Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Thursday, 12 November 2020
Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement
Shared Island Unit: Department of the Taoiseach
I welcome the representatives from the shared island unit at the Department of the Taoiseach, Aingeal O'Donoghue, assistant secretary, and Eoghan Duffy, principal officer. I met with Aingeal in Washington some years ago.
We went to Gettysburg to see the site of the battle.
I welcome our guests. The shared island unit is extremely important. I appreciate that the representatives can be with us for one and a half hours, and I understand that they will also be more than happy to come in whenever the committee requests and at the appropriate time.
Witnesses who are physically present or who give evidence from within the Parliament precincts are protected pursuant to the constitutional statute by absolute privilege, but witnesses and participants who are to give evidence from a location outside the Parliament precincts are asked to note that they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness giving evidence from within the Parliament precincts, and may consider it appropriate to take legal advice on this matter.
They have time to go off and see their solicitor. Witnesses are also asked to note that only evidence connected with the subject matter of the proceedings should be given. They should respect directions given by the Chair and the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should neither criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable, or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the good name of the person or entity. That is what I have to read at the start of each meeting.
I welcome the representatives of the shared island unit. It is a very positive initiative that has been taken by the Taoiseach and the Government. I wish to make clear that the offer to the Taoiseach to attend stands at all times. If and when he wishes to attend, we will be more than happy to have him. I welcome the witnesses at this very important juncture.
I invite Ms O'Donoghue to make her opening statement.
Ms Aingeal O?Donoghue:
My colleague and I welcome the opportunity to brief the committee. I have responsibility at assistant secretary level in the Department of the Taoiseach for the shared island unit and, indeed, for the broader British-Irish and Northern Ireland affairs division. I am joined by Mr. Eoghan Duffy, principal officer in the unit. I will make our opening statement but both Mr. Duffy and I will be available to answer any questions members may have.
As the committee is aware, the programme for Government sets out the Government’s commitment to working with all communities and traditions on the island to build consensus around a shared future underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement. In a major address at Dublin Castle on 22 October, the Taoiseach set out the Government’s vision and priorities for a shared island. More than 800 invited guests from Ireland, North and South, as well as from Britain, joined the online event. I know that several members of the committee were able to attend the event virtually. As the Taoiseach outlined in that address, the Government’s approach to a shared island involves working in partnership with the Executive, through the North-South Ministerial Council, and with the British Government to address the strategic challenges faced on the island, further developing the all-island economy, an enhanced connectivity and deepening co-operation in areas such as health and education and investing in the north-west and border regions. It also involves fostering constructive and inclusive dialogue, as well as developing a comprehensive programme of research to support the building of consensus around a shared future. The Taoiseach outlined that the shared island agenda is a whole-of-government priority.
The shared island unit of the Department of the Taoiseach does a significant amount of work co-ordinating and driving this work and agenda. The work of the unit and the whole shared island agenda are underpinned by the principles of the Good Friday Agreement. We operate in close co-operation with the ongoing and extensive Northern Ireland-related work across the Government, including with the Department of Foreign Affairs, as well as through the North-South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference. We are still in the early days. The unit started its work at the beginning of September, when Mr. Duffy and I came on board. We now have two additional staff members and plans are well advanced for a further two or three posts.
Operationally, the current focus of the unit’s work is on three areas: commissioning research, fostering dialogue and building a shared island agenda, including through delivery of the commitments in the programme for Government. I will briefly set out our work under each of these three areas. Building a shared island agenda involves the promotion of all-island approaches to the strategic challenges facing Ireland, North and South. Delivering on the commitments in the programme for Government is a key focus. Importantly, many of the programme for Government commitments are reflected in the Irish Government commitments under the New Decade, New Approach agreement.
The committee will be aware that in budget 2021, the Government announced the shared island fund, with €500 million to be made available over the period to 2025 and ring-fenced for shared island projects. As the Taoiseach set out in the Dáil, the shared island fund provides significant new multi-annual capital funding for investment in collaborative North-South projects. The funding will support the delivery of key cross-border infrastructure initiatives as set out in the programme for Government. We hope it will also support new Government investment in all-island initiatives in areas such as research, health, education and the environment, as well as addressing the particular challenges of the north-west and border communities. In all these areas, there are already several commitments in the programme for Government. The Taoiseach has emphasised the importance of moving ahead with cross-border investment commitments, working closely with the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure delivery. This was discussed at the North-South Ministerial Council plenary meeting in Dublin on 31 July. An update on progress will be provided to the next plenary meeting of the council, to be held in December.
On research, given the scale and potential impact of the work on the shared island initiative across all sectors and communities, it is essential to support a wide-ranging programme of research to provide high-quality and evidence-based policy analysis. This in turn will support consideration both in the Government and in broader public discourse on building a shared island and a consensus around a shared future. The shared island unit is finalising a research partnership with the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI. There will also be a North-South and east-west collaborative element to this research work. The National Economic and Social Council, NESC, has been asked to prepare a comprehensive report on shared island issues in 2021. This will provide valuable input from economic, social and environmental partners. There will be scope for collaboration with academia and other experts on the island or from Britain, as well as potentially drawing on wider international expertise. In developing all of this, we are and will be working closely with other Departments in terms of their policy and research priorities.
On dialogue and outreach, as I am sure members are aware, the Taoiseach launched the shared island dialogue series at Dublin Castle on 22 October to foster constructive and inclusive civic dialogue on all aspects of a shared future on the island. The dialogue series will start later this month. In a way, there are two elements to it. One will be a focus on key sectoral issues, including environment, economy, health and education. There will also be engagement on an inclusive basis on overarching concerns for the Good Friday Agreement, including around issues such as identity rights and the equality agenda. The dialogue series is complementary to the range of discussions and engagement that are already happening in community and civic settings on peace process issues. The dialogue series is intended to provide a focus for people to engage on an inclusive basis on a shared future on the island. It can also be the starting point for broader and deeper discussions in civil society. We will actively seek as broad a range of perspective and experience as possible in order to ensure the inclusion of voices that traditionally have been under-represented in the peace process, including those of women, young people, and immigrant communities. Indeed, the first shared island dialogue, which the Taoiseach has already announced, will be around the topic of new generation, new voices.
That concludes my opening remarks on the shared island unit. I wish to express my appreciation to the committee for this opportunity to present to it and, very importantly from our point of view, to hear the views of members on the initiative and, indeed, the role that they, as Oireachtas Members and elected members can play. I thank the committee. Mr. Duffy and I will be happy to answer the questions of members.
I thank Ms O'Donoghue. It very important that she and Mr. Duffy are presenting to the committee. On the funding allocation, obviously, the €500 million for cross-border initiatives, infrastructure and so on will be very welcome. Those present understand that I represent the Louth constituency. In his speech on 22 October, the Taoiseach mentioned the Narrow Water Bridge as one of three projects which needed to be advanced. Obviously, there are other projects as well.
It was agreed that, in turn, Fianna Fáil, Sinn Féin and Fine Gael will have ten minutes each. We will then hear from the SDLP and the Alliance Party, to be followed by Sinn Féin again, the Green Party, the Labour Party and Independent members.
I hope the various parties will bring in their speakers as they wish and that this is fair in recognising the points to be made. I will call the Fianna Fáil representatives first. They can divide their time among themselves whatever way they want. The ten minutes start now. Question and answers are preferable. Senator Blaney is a Donegal man.
I am delighted to have the shared island officials before the committee today. This is a wonderful time given the opportunities this new shared island could afford us. It is an exciting time in politics. I believe it leaves many people across the island with an air of anticipation. It is also a worrying time during the pandemic.
My thanks to Ms O'Donoghue for the presentation. The funding is welcome. I noticed in some other presentations that reference was made to speed rail. Some of the presentation from Ms O'Donoghue focused on the north west, which I was pleased to hear, and the Border. Does Ms O'Donoghue have any awareness of the thinking on speed rail? Two of the largest cities in the country are Derry and Belfast. There is a major opportunity to connect them with Dublin via speed rail. It would help the region as a whole and it would not be a major stretch to connect the town of Letterkenny in Donegal to that as well. This is something I want to throw out so that the officials have it in the back of their minds. The A5 is progressing as we know and I am delighted to see it.
I have mentioned several times at this committee, including to the Minister for Foreign Affairs when we had him in, the question of the make-up of this committee. Not all parties are around the table. It is really important that the Department of the Taoiseach and the Taoiseach work in conjunction with our Chairman and the Minister for Foreign Affairs to get all political parties in Northern Ireland around the table of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. It is imperative that we all work on this. We are all stakeholders in the Good Friday Agreement. It is imperative that all are brought on board. All Departments need to work together. People need to sit down and negotiate to see what the hurdles are and to do our best to work on them. That is the strongest message I will leave with the committee today.
I welcome Ms O'Donoghue and Mr. Duffy and I wish them well with their work. As Ms O'Donoghue said in her presentation, this new initiative is welcome and inclusive. It is very much underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement and the progress made since April 1998. We want to maximise the potential of the Good Friday Agreement and ensure no diminution to any aspect of the Good Friday Agreement post-Brexit.
The presentation echoed the point made strongly by the Taoiseach speaking in the Dáil to the effect that this is new and additional funding. In the past those of us who represent Border communities have often argued that some of the new programmes that came to our areas, whether PEACE or INTERREG programmes, did not bring the additionality that they should have. Central government and local government often use these funding streams to fund particular projects that should be funded through the normal Government programmes of investment. It is important that the message is given out clearly that this is new and additional funding under this welcome initiative.
I welcome the fact that Ms O'Donoghue said that there will be greater collaboration and input by groups that previously did not have as much input as they should have had, such as women's groups and youth organisations. It is important to ensure that we draw on the wealth of experience and knowledge among local public representatives throughout the Border area. We have a structure with the north west involving the councils in Derry, Strabane and Donegal. We have the Irish Central Border Area Network and the East Border Region. Research has been done already with regard to projects that have the potential to bring investment and grow our economy on a cross-Border basis.
The €500 million to be committed up to 2025 is welcome. There is urgency about getting this going. That was reflected in comments by An Taoiseach as well. Ms O'Donoghue has outlined the urgency with regard to the new structure being put in place as well. We look forward, as the Cathaoirleach has said, to good projects of a cross-Border nature in our areas being developed and earmarked for this investment. It would be a great message to go out to Border communities who are nervous because of Brexit, which lies ahead of us. There will be additional investment in human and physical resources. I wish the officials well in the important work they have ahead of them on behalf of all the people of all of the island.
My thanks to our guests from the shared island unit. I wish them every success in their project. It is a great opportunity for this committee to work with them and it is an exciting time to be a part of the new initiative. I had a quick review of the Taoiseach's speech. I was logged in to the Dublin Castle event some weeks ago. The discussion that followed with the stakeholders was interesting as well. Even that, in itself, was part of the journey.
The Taoiseach mentioned three things. He talked about the dialogue series that will be commenced. I understand it will bring together stakeholders from different strands to begin that process of dialogue. One thing has been central to the Good Friday Agreement from the outset and it is also central to the shared island initiative. This is the relationship in different directions, including North-South and the east-west relationships. Where are we at with regard to the dialogue series and the east-west relationship as well as the North-South relationship? What does the unit see as being a timeline? What are the next steps in the coming 12 or 24 months? Where does it go? How does it take shape? I am interested in that. I appreciate that this may be yet to be defined to an extent and that all of us who have a contribution to make will help to shape it. Where is that at the moment?
The Taoiseach said something which I thought was interesting and true. From the different contributors we already see different people bringing different perspectives, and often these are geographic. One point the Taoiseach made in his speech was that a person's view on this may differ depending on what part of the country he is in or what part of the island he is on. It may depend on what county and place and what traditional leaning a person may have. This is paramount for everyone in every corner of the island, whether in the farthest-flung corner of the south west or the top of the north east. Whether a person is a Border representative or otherwise, I see this as being fundamental to the entire island and across the island, although that is a personal view. In terms of timelines, as far as we can today what are the next steps? What do they look like in the coming 12 to 24 months?
Ms Aingeal O?Donoghue:
I will be brief and maybe I will ask Mr. Duffy to come in as well. My thanks to all the committee members. A considerable amount of what was said is exactly what we are aiming to do and trying to do.
I will say a few more words on funding. As announced, it is a total of €500 million for the next five years. There is already an initial provision in budget 2021 of €50 million. To answer the first question, it is important to understand this is about additional money. The Government is already providing a large amount of funding in a range of North-South areas, including the support for the North-South bodies and a variety of initiatives from the hospital in Altnagelvin to the Middletown Centre for Autism. There are other areas like the reconciliation fund of the Department of Foreign Affairs. These are in place and will continue. Equally, we have the PEACE PLUS funding, which we expect to come on board from next year. That is in place and will continue. The idea with the shared island fund is absolutely one of additionality. It will go to fund a variety of the commitments in the programme for Government. Where there are existing allocations to Departments, as there are in some cases, for example, like the A5, then they stay in place. It is about Departments continuing to do what they are doing already and then we are able to come in on top of that.
As projects become ready for funding, we will have a governance arrangement in place between the Departments of the Taoiseach, Foreign Affairs and Public Expenditure and Reform regarding the disbursal of the moneys involved. Another point to note is that this is capital funding rather than day-to-day, ongoing funding.
Deputy Blaney mentioned a number of projects. In terms of the rail project, it is being extended from Cork, Dublin, Belfast and on to Derry in terms of developing terms of reference for a feasibility study. We see that as a project that has a lot of potential. The Chairman mentioned the Narrow Water bridge, on which subject I also heard him speak last night in the debate on the Brexit omnibus Bill. Again, this is very much to the fore and it has been discussed already by the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and his counterpart in Northern Ireland, Ms Nichola Mallon.
On local authorities, we do see them as an engine of cross-Border co-operation. As has been said, they have been active for a long time in this area. I will ask my colleague, Mr. Duffy, to comment on the dialogues.
Mr. Eoghan Duffy:
Further to Deputy Lawless's question on the dialogues, the Taoiseach announced the shared Ireland dialogue series on 22 October. This will start later this month, with the first dialogue on new generations and new voices under the Good Friday Agreement. As mentioned by the Taoiseach, there are 1.3 million people on the island who have been born since 1988 and who have a huge role to play in the future of what it will look like. The first dialogue will give prominence to their voices, ideas and concerns. From there, there will be a regular series of dialogues, roughly once a month well into next year and operating across two overall strands. The first strand will focus on the theme of building a shared island and will look at practical areas of co-operation and connection on the island, whether to do with the environment, education and training in the area of health, cross-Border employment and, of course, the all-island economy. The second strand will be around the theme of deepening the relationships under the Good Friday Agreement and will look at some of the key concerns in this regard in recent years and into the future, including identity, cultural exchange and barriers to reconciliation. There will be a different thematic focus in the context of different dialogues on a regular basis well into next year, bringing people together across the island on a representative basis to engage with these themes. Obviously, the engagement will take place online for the foreseeable future. When it becomes possible to engage in person, they will be representative dialogues. We are hoping - we are already seeing this response - that they will prompt, foster and encourage much broader and deeper engagement in civil society from people to provide their views on these really important themes. We will be recording each theme and making it available to inform broader public discourse and considerations in Government. I hope I have given a sense of what the series will look like.
Ms Michelle Gildernew:
I will go first, followed by Ms Begley and Mr. Brady. It is lovely to see Ms O'Donoghue again. I met her approximately 20 years ago in Belfast, which is not nearly as glamorous as Gettysburg, but we have crossed paths before. I welcome the development of the shared island unit and I welcome that the witnesses are engaging with us today. We welcome the new resources that are available. Ms O'Donoghue mentioned new money and previous commitments. It is good to hear that that money is in addition to previous commitments.
I am interested in hearing about how the unit proposes to engage. I note Mr. Duffy's reference to the engagement happening online. How do the witnesses expect to touch base with the groups? I am keen to ensure that people who do not always have a voice will have a voice in this engagement. We need to hear from those groups in communities that often are not able to articulate their point of view. How is it proposed to select groups for engagement? The people who will put their hand up will be the same ones who will always put their hand up. How we involve the people who normally do not put up their hands is the issue. I would like to hear from the witnesses regarding how they intend to engage in the future and what those meetings will look like. For example, will they be available publicly, what is the framework for them and what does the unit hope to get out of them? There is a broad piece of work going on and I would like to flesh out what that means for groups and people across the island.
On the local issue of the Ulster Canal, I also listened to the Taoiseach's speech referenced by Mr. Duffy who mentioned the matter too. There have been previous commitments in this area and some money has been spent on scoping the marina and the stretch to Clonfad. What is the next stage in this project and, if the Executive does not come up with funding in time, will the unit continue to work towards completion of that project? As we have seen, sometimes it is not that easy to get agreement in the Executive. I am concerned that because of difficulties within the Executive funding might be held up on unit's side as well. I would appreciate it if the witnesses could elaborate on those issues.
Ms Ãrfhlaith Begley:
I thank Ms O'Donoghue for her presentation. It was very useful. As Ms Gildernew said, the shared island unit is to be welcomed, particularly given the times we are in with Brexit and Covid-19 foisted upon us. There is need now more than ever before to ensure there is North-South co-operation.
I would like to comment on the shared island fund. The witnesses indicated that there is €500 million allocated to it and that the funding is ring-fenced, which is to be welcomed. All politics being local, I want to touch on the A5 western transport corridor. This is a long awaited project, one which the Irish Government committed to in the St. Andrew's Agreement. At that time, it committed to co-fund the A5. Unfortunately, it has reneged on that commitment and currently has only committed to funding €75 million towards to it. If we are to see delivery of that project within the next five years, it is crucial that the Irish Government uplifts its current contribution in line with its original commitment, which was to co-fund the project. I would be grateful if the witnesses could give us a breakdown of how the €500 million will be allocated across the cross-Border projects and outline the timescale in that regard. I know it is probably early days in terms of a timescale for disbursal of that funding but I would welcome an update on projects that are ready to go, such as the A5 project. The Northern Ireland Minister of Finance has already committed to phase 1A. Will this commitment be matched by the Irish Government?
Mr. Mickey Brady:
I thank Ms O'Donoghue for the presentation. The Narrow Water bridge has been mentioned a number of times. It is in the South Down constituency but Mr. Chris Hazzard cannot be present today. I have an interest in it because it is on the periphery of my constituency in terms of Warrenpoint and Narrow Water. There is a very active group promoting the Narrow Water bridge project. It has been ongoing for a number of years now and people are looking forward to its fruition. I have a couple of questions on the issue. The Taoiseach indicated that the money for the Narrow Water bridge will be ring-fenced. Hopefully, that is the case. Have steps been taken to expedite commencement of that project? There has been a great deal of interaction between Newry and Mourne District Council and Louth County Council and there is a long-standing memorandum of understanding between the two which has proved very useful in the past and which continues to facilitate good dialogue between the two jurisdictions.
Is it likely to be done fairly quickly? Warrenpoint, Omeath and Carlingford are areas that are frequented. When I was growing up, people spent a lot of time in Carlingford and Omeath. Carlingford is probably one of the nicest villages in Ireland. It has grown but is still unspoilt. There is a great need to promote tourism in this fantastic area, which has the Gap of the North, the Ring of Gullion, the Cooley Mountains and the Mourne Mountains. There has been talk in the past of a geopark so that may come to fruition in the future.
On promotion of the Narrow Water Bridge, there has been a good deal of talk but little action to date. People in my constituency and south Down are looking forward to that. Go raibh míle maith agaibh.
Ms Aingeal O?Donoghue:
I thank Ms Gildernew for remembering our meeting. I spent some very interesting years working in North-South co-operation from 2003 to 2008 and that is when Ms Gildernew and I met. There were some great achievements during that period.
I will make a preliminary point related to Covid, which Mr. Duffy touched on. Some of what we originally envisaged, including in terms of engagement and outreach and notably in terms of travelling to meet different groups, is severely restricted at the moment. Regarding some of the projects, such as the Narrow Water Bridge project, I would need to do a tour to see the locations and remind myself because, as I said, I was heavily involved until 2008 but have been involved in other issues since then. There is a challenge in this early phase because of Covid. We are trying to work through that and there are some pluses to virtual engagement in terms of the numbers of people one can have.
I will say a couple of words on the projects. One of the pitfalls is if one mentions one project and not another, it can be read one way or another. Everyone should take it as read that all the projects listed in the New Decade, New Approach, commitments from the Irish Government and all the projects listed in the programme for Government are part of our agenda, although it is absolutely correct to ask about different ones.
On the A5 road project, the current issues are not about funding but about planning permission, public inquiries and environmental issues, which are within the remit of the Northern Ireland Executive. There have been a series of challenges and public inquiries related to the planning for the A5 project. The state of play is that the latest public inquiry in the North has issued an interim report to the Minister, which I understand she is considering. Once we see the way forward to do the project and get past legal and planning issues, we will be ready to have further conversations on funding. We have allocated the money that has been mentioned, some £75 million. For the past number of years, the Department has not been able to spend that money on the A5 because of these obstacles. We have to overcome those first.
On the Narrow Water Bridge project, there was a good discussion between the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister for Infrastructure in the North, Nichola Mallon, at the North-South Ministerial Council. We have to look at what options we want to put on the table and reach agreement on what the plan is. There are many stakeholders and different views, including in the relevant region, but I assure the committee that the Taoiseach is committed to this project, which he has emphasised.
On the Ulster Canal, feasibility work is being carried out in the Clones area and there is a real commitment to the project. It has a great deal of support in the Executive. We are looking at delivering the phase around Clones and then planning for a further phase. The project will be done on a phased basis but it is viewed as iconic, as is the Narrow Water Bridge.
I will ask Mr. Duffy to address the issue of engagement and some of the projects. Dialogue is the formal part of that but we are engaged in an extensive listening and learning exercise, reaching out to a variety of organisations. Ms Gildernew's point that it cannot just be the people who put their hands up is well made. We are doing a lot of work making sure we have exhaustively explored who might wish to contribute or might be interested in contributing and might not have done so until now. It is not just about who is in the room, even if it is a virtual room, but about making the conversation relevant to them and their issues and interests.
Deputy Lawless noted that one area we are focused on is developing dialogue in the South in the regions and with different groups. I invite Mr. Duffy to respond now.
Mr. Eoghan Duffy:
I will provide a little more detail on the dialogues, an issue mentioned by Ms Gildernew. We envisaged that some of the dialogue work would bring people together online. We hope to capture some of those exchanges and conversations and make them available publicly to support a broader dialogue, getting a sense of what people are saying and what the key themes are. In some of the sessions, we will want people to have space for private discussions between invitees but there will also be a public element. The conclusions and themes coming from these dialogues will be very important for us in the unit in terms of how we shape the work and make it publicly available.
As Ms O'Donoghue said, we want to hear from people and allow them to directly shape how the dialogues work. On the first dialogue we are planning with new generations on the Good Friday Agreement, as part of extending the invitation, we will ask for suggestions on what areas should be discussed. We have some ideas. The key theme to be explored will be broadly around opportunity, equality of opportunity and employment on the island into the future. Another theme we believe to be relevant, and on which we want to hear back from people, is that of connections between people in work, in communities and in all aspects of life. What does that mean today? How can it be improved and deepened in the future? Where are the people across the island who are already providing leadership in that area?
We will be drawing out and making available such themes. Based on what we are hearing already, the dialogues will be a point where people come together and say what they are doing, what really matters to them, where they want to go and do from here and how they want to do it. Hopefully, the dialogue series in each sector, under each theme and, as Ms O'Donoghue said, in different regions around the country will provide a touch-point, give people a focus and allow them to proceed and shape it as they want.
I hope that gives the committee a sense of the thinking behind the dialogues. As Ms O'Donoghue said, we are investing a great deal of time in trying to reach out and talk to people across the board online, from community groups and civil society top academics, political stakeholders. It is valuable for us to get ongoing advice and responses as to how to shape and guide the work.
That is helpful and constructive commentary. Will the witnesses give the committee updates on progress at appropriate intervals, perhaps quarterly or every six months, in order that members can see what is happening on the ground?
I welcome the witnesses; it is lovely to meet them virtually. I am feeling very positive about the shared island unit. I particularly like the fact that there are different aspects to it including dialogue, research and an investment and development fund, which is about putting our money where our mouth is. I congratulate the Taoiseach in that regard. His speech has started things off in a very positive manner. It points to how dynamics change and challenges appear, as they have done over the last couple of years and underlines the longevity and importance of the Good Friday Agreement.
The witnesses touched on engagement and I am heartened to see that a lot of thought is going into that on a north, south, east, west and cross-community basis in terms of reaching out to people who have not engaged much previously. The witnesses are working on their outreach strategy. Will there be a communications strategy as part of that, so that people are being pulled in from different communities and different points of view towards dialogue? Will the witnesses push out to engage more people? Will there be an online presence? Is the shared island unit going to have an identity?
The witnesses talked about how there will be a comprehensive programme of research to support the building of consensus around a shared future. I would like them to tease that out further and tell us what they mean. There will be research into sectoral issues as well and reference has also been made to an all-island research hub. I ask the witnesses to tell us more about the latter. Is that a physical hub or a coming together of different academics in a group? Will the research be quantitative or qualitative?
My next question relates to resilience. When the Northern Ireland Executive fell it was for three long years. We have talked about the importance of health and the work that is being done through the North-South Ministerial Council on things like children's cardiac surgery in Crumlin hospital and in the north west on cardiac and cancer care. In reality, those initiatives started before the Executive fell and they continued on. Part of me wonders, in the context of Covid-19 and our current vulnerability, where we would be if work had been able to continue during those three years on new public health projects. If the Executive fell again, would the shared island unit be able to continue its work? How would that work?
The University of Ulster campus at Magee is mentioned in the programme for Government in terms of its potential in the north west. What is the situation in that regard? A tour of the shared island unit projects would be beneficial for this committee in order to keep us engaged. These projects are important and will be the basis of what the shared island unit represents.
Deputy O'Dowd and I would be delighted to welcome everybody to the Narrow Water bridge project in north Louth. It would be very remiss of me not to mention the former councillor, Mr. Tommy Elmore, now long dead, who put the concept of the bridge on the map. It was his brainchild and he was pushing it in the 1980s and 1990s, long before any of us came along. It would be remiss of me not to mention and give credit to the man who put the concept of the Narrow Water bridge on the map. In 2013 the Narrow Water bridge came excruciatingly close to getting across the line. We all know why it did not but it must be the top priority project now and I am sure the Chairman will agree with me on that. The Chairman and I would love to welcome this committee to Louth to see this top-class project.
As an avid rail user I also wish to raise the high speed rail project between Belfast and Dublin which is included in Project Ireland 2040. There are eight direct trains from Belfast to Dublin every day whereas Liverpool to Manchester or Glasgow to Edinburgh, cities of similar size and distance apart, have up to 30 direct trains per day. I would love to see a significant increase on the Dublin-Belfast line. In terms of cross-Border greenways, Louth County Council and Newry and Mourne District Council are already doing a lot of collegial work on connecting the greenway in north Louth through Victoria Lock and on to Newry. I would love the shared island unit to set out a long-term vision for our greenways. I would really love to see a greenway stretching from north Louth right up through Newry and along the south Down coast. That would be a great way to increase cross-Border tourism.
When we talk about the projects that are coming along, are we talking about more established projects like the Narrow Water bridge that have come very close to completion or is there space for funding new projects or new ideas? Will the funding be directed, more or less, to shovel-ready projects?
Before the witnesses reply, the Taoiseach referred in his speech to a significant increase in jobs, particularly in Border counties. Is there a plan for that? Where do the witnesses see that fitting in because the Taoiseach emphasised that point in the context of Brexit. The economy of the Border area generally, North and South, suffered greatly in the past but being part of the European Union helped towns like Dundalk and Newry. Clearly the Border area will be adversely impacted by Brexit in whatever form it takes and unfortunately, we cannot stop that. What do the witnesses see as their role in terms of job creation vis-à-visthe commitment of the Taoiseach to increasing employment in Border counties?
Ms Aingeal O?Donoghue:
I will start with Senator McGahon's last question which is relevant to a number of other issues. He asked if funding will only be available for established projects or whether there is scope for new projects. From my perspective, and the Taoiseach agrees, delivering on what we have already committed to is the first priority. That is what shows that we are serious. Some of those projects, as has been mentioned, have long histories and also have complications but they are the priority for us. That said, part of this is also about developing a new agenda and new ideas. In that context, Senator Currie asked about the all-island research hub which is a very good example of a new concept and new project that we are trying to develop. That would involve creating a context, a structure and ways for researchers in academia and industry on this island to collaborate. Players involved could include Science Foundation Ireland and Universities Ireland and we would need to see funding from the Irish Government and the NI Executive as well as, potentially, the British Government. An all-island research hub is one of the examples of a potentially new and very exciting project. It will take time to roll out and deliver but it is one that we are actively pursuing with the NI Executive and the British Government.
On the greenways, the Senator made a very good point. Just this week we had a discussion with our Northern counterparts on a number of issues including greenways. One of the takeaways from that was the need to join up the plans on both sides of the Border and see what that looks like. This is something on which we can make progress.
I fully agree with regard to high-speed rail. Coming from Cork, there is a contrast between even an hourly train service from Dublin to Cork compared with trains that do not go at simple hourly intervals. Again, what we are talking about here is looking at options. What would give us maximum impact and what is feasible? Quite a few of these projects are still in the terms of reference and development phases.
In terms of the research programme, we are looking at a number of different elements. At the end of the Taoiseach's event in Dublin Castle - somebody mentioned that there were a number of stakeholder engagements - Professor Deirdre Hannon made a very strong point about the research basis we need to promote further health co-operation on the island. It is that sort of work. It could be on a sectoral basis or on the broader all-island economy. It will certainly involve climate change and biodiversity issues. We expect to see some early work around issues like climate and good jobs and what that means for the island but there will be a broader and more sustained programme of research as well.
The point about resilience and the Northern Ireland Executive is valid. What is hugely important about this period is that we have a partner in the Northern Ireland Executive and that is how we want it to stay. What I wish to mention, because it is not necessarily seen as much as it should be, is that in addition to the North-South Ministerial Council plenary which took place at the end of July, there were six different North-South Ministerial Council sectoral meetings in September, October and into early November. This sees Ministers from the North and the South meeting regularly - at present, virtually, like everything else - but developing agendas together, etc., so it is hugely important to begin to see the outworkings of the North-South Ministerial Council. If we have time, I would ask Mr. Duffy to speak more generally and also to say a few words on the research programme.
Mr. Eoghan Duffy:
In respect of Senator Currie's point about communications, bringing in under-represented voices and the full diversity of views and opinion on the island is very important. Part of that will involve being open. People will want to decide again how they do that but,from the contacts we have already had, there is a lot of readiness and activity in academia, community groups and civil society groups that are ready and will continue to contribute to a broader dialogue on what a shared island means in the different areas. That will happen and we will certainly do everything we can to encourage.
In terms of specifics, we envisage an online presence, particularly to provide information and content from the dialogue series more broadly and also in the context of the research work. When different research projects are concluded, we will work with the research partners to convene events, discussions and press and other media work in that regard in order to publicise the conclusions of the research and support broader engagement with those themes. Those are some of the key points we would see in the context of communications. As the different projects in terms of delivery on a shared island agenda are developed and delivered, there will be communication aspects around all of that. I hope this provides a sense of the communications aspect.
Regarding research, we are finalising partnership co-operation with the ESRI to start producing research on some of the themes that were mentioned, particularly in respect of the all-island economy, health on the island and education. The Department has also asked NESC to produce a full report on a shared island that will be compiled next. The secretariat of NESC has already started work on shared island aspects of good jobs, cross-Border working, climate and environment so some early pieces of research will come through in the early part of next year.
Ms Aingeal O?Donoghue:
This is probably a broader piece of work than the shared island unit. There is a Brexit piece, as the Chairman mentioned. Much work has been done around supports for the sectors most impacted by Brexit and this will continue to be part of our preparations for the end of this year. Delivering some of the key connectivity and infrastructure projects will boost the attractiveness of those regions. The shared island unit is about promoting and developing all these aspects. Mr. Duffy mentioned the work on good jobs, the skills we have to meet the potential demand on the island and how we match that up. We work on all of those areas. Line Departments have responsibility in terms of policy areas relating to jobs. Again, the Taoiseach has also spoken about deprived areas and the need to address those issues and they will form part of our agenda but very much as part of the rest of Government.
I raised this issue because the Taoiseach made it very clear that he was referring to the Border counties and the jobs initiatives. He very clearly put an emphasis on jobs in Border counties. I accept what Ms O'Donoghue is saying but I would like to see what the Department's plan is in this regard because the Taoiseach's speech was for and on behalf of the shared island unit. I assume there will be additional funding for job creation in the Border counties. I would like more information on that.
With regard to infrastructure, improving the rail link is fantastic but the important thing that needs to be done is electrifying the rail system between Dublin and Belfast. That is one of the major projects. While it will create jobs locally, possibly in the context of supplying and tendering for material, etc., the reality is that these train services will probably operate on a non-stop basis. It is hugely important to emphasise local job creation.
Ms Claire Hanna:
Like others, I warmly welcome the unit, particularly the tone and approach over these first few months. It has got off to a really good start in terms of a work programme and looking at the practicalities and opportunities of uniting infrastructure and people across the island because it is fair to say that those were opportunities that were hard worked into the agreement but were not always realised. There has been much focus on the when of synchronisation across the island rather than on the why and the how. I look forward to seeing what the unit can produce in that regard. People have covered all of the different areas relating to infrastructure, sustainability and health. There is a real need to synchronise the two economies. It is stunning how different they are and the different opportunities they provide workers with. Some of that will be about waiting for the dust to settle from Brexit, which will inevitably create a recalibration over the next couple of years. While the unit cannot drive a large amount of that economic regeneration, it can certainly pump-prime it in terms of investment by the Government. I very much welcome the fact that it seems to be a moveable feast as in the unit is still looking for projects rather than a closed shop.
Senator Currie asked about areas I intended to explore in terms of the research unit. The witnesses have set out the position in that regard. Some of the value of the New Ireland Forum in the 1980s was related to putting good authoritative facts and figures into the public discourse. This is very welcome.
There are just so many questions about challenges and opportunities that we do not really know what we are dealing with. As I said, a lot of that is in flux because of Brexit; we cannot even calculate some of the basics. It is also because of Covid and the radically different patterns of spending that is creating, as well as, for example, change prompted by climate, but that will be a really valuable part of the project.
I ask about the dialogue and engagement strand, which is really exciting and, again, seems to be very much in the right place regarding some of the demographics identified and even already brought in with the Taoiseach's speech. I wanted to ask as well about harder to reach people and some of the opportunity that Covid maybe provides because we are talking about online engagement. I worked on a project for an international NGO years ago about trying to get research from all sorts of people, and the driving thing was what if the cure to malnutrition was locked in the mind of somebody who could not afford an education? In the same way, what if the answers to some of these issues are locked in the mind of somebody who is not part of a union of students or is not part of an identified demographic? The fact we are going to be talking online really does potentially open things up. Looking at the likes of the Citizens' Assemblies and the Citizens’ Convention on UK Democracy, their value was in the fact that it was kind of random, it did reach people who, as somebody else said, did not and are not necessarily those who put their hand up every time. Is that something the officials have perhaps worked into their plan? Obviously some of the responses are mad, but looking at the Scottish Government, it is harnessing some of this technology for everyday policy questions, literally throwing it open to the floor. While there is some work in curating it and not all of the submissions will reach the next stage, is that something the officials can build on, really opening the dialogue to the crowds and to people who are not politically engaged in one or the other groups that might be reached or found by the project?
Dr. Stephen Farry:
I thank the Chairman. I very much welcome the opportunity and it is good to see Ms O'Donoghue and Mr. Duffy again. I had a good meeting with them only a few weeks ago in Belfast so I am happy to continue the dialogue. It is important to get a sense of the potential of the shared island unit. It is something I very much welcome and I welcome the comments made by An Taoiseach in his recent keynote address as well. In addition to the dialogue issue, I am sensing that the main intervention here, not least given the relatively few staff the unit has, is one of steering and co-ordination and ensuring the different levers of Governments are pointing in the right direction in terms of maximising the degree of co-operation and collaboration that can happen on an all-island basis.
There are two angles I want to highlight today. The first one is around what one might term protecting what we already have, with Brexit being the key threat in that respect. The second angle is then some of the new opportunities we could take forward. On Brexit itself, we still do not know whether we are talking about a no-deal situation or, hopefully and more realistically, some sort of flimsy deal with a lot of questions still unaddressed. To what extent are there plans across Government essentially to revisit the mapping exercise that was done a couple of years ago that fed into the joint report of, I think, 2017, particularly given that we do not know exactly how the fallout from the decisions, or non-decisions, taken over the coming weeks will impact upon areas of co-operation? I am mindful of things like the service economy which may be hindered and may not be addressed by a goods-based free trade agreement at this stage, and how we protect existing levels of interaction both in services and the flow of people across the Border due to life, work, sport and other things like that.
The second thing, which Ms O'Donoghue is already aware of, is around things like medicines. Both Ms Hanna and I were at the Northern Ireland Affairs Select Committee yesterday talking about what is going to happen with medicine. While we have potentially a 12-month derogation from the falsified medicines directive as part of the implementation of Brexit, beyond that we are likely to see a major reorientation of medicines supply chains into Northern Ireland through Ireland rather than through Great Britain. Those impacts are issues that Governments across the island perhaps need to factor through how that is going to work in practice. Very briefly, looking at some of the new opportunities, I echo the points made about climate change and around renewables. I see that as being a major area where we can really scale up the level of North-South collaboration.
A grander one, if I could put it on people's radar, is around things like fire and rescue services. I was speaking to the unions in Northern Ireland today and they were saying they have some bilateral arrangements with some counties in the South but it is not a uniform agreement across the island. That is something where there could be a fairly quick early win where increased collaboration is concerned.
The final point is around the 2040 national planning framework, which is perhaps an area that needs to be revisited. I apologise if I have put my two feet in it by raising that, given it is probably something that has been very carefully worked out to date. It strikes me, however, that a lot of the fresh talk we are now seeing around North-South collaboration, such as on transport and the rail infrastructure, is not really factored into that document as strongly as it could be. It is probably not looking sufficiently at the potential for collaboration on the island, and that may be something worth revisiting either by the Irish Government or by both Governments on the island.
Ms Aingeal O?Donoghue:
For us, this is as much about us hearing from the members as it is about them hearing from me. There was a lot of really valuable food for thought there from a whole range of people who have come in so far. I just wanted to say that. We will be very careful in taking away all the points that have been made here.
Ms Hanna mentioned synchronising the two economies and the Brexit piece. On Brexit, some things we know already. Even with a deal we know that Great Britain is outside the Single Market and the customs union and that Northern Ireland will operate under the terms of the protocol. However, there is a whole range in there still, including depending on whether we have a deal or not, so that is kind of an unknown. Certainly looking under the hood of the all-island economy, to put it that way, is something we really want to do and that will form a major part of our work, especially where research is concerned. It is also about making that real so it is around the supply chains, how will those be affected and in what ways will they change. Mr. Farry raised the services economy not being part of the protocol, which is exclusively about goods. As such, what Ms Hanna, more elegantly than me, called the synchronisation and recalibration of the two economies, that kind of looking under the hood is a key part of what we need to do to build a pipeline for the future, which is what a lot of this is about. On the research, which Ms Hanna mentioned and I think Mr. Duffy did as well, it will be about the research but about publishing our research so that that it will be available to everyone to inform ongoing debate and development.
On the mapping exercise, again, some of this is about knowing where we end up on the final Brexit outcomes. There is no doubt about this, we all know it and it was the basis of the mapping exercise, that there are aspects of North-South co-operation that will become more challenging without a shared underpinning of a shared EU regulatory system.
That is what the mapping exercise did. As part of every North-South Ministerial Council meeting, there is a standing item around that sectoral area and Brexit, which is one of the ways we assess it. Into the future, those areas of North-South co-operation that are most impacted by Brexit and how we can put different scaffolding around them - I do not refer to institutional issues but rather what happens in respect of differing regulation and so on - will be an important part of our work.
There was a point on the national planning framework and other economic plans such as the national economic plan which was published this autumn. Part of what we will do is mainstreaming much of this into the strategic planning that the Irish Government is taking forward. We will want to see more North-South, all-island issues appearing in those documents.
Mr. Eoghan Duffy:
I will add two points to Ms Hanna's suggestion around getting as broad and as deep a base of suggestions and contributions. Doing it online is not something that we have specifically thought about but it is a really interesting idea and it is something we would be interested to explore. It might work best after we have had an initial stage of contributions where we have themes and areas where people can more broadly contribute. We will keep it in mind.
On Dr. Farry's point of looking at links beyond merely economic ones, there is a lot of work planned in this, including people links, be they sporting, civic, social, community and so on. The Taoiseach has said that a key objective for the initiative in overall terms is to support in every way and see all those thing grow. Looking at some mapping at the start would be a good way to contribute and grow from there.
I really welcome this opportunity to hear from Ms O'Donoghue and Mr. Duffy. There is a lot of expectations around the shared island unit, which is a really important development. It is very important that we as a committee work together very closely with it so that we are not re-inventing the wheel and we add to each other's work rather than doing the same thing.
Has the unit set out how it will formally engage with political parties and with the Oireachtas to give us an idea of what we can expect there?
Can the officials speak to the brief the unit gave to the ESRI and to NESC to give us an idea of its shape? Will we end up with research papers on the all-island economy and health service and an all-island approach to education? I look forward to that in my own brief in higher education. There is really good potential there. How will the unit interface with, say, the new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science here?
I will give the officials time to answer as I am interested in what they have to say.
It is good to see Ms O'Donoghue and Mr. Duffy again. I wish to reinforce Deputy Conway-Walsh's remarks about formal engagement with the Oireachtas. The unit is within the Department of the Taoiseach. As those of us in the Seanad and on this committee do not always get the opportunity to engage directly with the Taoiseach, it is crucial that we keep up momentum from this very welcome engagement. I know the Chairman will seek to drive that i the future.
I also welcome the opportunity to hear from the officials today and their willingness to listen to the committee. However, when will we get to the stage that we would see terms of reference for the unit that are clearly identified in order to help inform our work to better engage with it?
Ms O'Donoghue mentioned the programme for Government and identifying the priorities in it. An example of a great way of sharing the island which was identified is the proposed referendum on presidential voting rights being extended to citizens in the North. I am keen to hear if Ms O'Donoghue sees that as falling in the remit of the shared island unit, as well as other aspects of the Government. I am sure it could feature on the dialogue series in the future, which Mr. Duffy mentioned.
The Taoiseach raised the work of cross-border bodies in relation to the unit. Others have touched on some issues where we could collaborate. Senator McGahon mentioned the greenways and Ms O'Donoghue said there was some engagement on that with the North. Currently, Tourism Ireland is an all-Ireland body and then there are the two different tourism boards on the island. One crazy by-product of partition is the ending of the Wild Atlantic Way in Donegal, and the end of Ireland's Ancient East around the Chairman's and Senator McGahon's part of the country. Changing that would be a very positive proposition, if we can engage with how to go beyond merely connecting greenways.
This point is probably mostly for Mr. Duffy. Article 2 of the Constitution allows for everyone born on the island to be part of the Irish nation. That is a foundation stone for the work of this shared island unit, as it is already in existence. One of the really important things that the unit could do is to have a dialogue or series of engagements and some serious thought as to how the Irish Government, acting within its capacity, could give further effect to Article 2 without reinventing the wheel. What mechanisms can be brought forward in order that we greater share the nation, as identified within Bunreacht na hÉireann and the provision that already exists in giving everyone on the island the right and opportunity to be part of that nation? That might be a question for a broader dialogue but it is one that I would like to advance in the joint committee's engagement with the unit.
I thank Ms O'Donoghue and Mr. Duffy for their presentation. The Community Foundation for Ireland will provide over €15 million in grants to communities. They are exploring future all-Ireland co-operation between community, voluntary and charity groups post Brexit. It has contacted some of us for clarification on the role the unit emphasises for civic society engagement; the possible role for philanthropy, and facilitating such all-island engagement between groups; and the willingness of the Government to use matched funding opportunities between the public and private sector to support civic engagement, in particular in those communities most impacted by the Border. It has been announced the reconciliation funding through the Department of Foreign Affairs will be realigned. Is the Government in a position to provide an update on this? If answers to these are not to hand today, the witnesses can email a response.
The presentation referred to the research project with the ESRI. More specific to the Community Foundation for Ireland's questions is the work that was going to be carried out by the National Economic and Social Council. Built into that is engagement with civic society groups. I look forward to a response on that.
Access to the north west has been mentioned. It is accepted, without myself or Senator Blaney being parochial, that nowhere on the island has been more affected by partition than the region now known as the north west city region, encompassing Donegal and the Derry City and Strabane District Council area.
A crucial objective for us is to have improvement in rail, road and air infrastructure in the region. My concern about comments that have been made about rail is that the talk is about the Belfast-Dublin-Cork connections. The difficulty is, where does that connect to Sligo, Donegal and Derry? With the focus on climate change and all those challenges, rail has come back onto the agenda again after being parked in recent years. There is the campaign in the west of Ireland on the western track. I believe there is a ready-made campaign in the west to connect from Cork up to Derry. That would be critical to our region. I seek clarification on early thinking about that.
The funding of the A5 has been raised. It is important that when that project finally gets over the line next year, the money is available to move it forward quickly. There is also the support for the City of Derry Airport. Some 40% of the passengers who use City of Derry Airport are from Donegal, which is a large percentage. There has been no financial support from the Irish Government for almost a decade. It is unacceptable. It is not just about connecting Derry to Dublin, but connecting the world to Derry and the north-west region. One can fly into Dublin or Belfast and get a connecting flight. It is about interconnectivity by air, so I cannot stress enough the importance of supporting the City of Derry Airport under this shared island approach.
I will just deal with some housekeeping. I appreciate, Ms O'Donoghue, that you had a time limit of 3.30 p.m., but we have about three more speakers if you would be happy to remain so everyone who attended the meeting can make a contribution. We can do it in whatever way you like. Will I take the speakers now so you can reply to them all or what way do you want to do it?
Ms Aingeal O?Donoghue:
We can give it another short time, but we must be gone by 3.45 p.m. I know the committee has some internal business to do anyway. Many issues have been raised in the last few interventions so it might be easier if we try to deal with some of them. Given the time, we might not be able to reply to all of them, but we will note them and, where appropriate, revert to the committee. Then we will hear the three speakers. I will be brief and just check-mark a few things.
The referendum on presidential voting rights is a key priority for the Government. The Bill is now back before the Oireachtas. However, I have made a point a few times. There are initiatives and work that will contribute to a shared island where we will play a role, but they also might have a home elsewhere in the Government. The presidential voting rights referendum is being led by the Department of Foreign Affairs and the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage. We will co-operate with them, but they will take the lead. It is moving forward and is now back in the Oireachtas.
I note the points on tourism. I have to say we have not engaged much. In terms of sectoral issues, tourism is one we still have to turn our minds to properly. Regarding engagement with the Oireachtas and political parties, there is a piece of work in that regard that we are still thinking through from our point of view. Part of our purpose today when invited to the meeting was to hear from the members. For us, an important strand to see happening is the North-South parliamentary engagement. The North-South parliamentary forum has had a checkered history in terms of stop-start and so forth, but whether it is in a formal forum or otherwise, having some way and more advanced mechanisms on North-South parliamentary engagement would be very important. We are also open to thinking more about how we would engage with the committee, both by coming here periodically to report on progress but also in terms of engagement. For the present, we see the dialogues as being very much a civic society and NGO engagement, but we then need to find a way to build in political engagement as well. In addition, we are always happy to talk, and have a great deal of contact already, in Northern Ireland with the Assembly parties. We are also happy to engage here as well.
On the rail matter, I do not wish to make policy pronouncements that are a matter for the Minister for Transport, but I can safely say two things. First, there is now a Minister for Transport in the Republic who is highly committed to rail travel. Second, there is work ongoing to extend the examination of the high-speed rail link - we are still at the feasibility study stage - to extend that to include Derry. That is part of the thinking at this stage.
Does Mr. Duffy wish to comment on a few matters? For example, he has already met the Community Foundation for Ireland as part of our ongoing outreach work.
Mr. Eoghan Duffy:
We met the Community Foundation for Ireland a couple of weeks ago and had a good discussion. It is an example of a part of society which is ready, willing, engaged and keen to contribute significantly in this area, which is very encouraging. The broader point the foundation raises on civil society engagement is simply that civil society engagement is absolutely central to all this. For anybody who was able to tune in on 22 October to the Taoiseach's launch, there were active, constructive and forward looking contributions from a representative from The Wheel and from other civil society representatives on the island. We will be doing everything we can to foster and support that.
On research, which was raised by Deputy Conway-Walsh, we will be looking closely with the Departments and agencies in government to ensure that the research work is integrated very much with their current policy and research work. It is another point about working on a whole-of-government basis in that regard. We will be updating regularly on the research and, as Ms O'Donoghue said, that will be published from work with the ESRI and NESC as well as any other research on issues that is undertaken.
Senator Ó Donnghaile raised interesting points regarding presidential voting and Article 2 of the Constitution. Seeing that sense of connection and belonging for people on the island to the nation is very much part of the Good Friday Agreement. We have very interesting dialogue work, and we are thinking about that already. We will be happy to keep in touch on that.
I will be brief so my colleague can also contribute. We cannot talk about a shared island without inevitably talking about Brexit. As I was listening to everyone, I thought about how the conversation on Brexit descended into really deep division and a very contentious issue. One can see how that is now playing out. I am certainly not saying this is a precursor to a referendum that may happen on this island, but having that vision, working towards a shared vision of the island and creating an underpinning of hope are very important when we see how deeply divisive and corrosive the Brexit debate became. I commend having that space of hope, which is so important.
I wish to take a moment to reflect on the student movement. What is particularly interesting about it is that the vast majority of the current students will have been born after the Good Friday Agreement. There is a collective body of young people who have an experience of living on this island which is in a completely different time and space. I draw attention to the National Union of Students-Union of Students in Ireland, NUS-USI, a cross-Border link between the UK and the Republic of Ireland that is promoting student unity. That has been going since 1972 with the trilateral meetings which happen three times a year. I used to attend them. The NUS-USI did some research in January 2019 and a big issue that came up for students, the vast majority of whom had been born after the Good Friday Agreement, was a real fear about a lack of cohesion and a threat to safety on the island. The research was conducted by European Movement Ireland, NUS and USI. Students across the island have this fear, which is quite striking given the age profile. I wish to flag that.
In addition, education is a key issue. Members of the student movement felt that education was not high on the list of priorities during the Brexit negotiations and they are fearful about what is going to happen to the education sector in Northern Ireland and across the island.
Education attainment is a great leveller. There is a real fear for the future of education, so I thought I would flag that that space be perhaps explored and articulated through either the student movement or its representatives.
We are talking about a shared island. Looking around the room, I see one major group missing. What engagement was there with official unionism or political unionism in the North of Ireland before the Taoiseach's announcement was made, or is this a solo run on the part of the Irish Government? I wonder if any unionists are employed on the shared island project. I see Dr. Farry looking at me. I recognise that he comes from the much larger, broader unionist community. There is a lot of talk here about capital projects. Capital projects do not build collegiality, communities or the sort of united people I would like to see on this island. What plans does the shared island unit have in that regard? I know it is dealing with civic engagement groups or civic groups, but political groups are where the polarisation has taken place in Northern Ireland, and I want to know what the shared island unit is doing to fix that. What I would really like to know is what plans it has to unlock the locked section of unionism that does not engage? I have been sitting on this committee for four years now and I have never seen anybody from the unionist community, although Dr. Farry has appeared over recent months.
Finally, some people would say that what we have spoken about today would happen anyway, so what is there that is new?
Finally, some people would say that the Department has announced nothing new today or that anything it has announced or spoken about would have happened in the fullness of time anyway, so what is new? Perhaps I am missing something. I am quite happy to listen. I really want to see the other community that is not represented here, and if this means us meeting on a number of occasions in the North of Ireland to facilitate that, then we need to consider that.
Ms Aingeal O?Donoghue:
The Senator raised some big issues at the end of his contribution that probably merit longer conversations. I loved Senator Hoey's expression about creating an underpinning of hope. The positive response more generally and engagement from all members on the shared island initiative is very heartening for us. I take note of her point about the student movement. The point about the post-Good Friday Agreement generation was in the Taoiseach's speech and is at the heart of our first dialogue. We have not talked about education as much as we should have. It is a key priority for us. To reassure the committee, we are working with both the Department of Education and the new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, and the Minister, Deputy Harris, is very engaged on this issue. Part of this goes back to the north west, the university and higher education provision more generally in the region. To respond to one of the earlier points made, we have met with the two CEOs of the Donegal and Derry and Strabane local authorities and will continue an engagement through the north west as well.
As to what engagement the Taoiseach had before his speech, he had spoken in the margins of the North-South Ministerial Council, for example, to both the First Minister and the deputy First Minister about his plans and his thinking around the shared island initiative. We have engaged with a variety of people. This is a two-way street. We look forward and hope we can create a space where everyone will feel comfortable engaging with us. We have had quite bit of engagement with civic unionism and, although I do not want to put words in people's mouths, a level of response that we have found heartening.
To respond to Senator Craughwell's point that capital projects do not build communities, again, this is a multi-stranded approach. We have talked a lot about the funding. The provision of a ring-fenced shared island fund is one of the biggest new elements of the shared island initiative, but that is just one strand. The dialogues are about creating and building a community and a sense of community on the island. The ongoing work in a range of other Departments, including from the reconciliation fund, etc., is all part of that. It is important to understand that this is a multi-stranded approach and that doing one thing, namely capital funding, does not mean that nothing else is being done. This is about fostering inclusive dialogue, which is at the heart of the initiative. As to what is new, the ring-fenced funding is very new. It is about re-energising the agenda on the island in terms of all-island co-operation and a very deliberate, careful approach to developing and fostering inclusive dialogue.
I am conscious of the time. We might not have answered everybody's questions but we have covered most of them, I hope. We will certainly go through our notes and come back to the committee on any questions we have not covered. We are happy to continue the engagement into the future.
I thank the witnesses. It has been a very constructive engagement. They have been very clear, and it gives hope to everybody on this island that significant investment is coming now which will improve our relationships, North and South. Every member of the committee has had an opportunity to ask the witnesses questions and we have the answers. I look forward to meeting them again in the near future. I ask them to send us on the detailed answers members have requested if they have not given them. We are happy to work with them and engage on or off the pitch here.