile ground for the prophets of war. Talking cannot hurt, it can only help. The Irish and British Governments have been intensifying their work in the political track to bring that about.

We can draw from the ideas of the Council of Europe with regard to human rights to help us in that task. For example, we can consider the adoption of a charter or covenant of rights for individuals and for communities in Northern Ireland. That is one of the ideas that can be discussed in the political track. The Irish and British Governments – certainly the Irish Government – are anxious to ensure that any future bill of rights will help in Northern Ireland. The Irish Government believe that a bill of rights must include communal rights as well as individual rights. We recognise that the Council of Europe is in the lead in the development of jurisprudence with regard to communal rights.

Above all, we must recognise that no matter how well formulated individual legal instruments may be, unless there is an atmosphere of trust, confidence and above all tolerance, they will not work. They can work only when people are talking to one another in the same room, the same assembly, the same organisation, the same place.

Those exact same considerations of getting people in, rather than leaving them out, apply in the Assembly’s decision today on Russia’s membership application. If Russia is within the Council of Europe, all problems, including human rights problems, can be talked through. If Russia is left outside the Council, momentum in the painful and necessarily gradual task of extending western-style European constitutional order in Russia will be lost. Which country, which of the older democracies, in this Assembly can say that they became democracies overnight? In many cases, becoming a true democracy took a century of constitutional development. Let us not set for others tests that we did not pass ourselves.

I should like to say a few words about the role of Ireland in the European Union. Ireland faces big challenges as it takes over the presidency of the European Union from Italy in the second half of this year. The intergovernmental conference and the issues of the European monetary system and enlargement must be tackled and are of great importance to members of all countries present.

We want to make a success of the job, but in order to do so, we must be willing and able to show that the European Union responds to the problems of its citizens; that it is not some abstract, bureaucratic exercise, which uses language that citizens do not understand, and uses initials the meaning of which is only grasped by senior officials and politicians, and which discusses debates at a rarefied level that citizens feel cannot possibly ever relate to them. We must address the citizens’ concerns directly.

Citizens have two great concerns, namely, lack of employment and the level of crime. The European Union must show that it is willing and able to help member states tackle unemployment. That should extend to the membership of the Council of Europe as well. Unemployment in one country creates social tensions in neighbouring countries as well. I hope that, together with the European Union and the wider Council of Europe, we shall demonstrate to the citizens of Europe that we are able to deal with the unemployment problem.

Even more directly, the Council of Europe must address the other issue of great concern to citizens generally, which is the level of crime related directly to the abuse of drugs. Drugs cause crime. About 80% of the male prisoners in the prison system in Ireland are former or present drug abusers. About 80% of them are people who were previously long-term unemployed. There is a direct link between the level of unemployment, the level of drug abuse and the level of crime. They are a unitary state of problems. They are not discrete and different problems.

In the legal norms that it adopts to deal with the problems of organised crime and the laundering of money that goes with it, and in the health recommendations that it makes with a view to reducing demand for hard drugs, the Council of Europe can make a major contribution.

We believe that the European Union needs the contribution and the help of the Council in dealing with the problems of crime, drugs and the related issue of long-term unemployment. That is the only way that we can show that European institutions are able to respond directly to the real concerns of our citizens about unemployment, crime and potential drug abuse, if not by themselves by their children.

I hope that my few words have demonstrated the commitment of my government to the European ideal. We recognise that the Council of Europe is an extremely important partner in the creation of that European ideal. I hope that during Ireland’s presidency of the European Union we shall be able to make a special effort to have close co-operation between the European Union and its elder brother, the Council of Europe.


Thank you very much, Mr Bruton, for your most interesting statement. Members of the Assembly have expressed a wish to put questions to you. The first question comes from Mr Mitchell of Ireland.

Mr MITCHELL (Ireland)

Thank you very much, Taoiseach, for your enlightening remarks, especially in relation to Northern Ireland. I want to ask you a question about a different subject, especially in the context of the forthcoming intergovernmental conference of the European Union, which will be conducted under the presidency of Ireland.

Do you see any possibility or likelihood that the timetable in the Maastricht Treaty for European monetary union might be changed when the forthcoming intergovernmental conference takes place?

Mr Bruton, Prime Minister of Ireland

Legally, that would be difficult to do without treaty changes. There is, however, a political reality. That is that we need a large enough number of member states taking part in the European Monetary Union to make the currency viable. Major efforts are being made by almost all the countries involved to meet the criteria. At this stage, certainly, there should be no contemplation of postponement.


As we are already behind time, I do not propose to allow supplementary questions. The second question will be asked by Mr Gross from Switzerland. You have thirty seconds, Mr Gross.

Mr GROSS (Switzerland) (translation)

As a European, I should particularly like to congratulate you on the contribution you have made to the peace process in Ireland and Northern Ireland. As a Swiss man, I should also like to ask you how you rate the importance of the smaller European countries, given that the procedures in the Council of Ministers are being changed in a way that reduces the institutional power of small states, and given that – from Ireland’s point of view too – the interests of those states must nonetheless be protected.

As Prime Minister of Ireland, what contribution do you see yourself making to the forthcoming intergovernmental conference?

Mr Bruton, Prime Minister of Ireland

The Council of Ministers’ provisions provide for majority voting and for small or large countries to be outvoted from time to time. In practice, however, the working arrangement for 95% of the time is one of seeking unanimity following from consensus.

I do not think that small countries have anything to fear as members of the European Union. Indeed, we have disproportionate strength in some respects. No matter how small a country is, it has a European Commissioner. There will and cannot be any change to that arrangement. Small countries have disproportionate representation in the European Parliament and in voting strength in the Council of Ministers. It is fair to say that, quite rightly because of their valued contribution, small countries enjoy disproportionate strength within the European Union.

Mrs MACHAIRA (Greece)

You have referred to the role that small countries have to play. What do you say about small states that occupy geographic positions on the periphery of Europe? How do you perceive the role of such states? What adjustments should they make in their internal structures to face the new reality? What contribution can the Council of Europe make in that regard?

Mr Bruton, Prime Minister of Ireland

It is difficult to answer that question because each small state on the periphery of Europe is different. It is important, however, to modernise one’s economy, to invest in technology and to recognise that most modern industrial technologies do not favour countries in the centre. Information technology and biotechnology, for example, can be developed on the periphery just as easily as they can in the big central states. Countries such as Greece and Ireland suffer less now from being on the periphery than they might have done twenty years ago.

Mr CUNLIFFE (United Kingdom)

First and foremost, Prime Minister, do you believe that the present deadlock in the peace talks was brought about by a less than honest approach by the British Government that perhaps should have been adopted as a precondition to the talks starting – namely, a demand that all arms should be handed in on the cessation of hostilities? Does the British Government’s approach not give one party involved the belief and the ground for advancement of the argument that it was misled and cheated to some degree by the British Government’s failure to be forthright about making such a statement?

Mr Bruton, Prime Minister of Ireland

With the Irish situation, both communities have no shortage of evidence of past grievances that they can use to justify not meeting the requirements of the other side. The international body on the decommissioning of arms said that, first, past prejudices should be decommissioned along with rigid mind sets. That is what is really important.

I shall not get into what might or might not have been said when I was not Prime Minister. At present, we must recognise that the Unionist community, in reality, fears the continued existence of arms in the hands of the IRA, just as the nationalist community continues to fear the existence of arms in the hands of loyalist paramilitaries. Those fears are real. Whether the British or the Irish Governments were to raise the issue, the fears exist among the people in Northern Ireland. But fear should not justify refusing to talk to people. I believe that we shall reduce the issue to its true proportion – it is important that this should not prevent progress – only when we get people together in one room and start building the trust and confidence in one another as we, as members of this body, do. That is why the Irish Government, while not minimising the extent of the differences that exist, is putting such an emphasis on getting people together in talks at the end of next month.

Mr PAVLIDIS (Greece)

The Prime Minister’s speech was so informative, especially on the well-known problems of Ireland, that he has already answered my question.


That is good. We now have a spontaneous question from Mr Banks.

Mr BANKS (United Kingdom)

May I ask the Taoiseach how much consultation took place between London and Dublin over the proposal for a new Northern Ireland elected body, as made by John Major in the British Parliament yesterday? What is the Taoiseach’s initial reaction to the proposal?

Mr Bruton, Prime Minister of Ireland

It has been known to us for some time that the British Government has been listening favourably to ideas of this kind. The British and Irish Governments agreed that the idea of an elected body possibly playing a useful role could be considered in the political track of discussions but, according to the timetable agreed between the Prime Minister and myself, that political track of discussions has four weeks more yet to run. It is therefore far too early to make any definitive proposals.

It is also very clear that any proposal of this nature, if it is to work, must have acceptance from both communities. No matter how logical the proposal may be, if one side is not willing to work with it, it will not work as a method of reconciliation. The two governments agreed that we would set in train this political track of discussions, which still has four weeks to run, urge everyone to talk about these possibilities in that context and try to reach agreement on a method – whether it involved an election or not – to enable us to get all-party negotiations started by the end of February.

It is very important that there is no slippage in that timetable. Any slippage, or the introduction of a proposal that could be interpreted as assisting towards a slippage, will create distrust – perhaps unjustifiable distrust, but distrust just the same.

As I said in my address, I believe that, in a negotiation, momentum is almost as important as content.

If one is moving forward on a variety of issues, and if one has new hurdles to cross all the time towards I which one is moving, it creates a sense of trust that things are happening. If, on the other hand, there is nothing happening and there is only abstract discussion about the logical merits of one proposal against another, momentum will be lost and distrust will grow.

As for consultation between the Irish and British Governments about what was said in the House of Commons yesterday, we were aware in general terms that the Prime Minister might say something about the matter, but there was no consultation about the content of his speech. It was his own speech, and we received a copy of it just before he stood up. That is the situation.


That brings to an end the questions to Mr Bruton. I thank him most warmly on behalf of the Assembly for his statement and for the remarks he has made in the course of questions.