“549 days since the agreed institutions for governing Northern Ireland were collapsed…”

Another interesting speech from Micheál Martin in one of the Dail’s periodic Statements on Northern Ireland debates…

No one can doubt the immense progress which has been in Northern Ireland because of the victory of democratic politics and the new beginning offered by the inclusive and brave agreement reached twenty years ago.

The problems which confront Northern Ireland and this island as a whole today are nowhere near those experienced at the height of the violence and sectarianism of the previous decades.

We should acknowledge the tremendous steps which have been taken to try and overcome entrenched sectarianism and the spiral of conflict which it fed.

On the 12th of July we should also note the importance of this day to much of the unionist community and the value which they place on it.

It is fitting that our presidents have for some years made sure that they have used their office to show the respect which is owed to this distinctly Irish tradition and the enormous good faith which has been shown by many of its leaders in helping that tradition to evolve.

This was once a day on which Catholic communities lived in real fear and it defined aggressive sectarianism.  This has overwhelmingly changed, but unfortunately not completely and recent days have again shown how a small minority can terrorise communities.

Building dangerous bonfires in built-up areas, attacking workers, burning flags and political posters, and abusive sloganeering has nothing to do with celebration of a culture; it is nothing less than sectarian thuggery

The apparent activity of the East Belfast UVF is a huge concern – as is the activity of dissidents in Derry, where the attempted murder of a police officer, the throwing of 20 petrol bombs and the attacks on the small protestant community in the Fountain area of the city show a deliberate escalation of sectarian violence.

Fianna Fáil strongly welcomes and supports the joint statement signed by six Assembly parties yesterday condemning the violence of recent days and the call for full cooperation with the police.

It showed that there is cross-community opposition to the tiny minority which is trying to destabilise Northern Ireland and undermine progress.

I hope that those parties, and particularly the largest two parties, understand the obvious fact that these worrying developments are being enabled by the ongoing political vacuum in Northern Ireland.

It is today 549 days since the agreed institutions for governing Northern Ireland in an inclusive way were collapsed.  During this time there has been no voice for the people of Northern Ireland in their mounting health crisis, in their rising homelessness, in the tackling of sectarianism and, of course, in the debate on Brexit.

Leaving a community without a voice at a time of great uncertainty and historic challenges is dangerous in any circumstance – and it is potentially destructive in a community with Northern Ireland’s history.

In two weeks’ time the two governments will finally hold a British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.  While the significance of the Intergovernmental Conference has occasionally been exaggerated it remains the only route available to the governments to be true to the expressed will of the people in supporting the Good Friday Agreement.

We welcome the holding of the Conference but we are highly disappointed that neither the Prime Minister nor Taoiseach will attend given the scale and importance of the issues at hand.

It is a disgrace that it took so long for the Conference to be called and this delay has simply confirmed that no matter how often the key players talk, they have so far failed to find a way of moving ahead in a coordinated or urgent manner.

The first priority at this moment should remain the restoration of the institutions.  The current blockage is the exact mirror image of the difficulties over the welfare negotiations a few years ago.  This even goes as far as each of the parties claiming the other backed out of a deal – and each party claiming that the other is 100% to blame for everything.

The calling of the Conference should not be a replacement for trying to return to meaningful negotiations including the direct and active involvement of the leaders of government.

While the calling of the Conference is welcome it is extremely disappointing how limited the agenda is. In particular, there appears on the face of it to be an entirely unacceptable attempt to keep Brexit-related issues off the agenda.

The Conference is entitled to discuss all non-devolved issues.  This includes the overall operation of the devolution settlement – which is on the agenda.

However given the number of areas where the British government has recently denied the role of devolved administrations the list of areas which can and should be discussed is dramatically longer than the last time the Conference met in 2007.

The British government should be confronted with the fact that it recently passed legislation and fought a Supreme Court case based on the principle that the devolved administrations did not control a vast range of policy areas. 

In fact, they have gone as far as to assert that the Sewell Convention on the devolution of powers is voluntary and potentially all powers are held by Westminster. 

They cannot make this naked power-grab and then claim that these issues are outside of the competence of the Intergovernmental Conference.

This is, of course, crucial to the basic position of Northern Ireland in relation to the European Union. Under the EU Withdrawal Act passed in London, all competencies currently held by the EU will automatically be held by London until some later point where they may be devolved.

The government should also remember that the British Government accepted in its pleading in the Agnew High Court case that cooperation on EU matters and the role of the EU is assumed in the Good Friday Agreement.

As such, Ireland should simply insist that practical matters relating to Brexit and Northern Ireland be included in the discussions and the requirement on the British government to be open in sharing information.

Businesses and communities in Northern Ireland have been abandoned by a political class which has either opted out of institutions which might give them a voice on Brexit or is involved in trying to subvert the will of the majority which voted for Remain.

We are calling on the Tánaiste to use this meeting to push for the publication of whatever material has been prepared in London and Belfast concerning the implications of different options for Northern Ireland and details of what contingency planning is underway.

While matters of education and health do fall within the remit of devolved authority, intentions about how to proceed with urgently needed action fall within the realm of the overall operation of the Agreement.

Therefore we believe that our government should push for an unambiguous commitment for the British government to publish a statement of its plans and budgets for schools and hospitals.  Northern Ireland’s schools and hospitals are being squeezed relentlessly and the vital services which they provide for communities are being undermined.

Some clarity for at least the near future is needed and it is needed now.

The holding of the IGC is unfortunately necessary because of a lack of political leadership and bravery in more than one party.  It is unlikely to mark a major breakthrough, but it will hopefully lead to some progress.

After 549 days where there has been a sense of drift and a failure to turn contact into action, a return of a sense of hope that some progress is possible would be a major achievement.