Wednesday, 16 December 2020
Ceisteanna - Questions
Shared Island Unit
I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 11, inclusive, together.
On 22 October last, I set out the Government's vision and priorities on shared island during an online event at Dublin Castle. More than 800 people participated online, comprising a broad range of civil society, community, sectoral and political representatives from across the island of Ireland and in Britain. In budget 2021, the Government announced the shared island fund, with €500 million to be made available to 2025, which will be ring-fenced for shared island projects. The shared island fund provides significant new multi-annual capital funding for investment on a strategic basis in collaborative North-South projects which will support the commitments objectives of the Good Friday Agreement.
Our priorities for such investment are set out in the programme for Government and include working with the Executive to deliver key cross-Border infrastructure initiatives, including the A5, the Ulster Canal, the Narrow Water Bridge, and cross-Border greenways, including the Sligo to Enniskillen greenway; working with the Executive and the UK Government to achieve greater connectivity on the island, including, for instance, examining the feasibility of high-speed rail connections; working with the Executive and the UK Government on new investment and development opportunities in the north west and Border communities, including co-ordinated investment at the University of Ulster's Magee campus in Derry; and supporting a North-South programme of research and innovation, including an all-island research hub.
The Government is working actively, in partnership with the Executive through the North-South Ministerial Council, on these cross-Border investment projects, which are part of our shared island commitments in the programme for Government. Progressing these projects will be a key focus of our discussions at the North-South Ministerial Council plenary on Friday, 18 December. I look forward to continued constructive co-operation between the Government and the Executive to deliver these important investments for the island. I have also had constructive engagement with British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, on the Government's shared island objectives and commitments, and I have made it clear that we are happy also to engage on an east-west basis as we take this work forward.
As part of our shared island initiative, the shared island unit in my Department is developing a comprehensive research programme, working with the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, and other partners. My Department has also asked the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, to prepare a comprehensive report on shared island issues in 2021. This will provide valuable input from economic, social and environmental partners. An economic assessment of a united Ireland does not form part of the work of the shared island unit. As I have said before, our shared island initiative does not preordain any constitutional outcome under the Good Friday Agreement. Our focus is on working with all communities and traditions to build a shared island and shared future. I am aware of comprehensive work undertaken by the ESRI, and Professor John FitzGerald, on the economic implications of a united Ireland.
Strengthening social, economic and political links on the island and the promotion of all-island approaches to the strategic challenges facing Ireland, North and South, are key objectives of the unit. On 22 October, I launched the shared island dialogue series to foster constructive and inclusive civic dialogue on all aspects of a shared future on the island. The first of the shared island dialogues took place online on 26 November on the topic, New Generations and New Voices on the Good Friday Agreement. More than 80 young people from across the island, representing different backgrounds and interests, participated in the event and put forward their ideas for a shared future. The dialogue is available online and the key themes and concerns raised by young people will inform how we progress the shared island initiative.
The dialogue series will continue on this basis over the next several months and will focus on important issues for people on the island in the years ahead, including the environment, health, education and economy, and on key civic concerns that are addressed in the Good Friday Agreement, including identity and equality. Throughout the dialogue series, we are seeking as broad a range of perspective and experience as possible and the active inclusion of voices that have been traditionally been under-represented in the peace process, including young people, as well as women and new communities on the island.
It appears from the Taoiseach's response that the shared island unit will discuss everything relating to cross-Border issues apart from the potential to undo the Border itself.
Does the Taoiseach accept that the Good Friday Agreement sets out the peaceful democratic route to reunify our country? It clearly sets out a mechanism. Those of us who want to see Irish unity need to convince others that it is in their best interests, that we will all be collectively better off in a united Ireland and that we will be able to reach higher to meet the challenges that face our country. The Taoiseach has said on a number of occasions that he wants to see a united Ireland at some point in the future. I put it to him, therefore, that he has a responsibility, along with those of us who share that aspiration, to convince others that it is in their best interests. That means we have to talk about it. We have to talk about all of the challenges that unity will bring, but also the benefits it will bring. It is my firm belief that a united Ireland makes economic sense, that we will be better off and that we will have the capacity to make all of the people of our country, North, South, east and west, better off. To do that, we need to gather the information because there will be some who will contend otherwise. I do not understand the Taoiseach's reticence and reluctance around carrying out an assessment of the economic benefits and challenges, if there are any, of Irish unity.
Will the Taoiseach step up to the mark? This is the big, national conversation of our people. This is the generation who can deliver a united Ireland. I am asking the Taoiseach to be part of that, as opposed to being part of the barrier to it.
The most pressing and urgent issue that we face on a shared island basis at this moment is the threat of Covid-19. The scenes in the North last night of ambulances lining up outside hospitals and massive overcrowding in the emergency departments because of Covid-19, frankly, had fairly alarming echoes of what happened in Italy early this year. That is a warning. Already, there are signs that in Border counties the high infection rate is spilling over. The parties in the Executive and the Government here should reconsider the importance of pursuing, on an all-island basis, a common, united strategy of eliminating community transmission, rather than the neither one thing nor another approach which is inevitably going to lead to further spikes and lockdowns.
I draw the Taoiseach's attention to a motion tabled by Solidarity-People Before Profit calling on the World Trade Organization, WTO, to follow the request of India and South Africa to waive intellectual property rights and patents in relation to the sharing of vaccine technology to the world's poorest countries, 25% of whom we are informed today will not have access to the vaccine by the end of the year, which could completely undermine the global vaccine programme.
I reiterate the call for preparation for an orderly constitutional transition. Next year, we will mark a century of the partition of our island. My God, we know the heavy cost that has been carried by our people, North and South, for that disastrous, catastrophic event. We have an opportunity now to heal and rebuild and we need to plan for that.
I encourage the Taoiseach to raise again the issue of an all-island approach to Covid-19. Like everyone else, when I saw the ambulances lined up I was shocked and worried about the situation in the North. It was more reminiscent of times where we have seen ambulances lined up in hospitals in places such as Limerick. It is a reflection of the fact that we have under-resourced health services, North and South, and that this virus hits and when it hits, it hits hard. We are in real and imminent danger. I think we agree that the optimal approach is an all-island, harmonised approach. Deputy Alan Kelly might be interested to know the Executive is a five-party Executive. The decision-making is complex and politics can, and has, entered the equation but I would encourage the Taoiseach, as I have before, to encourage others to leave the politics at the door when we are dealing with this virus. This virus does not care about borders; it certainly does not care about green or orange. It is a real and imminent threat to all of us and the best way to keep everyone safe is to keep each other safe on an all-island basis.
In response to Deputy Carthy, I was a member of the Government that negotiated the Good Friday Agreement and I know well the extraordinary work that went into it from the then Fianna Fáil-led Government and the then Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, with Tony Blair and the late Albert Reynolds with John Major before that. I know how the agreement can evolve. It has always been a regret that the Deputy's party at different times sought to undermine that agreement. Even now, it should seek to work the agreement to its fullest.
Deputy Carthy spoke about me convincing others. If Sinn Féin really wants to convince others, it is time it stopped glorifying past atrocities.
Deputy Stanley raised the issue of Narrow Water, the terrible atrocity there and the British establishment needing to learn lessons. He was, in my view, referring to what happened to Louis Mountbatten and two young boys who were murdered at Mullaghmore and to others. I understand that Sinn Féin will never condemn that atrocity. I ask Deputy Carthy to do so. That would be a step to the future.
I heard the mother of Paul Maxwell on Joe Duffy's "Liveline" two weeks ago talking about what happened. The people who detonated that bomb could see who was on the boat. I cannot get that image out of my mind. They pressed the detonator and killed young people in a merciless way.
What would really advance reconciliation and understanding would be if Sinn Féin, in an unequivocal manner, condemned that atrocity. I think Sinn Féin should do so. The endless attempt by it and others to glorify terrible atrocities in the past is holding back reconciliation in this country. Sinn Féin has a one-sided approach to history and a one-sided narrative. It is Sinn Féin's way and no other way.
That is my answer. Sinn Féin needs to face up to that and deal with it. I do not know whether it is that Deputy Carthy knew people who were involved in that atrocity that he is reluctant to condemn it. I ask him to condemn it. It is a very serious issue.
We have had too much in recent times of Sinn Féin spokespeople saying different things to suit different agendas at different times. The overarching narrative has been that what Sinn Féin and the Provisional IRA did in all circumstances was justifiable and so on. There is a lack of a candid approach in terms of having the guts to condemn an atrocity committed by the Provisional IRA. That, by any standard, was one.
Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the issue of the all-island approach to Covid-19 as did Deputy McDonald. As far as Covid-19 in the North is concerned, I have left politics outside the door in all my dealings with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. I respect the two jurisdictions and I respect there are two chief medical officers. I am not sure Deputy McDonald has always left politics outside the door in relation to that issue because she sometimes sought to blame the Republic. In more recent times, there has been a more consensual approach in terms of the issue. What is happening in the North in terms of the incidence rate there, the impact on hospitalisations and the impact on ICU is difficult and concerning. As we see it, if one does the modelling, the numbers could increase from where they are now and result in a more severe impact on hospitalisations and ICU. We have to stand in solidarity with the people of Northern Ireland in relation to this challenge they now face, to do everything we can to be of assistance and to remain vigilant in respect of our own situation here. What this demonstrates, as I said earlier, is the exponential rate at which this virus can grow.
The European Union is committed to the COVAX initiative and to helping those countries that are not in a position to afford the vaccines. Ultimately, there will be a surplus of vaccines in Europe in the latter part of the year.
The WHO has its initiatives and they should be funded more effectively because we need a global elimination of the virus, and some countries are not where the more advanced countries are. We support, and have been supportive of, the various initiatives that have been designed to provide vaccines to the least well-off across the globe. We will continue to do that.
On the all-island front, our chief medical officers are working together, our clinicians have been sharing advice and both health systems have been sharing advice and observations. I said earlier that we will have a meeting on Friday. We are concerned about the high rates of Covid in the Border counties as well. The virus does not respect borders but there are two political jurisdictions, an Executive in the North and a Government in the Republic. We will engage with the Executive to see if we can collectively get the incidence down on the island of Ireland. We are at different stages of the virus now. The fact that the different levels of restrictions have not been aligned over the recent months has proved challenging. The six weeks of level 5 we initiated here worked in getting numbers significantly down. They are not as low as we would have liked but they are the lowest in Europe. We are entering into the Christmas period with the lowest numbers in Europe, which is something we should acknowledge. However, we have to be very vigilant and wear our masks. We have to socially distance and every contact matters. We must protect our loved ones, especially the elderly, our grandparents and parents. That has to be our objective in the Republic.