Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees
Tuesday, 18 May 2021
Joint Oireachtas Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement
Shared Island Unit: Department of the Taoiseach (Resumed)
On behalf of the committee, I welcome Ms Aingeal O’Donoghue, assistant secretary, and Mr. Eoghan Duffy, principal officer, from the shared island unit in the Department of the Taoiseach.
The evidence of witnesses physically present or of those who give evidence from within the parliamentary precincts is protected pursuant to both the Constitution and statute by absolute privilege. However, witnesses and participants who are to give evidence from a location outside the parliamentary 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 parliamentary precincts does and may consider it appropriate to take legal advice on this matter. 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 or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to the person or entity's good name.
I call on Ms O'Donoghue to make her opening statement agus tá fáilte romhat.
Ms Aingeal O?Donoghue:
I thank the Chairman for the invitation to update the committee on the work of the shared island unit following our very useful and interesting engagement last November. To recap, I have responsibility at assistant secretary level in the Department of the Taoiseach for the shared island unit. I am joined by Mr. Eoghan Duffy, principal officer with the unit.
As the committee will be aware, the programme for Government outlines 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 October, the Taoiseach set out the Government's priorities and vision for the shared island in a major speech at an online event in Dublin Castle. As the Taoiseach noted, the Government's priorities under the shared island initiative are: to work in partnership with the Executive, through the North-South Ministerial Council and with the British Government, to address strategic challenges facing the island; enable priority delivery of all-island infrastructure commitments and foster new investment and development opportunities on a North-South basis; and foster constructive, inclusive dialogue and deliver a comprehensive programme of research to support the building of consensus on a shared future underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement.
As I think I said on the previous occasion, the Taoiseach established the shared island unit in his Department last September. It is crucial that this matter is being taken forward as whole-of-government initiative. While we are there, to co-ordinate, drive and motivate work, it is a cross-Government piece of work.
This is the first year of the shared island initiative. Operationally, the unit's work is focused on three areas: commissioning research; fostering dialogue; and building a shared island agenda, including delivering on the commitments in the programme for Government.
Obviously, we are working closely with colleagues in other Departments who work on issues relating to Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement and, of course, through the mechanisms of the North-South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.
If it is okay, I thought it would be useful this morning if I gave a brief update of where we are under these three main areas of work.
On the first, in terms of building a shared island, the promotion of all-island approaches to the strategic challenges facing the island, North and South, and delivering on the programme for Government commitments are the key focus. As many of the committee members will be aware, those programme for Government commitments are also reflected in the Government's commitments as part of the New Decade, New Approach, NDNA, agreement.
The committee will be aware also that, in budget 2021, the Government announced a Shared Island Fund of €500 million over five years, that is, out to 2025, ring-fenced for capital investment in North-South projects. It is important to point out that this is intended to be additional funding. Where Departments are already spending on North-South issues, that should continue. For example, where a Department has a budget for a North-South body or is supporting a particular programme of work, that continues. This funding, under the Shared Island Fund, is intended to be additional and, therefore, bring the weight of the Government's commitment to the shared island initiative to the table.
What will we spend this on? What are we funding? Here, we are guided by the programme for Government and the NDNA commitments. In summary, these include working with the Executive on cross-Border infrastructure initiatives, including the A5, the Ulster Canal, the Narrow Water bridge and cross-Border greenways; working with the Executive and the British Government to achieve greater connectivity on the island; new investment and development opportunities in the north-west and Border communities; supporting a North-South programme of research and innovation, including the possibility of an all-island research hub; and broader work on all aspects of North-South co-operation and the all-island economy.
The Taoiseach has emphasised the importance of moving ahead with long-standing cross-Border investment commitments, working closely with the Executive to achieve full delivery as rapidly as possible. For example, on 28 April, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, launched phase 2 of the Ulster Canal restoration project with full funding of €12 million now available for this. That funding was put in place through €6 million from the Shared Island Fund and €5.6 million from the Rural Regeneration Development Fund. Because in all of these cases it is about the work we are doing today but it is also about planning for tomorrow, the Shared Island Fund has also provided a further €1 million for phase 3 of the Ulster Canal project to undertake feasibility and pre-construction work, and this has now begun. The Ulster Canal is a good example of how, with political priority by the Government, a partnership approach with the Executive and with local authorities, and necessary additional resourcing provided through the Shared Island Fund, a major North-South project can move ahead under the shared island initiative. Many of the committee members will be more familiar with places along the Ulster Canal than I but, clearly, in the case of the Ulster Canal, we are delivering a public amenity and sustainable tourism initiative that connects communities and supports jobs and business opportunity on both sides of the Border.
Another example is that, on 7 April, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Northern Ireland Minister for Infrastructure in the Executive, Ms Nichola Mallon MLA, launched an all-island strategic rail review - an important part of our commitments under the programme for Government and the shared island initiative. The review will consider how the rail network on the island of Ireland can improve sustainable connectivity between cities, enhance regional accessibility and support balanced regional development. Of course, it will also include those aspects that people talk about a great deal in terms of developing higher speed and spine rail connectivity on the island. This builds on the commitment in the NDNA. It is an ambitious review which we are taking forward in partnership and will look at opportunities to enhance rail right across the island.
I will mention one other point. This is a first, but key, step in terms of the Sligo-Enniskillen greenway. Leitrim County Council and Fermanagh and Omagh District Council have been working together and now have agreed a tender for joint technical consultant work to undertake preliminary design work and route selection environmental assessment on the Sligo-Enniskillen greenway. It shows that many of these projects are at different stages but we need to continue to drive them through each of those stages as we move forward and then deploy the funding as and when the time is right.
The Government will make further allocations from the Shared Island Fund to invest for a more connected, sustainable and prosperous island consistent with the priorities set out in the programme for Government. The Taoiseach has referred to the particular potential and priority of delivering a North-South programme of research and innovation, and of supporting enterprise growth in the Border regions, including through co-operation on technology parks. These are areas where we are actively engaged in working through and developing ideas at present.
Throughout, the Government's approach is a partnership one, working with the Executive, with the British Government where that makes sense and with local authorities. The local authority dimension is important. There already is strong co-operation between local authorities in the Border regions, in the North West Strategic Growth Partnership, the Irish Central Border Area Network, the Dublin-Belfast economic corridor and the East Border Region. The Taoiseach and a number of Ministers have engaged directly with these cross-Border initiatives in recent months to affirm the Government's support for their work and readiness to collaborate with them as part of the Shared Island initiative. We are now following up with them in a more practical way around what might come out of the various strategies and priority plans that these groups have.
The Taoiseach himself has been engaging. We are all limited by Covid restrictions but he has, for example, met virtually with the North West Strategic Growth Partnership, with the two local authorities, Donegal and Derry and Strabane. The Taoiseach has met with the CEOs and chairs of the North-South bodies and he has also done a number of business engagements, including recently with the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce. In all of these, there is an opportunity to both talk about the shared island initiative but also to hear from these bodies what their interests and ideas are.
Second, we see the research very much as about deepening understanding of the island and it is a core part of the shared island initiative. We have developed a comprehensive programme of research, with the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, and the Irish Research Council, IRC.
Yesterday, the shared island unit and the ESRI published first papers examining, "The Economic and Social Opportunities from Increased Cooperation on the Shared Island". These were preliminary scoping papers but, effectively, the project of work for 2021 will focus on four areas: cross-Border trade in services; primary healthcare on the island, North and South; North-South patterns of educational participation and attainment and the lessons this might give us for the future; and enhancing the attractiveness of the island for high-value foreign direct investment. That is the ESRI piece.
We have a separate partnership with NESC, which is preparing a report to Government on shared island this year. Crucially, that will be informed by extensive engagement with stakeholders, North and South. That will bring a different set of ideas and perspectives to the table.
The shared island unit is also partnered with the Irish Research Council's new foundations programme and announced recently a new funding stream of €200,000 for researchers to apply to. This will focus on: political, policy and economic co-operation; and civic, social and cultural connection and understanding on the island.
For all this research work, the idea is that it will inform policy and contribute to the conversation about how we can work together across the island, taking up the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement.
The third element of our work centres on dialogue, outreach and engagement. This operates on two levels, one of which is the shared island dialogue series which the Taoiseach launched last October. The series aims to foster constructive and inclusive civic dialogue engaging all communities and traditions on issues for a shared future on the island. Some of the dialogues focus on themes which fall out of the Good Friday Agreement while others focus very much on sectoral areas and sectoral co-operation.
Before I go into the dialogues in more detail, I would stress there is also a huge programme of ongoing engagement from the unit with the full range of stakeholders North and South, albeit somewhat constrained by having to be done virtually. We have engaged with more than 130 different groups or individual stakeholders separate to the shared island dialogue series. This is very much about talking and developing an understanding of the shared island initiative but also very much about hearing from people what they want and what they want to see in the initiative.
In terms of the dialogues themselves, we have hosted four so far. The first was launched by the Taoiseach on 26 November and was a dialogue with young people on the theme of new generations and new voices on the Good Friday Agreement. On 5 February, we had a shared island dialogue on climate and environment on the island in which the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, participated. On 25 March we had a dialogue on civil society engagement with participation from the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, and on 10 May the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, participated in a dialogue on equality on a shared island. We are developing a programme of future shared island dialogues, the next of which will take place in early June focusing on the all-island economy. Future dialogues will focus on health, education and other areas.
I will try to give the committee a sense of these dialogues. Obviously they are taking place virtually. We tend to have around 100 participants. We could have a lot more because there is a lot of interest but we want these sessions to be a dialogue rather than a conference, as it were. We put a lot of effort into ensuring a very diverse range of participants, both North and South. One of the underlying themes in our work on the shared island dialogues has been to include voices and perspectives that are not traditionally so well heard, including those of women, young people and ethnic and minority communities. Very often, their perspectives can be quite different from some of the more traditional ones. We put a lot of work into participation, shaping the panel discussions and developing the themes.
We also do a lot of follow-up work, which is becoming more and more important for us. Follow-up work can mean developing the connections that are made in the dialogue or developing policy ideas and initiatives. We have seen really constructive, imaginative and practical discussion in these dialogues so far. We have been quite pleased with the diversity of engagement and the extent of our reach. Some of the suggestions and proposals, for example, on how civil society groups engage and work on the island are being followed up by us already in consultation with colleagues in other Departments. The same is true for policy issues. Reports and recordings of the dialogues are available on our website at gov.ie/sharedisland. The idea of the dialogues is that they would contribute to wider civic discussion and inform how the shared island initiative is further developed.
I have given the committee an overview of our work in terms of the broader political framing as well as the three core areas of work on which we are currently focused, namely, understanding a shared island through research, the shared island dialogues, and building a shared island through delivering on commitments in the programme for Government and the New Decade, New Approach, NDNA, agreement. I look forward to questions and comments from members. My colleague, Mr. Eoghan Duffy, is also happy to answer questions.
That is fine. Before going to members, I have a quick question on the Narrow Water Bridge. If someone wanted to find out the position with regard to the proposal on the Narrow Water Bridge or the A5, how would he or she do that?
Ms Aingeal O?Donoghue:
The best way would be by talking to us and the relevant line Departments. We take an overview of these projects and have a group of senior officials, North and South, who meet to get an overview of where we are at with regard to specific projects, the key staging posts, the potential challenges and obstacles and so on. On the A5, for example, there are ongoing planning issues in Northern Ireland. It is a case of either talking to us in the unit or, in the case of the A5, for example, to the Department of Transport, which would have that information.
There is a roadmap of knowledge, so to speak. I live in County Louth and obviously the Narrow Water Bridge is very important to me and my constituents. If I submit a parliamentary question on it to the Taoiseach's Department, I will get an answer. Is that the appropriate approach?
Ms Aingeal O?Donoghue:
The Taoiseach is very interested in the Narrow Water Bridge project. He sees it as a project that can make a very important contribution to the region in terms of connectivity and tourism. He is not just interested in physical connectivity but also in people-to-people connectivity and would be very happy to hear from public representatives and from the community.
That is good. The unit is doing a fantastic job. It is very active and its reach is very broad and inclusive. It is important to ensure Oireachtas Members have information on how to follow the excellent work being done by the unit.
I will take the first few minutes and Deputy Brendan Smith will follow me. Ms O'Donoghue and Mr. Duffy are very welcome this morning. Ms O'Dongohue has given us a very good outline of the work being done by the shared island unit. I very much appreciate the work that is going on. As a young councillor in 2000, I started a campaign with my council colleagues in Donegal on the A5. It is one of a number of projects west of the Bann that have been neglected for decades. However, the work being done by the shared island unit is resulting in the breaking down of barriers when it comes to an inter-agency approach, North and South. We have been calling for this for years and it is now happening. It galls me to read some of the media reports on this, which do not acknowledge what is really happening here. The work that is being done on the ground by the shared island unit is transformative for this island. It is time people realised that and started reporting it as it is.
I am familiar with a lot of what Ms O'Donoghue outlined but would like to delve further into the unit's work with the ESRI and the NESC on research. Many people are knocking the work of the unit because they believe it is futile. I am sure there has been much chat between the unit and others in the Taoiseach's office about this. What is it really about? Why is the unit considering doing all of this research? What is the point of it? What is the point of the research and the dialogue? Some people are calling for a citizen's assembly. What is the view of the unit on that issue? Is now the right time for a citizen's assembly? Some people believe a citizen's assembly would solve all of our problems and would get us to the point where we can all share this island peacefully. What is the unit's view?
I hope that many in the media are listening this morning and that we get a broader approach and view of what is actually happening in the shared island unit. Ms O'Donoghue spoke about dealing with 130 different groups across the island. There is transformative work and the more dialogue and discussions we have like this, the better understanding people, including ourselves, will have of the work the unit is doing. I wish it well.
I, too, welcome Ms O'Donoghue and Mr. Duffy. As the Chairman said, the scope of the work undertaken and being proposed by the shared island unit is very impressive and comprehensive. Ms O'Donoghue said in her introductory remarks that the programme of work and the proposed investment are underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement in all its aspects. I very much welcome the commitment by Ms O'Donoghue that the ring-fenced €500 million that is available over the next few years, which is very welcome, is additional funding. Too often in the past, when there was European funding specifically for cross-Border bodies and cross-Border developments, sometimes officials in the line Departments used that to substitute for what should have been line Department funding and we did not always get the additionality that was deserved and needed. I am glad she is emphasising that this must be additional funding, not substitute funding by some Departments.
I am pleased that the shared island initiative has enabled adequate funding to be put in place for the restoration of the Ulster Canal. As I represent the area, I am aware of its importance both North and South from the point of view of developing and contributing to the economic regeneration of rural areas on both sides of the Border. I come from the immediate area of the former Ballinamore-Ballyconnell Canal, which was restored in the early 1990s. It is now the Shannon-Erne Waterway and it has been an outstanding success, contributing a great deal to the economy of Fermanagh, Cavan, Leitrim and further south. I have no doubt that the Ulster Canal when completed, and it must be undertaken on an incremental basis, will contribute to and enhance rural regeneration and economic development in areas such as Clones, Cavan and elsewhere.
At our previous meeting, we discussed the importance of using the know-how, expertise and co-operation models that the local authorities have developed over the years. That is very welcome, because there is a massive amount of know-how and knowledge among the local authorities and within their specific groupings.
Ms O'Donoghue mentioned that one of the pieces of research that will be undertaken will be in the context of the economy and regional development. I come from the Cavan-Monaghan area and am very conscious that the central-Border area is the one that will suffer most from Brexit. There must be a great emphasis not just on research into the regional economy but also on ensuring the investment that is required is put into those areas. Let us face the facts. The Dublin-Belfast corridor will look after itself regardless of the economic circumstances on this island. If there are blips and downturns, cities of that importance will always survive and generally thrive, so there must be a special emphasis on investment in the least-developed areas, particularly the areas that have suffered most over the years. I sincerely hope that will be taken into account when deciding on investment.
Ms O'Donoghue also mentioned that one of the pieces of research that will be undertaken will be in the area of education. I have said previously that it has always been a source of regret for me that there has not been greater development of co-operation on an all-island basis in respect of education provision, particularly at the further and higher education level. Education was one of the areas identified in the Good Friday Agreement for further close co-operation. We are experiencing the creation of the technological universities in this State. That will bring benefits to many areas. Mr. Hannigan, the president of Letterkenny Institute of Technology, and his counterpart from Ulster University Magee campus gave us an outline of the great co-operation that exists between those two colleges and in the north west in particular. I would like to see some initiatives that would grow co-operation in further and higher education in the north east of the country. I have in mind the Cavan, Monaghan, Louth and Meath area, which has an institute of technology. There should be much greater co-operation and provision of education services in an all-Ireland context.
There are not nearly enough students from Northern Ireland attending college in this State or students from this State attending college in Northern Ireland. Anything that could increase that participation would be very welcome. Are any ideas being considered in regard to an educational initiative, be it a development of a capital nature or the collaboration being intensified, on an all-Ireland basis? That would be particularly beneficial to the Border communities that I mentioned. When the education architecture is being changed in this State we should not confine ourselves to the Border. We need that co-operation on an all-Ireland basis in the area of further and higher education in particular. It would be a great message to send out that the shared island initiative was the catalyst for further development, collaboration and progress in that area.
There are about 30 seconds left from the ten minutes allocated to your party. As good as Ms O'Donoghue is, I doubt that she will answer all those questions in that time. To be helpful to everybody, I have no issue with the members using up the ten minutes but we are stuck with our timeline. I will give five minutes for a reply and every other group will get the same facility, if that is acceptable. I think that is fair. I will go with that because I do not see anybody complaining. Respectfully, Ms O'Donoghue has five minutes to answer those questions. I realise it is a short timeline.
Ms Aingeal O?Donoghue:
Some of what was said is more for us to take away and reflect on, because there were some very interesting points.
Senator Blaney asked what the research and dialogues are for and raised the point about a citizens' assembly. In terms of the research, Professor Alan Ahearne, head of the ESRI, made two points when we launched the scoping papers yesterday, and they are very much the product of our discussions with the ESRI as well. One is that where jurisdictions are neighbouring, it is very common to do quite a lot of this type of research. There are many of the same factors in the delivery of social services, be it health, education and so forth, but there are different systems and, therefore, there are different outcomes in many instances. There can be a great deal of rich learning there in terms of understanding the factors that lead to good outcomes and how they impact on one another. That is one point.
The second point is that we all feel that there are opportunities for increased collaboration and connection that are as yet untapped. We can talk about them in broad-brush terms, but to understand them and to understand how to make them happen in a meaningful way requires much more research, in our view, certainly in areas such as public services or, indeed, understanding the economy. For example, in the case of the economy and Brexit, there is a huge focus on the goods trade on the island and the what the impact of Brexit might be on that, but far less on services. It is about understanding ourselves, how we work and how we do business, be it as a Government or in the enterprise sectors, and then looking at where that can be complementary. That is what is behind the research programme. We also see it very much informing Government policy choices and the discussions and dialogues.
As regards a citizens' assembly or other similar approaches, we believe the shared island dialogue approach is the right one now.
It has enabled us to reach out to a wide range of people. It is a different type of engagement to a citizens' assembly, which involves 100 people. Obviously, an assembly is quite representative but it is one set of 100 people. Our view was that what was more valuable was a more broad-based engagement and, in particular, a real ambition for us is to bring new voices to the table. That is not to take from the extraordinary commitment, expertise and insight of the many people who have been working on these issues for decades but if we are to talk meaningfully about our future on this island, then it must be a conversation that involves everyone. Again, I am not just speaking about both communities in Northern Ireland; I am also speaking about people this jurisdiction. As the Taoiseach said at one point, a conversation about what a shared island means is very different for a person in County Donegal than it is for someone in County Cork. It has quite a different meaning, perhaps. It is very different if someone is a migrant or from the Travelling community. What matters to a person when he or she talks about the future can be quite different. Thus, the objective here is to have those conversations. It is a phase. We will need to take stock after this round of shared island dialogues to see where we go next with them. In particular, as we make the transition, we all hope, from virtual meetings to meeting in person, that opens up a whole way of engagement which we are trying to think about now.
Apologies, I am probably going on a bit long. I thank Deputy Brendan Smith. His point about all the regions along the Border is very well made. We have engaged with the Irish Central Border Area Network, ICBAN, which is long-established in the Border region. As can be seen, some of the initiatives we are concretely moving on are in that region but it is a well-made point. Further and higher education is absolutely something we are doing quite a lot of work on. We are working very closely with the new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and there is very strong commitment from it as well. Some of it might be partnerships between higher education institutions on either side of the Border. We too have had very good engagement with Letterkenny Institute of Technology. With some of it, we would look to see can there be more structured engagement, for example around building research links, etc. On the Deputy's point about how not enough students travelling to study both South to North and North to South, we are actually doing some work to try to understand why that is, what the obstacles are and what are the factors driving student choice. It would be of incalculable benefit into the future if there was a growing body of young people who had worked, studied, made friendships and learned South to North and North to South, as I said. It is certainly on our radar.
That is alright, I can barely see myself. I am in one of these booths in the convention centre for the first time and it feels a bit odd. I just managed to get the lights on.
My question relates to the North-South Ministerial Council. It is obviously dependent on having a nationalist and a unionist Minister attend and we have seen non-attendance in the last number of months, thought there has been attendance as well. When there has been attendance, the meetings have been very productive and we saw announcement regarding the Ulster Canal. That is something which will benefit people's quality of life and that is really important. There is a lot of emphasis on ensuring, post Brexit, that we are making the structures of the Good Friday Agreement work and that we are working on keeping the relationships and the work progressing, both east-west and North-South. Has it affected the work of the unit, and if so, how? Will it affect the work of the unit in future?
I thank Ms O'Dongohue and Mr. Duffy so much for the work they are doing. It is really excellent and interesting. One of the things I am most interested is the feedback, particularly that from all the younger groups and especially the New Voices and New Generations on the Good Friday Agreement dialogue. Perhaps the officials could address that. One of the points that came out of the dialogue is that there is "a lower level of awareness and engagement among young people on the Good Friday Agreement, particularly in the South" and a feeling "that many of the enduring challenges for the Peace Process are related to socio-economic issues including education". I am very interested in the work the unit is doing to bring new voices into this dialogue because that is really important. People who are not engaged in this conversation are exactly those from whom we are interested in hearing in order to get new perspectives and, indeed, all the perspectives. I am interested in that group in particular. Will the officials detail how they have selected them and the sort of feedback they gave?
Ms Aingeal O?Donoghue:
I thank the Senator and the Deputy for their questions. I will say something on the council and then ask Mr. Duffy to come in on the dialogue in a little more detail.
Clearly, the council is a critical part of the architecture of the Good Friday Agreement. Following a plenary meeting of the council at the end of July, we had a full round of North-South Ministerial Council sectoral meetings last autumn. We then had another plenary meeting in December. It was virtual but it was a good meeting and there were good outcomes. Obviously, there is politicisation around the North-South Ministerial Council right now with what we might call a mixed record of participation. It has not stopped but a number of the sectoral meetings have not happened. Some of them did not happen when originally planned to and some have not happened at all. It was welcome to see the transport ministerial meeting happen on 5 May. It was one of the ones which had been postponed and is actually particularly critical, given a lot of the infrastructure work I was talking about. We have to see how this plays out, particularly around a plenary meeting we are aiming to have again this summer. We will continue to push forward with our work and try to work with the Executive in whatever ways we can. Obviously, certain things should go to the North-South Ministerial Council and we are certainly keen to see issues dealt with and formally discussed there but we can also look at other ways of working, as necessary. Thus, it is potentially impactful but for the moment we have been able to keep the work moving forward. I have given a little of the sense of the dialogues but I ask Mr. Duffy to come in at this point.
I was asking about the new voices the unit is trying to bring into the dialogue. The New Generations and New Voices on the Good Friday Agreement report is very interesting because these are, by definition, very new voices. I was struck by some of the comments in it. It was quite interesting around the interest in social change and all that but also evident from the report is a lack of knowledge about the Good Friday Agreement, possibly, and a focus on socioeconomic issues. I am wondering what is behind that comment, as a second question.
Mr. Eoghan Duffy:
I thank the Deputy. The overarching theme from the first dialogue with young people - and the Deputy mentioned a couple of points there - was a desire for more opportunities for connection between each other on the island. It came through really strongly both as an end in itself and then in terms of an interest in having an opportunity to work together and talk together on particular issues. The point was also made that both the North-South and east-west dimensions to those connections and relationships should be fostered. That is something that has come up as well in subsequent dialogues when we have had a focus on, for instance, the environment.
There is recognition of how much civil society is a part of finding solutions on the environmental, climate and biodiversity crises and the need to take account of what people at community and civil society levels are saying on an all-island basis but also to provide supports so that can happen to a greater extent. That is a really strong theme that has come through and we are reflecting in the unit and in Departments around how that could be better supported and taken account of.
I thank the witness. It is great to see the different points of life being included, whether they are social, environmental or education issues. How were those groups brought together? How were they selected?
Mr. Eoghan Duffy:
As Ms O'Donoghue said, we have been working hard to ensure we are involving new voices and groups. We started with key stakeholders and people who are deeply involved with the sector, whether in environment, youth work or civil society co-operation. That was the starting point. We pushed to bring participants together to see how we could get to new representatives and voices. We proactively asked if people were working with women, young or new communities and we asked them to nominate people who could represent those new perspectives.
Mr. Eoghan Duffy:
That was a really interesting point that came through in November. It is probably just the passage of time. The major events in the peace process were 23 years ago, so younger people do not feel the same connection and have not had the same lived experience. They see and understand things in a different way. That is not to say there is a lack of understanding but there is certainly a sense of a generational difference and that there could be a better connection with what is happening with the peace process today. It is a strong point that came through from young people participating that day.
Ms Aingeal O?Donoghue:
I have a quick point and it goes back to why we are doing shared island dialogue in this way. It is around broadening the net and precisely about trying to bring into a discussion people who, as witnesses have mentioned, may not have had as much awareness or engagement around the Good Friday Agreement.
It is great to hear the dialogue series is progressing. I share Senator Ó Donnghaile's view that awareness is a bit low around this and I would prefer to see more insights coming out of this and the sharing of progress. Is one of the outputs of the series that there could be an appetite to progress the North-South consultative forum and there could be engagement with enough groups for us to have some momentum behind getting that up and running? It is another part of the Good Friday Agreement that has not been implemented. Are there lessons from the dialogue that could bring us in that direction?
Mr. Eoghan Duffy:
The views and perspectives will certainly speak to the value of that kind of forum and the importance of getting the North-South consultative forum up and running, if that proved possible. If it does not prove possible, we are also seeing that people at a civil society level are moving ahead and building or deepening connections on the island anyway. That is also very worthwhile and valuable. We are already following up with a number of groups and proposals where interesting suggestions have been made, such as to increase networking between women's representatives on the island and young people. Short of the formal political decisions around consultative forums, much can also be done and we are following up on that.
One of the key submissions made to us is the importance of developing the north west, particularly Derry city, Donegal, Sligo, Fermanagh, Tyrone and so on. Much of the work of the shared island unit is very useful in that respect. I am thinking of the A5 project and the education and co-operation that has been mentioned. Regardless of whether somebody has political views or none, the work will provide an economic benefit to the entire island. Will the witnesses briefly comment on where they see that going or what new synergies, if any, could arise as a result of the dialogue? That is the part of our island that is most disadvantaged, in many respects, despite having wonderful tourist attractions and resources in the form of its young people, who are the future of our island.
Ms Aingeal O?Donoghue:
We have had quite a lot of engagement with the north west. I am very conscious I am speaking in the presence of Deputies from the region but there is no doubt when meeting people from Donegal County Council or Derry City and Strabane District Council - we normally meet them together - that the level of co-operation between them and the extent to which they see progress for the north west involving both sides of the Border are very striking. We already have with these bodies a north west strategic growth partnership in which the Irish Government and Northern Ireland Executive put €2.5 million each. This is a sort of leverage fund to enable these bodies to do more work on what might be beneficial. Some of that funding is coming to an end and from the Irish Government's perspective, we are very open to continuing it. We will find a way to do that.
More important are the discussions beyond that into what we can do specifically. The Chairman mentioned the A5 and higher education capacity for the region is a really big theme in the north west. It is critical as a driver. Again, I am conscious there are representatives from the region. There is a sense that some of the initial or earlier infrastructure problems, such as broadband and connectivity issues, are no longer as pressing as they were and we now need to consider newer areas of development, including climate response, the climate economy and, as I mentioned, developing enterprise further with technology parks, etc. There are many ideas and we are certainly working quite closely with these bodies. We have a meeting scheduled with the north west strategic growth partnership for early July. It is very active. The education piece is certainly one of the strongest themes over and above traditional infrastructure.
Mr. Paul Maskey:
I thank the witnesses for the presentation. Any conversation or dialogue must be commended and it is very important to start from that point. The witnesses mentioned they have engaged with 130 different groups, which is impressive given the Covid-19 pandemic and restrictions on who could be spoken with and when. I am surmising that was done over Zoom or MS Teams meetings but it is very important work.
The witnesses mentioned they would speak more to some of the women's groups and youth organisations across the island. How does this unit draw up the list of who it will speak to, as this is very important? I have seen recently that there is much collaboration between some of the youth organisations that work across the Border. Will the unit engage with those type of youth workers and leaders? I am also thinking of some of the women's groups, such as the Shankill Women's Centre and the Falls Women's Centre in my constituency, which do very positive work across communities. I know they have other engagements right across Belfast and beyond.
How does the unit draw up the list? The witnesses said they engage with people in the sector but does this process reach the grassroots?
I know, for example, that over the last number of months, some of the youth groups in Belfast have engaged in a very positive way along the peace lines, preventing some of the outbreaks of violence and the riots on our streets. They have worked tirelessly. Has the unit engaged with those types of youth groups? That is a most important piece of information.
On the issue of the train link between Belfast and Dublin, has there been engagement on the development of a high-speed rail link and the economic corridor between Dublin and Belfast? They are the two largest cities on the island. If that project is done right and well, everywhere else in between will benefit from it. I would like to know if there has been engagement on that issue.
Mr. Chris Hazzard:
I thank Ms O'Donoghue and Mr. Duffy for their presentation. I have two questions. The first has been touched upon already. It concerns the development of the Narrow Water bridge and progress on that project. It has been a commitment for some time now between the administrations, North and South. Given that it was earmarked for development in the New Decade, New Approach agreement of last year, the local community would have expected more progress by now. Certainly, they would have expected a more coherent public update as to the status of the project. If that is not possible today, I would very much like to meet Ms O'Donoghue and Mr. Duffy in the weeks ahead to follow up on the issue.
Second, if the Narrow Water Bridge and projects like that are the hardware that we can enjoy going forward, we also need to look at the software, as it were. I refer explicitly to Ireland's Ancient East, and the ludicrous situation that it stops at the Border. I represent a part of the world that was the playground of Cú Chulainn and Fionn Mac Cumhaill. Our shoreline is marked with the legacy of St. Patrick, the Vikings, the Normans and the Planters. Taking Downpatrick town, for example, the graves of St. Patrick, the viking king, Magnus, and Thomas Russell, the founder of the United Irishmen, are located there. We have the only working heritage railway in all of Ireland. The Struell Wells and St. Patrick's church at Saul, which is known as the cradle of Christianity in Ireland, are located in the area. Despite this, we cannot tap into Ireland's Ancient East, which is a very rich and promising tourism initiative. We have seen the positive impact that the Wild Atlantic Way has had on the west of the country. Tourism providers in County Down are crying out for this type of investment and support, certainly on the back of Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic. Now is the time to look at how it can be done and to work alongside people. It is only right that Ireland's Ancient East should stretch right up through County Down and into County Antrim. The Wild Atlantic Way goes right around the western coast to the Giant's Causeway and Rathlin Island. Is the shared island unit working on that issue? It is as important as investment in the hardware projects. It is equally important that we also start to look at how we link up some of these tourism initiatives.
Ms O'Donoghue referred to the programme for Government commitments. Does the shared island unit see its role as specifically pertaining to the shared island aspects or the cross-cutting programme for Government commitments? I have raised the point previously, but one of the obvious issues for me is the need for dialogue and preparatory work around the issue of proposed voting rights for Irish citizens based outside the State, which I believe chimes very positively and well with the work being done by the unit. We need to have a conversation about that and it needs to be given a platform. In the same vein, I wonder if there has been any engagement with our diaspora on the issue? I refer both to the long-standing diaspora and many of the young people from across the entirety of country who have had to emigrate in recent years. Due to the fact that the world has changed there is greater global access, the diaspora are very much connected into Irish life and want to be a part of it.
The issue of a citizens' assembly was mentioned earlier. From my perspective, I do not see it as being one or the other. That is to say, I do not see the shared island unit as being in competition with any citizens' assembly on this issue. I put it to Ms O'Donoghue and Mr. Duffy that such an initiative by the Government would actually assist and be of additional use to their work, as opposed to taking in any way from the work the unit is doing. It does not have to be one or the other. I certainly do not envisage it being that way. There is a role for the shared island unit and the work it is doing.
As well as growing calls outside the Oireachtas for a citizens' assembly - the committee heard from the Reverend Karen Sethuraman and Mr. Trevor Lunn, MLA, on the issue last week - it is now the agreed position of Seanad Éireann, for example, that the Government should establish a citizens' assembly to plan and prepare. That should not be downplayed or forgotten. It is a political reality. I wanted to make that point and ask the question specifically around the programme for Government commitments and engagement with the diaspora going forward.
Ms Aingeal O?Donoghue:
On the question of how we draw up the lists, to build on what Mr. Duffy said, I cannot say that we have reached everyone. Part of it is numbers and part of it is knowledge. Most importantly, we are not simply taking the tried and tested or the well-known stakeholders or interlocutors on a particular suite of issues, whether it is equality, the environment or whatever. We are trying to push out the boundaries and very consciously look at more local groups or those which have not previously been involved in the work in any North-South dimension. We are thinking about Traveller groups and minority ethnic groups. Some of it is about a conscious decision to ask whether we have enough or the right set of people. It is about pushing and asking who we could speak to about certain issues and who might be able to make suggestions for groups to be contacted.
Mr. Maskey knows better than I do that we are not starting this work from scratch. A huge amount of work is already taking place on the island. There is a huge amount of outreach and engagement that our colleagues, particularly in the Department of Foreign Affairs, do in Northern Ireland on a daily basis, including through the Belfast office. Therefore, we have things to draw on. When we are having a dialogue in an area like the environment, we obviously engage with the relevant Department and agencies and seek suggestions from them on who we can contact. I am not saying that we get to everyone; I do not think we do. However, we have made a very creditable effort at pushing the boundaries. We can see that in the dialogues and the perspectives that are brought to them. When we get to having face-to-face meetings, we will need to look at that strategy again and how we can really make it work on the ground for people. We are always happy to get suggestions.
On the issue of the high-speed rail link, it is a key part of the strategic rail review, along with the idea of having a spine of connectivity. It is part of the overall review.
I very much hear what Mr. Hazzard has said on the issue of the Narrow Water bridge project. He is probably right that we may need to have a further conversation on the matter. I can tell him that the project is very much on our list of priorities. We have had a lot of engagement with the two local councils. The Northern Ireland Executive's Minister for Infrastructure, Nichola Mallon, and her officials are also very positively disposed to the project. However, there are still a range of issues around the project, linked to design, planning permissions and other areas, that we are working through. Frankly, I would be happy to hear as many voices from the region and locality urging action on the Narrow Water bridge project as possible, because it is important that there is a real understanding that this is something that is valuable and wanted in the local region.
On the tourism point, even on the other side the Wild Atlantic Way also stops at the Border, even though it is picked up, as it were, by the causeway. To look at something like that would require positive engagement from the Northern Ireland Executive. The were some discussions the time we established the Wild Atlantic Way. We would be happy to continue to discuss it, but I am not sure that we would get a positive response right now on that.
On the referendum, this may seem like the opposite of the point about the money that we have in the Shared Island Fund being used. The shared island initiative is not taking over all pieces of work that relate to North-South or all-island work. Obviously, we have an interest in the referendum and we keep engaged with it, but it is being led by colleagues in the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage who have responsibility for electoral issues and by colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs. It is not a project we are taking on separately. It already has structures around it and a commitment from Government on it. They will continue to deliver on that.
We want to have engagement with the diaspora. We have only had limited engagement so far. When we started this, we would have thought about trips to the United States, many trips to Great Britain etc. and how we might begin to open up conversations there. We have done a little bit of engagement with the diaspora, but not as much as we would like at this stage and we need to develop it more.
I accept what was said about the citizens' assembly not being a choice of one or the other. The Government's approach is the shared island approach through the shared island dialogues. The Taoiseach and the Minister have both outlined their position on a citizens' assembly.
Mr. Eoghan Duffy:
Mr. Maskey asked about whom we engage with and how. The National Economic and Social Council is doing the kind of research that we have sought in partnership with the Irish Research Council and the research coach at the ESRI, which is all very much engaged research. It is about talking to people in the different sectors and hearing from them as a fundamental part of the conclusions and recommendations that will be coming through from that. That is of clear value.
It is very important that we can hear from people and that people can talk to us and to other Departments and agencies, but we are working on these issues. We see connections between people as an objective of the initiative in its own right. Under PEACE+, there will be a particular funding opportunity to enhance opportunities for North-South connections at community and civil society levels. We are certainly encouraging people to consider that and to take up the opportunity that is there. There are other funding streams from Government that can also provide support. We are also focusing on that.
I understand that Ms O'Donoghue will not be taking on the mechanics of running the referendum. I appreciate that is a different Department, but it is an important theme. One of the big issues with the shared island initiative is that it also has responsibility under Article 2 of the Constitution to ensure that everyone born on the island has the right to be part of the Irish nation. That cuts across what Mr. Hazzard and I have said. I do not see the shared island unit having a role to do with that, but in the broader thematic discussions about how the Irish Government does not just facilitate a dialogue between communities and across the island which is very welcome and important, but also tells us what it will do within its power and within its gift, unilaterally - I do not say that in a negative sense, but in a positive sense - to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement and Article 2 of the Constitution are fully upheld and implemented. I wanted to make that point to clarify.
Dr. Stephen Farry:
It is great to see Ms O'Donoghue and Mr. Duffy again. I believe there is scope for much greater practical co-operation on the island, notwithstanding and without prejudice to whatever may happen on political and constitutional issues. Much more can be done even on a stand-alone basis.
I wish to record my deep disappointment and concern at the current approach of the DUP to North-South co-operation, which is an integral part of the Good Friday Agreement. If an effective sustained boycott emerges, it will be very damaging to everyone's mutual interest, including to the social, economic and environmental welfare of the people of Northern Ireland. Co-operation in areas such as health is of intrinsic importance to people's lives.
I appreciate my questions may slightly cut across areas that are the responsibility of the Department of Foreign Affairs and I apologise in advance if I do that. I want to flag up four different areas. I echo the comments Deputy Brendan Smith made earlier on about education, particularly further and higher education, which is an area that is significantly underdeveloped.
Given that we are all mindful of the importance of addressing climate change, whatever we do on climate change policy both North and South in areas like renewable deals, it is important that we try to co-ordinate those as much as possible to try to find economies of scale that would be of mutual benefit. Of course, the environment does not respect borders in any event. That is an obvious area to highlight.
I wish to highlight two further points arising from Brexit. They are not necessarily part of the wider UK-EU negotiations but go to the area of North-South co-operation. The first relates to the mutual recognition of professional qualifications. Progress has been made on a bilateral basis, but that is largely happening between the respective professional bodies rather than necessarily being an overarching approach. I think only about ten or a dozen areas have been agreed so far. I would like to get a sense of where things stand in that regard.
During 2017 and 2018 a very extensive mapping exercise was conducted as part of the preparations for Brexit relating to areas of North-South co-operation. I believe about 140 areas were identified. Is any work going on to audit where we stand on all those areas post-Brexit? What areas are running satisfactorily and what areas are being significantly impacted? We need to identify in a more systematic way areas where some degree of remedial action is required to protect the co-operation we had previously, before we consider new areas of co-operation.
Ms Aingeal O?Donoghue:
It is good to see Dr. Farry again. Hopefully an in-person meeting will be possible soon. He is right to highlight further and higher education, and climate. As he said, the environment does not recognise any borders. We need to drill down into the specific things we need to do on an all-island basis, and the things that may be happening on the broader international scale because the UK shares the common commitments in terms of the ambition on zero emissions.
There is quite a lot of work going on. To go to Dr. Farry's last point about the mapping exercise, it was one of the areas about which we were quite concerned, in the sense that much of the environment co-operation on the island is underpinned by the massive amount of shared EU regulation. That is, therefore, an area we continue to watch quite carefully. I might ask Mr. Duffy to come in on the mapping exercise. If issues are becoming problematic post Brexit, however, obviously, there are ways for those to be flagged up through the North-South Ministerial Council secretariat and through the work of departments.
It is not possible to do a government-to-government bilateral agreement on the mutual recognition of professional qualifications because it is an EU competence. We went into this fairly extensively during the Brexit preparedness phase and ended up having to look at profession to profession. What has happened has not happened by chance, however. It was a massive piece of work right across Government on our side, with every Department, through their agencies and out to their professional bodies, to try to ensure that the kind of recognition needed though the professional body link was put in place. I am very open to hearing that there are problems. Our assessment at the end of the year was that almost all of them were in place. In some instances, that means it is not quite as easy as it was before but there are mechanisms. A very significant part of our Brexit preparedness work was to make sure we could arrive on the other side of Brexit with at least sufficient scaffolding in place to allow this to happen. Clearly, however, as it goes through, we want to see whether it is working or whether it is working in such a way that may still be having a chilling effect. All these things have to be seen. Does Mr. Duffy want to come in on the mapping exercise or anything else?
Mr. Eoghan Duffy:
I thank the Chairman and Dr. Farry. Briefly, as Dr. Farry noted, the mapping exercise was comprehensive. It was also indicative in recognising that important co-operation also takes place in many other areas. The North-South Ministerial Council meetings in recent months have all specifically considered the impacts of Brexit for the different sectoral areas. As Ms O'Donoghue said, Departments and agencies, North and South, are also very much looking to see where there may be impacts and it is an area on which civil society has focused as well. That is an important contribution. Everyone is watching carefully and is concerned to see that difficulties do not arise.
A separate stream of PEACE Plus funding, which I believe will be important over time, is looking at administrative, regulatory and other barriers to co-operation across borders and at providing funding for research and stakeholder engagement for Departments and agencies to come together to identify and find solutions to those problems where they exist. It will be important to see that stream fully taken up and directed to the kinds of issues that may arise.
I will not take up much time because all my questions have been covered. I welcome both Ms O'Donoghue and Mr. Duffy. I thank them very much for coming in and giving us this presentation. I absolutely 100% welcome the shared island dialogue they are having with many diverse groups. It is fantastic and really important to hear experiences and viewpoints from all voices throughout Ireland and that it is all-inclusive.
One question I was going to ask, which has been covered, concerns the citizens' assembly. Last week, I was really delighted that Fianna Fáil accepted my amendment to acknowledge the need for responsible planning and preparation for possible constitutional change, as anticipated in the Good Friday Agreement, and, therefore, supports the establishment of an all-island citizens' assembly to discuss options.
I love citizens' assemblies because they have worked in many different areas such as the marriage referendum and others. I feel it is a really rational and respectful debate with thoughtful, considered discussion, which already begins in people's homes and spaces and is brought into the citizens' assembly alongside the expert evidence, passionate testimony and all those things. They set the tone for public debate in a really respectful way, which is why I love the idea of them. I understand that Ms O'Donoghue covered this and noted it relates to a different Department and it is not her area. I imagine the work she is doing is really enjoyable. As I said, I love dialogue and listening and talking to people.
Ms O'Donoghue has covered the citizens' assembly piece. The shared island unit hinges on co-operation from the North and on all political views as well. Dr Farry touched on the DUP withdrawing co-operation. How much does Ms O'Donoghue think that will have an impact on North-South co-operation in the current circumstances? How does that affect the shared island unit?
Ms Aingeal O?Donoghue:
I thank the Senator. Obviously, a new dimension, which the Senator highlighted, is that Seanad vote on a citizens' assembly, on which the Government will have to reflect.
I see Ms Hanna is now back in the meeting. The future of North-South co-operation is concerning. We are obviously in a period of somewhat unsettled politics at the moment. We need to see how that pans out in terms of both the formal work of the North-South Ministerial Council and broader co-operation and engagement around, as we always frame it, mutually beneficial North-South projects. Clearly, there is a concern at the moment and the politics around the North-South Ministerial Council have been mixed into the politics around the protocol in a way we would not agree has an actual connection. The North-South Ministerial Council is there as part of the agreed institutions under the Good Friday Agreement and it should operate on those terms. It is something we are watching very carefully and engaging with.
While some of the North-South Ministerial Council meetings have not happened and we have seen what is around that, there continues to be quite good engagement at official level. While I would not for a second imply that this is sufficient, it means we can keep going for the moment. It is not the answer but I would say there is still quite good engagement around a number of the areas at official level.
What is Ms O'Donoghue's thinking on the idea of a citizens' assembly? Would the shared island unit consider scoping out how such a body would function on an all-island basis? Is that something Ms O'Donoghue might think about?
Ms Aingeal O?Donoghue:
As I said, the Government already must reflect on the Seanad vote. While I am happy to take this away, that is a political decision at this point. We have a work programme for the moment, which we agreed with the Government, and that is what we are working on. We will, of course, be feeding what has been said to us today back to the Government.
Ms Claire Hanna:
Apologies that I missed the last few minutes of the discussion. I really appreciated the presentation and just how comprehensive the research scoping has been. I say that as the proud owner of a big bound copy of the New Ireland Forum reports, which my hoarder father kept from the 1980s.
I enjoyed the ease with which I was able to browse through the papers and, obviously, the forum complements SDLP thinking in the years immediately after the Good Friday Agreement, the scope of North-South bodies that we tried to implement then, our thinking in and around 2007 and our North-South Makes Sense piece of work. I am glad to hear the rhyme with that and the practical issues around health, primary care, education and skills, and foreign direct investment. What is this project about if it is not about improving material well-being and outcomes for people across the island? We also must consider how to capitalise other research and pieces of work that people in civic society and elsewhere are doing. People will be aware of the SDLP's New Ireland Commission, which is picking up and running with some of these questions and hoping to spark off practical conversations.
It is possible that the committee has discussed this matter during the couple of contributions I missed, but I want to ask about the politics around the North-South Ministerial Council, the delivery of our shared island unit and what our guests think we can do to disarm any misapprehensions. Are there things that our guests think the Assembly can take forward to enable some of the practical projects? I am a representative in Westminster. With that in mind, are there ideas for which our guests would like us to advocate? I apologise again for missing the conversation and thank our guests for their presentations.
Ms Aingeal O?Donoghue:
I thank the committee for the positive feedback on our work. It is much appreciated and important because, as I said, this needs buy-in across government but also across the Oireachtas and other elected bodies. I talked a little about the North-South Ministerial Council because I was asked about it. It is a challenge for us now and for some of the parties in the Executive. The North-South Ministerial Council is an integral part of the Good Friday Agreement and of the architecture around it. It is also, as Dr. Farry was saying, critical to the delivery of practical work that will benefit people on the island. It is a mixed picture at the moment. It is clear that there are many areas of politics into which the politics of the protocol have now been inserted. We will need to see how that plays out as we get into the next phase with a new leader of the DUP, what will happen in terms of its nomination for First Minister and what approach will be taken.
We continue to push for North-South Ministerial Council meetings and prepare fully for them. We are preparing for our plenary at the moment, even though we do not have a confirmed date. It is certainly something on which we continue to work all the time. While it is not a substitute, there remains good contact at an official level, both through the North-South Ministerial Council and outside that framework.
When it comes to other enablers, I have always been of the view that the more that other voices point to the benefits of North-South co-operation in a practical way, including as many voices as possible from outside the political sphere, the more helpful it will be. The more business is ready and willing to talk about the benefits of operating an all-island economy and the more higher education institutions talk about their appetite for doing more research on the island, the better. That is an important point because it drives a message from a constituency level up to politicians. It also helps to depoliticise some of the issues and to highlight the benefits.
Ms Hanna and I might talk separately about messages in Westminster. We see an east-west dimension to the shared island initiative. The initiative is about the island but there are places where we think there could be a good triangular structure between Dublin, London and Belfast. One of those might be in the area of research and innovation where there is a Westminster wish to see research driven out into the regions. There are a few areas in which we can link in and give Ms Hanna a sense of some of our thinking.
We now move on to the last session for Sinn Féin. The speakers will be, in this order, Deputy Conway-Walsh, Ms Michelle Gildernew, MP, and Ms Órfhlaith Begley, MP. Before I call Deputy Conway-Walsh, I will say that we must finish at exactly 11.30 a.m., at which time we have to close shop because of rules on Covid-19, even if we are in mid-sentence. I call Deputy Conway-Walsh.
I will be as succinct as possible in case my connection goes again. I thank our guests for their presentations. This discussion is useful. I want to ask about the architecture for the engagement with political parties because it seems as if a lot of good work is being done at an administrative and civil servant level. How is that managed, with everything being underpinned by the principles in the Good Friday Agreement as they refer to parity of esteem and all of that? How is that engagement done? That is probably my main question. Some of the research questions I wanted to ask have already been answered.
The Chairman might like to allow my colleagues to come in. I will ask another short question. Our guests accepted that engagement and co-operation are concerns. What are they specifically proposing in terms of moving on and changing this?
Ms Michelle Gildernew:
It is good to see Ms O'Donoghue and Mr. Duffy again. I know they have been doing a lot of engagements and meetings. Is there an organisational chart of key officials to whom we could talk about different things? What is the make-up of the team working with our guests? Are there many staff involved and are they all based in Dublin? Are any of them based elsewhere? I am sure that if our guests need a permanent home, there is plenty of scope for space in the North.
I am a farmer's daughter. With the environment, talk about climate change and Brexit, our farming communities are feeling very vulnerable and, as custodians of the island, I would be keen for them to be represented. I do not think they were represented in the dialogues event in February, although they may have been and I hope they were. It is important to tie in with farming groups across the island.
I have a specific question about the allocation of €500 million in the shared island fund. I welcome any work that has been done so far on the Ulster Canal and the Sligo to Enniskillen greenway. That is all very important for my constituency. Have there been any conversations with the Minister for Infrastructure in the North about the Enniskillen bypass and whether any of that money is likely to be allocated from the fund to ensure that work goes ahead?
Ms Ãrfhlaith Begley:
I thank our guests for their presentations. As a representative of the north-west region, I commend the work that has been done to date between the two council areas. It has been fantastic and is a good example of North-South co-operation.
Following on from this, the potential of the north-west region in its entirety is dependent on the delivery of the A5 western transport corridor. Unfortunately, we had a recent setback to the A5 but I hope that following the next public inquiry we will see the delivery of the project, which is crucial to the regeneration of the entire north-west region. I want to touch on the fact that €500 million has been allocated to the shared island unit. Originally, the Irish Government had agreed to co-fund the A5. It has now committed only €75 million towards it. Is there potential for the Irish Government to increase its contribution to the A5? Will additional funding be made available to the shared island unit and cross-Border projects?
Ms Aingeal O?Donoghue:
I will answer some of the questions and ask Mr. Duffy to respond to others because I believe this is our last round. With regard to the A5, the Government has budgeted the €75 million and it has not yet been spent. It is going through a further process in the North following the interim report from the planning appeals commission. There will then be a further round of consultation and a final report. I cannot make commitments today but what I can say is that the A5 has always been regarded as a strategic project for the north west. If we get to a situation where it is going to happen and where there will be shovels in the ground, then speaking today, and I cannot say where we will be in a couple of years time, the Irish Government will be up for a conversation on how much more or in what way it can further support it. I do not think this conversation will happen until we get through these various planning cycles in the North. This project has been around as a joint project since St. Andrews. At this point, we would want to make sure it was moving into delivery phase, at which point we could have more conversations. This is all without prejudice but there certainly would be an openness to having that conversation.
With regard to the farming community, our colleagues in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine make the point that in the Border regions agriculture is an absolutely critical part of the economy. This is part of what we want to do. There are also interesting ideas about women in agriculture that we would like to see developed.
With regard to the unit, we are quite small. In addition to Mr. Duffy and me there are three other members of staff, with one more coming on board. That being said, we work very closely with others, including colleagues in the Department of Foreign Affairs and other Departments. It is a small unit but we have been able to maintain focus and deliver. People are not working in the office at present but we are Dublin-based. We are thinking about how we will do more regional outreach on the ground once we can travel and, going back to some of the points others have raised, how we do more, particularly with the younger generation. These are all issues we are looking towards to plan for the future.
I will have to come back on the Enniskillen bypass. I do not know whether there have been discussions. There may have been discussions between the Ministers, Mr. Mallon and Deputy Ryan. I will check this and come back on it.
To respond to Deputy Conway-Walsh, engagement with political parties and how we do this is another piece we need to develop more. These engagements for us with the committee have been very important. We have had engagement with political parties in the North and we have been open to engagement with all of them. Not all of them have met us but we have been very open to engaging with all of them. There is a piece that needs to be further developed. I know there are some initiatives in this area, perhaps looking at younger and newer members of the Assembly and the Oireachtas. There has also been some outreach between the women's caucuses in the Oireachtas and the Assembly and we have had some engagement on this with the chair of the women's caucus in the Oireachtas. It is a piece that as time goes on we want to develop more.
Mr. Eoghan Duffy:
I have a point to add on Ms Begley's question on the Enniskillen bypass. I do not have specific information on the project but focusing on strategic investment and public investment priorities in Northern Ireland through the strategic investment board process in Stormont and in the South through the national development plan review is an important part of getting strategic investment joined up between both sides. On our side we are working on the national development plan.
I have a very quick question on engagement with political parties. Is there an architecture that ensures the unit is engaging with all communities, or at least actively seeking engagement with all political parties on the same basis?
Ms Aingeal O?Donoghue:
In this jurisdiction we see engagement with the Oireachtas committee as being key at this stage. With regard to engagement in Northern Ireland, our approach is to look to periodic engagements with all of the political parties in Northern Ireland. We managed one live visit in the windows between the various Covid lockdowns. That was our approach then and it continues to be our approach. More broadly on Northern Ireland, I should add that since Easter the Taoiseach has spoken to the leaders of the political parties. There continues to be that type of systematic engagement. We have not developed ideas yet so I do not want to make it sound as though we are about to announce initiatives, and the committee might feel we should be. As we look to a phase of in-person meetings we are looking at how we might structure this in a more developed way, particularly building some themes around it, as I mentioned.
It is very important, and I will give a case in point with regard to student mobility because it is imperative that we look at education delivery and research on an all-island basis. Mr. John O'Dowd and I have launched an initiative to examine some of the barriers that have led to a reduction in student mobility since the Good Friday Agreement and what are their causes. There is no point in us all reinventing the wheel. If work is being done it is very important that political parties know about it and that there is additionality rather than reinventing the wheel. We have an ever-changing political system and political environment and we all need to be ahead of the curve.
It is great to hear there is real concerted effort and will on issues North and South on an all-Ireland basis. I cannot welcome the shared island unit enough. How do we ensure there is buy-in from all groups? Many groups have been established and are working on our future. The best group to look at it is the one established by the Taoiseach of Ireland. How do we get buy-in and co-operation from the other groups? We are all better working together and we know this. How do we get buy-in and engagement?
Ms Aingeal O?Donoghue:
These are very good points on the structures.
Regarding the buy-in and engagement, the base starting point of the shared island initiative is that it should be inclusive and that all communities and traditions should feel comfortable engaging with. I take the Senator's point that many different groups are developing ideas. It is not like we are the first to say that people involved in civil society should talk to one another or build connections. We need to build on what has gone before. I thank the Chair for this second opportunity for Mr. Duffy and me to engage. We are happy to continue this engagement. It is important for us to hear from the committee and to take away and reflect on its messages.