Tuesday, 5 December 2006
British-Irish Agreement (Amendment) Bill 2006 [Seanad]: Second and Subsequent Stages
I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Is cúis áthais dom an Bille tábhachtach seo a chur faoi bhráid na Dála. The British-Irish Agreement (Amendment) Bill 2006 comprises a short technical amendment to the British-Irish Agreement Act 1999. The amendment concerns one of the North-South bodies, namely the Special EU Programmes Body, SEUPB, which was established to manage the EU's PEACE and INTERREG cross-Border funds. Next year, under the new EU financial perspectives, there will be changes in the funding structures for the period 2007 to 2013. While the PEACE programme will continue much as before, the policy areas and objectives currently covered by the INTERREG programme are being transferred to a new EU territorial co-operation objective. As a result, some of the terms currently used in the 1999 Act to describe the SEUPB's remit will become out of date on 1 January 2007.
It was always the Government's clear intention that the SEUPB should continue in its role in managing the EU funds. The British Government shares this intention. The two Governments confirmed this shared understanding through an exchange of letters, signed by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Peter Hain, MP, on 25 July of this year. These letters make it clear that it was the joint intention of the two Governments that certain terms used in the 1999 agreement, such as the phrase "community initiatives", would include "successor, substitute and equivalent Programmes, building on the same substantive objectives, priorities, policy areas and activities". This exchange of letters constituted an international agreement and this Bill gives domestic legal effect to that important agreement.
As the House will be aware, the Good Friday Agreement provided the basis for a balanced political settlement in Northern Ireland. It recognised the importance of relationships between North and South and between east and west. At meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council, Ministers from both jurisdictions come together to undertake "consultation, co-operation and action" on matters of mutual interest, to the benefit of the people, North and South.
The agreement also provided for co-operation in a number of specific sectors, to be progressed by new North-South Implementation Bodies, commonly referred to as the North-South bodies. However, since the suspension of the institutions in 2002, the North-South Ministerial Council has not been able to meet and the bodies have been unable to operate in a manner that would allow them to reach their full potential.
The Irish Government has consistently sought to bolster and protect the North-South bodies. In spite of the restrictions imposed on them, the bodies have continued to pursue co-operation and deliver important public services to the people, both North and South. Their achievements range from the Food Safety Promotion Board's eye-catching safe food campaigns to the work of Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster Scots Agency in promoting our island's cultures and languages. The Loughs Agency is ensuring the development of the aquaculture industry in the Carlingford and Foyle loughs, Intertrade Ireland is stimulating business links between the North and South and Waterways Ireland, the largest North-South body, continues to manage one of our island's most important recreational and tourism assets, namely, our canals and waterways. We saw in the news just today how Tourism Ireland has once again managed to increase visitor numbers to the island as a whole, making this year a record year for tourism in our country.
The SEUPB's success is all the more remarkable given the constraints imposed on it by suspension. Since its establishment in 1999, it has acted as a conduit for over €1 billion to 12 counties, both North and South. In practical terms, this means that some 6,500 projects have received funding from the SEUPB.
The PEACE programme in particular has provided assistance on the ground to support reconciliation and to help the region develop a more peaceful and stable society. The INTERREG programme, for its part, has helped create genuine cross-Border partnerships and has greatly improved the economic and social landscape of the Border region.
The SEUPB is highly regarded throughout the European Union for its management of the EU funds. It is used as a model of best practice. It has met the demanding financial targets set by the EU each year. The impact of the funds that the body manages can be seen throughout Northern Ireland and in the six Border counties, namely, Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan, Monaghan and Louth. The distinctively European character of the funding brings a special added value. By highlighting aspects of our shared identity, it facilitates programmes on a cross-community and cross-Border basis, which might not have been possible otherwise.
In promoting peace and prosperity, the EU, through the SEUPB, has made an important contribution to the peace process. While much has been achieved with EU funding to date, there is no doubt that the support of the European Union will continue to be very important as we move forward. We are at an important juncture in the peace process in Northern Ireland.
The agreement reached at St. Andrews in October last sets out a clear way forward for all of the northern political parties to commit to the full operation of stable power-sharing government in Northern Ireland and the restoration of all of the institutions envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement. It provides for full support for policing and the criminal justice institutions, including the Policing Board.
The British Government has introduced legislation that provides for devolved government to be restored in Northern Ireland in March of 2007 and for the electoral endorsement of the St. Andrews Agreement by way of elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly in March of 2007. Both Governments have made it clear, however, that an election will only take place if the parties are working constructively towards participation in a power-sharing Executive by 26 March of next year. We have seen signs of progress towards power-sharing in recent weeks. We have had clear indications that, subject to the outcome of the election and other necessary conditions, Dr. Ian Paisley and Mr. Martin McGuinness would be the First and Deputy First Ministers, respectively, on restoration next March.
This week, the parties are sitting together in the Assembly and at the Programme for Government Committee discussing their policy priorities and the practical issues facing Northern Ireland, such as education, the economy, local government reform, policing and justice. Dr. Paisley and Mr. Adams have each spoken of their personal commitment to making progress towards restoration by next March. The Government believes this will require real leadership from both the DUP and Sinn Féin. The DUP must show that it is ready to share power with Nationalists under the arrangements laid down in the Good Friday Agreement. That means direct engagement with Sinn Féin as its prospective partner in Government.
Movement is required from Sinn Féin on policing. Both the Taoiseach and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, have said they would like to see Sinn Féin call its Ard-Fheis to deal with this issue sooner rather than later, in any event by January next. For its part, the Irish Government will continue to work in close partnership with the British Government, as well as with all the parties, to secure our overriding priority, that is, the restoration of power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland and full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Only full restoration will allow the North-South bodies, including the SEUPB, reach their full potential and further develop North-South co-operation in their respective areas. Restoration of the devolved institutions will also allow meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council to resume. Government Ministers will once again be able to sit down with locally elected Northern Irish Ministers to advance North-South co-operation for our mutual benefit.
The Government has sought to give a strong impetus to North-South co-operation. Both the Irish and British Governments recognise that there are significant benefits and advantages in working together. For example, the two Governments have recently launched an ambitious agenda for strengthening economic co-operation. This included a number of ground-breaking joint initiatives, such as further collaboration in research and development and a new targeted approach to enterprise training, as well as to identifying labour market needs, on an all-island basis. We have also agreed to pool our resources in trade promotion, opening up trade missions to businesses across the island and placing the overseas offices of Enterprise Ireland and Invest Northern Ireland at the disposal of companies, North and South. Trade missions to India and Canada have already included companies from both parts of this island.
The Governments have identified co-operation on the planning and delivery of infrastructure as the key to maximising returns on the major investments being made North and South. Greater co-operation will also help ensure more balanced regional development, especially in the Border region. In this regard, the all-island dimension will be an important horizontal theme of the Government's next national development plan for the period 2007 to 2013.
The Governments are committed to working together to create a more integrated and regionally balanced road network, enhancing key routes between the major urban centres on this island. In addition, the Government is moving ahead to re-open the remaining few cross-Border routes, closed as a result of the Troubles. Some significant progress has already been achieved, for example, in the upgrading of the Dublin-Belfast road. We have also agreed with the British Government to jointly invest in City of Derry Airport.
The Irish Government is committed to taking forward plans for the restoration of the Ulster Canal to create a further major inland waterway for the Border region, similar to the Ballinamore-Ballyconnell project, which we executed in the 1990s. In the energy sector, the single electricity market will be operational in 2007. Plans are advanced for the development of further interconnection of our electricity and gas supply systems on a North-South and east-west basis. The two Governments have agreed to work together to maximise the contribution of renewable and sustainable energy to the future energy needs of this island.
The Government also believes that key public services, such as health and education, can be delivered more efficiently and effectively on an all-island basis and will be advancing co-operation in this area also. This Government will continue to take these initiatives forward with the British Government in the coming months but looks forward in particular to working with Northern Irish Ministers, in the context of restoration, which will also allow the North-South bodies to become fully operational once again to the benefit of all.
In the meantime, the Government wishes to ensure that the SEUPB can continue its strong role in managing the EU funds that have been so important in promoting peace and prosperity throughout the Northern region. In recognition of this key role, the Government is ensuring that the SEUPB's future remit is clear. This Government believes that the SEUPB and the other North-South bodies will have an important role to play, in ensuring that the economic benefits of the hoped for new dispensation are widely enjoyed, not only in Northern Ireland, but throughout this island.
As Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, I have worked closely with the special EU programmes body. I have seen at first hand how its work has improved the quality of life of thousands of people, bringing them together, across communities and borders. I have also participated in the very difficult Strand II talks and have worked to strengthen North-South co-operation and the North-South bodies.
I wish to commend the work of this unique body, its chief executive, Mr. Colgan, and all of its executive staff and I commend this important Bill to Dáil Éireann.
I wish to share time with Deputy Crawford. The purpose of the British-Irish Agreement (Amendment) Bill 2006 is to amend the provisions of the original Act relating to the special European Union programmes body which was set up in 1999. This body was established with the specific purpose of putting into action for communities in Northern Ireland the international support that was offered by the friends of Ireland overseas.
I welcome this Bill. I accept that, very unfortunately, for the people of Northern Ireland it has been some time since they had normality in many ways, including in their political structures. While the people of Northern Ireland do not have political normality, they have experienced an increase in prosperity in business across all communities because of the relative peace that has existed there for the past decade. Businesses, determined community leaders and many individuals in Northern Ireland have been the driving forces behind this prosperity.
We must do anything we can to support further economic development in Northern Ireland. The people and their representatives rightly associate economic prosperity with political stability, and vice versa, and recognise that it is a real and tangible dividend of political stability. The INTERREG and PEACE programmes have played a major role in bringing about political stability. A total of 6,000 community-based projects have benefited from the €868 million spent on the PEACE programme. These projects have had a positive effect on all communities. I understand that €182 million has been spent through the INTERREG programme, making a positive difference to people's lives. This Bill will allow the continuation and expansion of these programmes.
The Food Safety Promotion Board, InterTrade Ireland and Waterways Ireland have done excellent work while playing their part in promoting prosperity in Northern Ireland, with positive benefits for the whole island. I welcome the St. Andrews Agreement and the progress made in recent times. All participants must see the big prize at the end of a time of great frustration. Prosperity can be achieved only by taking the next step to have the Northern institutions up and running, with all political parties co-operating in a normal political atmosphere.
I pay tribute to those of all shades of political opinion who have been involved in resolving the conflict in Northern Ireland, especially members of my own party, including former taoisigh Liam Cosgrave, Garret FitzGerald and John Bruton who were involved respectively in negotiating the Sunningdale Agreement, the Anglo-Irish Agreement and the Framework Document. These agreements have been central to the whole process.
My party, in Opposition, has supported this Government's efforts to achieve the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Fine Gael supported the Government in the negotiations that led to the signing of the Good Friday Agreement in 1998. We campaigned vigorously throughout the country for this agreement to be accepted in the referendum that followed. The principles that underpin the Good Friday Agreement are those that Fine Gael has espoused for many years: devolution, power-sharing, mutual respect and understanding and the absolute and total rejection of violence as a means to achieving political objectives.
Since the Good Friday Agreement was negotiated, signed and endorsed by the people of Ireland and Northern Ireland in the referendum, Fine Gael has supported all efforts to see the agreement being fully implemented. The Leader of Fine Gael, Deputy Kenny, has visited Northern Ireland several times to meet with political leaders and encourage compromise, co-operation and progress on this issue.
I also welcome the progress made at St. Andrews. Although the original deadline has not been met, all parties appear to recognise that full and unconditional support for the police and the justice system is essential for any durable settlement. Progress on this issue must be made soon. We should remember that the St. Andrews Agreement is an agreement between two governments and that reaching agreement between the parties is now an even greater challenge. I reiterate my party's support for the St. Andrews Agreement and express the hope that all difficulties can be overcome before the retirement of Tony Blair as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom and before the next general election here. I ask the Government to announce its programme of investment as a result of the St. Andrews Agreement as the British Government has already outlined its proposals.
I welcome the opportunity to say a few words on this Bill. It may not be the most important Bill to come before the House but it is essential to allow the funding from the PEACE and INTERREG programmes to continue. This funding has been important but could have been more so if it had been additional as it was intended to be. I make no apology for that criticism. We need a great deal of support in the Border where many towns, such as Clones where I went to school, still experience many difficulties. My colleague from Donegal, Deputy Keaveney, knows that because of unemployment and so on, the Border area still needs a great deal of support. It is important that any funding that comes from the St. Andrews Agreement is shared not just with the Six Counties but also with Donegal, Leitrim and Cavan-Monaghan which have gained little from the recent prosperity in the country.
The Minister of State said that the Government is committed to taking forward plans for the restoration of the Ulster Canal. I welcome that because it will be a major step in cross-Border, cross-party and community involvement. It has brought the communities north and south of the Border together in a way that I have never before seen them united. If this can be done quickly it will help to cement the situation. Until Waterways Ireland is back working as it should, which depends on the full settlement of the St. Andrews Agreement and, in turn, the Good Friday Agreement, progress will be slow.
There is a need for movement in the DUP on power sharing. From meetings I have had with some DUP councillors and MLAs, I accept they have anxieties. However, if we go on like this forever, we will never see an end to it. The time is nigh and the opportunity may not come again for quite some time. I say to them in this House — they may not like to hear it coming from here — that it is vital they take hold of power sharing with both hands.
I say with the same sincerity to the Sinn Féin Party that policing must be dealt with in a proper way. We will not have the society we would like unless there is a proper police force that is acceptable to and has the involvement of all concerned. I urge Sinn Féin to get on with the job. I accept it is difficult for that party also, but if we all stand back from our difficulties nothing will ever happen. It is crucial that these two issues are resolved in the next few months. Both Mr. Gerry Adams on behalf of Sinn Féin and Mr. Ian Paisley on behalf of the DUP stated they want to be involved. The only way we can be sure of that is if, in fact, they do get involved.
I was interested to hear the reference in the speech of the Minister of State, Deputy Treacy, to the energy sector. Regardless of the agreement, this is an issue that must be tackled by the Government. I visited Scottish Power with my colleagues on a sub-committee of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body last week. I was most impressed with the efforts it is making towards alternative energy now and in the future. It is aiming at having 54% of energy requirements provided from alternative energy sources by 2020. Scotland is a long way ahead of us. If we are to benefit from cheaper energy through our links with Europe, we must move ahead in every possible way in that regard.
It is almost impossible for a company like Wellmans in Mullagh on the Cavan-Meath border to pay €1.10 per KW hour for electricity, compared to €0.62 in its factory in the Netherlands and €0.55 at its factory in France. If we are to be properly linked to Europe and have a genuine energy programme, we should at least be on a par with our European neighbours. Otherwise, we will lose more of our manufacturing industry than is the case to date.
We need a genuine effort to get industry to the Border regions. In this regard, the Ulster Canal is important, but so too is the fact that, at long last, a reasonable road is being constructed from Dublin to Monaghan town. If that is to be totally successful, we must use the funds that have been made available to go right through to Derry, the fourth largest city in this country. Such infrastructure is most important for the viability of industry, tourism, etc.
I recently spoke to a lady from north Monaghan who is aiming to provide 150 jobs in Glaslough. She hopes to provide 150 high quality tourism beds in her centre based around the castle and an equestrian centre. That is the type of spirit we want to see in evidence but it must be supported by the Government and cross-Border co-operation. The necessary road structures must be put in place so that when this local industry is fully in place, she can be sure people can travel there in comfort.
The road from Belfast to Dungannon was finished 20 years ago but it never went further west. The road from Monaghan to Derry has been improved a little but it still requires work. It is time for the Government to provide money. Perhaps in the budget tomorrow we will hear what is being given towards the peace process in Northern Ireland. It is vital that an announcement about such an allocation would be made soon. The purpose of the funding should be clearly set out and it should be earmarked to serve not just the Six Counties but the Border counties also. Without that type of commitment, we in the Border areas will remain in the doldrums in terms of tourism and industry.
To all intents and purposes, the IDA has not visited County Monaghan in recent years. There has been no effort to get industry into that area. It is vital that we use the final element of the peace process to ensure that situation is rectified. A marvellous announcement was made in recent years regarding County Cavan but it did not materialise. This opportunity cannot be missed so that we can look forward to a bright future. I commend and support the Bill.
The Labour Party welcomes this Bill and is happy to support its passage through the Oireachtas. The creation of the North-South Implementation Bodies was a crucial part of the Good Friday Agreement. That Agreement was not merely a political contract between the political parties in Northern Ireland and the British and Irish Governments on the administration of Northern Ireland. It also laid the foundations for increased North-South co-operation for the mutual social and economic benefit of all.
The North-South Implementation Bodies were key in this regard. Their success is crucial in ensuring that those areas identified for specific co-operation and day-to-day action between the Irish Government and Northern Ireland are developed for the benefit of both parts of the island. Given the economic growth experienced in the South over the past decade and the potential of the North's economy to expand and develop further in the context of a functioning and stable Assembly and Executive, the capacity of North-South co-operation to succeed is endless.
Moreover, North-South co-operation and the bodies themselves are not simply about delivering for the economy. They also have a key role to play in regard to the development of good relations and partnership between the two parts of the island. To quote Co-operation Ireland: "The promotion of effective North-South co-operation is an integral part of building peace on the island of Ireland." For that reason alone, the Labour Party supports this Bill and any effort that assists the work of these bodies. However, we do not shy away from the fact that the North-South Implementation Bodies themselves currently exist on a care and maintenance basis. Their establishment, work and future is dependent on the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.
Suspension of the Assembly and Executive since the autumn of 2002 has undoubtedly impeded progress towards North-South development. The intervening period — years that should have been used for the bodies to bed down and embark on important work in regard to spatial planning, tourism and economic development — has instead been full of frustration, as repeated political initiatives to re-establish the institutions they require to fulfil their mandate have ended in failure.
It is the Labour Party's sincere hope that the latest initiative, the St. Andrews Agreement, and the subsequent timetable towards restoration, succeeds. Subsequent to the return of the institutions, the North-South agenda so crucial for the future must be put centre stage and prioritised by any new Executive. Unfortunately, the positive view of increased North-South co-operation and of the Implementation Bodies themselves is not shared by all political parties in Northern Ireland. In recent years the Democratic Unionist Party has had the bodies in its sights in its repeated attempts to renegotiate certain elements of the Good Friday Agreement. This has not just been a matter of political expediency. It has not sought mere minor changes to North-South bodies as cover for accepting the Agreement. Rather, it has specifically sought to diminish the powers and scope of the bodies and to challenge the basis on which they continue to function.
In this regard I express some concern about the Governments' attitude to the DUP's agenda. Ever since early 2004 when the DUP published its North-South, east-west document on strands two and three of the Good Friday Agreement, the DUP's aims have been clear. In that document it stated:
We opposed the all-Ireland Implementation Bodies, amongst other things on the basis that they were not accountable to the Assembly and were not value for money for the taxpayer. We opposed the overall set of proposals because they were mainly driven by the desire to achieve Irish unity.
In the subsequent negotiations that led in the first instance to the December 2004 comprehensive agreement, and ultimately to the St. Andrews Agreement two months ago, the DUP sought concession after concession to make the North-South Ministerial Council and the implementation bodies increasingly responsible to the Assembly and the Executive.
While accountability and responsibility would be crucial for important decisions on North-South issues, under the DUP's plan anyone working in the implementation bodies would effectively first have to seek Executive or Assembly permission for the purchase of a paper clip. As Peter Robinson said in his exchange with Northern Ireland Minister, David Hanson, in Westminster two weeks ago, during a debate on the legislation arising from the St. Andrews Agreement:
Will the Minister confirm that the Bill will mean that any decision of the North-South Ministerial Council, which is cross-cutting by nature, or any other matter involving relationships with the Republic of Ireland that are affected by external relations, will have to go to the Executive for agreement? Without such approval, will Ministers have authority to take such a decision? Would any such ministerial decision be valid?
All this is designed to make the work of the North-South bodies cumbersome, unwieldy and impractical. This would enable the DUP to argue that they are impossible to work and are in need of reform. It would then argue that North-South co-operation should only function on the basis of ad hoc consultation between Ministers in Stormont and Dublin on a case-by-case basis. There should be no superstructure, no formal institutions to promote North-South co-operation and development, in short, no implementation bodies at all in the DUP's plans.
What is most worrying about all this is Minister Hanson's response to Peter Robinson's questions. In reply he said:
The honourable Gentleman also asked the Secretary of State to confirm that, by virtue of the arrangements put in place by the Bill, details relating to the North-South Ministerial Council or any matter involving relationships with the Republic of Ireland will require Executive approval. I can confirm that such matters will be referred to under the ministerial code that applied until suspension, and will require Executive agreement. Under the arrangements provided for in the Bill, decisions taken without Executive agreement would not be legitimate and would be open to legal challenge.
I would have hoped that such a response from Secretary of State Peter Hain's second in command would have severely disturbed the Irish Government.
It is evident from this reply that the British Government has conceded major ground to the DUP in its efforts to make unworkable any decision taken by the implementation bodies or the North-South Ministerial Council with which it may disagree. Unfortunately, over recent weeks I have heard very little from the Government on this issue. I afford the Government this opportunity to clarify its position. Has the Government raised this matter with the British Government? What was its reaction to Minister Hanson's comments? Does it agree with the analysis that this represents a clear attempt by the DUP to damage the North-South agenda? More importantly, what efforts is the Government making to prevent the DUP from achieving its aim?
There is a real fear that in the period between now and the Assembly elections scheduled for March, if we get that far, the DUP will seek further concessions on North-South issues. To prevent this, I appeal to the Government to mount a robust defence of the implementation bodies and the North-South Ministerial Council to ensure that this vital area of co-operation and development is protected so that it can thrive in the future.
We must not forget that just as the DUP has sought to inflict as much damage on the North-South bodies as possible, Sinn Féin could have protected the bodies more strongly. When did we last hear anything from Sinn Féin representatives about their importance? Perhaps that will be rectified in Deputy Ó Caoláin's contribution. So far it has concentrated on its own interest rather than the wider public good. There have been delays in decommissioning, the ending of all paramilitary and criminal activity and now towards supporting the PSNI. In that regard I hope that as Sinn Féin approaches decision time on taking its seats on the policing board, it will not merely seek to win further concessions from the two Governments for itself but rather that it will ask the British Government to resist DUP demands to capitulate on the North-South bodies.
I wish to refer to some specifics in North-South co-operation. In education, which is of particular interest in my role as spokesperson on education and science, there is huge potential for co-operation. Recently I was involved in presenting digital schools awards. The particular school in Limerick had a digital relationship with a school in Northern Ireland. The information technology area provides major opportunities for co-operation in education between North and South. I was involved also with a conference in Dundalk on educational disadvantage organised by a school principal in a disadvantaged school in Dublin. Representatives from political parties North and South were present, as well as officials from the education and library boards in the North and from the Department of Education and Science in the South. It was a positive experience. Working groups have been set up as a result of that conference to continue the co-operation between North and South in that area of educational disadvantage.
I support what has been said about Waterways Ireland. Given that I am at the bottom of the line in Limerick, I have a great interest in the development of the Ulster Canal and in making the connection from the North, through my constituency, to the sea. There is enormous potential for the implementation bodies to have a positive effect on life in Northern Ireland and in the South and I hope they will be able to operate. I hope also that the points I have made, especially about the DUP and Sinn Féin, will be taken on board and that there will be a positive response to these bodies.
This Bill, which makes provision for a slight but important adjustment to the British Irish Agreement Act 1999, is welcome. The 1999 Act was one of the fruits to flow from the Good Friday Agreement which, at the time, constituted an historic compromise between Nationalism and Unionism. The majority of Irish people on this island endorsed the Agreement because it afforded them the opportunity to transform the face of Ireland for the better after three decades of conflict.
The Good Friday Agreement forged between the North's political parties and the Dublin and London Governments, would pave the way for an end to violence and civil unrest. The North-South dimension was of crucial importance, best exemplified by the establishment and successful operation of cross-Border bodies. Co-operation for mutual benefit has already taken place in a number of areas: tourism, agriculture, infrastructure and health.
In tourism, Fáilte Ireland is successfully promoting the entire island as a single destination. That is welcome. Attractions such as the Shannon-Erne Waterway and a fully restored Ulster Canal could be marketed on an all-island basis. All the waterways are under the aegis of Waterways Ireland. We have heard about the restoration of the canal in a number of contributions. It has many benefits. We have witnessed the benefits the Shannon-Erne Waterway has brought to County Leitrim, which is a place in which to live. It has brought much tourism potential to Blacklion and Belturbet in Cavan. A spur should be brought to Clones and we should get on with the job. There is no reason not to do it. People talk about impediments. With a will to drive it on both sides and co-operation in a Border area, the benefits that would flow to a town such as Clones would be nothing short of fantastic.
In the cross-Border body, CAWT, Co-operation and Working Together, there is potential for more meaningful co-operation than at present. A large tranche of the population lives on either side of the Border. Some 12 counties and up to 1 million people are involved. Those areas have been denuded of hospital services and have been neglected by both central governments in Belfast and Dublin. The situation in Tyrone is similar to that in Monaghan — it has no hospital and services are being removed. Accident and emergency services are provided at both ends of the N2 from Dublin to Derry, with no accident and emergency unit in between. While one exists on the coast in Drogheda and another on the coast in Derry, the current situation is unacceptable if we are to look after people fairly. We need a regional trauma centre in that Border area where people could be brought and stabilised in the event of an accident. The Cavan-Monaghan region has a large number of accident black spots and rather than having a regional trauma centre in a regional centre of excellence we could have a standalone regional trauma centre. We should consider such matters, as they would give more meaning to the concept of cross-Border co-operation.
Under the special EU programme, INTERREG will be most affected by the terms of the Bill. Coming under a new EU territorial co-operation objective, INTERREG programmes have made a significant contribution to waterways infrastructure in Ireland. The development of the cross-Border waterway links the island's two major rivers, the result of which is that one can travel by boat from Belfast to visit our colleagues in Limerick.
Is dea-scéal é seo. This is a good news story and it is great to be able to welcome the Bill. It is welcomed by the Green Party both North and South and indeed east and west on both islands. I have just returned from Belfast where we signed an agreement to further develop co-operation in line with the Good Friday Agreement, strands 1, 2 and 3. On that basis I am familiar with the great benefits of pursuing co-operation that is practical, fair and mutually beneficial. This applies to all the people on this island and the neighbouring island.
This is an urgent matter. The Minister of State alluded to some questions on renewable energy. Ardnacrusha is familiar to Members of this House and particularly to Deputies from Limerick. Given that we are consuming energy requiring a new Ardnacrusha every six months it begs the question as to whether we are serious about facing our futures together on the island. This is a very practical consideration. If we are to avoid nuclear energy we need to develop the potential of offshore renewable energy sources in particular, North and South. I was in Blackrock, Dundalk, supporting an offshore wind farm development because of the urgency of the matter with which we are dealing. Practical lessons can be learned from the North from, for example, marine conservation in Portaferry. We are trying to build a similar centre in Balbriggan in my constituency. Considerable co-operation already exists and the Bill gives some structure to it.
There is also a question of fairness. While it may not be known — it certainly needs to be known — because so much petrol is bought South of the Border, this jurisdiction will pay €50 million per annum in Kyoto penalties for carbon dioxide emissions discharged North of the Border. This begs the question as to whether we will get our act together on the island on harmonisation to mutual advantage. Likewise, north of the Border the authorities are paying €44 million per year for illegally dumped rubbish which comes from the South. We are discussing a bread and butter financial issue as well as a peaceful and sustainable future for the island.
On the mutual benefit towards which we both need to work, it is somewhat ironic and potentially tragic that having come through a period of such turmoil, violence and tragedy, the British Government has announced a plan to reinvigorate and relaunch a new programme of nuclear weaponry. People, both North and South, need to unite on that front because it threatens us both. It would be ironic and tragic if we were to leave behind one warmongering episode and replace it with another.
I hope we will now be able to have the register of persons considered to be unsafe to work with children — another form of violence we want ended. That register has been stalled because the institutions have not been operational. I hope it will be developed along with other issues, too numerous to mention, by ensuring we have proper consultation with all sides of the House. The Opposition parties have been very patient, understanding and forgiving of the Government's secrecy on how it deals with the matters. If we are to move beyond a sectarian basis of a settlement in the North, all parties in this House need to be consulted in working to reach solutions in the future.
While this is a technical Bill, it gives us the opportunity briefly to reflect on the state of the peace process. We in Sinn Féin are making every effort to ensure that the inclusive Executive, with a DUP First Minister and a Sinn Féin Deputy First Minister is established, along with the restoration of the Assembly, the All-Ireland Ministerial Council and the full working of the All-Ireland implementation bodies.
We are also committed to addressing the issue of policing and in recent days Gerry Adams has set out his willingness to call an Ard-Fheis when the threshold has been crossed to real civic policing in the Six Counties, free of the sectarian and repressive legacy of the past. Last week's Oireachtas report on the Barron investigation, which exposed once again the involvement of British forces in collusion, sets out very clearly the need to ensure that there is no role for MI5 in civic policing. We are continuing to negotiate on this issue with the British Government. Powers in the areas of justice and policing must also be transferred to the Assembly and the Executive, and it is up to the DUP to accept that principle. It is just as important as the principle of power sharing. All of this is work in progress and we will spare no effort to ensure that the Good Friday Agreement is restored in full measure.
The Bill before us is a technical measure to clarify the mandate of the Special EU Programmes Body, one of the All-Ireland bodies established under the Good Friday Agreement. The other five implementation bodies are InterTrade Ireland, Foras na Gaeilge, the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission, the Food Safety Promotion Board and Waterways Ireland. As a result of the repeated and prolonged suspension of the Good Friday Agreement institutions, these bodies have not achieved their full potential.
There is frustration in the Border region that the promised peace dividend has not been delivered as expected. Projects, which are very deliverable and very necessary, have been delayed and blocked. I welcome signals from the British direct rule Minister with responsibility for Education, Maria Eagle MP, that the All-Ireland Centre of Excellence for Autism at Middletown, County Armagh, is to go ahead. This project, first initiated under former Education Minister, Martin McGuinness, has been subject to repeated delay by the British. Similarly, the development of the Ulster Canal has been talked about endlessly with little real action so far from either of the two Governments.
The Special EU Programmes Body has done much good work in managing and disbursing EU funding in the Six Counties and the Border region. However, the All-Ireland Ministerial Council should be taking decisions on policies and actions to be implemented by the body. A principal aim of the SEUPB is to promote cross-Border co-operation through the administration of the cross-Border element of the PEACE programme and the monitoring and promotion of the common chapter in the national development plan and the Northern Ireland Structural Funds plan. There has been a high commitment of investment funds through the different programmes that come within the remit of the SEUPB to administer. Taking into account the percentage of these programme funds which have not been drawn down or taken up by projects, there is little doubt that the SEUPB All-Ireland body has failed in important respects.
The major opportunities for cross-community and cross-Border development have not been fully availed of. Communities have common difficulties in mastering complex application procedures. There has been a tendency for INTERREG funds, in particular, to be used for infrastructural development, often of a most localised nature — I refer, for example, to their use in respect of the provision of street lights, roads or bridges and to supplement or even replace local authority and Government funding. These are projects that should be quite at variance with the objectives relating to the allocation of these funds. The funds to which I refer should always be in addition to and over and above funding from local and central government sources in respect of this region.
Sinn Féin has proposed an increase in the resources available to the SEUPB in order to employ more development and advisory staff who are skilled in bringing forward practical, innovative ideas for developments with economic benefits and community gain and who are well trained in the nature of social economy agencies. We are not prepared to stand still. Not only do we want the outstanding aspects of the Good Friday Agreement implemented, we want to see them expanded as the Agreement provides.
In November 2003, as part of the review of the Good Friday Agreement, Sinn Féin called for the expansion of the remit of all the current bodies and areas of co-operation, as well as calling for more to be formed. I hope Deputy O'Sullivan will note that and the fact that I and my Sinn Féin colleagues have made that call repeatedly. The Agreement says there could be "at least" six of each, so there is no bar on the establishment of further such bodies. The All-Ireland Ministerial Council is allowed to meet to consider this issue, but it only did so on one occasion.
We asked for extra areas of ministerial co-operation in community development, arts and heritage, public investment and economic co-operation. In addition, we called for nine further All-Ireland implementation bodies to be formed in respect of energy, the social economy, pollution control, mental health, policing, justice, rural development, further and higher education and telecommunications. In this peace process, we will not lower our expectations and we will continue to work tirelessly for lasting peace and, as Irish republicans, for reunification.
I welcome the opportunity to contribute to the debate on the British-Irish Agreement (Amendment) Bill, even though the time allocated is extremely limited. I am disappointed the Bill is being dealt with so late in the evening and that the time allocated to it must be curtailed. Previous speakers stated it is not an important Bill. However, in the scheme of my life and in the context of my constituency, it is most significant legislation, short and technical though it may be.
When one takes the first letter from each of the words "British", "Irish" and "Agreement" and puts them together, one is left with the word "bia", which translates into English as "food". The food to which I refer is the food of nourishment, of nurturing, of peace, of infrastructure, of co-operation, of development and of what the north west deserves. It has been denied to the area for too many years, possibly for as many as I have been on this earth. I welcome anything that includes the development of further co-operation and that moves the peace process forward. I call on those who are involved at any level or who in any way represent an impediment to my region obtaining the development it deserves, to cease what they are doing and deliver the peace the people of the area deserve.
This new programme includes an element that was not there before in respect of parts of Scotland. The latter will now have an interaction with Donegal and Northern Ireland that it did not previously enjoy. Scotland's potential in this regard is being assisted by people in my area. The Leader company in my constituency worked hard, in co-operation with its partners in Northern Ireland, to ensure the west of Scotland would be included in this programme in the context of INTERREG funding. I commend Dennis Canavan, a former MP who is now a Member of the Scottish Parliament, for the significant work he did to ensure, through his committee, that this matter was progressed. I also commend the people we met from the various Departments who assisted us when we brought IRDL and Dennis Canavan and his Scottish counterparts to meetings here in order to press our case.
Scotland is important to me for a number of reasons, one of which relates to the fishing industry. Like Scotland, Ireland is permitted to control its coastal waters to a limit of 12 miles. It is only a 30 mile journey from the part of Donegal in which I reside to Scotland. If we work together and co-operate to have programmes put in place, we could engage in joint management of fisheries in the area. This would have important implications, particularly in the context of good management leading to better preservation of stocks and better potential gains for fishermen. That is only one of the many opportunities people perceive in the context of new INTERREG funding.
I had dinner recently with George Reid from the Scottish Parliament. We discussed simple matters in the context of peace and reconciliation, such as encouraging people from Donegal who are involved in Irish traditional music and fiddlers from the North to travel to Scotland to play with the Scottish fiddler orchestra and engage in workshops and exchanges. A simple part of peace and reconciliation is encouraging people to understand each other. Many people from Donegal emigrated to Scotland and much of the heritage of both has been mutually influenced. Ulster also played its part in this regard.
A significant amount of North-South community work has been carried out in the area I represent. The region has engaged in North-South politics for over 30 years and in the recent past we have explored North-South economics following the growth of Border villages into towns. We see no difficulties in respect of North-South co-operation, although in the area I represent, which is located further north than many parts of Northern Ireland, it is more North-North co-operation. Our only problem is that this co-operation has not translated into the senior level of politics. When it does so, it will yield results. I refer, for example, to what happened in the case of the North-West Region Cross Border Group. In that context, I was able to help, with the assistance of the then Minister for Finance, Charlie McCreevy, to deliver the Foyle cross-Border ferry. The latter has served 1 million customers in less than three years, which shows the potential economic gains to be made.
The gateway initiative must deliver in terms of consultation, co-operation and action. The Minister of State said that since the suspension of the institutions in 2002, the North-South Ministerial Council has not been able to meet and the bodies do not have the full powers they should possess. Donegal has been impacted upon as a result of that development.
The Minister of State also referred to the Loughs Agency as developing and delivering cross-Border co-operation. I wish to flag that legislation is planned in respect of this matter. We have waited a long time for proper management, resourcing and legislative support in respect of the Foyle. I would be concerned by legislation that did not embrace proper opportunities to manage and look after the lough that has survived without legislation. Let us hasten slowly, particularly if we are not going to address the issue in a comprehensive manner. I am aware that I will have further opportunities to discuss this matter. However, I wish to flag that there is an issue which, as a matter or urgency, must be addressed.
Waterways Ireland is working well and I am glad that lines on the map have been accepted by all communities in respect of linking Coleraine, Dublin, Waterford and Limerick. The Minister of State intimated that these lines will be included on the map in the next national development plan. I do not know whether it was because of political sensitivity or otherwise that such lines could not previously be presented. In my opinion, there is no reason there cannot be co-operation, similar to which took place between Dublin and Belfast, in respect of delivering motorways on particular routes, such as the N2-A5 road and others in the north-west region. I will be seeking to ensure that those practical issues to which the Minister of State referred form part of the solution to be reached in the context of the national development plan.
There should be no pandering to anyone who states that all-Ireland co-operation is a problem. Such co-operation represents a win-win scenario for everyone, particularly in the development of infrastructure. As I personally stated to Peter Robinson many years ago, I must pass through various counties on the rest of the island to travel to Dublin. I, therefore, wish to see roads improved for my benefit. However, it also benefits many other counties along the way. Practical issues must be resolved. We must reach the stage where all politics are local.
Deputy O'Sullivan mentioned the massive opportunities in education but we are stymieing and stifling them because of third level fees. The two major parties in the Six Counties have stated they would not have such fees. I want to see their manifestoes implemented, since students from County Donegal who formerly chose to go to the North are being forced either to forgo their education or travel south. This puts more pressure on the Southern university system and undermines the wonderful system in the North, an interest in which I declare, having attended college in Jordanstown for seven years. It also undermines the potential to gain professional qualifications locally and remain at home. This negative spiral must be addressed. Regarding all-Ireland co-operation on education, one of the core elements is third level fees. Other issues include such matters as water rates.
It was interesting to hear Jeffrey Donaldson call on Sinn Féin to hold its Ard-Fheis. I had not realised that his Gaelic had improved so much and, as chair of the relevant committee in the Houses of the Oireachtas, look forward to recognition and promotion of the Irish language in the North in order that it will stand on a par with English, in the same way as the Official Languages Act 2003 has developed the language in the Republic. I do not consider this especially contentious. On occasion people have tried to politicise the language, the flag and everything else, but many on a cross-Border, cross-community and pluralist basis are very interested in the Irish language.
My main concern is to ensure money will be spent to make things happen, for example, in Muff where the Coney Road and Cannings Lane, an unopened cross-Border road, are situated. The gas supply that was to have continued from Belfast to County Donegal but stopped in Derry should continue its journey, given the Minister's talk of east-west links. We have spent large amounts of European funds on capital projects. I would like to see this turned into social capital and that social capital mainstreamed in order that such provision might continue.
The two Governments have identified co-operation in the planning and delivery of infrastructure as key to maximising returns on the major investments being made North and South. The all-Ireland dimension must be realised. The important horizontal themes of the Government's next development plan for the period 2007 to 2013 must deliver for the north west. I am selfish and parochial. My constituency and county have suffered unduly in recent years, something that we wish to see rectified. Anyone who can help in that regard and take an all-Ireland approach to the important issues is more than welcome.
I listened to one or two speakers.
We have seen the level of co-operation between the Parliaments involved in the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body, in which members such as Deputy Ó Caoláin and Deputy Keaveney have played a very significant part.
I welcome the very high level of co-operation achieved through current mechanisms and know that under the proposed legislation, it will be further enhanced. All parties in Northern Ireland are doing their best and I trust them. Despite the significant challenges facing them, they will be able to bring together a viable Executive and functioning Assembly, a body which will bring local governance to Northern Ireland.
The British-Irish Interparliamentary Body has addressed many of the issues mentioned. The issue of all-island co-operation was discussed in Edinburgh 18 months ago, when Stephen Kingon spoke of an economic analysis of Northern Ireland, detailing positive and negative aspects. That discussion was continued in Killarney, where we talked to representatives of the DUP informally about engagement on economic and political matters. It was further advanced when Sir George Quigley addressed the body in Belfast earlier this year.
One issue is extremely important — I know that all the Northern Ireland parties have signed up to it — namely, an agreed rate of corporation tax on the island, an agreed programme of economic co-operation on North-South interconnectors, broadband infrastructure, roads and public transport, all of which have been mentioned. They are part and parcel of the current legislation. I have seen at first hand that there is tremendous co-operation locally, of which Border Deputies have extremely good evidence, in such areas as inter-church co-operation, cross-community relations, sports and educational exchanges and so on.
In July more than 80 groups met in Dublin Castle for a conference to discuss their experience of co-operation North and South, across the communities in Northern Ireland, and east-west. Arising therefrom, I have seen significant community initiatives. Deputy Ó Caoláin mentioned the autism centre. I pay tribute to the late Margaret Ewing, MSP, for the work she did to heighten awareness of the condition. I have no doubt that the centre of excellence of which Deputy Ó Caoláin spoke will come to fruition, just as the commitment regarding Ulster waterways will bring to fruition that aspect of development.
Civil society is driving much of that development. Although I do not suggest political parties are not part of it, such groups in Northern Ireland are far ahead of their politicians who ignore them at their peril. They want them to listen to their voices and grasp the nettle. There are issues that are difficult to tackle, including those relating to water rates and the reform of local government. If the parties in Northern Ireland are not to be relegated to the status of local councillors, however, they must all accept the challenge of making progress. I recognise the challenges that exist for Sinn Féin and the DUP in regard to policing and power-sharing, respectively. If both parties — we tend to forget the other parties, including the SDLP, the UUP and the smaller parties — work together, there is a unique opportunity to move forward the situation on this island.
Reference was made to the work that the North-South bodies should be able to do. Notwithstanding the challenges and restrictions they face, they can already do a significant amount. I commend their work. I spoke at a conference in Newry earlier this year at which the influence of these bodies was made clear. I look forward to the time when they will be able to do much more. The potential of the designated areas of co-operation is immense if the opportunity is grasped. I commend the Government's initiative in including in the national development plan a chapter on the all-island economy. That is crucial.
Deputy Keaveney referred briefly to the potential for east-west co-operation, an issue that does not receive adequate attention. Earlier this year, one of the committees of the British-Irish Interparliamentary Body met representatives of the CBI and IBEC to discuss road transport connections within and between Ireland, Scotland and England. They outlined the volume of haulage that is carried from the Republic, through Larne to Stranraer and even on to Felixstowe. I urge the British Government to lend its support to initiatives in this regard. To date, regrettably, it has been found wanting in this area.
The potential for other links is great. Further east-west co-operation is possible in the gas and electricity markets and there is potential for enhanced North-South co-operation in health care and education. I recently attended a conference in Mullaghbawn, just outside Crossmaglen, where the links between Newry and Dundalk across a range of areas were emphasised, including education, industrial development and information and communications technology. There is potential for greater co-operation in such areas throughout the island.
Deputy O'Sullivan referred to the lessons North and South can learn from each other in the area of education. There is no doubt that the education system in this State has great strengths, but there are aspects of the Northern Ireland system from which we can learn. We have seen, for instance, that the North has the highest level of participation in third level education among all the regions of the United Kingdom and the highest level of early school leaving. Our school completion initiatives and the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools programme could be developed as models of best practice for both jurisdictions on this island.
There is major potential in the area of tourism. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland spoke at our conference in Belfast of how more than 2 million visitors came to the North last year, a figure greater than its own population. The all-island tourism product can be developed and refined a great deal. I commend the Government on supporting an instance of practical co-operation. At this year's Belfast Horse Show, I spoke to people from all over the island, including Cork, Tipperary, Down and Derry, who were competing for prizes. This was a level five competition and it is proposed to raise it to a higher level in the future. I commend the Government on lending seed capital to support this initiative. Similar initiatives can be taken in many areas, whether in respect of tourism, education, broadcasting, media or ICT.
This is an important Bill and I commend it to the House. It is something that can be built upon if the parties in the North recognise the challenge and grasp the opportunity it presents.
I thank all Deputies for their co-operation in facilitating the passage of this Bill and, in particular, for their encouraging and positive comments on Northern Ireland affairs. As political representatives of all the parties and groupings in this House, they clearly reflected the unity of purpose in all our collective efforts to promote North-South co-operation and enhance peace and prosperity throughout the island, particularly in the North.
This technical Bill is important in giving domestic legal effect to the international agreement between the British and Irish Governments and securing the mandate of the Special EU Programmes Body, SEUPB, in managing cross-Border EU funds. Through its support for projects on a cross-community and cross-Border basis, the SEUPB has brought together groups and individuals who would otherwise have no contact. Moreover, it has ensured that these groups work together to build a better economic future for their communities based on reconciliation and mutual understanding. It has made a significant contribution to the economic and social development of the Border region.
The two Governments look forward to the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive on 26 March in line with the St. Andrews Agreement. The Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister, Mr. Blair, met yesterday to review developments and the two Governments continue to work closely with the parties to see this process successfully completed. In recent weeks, there have been signs of further progress towards power-sharing in Northern Ireland. The transitional Assembly is up and running and the parties are getting down to the serious business of preparing for government in the Programme for Government Committee.
The St. Andrews Agreement is built on the core foundations of full support for a power-sharing government in Northern Ireland and for policing and the rule of law. We want the DUP and Sinn Féin to move quickly to address outstanding issues. Northern Ireland deserves a devolved government, with locally elected Ministers, to get on with the business of addressing the significant challenges it faces in a globally competitive world. Political stability is the bedrock on which economic growth and prosperity can be built.
The Government is driving forward North-South co-operation because we believe that by working together, North and South, we can deliver significant benefits for all the people on the island. We are taking forward economic co-operation across a range of sectors, from infrastructure to trade promotion to innovation. This is a vitally important agenda for the future of this island. We look forward in particular to working with Northern Ireland Ministers on these issues and to a resumption of the North-South Ministerial Council, NSMC. With the NSMC meeting again, all the bodies, including the SEUPB, will be able to operate to their full potential.
Members raised several important issues during this debate and I will respond to as many as possible in the time available. Several questions were asked about institutional issues and, in particular, the North-South Implementation Bodies. Upon restoration of the Executive, meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council will resume and the North-South bodies will be able to operate without the restraints imposed on them during suspension of the institutions. The Government will work to progress North-South co-operation with the Northern Ireland Ministers in the restored Executive.
The legislation enacted two weeks ago incorporates several specific safeguards to ensure the North-South institutions can function effectively. For example, the revised pledge of office will require Northern Ministers to participate fully in the NSMC and where a Minister cannot attend, the First Minister and Deputy First Minister are to nominate a replacement.
We engaged in close discussions with the British Government in the lead-up to the St. Andrews Agreement and those discussions are ongoing. The St. Andrews Agreement and British legislation set out certain matters that require to be considered and agreed by the Executive Committee, and this would also apply to any NSMC decisions falling within those agreed provisions. The nature and content of the decision will determine whether matters should be considered and agreed in the Executive Committee or whether they are within ministerial decision-making. The Government is determined to ensure an effective and fully functioning North-South Ministerial Council. We want balanced, fair, even-handed, inclusive and positive decisions in the interests of all the people in Northern Ireland and in the Border region. Deputy Ó Caoláin expressed doubts as to the Government's commitment to the Ulster Canal project. He should reflect on the late 1980s when, as a Minister of State I had responsibility for the Office of Public Works, which was the manager of the first ever North-South project, the Ballinamore-Ballyconnell Canal. The project was led by the then Taoiseach, the late Charles Haughey, with the full support of the Cabinet and particularly the then Minister for Finance, Ray MacSharry. If it did not have that leadership and drive, it would never have happened. It was a major project on North-South co-operation.
Similarly, the Taoiseach is driving the Ulster Canal project. He recently announced an ambitious project to restore and re-open the canal. This will create a major inland waterway for the Border region, serving as a focus for tourism and community development.
It is not that simple. Any project we put forward must have the full agreement and co-operation of every party involved, democracy must prevail and a consensus achieved with a positive long-term impact.
I welcome the support for the legislation which secures the future of the special EU programmes body in managing the next round of EU cross-Border funding. I thank the House for its co-operation and the officials for their dedication and diligence in expediting this important Bill.