Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Monday, 14 June 2021

Seanad Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union

Rail Connectivity Post Brexit: Aughey Screens

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Fianna Fail)
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The agenda for the second hour of today's meeting is to explore the potential for increased rail connectivity post Brexit, North and South, with a particular focus on a high-speed rail link from Letterkenny to Derry and Dublin via Omagh and Monaghan. With us today we have Barry Aughey, general manager of Aughey Screens. I understand he has a presentation to make to the committee. Once he has finished, we will go back to the members for a session of questions and answers.

Mr. Barry Aughey:

I thank the committee for the invitation to address this meeting. I believe the PowerPoint presentation has been shared with the members.

I will make a brief statement and, if needs be, we can go through the PowerPoint presentation if members have questions.

I am here to introduce the north-west corridor, a high-speed rail project. Post Brexit, the north-west region, which is already one of the most marginalised parts of the European Union, will become further marginalised. As we emerge from Covid and start to deal with Brexit, the Governments of both the UK and Ireland will draft and implement plans to rebuild and invest in the economies and livelihoods of all. Now is the time to think about how we can rebuild a more equitable and equal society. Infrastructure is the backbone of a strong and resilient economy. It will not just bring investment, jobs and opportunity but also will address social issues and help bring communities together. For the first time in 200 years, the younger generation is at risk of being financially worse off than their parents. A commitment to a high-speed rail project such as that for the north west will help prevent that.

The north west has been lacking infrastructural investment for more than 100 years, as is evident by the lack of rail infrastructure and a good motorway. The proposal I put before the committee relates to more than just a high-speed rail project; it is a spatial strategy, the catalyst to create opportunity for three new cities. It will bring balance to the island and the economy and accommodate population growth. It has been estimated by IBEC that the country's population will grow to almost 10 million people by 2050. It will promote a shared economy for both jurisdictions and people will come to live by the use of it. It will enhance productivity for companies while improving employees' well-being. It will bring talent and foreign direct investment to the regions. It will be the largest ever foreign direct investment on the island. It will bring life back into the towns and villages of the north west and enhance the competitiveness of Dublin and Ireland on the world stage. It will help reduce carbon emissions and lead to a prosperous society.

I will not waste any more of our guests' time. If they like, I can go through the PowerPoint presentation or address questions.

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Fianna Fail)
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I thank Mr. Aughey. With the agreement of members, I propose we go straight to the PowerPoint presentation and take questions afterwards. Is that agreed? Agreed. I invite Mr. Aughey to continue with his presentation.

Mr. Barry Aughey:

Members should be able to see the PowerPoint presentation on their screens.

Believe that a further shore

Is reachable from here

That is a quotation from a Seamus Heaney poem, who of course was from Derry. I will address the concept of the proposal. It concerns a high-speed rail linking the north-west urban centres, in particular Letterkenny, Derry, Monaghan and Omagh, to the Dublin city region. In the case of Monaghan, it covers Cavan-Monaghan, and in the case of Omagh, it is the Enniskillen-Omagh-Fermanagh area. They are the three urban centres I mentioned that have an opportunity to grow. The corridor will bring rail connectivity to three counties on the island. Currently, five counties have no rail infrastructure and this will bring it to three of them.

On spatial strategy, there is an all-island approach of two jurisdictions with greater connectivity, social inclusion, a shared economy and sustainable population growth. As I said, there is currently no rail infrastructure to the north west. It has been considered by the European Union to be a marginalised part of Europe and this will be enhanced post Brexit. The proposed infrastructure will help create a shared economy.

The next slide shows three maps demonstrating the current infrastructure. I am not sure how well members can see them but the first map depicts the rail infrastructure in 1920, while the second depicts the existing rail infrastructure. In the latter, the entire north-west region has no rail infrastructure. The third map shows the current motorway network. Members will see that the north west has been lacking investment.

The following slide shows the route of the corridor, from Dublin to Letterkenny-Derry. The high-speed rail we propose will travel at 350 km/h on average, while the estimated travel time, non-stop direct from Dublin to Letterkenny, will amount to 46 minutes. Currently, it takes 180 minutes by car. We would like to have the ability to connect into the metro terminal at Dublin Airport because it would enable commuters to use it, given that this will be for more than just tourism. It is really for commuters, who will be able to integrate into the Dublin city region and avail of job opportunities that may lie within.

On the Letterkenny-Derry terminal, what is most significant is that at a meeting in February 2018 between the CEOs of the two local authorities, Mr. Seamus Neely and Mr. John Kelpie, it was agreed that instead of having one station or terminal in Letterkenny and another in Derry, one station would serve both urban centres. They agreed on a location close to Newtown Cunningham, a midpoint between the two urban centres. It was suggested a bus corridor would serve both urban centres direct to the train station. As such, the target area is the Derry-Letterkenny-Strabane region, which has a population of about 200,000.

The distance of the corridor is just under 200 km as the crow flies. Inevitably, however, it will not be able to travel as the crow flies, so it is estimated that it will end being about 230 km.

This is an image of the map. What is most significant about this is that high-speed rail requires a straight line. The straighter the line, the faster it can go. High-speed rail can deal with climbs and valleys - up and down movement - but it cannot accommodate turning left or right or curves well. When these are introduced, speeds are greatly reduced. It is important that the line is constructed as straight as possible to achieve maximum speed and maintain safety.

I will address some of the benefits. One of the significant points about high-speed rail is it is the safest form of transport. It is very reliable and safe. It will also reduce carbon emissions, help with cleaner air as it has fewer emissions due to diesel and bring about less stress for workers travelling to the office, be it from Dublin to the regions or the regions to Dublin. Not having to deal with traffic and congestion will mean they are much more productive employees. It will also expand the pool of labour available to companies in the greater Dublin region. Likewise, it will enable people within the greater Dublin region to commute to work within the regions. Urban sprawl would be reduced. Migration is a concern in the north-west region. It will create access to talent and competitive labour. It will mean that young people can remain in their local communities while working in jobs they desire. It will bring life back into our towns and villages.

By and large, that is the proposal. There are a few more slides but, in general, I think members get the point. I am open to questions.

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Fianna Fail)
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I thank Mr. Aughey for a very interesting presentation.

Photo of Robbie GallagherRobbie Gallagher (Fianna Fail)
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I welcome Mr. Aughey to the meeting and thank him for taking the time to be here. This project is hugely exciting. It has the potential to bring enormous benefits to the north west. Mr. Aughey outlined in great detail the historical lack of investment in the north west. As someone who comes from outside Letterkenny and now lives in Monaghan, I have a fair idea of that isolation. The three maps in Mr. Aughey's presentation - rail as it was once upon time, rail as it is now and the motorway network - illustrate in one clear graphic the deficit of infrastructure that exists. Mr. Aughey spoke about the benefits from reduced carbon emissions to the potential development not just of the north west but the heart of mid-Ulster, which has also suffered from lack of investment. All those areas surrounding the route of the railway have serious potential growth.

Mr. Aughey mentioned discussions between Donegal County Council and Derry City and Strabane District Council. Has he had other discussions with authorities in Northern Ireland, London and Dublin? What have these discussions led to? I understand that there may be private sector investment involved in the project. Could Mr. Aughey outline what would be the input of the private sector into this project? Would there be adequate bums on seats, if I can use that expression, to justify the investment that would be needed in this project? I look forward to his responses.

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Fianna Fail)
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If it is okay, I will bring in a second member to make sure we have enough time to get to everybody because we need to finish at 5 p.m.

Photo of Malcolm ByrneMalcolm Byrne (Fianna Fail)
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My questions follow on from those of Senator Gallagher. I am a great believer in using high-speed rail but it tends to be between two major urban conglomerations anywhere else it is used in the world, for example, in China, Japan or elsewhere in Europe, such as the Madrid to Seville line. My question is about the economics of the proposal. Are the numbers there for the line to be viable? Is there a danger that if we provide a rapid rail service such as this, the airports in Derry and Donegal would be made redundant?

My other question relates to experience around rail generally. Those of us in other regions are trying to get Iarnród Éireann to invest in the existing rail network. Where does Mr. Aughey suggest the funding for this project will come from? Will it be private sector investment or a combination of the State and some private entity?

Mr. Barry Aughey:

In response to Senator Gallagher, I have been engaged with local authorities outside Donegal County Council and Derry City and Strabane District Council and I have also engaged with investors. I first looked at this project in 2015. I have been to London on several occasions to meet investors and have also been communicating with investors in New York. It would be a public-private partnership, PPP. The private sector would look to be the majority investor but it would need investment from both jurisdictions so the Irish and UK governments would need to be involved in this. It is also likely that European structural and investment funds will have an involvement.

On the point regarding bums on seats and people, at the moment, while there is not a large number of people there, it is envisaged that people will come to use this line and live by the use of it. In time, we target 55,000 people on average using the service daily by year six. That involves commuting from Dublin to Monaghan, Omagh, Letterkenny, Derry, in between and back again. It is not about tourism and social issues. The purpose of this is to drive economic growth and create opportunity and, on the back of that, jobs and a growth in population. It is envisaged by IBEC that there will be significant population growth by 2050. Northern Ireland is in a unique position. While there is still the protocol, which has yet to be worked through, Northern Ireland has the ability to trade in the UK and Europe, which places it on a good footing. If it can get past this protocol, there will be significant opportunities.

It is envisaged that people will live by the use of this and that populations will grow in the regions around the train stations and terminals in the towns of Monaghan, Omagh, Letterkenny and Derry, as has been the case.

The other point was on the airport. I do not know what will happen to Donegal Airport. It is most likely that there will be an impact on it. There are airports in Derry and Letterkenny. I am not sure whether both would be sustained. What I do know is that transport by rail is safer, more reliable and more environmentally friendly. There would be fewer carbon emissions. It is futuristic, of its time and a lot more convenient. Does that answer the Senators' questions?

Photo of Niall Ó DonnghaileNiall Ó Donnghaile (Sinn Fein)
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I thank Mr. Aughey for the presentation. It was really useful. The historical and generational neglect of the broader north-west region, including its transport and infrastructure, is so stark when seen in the terms presented.

Significant work has been done on the Dublin–Belfast economic corridor. There was a major conference just a few weeks ago that brought the councils along the corridor and other key stakeholders together. From my time in Belfast City Council, I am aware that it is quite arduous to get all the relevant people around the table to have a stake in the issue of better rail connectivity and a range of other associated economic, social and infrastructural issues. I am wondering about the status of the proposal. Is there a push to try to bring together local government representatives, political representatives and the chambers of commerce on the proposal? From my perspective as someone who has been somewhat involved with the Belfast–Dublin link, I contend that it has been quite difficult but we have certainly seen positive movement. I just want a better understanding of the status of the proposal.

Photo of Vincent P MartinVincent P Martin (Green Party)
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It is good to see Mr. Aughey, a noted entrepreneur. Entrepreneurs create jobs and help society. This is a modern man who is ambitious and resilient, working according to the principle of going big or going home. He is thinking outside the box. This proposal is very good for the island of Ireland. It is incredibly exciting. It is music to my ears because the whole north west has been bereft of rail since the authorities tragically lifted the tracks and built on many of them from the late 1950s onwards. Unfortunately, addressing this is not in the programme for Government. It is an encouraging achievement to get this far because we have many requests.

Mr. Aughey will know that we are taking the matter very seriously at this committee. He will keep going but I do not want the project to run out of momentum. We are stronger together. This phrase was used to keep Scotland in the United Kingdom but I want to apply it in a completely different way. We are stronger together. I do not want this proposal, despite the presentation having been very informative, to fade away in a whimsical way. In concrete terms, how can this Brexit committee help Mr. Aughey to make progress on this great idea and help our island with connectivity? Could all the parties go to their grassroots and have it formally agreed at Ard-Fheis level and then ask, when we have unanimity, how we can push forward the Aughey proposal, this exciting proposal?

I have been happily ensconced for many years now in the Thoroughbred County, Kildare, where I am a proud Monaghanman. I am delighted a straight line cuts through Carrickmacross because it could do with rail. There is a rail track that has been built on in Kingscourt. The proposal is incredibly exciting but I worry about it because, unfortunately, as a seasoned campaigner for rail for many a long year I have had more setbacks than progress, to be quite honest about it. The plan we are discussing is more ambitious than many I have seen before. I know Mr. Aughey will stick at it but perhaps we could take up in private session the question of how what he has put forward can become more than just a very novel, interesting proposal. I realise that Mr. Aughey means business but it is a matter of how the Oireachtas should proceed. He has set out his proposal. As with Senator Ó Donnghaile, I would like to know the current status of the proposal. It is a game changer. It is brand new. Mr. Aughey is looking after the north west. I am conscious of the Dublin–Dundalk–Belfast rail corridor but the north west must not be isolated, especially in light of Brexit. I am going to keep a firm eye on this matter. We will be judged by our progress. I realise that this is a big issue for the next generation but we have to start making progress sooner rather than later in real terms. I thank Mr. Aughey for his presentation.

Photo of Joe O'ReillyJoe O'Reilly (Fine Gael)
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I welcome Mr. Aughey. It is good to have him at the meeting. I applaud his entrepreneurial spirit and the work he does.

I do not have many questions but want to contribute to state the idea is very exciting. In a general sense, the future is with rail. Rail is coming back into fashion and will have to do so. It would be interesting if Mr. Aughey, who, I presume, is using international data, could flesh out further his view that towns would grow exponentially if the high-speed railway were up and running in that it would cause urban growth and increase the population to justify itself. That is the main point on which I believe Mr. Aughey would need to convince those in the private sector.

I presume the European Investment Bank and various bodies of that kind would be interested in the project. I was distracted for some of Mr. Aughey's presentation so I do not know whether he alluded to sources of funding at EU level. He might comment on how he is being received. It would be no harm for us, as practitioners of politics, to know what sort of vibe he is getting in general from our respective Administrations. It is certainly exciting. I can certainly see from lived experience that the region needs a fillip. The entire Border area has suffered.

It is a very interesting proposition and a good project. The future is with rail and it will have to be grasped on that basis. The only issue now is to establish the business case in all instances. Senator Martin referred to the Kingscourt-Navan rail line. Several such lines will have to come back into focus in the future.

Mr. Barry Aughey:

Many points have just been raised. I have met backbenchers in London, Ministers in Dublin and party leaders in Northern Ireland. I have been working on this matter since 2015. I have had a positive response from Northern Ireland, local county councils and parties right across the board. I have probably had the least positive response from Dublin, which is disappointing. I had positive responses from backbenchers of the Theresa May Government and current Tory Government, local authorities and local politicians. The feedback I received from the previous Minister for Transport in Dublin, and, in particular, his Department, is that my proposal is not strategy or policy.

I will address Senator Martin's question on how the committee can help. Local authorities tell me it is in the framework document, so it is wrong to say it is not policy. However, it is believed in Dublin and the National Transport Authority that it is not committed policy. What I would like from this presentation is for this north-west corridor to become a committed policy with focus and drive. Rather than loose words in a document, it should be a focused target and sincere objective with commitment from both jurisdictions. It needs both jurisdictions on board.

The point about people is it is a self-fulfilling prophecy. If investment is not made in the region, people will eventually leave it in pursuit of betterment. That is a fact of life. Both Governments have neglected the north-west region for over 100 years. It is time to turn that tide and invest in the region. If that is done, the area will populate very quickly. The private sector believes in the scope and ability of this project. It would like to be the majority investor so it can drive it through in a timely and cost-effective manner.

Regions such as Cavan-Monaghan, Fermanagh-Omagh and Derry-Strabane have potential for growth and good, competitive, indigenous labour that would like to stay in them. The view that, post Covid, people should be able to work from within their community or at least live in their community and work in Dublin, is becoming more prevalent. Moreover, and this is being upfront and frank with local authorities, investors would like land to be zoned to accommodate office, retail and residential development. In the short term, that is where investors will see a return.

Overall, this will be a long-term investment, with 30-year bonds to be replaced with further 30-year bonds. The private sector has a genuine interest. Infrastructure is a safe place to put money and, in the long term, will give a good return, especially rail where one can command a farebox, that is, a charge or rate for the use of it.

Ireland is a reputable country. It came out of a recession. In 2010, it went through a big recession followed by a bailout. We have demonstrated to the world we are reliable, committed to honouring our debt and that we stand up and do so. We have done so very well and have been recognised globally as a credible place to do business.

The cost of funding is at its lowest point in a long time. There is a narrow window of opportunity to access funding at competitive rates, especially long-term funding. That would make this a viable project. This will need both Governments to invest in and co-operate on compulsory purchase orders, CPOs, interfaces with motorways, electricity pylons and whatever else crosses its path.

The north-west corridor is a nice project because there is no rail infrastructure. It will not impede or compete with any other rail infrastructure. It will not have a cloud hanging over it in respect of fears of the private sector taking State assets. As it is a blank sheet, it creates good opportunity. This will be a completely new line running from the greater Dublin area, preferably Dublin Airport, to Letterkenny-Derry, via Monaghan and Omagh. It will need to be straight and an entirely new construction. There will not be any reopening of old railways. That is very unlikely to happen. It will be a new, modern, futuristic structure. The target speed is 250 km/h. That is not ambitious. That has been the norm in Europe for about ten years. It is very realistic and would deliver a travel time between Dublin and Letterkenny of 46 minutes, non-stop. It is possible that travels times could even be improved on.

This is a trend. The rest of the world is investing in high-speed rail. People say it is expensive and will give reasons not to invest in it, the main one being cost. High-speed rail will always be expensive. Procrastinating will not make it cheaper. The day we invest will be the dearest day. However, over time it will fund itself and prove well worth the investment.

There were many questions but I think I have covered them all.

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Fianna Fail)
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I thank Mr. Aughey. He had quite an array of questions thrown at him and has been very good at covering them. For years, I have been heavily involved in the campaign to reopen the western rail corridor. It is a slightly different proposal in that we are looking to reopen existing tracks. Perhaps the route Mr. Aughey is taking of putting in brand new infrastructure will be quicker because I have been working on the western rail corridor campaign since 2014.

The Minister and the NTA, through Iarnród Éireann, commissioned a report from EY-DKM consultants. Those of us who want to see the rail line reopened were not overly impressed with the report. Has Mr. Aughey done a report into the viability of the proposed line? Will he elaborate on how much it will cost to get this project operational? How much of that is expected to come from the Irish Government? What level of passenger numbers needs to be reached for the project to be sustainable? Does Mr. Aughey envisage the line being self-funding? We know other rail networks in the country are heavily subsidised by the Government. They do not make profits. The same is true for Dublin Bus and the Luas but they are considered public services and we provide transport for citizens because it is part of what the State does. Does Mr. Aughey envisage the rail link he proposes will wash its own face? Does he expect it to be subvented, like other rail links?

It is an exciting proposal. As someone who lives in County Mayo, I am very aware of the deficit in transport links in the north west. We are not as well connected as other parts of the country. I believe rail is the future and agree entirely that if the rail network is built with hubs where people can connect and get to their places of work easily, they will live in those areas. We see that with the Luas line, for example. People bought homes close to Luas stops because they can get to work. It is a chicken-and-egg scenario. If we wait for people to live in places before building the infrastructure, it will never happen. Either we believe in balanced regional development or we do not. The only way to get people to live outside the main urban centres like Dublin is to make it viable to live elsewhere and still get to work.

The infrastructure has to come first. People will live there if the connectivity is in place. I thank Mr. Aughey for his presentation and all the answers he has given to the committee.

Mr. Barry Aughey:

Speed is critical. We need to achieve at least 350 km/h or better. To do that, the line must be as straight as possible. The topography of the line we picked suits it better than other options. If we were to go to Cavan and Sligo, the topography would not be as suitable. There are greater bodies of water and higher mountains. The regeneration of other rail lines is not on the agenda. This is just taking a blank sheet, creating something completely new and building it as a futuristic high-speed line. There are second and third phases, should the first phase achieve its objectives. I will not go into them now but they will definitely enhance return on investment.

The return on investment is not just from the rail line itself but from what it will do to accommodate development in the three urban centres that I have mentioned. It can wash its face but it needs Government involvement. It is proposed that the Irish and UK Governments should both get involved. It is proposed that each Government would provide between 10% and 15%, so that would be capped at 30% at most. It is also envisaged that European structural funds will help to subsidise some of the cost. The rest will be driven by the private sector. In doing so, it is believed that this can be delivered in a timely and cost-efficient manner.

I come from a background that is aware of the construction industry. I grew up in a quarry. I am a mechanical engineer. I have some patents to my name. I am familiar with the fact that if we were to go to construct this, we would do it in cells. For quarries, their markets are within no more than 50 km. As a result, we would break this into 50 km cells. Anything that is not above ground that requires work or construction will not be done on fixed price contracts but rather fixed rate contracts. Fixed price contracts would only apply to things above ground that are tangible and predesigned, where we know what is expected.

Regarding numbers of people, to make this wash its face, we expect to need 55,000 people to use this daily. That is an average of 55,000 commuters using this facility by year 6. That is our objective. We believe it is attainable.

The costs are outlined in the PowerPoint presentation, on page 18. The estimates involved were calculated between 2019 and 2020. The net figure is €9.362 billion, a substantial amount. It covers the construction of the tracks, railway stations or terminals, the trains and the train sets, design and planning, consultation with the public, and professional fees. It is likely, given the current environment, that that cost is now outdated and therefore low. I run an engineering business in Monaghan and since January there have been three price hikes for steel. It is likely that the figure of €9.362 billion is low now. It is the result of work that we have done to date.

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Fianna Fail)
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What would be the price of a ticket?

Mr. Barry Aughey:

The estimates relating to the 55,000 people - assuming that this is operating six years after it first starts, which, in turn, would probably be six years after we get a railway order - assume a cost of €30 return or €15 for a single-journey ticket.

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Fianna Fail)
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That is far lower than I expected.

Mr. Barry Aughey:

The point is to have volume and bums on seats. It is the same principle as Ryanair. We do not want to have it such that people do not come to live by using it. That is our objective. We have to be competitive.

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Fianna Fail)
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Mr. Aughey has answered my questions. All of the members who indicated a wish to speak have spoken. Does Mr. Aughey have any final remarks before we finish? On behalf of the committee, I thank him for his time this afternoon. It has been one of the most interesting engagements the committee has had. It is a visionary idea and we should support such ideas. Sometimes we can play matters a bit too safely. I think it is an exciting project and I wish Mr. Aughey well in bringing that forward.

Mr. Barry Aughey:

We have the ability to deliver this. The private sector is interested and keen to get involved. That includes investors from New York and London. They would form a syndicate so this would be a syndicate bond issue. The cost of funding is low. It is the lowest that it has been for a long time. There is a genuine opportunity that I fear may be missed if action is not taken quickly. The cost that we are talking about compared with the cost of the bailout, of Covid, or other such costs that we have endured in the last ten years, is not that great and the benefits are far greater. The opportunity will enhance the island.

I mentioned earlier that Brexit creates opportunity. Northern Ireland is in a position where it can trade with both the UK and the European Union. There is opportunity that can be built on. That in turn can help this island to be a Singapore of Europe. It needs vision, commitment, strength and conviction by leaders who are prepared to stand up, be counted, and say that they are prepared to get involved and take a risk alongside others. The project will do much more than just be a high-speed rail project. It will create much more opportunity for the island and the people of Ireland.

If this committee could do one thing, that would be to persuade parties and Members in government to do all that they can to commit, reach out, and connect with me to try to deliver this. This presentation would then be of value.

Photo of Lisa ChambersLisa Chambers (Fianna Fail)
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I thank Mr. Aughey on behalf of the committee and Senator Gallagher, who put us all in contact. The past hour's meeting was engaging and worthwhile. I have learned much about the potential for rail connectivity between the North and South. It is an exciting prospect. I thank Mr. Aughey for his time. Our committee will issue its interim report next month so we will touch on this issue in the report. We will take on board the points that Mr. Aughey has raised and the matters that he would like us to raise further up the line with all the political parties and none that are represented on the committee.

Our next meeting is tomorrow morning. We will engage with the European Commissioner for Financial Stability, Financial Services and the Capital Markets Union, Mairead McGuinness.

The select committee adjourned at 5 p.m. until 9.30 a.m. on Tuesday, 15 June 2021.