Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Wednesday, 12 December 2018
Joint Oireachtas Committee on Rural and Community Development
Effects of Brexit on Border Region: Discussion
I have received apologies from Deputy Fitzmaurice. At the outset I remind members, staff, witnesses and those in the Public Gallery to turn off their mobile phones. Mobile phones interfere with the sound system and make it difficult for the parliamentary reporters to report the meeting as well as affecting the television broadcast and web stream.
I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I advise that any submissions, opening statements or other documents supplied by the witnesses to the committee will be published on the committee website after the meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
The committee is meeting today to discuss the matter of supporting communities and sustaining small rural businesses within the Border region after Brexit. I welcome the following witnesses to the committee: from the Centre for Cross Border Studies, Dr. Anthony Soares, deputy director; from the East Border Region, Ms Pamela Arthurs, chief executive; from the Northern Ireland Local Government Association, NILGA, Councillor Seamus Doyle, a member of the NILGA executive, and Ms Lisa O'Kane, programme manager; from the Rural Community Network, Mr. Aidan Campbell, policy and public affairs; and from the Irish Central Border Area, Mr. Shane Campbell, chief executive. It is proposed that the opening statements and any other documents supplied by the witnesses to the committee be published on the committee website after the meeting. Is that agreed? Agreed.
This is an appropriate time to consider the risks to the Border region, particularly in terms of rural and community development. After the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union two and a half years ago, it is still not clear what Brexit actually means in practice. The withdrawal agreement and a political declaration may or may not be agreed by the United Kingdom Parliament. There are basic scenarios in relation to Brexit. There will be a soft Brexit with a withdrawal agreement and a transition period, there will be a hard Brexit without a withdrawal agreement, meaning that the UK would basically crash out of the EU, or there will be no Brexit at all. There is no good Brexit so we are trying to get the best possible outcome for all of this island and for the EU as a whole. An added difficulty is that there is no functioning Executive in Northern Ireland.
We should always remember that policies on one side of the Border can have serious effects on the other side of the Border. There have been successes, such as the PEACE IV programme, which funds actions that promote social and economic stability in Northern Ireland and the Border region of Ireland and is co-funded by the EU and the Irish and UK Governments. Some €240 million will be invested by the EU, Ireland and the UK over the programme period. When there is co-operation between both sides, both sides can benefit. A good example was rural transport with the joint control of the Great Northern Railway in the 1950s by both Governments North and South. Later in the 1960s, the Northern Ireland Government closed all cross-Border railways except the Dublin-Belfast line. Consequently, there are no railway lines in counties Donegal, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Cavan and Monaghan and there is no railway line anywhere between Derry and Mullingar.
The committee looks forward to enhanced co-operation at local and regional level. We are interested in hearing the views of representatives here today on how we can mitigate the risks to the Border region and how we can enhance rural and community development. The joint committee looks forward to the witnesses' contribution to policy formation in the area of rural and community development in the Border region. As the committee has agreed to publish the witnesses' opening statements, perhaps they can focus on the main points and speak for three to five minutes. I also suggest that members limit their questions to between three and five minutes. I call Dr. Soares, deputy director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies, to make his opening statement.
Dr. Anthony Soares:
On behalf of the Centre for Cross Border Studies, I thank the Chairman and members of this committee for the invitation to meet on the subject of supporting communities and sustaining small rural business within the Border region after Brexit. As the Chairman referred to, even as we rapidly approach the date on which the United Kingdom will officially leave the European Union, it is still unclear as to what the scale and nature of the impact will be on Border communities and businesses. What is at stake here is not only the economic future of communities and small rural businesses in the Border region but also, if not properly mitigated, is social cohesion within the Border region after Brexit.
Brexit will not alter the fact that the United Kingdom will remain a co-guarantor, along with Ireland, of the 1998 Good Friday Agreement. That means that, in terms of maintaining the conditions for North-South co-operation that will assist in supporting communities and small rural businesses in the Border region post Brexit, the UK Government must not shirk that responsibility to a non-operational Northern Ireland Assembly or Executive.
To support communities and small rural businesses in the Border region fully post Brexit, it is essential that EU funding for North-South and cross-Border co-operation is secured for the next programming period. However, we, the Centre for Cross Border Studies, are concerned that although the European Commission's fact sheet on the protocol on Ireland-Northern Ireland in the withdrawal agreement refers to the "continuation of PEACE and INTERREG for Northern Ireland and the border regions of Ireland beyond 2020 under a single programme PEACE PLUS", the political declaration on future UK-EU relations refers simply to the UK and EU's "shared commitment to delivering a future PEACE PLUS programme to sustain work on reconciliation and a shared future in Northern Ireland". There is no reference here to the Border counties of Ireland. Therefore, it is of paramount importance that legal guarantees are given that any future PEACE PLUS programme will encompass the Border counties of Ireland and will be a significant contribution, of at least 15% of any total budget, to cross-Border co-operation.
Given the potential of the current LEADER programme to support cross-Border co-operation activities in relation to rural development, it is also important that a similar support is provided in the post-Brexit context, either as part of any proposed PEACE PLUS programme or as a discrete programme supportive of rural development as one of the areas of North-South co-operation identified as part of the North-South co-operation mapping exercise.
Those are some of the headline issues in supporting communities and small rural businesses in the Border region following the UK's withdrawal from the European Union. Many imponderables still exist due to the unstable political landscape in Westminster, meaning that we cannot be sure of the kind of Brexit we will be left with, or whether we will have any Brexit at all. Whatever the case, I assure the committee that the Centre for Cross Border Studies will remain committed to supporting, promoting and advocating for cross-Border co-operation as part of the ongoing process of peace and reconciliation, and as a means of providing practical benefits to communities and businesses on both sides of the Border.
Ms Pamela Arthurs:
In the first instance, I again thank the Chairman and committee for inviting me here today to discuss the theme, supporting communities and sustaining small rural business within the Border region after Brexit. I am accompanied by the chairman of the East Border Region, EBR, Councillor Aidan Campbell, from Monaghan County Council, and the vice chairman, Alderman Arnold Hatch, from Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council.
Let me first briefly explain the organisation. The EBR, is a local authority led cross-Border organisation. It is one of the few genuinely cross-Border organisations on the island of Ireland, comprising three local authorities in Ireland, Louth, Monaghan and Meath county councils, and three in Northern Ireland, Newry, Mourne and Down District Council, Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council, and Ards and North Down Borough Council. The east coast area between Dublin and Belfast is covered by the cross-Border organisation. The mission statement is simple but comprehensive, namely, to promote cross-Border economic development which benefits the people of the region.
The EBR was formed in 1976. It is one of the oldest genuinely cross-Border organisations and it has always worked under the backdrop of the European Union. The initial impetus for co-operation came from locally elected politicians on both sides of the Border who realised that there would be mutual benefit to working together. That was the case in spite of the hostile political climate at the time. However, it was only since the introduction of the EU INTERREG programme in 1990 that the EBR made a difference in that it had money for cross-Border co-operation. With our colleague organisations, the EBR has drawn down millions of euro for a host of projects which have benefited communities and small rural businesses along the Border corridor. Let us be honest: the majority of the Border corridor is rural. I have a brochure which outlines the scope of the current work. The projects we are working on reach a total budget of €91 million. They are all genuine cross-Border projects funded through the INTERREG programme and working on both sides of the Border.
The Co-Innovate project is one example of a project funded by the INTERREG programme. InterTradeIreland leads the large strategic SME project which will complete in 2022. The aim of Co-Innovate is to assist 1,409 small businesses in the Border region and west coast of Scotland. We all know the Border region is dominated by small rural businesses, especially micro business, which have fewer than ten employees. They require assistance not only to create new jobs, which is important, but also to sustain existing jobs. There is no doubt the myriad EU-funded projects which have been drawn down have significantly contributed to the growth of Border business over the past 25 years, but there is still work to be done.
Brexit will be a game changer. What Brexit has done is to highlight many needs which exist in the Border area as well as causing problems in the future. Small rural businesses have already been affected, especially in Ireland. The drastic fall in sterling after the referendum and the ongoing uncertainty around Brexit, which has dominated our landscape since the vote in June 2016, is not good for business. Coupled with the lack of a Government in Northern Ireland, it is evident that Border businesses are suffering. While the Irish Government has put in place measures to support rural business, the same opportunities do not exist for businesses in Northern Ireland.
I will now focus on what has been the local authority response to Brexit. In particular, given the absence of a Government in Northern Ireland, local authorities along the Border felt it necessary to articulate and lobby for the needs of the 1 million constituents of the Border region. The report, Brexit and the Border Corridor on the island of Ireland: Risks, Opportunities and Issues to Consider, was commissioned by the 11 local authorities which make up the Border corridor. The East Border Region facilitated the report. Copies of the report can be made available to members of the committee. The report clearly identified that the economy of the Border region currently lags behind the economies of both Ireland and Northern Ireland. It also outlines that the Border will be most detrimentally affected as a result of Brexit, that regional disparities exist along the Border and that areas most reliant on agriculture will suffer most. Also of note is that some farmers in Northern Ireland who receive 87% single farm payment are currently better off due to the decline in sterling because they receive their money in euro. The question is where this money will come from in the future. Some of the groups represented here today responded to a consultation by Westminster on a future UK prosperity fund to compensate for the lack of EU funding. Despite our efforts, the report hardly recognised the need to fund any cross-Border activity.
Mr. Dan O'Brien, chief economist in the Institute of International and European Affairs, IIEA, stated at a Brexit event in Dublin on 4 December 2018 that "whilst employment growth over all in Ireland is good, employment in the border region has faltered" since June 2016. That is a reflection of the damage Brexit has already done. Business in the region is less confident and more reluctant to expand as the future is so uncertain. Current developments at Westminster have compounded the problem. One can ask what local authorities can do. Local authorities on both sides of the Border have a duty of care to the citizens of the Border region. Local elected members in Northern Ireland are the only political voice at present. Border local authorities want to work with both Governments to develop and propose creative solutions for Border management post Brexit. We want to be part of the solution, not the problem.
Local authorities have an excellent track record and have been working on a cross-Border basis for more than 40 years. It is a long time in one way but in another way it is not very long in terms of cross-Border co-operation. That is despite the political problems at a national level.
To assist rural communities and business it is essential to address the structural weaknesses in the Border region. Intervention clearly is needed now. The report, Brexit and the Border Corridor, highlighted that. There is a requirement for upgrading infrastructure, both transport and broadband, as this would assist connectivity in the region. We also need ongoing business support measures to assist business prepare for and deal with the impact. Again, the Government is doing a great deal of work with businesses in the South, but in the North there is not so much. However, InterTradeIreland is in Northern Ireland. We need to focus on relevant skills levels in the region as well.
A Brexit transition programme along the lines of the EU Territorial Co-operation programme, INTERREG, would assist the Border region to start to adapt to the challenges of Brexit. This needs to be broad-based as Brexit will impact on every sector.
In respect of the continuation of EU funding programmes to assist the communities, Northern Ireland is not at a stage where it can do without the intervention. We have progressed by a long way, but work still needs to be done.
Mitigating risks, taking opportunities, or both, will mean by necessity defending some of what is in place, for example, the funding streams, but it will also mean that some things will have to change. The Border corridor, with its peripheral position, already lags behind, and we need to break the past patterns. New policy, new thinking and new methods of co-operation and partnership between local authorities and central government will be important as we cannot do it on our own, and this will be essential for Border management in the wake of Brexit.
The success of any future regime for the management of the Border will be judged not only on how well it answers the political and economic dilemmas caused to the region by Brexit, but also how far it allows the current level of co-dependence across Border areas to continue. Any solution must be bottom up, that is, coming from the people, needs-based, and driven and delivered locally. I thank the members and witnesses for listening.
Mr. Seamus Doyle:
I am a member of NILGA and a member of Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council, and Banbridge Council before that. The Northern Ireland Local Government Association, NILGA, is the only functioning cross-party political body in Northern Ireland at present. Throughout the hiatus in regional government at Stormont, NILGA has sought to build consensus and represent all of Northern Ireland's main political parties at local government level in Westminster, Dublin and Brussels.
Northern Ireland's councils have built a strong track record in delivering economic growth and fostering peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland. The Border corridor in particular will be the region most affected by Brexit and its outworkings, and we are working intently to prepare our councils and to attempt to minimise any negative effects for local areas.
Brexit is a major concern for our councils. We are all too familiar with the risks we are facing, namely, the unbinding of our close ties with our neighbours on an economic and social level which will widen the gap between our communities and impinge on our way of life. Different rules and regulations are creating havoc for business, the environment and ordinary people which will create difficult conditions for our small businesses and tourists, resulting in a downturn in our economies. There will be pressure on our agriculture, health, manufacturing and hospitality sectors. In this difficult situation we find ourselves in, our communities and councils, however, will find ways to continue our strong tradition of co-operation. We are feeling optimistic about the future of cross-Border co-operation following recent meetings with the regional assemblies in Brussels and follow-up meetings at home, and we are planning future collaborative work together. This will include sharing information and tools to ensure local authorities North and South are prepared for Brexit. We are embedding entrepreneurialism in our local authorities and investigating joint opportunities for training and development. We are building regional relationships to improve cross-Border development and regeneration.
In economic policy terms, the emergence of city and growth deals can be a real game changer for Northern Ireland. NILGA's paper of May 2018 highlights the interconnectedness of our economies, in particular the links with the national development plan and the cross-Border linkages with the Derry and Newry areas. Indeed in the hinterland of the Derry city region, 40% of the population lives in Donegal. It goes without saying that investment in one jurisdiction will reap benefits for the entire region, whether that be investment in jobs, broadband, education or infrastructure. This is what we must focus on to ensure growth of the entire island.
I thank the committee for their attention, and my colleague, Ms Lisa O’Kane, will address any questions from the committee.
Mr. Aidan Campbell:
I thank the Chair and members for the invitation to meet them. The Rural Community Network is an NGO, a voluntary and community organisation with 250 member groups across Northern Ireland. Our main areas of interest are rural and community development.
In terms of the issues the committee is addressing today, many Border communities are on the periphery of both jurisdictions and citizens need to be better connected to opportunity, either locally or in major towns and cities. Many of these communities are still recovering from the legacy of the conflict. Broadband connectivity and a decent road network are a prerequisite to encourage young people to remain in, or return to, these rural communities. The closure of public services can lead to a vicious circle where young people and young families see no future in those communities, leading to further decline.
Government, North and South needs to put in place policies and programmes that sustain North-South networking and co-operation. Brexit and the absence of a functioning assembly and Executive risks regressing into back-to-back development, which will further marginalise Border communities.
The 2014-2020 Northern Ireland rural development programme is worth up to £623 million. Some £70 million in the current programme is allocated to the LEADER programme. The EU rural development programme has been a key policy driver as well as providing a ring-fenced funding pot that can only be spent on development of rural communities. As of now, it is unclear what replaces the rural development programme post Brexit.
The Good Friday Agreement identified the PEACE programme, INTERREG and LEADER II and their successor programmes as areas of potential North South co-operation. The UK-EU withdrawal agreement recognises the need to protect the 1998 agreement "in all its parts". It states that both Governments will honour their commitments to the PEACE and INTERREG funding programmes and that the possibilities for future support will be examined favourably. It is of concern to Rural Community Network and other rural stakeholders that specific reference to the LEADER programme was omitted from the withdrawal agreement.
The Department of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs, DAERA, has established a Brexit rural society working group which has produced an issues paper. In the view of RCN, however, Northern Ireland has barely started discussing what a future policy or programme for rural development post Brexit will look like. Our concern is that rural development is very far down the agenda among the myriad other issues affected by Brexit, and none of this is helped the absence of a functioning assembly.
In spite of the problems, there are opportunities. Agriculture and rural development are devolved matters and a functioning assembly could shape any future rural development policy to rural communities and reduce bureaucracy. The Northern Ireland Executive has committed significant matching funding from the Northern Ireland block grant in previous programme periods. It will not be beginning from a standing start, therefore, in funding a successor rural development programme. Any new programmes must complement the LEADER programme in the Border counties, both North and South, to enable learning, sharing and important co-operation projects to continue.
Mr. Shane Campbell:
I thank the committee for the opportunity to engage with it. I also thank Dr. Soares and the Centre for Cross Border Studies for facilitating the engagement.
The Irish Central Border Area Network, ICBAN, is another local authority led cross-Border partnership. We cover the area known as the central Border region and the eight council areas of Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon; Cavan; Donegal; Fermanagh and Omagh; Leitrim; Mid-Ulster; Monaghan; and Sligo. It is a predominantly rural area with few large settlements, and small businesses are the backbone of the economy. It is recognised that Brexit represents the greatest challenge to cross-Border co-operation since the Troubles. Joint studies between ICBAN and Queen's University have identified uncertainties already impacting on the lives of Border citizens and businesses and that the most important community consideration is protecting the hard-won peace.
No one knows what Brexit will bring, but on the understanding it will create change, I will make some comments on supporting and sustaining communities and small businesses in the area post Brexit. There is a continuing need to ensure free movement of people, goods and services. In the rural community context this includes ensuring access to health and education services. Brexit has challenged communication in the area. Therefore, it is vitally important to prioritise North-South and cross-Border co-operation regardless of Brexit outcomes and, in so doing, to help work against any drift to back-to-back development again. For example, in reference to the national development plan and the planning framework and in the absence of a regional development strategy review in Northern Ireland, cognisance should be taken of the fact that, through local development plans, Northern Ireland councils are reaching out to their neighbours.
Connectivity infrastructure is critical to enabling access to services. This includes both digital communications and roads-based transportation. Delivering on the national broadband plan ambitions is critical for rural Border communities. As active commentators on the subject, we encourage an alternative solution to be found if the national broadband plan cannot be advanced further to delivery in its current format.
Strategic road corridors are vital for transportation access and movement. It is vital and would be helpful if both Governments formally recommitted to the long-planned N2-A5 Dublin to Derry dual carriageway project. The importance of the A4-N16 Sligo to Ballygawley and Belfast route is important for east-west navigation and needs support from both Governments.
There are many successful examples where Government has helped to spur on a renewed regional economy. The central Border region would benefit from such bespoke intervention to complement local leadership and initiatives being taken there.
While national Government attention is focused on Brexit, the delivery of local services must continue to be a priority. Local authorities from both sides of the Border must be supported to engage through community planning with its focus on the economic and social elements of well-being.
Continued direct interventions into promoting co-operation are needed, through the delivery of PEACE, INTERREG and LEADER funds in arrangements between the UK and EU or, in the absence of these, ensuring they are directly replaced. These supports have been vital for communities and businesses of the region. They should include provision for the softer people-to-people and community-based initiatives, to help maintain good relations, alongside infrastructure supports. There should also be support for the revitalisation of Border towns and villages which have been in persistent decline.
Government, telecoms providers and the regulator must ensure that inadvertent roaming charges are not reintroduced, which would disenfranchise Border region communities as a consequence of the UK planning to leave the digital Single Market.
I mentioned earlier that the witnesses will give an information session in the audiovisual room at 11 o'clock, so it is our aim to get out of here before that point. I will call members in the order in which they indicated. I call Deputy Breathnach.
I thank the Chairman and members for their indulgence. I am not a member of the committee. Normally members of the committee speak first, but I have another meeting to attend at 10.30 a.m. I hope to meet the witnesses in the audiovisual room later.
I welcome the delegation. I pay tribute to local councillors right across the Border region, the management of local authorities and the managers of the programmes on their efforts. I smiled when Ms Arthurs referred to the INTERREG programme starting in 1990. I remember an MEP talking about it in the Leinster region in a very strange accent and we thought he was talking about Easter eggs. That was in the late 1980s when the programme was being introduced and we were made aware of the great benefits it would bring to the Border region. There is no doubt that the impact of the INTERREG and PEACE programmes, in addition to what local authorities have been doing, has been enormous.
The Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement has been looking at having the witnesses appear at the committee again to discuss this issue. It is clear everybody is making a concerted effort and has made sure the additional moneys available to the Border region are best spent. I am a former member of a Border region local authority and was a local public representative for 25 years. The additional funding in rural Border regions, particularly in my area of Louth, which I can speak for specifically - I am sure other members will speak for their own area - has been very beneficial to peace, prosperity and the sense of co-operation. Despite the fact that management was always engaging throughout the Troubles, too many people, including councillors, had their backs to each other. It has changed dramatically in my lifetime as a result of EU intervention and the PEACE programme moneys. We are in a huge vacuum at present.
I am coming to my question. In the context of Brexit, what can be done collectively in terms of the duty of care, the bottom-up approach and new policies from Government to ensure that, in a more extreme situation than we have ever found ourselves in, there is a specific programme? Dr. Soares referred to 15%. The reality is when one is in a vacuum, one cannot plan. We have been told some of the programmes will be available until 2020.
I will finish on this point. Ms Gina McIntyre attended a committee meeting and spoke about extraterritorial programmes and programmes available between non-EU and EU countries. There are examples of those across Europe. Is action needed to have somebody within the EU programmes address the issue? What was happening in each of these particular bodies was lauded down the years in Europe. This is the most important point I will make this morning. The European Commission, the Commissioner at the time, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, and Colin Wolfe stated what was happening in the Border region was unique in Europe. They talked about 130 cross-territorial regions where this type of co-operation was not happening but it was happening in our region. Our region has benefited hugely from it.
I will leave it there. I have another meeting to attend so I will meet the witnesses later. What can be done by politicians to ensure either a new or enhanced programme delivers from Carlingford Lough to the tip of Donegal to ensure the region continues to prosper, because it will take a backward step if Brexit happens? That is the key question. Money speaks languages but the communities have suffered badly and continue to suffer. Despite the money that came in through the INTERREG and PEACE programmes, it has still not filtered down into communities, not only in the Border region but also in the more deprived areas of Belfast or Derry. How can we ensure that happens?
I thank the delegations and welcome them. I hope they will not mind if I mention Councillor Aidan Campbell, who is from the same constituency as me. I am delighted to have all the witnesses here this morning. It is a milestone day for us nationally as a European country. The witnesses could not be here on a more appropriate day to keep the Border region firmly on the agenda.
As somebody who is from Cavan-Monaghan, every day I see the positive influence from PEACE and INTERREG funding, cross-Border co-operation, and the difference that has made to towns such as Castleblayney, Clones, Belturbet and Ballyconnell which were war-torn, everybody wanted to leave and where people were afraid to live. Thankfully, the next generation of young people will not remember that.
I am concerned following the witnesses' presentations that there is a risk of all that unravelling. They have all mentioned the non-functioning of the Assembly in Stormont. Brexit looms large. Our Government is focused on Brexit, as it has to be. That leaves the Border region in a vacuum. Where does that leave the witnesses' organisations? Who is flying their flag? They are right to be here to fly the flag for a focused, co-ordinated task force that encompasses everything they are doing, with a significant focus on the Border region, on both sides of the Border, in Cavan, Monaghan, Meath, Sligo, Tyrone, Armagh and Fermanagh. There needs to be fast action because there is a risk in what has been happening since 2016 of all that good work unravelling. We do not want to go back to times where towns and villages were almost ghost towns, which they were 20 years ago. I am glad to have the witnesses here this morning to make the case that there is a need for urgency from the Government. It has to come from here. The Government has a job to do in flying the flag for the country in Europe but there has to be a focus on this.
The A5 and M3 motorway currently stop at Meath. We need to look at such infrastructure. Witnesses from Iarnród Éireann attended a meeting of this committee where we talked about the fact that we have no rail line. There seems to be a focus on the Dublin-Galway line and south of that. We are the forgotten half of the country. We have to bring back the focus to that area and to the need for the infrastructure about which the witnesses have talked here this morning, including the roads, rail and broadband. As Ms Arthurs said, that will ensure the connectivity is present and that the relationship stays strong. Following on from what my colleague has suggested, while we have a lot of information from the witnesses' presentations, what tangible measures would the witnesses like to see us, as a committee, bring forward that will benefit all of what they are doing and make sure they are on top of the agenda nationally for the Border region?
Dr. Anthony Soares:
I will address what can be done collectively to ensure there is a specific programme post Brexit that will address the needs of communities in the Border region, including by this committee, Government and Departments. Ms Arthurs and other witnesses have alluded to it. It entails listening to the people and communities of the Border region who live and work there. I will give a specific example, which I can use as an opportunity to plug a project which is not EU-funded. It has alternative funding from the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, the Community Relations Council in Northern Ireland and most recently the reconciliation funds from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, for which we are very grateful. Those funds are for a new common chapter project which is working with community groups from both sides of the Border. They have come up with their vision of what they want for co-operation, how we go about co-operating and what kinds of issues with co-operation they would like to see addressed. They are about to link up with community groups in Scotland, England and Wales because they are conscious not just of the North-South element but of the east-west one too. That would fit in with the Good Friday Agreement. If we are to respect all parts of the Good Friday Agreement in Brexit, since both the EU and UK Government have said they will protect it, it is not just about the institutions in Northern Ireland but also the relationship between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, and the island of Ireland as a whole and Great Britain. Perhaps the committee will invite members of those community groups to present their draft common chapter to this committee. That might help.
With regard to the 15% that I mentioned, the Centre for Cross Border Studies, in two consultation responses to the current PEACE and INTERREG programmes, with specific reference to PEACE, noted the need to ring-fence at least 15% of that fund for cross-Border co-operation. We were afraid that because that programme, although it is a European territorial co-operation programme, has a derogation allowing projects funded from that to be in just one jurisdiction that, for very good reasons, many of those funds would be then spent in one jurisdiction and not support cross-Border co-operation. We are very concerned that we have ring-fencing for the part of the future PEACE PLUS programme that is a continuation of the current PEACE programme. INTERREG is truly cross-Border and we are unfortunately talking about a future PEACE PLUS programme where the INTERREG element will have lost part of what it currently contains, which is a connection between Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Border counties of Ireland in one INTERREG programme, and a connection between Wales and Ireland. Mr. Campbell and others have referred to the lack of definition about where LEADER fits into the future of this. Committee members can promote the voices of people in the region, support them in what they are trying to do with their vision for co-operation, and help us to pay close attention to what is coming with the future PEACE PLUS programme. Ms Arthurs also alluded to paying close attention to the UK Government's proposed UK shared prosperity fund and the fact that it, as a replacement for EU structural funds, seems to ignore that structural funds fund cross-Border co-operation.
Ms Pamela Arthurs:
If we are to be serious about assisting the Border, we have to do more. It has to be more strategic and has to involve the Irish Government, at the highest levels, working in conjunction with Northern Ireland. It could involve working with the Secretary of State to say that we need to be strategic and focus on the Border area. If one looks at the INTERREG programmes, PEACE PLUS proposes €250 million in total. It is nothing for the extant needs. There needs to be a strategic intervention. If EU funding is taken out of cross-Border activity, no one will fund it. There is a small amount of money from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and that is all. It has never been taken seriously. We have been always working against the tide with regard to cross-Border co-operation. We have been lauded across Europe, as the Deputy said, but we have not been lauded at home and the Border corridor lags behind. Our young people have been leaving.
This is perhaps an opportunity to properly focus and take a strategic approach to address the needs. We did something similar in the past so this is not new. The first two INTERREG programmes were centralised. All the decisions were made in Dublin and Belfast. People here were deciding what our needs were. There should be a bottom-up approach to requirements. For the INTERREG III programme, all our members said they wanted to make decisions. We did that at local level. We set up an action team involving Dublin and Belfast.
We had a government then. It was from our two finance Ministers in Belfast and Dublin and relevant people along the Border who could speak for the Border. The elected members there have a mandate and they have the only mandate in Northern Ireland at the moment. As such, it is not reinventing the wheel. It can be done but it needs the Governments to say at the highest levels that they recognise our worry that notwithstanding all the talk about the Border, we will be left to fend for ourselves after it is sorted in whatever way. There is something that can be done which is tangible and will make a difference but it needs to start now. So many businesses have closed, in particular on this side of the Border. These are small and micro businesses including, for example, companies in the mushroom industry. They are going now. We need to look at this but there is no point if we do not do so on a cross-Border basis. Cross-Border is not easy but it makes sense.
Mr. Shane Campbell:
The Border region will be probably the EU area most affected by Brexit, whatever may happen. We see change happening and we anticipate further challenges along the way. To that, we must add the fact that the Border region had pre-existing issues before Brexit which have yet to be addressed. Ms Arthurs is absolutely right as are Deputies Smyth and Breathnach. There is a need for a high-level intervention in the cross-Border region. INTERREG, PEACE and LEADER have all been very important and we do not want to see them end. However, they have been sticking-plaster solutions on an area and issue which is huge. It needs that sustainable prosperity plan for once and for all. We did not get that after the 1998 agreement and we did not see that direct delivery after peace. We have not built on that which is why the challenges remain. While there is a need for a task force, when we ask the Governments for it, we are told, "We need to see local leadership. It has to be self-help and bottom-up." We are evidence of the fact that is happening. Our seminar later will detail the projects we are implementing. We are taking the local initiative and doing what we can. The national development plan prioritises support for the north-west and east Border areas. That is brilliant. It is good to see that happening in the Border region. However, to make a personal pitch, those of us in the central Border region note that it does not feature to the same extent in national plans. There must be a resolution to that.
I thank the witnesses for their contributions this morning. I am very conscious in particular of the work of ICBAN in my region in Leitrim where cross-Border work has been taking place for many years. It has had a huge impact and been very positive for many communities and various sectors, including for local authorities, health services and all of those areas which have benefitted. I think of this from the perspective of the Border region which I know so well. In Pettigo half of premises are boarded up. I go right around from there to Kiltyclogher and Swanlinbar. If one drove through Swanlinbar this morning, one would see that there is not much in it. It is the same if one crosses the Border and goes to Kinawley. There is not much there either. The Border was drawn along county boundaries, which in a lot of cases meant simply a ditch or a drain somewhere. It is not a natural border such as one finds between two countries like the massive river between France and Germany or a mountain range somewhere else. It is a very unnatural border. The natural thing to happen is to have it all the one. For that reason, there has been a particular impact on the communities that live there.
The real problem is the sense of stagnation which Brexit has deepened. Stagnation has been present in many parts of rural Ireland on both sides of the Border for many years, but it has been particularly the case in the Border region. People who want to take risks and have an idea they want to bring forward face and have faced for the past number of years a lack of support from the traditional providers of finance like banks while the Government has, because of Brexit, backed away considerably. They come to people like the witnesses but whatever help they can provide has, again, been smothered by Brexit. That is the reality. We have to overcome that sense of stagnation. How do we move that forward? How do we change that mindset? While the funding which has come through the years has been very welcome and made a huge difference, it has never been enough. I take Mr. Campbell's point about a sticking plaster. It has been always just enough to manage. Every couple of months some project was rolled out and the idea was that it looked good. To make a seismic shift and to change gear requires a major investment and major ideas and a total change as to where we are at.
Until Brexit is sorted out, we will not be in a position to resolve that. That is the reality. Let us be honest here. Brexit has totally destroyed the potential that was there. The fact that the assembly in the North is not operating is certainly a huge problem. There is no point denying or hiding from that. It has to be sorted out. However, both Governments, which are guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement from which all of this flows, have a responsibility to do what it takes to make that seismic shift and to change gear. Brexit really sharpens the mind and focus as to where the problems are and what needs to be done. We need some plan with a budget to say what will happen over five years, not 40 years, for these communities. Four out of five young people in places like Swanlinbar and Kinawley on both sides of the Border have had to emigrate for the past 50 years. That has been the answer to their problems and it will continue to be unless we change things.
I welcome the witnesses again and I acknowledge the presentation they intend to make later. I do not have any questions for them really. It is important on the day that is in it, given what is happening internationally, that we are here to look at the part of the world and the communities which will be most impacted by Brexit. We must send a strong message from the committee that both Governments must step up to the mark with solutions. I am guilty of it myself, but we are all talking about the problem. Finding the solutions is difficult but we have to engage to make it happen.
I thank the witnesses for their presentations. I am sorry I am late but I was at another meeting. The uncertainty caused by Brexit allied to the non-operation of the executive in Northern Ireland are two significant issues which the witnesses have highlighted and crystallised for us this morning. They have given us a wake-up call on the real impact of Brexit. However, Deputy Martin Kenny is right that until that matter is finalised, everyone is in a bit of a vacuum. One is hazarding guesses. While the Governments are focused on the resolution associated with Brexit, everything else will stand still. We have a lost decade also on foot of the economic downturn that affected this island and countries across the world. It was especially severe within this island.
I was aware of the INTERREG funding in the region. I come from the midlands but a lot of the towns referred to this morning are only up the road and I could reach them within an hour. I was struck by the point a witness made that LEADER funding may well be falling between the cracks, which is an issue that must be highlighted and grasped. At minimum, there is a necessity to ring-fence funding for cross-Border projects. As an agriculture spokesman, I saw the immediate impact of the Brexit vote two years ago on the mushroom industry and other parts of the sector. It was significant and some of the farmers involved were almost wiped out. Deputy Kenny and I were involved with a number of them and we saw the impact it had. We have a huge export base in the mushroom industry and if one looks further afield, one of the areas about which we are worried involves cheddar cheese. We have a huge volume of that moving across the Border.
I come from a rural area and what has resonated most with me this morning is what has been said about the impact of rural depopulation and decline. There is an epidemic in that regard across the island. Do the witnesses know of any specific measures that are required to deal with the rampant decline of small towns, villages and communities across the Border region? The situation is symptomatic of what is occurring across the island. There is a challenge with outward migration. People are gravitating to towns. The situation becomes self-fulfilling because big industry, such as those in the pharmaceutical or healthcare areas, gravitate towards colleges. That is great for the towns concerned. Dundalk has done well in that regard, which is a tremendous achievement. That is wonderful, but given the challenge of dealing with the threats posed by Brexit, can the witnesses outline any specific policy measures or resources that are required to stem the tide? That is important because areas are nothing without people and people will not be there unless we provide gainful employment for them as close as possible to those areas. One cannot have an industry in every town. It is like people arguing the case for having a small hospital in every town. That is a nonsensical approach. The point was made about connectivity and broadband which allow people to operate small businesses from their homes. Such infrastructure could allow people to create two or three jobs per business and although they are small in number they are critical to the survival and sustainability of rural communities.
I thank Deputy Penrose. He asked a specific question about the measures that are required to halt the decline in small rural towns and villages. Ms O'Kane has indicated that she would like to speak. All the witnesses will have an opportunity to contribute and to summarise as we are approaching the end of the meeting. I invite Ms O'Kane to speak first.
Ms Lisa O'Kane:
I am conscious of the time. We heard today and we hear everywhere we go about the real desire to maintain cross-Border collaboration. We now need the full commitment from the Governments and the EU. There is a history, tradition and spirit of co-operation but a sticking plaster approach has been taken. In the main, the co-operation has been driven by funding. With the emergence of city deals in most of the councils in the North of Ireland and the very clear cross-Border links with the regional, spatial and economic strategies the regional assemblies are driving, somebody needs to take a step back and to say that if we work together at this level and put in funding from the Governments on both sides of the Border there could be better complementarity that would address many of the infrastructural issues that have been raised by Mr. Aidan Campbell and some members this morning. The economic hinterlands of all of the councils in Northern Ireland extend across the Border and we all have shared objectives on economic growth. There needs to be something at that level and the co-operation needs to be mainstreamed. It cannot just be piecemeal.
Mr. Aidan Campbell:
I will make a couple of quick points as I know we are running out of time. I agree with many of the points made by members this morning. We were asked what needs to be done to address rural depopulation. As Deputy Penrose indicated, connectivity is crucial to halt rural depopulation. Investment is required in road infrastructure, broadband and the type of connectivity that allows businesses to develop and thrive. The M1, which is close to me previously stopped in Dungannon and was extended as a dual carriageway to the Ballygawley roundabout, which is about 20 miles of roadway. The villages and businesses within a 15 mile radius of the road have increased in the past 15 to 20 years because they are more attractive as commuter towns for people working in Portadown, Craigavon and in the city. Opening up rural communities to an opportunity to connect is crucial. The businesses in those areas have grown. The promotion of and investment in connectivity is most important.
One specific thing the committee could do in the context of the LEADER programme is to write to officials in the Department, or even to the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs, DEFRA, in Westminster to ask about their future plans for a rural development programme. We do not have an equivalent committee currently in the North. As a neighbouring jurisdiction, Ireland has an interest in terms of development co-operation. The rural development programme in the Republic will go through change as the Common Agricultural Policy changes. It would be a practical step to ask what the plans are for rural development post Brexit.
Ms Pamela Arthurs:
We need to take a cross-sectoral approach. Brexit is affecting every sector. If we are serious about the Border, the Government must look at the 11 local authorities along the Border as they have the political mandate to take a strategic approach and come up with their priorities in terms of what interventions are required.
A major company that is based in Newry is First Derivatives. It has 1,000 employees. It was set up by a local indigenous business man who had faith in the Border area. He could have taken that business anywhere. It has offices across the world. Local people are prepared to invest in their local communities. The Government could recognise their work along the Border. First Derivatives has not received any funding. Perhaps it did not need it, but there might be other entrepreneurial individuals along the Border who would stay in the region if there was some incentive to do so. We must be serious about the issue. Looking at one sector or taking a piecemeal approach has not worked. The local authorities are there and they are ready to step up to the mark to say what they require. There will be competing interests, but that is the same everywhere and we are big enough to work out where the priorities are. Mr. Shane Campbell identified the Irish Central Border area as having problems with connectivity and the situation is better in the East Border Region in that regard. The requirements are different and we will compete with each other but at the end of the day the common view is the same in terms of promoting cross-Border economic development, as that benefits the people of the Border region and will hopefully keep our young people there. We will not succeed if we continue to take a sticking plaster approach.
I value what Councillor Doyle said, which is reflective of what all the witnesses said, namely, that pre-existing issues have not been addressed so Brexit or no Brexit we have not been addressing them in a strategic way. Regardless of what happens, there is a pre-existing problem that we must recognise and deal with.
Mr. Shane Campbell:
In brief, the question is how do we give someone in Swanlinbar the same opportunity as someone in Dublin. It is about giving them the tools and the opportunities. Broadband is critical in terms of how it can open up rural life. The delivery of the national broadband plan has to be key. We cannot afford to sit on it for another six years. Otherwise, Ireland will lose its place. It is the same North of the Border and the opportunities there for the delivery of those schemes. It is not too late to look at something between Northern Ireland and the Republic. If the national broadband plan cannot be delivered or advanced, a new solution must be found to give people opportunities because that is where the future is going. The 21st century has taken us into new areas of technology and creativity. There are things people can do on a small device and they need the means and opportunity to be able to deliver on that.
I advocate for a strategic support for the Border region but that must come from the Government. The committee could use its influence to help promote that agenda.
We are providing the local leadership that has to be a key part of the delivery, as Ms Arthurs has detailed. Organisations like NILGA and those represented by Mr. Aidan Campbell, Dr. Soares and myself constitute a consortium of cross-Border interests, local authorities and communities. We are all passionate about our areas. We want to do something for those areas. We are not asking the Government to do everything. We are asking the Government to help us by giving us a leg-up. We will certainly do our bit.
Dr. Anthony Soares:
I referred in my written submission to some of the work that has been done by various organisations, including those represented at today's meeting and InterTradeIreland. In 2014, we published a draft solidarity charter for the economic revitalisation of the Irish Border development corridor. Much of the work that is needed has been already done. The Border region needs to be examined strategically. It is not just about the negatives - it is also about the potential that exists, which cannot be grasped unless people are given the tools they need. I refer to tools like transport and infrastructure connectivity and links between policy makers on either side of the Border. As Deputy Martin Kenny has said, the UK Government needs to step up to the plate as the co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. We do not have an Assembly or an Executive. The cross-Border networks, which are led by local authorities, are evidence of the willingness in Northern Ireland to engage with the opportunities presented by policies being developed on the other side of the Border. Those networks have to be given the tools and the freedom they need. In the absence of an Executive or an Assembly, the UK Government has to step up to the mark as co-guarantor of strand 2 of the Good Friday Agreement, as well as strands 1 and 3.
We need to come at this issue at the right scale. The problem in the past is that it has been bitty. I often think it is almost like research and development is the buzzword nowadays. We have an awful lot of research. Many organisations, including those represented at today's meeting, have come up with methods to resolve issues and sort stuff out. I suggest that such efforts almost need to be commercialised. There is a need for deep pockets and access to resources if someone is to take on this and drive it forward. We have the ideas to solve much of this stuff, but the problem arises in bringing those solutions to a level where they will have an impact. Brexit has sharpened the focus on the piece that is missing in this regard. Perhaps it has created an opportunity for us to see this for what it is. Rather than continuing to muddle along as we were doing, we now know what the problem is. We need to work with the witnesses to come up with a plan. Those of us who have met people on the ground in the Border region can tell the two Governments that we understand what the problems are and that we know there are solutions. Resources are needed to solve the problems in question. Both Governments have an opportunity to move this to a different place. The leadership that is provided by the local authorities, particularly through the organisations represented at today's meeting, will be vital as we seek to make all of these things happen.
On behalf of the joint committee, I thank all the witnesses for their contributions. The engagement we have had has been worthwhile. We will engage further with the witnesses in the future. Some very good questions have been asked and some very good requests have been made. We will take up those issues.