[Documents/Docheader.htm]

The Council of Europe and the conflict in Northern Ireland

Doc. 10245
2 July 2004

Report
Political Affairs Committee
Rapporteur: Mr Miroslav Ouzký, Czech Republic, European Democrat Group

For debate in the Standing Committee — see Rule 15 of the Rules of Procedure


Summary

The Belfast/Good Friday Agreement concluded by the Governments of the United Kingdom and Ireland in April 1998 provided an appropriate institutional framework for the peace process in Northern Ireland and raised great hopes, both in the two countries concerned and at international level, that a fair and lasting settlement of the conflict in Northern Ireland might be reached.

Although the situation in Northern Ireland has clearly improved, many difficulties have been experienced in implementing the Agreement and it has not produced all the desired results. The peace process has reached a difficult stage and risks losing the wide public support it previously enjoyed.

The draft resolution suggests ways in which the Council of Europe and its Parliamentary Assembly, in consultation with the British and Irish authorities, may help advance the peace process in Northern Ireland.

I.          Draft resolution [Link to the adopted text]

1.         The Parliamentary Assembly refers to its Resolution 1163 (1998) on the Agreement on Northern Ireland. This Agreement, known as the Belfast Agreement or the Good Friday Agreement, concluded by the Governments of the United Kingdom and Ireland on 10 April 1998 following multi-party negotiations, raised great hopes, both in the two countries concerned and at international level, that a fair and lasting settlement of the conflict in Northern Ireland might be reached.

2.         The representative institutions, co-operation arrangements and the legislative reforms put in place by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement provided an appropriate institutional framework for pursuing the peace process in Northern Ireland, promoting co-operation between the North and the South of Ireland and between the United Kingdom and Ireland and strengthening human rights protection.

3.         However, many difficulties have been experienced in implementing the Agreement and it has not produced all the desired results. The main democratic institutions in Northern Ireland – the Assembly and the Executive – have been suspended since October 2002 and the province is under the direct administration of the British Government. As a result, the peace process has reached a difficult stage and risks losing the wide public support it previously enjoyed.

4.         The situation in Northern Ireland has clearly improved as compared to that which prevailed at the time of negotiation of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.  The period of violent conflict is at an end and, although terrorist attacks and paramilitary activities have not completely ceased, their scale has been considerably reduced and a return to widespread violence seems unlikely.

5.         Nevertheless, this progress contrasts with the difficult and sensitive situation which persists on the political scene.  The problem of the disarming of the paramilitary groups has not yet been resolved.  Furthermore, society in Northern Ireland remains deeply divided along community lines. Mutual distrust and fear persist.  The end of the conflict has not yet turned into a true peace.

6.         Perpetuating the current situation and allowing hopes for peace to be dashed would be unforgivable. It is of paramount importance, not only for the future of the people of Northern Ireland but for the whole of Europe, that fresh impetus be given to the peace process set in motion by the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement.

7.         The Council of Europe and its Assembly, in consultation with the British and Irish authorities, have a moral obligation to do everything in their power to help advance the peace process in Northern Ireland.

8.         The Assembly therefore resolves to:

i.          study, in close co-operation with the British and Irish authorities and all the parties concerned, the reasons why the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement has not produced the desired results;

ii.         consider, also in consultation with the British and Irish authorities, what contribution it can make:

a.         to the resumption of political dialogue between the Northern Ireland political parties to help give fresh impetus to the peace process within the framework of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement;

b.         to promoting respect for human rights in the society of Northern Ireland and to strengthening the relevant institutions;

c.         to promoting education aimed at reconciliation, respect for differences and a shared future;

iii.         consider how both the positive and the negative lessons learned from the implementation of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement might be used to help settle other conflicts in Europe.

9.         The Assembly also calls on:

i.          the political forces in Northern Ireland to:

a.         honour all the commitments entered into during the negotiations which led to the  conclusion of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement;

b.         engage in a political dialogue which would achieve a breakthrough in the implementation of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement and revive the peace process in Northern Ireland;

ii.         the British Government to:

a.         make the democratic institutions of Northern Ireland fully operational again, as soon as conditions allow;

b.         make full use of the Council of Europe expertise and experience to strengthen the machinery for human rights protection and rebuild confidence between the communities in  Northern Ireland;

iii.         the British and Irish Governments to make full use of the Council of Europe’s machinery and instruments, in particular those concerning cross-border co-operation and the protection of minorities, to foster exchanges between both parts of the island of Ireland.

10.       Finally, the Assembly invites the Secretary General of the Council of Europe to:

i.          continue to offer the British and Irish authorities the benefit of the Council of Europe’s experience and expertise as regards implementation of the provisions of the Belfast/Good Friday Agreement relating to human rights protection and the reform of policing and justice in Northern Ireland;

ii.         consider how the Council of Europe’s activity programmes, in particular in the fields of culture and education, might help to rebuild confidence between the communities of Northern Ireland.

II.         Explanatory memorandum

1.         On 24 September 2001, Mr Jurgens and others tabled a motion for a recommendation entitled Presence of the Council of Europe in Northern Ireland (Doc. 9202 rev.), which proposed that the Committee of Ministers “institute a presence of the Council of Europe in Northern Ireland dedicated to finding a way to end the climate of hate and intolerance between the groups concerned”.

2.         I was appointed Rapporteur in January 2003. As from the Assembly’s April 2003 session I began establishing contacts with the co-signatories of the above-mentioned motion for a recommendation and with members of the United Kingdom and Irish Republic delegations, in order to discuss the need for such a presence and how the Council of Europe might contribute to the peace process in Northern Ireland.

3.         On 10 June 2003 the committee authorised me to undertake fact-finding visits to London and Belfast, as well as to Dublin, to hold direct talks with representatives of the authorities of both states and the different political forces involved. However, for various reasons beyond my control, I was unable to undertake this visit until the second half of April 2004.

4.         On 20 - 22 April 2004 I visited London and Belfast and had talks with members of the United Kingdom delegation to the Assembly, representatives of the main political parties in Northern Ireland and representatives of certain Northern Irish institutions and NGOs. Regrettably, my planned meetings at the Northern Ireland Office (NIO), the UK government body responsible for handling problems relating to Northern Ireland, did not take place owing to the intergovernmental conference between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland.

5.         On 15 and 16 June 2004, I visited Dublin and had talks with our Irish MP colleagues and certain other political personalities. I also had the opportunity to cross the border between South and North and travel to Newry and Armagh, where I met the two Joint Secretaries to the North-South Ministerial Council, and representatives of political and business circles working in favour of peace and co-operation.

6.         As your Rapporteur, I have endeavoured, during the visit and through my contacts in Strasbourg, Paris and elsewhere, to answer the main question raised by the motion for a recommendation, namely:

7.         Is it appropriate to recommend that the Committee of Ministers institute a permanent presence, in the form of a Council of Europe office in Northern Ireland? In other words, is such a presence necessary to put an end to the conflict in Northern Ireland once and for all?

8.         None of the persons I have spoken with have been in favour of establishing such an office.

9.         That ties in with my personal conclusion: I feel that it is unnecessary at the present time to set up a Council of Europe office in Northern Ireland. It would have been justified if there were a political and institutional vacuum in this region, if there was no political plan for peace and no framework for dialogue, reconciliation and co-operation, and if there was no international presence.

10.       It is not my role as your Rapporteur on a specific subject to retrace the history of the conflict in Northern Ireland. For this I refer you to the excellent report presented to the Assembly by our former colleague Mr Mota Amaral in June 1998 (Doc. 8134).

11.       It should be recalled that the current situation in Northern Ireland and the relations between the United Kingdom and the Republic of Ireland on the Northern Ireland question are the result of the 1998 Belfast Agreement (also known as the Good Friday Agreement). The Assembly welcomed this agreement in its Resolution 1163 (1998).

12.       Although the tensions and divisions have not yet been finally erased, the agreement put in place the political and institutional framework for a lasting peaceful settlement of the conflict in Northern Ireland, with due regard for human rights. Mr Mota Amaral’s report, mentioned above, provides detailed information about the machinery set up by the Agreement.

13.       Admittedly, the peace process set in motion by the Belfast Agreement has not yet produced all the desired results and is currently deadlocked. Some of the institutions established by the agreement, namely the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive, are still suspended.

14.       All the people I have spoken with agree that the situation in Northern Ireland has clearly improved since the negotiation of the Belfast Agreement. There is no longer a state of war, and although terrorist attacks and paramilitary activities have not completely ceased, they have been considerably scaled down and a return to violence on a large scale seems unlikely.

15.       Thanks to the efforts of the United Kingdom and Irish Governments on the transfrontier and bilateral aspects of the Agreement, and with the help of the North-South institutions set up for the purpose, economic development in the region and trade between the North and the South of Ireland have progressed. Life seems to be returning to normal.

16.       However, this apparent normalisation contrasts with the continuing deadlock at the political level. The problem of disarming the paramilitary groups has yet to be resolved. Furthermore, society remains deeply divided along community lines in Northern Ireland. Mutual distrust and fear persist. The end of the war has not yet turned into true peace.

17.       I believe that the peace process launched by the Belfast Agreement must be given a fresh impetus, with certain readjustments if necessary, and the institutions established by it must be made operational again (e.g. the Assembly) and strengthened. All the people I have spoken with, including representatives of the main political parties in Northern Ireland, are in favour of this.

18.       However, I have good reason to doubt - and these doubts have been confirmed in the talks I have held - that the permanent posting of a few Council of Europe officials in Belfast can provide a miracle solution to the deadlock, or, a fortiori, take the place of those institutions.

19.       On the other hand, I am convinced that, even without this permanent presence, the Council of Europe and its Assembly can and must contribute to the continuation of the peace process in Northern Ireland.

20.       Given that this does not come fully within the scope of the motion, I shall confine myself to putting forward a few preliminary ideas regarding this contribution.

i.          make a careful analysis of the reasons why the Belfast Agreement has not produced the hoped-for results. Although I was able to obtain a number of opinions on this subject in the course of my meetings, a more detailed and fine-tuned analysis and, especially, a clearly defined mandate are necessary to answer this question, which is extremely sensitive for all the parties involved. Hasty conclusions would serve only to impede the rebuilding of trust, as would over-simplification of the nature of the conflict, reducing it to a clash between Catholics and Protestants. A fresh motion for a resolution seems desirable for this purpose, and I am prepared to table one;

ii.         encourage a resumption of political dialogue between the political parties of Northern Ireland, and set that dialogue in a broader context. By way of an example, I would suggest organising, within the framework of a meeting of the Political Affairs Committee, a colloquy or round table on the settlement of conflicts in Europe, attended by representatives of the political parties of Northern Ireland and by political leaders involved in the settlement of other conflicts;

iii.         focus attention on the question of respect for human rights, which is essential to rebuild trust between the communities and dispel fears. The Assembly, via the Committee on Legal Affairs and Human Rights, and the Secretary General of the Council of Europe could contribute towards strengthening the Human Rights Commission which was set up in Northern Ireland following the Belfast Agreement, but which is experiencing difficulty in becoming fully operational. A contribution could also be made to the debate on the drafting of a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland. Other activities in this area could focus on human rights information and education, reform of the police in Northern Ireland and dialogue with civil society and NGOs;

iv.         promote education oriented towards reconciliation, respect for differences and a shared future. The Council of Europe has invaluable experience in this field and should put it into practice so that the new generations in Northern Ireland, whichever community they belong to, can be brought up to live together.


Reporting Committee: Political Affairs Committee.

Reference to Committee: Reference 2653 of 28.09.2001

Draft Resolution unanimously adopted by the Committee on 21 June 2004

Members of the Committee : MM. Jakic (Chairperson), Margelov (Vice-Chairperson), Ms Spindelegger (Vice-Chairperson), Ate (Vice-Chairperson), Ms Aguiar, Akhvlediani, de Aristegui, Arzilli, AtkinsonAzzolini, Banáš, Berceanu, Bianco (alternate: Provera), Blankenborg, Van den Brande, Cekuolis, Davern (alternate: O’Keeffe), Dreyfus-Schmidt, Ms Druviete (alternate: Kast), Mr Duivesteijn, Ms Durrieu, MM. Elo, Glesener, Goulet, Gross, Hedrich, Henry, Hörster, Iwinski, Jahic, Jovaševic, Judd, Kalezic, Karpov, Klich, Koçi, Kosachev (alternate: Kolesnikov), Kostenko, Lindblad, van der Linden, Lloyd, Loutfi, Magnusson, Martínez-Casań (alternate: Puche), Marty (alternate: Reimann), Matušic, Medeiros Ferreira, Meimarakis (alternate: Papadimitriou), Mercan,  Mignon, Mihkelson, Mme Narochnitskaya, Ms Nemcova, MM. Nemeth, Oliynyk, Ouzký, Pangalos, Ms Petrova-Mitevska, Ms Pétursdóttir,  Ms Pintat Rossell, MM. Pourgourides, Prentice, Prijmireanu, Prisacaru, de Puig, Pullicino Orlando, Ranieri (alternate: de Zulueta), Roth, Severin, Ms Severinsen, MM.  Seyidov, Slutsky, Tabajdi, Tekelioglu, Torosyan, Toshev, Ms Tritz, MM. Vakilov (alternate: Mollazade), Wielowieyski, Ms Wohlwend (alternate: Brunhart), Ms Wurm, M. Zacchera.

Ex-officio: MM. Davis, Eörsi, Einarsson, Russell-Johnston

N.B. : The names of the members who took part in the meeting are printed in bold

Head of the Secretariat : Mr Perin

Secretaries to the Committee: Mrs Ruotanen, Mr Chevtchenko, Mr Dossow