Wednesday, 29 July 2020
Ceisteanna (Atógáil) - Questions (Resumed)
I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 and 9 together.
As set out in the programme for Government, a new shared island unit will be established in the Department of the Taoiseach, which will use the potential of the Good Friday Agreement to deliver sustained progress for all communities. This unit will work towards a consensus on a shared island and will examine the political, social, economic and cultural considerations underpinning a future in which all traditions are mutually respected. Work on its structure, staffing and work programme is under way and I hope the unit will start this work in the coming weeks.
The sooner we have some sense of the shape and direction of this new unit, the better. The objective of working towards a shared Ireland and an Ireland in which we have agreement and consensus where that is possible - and we are not going to have consensus on all matters - is worthy. However, there is a need that must also be met in preparing for the reality and prospect of constitutional change on the island. I look forward to a dialogue through which we figure out exactly how that is done in a staged fashion.
I suppose the notion of a shared island and shared Ireland has been at no time more acute than in the times we live, when we are going through a public health emergency. We have had many conversations across the floor on the issue of travel, international travel, lists, green lists and the presence or absence of adequate protections at our ports and airports. The North-South Ministerial Council will meet on Friday. I very much hope there will be a substantive conversation on a single approach to managing travel onto and off the island, and there will be a conversation on a common standard for checks and balances for those coming onto the island.
Can the Taoiseach confirm that he will pursue this matter and that he is committed to an all-island approach on these important questions? Can the Taoiseach also confirm that he is in favour of, and will advance the case for, a meeting of the British-Irish Council, as called for by the Northern Executive, to have another and complementary conversation on the common travel area for island-to-island travel between Ireland and Britain and on how to ensure there are the required safeguards and precautions? The objective in all of this is to keep people well and safe.
First, I welcome the Taoiseach's pledge to work towards a consensus on a shared island and the establishment of the unit in his Department. A key part of the work ahead will be to undo the damage done by Brexit over the past four years. I know it will be a priority for the Taoiseach to protect the peace process and the all-island economy in the context of the future UK and EU Brexit agreement. Will the Taoiseach outline the status of the shared island unit and how he intends to move forward? The Border region must ensure and maintain a seamless border and nurture a shared island by consensus. In the past 20 years local authorities in the Border region such as Cavan County Council and Monaghan County Council have worked tirelessly on the delivery of projects that have nurtured a shared Ireland and shared communities and have ensured that polarised views do not take hold in those areas. It is vital that this mantra is continued. I look forward to hearing the Taoiseach's vision for this new unit in his Department.
People Before Profit is one of a minority of political parties in the Dáil that have elected representatives in the North and the South. We have representatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly and in councils in the North. The reason is that we believe in ending partition and uniting this island, not because we are bleary eyed nationalists but because we are internationalists and oppose partition in the tradition of James Connolly. James Connolly understood how one developed a tradition of a shared island and why partition was about dividing people and setting them against each other, which would lead, as he correctly predicted, to a carnival of reaction with green and orange at each other's throat. He argued, and it is as relevant today as it was he first made the argument, that one must unite working people on the things they have in common to break the shackles of partition and empire.
What does that mean today? I will give two concrete examples. We will never convince people in the North to be part of a united Ireland unless we have a national health service. We must move immediately to a national health service, not back to the two-tier system as the Government is doing currently. Why on earth would people in the North join a dysfunctional two-tier health system? They will not do it, so we must move immediately to a national health service. Second, we must immediately separate church and State. Why on earth would people in the North join a state where 90% of the schools are controlled by the Roman Catholic Church? There is no chance they will do it. We still tolerate a situation where the Religious Sisters of Charity are closing down nursing homes on the Merrion Road because, for some reason, a religious organisation controls nursing homes and can close them down even though they are funded by the State. Why on earth would people join a state that allows that to happen?
These are the things we must do if we want to share the island and convince people that overcoming historical divisions is in their interest. That is how we will do it. People in the North are angry about the state of their health service. They would like to fight for a new and better National Health Service where people get access to healthcare on the basis of their need, not on the size of their wallets or the austerity that has been imposed on the service. They would also like to be in an education system in which everybody is treated equally. We could share that education system and have integration of our children. If we lead the way in progressive, radical change such as that, in the tradition of James Connolly, we will become an attractive option for the idea of ending partition and uniting this island.
First, in response to Deputy McDonald's questions, I welcome the fact that we are having a North-South Ministerial Council on Friday, the first in three and a half years. I look forward to it. I hope it can create a structure that will help us deal with the undoubted difficulties, as Deputy Niamh Smyth pointed out, that Brexit has brought about in respect of relations on the island and in terms of its economic and social impact. We must navigate and manage the island in a post Brexit situation and the North-South Ministerial Council gives us a structure to manage the issue as best we can, notwithstanding different perspectives on it from different participants at the council.
On the issue of the public health emergency that Deputy McDonald correctly raised, there is a memorandum of understanding between the Chief Medical Officers of the North of Ireland and the Republic. We need to flesh out what we mean by a single approach. One of the challenges here is that there are, de facto, two jurisdictions. There is an Executive and Assembly that are linked into the wider UK medical advice system. The CMO in Northern Ireland works with the Scottish, English and Welsh CMOs and has a good relationship with our CMO as well. However, we must have a reality check of what is possible and what is not possible, and be honest with people in that regard. In terms of a common standard of checks and balances, if we are honest about the evolution of this, and I must make this point, what has transpired is that the Republic has had a much stricter travel guidance than anywhere else. It is certainly stricter than what is in the North at present as well as what is in the UK. The UK is now beginning to change with regard to Spain because of the spike in the numbers there. It is important that we collectively recognise the dangers that travel can present by creating spikes in the number of cases on the island. I believe we must try to work towards a joint approach in that regard.
I received a letter from the First Minister and deputy First Minister in respect of the British-Irish Council meeting. We have no difficulty with or objection to that but, again, that might not resolve all the issues in respect of the common travel area or different travel guidance issuing from different de facto jurisdictions. That is the position we are in. We share common advice with Northern Ireland in that we are telling people that the safest option is not to travel during Covid-19, and that will remain the case. On the operational issues with, for example, people using Dublin Airport and so forth, we have to build up a stronger presence there. That work is under way in terms of an electronic passenger location mechanism, the Department of Health working on randomised testing at airports and other measures designed to limit and reduce travel in and out of the country. That work is ongoing.
The position with the reopening of society is how to live with Covid-19 while at the same time having a reasonable quality of life for people and reasonable, sustainable economic activity. The CSO figures for May and June are interesting. They show that in June, in particular, there was a dramatic increase in retail activity over the previous month. It is the highest on record. The quarter is not comparable to the same quarter last year yet, but it shows what is the balance. As we reopen the economy we can see some benefits from it, but we must be clear that the fastest way to damage the economy again is to have a re-emergence of the virus in a significant form. In terms of the all-island approach, there are challenges in getting a common standard. It is not as simple as saying it. That is the point. That has been the story, but there has been much closer engagement between the two CMOs.
I take Deputy Niamh Smyth's point about the polarisation that has occurred. We want to try to create an approach that will constructively enable people who have come from different perspectives on the Brexit question to work to make this work for the island of Ireland. There is an opportunity through the protocol being adhered to, in particular for Northern Ireland, to get the best of both worlds, with access to the Single Market into the future. We will work towards that.
Deputy Boyd Barrett referred to the vision of James Connolly, which was a noble vision. I take the Deputy's point about the National Health Service and the disparity between the two health services. One of the ideas behind the shared unit is to work on the principles of the Good Friday Agreement around the set of three relationships, the British-Irish relationship, the North-South relationship and the relationship between the two communities in the North. Another of the ideas is to work out practical issues such as how we share health services on the island of Ireland. At the meeting I had last week with the First Minister and deputy First Minister, we discussed issues such as access to Altnagelvin Hospital for people from the Republic and cardiac surgery for children on an all-island basis. I am in to making the incremental progress that we need on a lot of these issues.
As for education, we have made progress in terms of patrons of education, Educate Together, Gaelscoileanna and the Church of Ireland. We have different systems here. The North of Ireland has not developed integrated education to the degree people would have hoped.
I am glad to hear that news about the British-Irish Council. I am, however, disappointed that the Taoiseach is maintaining what I regard as a fairly passive stance towards the absolute necessity for an all-Ireland approach to human health. We have such an approach to animal health. Why on earth would we not have one for human health? The Taoiseach will recall from leaders' meetings before he was Taoiseach that I have raised from the beginning the absolutely essential nature of the island as a single epidemiological unit and the fact that to keep us safe the Government has to keep all of us safe. The Taoiseach is at times critical of positions and stances taken by the Northern Executive. That is his entitlement. He regularly hangs those positions and stances around the neck of Sinn Féin uniquely, even though the Northern Executive is a five-partner Government, as he knows.
The North-South Ministerial Council is the Taoiseach's opportunity to bring his critique of the Northern position on international travel to the table, to debate it with our colleagues and to press for a solution. We will support him in that because that is our view as to what must happen. We need a single island system of protection. That is the only way we will get ahead and stay ahead of this virus. That is the truth.
Deputy McDonald seeks to politicise this all the time. She uses language such as "a passive approach". I am not adopting a passive approach to all-island health - not at all. She knows this but it does not stop her from saying the contrary for political reasons.
The Deputy's presentation is always about politics, not the substance of the issue. She keeps going on about the all-island approach. I did not open up Northern Ireland to 57 countries.
The Deputy is attacking the Government non-stop. I understand that the Northern Executive involves a wider engagement with others. My main approach when I met the First Minister and deputy First Minister was to say travel is a problem and that it is a problem that many will come back through Dublin Airport from about 56 countries. The Republic has a restricted list whereby it is stated that people coming back from 11 countries do not need to restrict their movements. I want to work in good faith with people. I do not want to roil all this in endless political positioning, which is what Deputy McDonald is at, and she has been at it for quite a long time. That is what the Sinn Féin approach has always been. It has been politics first and the substance of the issue second on a whole range of issues.