Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 9 May 2019
Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement
Towards a New Common Chapter Project: Discussion
Before we begin, I remind members, witnesses and persons in the Public Gallery, including Mr. Jim Gibney, to turn off their mobile phones completely for the duration of the meeting or switch them to airplane, safe or flight mode, depending on the device. It is not sufficient for phones just to be put on silent mode, as this will maintain the level of interference with the broadcasting system.
I remind members of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or body outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
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. If they are directed by the Chair to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to 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 are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person or body outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
I welcome to our meeting Dr. Anthony Soares, acting director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies; Ms Tara Farrell, deputy CEO of Longford Women's Link; Ms Louise Coyle, director of the Northern Ireland Rural Women's Network, NIRWN; and Ms Eilidh Dickson, policy and parliamentary manager at Engender. The format of the meeting is that we will hear the witnesses' opening statements before moving into a question and answer session with members. I call Dr. Soares to begin.
Dr. Anthony Soares:
On behalf of the Centre for Cross Border Studies and the other organisations present, I thank the Chairman, Vice Chairman and members of the committee for the invitation to meet them to discuss the Towards a New Common Chapter project and the resulting New Common Charter for Cooperation Within and Between these Islands. If the Chairman is in agreement, I will begin by saying something about the Centre for Cross Border Studies and the Towards a New Common Chapter project before Ms Farrell, Ms Coyle and Ms Dickson tell the committee about their own organisations and their involvement in the project. I will also draw the committee's attention to the New Common Charter for Cooperation Within and Between these Islands, of which members should have a copy, as this is the ultimate reason for our attendance.
Since its creation in 1999, the Centre for Cross Border Studies has sought to contribute to the increased social, economic and territorial cohesion of the island of Ireland by promoting and improving the quality of cross-Border co-operation. The centre's pursuit of its mission has been framed by two primary public policy imperatives: the European Union's cohesion policy with its focus on social, economic and territorial cohesion, and the commitment to cross-Border and North-South co-operation integral to strand two of the Good Friday Agreement.
Throughout its existence, therefore, the centre has been deeply concerned with community, social and economic development and co-operation, particularly on the island of Ireland but also between the island of Ireland, Great Britain and beyond. This concern has informed the centre's desire to initiate the Towards a New Common Chapter project. The project began in late 2014 and has been made possible with the generous support of the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust, Northern Ireland's Community Relations Council, and the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade's reconciliation fund. The project has looked to support and inspire grass-roots community commitment to cross-Border co-operation in all its dimensions, these being co-operation at the Border, wider North-South co-operation, and east-west co-operation between the island of Ireland and Great Britain. It has worked towards a bottom-up vision of the importance and role of cross-Border co-operation within and between these islands while also noting the need for community groups to possess the necessary skills and capacity not only to engage in their own cross-Border initiatives but also to enter into more productive dialogues with relevant local, regional and central government policies and strategies.
The result of a series of intensive conversations between a range of community groups from Northern Ireland and Ireland, and more recently with groups from England, Scotland and Wales, is the New Common Charter for Cooperation Within and Between these Islands that committee members should have in front of them. It represents a shared desire to maintain and strengthen relations between communities across these islands, to work together on issues of common concern, and to advocate for the provision of the requisite structures and means to co-operate within and between these islands in whatever circumstances may arise.
In light of this committee’s specific role, and given that the sets of relations envisioned within the New Common Charter for Co-operation Within and Between these Islands reflect the core strands of the Good Friday Agreement, we would ask members to support it and work with us in ensuring all administrations across these islands put in place policies and funding structures to encourage cross-border and cross-jurisdictional co-operation at grassroots community level. We hope that today’s meeting will offer an opportunity to discuss the work undertaken as part of the Towards a New Common Chapter project, and how members of this committee and political representatives more generally can champion the objectives of the new common charter. These are outlined in more detail in the series of recommendations within the supporting information provided to the committee. They include how capacity-building measures should be introduced to improve how all levels of government and public bodies across these islands engage with community organisations in the development of policies and strategies with a cross-border or cross-jurisdictional dimension, as well as the need for a comprehensive assessment of the current funding landscape for cross-border and cross-jurisdictional co-operation initiatives aimed at community organisations, and what that landscape should look like going forward. Crucially, we would also like to see concrete support in advancing the work undertaken in the Towards a New Common Chapter project, bringing it to a wider audience, and perhaps looking towards a platform for cross-border and cross-jurisdictional dialogue for community organisations that recalls the structure provided for governments and administrations across these islands through the British-Irish Council.
These are issues we may explore further during today’s meeting, but I will hand over now to Ms Tara Farrell of Longford Women’s Link.
Ms Tara Farrell:
I thank Dr. Soares. I would like to thank the Chairman and the committee for the invitation. Longford Women’s Link is a social enterprise founded in 1995 which provides services to approximately 900 women and 130 children in Longford annually. These services include education, entrepreneurship, community employment and a domestic violence service, which we deliver using our unique model of integrated service delivery. We also engage in widespread regional and national advocacy. Our CEO is on the board of the National Women's Council of Ireland, while I am on the board of Irish Rural Link, and I am the current chairperson of AONTAS, the national adult learning organisation. I am also on the steering group of The Next Chapter, which is an Irish Rural Link, Politics Plus and Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action, NICVA, initiative based in Stormont.
One of our flagship programmes is the Women's Manifesto programme, which is a unique model of local democratic participation that aims to support women in rural Ireland to play an active and meaningful role in their local decision-making structures. Just last week, we launched the She project with the 50:50 North West group, supported by the Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government. This aims to change the face of local government in rural Ireland by supporting women to play an active role in public life. The Women’s Manifesto project was supported by the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust from 2012 until the cessation of the trust’s funding in the Republic of Ireland in 2016. Longford Women’s Link and the Women’s Manifesto programme have been active members of the Towards a New Common Chapter initiative since 2015 and see it as a key all-island programme of sustained engagement as we move beyond the Brexit referendum. We believe that working at grassroots level, as this programme most definitely does, is absolutely critical if we are to see meaningful co-operation and community development alongside an empowered civic society across these islands. We have seen with Brexit what happens when civil society is largely excluded from central discussions, and we believe that the voices of grassroots women, especially in rural areas, not only need to be heard but are essential in building inclusive and resilient communities. We believe there is significant potential within the New Common Charter to do this.
If we are to have an effective democratic society that embodies the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement with active, engaged citizens and communities, then first we need support for the New Common Charter and second, support for civil society organisations. This means financial support, but we believe it is an investment not only in our communities, but in the future of these islands.
Ms Louise Coyle:
I am the director of the Northern Ireland Rural Women’s Network, NIRWN, and thank the committee for taking the time to listen to us today. NIRWN is a grassroots membership organisation which responds to its members' needs. Our overall mission is to try to influence key decision-makers through providing a voice and representation for rural women, ensuring their equal and valued position in society. NIRWN seeks to increase the voice of rural women at a policy level; to advocate and lobby on behalf of rural women; to provide information and networking opportunities; to pilot innovative projects such as this one; and to hold statutory bodies to account to measure the impact of their decisions on rural women. We do this, among other things, through advocacy, organising local and regional networking events, providing an information service to government departments, and supporting any organisations that wants to link with rural women, to hear what they need and what their concerns are. NIRWN is also a partner organisation in the North as part of the Women’s Regional Consortium, which consists of seven women’s sector organisations that have come together to try to provide a voice for women from disadvantaged and rural areas. We are the rural element of that, as the other organisations are based in Derry-Londonderry and Belfast. It is critical that we get rural women at the table, and our centres and groups work in partnership with each other for the needs of women regionally.
NIRWN has been engaged in the Towards a New Common Chapter initiative because it is a grassroots effort to build and develop co-operation across our islands. As Ms Farrell said, Brexit has brought home very clearly how imperative that is, and the implications we are dealing with now of not having had that in place. Taking account of historic barriers, there is a lack of parity and gender representation across our island and women have certainly been historically invisible in the North. Even their peace-building as part of the Good Friday Agreement has been largely written out of our recent history.
The development and emergence of community and civic leaders, taking collective action to break silence, and to share space, for the greater good, requires leadership from within, as well as encouragement and support from external agencies and governments. Community development offers active and potentially active individuals a process and a route they can use to lead and facilitate collective visioning and action. Building peace in our rural areas and communities is all about supporting the processes that lead to an absence of violence, conflict, and fear, as well as flourishing economic, social and political justice in our rural areas, peaceful co-existence and the shared democratic use of power. Even physically, rural people are further away from the decision-making spaces, and it is much harder to get one's voice and issues heard on how one experiences differences and change in one's area. It is imperative that women in rural areas are listened to and supported so their historic invisibility is not mirrored in our post-conflict society.
Ms Eilidh Dickson:
I thank the Chairman and the committee for inviting me over from Scotland this afternoon. Engender is Scotland’s feminist policy organisation. We work to give effect to women’s equality and rights at local, national and international levels, to increase women’s access to power, safety, and resources, and to make visible the impact of sexism on women, men and society. With over 25 years’ experience in gendered policy and advocacy, we are ambitious in our desires to build a Scotland which secures equality for all women, and which works collaboratively with international and Scottish partners. We work across a wide range of national policy portfolios to advocate for women’s economic, social, and political equality with men, including social security, justice, public space and political representation. Our Gender Matters roadmap, published in 2017, sets out a series of measures that, with political will, can be taken by the Scottish Government and other bodies in order to move towards women’s equality in Scotland by 2030.
Internationally, we also represent Scotland on the UK Joint Committee on Women, through which we work closely as a member of the European Women’s Lobby, EWL, and in 2018 we worked to consult with women in Scotland and across the UK as part of the shadow report to the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, CEDAW. To that end, we worked with sister organisations both locally and across the UK and internationally as part of our Gender Matters Internationally portfolio to highlight women’s inequality as a global concern.
Engender became involved in the Towards a New Common Chapter initiative in 2018 through our links with women’s sector organisations in both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. Engender was asked to host a Scottish event for the project as part of its fourth stage in 2019, which focused on building support for the draft charter in community organisations in England, Wales and Scotland. At this grassroots session, women’s organisations based in Scotland were presented with the draft and we offered our thoughts on its scope and relevance to our experiences and priorities. Engender was then invited to the evaluation session in Belfast in March 2019.
We value the process of the New Common Charter and its potential to further expand the networks we have relied on so far, and continue to do so, as well as its potential to encourage grassroots collaboration on projects of shared importance, particularly women’s equality. In the context of Brexit and the potential for further devolution, partnership working enables us to learn from one another’s activities and successes.
We appreciate the opportunity to share space for discussion with communities, grassroots and other civil society organisations with shared ambitions and from other sectors in a forum which promotes collaboration, sustained engagement and critical expertise.
The witnesses, some of whom, such as Mr. Soares, I have met before, are very welcome. Coming from County Roscommon, I am familiar with the great work done by Ms Farrell and her organisation in County Longford. The common charter is great news and very welcome because we have taken our relationships for granted North, South, east and west. Brexit has brought a significant realisation that we are very close but it has caused much hurt and many issues need to be repaired. The charter refers to valuing the musical, literary, artistic and cultural traditions. We are familiar with that as well as sporting and other issues.
In every second house in the middle or west of Ireland, from where I come, somebody has worked in the UK or has relations there. That is something we take for granted. There are almost 15 or 16 daily flights to the UK from Ireland West Airport Knock. After centuries of trade between our countries, the British-Irish Chamber of Commerce was established in 2011 when the Queen came to Ireland. It has gone from strength to strength. The London Irish Construction Network was also established. We have begun to effectively mobilise and understand the importance of trade and sporting, cultural and religious links North, South, east and west, which is very welcome.
It is very welcome that Mark Durkan from Derry is running for Fine Gael in the European Parliament elections because it brings an influence. My colleague, Senator Ó Donnghaile, who is present, is from east Belfast and brings flavour to the Seanad, which is very welcome. More than a year ago, Senator Marshall became the first unionist to be appointed to the Seanad. Senator Ó Donnghaile can speak for himself, but I have noticed that he has brought people to the Republic or the Houses of the Oireachtas who would not otherwise interact with our Parliament. That is one thing we have left out on a political level. The Seanad is probably the most suitable vehicle to promote and share those ideas and to meet like-minded politicians.
The British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, made up of politicians from the various Parliaments, meets at a plenary session every six months. It may now be time for a second Assembly, similar to the Seanad, in Stormont. I acknowledge that the Assembly is not up and running. Perhaps it is time to invite members of the diaspora in the UK to form part of the Seanad, as Senator Lawless represents the diaspora in the US. They would not have to be from an Irish background. It may be a person representing the British Labour Party or the Conservatives. It may be time for the Scottish Parliament or Welsh Assembly to consider establishing an upper house. It may be time for somebody from the Republic to sit in the House of Lords. That would, at least, build up those relationships.
I have noticed from chairing the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly that there is goodwill towards the island of Ireland among UK politicians in spite of Brexit. A few of them do not understand it but there is significant good will, as there is goodwill in our Oireachtas towards Northern Ireland and the UK. That may be an opportunity that has been left out of the project. I wish to hear the opinions of the witnesses in that regard. It can be a controversial subject. Some parties do not take their seats in Westminster and I respect that that is a matter for them. There is an opportunity on a political level, especially after Brexit. We have seen the great work done by the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and its committees. Some 21 years after the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, we very much need to move on a political level.
It is drifting somewhat from the agenda. The headline is co-operation between these islands. If the witnesses are uncomfortable answering the question, they do not have to do so. Clearly, we are here to discuss co-operation and if they feel the Senator's suggestion is the way forward, it may form part of the discussion. Others may have a different view.
There are other structures in place. The committee has heard from some of the partnerships that are operating North and South. We recently heard from such a partnership based in the north west and made up of councillors from the North and South. All members found much of its work very positive. It is signalling areas of co-operation that need to be followed through on. Do the witnesses consider such groups worthwhile?
Senator Feighan referred to the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. Many members are frustrated that we are not really engaging with many of the communities that we represent in the different jurisdictions. There is a sense that it might be a bit stale and we may have to examine those structures and so on. However, the partnerships, particularly those which are currently operating on a cross-Border basis, are coming up with very positive solutions regarding co-operation and economic development and road structures. Is there something which the two Governments ought to be doing in regard to the structures that are currently operating? Everyone looks at what is not happening but in terms of what is happening on the ground, are the structures worthwhile? Should they be enhanced? Should there be follow-through regarding what supports are needed and so on? Is that the sense of the witnesses in regard to many of those groups which they meet?
Dr. Anthony Soares:
On the Senator’s question around political elements and the suggestion that that might be missing within the new common charter for co-operation within and between these islands, there are two things I wish to stress. This is very much a grassroots charter produced by community organisations. It is their vision for how they wish to co-operate and the value they place on that. The institutions created under the Good Friday Agreement, such as the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Interparliamentary Conference, as well as structures such as the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly – to which we very much look forward to presenting the new common charter next Monday – may not have not been exploited to their full potential by one or both Governments, or perhaps some of the administration has not evolved. For example, one could look to the persons who head the delegations of the Scottish, Welsh and Northern Irish Parliaments to the British-Irish Council and note the persons who lead the representations from the Irish and UK Governments to the same organisations. Such an examination left me with the impression that insufficient importance is given to the structure by one of those members, while the others send their highest representatives to take part.
Institutions and channels exist to allow parliamentarians to co-operate and engage in dialogue. As the Senator noted, it is essential that those opportunities for North-South and east-west dialogue exist and involve all parliamentarians. Turning to civil society, however, we do not see the same opportunities for that type of dialogue.
The Good Friday Agreement referred to a Northern Ireland civic forum. It has since disappeared and been replaced by a civic advisory panel with six members. I think it has met once or twice but not since the institutions stopped functioning. Going from a Northern Ireland civic forum to a civic advisory panel with six members does not seem to give us much of a platform for civic society dialogue within Northern Ireland. The St. Andrews Agreement pointed out that the all-island consultative forum suggested in the Good Friday Agreement had yet to come about. We are still waiting for that all-Ireland dimension which will allow civic society to enter into dialogue in the same way that parliamentarians do.
Strand three of the Good Friday Agreement referred to a British-Irish Council and a Northern Ireland civic forum but there was no suggestion that there should be an equivalent platform for an all-Ireland forum for civic society. Perhaps it was a sign of the times when the Good Friday Agreement was written. This charter might perhaps address that gap. It could be something that starts the process and initiates thinking on this issue. I refer to a vision of grassroots community organisation co-operation rather than looking at the political structures that exist already. Those structures could be exploited even further, however.
Ms Tara Farrell:
I will echo what Dr. Soares said. There has been no other space for us. We must bear in mind that this project has existed since 2014 and we started our involvement in 2015. Without a platform we will not get a shared understanding of the issues facing communities right across the islands. We have found in recent years that many of our challenges, issues, hopes and fears are shared and that is why a grassroots platform like this is so important. It will enable opportunities to collaborate for the benefit of our communities.
Ms Eilidh Dickson:
We came into this project a bit late, after a draft of a New Common Charter for Cooperation Within and Between these Islands had already been developed, which was the North and South element. I will not be so bold as to make any comment on the involvement of Scottish political structures in any of this. From a civil society perspective, however, particularly given asymmetric devolution within the UK, it has been a valuable experience to be able to talk to other women's organisations. The patriarchy does not stop at the Border. We share similar challenges but in different contexts and the learning we derive is really valuable for our work.
I thank the witnesses for appearing and for their presentations. I am sad to say I was not aware of the great work being done but it sounds brilliant. Cross-Border and cross-community work to bring communities together is very important. People everywhere have the same issues in respect of homelessness, unemployment and mental health. I know the reality of that from going up North and into different communities. I have referred previously to intergenerational trauma, mental health and other issues that people deal with daily in the North. These are major issues.
I gave an example here before of a cross-Border, cross-community group run by the charitable organisation with which I am involved. It focused on families impacted by addiction rather than people in addiction. It was for family members who have someone they love in that situation. I was blown away by the experience. I sat in on the programme in which the two different communities came together. There was also a cross-Border aspect, with people from the South involved. It was very interesting. There was some friction initially between people from the two communities. When we worked through that, however, it was amazing how they came together. We learned eventually that people from both communities were grieving. I also realised that people from the South had no idea of the impact of the conflict and of people dying, with the resultant intergenerational trauma.
There is now also the ongoing issue of suicide in those communities. I was involved in another event in north Belfast where families from both communities who had lost loved ones to suicide came together. The heartbreak was exactly the same and the devastation and intergenerational trauma that comes from conflict was exactly the same. It sounds like that is the essence of what the organisations represented today are trying to do. It is about bringing civil society together and that is definitely the way forward. It connects into the anxieties, problems and worries that people face daily and examines what those issues are. In that way, it brings people together. I have seen that happen and how it works. I have participated in programmes and witnessed how the two communities come together through heartache. People who have gone through the same thing can then find empathy for each other. I believe such initiatives really work.
I approach this from the perspective of intergenerational trauma and mental health and the impact those issues have on addiction. Many organisations are involved in addressing these issues. Are the witnesses' organisations doing some work on issues such as intergenerational trauma, addiction or mental health?
Ms Louise Coyle:
In Lurgan, we work with rural women and rural women's organisations across the regions of the North. We are dealing with all kinds of issues in a post-conflict situation. Senator Black has outlined some of them. In addition, we find that people are suffering social isolation and that impacts on the mental health of people living rurally. We have been dealing with a lack of investment in resourcing efforts to address those issues in our jurisdiction because the money is just not there. We have no government to appeal to at the moment to redress the situation but I know the health service was being looked at when it was functioning. There seems to be a plan in place but it cannot be executed in the absence of a government. Real people are still dealing with their real issues, however.
We also have to prepare to deal with the implications of Brexit and its impact on access to services. For those living in a Border area, the services they might wish to access could be on the other side of the Border. We have become good at moving people around and we are used to being able to work, live and traverse our island freely. Our members are very clear that there is no good news on Brexit for them. They want to continue to live their lives the way they always have and that includes being able to access services. There is a need to deal with the mental health impact on families who are rurally isolated. If women are impacted, their entire family will be impacted and vice versa. It is intergenerational. We are part of an historically patriarchal society in which the care and responsibility for members of families fall to women. That is particularly the case in rural areas. There is a great burden in trying to care for people, whether that involves dealing with issues such as suicidal thoughts, addiction or mental health issues.
To return Senator Black's question, our job as an organisation is to try to support those people and link them to existing services. However, they have all of the frustrations I have just outlined.
Bringing this back to what the charter can do about that, it cannot sort the health service. What we can do is talk to the likes of Longford Women's Link and ask where it is getting its help from and what has worked for it. We can see what is happening in Scotland and what is working there. Scotland is away ahead of us on gender equality and other matters. It is a question of determining where the learning is and how we distil it. As director of an organisation, whose role is to amplify the voice of our members, I consider it my job to try to talk to all of the committee members and whoever else can be in a position to make a change for that. We cannot change it. We can merely try and get the information and the support to our members. I hope that is not an unwieldy answer but that is the gist of what we do.
Dr. Anthony Soares:
There is a reason the Senator was not aware of the great work. It started in late 2014 and the work with community groups started in the beginning of 2015. We deliberately kept this quiet and low profile because we wanted to give people the space and the opportunity to have conversations, exchange views and sometimes have some difficult conversations about what cross-Border co-operation means for them and what the Border means for them. Depending on their life experiences and their particular backgrounds, they have different experiences. If one comes from a rural community group, sometimes one might belong to what one thinks is the same community of identity. One might live in a rural area and the other group lives in an urban setting and although one thinks one shares the same identity, in fact, one is very different. Sometimes one is having these difficult conversations within the same kind of community, but rural versus urban. It involves many difficult conversations. It was vital that we did that because we were trying to assess to begin with - it was not coming up with this vision for co-operation - whether people believe in and value the thought of co-operation and wanted to co-operate in the first place. If we jump straightaway to this vision and miss out on the attitudes to cross-Border co-operation, we end up perhaps with something that is artificial that does not have real support behind it. That is why the Senator would not have heard of this. We were trying to keep much of this conversation happening in the background quietly.
Ms Tara Farrell:
I echo what Dr. Soares said. On the Senator's comment about people having the same issues, as Dr. Soares stated, many of the conversations we had were necessarily easy. From our perspective, and ourselves and NIRWN started our involvement with the project around the same time, there was considerable willingness on behalf of participants to listen, engage and learn from each other. We are in a post-Brexit - whatever that will look like - situation and conscious of the impact that will have on women, particularly in rural areas.
We are now working on various different levels and various different projects. For example, we have spoken at a Northern Ireland Women's European Platform, NIWEP, five nations seminar on the economic impact of Brexit on women about matters that perhaps are not always talked about in the mainstream such as the post-Brexit impact on women who are experiencing domestic violence in terms of barring orders, jurisdictions, etc. While the conversations have not always been easy, they have been at all times very respectful. We have had a great willingness to exchange information and good practice.
Dr. Anthony Soares:
In answer to the first question, we ask members of this committee to look at the charter carefully, see if they agree with it and can support it, and enter into conversation with other Members of these Houses and spread the message. This is what we are looking for ultimately. Whatever happens in terms of Brexit, irrespective of the kind of Brexit we have or whether we even have Brexit at all, it is vital the structures and funds are there to support co-operation at community level on a North-South basis and all-island basis, but also on an east-west basis because we do not want to end up seeing a situation where the structures and funds are not there. Those funds must come from all administrations across these islands and not only the Irish Government.
If one takes away EU funding and considers the funds that support cross-Border co-operation outside of EU funds, one of the funds that immediately comes to mind is the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade reconciliation fund. If that is taken out of the equation, one is left with very few. I refer to charitable organisations. For example, the Joseph Rowntree Charitable Trust funds what we do. The Northern Ireland Community Relations Council supports what we are doing and we welcome that. Outside of that, there is no direct equivalent on the UK Government side. Neither has not been one equivalent to the reconciliation fund from the Northern Ireland Government side. That is a glaring deficit that has to be addressed.
I will quickly point out what is coming from the UK Government. We have been following closely the development of the UK shared prosperity fund, which is the government's proposal to replace EU Structural Funds. In the little detail there is - it is still very little - they seem to have forgotten that Structural Funds support cross-Border co-operation. Even though the Border on the island of Ireland is mentioned every two seconds and the backstop every other second the Brexit debate, when they are sitting formulating a new policy they forget, once again, that there is a Border between Northern Ireland and the Republic and between the island of Ireland and Great Britain and that the UK shared prosperity fund should be able to support cross-Border co-operation. We request that members from this committee enter into dialogue with other politicians here, but also use their contacts with politicians in Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff Bay to make sure that everybody is aware of this, and of that need going forward.
Ms Louise Coyle:
I wanted to add that this project preceded the Brexit debacle. That is because community and grassroots organisations such as ourselves could see that these kind of activities were not priorities for our governments, including, I am afraid, the committee. Because there was no mechanism in place for us to engage at that level to get those issues across, Brexit has distilled for everyone how we took for granted that everything would be fine, we would all get along and it would be all grand. We now know that will not be the case and why it is so important to have defined and absolute structures in place that we follow, and that there are provisions in place to ensure that they happen. Goodwill visions and great hopes are all very well but one can see when it comes down to it that while we have our Good Friday Agreement, as Dr. Soares outlined, key bits of it have been neglected and not delivered upon. We should have had a Bill of rights for Northern Ireland which would have helped, certainly, our sector, quite a lot in the face of Brexit, but it is not there. It is about maintaining that energy to deliver on those matters. The fact is it was missing and that is why we started this work. We maybe were a bit prophetic. None of us wished for Brexit but could see that there were gaps in structural support and the energy and commitment by governments behind that structural support.
I was in front of the Tánaiste regarding the Brexit stuff. I said to him that I knew that politically things have to be done carefully but it is not political overreach to deliver on the Good Friday Agreement because the Government is co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and, as such, has a responsibility to all of us as citizens to deliver on that. That is underneath many of the issues that we were raised in the charter.
Mr. Francie Molloy:
Okay, I will go again. First of all, the witnesses are very welcome and I thank them for coming and making the presentation.
As they state, the Good Friday Agreement provides for many of the things that we are talking about and many of the things that are missing and we are part of the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Unfortunately, both governments seem to ignore that it has not been fully implemented yet and no efforts barely have been made to do it. The constant danger is we will keep founding new organisations to do the job that an original organisation was supposed to do and did not.
The opportunity for a future civic forum under the Good Friday Agreement, including the all-Ireland civic forum, is a very important aspect that I hope will emerge from the discussions that are happening. I hope it will be developed. The intergovernmental forum exists but is not fulfilling its role. Many of these organisations were supposed to step in when there was a crisis. Instead of stepping in during crises, they were seen as developing them. They did not do anything. It is important, therefore, that the grass roots have a say to ensure everything is happening. The development of the civic forum is one aspect.
We are talking about women's organisations but, assuming the common charter is covering a wider aspect than women’s organisations, which I hope is the case because men are starting to feel isolated, it is important that we recognise the cross-Border dimension. The studies that have been done, in various ways, are co-ordinated to try to maximise the discussion right across the board. People are feeling isolated. The Scottish experience is worth noting from our point of view because it sheds light on all the fears in the community as regards a Border poll or referendum on Irish unity. The Scottish experience, implying one can have a referendum on independence, comes and goes. The Scottish might have another one. How does one allay some of the fears in the community such that, instead of having people say there is a problem or fear, we open up and try to manage the change that is happening and will happen right across the board? Working within the common chapter is a good way to proceed. I hope the two Governments and the Assembly, which I hope will be re-established in the near future, will develop that and exist as a testing pool for the views and ideas that exist. I hope individuals such as the witnesses will become a challenge to the Assembly and also to councils. Much good work goes on in all the new councils, which have just been re-elected. Resources exist to try to develop with the councils new ideas on how to manage the change. If the councils can do it, it is sometimes easier for the other organisations and structures to do so.
Some of the structures in place were covered. Unfortunately, there are many talking shops in Northern Ireland and many intergovernmental meetings that do not seem to have delivered very much in the past 20 years. I accept people are meeting, which is good in itself. At this stage however, we need to deliver. We should not be talking at this stage about the issues that existed at the time of the Good Friday Agreement but about how we move beyond the agreement. I am grateful for the initiative. I hope we can tie in with it at local level.
Dr. Anthony Soares:
On the representation of women's groups in the development of the common charter, it just so happens there were two primary target groups our centre had when we started going down this road. One was women's groups and the other was the PUL community along the Border. We believed that if we were to get a real vision for co-operation and test the appetite for cross-Border co-operation, we should try to speak to some of those who might not have an automatically positive outlook. We believed we should start with more challenging groups. On women's groups, we have responded to consultations on Ireland's national action plan for UN Security Council Resolution 1325. We have always pointed out that women's groups and women have always been at the forefront of peace and reconciliation processes here on the island but do not necessarily see it translated into policy and its shaping. That is a reason we wanted to include women's group's. There are other groups also involved in the development of the common charter.
I will not necessarily say anything about the Scottish referendum or Border poll in terms of allaying people's fears but I will talk about dialogue. Whatever comes down the track, if people, including community groups of all shapes and sizes, north, south, east and west, are talking to each other, they can confront all sorts of challenges and seize all sorts of opportunities. In order for us to do so, we have to be talking to each other. As we were doing this project, we noted the lack of knowledge we have of one another. Twenty years after the Good Friday Agreement, we still do not know how we live or who governs in our various jurisdictions. People have no idea who the Taoiseach and First Ministers of Scotland or Northern Ireland are. There is a lack of knowledge of political structures so we have to overcome that and continue the conversation.
On Scottish representation in this project in the development of the new common charter and on the Welsh and English aspects, although the English one is a little more challenging, the Good Friday Agreement binds us all together. We wanted to get this across. The Good Friday Agreement is not just about a corner of the island of Ireland or the whole island; it brings everybody together. We are all part of it. Our Scottish friends are as much part of it as our Welsh friends. We are all co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement. Obviously, ultimate responsibility lies with the Irish and UK Governments but we should not just wash our hands of it and just let them get on with it. We should avoid moments of crisis and know when they are coming down the tracks. We should all take responsibility as co-guarantors of the Agreement and make it a living document, not just a piece of paper. Our Scottish, Welsh and English friends are also part of it, not to forget the Isle of Man and Channel Islands.
Ms Eilidh Dickson:
I will not touch on the current status of the Scottish constitutional discussions but will say that, whatever happens, there is already a considerable number of similarities and differences between the devolved areas and between the UK and Ireland. The important thing is to have as many forums as possible where we can have these conversations in the most appropriate setting. They should be accessible for small organisations. Engender is a national organisation. We facilitated some of the grassroots organisations in Scotland to become involved in the charter.
The process, to which Dr. Soares and Ms Farrell can speak a little more, pointed to the influence of the different contexts, narratives and ways in which we use language in our political systems. One can see this in the draft versions of the charter, even though the content was quite similar in each. It took some additional work to make it relevant and usable for all the areas.
The common problem Ms Coyle mentioned, in terms of gender inequality, care, access to resources, the use of services and the potential impact when services are cut, does not stop at the Border. The issues have, quite rightly, different connotations and frameworks associated with them.
Ms Tara Farrell:
With regard to language, we had a draft before the all-Ireland and cross-Border meetings and workshops. The Scotland meeting was the first we had. We got comments on the language we had used. We spent a lot of time talking about the culture, for example. Culture has different connotations in different parts of these islands. It has been really positive and important to have had the discussions in Scotland, Wales and England because we have to reflect what is happening in communities across the islands.
Dr. Soares was talking about responsibilities within community organisations. To go back to the national action plan on women, peace and security, it specifically references the under-representation of women in political structures as having an impact on peace building and reconciliation. Within the manifesto model, we believe we have a responsibility to support women, not just to participate in structures and in public life but to understand the structures. We think that is something that is very important right across communities, no matter what kind of groups are involved, whether youth groups or cross-community groups. If people do not understand the local, regional and national decision-making structures, it is very difficult for them even to see where they can have a voice. That is something we have also held on to very strongly as we think it is a very important element of the common charter.
Mr. Francie Molloy:
All of this applies to cross-Border training and to education. I have often thought we need some sort of system of training within schools and education in regard to the structures that govern everything. Young people in particular may end up not participating, and the younger we get people to participate, the longer they will be involved. In my constituency of mid-Ulster, there is the whole issue of apprentices, and this also applies across the Border. One of the problems we have at the moment is that we cannot get workers. Whereas unemployment was the big issue, it is now getting to the stage where we need training and apprenticeships to fill the vacancies that exist. One of the cross-Border aspects that would be beneficial is if the two Governments were to take the opportunity to promote apprenticeships in engineering and across the board. This would help deliver the skills required and would be positive within the cross-Border corridor.
Dr. Anthony Soares:
I thank the speaker for the questions. Before I answer, unfortunately, because she has joined us today from Scotland, Ms Dickson has to scoot off now, if the committee is okay with that.
On the points just raised about the young people's groups that were involved in the development of the first draft of this charter, one of the things they pointed to was the fact they felt they were undervalued if they did not choose a university degree as their pathway in education, and if they chose anything that was outside of that, it was seen as being of lesser value. These are groups of young people from North and South talking about that attitude, how it has to change, and how more emphasis and more value has to be given to those vocational qualifications, which are alternative paths to different careers. Young people on both sides of the Border are saying we are obsessed with degrees, and they are told they must get a degree, with the result they do not feel valued.
There are opportunities to co-operate on a North-South basis on apprenticeships and training. Employers are talking about the same issues in regard to the labour force and skills. As an island, and as islands, we will be facing huge challenges in terms of the skills that will be needed in the future economy, not in the next five, ten or 15 years but in the next 20 years. The question is what we are going to need and how we are going to achieve those goals. Co-operation is one of the ways we can achieve that at a lesser cost for everybody.
Ms Louise Coyle:
I am from mid-Ulster myself. One of the issues with employment is where it is based, how far people have to travel, and whether there is the infrastructure to get them to and from work and to and from education and apprenticeships. When talking about young women, there is the issue of how apprenticeships are sold to young women and what opportunities there are. I am obviously of the view that a young woman should be doing engineering as much as a young man, but we still have a way to go in terms of trying to promote that, even within businesses and organisations, as well as with the young women themselves. Structurally, we must address the barriers for young women, particularly if they have any kind of caring responsibilities, and we must try to reduce those. Given we are offering the opportunity, we must make sure there are no barriers in place preventing them from accessing that opportunity, and that includes where it is located. We are a small place but it sometimes feels very big when people are trying to get from one place to another and there is no infrastructure to enable them to do that.
Mr. Francie Molloy:
A point was raised on graduation. A young person pointed out to me that when we go into anybody's house, there are photographs on the wall of the person who has graduated but there is no photograph on the wall of the fitter, welder, painter or decorator. We have to find some way of recognising those skills and trades because they are probably more important to deliver.
Dr. Anthony Soares:
I have been remiss in that there have been a couple of opportunities for me to highlight the very good work, including in terms of economic development and training opportunities, done by local authorities, in particular the local authority-led cross-Border networks. Their work is vital in this regard and they need to supported in doing that going forward. I wanted to take the opportunity to say that.
Ms Louise Coyle:
I want to comment on the fact cross-Border co-operation has been very largely resourced and supported by the European Union. Our members are quite concerned as to how this community infrastructure and that level of support to rural communities is going to be resourced in the future. There is a challenge for us all within that and it is not just for the committee. There is a risk we will lose the things that have been working well. We want to be building, not going back.
Dr. Anthony Soares:
To follow on from that, I would ask this committee for its support in continuing this dialogue. A commitment has been made by the European Commission and the Irish Government to replace the current INTERREG and PEACE programmes, even if there is a no-deal Brexit. I ask that there is a dialogue with community organisations in terms of what that PEACE+ programme might represent and how it is to support cross-Border co-operation at grassroots community level. In terms of the dialogue that has gone on around Brexit, much of the focus has been on the economic consequences of Brexit and how cross-Border trade might be affected, but it is not always apparent that the same level of attention has been given to how it is going to affect cross-Border relations between communities at the grassroots level, which it is essential to maintain. The lifeblood of the Good Friday Agreement will disappear if we are just left with an economic dialogue around the Good Friday Agreement, rather than one that includes communities.
On behalf of the committee, I thank the witnesses for attending and for their presentation. Having listened to the committee members, there is clear support for the charter. The next question is how we can move it forward. The witnesses have asked members to talk to other Oireachtas Members and those beyond that to try to encourage this process. We all agree dialogue is the way forward. If we disagree with someone, the only way to change that person's point of view is to talk to them. One of the successes of our committee has been when we have gone out to those communities who feel left behind post ceasefire and post peace agreement. We have engaged with them both publicly and quietly, and that is one of the success of the committee. We intend to engage further. If there are organisations and groups the witnesses feel it would be useful for this committee to meet, they should pass on that information. We greatly appreciate their attendance today and their presentation.