03 August 2005

SF Hail Dail Speaking Rights Plan

Derry Journal

Tuesday 2nd August 2005

Irish government moves to allow Northern Ireland MPs and MEPs to debate in Dail Eireann would be a welcome recognition of the rights of Irish citizens north of the border, Sinn Fein has said. Foyle MLA Mitchel McLaughlin welcomed reports that Taoiseach Bertie Ahern's government will embark on plans in the autumn to allow 18 MPs and three MEPs from Northern Ireland to take part in Dail debates on issues affecting their region.

Ulster Unionist leader Sir Reg Empey has reacted furiously to the proposal which, he claimed, was another concession to Sinn Fein in the wake of the IRA's announcement that it is abandoning its armed campaign. However, Mr. McLaughlin confirmed it was a demand his party's negotiators had pressed for.

"The Irish government have given commitments to facilitate this, as an expression of the right of northern nationalists, of Irish citizens, to participation in the political life of the nation. "I welcome any move by the Irish government to give effect to these commitments."

Mr. Ahern was warned yesterday that, in the event of devolution returning, Ulster Unionists would retaliate with their own sanctions if speaking rights were given in the Dublin Parliament to Northern Ireland MPs and MEPs. Former Stormont Economy Minister Reg Empey said the proposal was outside the terms of the Good Friday Agreement and was a breach of the principle that the consent of the majority of the people of Northern Ireland would be required before there is any change to the province's constitutional status.

"I believe this move is very dangerous because it would effectively be setting up an embryonic all-Ireland Parliament," the East Belfast Assembly member said. "When the idea was first mooted two years ago, the UUP opposed it. We told the two Governments then, and have repeatedly since, that if it is pursued by Dublin, we will no longer be obligated to our support for north-south institutions."

Sinn Fein would like to see its five MPs, including Gerry Adams and Martin McGuinness, and their Northern Ireland MEP Bairbre de Brun being given speaking rights. There have also been suggestions they could play a part in Dail committees. Mark Durkan's SDLP would also be expected to welcome the move and send its three MPs to the Dail.

Mr. Empey's threat against north-south bodies was reminiscent of Ulster Unionist sanctions during devolution aimed at Sinn Fein. During the last Assembly, his predecessor, David Trimble, refused to nominate Sinn Fein ministers for crossborder meetings with Irish government ministers because of the IRA's reluctance to disarm. Should devolution return and unionists refuse to attend or even recognise cross-border institutions, it would cause difficulties for a section of the Good Friday Agreement many nationalists hold dear. Sir Reg accused the rival DUP of failing to grasp the significance of the speaking rights move. "The DUP fell asleep at the wheel on this issue in negotiations last year," he said.

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