Oireachtas Joint and Select Committees

Wednesday, 6 October 2021

Joint Oireachtas Committee on European Union Affairs

Northern Ireland Protocol: Discussion

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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Ar son a choiste ba mhaith liom fáilte a ghabháil roimh an Dr. Anthony Soares, an Dr. Aoife Ní Lochlainn, an Uasal Tara Farrell, agus an Uasal Stephen Douds go dtí an coiste inniu. Beimid ag dúil go mór leis an díospóireacht iontach tábhachtach ar na ceisteanna agus na cúrsaí trasteorann.

Before beginning there are some housekeeping matters and the privilege notice. I apologise in advance as it is a long note on privilege. All witnesses are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not criticise or 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 good name of the person or entity. Therefore, if their statements are potentially defamatory with regard to an identifiable person or entity, they will be directed to discontinue their remarks. It is imperative that they comply with any such direction. For witnesses attending remotely outside the Leinster House campus, there are some limitations to parliamentary privilege and, as such, they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness who is physically present does. Witnesses participating in this meeting from a jurisdiction outside the State are advised that they should also be mindful of their domestic law and how it may apply to the evidence they give.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.

For people watching this meeting, Members of the Oireachtas and witnesses now have the option of being physically present in the committee room or of joining the meeting remotely via Microsoft Teams. I remind members of the constitutional requirement that members must be physically present within the confines of the Leinster House complex in order to participate in public meetings. I will not permit members to participate where they are not adhering to the constitutional requirement. Therefore, any member who attempts to participate from outside the precincts will be asked to leave the meeting. In this regard, I ask any members participating via Microsoft Teams that, prior to making a contribution to the meeting, they confirm that they are on the grounds of the Leinster House campus. If members are attending in the committee room, they are asked to exercise personal responsibility to protect themselves and others from the risk of contracting Covid-19. They are strongly advised to practise good hand hygiene and leave at least one seat vacant between themselves and others attending the meeting. Attendees should also maintain an appropriate level of social distancing during and after the meeting. Masks should be worn at all times during the meeting, except when speaking.

After all that, I invite Dr. Anthony Soares to make his opening statement. He is very welcome.

Dr. Anthony Soares:

In my capacity as director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies, I thank the Chairman and members of the committee for the invitation to meet the members to discuss the centre's ongoing work in supporting and advocating cross-Border co-operation and, in particular, its role in convening the Ad-Hoc Group for North-South and East-West Cooperation.

Given that since its establishment in 1999, the centre's core mission has been to empower citizens and build capacity for co-operation across sectors and jurisdictional boundaries on the island of Ireland and further afield, we have been concerned to understand how the UK's withdrawal from the European Union may impact on cross-Border mobility and cross-jurisdictional co-operation and how any of those impacts may be mitigated. This has led to intensive work in analysing relevant policies and legislation, much of it set out in written and oral submissions to numerous parliamentary inquiries as well as in many of our briefing papers. Last March, and with the objective of improving our understanding of the context being shaped following the end of the Brexit transition phase and the entering into operation of the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, the centre also initiated a quarterly survey of the conditions for North-South and east-west co-operation aimed at civil society organisations and local authorities on the island of Ireland. The third quarterly survey has just recently ended and its results will be presented later this month.

As a means of gaining a more direct understanding and to secure engagement with the mechanisms of the protocol under the joint oversight of the UK Government and the European Commission, and as many other organisations on the island of Ireland share our concerns, in May 2020 the Centre for Cross Border Studies came together with a range of organisations to establish theAd-Hoc Group for North-South and East-West Cooperation, which the centre convenes. It aims to act as a prime contact point for purposes of meaningful consultation between cross-Border civil society and regional, national and EU bodies on matters relevant to co-operation between Northern Ireland and Ireland and between the island of Ireland and Great Britain. In the first instance, in light of the protocol, the ad hocgroup and organisations involved in its work have been engaging with relevant decision makers, including the European Commission's task force for relations with the United Kingdom, the Withdrawal Agreement Joint Committee, representatives of the Governments of the United Kingdom and Ireland, the Northern Ireland Executive and the Specialised Committee on the Protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland.

The Ad-Hoc Group for North-South and East-West Cooperation is committed to working with others to safeguard co-operation and good relations within and between these islands and looks forward to doing so with those who are currently making decisions that will affect the future landscape for co-operation and the maintenance of relations between our peoples. We do so conscious of the fact that the underlying context for such co-operation has changed, with its actors no longer operating from within a shared membership of the European Union and therefore, for some, with their governments and other relevant institutions no longer in a position to directly shape EU policies, particularly those such as cohesion policy, that support cross-Border co-operation. The ad hocgroup believes that for all interested parties, including the Irish Government, to properly monitor the impacts of the implementation of the protocol on the conditions for North-South co-operation there must be sustained and effective engagement with those who are intimately involved in such co-operation.

The Centre for Cross Border Studies believes that the Ad-Hoc Group for North-South and East-West Cooperationrepresents an invaluable asset in this regard and calls on all parties to continue and deepen their engagement with thead hocgroup, including the bodies established under the protocol. Such engagement would ensure that organisations from the Republic of Ireland are able to offer their perspectives on the extent to which they are able to engage in co-operation. It is our belief that no serious monitoring of the impact of the implementation of the protocol on the conditions for North-South co-operation or on east-west relations can take place without hearing directly from those involved in such co-operation who are based in the Republic of Ireland. I am grateful, therefore, that joining me today are representatives from three of the other organisations involved in the ad hocgroup: Dr. Aoife Ní Lochlainn, Brexit policy officer with the Irish Environmental Network; Ms Tara Farrell, chief executive officer, CEO, of Longford Women's Link; and Mr. Stephen Douds, president of the Irish Association. We will be pleased to answer the members' questions.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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Thank you. I will now call on members for their questions. I call Deputy Richmond.

Photo of Neale RichmondNeale Richmond (Dublin Rathdown, Fine Gael)
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I thank Dr. Soares for that introduction and for the briefing paper. It is always great to have Dr. Soares involved in any Oireachtas committee, but particularly this one at this time.

I wish to tease out some of the points Dr. Soares made and, indeed, some of the points that have been made by the centre in recent months on this area. The first one is what opportunities or avenues are available to get engagement from those who are simply refusing to engage with the process. I refer to certain actors in Northern Ireland - civic society, political and economic - who want to boycott the North-South institutions and anything to do with the Ireland and Northern Ireland protocol. What role can be played and how can it be more effective in bringing them to the table and ensuring that they are heard? Even though they might not think it, people want to hear them and to address the issues they raise. Then it is going beyond them, the political entity, to the people they represent. This is the great work the centre is doing, but the issue is the role of civic society in the post-Brexit area and the fact that it is so lacking. What immediate efforts must be taken, primarily by the British and Irish Governments, and how realistic are those efforts, bearing in mind the North-South stand-off and also the difficulties between the British Government and the European Commission when it comes to the implementation of the protocol?

The last point is something on which I wish to gauge Dr. Soares's opinion. It has arisen a few times in meetings we have had with representatives from Northern Ireland, both through this committee and otherwise. It is about involving Northern Irish political representatives more in the EU decision-making process. Obviously, that was fairly straightforward before Brexit. Three Members of the European Parliament were elected from Northern Ireland, there were two members of the European Committee of the Regions, the European Economic and Social Committee and so forth. They are gone. A number of people, including Mr. Barry Andrews, MEP, and other members of this committee have stressed the need to provide observer status or, more likely, a more formal role.

Yesterday, the European Parliament set up its official delegation to the British Parliament. That is welcome and I hope it will be reciprocated, but more is needed in terms of representation for Northern Ireland. I would appreciate any opinion that Dr. Soares or his colleagues might have about how that might work.

Dr. Anthony Soares:

I thank the Deputy for his questions. I will offer some of the centre's insights, but I will begin by stressing something about engagement and giving a voice to those who are reluctant to engage around the issue of the protocol. I will point to the quarterly survey on North-South and east-west co-operation, which is aimed at organisations and local authorities on the island of Ireland. It gathers responses from a wide range of representatives from various organisations, including those that may have certain perspectives on the protocols. It is a channel for them to offer their opinions in a way that is effective and gives us a broader understanding of how organisations based on the island of Ireland are able to co-operate North-South but also east-west. It stresses the fact that we cannot speak about one set of relations without speaking about the entirety of relations, as an impact on one set will inevitably have an impact on another.

Regarding a refusal to co-operate under strand two of the Good Friday Agreement, the perspective of the Centre for Cross Border Studies is that the Good Friday Agreement has three strands. I refer to it as a three-legged stool. If we believe that one of those legs has taken damage, we should not cut off another leg. Rather, we should try to repair the leg we perceive as damaged. Cutting off the other leg is not a way of arriving at a solution.

In terms of political representation and channels for engagement, what is required is patience and not paying undue attention to some of the language being used in the political rhetoric. As civic society organisations, we stress this and get on with what we have to do. We co-operate North-South or east-west or both, no matter what is happening at the political level because the people we represent and for whom we work cannot wait for things to happen. We have to continue working. The political context is important for our ability to engage in our work and it can make matters more difficult, but we do not have a choice. We have to get on with our work as civic society organisations and ensure that we maintain co-operation and relations on a North-South and east-west basis.

Regarding Northern Ireland's political representation in EU institutions, we must be conscious of the fact that the UK Government made its position very clear recently that it is the interlocutor with the EU and the EU's institutions. It is reluctant to see Northern Ireland or the other devolved administrations usurp that role by being involved in EU institutions without the involvement of the UK Government. However, there are significant opportunities to continue engagement. One of the platforms for such engagement and for Northern Ireland to continue having its voice heard and being involved, even if indirectly, in the shaping of policy at EU level that might affect cross-Border co-operation is the Northern Ireland Executive's office in Brussels. I hope that that office not only continues its work, but intensifies it, while also being conscious of the fact that it has to work alongside, and with the co-operation of, the UK Government.

The Deputy referred to something that we view as a positive initiative, namely, the European Parliament's approval for setting up channels of dialogue between it and the UK Parliament. We hope to see that kind of relationship expand.

Regardless of what happens, though, we as civic society organisations will have to continue working together North-South and east-west in order to improve the lives of the people we serve and maximise the benefits that come from co-operation.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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Next is Deputy Howlin, followed by Deputy Ó Murchú.

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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I thank Dr. Soares for a helpful and balanced response. I will follow the same route as Deputy Richmond in acknowledging the centre's long work in developing co-operation North-South.

I am looking for advice in terms of the actions of politicians in the South from the centre's perspective both in terms of tone and language. Everyone recognises that there are real and practical issues to be addressed in the protocol. From an EU perspective, we are determined to resolve those and make the protocol work as practically and unimpactfully as we can. However, it is the reality that these issues are being bundled into a broader political position that often has different audiences. When one listens to Lord Frost and his commentary at the British Tory Party conference in recent days, one makes allowances for the audience, but it is a difference audience than that for the DUP and Sir Jeffrey Donaldson's commentary. I am taken by Dr. Soares's advice to us to not respond to that political rhetoric or commentary but it ultimately has a destination. There is a threat from the British Government to trigger Article 16 and suspend the protocol. Equally, there is an assertion from the DUP to, within a defined and short timeline, end the institutions if these matters are not resolved. These are not matters that, if they are not addressed, simply have no consequence. Rather, they have very serious consequences. In that context, has Dr. Soares any advice for us in terms of a practical response to those issues and assertions, particularly of recent days?

Dr. Anthony Soares:

I thank the Deputy for his questions. I will put on notice one of my colleagues, Ms Farrell, to whom I will tactfully hand over shortly in order to respond to some of them.

I will pick up on some of the points the Deputy raised, beginning with the threat to trigger Article 16 and suspend the protocol. Triggering Article 16 does not in and of itself suspend the protocol. Rather, it will only suspend certain parts of the protocol. Civic society organisations understand that the politics of this can sometimes be magnified in a way that is not helpful. We have also stressed, as I have done repeatedly, to key decision makers in this process that what is entirely unhelpful is the production of artificial deadlines. They are not helpful, particularly in the context of Northern Ireland, because such deadlines lead to artificial points of crisis, increasing tensions and increasing uncertainty around the process.

One needs to be conscious of and aware of the effects of tone and language on community, on cohesion and on our ability to undertake co-operation on a North-South and east-west basis. That cohesion is essential. Community buy-in to the idea of cross-Border co-operation is also essential.

I will hand over to my colleague, Ms Tara Farrell, CEO of Longford Women’s Link, to pick up on some of those points.

Ms Tara Farrell:

I thank the Deputy for the question and I thank members for the invitation this morning.

I am the chief executive of Longford Women's Link. First, I will give the committee some context as to why an organisation from Longford, which is not a Border county, is engaged in the level of cross-Border and all-island collaboration in which we are engaged. Longford Women’s Link is a social enterprise. We have been in existence for 26 years. We provide services to approximately 1,200 women and children every year across a variety of fora, including education, entrepreneurship, domestic violence, community employment and so on. We also engage in widespread regional and national advocacy. I have been on the board of Irish Rural Link and am the current chair of AONTAS, the national adult learning organisation. We have been working with the Centre for Cross Border Studies since 2015. We believe that working at the grassroots level, as we do, is critical if we are to see meaningful co-operation and community development, working alongside an empowered civic society across these islands.

My first point is that we have seen with Brexit what happens when civil society is largely excluded from central discussions. I also make the point that as a women's organisation, we particularly see what happens when women’s voices are excluded, particularly those from rural areas. Those voices are essential if we want to build those inclusive and resilient communities. We are involved in a number of cross-Border and all-island initiatives, including the Ad-Hoc Group for North-South and East-West Cooperation. We have also been part of the initiative entitled A New Common Charter, which was initiated by the Centre for Cross Border Studies. It is a common charter for co-operation on and between these islands. It is an initiative to empower civic society to drive this collaboration between the islands. The key point here is that if we do not have the proper functioning mechanisms and structures for civic society to engage and if they do not include organisations from the South, then we will not see meaningful engagement. We will not see the true spirit of the Belfast-Good Friday Agreement being honoured.

We have seen what has happened throughout the pandemic: civic society organisations have in by and large been deemed to be essential. As we have been essential during this crisis, why are we not seen as essential to the implementation and monitoring of the protocol and Article 11, as well as on maintaining the necessary conditions for co-operation? Organisations like Longford Women’s Link are engaging in this work with our counterparts across the Border and on an east-west basis because we believe in that work. We believe in the value of the work. We believe in the totality of the Good Friday Agreement. However, it is not just about financial resources, which obviously are always an issue. This is about the energy that goes into maintaining these relationships and the consistent dialogue, which is important. We have to look at the longer-term impact of our work. In terms of engagement, whether it is with the ad hocgroup, whether it is in relation to A New Common Charter, or whatever form it is, there should be a structured process for that engagement. There should be pathways and outcomes, so that the engagement is not on an ad hocbasis, which is the case at the moment.

I am concerned that many civil society organisations, from the perspective of the South, will not be in a position to continue to improve or to continue to work on this ad hocbasis if we do not see real and meaningful long-term outcomes. I hope the committee might share some of those concerns.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I thank both the witnesses. I will take Deputy Ó Murchú's questions now, followed by those of Deputy Calleary.

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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I thank all the witnesses. There probably will be an element of agreement at this meeting that none of us can see David Frost's renaissance due to Brexit at this point in time. The difficulties that exist within political unionism as regards their view of the Irish protocol already have been mentioned. To a degree, I believe that it is a cul-de-sac that will create difficulties for unionism itself. That being what it is, I obviously am highly wary of relying on the British Government as an interlocutor. It has done a poor job over any period in Irish history, whether that is the last 100 years, 800 years or whatever. The democratic deficit that exists in respect of the North, as well as the lack of representation, needs to be dealt with. In fairness, to Maroš Šefovi, when the UK-EU Trade and Cooperation Agreement, TCA, was going through the Parliament, he agreed that there needed to be some sort of remedy to that and he spoke about it. There is an onus on all of us to play what part we can to deal with that democratic deficit.

I would be interested to learn what are the main takeaways from the research or survey the Centre for Cross Border Studies has carried out. As for the operations of the protocol, we know where political unionism stands. However, we have heard from many quarters, and I have heard it myself, that a significant number of people from a unionist background who work in civil society, business or farming are looking to get by in life and to get by in business. They are looking to do the best to mitigate and deal with the difficulties. I am interested in the groups with which the witnesses have had interactions on a cross-Border basis. Where do the witnesses perceive civil society, businesses, farmers and all those other stakeholders to be when the political sphere is taken away? I seek an answer to that question, as well as, in particular, on the main takeaways from the ins and outs of what the survey has thrown up?

Dr. Anthony Soares:

I thank the Deputy for his question.

I will touch briefly on the Deputy’s comment about his wariness in relying on the British government as an interlocutor. The only thing I would say in response to that is that in respect of the protocol, the withdrawal agreement, the trade and co-operation agreement and the structures that are created under that trade and co-operation agreement, the prime interlocutors in those agreements are the UK Government and the European Commission. They are the two parties to those agreements and they are responsible overall for the operation of the agreements and their various mechanisms. We have to work within that context. It was the context that was given to us and is the context in which we have to work.

In terms of the lack of Northern Ireland representation, I will briefly refer to, for example, the trade and co-operation agreement and again to the civil society engagement with political representatives. A civil society forum has been established under the trade and co-operation agreement, which is between the UK and the European Union in respect of civic society and it includes business, trade unions etc. I will briefly note that whereas there might be some concerns that the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland is primarily focused on the North-South relations, there are some concerns as to where the east-west relations fit into the agreement. The structures created under the trade and co-operation agreement perhaps offer opportunities to redress some of that east-west balance, in terms of getting those channels of dialogue on an east-west basis, as well as with the EU.

Briefly on the survey, I would first mention that the survey only closed on Thursday of last week. We are currently analysing the results in detail. They will be presented online live at 10 a.m. on Friday, 22 October. There will be a detailed presentation on the analysis of the results and what they signify. Before commenting on some of the results, I want to underline, stress and express my enormous gratitude to those organisations and representatives of local authorities who have responded to that survey. Their responses inform us as we engage with political representatives.

They allow us to speak to this committee and others and to the UK Government and others and in doing so to cite evidence of how civic society organisations and local authorities on the island of Ireland are experiencing or commenting on the ability to co-operate since 1 January 2021. We have just completed our third quarterly survey. We asked people to comment on the political, social, regulatory and material contexts in which North-South and east-west co-operation is taking place. We asked respondents to comment on how they see those contexts and whether those contexts are supportive of co-operation.

I will refer to the first quarterly survey results, just to give the committee an idea of the situation regarding the political context for North-South co-operation in March 2021. At that time, 60% of respondents indicated that the political context had deteriorated in respect of their ability to co-operate. The outcome improved slightly in the third quarter, with 36% of respondents saying that it had deteriorated. I stress that 36% of respondents are still saying that things are getting worse in respect of the political context being supportive of North-South co-operation. Some 54% of respondents said that it had stayed more or less the same. Therefore, we started at a very negative point in quarter one. A significant percentage of respondents still see things as deteriorating, but 54% now indicate that things have stayed more or less the same. I note that the survey closed on the Thursday and the comments by Lord Frost on Article 16 of the protocol were made on the Friday, so people were not influenced by that and could not take that into account.

To give an indication of the situation regarding the east-west political context, some 60% of respondents to our survey in quarter one had said that it had deteriorated. That outcome has now changed to 39.3% of respondents indicating that things have deteriorated in respect of the political context for east-west co-operation. That is a significant result, because it indicates that even compared to quarter two things have deteriorated in respect of the political context for co-operation. More detail will be given on the results of this survey, but I will pass over now to Mr. Stephen Douds, president of the Irish Association, to give some additional comments.

Mr. Stephen Douds:

I thank the Chair and Dr. Soares and Deputy Ó Murchú for his question. Some members may already be aware of the Irish Association. It is one of the longest-standing organisations promoting non-party political co-operation across the island. We are a membership-driven forum, and membership is open to all, regardless of party, religious belief and existing party political membership. The thrust of the aims of our organisation is for better relations. Our fuller title from our foundation was the Irish Association for Culture, Economic and Social Relations. I imagine when the organisation was founded that people could not conceive of political co-operation.

At the time of the Brexit vote in 2016, we had members on our council who were pro-Brexit. Those were people from a broad unionist background, what I think Deputy Ó Murchú referred to as "political unionism". Nonetheless, they were members of an organisation that wanted good relations across the island and that was an impartial forum for dialogue and debate. That speaks to people having multiple identities, in 2016 and today. In Belfast, where I live and where I am the chair, we alternate in our executive team every two to three years between North and South. I succeeded Bob Collins, formerly of RTÉ, who also spent 15 years after that in public life and civic society up here in Northern Ireland. It is worth pointing out therefore that people have multiple identities. There are people in Northern Ireland, then, with long-term constitutional aspirations for the maintenance of the Union and there are other people in our organisation with different constitutional preferences. This has been a challenging time therefore because we have been on diverging paths since the vote on Brexit in 2016.

As we operate the protocol now, however, as I think the Deputy said, we must recognise that there is complexity below that of the formal political level in other areas of economic co-operation, cultural life and social relations. Bringing this issue back to an earlier question, while party political representatives are asking for Article 16 to come into play and perhaps seeking the abandonment of the protocol, they represent people who have more complexity. Recognising that aspect might mitigate the current and delicate crisis in which we find ourselves. I thank the committee.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I call Deputy Calleary.

Photo of Dara CallearyDara Calleary (Mayo, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Chair and the witnesses for their most interesting input. Ms Farrell answered some of my questions already, but I will pose a query for her and for Dr. Ní Lochlainn. Is the row about the protocol, and the political machinations in that regard, obstructing their work and obstructing the need for us to co-operate on that work and on so much other cross-community work? For example, the agenda of Dr. Ní Lochlainn's organisation does not stop at the Border. Equally, the agenda of Ms Farrell's group also does not stop at the Border. Women on this island face serious challenges in respect of opportunities in the areas of healthcare, education and equality, regardless of whether they are in Belfast or Tralee.

Is it not possible to build greater co-operation that unites us in addressing such common issues? I refer to those issues that do not respect our Border. We were getting there before Brexit. It struck me that as an island we could have done so much better in dealing with the impact of Covid-19 had we worked on an all-island basis. Are there issues, therefore, within the witnesses' network and within the constituent groups, where it would it be possible to get around and negate the ongoing political machinations? The reality is that people facing challenges in their daily lives look to Ms Farrell and Dr. Ní Lochlainn's organisations and those other groups that make up this network. How do we get that message out?

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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Does Dr. Soares wish to take that question or would he like to pass it on to Ms Farrell?

Dr. Anthony Soares:

I will pass it on to Ms Farrell and then to Dr. Ní Lochlainn to answer.

Ms Tara Farrell:

I thank the Chair and Deputy Calleary for the question. I will be brief and then hand over to Dr. Ní Lochlainn. The Deputy has highlighted the crux of this situation. To pick up on the point made by Dr. Soares in his opening statement, as civil society organisations we are getting on with things. Longford Women's Link has been involved in at least six cross-Border programmes in recent years. Several of them were initiated by us because we see the parallels in the context of the difficulties and potential solutions shared between women's organisations. We are involved in a programme with WOMEN'STEC in Belfast that looks at women in non-traditional spaces. We are just starting a programme with the Northern Ireland Rural Women's Network, NIRWN, entitled, From Grassroots to Government. Both of those endeavours are supported by the reconciliation fund.

I mentioned earlier that financial resources are important. The reconciliation fund, in particular, has been important in allowing us to do this work, which goes beyond financial resources in many cases, however. What we need in addition is for the outcomes of these projects to be listened to and to be incorporated in other areas. That is why appearing here this morning and being able to share the results of our work is so important.

We are working in several spaces, including rural engagement, adult education, domestic violence and so on. Anecdotally, what I am hearing from many of our colleagues is exactly what Deputy Calleary said in respect of the uncertainty around the protocol. It is suggesting to us that organisations that may be more distant from the Border and this type of work geographically are either not considering the opportunities or are actively deciding that the current uncertainty means that they will not engage. For me, that is the crux of the issue. We are concerned that we are regressing a little. The Deputy mentioned the context of the pandemic. We have started to see the "them and us" type of language creeping in again and references to who was travelling over the Border at different stages, depending on the restrictions, to do shopping or to engage in social activity, etc. That is unhelpful. It is important therefore for us to have a structured pathway to be able to feed the work we are doing into committees like this and to policy-makers and to endeavour to put in place proper structures so that we can engage on an all-island basis.

As stated earlier by Dr. Soares and others, we cannot have proper meaningful engagement without organisations from the South as well as the North. I will hand over to Dr. Ní Lochlainn now.

Dr. Aoife NĂ­ Lochlainn:

I thank the Deputy for the question. The short answer to the question is "Yes". The current issues around the protocol, in particular the suspension of the North-South Ministerial Council work, has definitely impeded co-operation on environmental issues on the island of Ireland. There is no doubt about that. My role in the Irish Environmental Network and the environmental pillar is to develop North-South environmental co-operation in the NGO sector. The environmental NGOs in the Republic of Ireland and colleagues in Northern Ireland work together to advocate for those all-island environmental solutions mentioned, such as climate change, biodiversity, habitat protections, the marine, etc. We also work on joint research projects and our individual member groups, of which there are many across the country, work with each other on specific environmental cross-Border protection projects and on issues such as cross-Border dumping, illegal waste, etc.

As part of that cross-Border co-operation, we have collaborated with our opposite number in Northern Ireland, Northern Ireland Environment Link, to produce a report which identified the main risks to the environmental integrity of the island posed by Brexit. This report was published in 2019. Members are probably all familiar with the risks identified, as I know the report was discussed by various committees, but it highlighted the risks of regulatory divergence, the loss of those supernational governance structures of the EU and our ability to engage with the new governance structures. While the trade and co-operation agreement and the protocol have partially mitigated these risks, they are not fully mitigated. The solution advocated at the time by the environmental pillar and Northern Ireland Environmental Link, was that the Good Friday Agreement bodies should step into that lacuna and take up some of the cross-Border work. With the political situation being what it is, that work is not happening. This is detrimental to work on policy issues on which we are behind in our work. As we are here today to discuss civil society engagement, it is important to point out that even when functioning as designed the Good Friday Agreement bodies are impenetrable to most of civil society. They are highly diplomatic processes and NGOs such as ourselves have very few routes to engagement on the matters under discussion within those bodies.

Colleagues here today have spoken about how engagement with civil society needs to come from both sides of the Border. If we are to have the type of cross-Border co-operation which I mentioned our membership engage with, we need to ensure there are structures and mechanisms for them to engage with. Without those structures, as mentioned by Ms Farrell, there is a real risk that the co-operation, enthusiasm and opportunity will fall away. That would be to everybody's detriment. The engagement needs to be inclusive of all civil society sectors, including the NGOs in the Republic of Ireland. Much of the conversation around the protocol has neglected the cross-Border co-operation element in civil society. It has focused, understandably, on democratic deficits in Northern Ireland. We are here today to talk about how NGOs in the Republic of Ireland can be better brought into those processes into the future.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I thank Dr. Ní Lochlainn. The next speaker is Deputy Haughey.

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Dublin Bay North, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the witnesses for their presentations and I thank the Centre for Cross Border Studies for the work it is doing. I am delighted to learn more about what it is doing, its aims and objectives. Many speakers have talked about the political context. It seems it is not very good and that that is very detrimental to the centre's work on the issues of the Northern Ireland protocol and the threat to invoke Article 16. I admire the witnesses' statements that they are going to just get on with it and continue to work together.

I have two questions. Has there been any feedback to date from the civic society organisations, in particular farmers and businesses, on the benefits of the Northern Ireland protocol and how that might be good for the economy of Northern Ireland? In the witnesses' interactions with their members, has that come up for discussion? My second question is in regard to the shared island initiative brought forward by the Taoiseach and supported by the Government of Ireland, which aims to promote dialogue in the context of the notion of a shared island. Under that initiative, there have been a number of seminars and conferences to date with various themes. The intention is to have these themed seminars, whether in regard to young people, women's issues, environmental issues, business and so on. I would welcome the witnesses' views on that initiative. Are they interacting with it and do they believe it is beneficial?

Dr. Anthony Soares:

I thank the Deputy for the questions. I will touch on both of them briefly and then hand over to Mr. Douds and other colleagues who may wish to comment. In terms of feedback from farmers and businesses, in the last quarterly survey space was provided for people to indicate not only if they were satisfied or unsatisfied but to expand on their answers. There was some commentary from local authorities and business representative groups and organisations indicating that they see opportunities coming of the protocol but that, perhaps, those opportunities are not being grasped with sufficient energy because of the political background which makes that more difficult. I refer the Deputy to the Northern Ireland Business Brexit Working Group and its commentary in terms of the implementation of the protocol, what that means for business and what they see as the necessary solutions in order to maximise the opportunities.

In terms of the shared island initiative, from the perspective of the Centre for Cross Border Studies it has enormous potential. We have participated in all of the dialogues to date, including the most recent on education. We engage with the shared island unit in all sorts of ways to try to make sure that we maximise the opportunities coming out of the shared island initiative. I wear another hat, that is, secretary to the Standing Conference on Teacher Education North and South, SCoTENS, which I am pleased to wear. The shared island initiative has initiated a collaboration with SCoTENS on the issue of funding for people involved in teacher education North and South in order to undertake research on education, which is really welcome. There is one issue, which is not necessarily a negative, in regard to the national development plan published yesterday and what it contained in terms of the North-South dimension, that is, for us to be able to maximise the opportunities provided by the shared island initiative and the national development plan, we need the two sides, North and South, to work together.

If one pole of that co-operation is not engaged or has difficulties with it then we are not going to be able to maximise the opportunities derived from the shared island initiative or from the national development plan. I am hopeful that we will be able to do so. I stress again, that in terms of civil society we will grasp any opportunity and we will always be open to grasping those opportunities that are provided to us to enhance our co-operation, North-South and east-west. Obviously, we would really welcome the political dimension being more favourable to that co-operation in order for us to exploit the opportunities. I will now hand over to my colleague Mr. Douds.

Mr. Stephen Douds:

I thank Dr. Soares and I thank also Deputy Haughey for his question. What links both questions is the notion of economic relations between both jurisdictions on the island. As Dr. Soares has said, while the political environment might not be the most conducive to economic co-operation, businesses are in the business of getting on with it. That is true for farming, which is Northern Ireland's biggest business. There are a number of straws in the wind. I am no economist but certainly from following business news and from picking up some straws in the wind, there is a more dappled picture, and perhaps a more complex and mottled picture, of the opportunities that the protocol is presenting and especially in manufacturing and the food sector in Northern Ireland. An emphasis or a little bit more attention on economic opportunities, which sometimes is ahead of the political debate and dialogue, might open up a slightly more complex picture.

On the shared island initiative, we have benefited from very positive engagement with the shared island unit in the Department of the Taoiseach. It is also worth saying that I am aware from the Irish Association and many of our members, and I know from some of the conversations in this wider ad hoc group, many of the organisations associated with the Centre for Cross Border Studies welcome the language used about the shared island. It shifts the dial slightly. Since it was announced, the Taoiseach and that Department have not had as much bandwidth because of Covid, which has demanded so much time and attention from politicians and from civil servants. There is enormous potential there. The potential exists alongside the work of the Department of Foreign Affairs and the reconciliation fund that is run from that Department. I believe that some flesh on the bone of what the shared island unit might be able to do and might be able to fund would be very welcome. One significant point is that it is operating also at local authority level, sometimes away from the Assembly and the heated context of the Assembly. There are Assembly elections due next year and at a local authority level, with North and South working together, it might be possible to achieve some good work around capital development projects there.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I thank Mr. Douds.

Photo of Marian HarkinMarian Harkin (Sligo-Leitrim, Independent)
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As I was in my office for 45 minutes trying to connect, I missed all of the presentations and I apologise for that. If I ask a question that has previously been asked, please forgive me. I will plough on nonetheless.

I am very strongly supportive of the witnesses' work in principle and in practice. As somebody from a Border county who has represented that county here in Dáil Éireann and at European Parliament level, I am aware of some of the very important work the witnesses' organisations do. Sometimes, a lot of it is invisible work but this is the work that helps to build foundations and brings people together. It is hugely important.

I have one or two questions for the witnesses and I apologise again that I was not part of the discussions for the first 45 minutes. In the context of Brexit and the protocol, I was reading through the conclusions for the witnesses' document where it says that a wider process of engagement is needed beyond the business community. I would have thought that there was a very significant process of engagement along the Border areas, for example, in the health area with the Co-operation and Working Together, CAWT, programme, and others. What is happening with those? I have not followed up for perhaps 12 or 18 months. I wonder where they are. To me that was a very strong and powerful programme that worked well. There are also all of the various programmes supported by the special EU programmes body, SEUPB, whether it is environmental or cultural etc. Have those programmes been sidelined to some extent in the context of Brexit? I am thinking specifically in terms of European Union funds. If those funds are flowing, what are the positive outcomes from those? I am not blaming civil society but I am asking whether the positive outcomes from those and the avenues into which they feed have been shut off or whether significant diversions simply have been put in the way.

My second question also refers to the conclusions where it says that it is imperative that civic society organisations involved in North-South co-operation are represented in any process for engagement between civic society and those responsible for the implementation of the withdrawal agreement and its protocol, and only by ensuring these steps are taken. Have we taken those steps? What are the steps we need to take to ensure that? What are the blockages? What can a committee like this do to try to get rid of some of the blockages?

Adding on to Deputy Haughey's question about the agricultural sector, consider the dairy industry, for example. Both sides of the Border literally rely on one another in the processing plants and the different timetables they have for production and they fit perfectly together to maximise output. One of the things I know about farmers is that they look to the bottom line. In that context, has any progress been made there? We know that our global markets in the dairy industry and especially around baby milk formula and so on, rely very heavily on the co-operation in the Border area. What impact is that having?

Dr. Anthony Soares:

I thank the Deputy for her questions. I will briefly respond to those questions. On the context for engagement and the wider civic society engagement beyond business, we did not at all mean to minimise in any way the importance of engagement with the business sector on how the protocol is implemented and how we shape to post-Brexit context. We were trying to emphasise that we must try to avoid a dialogue between those responsible for the implementation of the protocol that prioritises business and trying to arrive at business solutions almost to the exclusion of wider civic society. If there is not that wider civic society engagement, there is a potential for arriving at solutions that work well for business but do not fit into, or do not necessarily land well, within wider civic society. The solutions might need to be arrived at through that wider civic society dialogue to avoid that potential of solutions that might work for business but which might not be immediately acceptable within communities on the island of Ireland, for whatever reason.

The Deputy referred to CAWT and co-operation in the health area, as well as the SEUPB and the programmes it manages through EU funding.

It is enormously rich and positive. The programmes that are funded by the EU and managed by the special EU programmes body, SEUPB, have enabled us to do so much cross-Border co-operation and brought us light years ahead of where we were 20 years ago. It has been extremely positive and in that sense, we are really hopeful that the new PEACE PLUS programme will enable us to continue to do the same or even more in terms of North, South, cross-Border co-operation going forward. The PEACE PLUS programme represents an enormous opportunity for us all in terms of wider civic society working together to exploit the opportunities that exist through co-operation. Obviously there are some difficulties at the moment in terms of final sign off on the financial package because of obstacles at the political level around strand two but we are really hopeful that we can arrive at a solution very quickly in order to finalise the PEACE PLUS programme. People are desperately waiting for that to hit the ground. The committee will be very aware that many civic society organisations that have been in receipt of EU funding in the past are very fearful of the gap between funding ending under the current programme and the beginning of the new PEACE PLUS programme. It is important to avoid an overly long gap between one programme and the other.

Regarding civic society engagement with the mechanisms of the protocol, I would point to the fact that there have been initiatives from the UK Government and the European Commission, with the co-chairs of the joint committee on the withdrawal agreement and the co-chairs on the specialised committee on the protocol engaging with civic society. We have been part of that engagement but what we have been trying to point out is that going forward, we must ensure there is a more structured process of engagement.We must be made aware of the agenda in advance of any meetings and know what issues will be discussed at those meetings. Minutes must be kept and people must know who is present at those meetings. In that way, civic society organisations that are not directly at the table will know which organisations are going to be there so that they can give feedback to them and raise issues with them. Similarly, those representatives who are at the table can provide feedback to others on the progress, or lack thereof, on issues between meetings. We need a more structured process because to date, we would have to characterise it as rather ad hoc. There are no agendas, we do not know who is going to be present at the meetings and we do not know what happens between meetings. For all we know, a lot might be happening in the background. Officials from the UK Government and the European Commission might be doing lots of work on the issues raised at these meetings but we are not aware of it because there is no real feedback. One of the current obstacles is the lack of work on a structured process for civic society engagement. In terms of civic society engagement around North-South co-operation, that dialogue must involve organisations at the two poles, the two sides of that co-operation. We must avoid working just with organisations in Northern Ireland to discuss issues around North-South co-operation because co-operation involves both sides. We need representation from organisations in the Republic of Ireland as well.

Obviously, at the end of the day we do not make the decisions but we want to be involved in the dialogue. We are entirely aware of that and are not asking to be decision makers in that regard. The decision makers are the UK Government and the European Commission in terms of their oversight. They are the ultimate decision makers but we want to inform them so that they can arrive at decisions that will ensure we maintain the necessary conditions for North-South co-operation as set out in Article 11 of the protocol. We need to be able to engage in dialogue.

In terms of the agricultural sector and dairy, Deputy Harkin is absolutely right. We know her as a champion of Border counties and of cross-Border co-operation. She is very familiar with the integrated nature of the agrifood sector on the island of Ireland. We have seen strategies produced by both jurisdictions on the future of the agrifood sector, including the Northern Ireland agrifood sector, which speak of an all-island agrifood sector. That is the way they operate and that is the way they wish to continue to operate. However, from the Northern Ireland perspective, farmers' representative groups have raised the issue of the east-west dimension and how that might impact their operations going forward. Again, we hope that we will arrive at solutions that mitigate those impacts and really make the agrifood sector even more dynamic going forward, to the benefit of our communities, particularly those in the Border counties.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I thank Dr. Soares and his colleagues for their contributions today. They have whetted our appetite for more discussion. They have raised a lot of issues with us today and in their submission they have called for a more structured approach. That is something this committee should think about.

Reference was made to climate change and sustainability, and the possibility of working together on a cross-Border basis at a practical level. I am sure Dr. Ní Lochlainn is familiar with the Politics in Action programme. Mr. Peter Weil and Mr. Dave O'Brien of that programme have been working with young people through the Glencree centre. Young people go straight for the jugular in terms of the issues. They do not get caught up in or bogged down by the issues in the way politicians do. They reach out for the big, heavy issues and are not afraid to get stuck into them, including issues like education, climate change, future business, future work and where we are going. If the witnesses need to make contact with the Politics in Action programme, the committee secretariat would be happy to help.

The empowerment and education of women through second-chance education is an area in which I have a keen interest. I worked on a number of programmes in that area before I got involved in my current profession. I know the value of that work and would agree with what Dr. Soares said about the PEACE PLUS programme. We need more of that. We need more engagement and more opportunities for women to work collaboratively on a cross-Border basis. At the end of the day, there is real potential there in terms of second-chance education and empowerment. It is not just about empowering individuals but also empowering communities so any help we can provide in that regard will be forthcoming.

Dr. Soares called for a better process with a more structured agenda and we actually had that during the Brexit discussions through the Department of Foreign Affairs. It laid out a very credible, structured process on a cross-Border basis so in that context, we are not talking about reinventing the wheel. There is a potential governmental structure there that we could possibly look at. We could devote an entire day, if not weeks, months or years to talking about multiple identities. The complexity that surrounds that may exist below the political level. While I do not want to open up the debate again, I must ask a few questions around that. Is there enough safe space being created to discuss the complexities of identity and multiple identities? Is there enough safe space being created for people to express their own identity or identity preferences, be that Irish, British, British-Irish, Irish-British or Northern Irish? The non-political group to which the witnesses belong has a very interesting composition in terms of focusing totally outside of politics, which is perhaps where the safe space lies. Has the group looked at the history of Canada and how it has evolved and grappled issues of identity and multiple identity including people identifying as Canadian, French-Canadian, British-Canadian, Irish-Canadian, Scottish-Irish-Canadian, Welsh-Canadian, Manx-Canadian and so on? Canada is a country with no shortage of discussion points around multiple identity.

A more comprehensive answer may be required but I would be very interested to hear brief feedback on that point from Mr. Douds.

Mr. Stephen Douds:

I thank the Chairman for that eloquent and efficient summation of some of the points made by me and others. It is much appreciated. The short answer is "Yes", there are enough safe spaces. There is a multiplicity of safe spaces and forums. Interestingly, in the past year and a half, as a result of Covid, we have moved online many of our debate seminar events. Oddly, one of the few positives of holding such events online is that one is able to draw together for events on Zoom people who possibly would not otherwise come together to meet face to face. There is no opportunity to continue the debate afterwards over a glass of wine and have social relations, but there certainly is the opportunity to bring together people who would not otherwise participate. People can express their own identities.

One of the events we ran online in February was chaired by Professor Katy Hayward of Queen's University Belfast, who will be known to many of the committee. It was a new voices initiative at which we asked some recently elected politicians from both jurisdictions to speak about issues that were common to them. I know many of the committee members will remember being recently elected to the Dáil or to local authorities. Even in February, at a time when debate on the protocol was at its height, there was a different DUP leader and the political parties on the unionist side of the benches in Stormont were urging very little co-operation, we were able to have a Sinn Féin Deputy from County Cork, along with members of the DUP and the Ulster Unionist Party at local authority level, share experiences that were common to them. By and large, our organisation stays away from the political space, but when we stepped into that space it was relatively straightforward to ask people to debate common concerns as politicians working in both jurisdictions against the backdrop of Brexit and the protocol. This is the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs and committee members know those factors have definitely changed the context in which people work.

I had not thought of the example of Canada in this context. I thank the Chairman for that suggestion. Through family connections, I am much more familiar with Switzerland as a place much closer to us in Europe, although not a member of the EU, where different strands of culture, identity and social relations have managed to live together. I am happy to consider the issue and perhaps speak to the Canadian representation in Dublin to learn more about that.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I thank the members of the committee, as well as Mr. Douds, Ms Farrell, Dr. Ní Lochlainn and Dr. Soares for their participation. I know Dr. Soares does a good job of staying connected with the committee and communicating with us but we will try to follow up on several of the issues that have been raised. I note that Senator Martin has joined the meeting online. He has a national remit as a Senator but he lives quite close to the Border. Does he wish to offer a few words of wisdom or ask a question?

Photo of Vincent P MartinVincent P Martin (Green Party)
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I commend the contributors. I am sorry that I was not present for the entire meeting. I hope it has been recorded and that I can watch it later. My apologies for tuning in late, but I am glad I made it. As the Chairman stated, although I have been happily ensconced in County Kildare for a long time, I am from County Monaghan. This has been an important and illuminating discussion and I hope we will have more such discussion in the future. I thank our guests.

Photo of Joe McHughJoe McHugh (Donegal, Fine Gael)
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I thank the Senator. He did my job there, so I do not have to say a final "thank you" to everybody. The meeting is now adjourned. The next meeting of the joint committee will take place on Wednesday, 13 October 2021 at 9.30 a.m. when we will be joined by representatives of the European Commission to discuss the state of the Union.

The joint committee adjourned at 11.04 a.m. until 9.30 a.m on Wednesday, 13 October 2021.