Wednesday, 24 February 2021
New Decade, New Approach Agreement: Statements
I welcome this opportunity to speak about the New Decade, New Approach agreement of January last year, restoring to full operation the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, including the Executive, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the North-South Ministerial Council.
On 9 January 2020, on behalf of the Irish and British Governments, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Simon Coveney, and the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Julian Smith, published the New Decade, New Approach agreement as the basis for the political parties in Northern Ireland to operate the power-sharing Executive and Assembly again. On 11 January, the five main parties accepted the agreement as the basis for them to re-form the Northern Ireland Executive.
The agreement was forged through long periods of negotiation in a number of different formats in the three years since the Executive had collapsed in January 2017. It involved difficult compromises on sensitive issues and I pay tribute to all those involved. This was a very significant shared achievement by the parties in Northern Ireland and by the British and Irish Governments, restoring the power-sharing institutions of the Good Friday Agreement to operation after a regrettable and protracted three-year absence.
The five-party Executive has now been in place for over a year making decisions for the people of Northern Ireland, MLAs are back working in the Assembly and Ministers from North and South are meeting in the North-South Ministerial Council.
The period since the agreement has been one of unprecedented challenges, dealing with the outworkings of Brexit and responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, I remain convinced that the full implementation of the agreement will provide a stronger and more resilient foundation for the power-sharing Executive, thanks to the work of all the parties to reach consensus with the support of the British and Irish Governments.
At its heart of the New Decade, New Approach agreement is a commitment to address the issues that are of importance to the people of Northern Ireland. It sets out priorities for the Northern Ireland Executive on a number of key areas, including health, education, infrastructure and welfare. It reflects an ambitious agenda for investment and reform of public services. The agreement also outlines a number of important reforms and commitments to ensure greater stability and transparency in the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, including changes to the petition of concern, to ensure it operates as intended.
Before turning to the Irish Government’s commitments made in the context of the agreement, I will address the sensitive issues of language and of legacy. On the issues of rights, language and identity, the parties affirmed in the agreement "the need to respect the freedom of all persons in Northern Ireland to choose, affirm, maintain and develop their national and cultural identity". This was accompanied by a commitment to a package of legislative measures on the Irish language and on the arts and literature associated with the Ulster Scots and Ulster British tradition. It was agreed that this package of legislation would be presented to the Assembly within three months of the restoration of the institutions. I urge now that progress be made so that this legislation can be brought through the Assembly in the immediate period ahead in line with the commitments of the New Decade, New Approach agreement.
The Stormont House Agreement of 2014 sets out a balanced, comprehensive framework to address the painful legacy of the past in Northern Ireland. It is the path forward on this issue and progress is crucial for victims, survivors and families who have waited for far too long and for society as a whole. The British Government made a number of commitments in the context of the New Decade, New Approach agreement. Notable among those was its commitment to introduce legislation to implement the Stormont House Agreement to provide a comprehensive and balanced framework to deal with legacy issues in Northern Ireland. It is critical that we see progress on this alongside the other commitments we collectively made.
The Stormont House Agreement framework was agreed by both Governments and the political parties in Northern Ireland after intensive negotiations and it must be implemented. We will continue to press the British Government on the implementation of the agreed collective framework. Politics in Northern Ireland will continue to be adversely affected if concerns around the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement are not addressed by the British Government.
In the context of the New Decades, New Approach agreement there were specific commitments by the Irish Government "in support of greater co-operation, connectivity and opportunity North/South on the island" working in partnership with the Northern Ireland Executive and the British Government. These are focused on delivering projects that benefit people across the island, including greater connectivity between North and South, investing in the north-west region and in Border communities, research and innovation, supporting the Irish language in Northern Ireland and supporting reconciliation as an integral part of the peace process.
These commitments are reflected in the shared island chapter of our Programme for Government, ensuring their delivery is at the heart of the work of this Government. Specifically, the Government has recommitted to the funding of £75 million over the next three years for the A5 project and agreed the launch of restoration work on phase 2 of the Ulster Canal project, including with the support of €6 million from the shared island fund. Work on a strategic review of the rail network on the island of Ireland is advancing and the Narrow Water bridge continues to be a key priority. We are developing proposals for an enhanced North-South programme of research and innovation and as part of our commitment to investment in the north-west and Border communities, including further support for the north-west strategic growth partnership, I met on Thursday last with the Donegal and Derry and Strabane councils, which are working in close partnership together and very effectively. The expanded reconciliation fund of the Department of Foreign Affairs, the International Fund for Ireland and the new PEACE PLUS programme for Northern Ireland and the Border counties will provide critical funding for work on peace and reconciliation.
Restoration of the Executive has enabled the North-South Ministerial Council to operate fully again. I was honoured in July 2020 to welcome the First and deputy First Ministers to Dublin for the plenary North-South Ministerial Council meeting of the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive, the first in more than three and a half years. In December the Executive hosted a further plenary meeting, although on this occasion the meeting took place virtually due to Covid-19 restrictions. In these two plenary meetings and across the 12 North-South sectoral ministerial meetings, we have worked to advance these agreement commitments and other collaborative initiatives for the benefit of people North and South, and we will continue to do so.
As part of our shared concern to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic on this island both North-South Ministerial Council plenary meetings discussed measures to protect public health and limit the spread of the virus. Rebuilding societal and economic recovery will be a key challenge for the Government and for the Northern Ireland Executive in the period ahead and I believe working together for the benefit of the people North and South will help to unlock the full potential for recovery on this island. The British-Irish Council continued to meet without the Northern Ireland Executive. We were all very pleased to welcome the First Minister and deputy First Minister to the 34th British-Irish Council summit in November last year, which included a very useful discussion on economic recovery in the context of Covid-19.
As we continue to navigate this pandemic, and as we look forward to when we can take appropriate steps to reopen society and rebuild our economy, the functioning of all the parts of the Good Friday Agreement is critical for us all. Stable and effective power-sharing within Northern Ireland, effective and constructive North-South co-operation and positive and co-operative east-west partnership are all vital dimensions of delivering for all the people of this island and these islands both right now and in the long term.
Ensuring that we all, collectively and individually, deliver on the commitments made in the Good Friday Agreement and all subsequent agreements, up to and including the New Decade, New Approach agreement, is how we will ensure the stability and productivity of all those relationships. While they are essential, however, the commitments made at the time of the New Decade, New Approach agreement, are far from being the outer limits of our aspirations for our relationships on this island.
Our shared island initiative recognises that we need to do more on the island, through the framework and institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, to make progress with reconciliation, build a consensus around a shared future and address the issues that matter most for the people. Whatever one's constitutional perspective - nationalist, unionist or neither - this must be a fundamental concern for our shared future on this island. There is no version of the future worth working for that does not have lasting reconciliation between the communities and traditions on this island at its core. The shared island initiative is about seeking out, developing and realising the full extent of the opportunities that the Good Friday Agreement framework gives us in order to ensure that we make progress with an agenda of reconciliation in the years ahead. This is an agenda that everyone on the island - Irish, British, both or neither - can engage with confidently. It does not diminish or compromise anyone’s identity or beliefs. The shared island initiative is a whole-of-government priority, and the shared island unit in my Department is tasked with driving and co-ordinating this work across all Departments.
As part of the New Decade, New Approach agreement, the Government undertook to "update and enhance the commitment to jointly funding cross-border investment". That is exactly what we have done by means of the shared island initiative. In budget 2021, the Government announced the shared island fund, with €500 million in capital funding being made available over the next five years, ring-fenced for collaborative cross-Border projects. This complements our existing all-island commitments, including to the North-South bodies, cross-Border health services and the reconciliation fund, as well as the significant support for peace and progress on the island that will be delivered through the EU PEACE PLUS programme. The shared island fund confirms our readiness to invest in our shared future on the island.
I have already outlined how we are working now with the Northern Ireland Executive and through the North-South Ministerial Council to drive progress with long-standing cross-Border infrastructure commitments, such as the Ulster Canal, the Narrow Water bridge project and the A5 road transport corridor. We also aim to develop and deliver a new generation of collaborative cross-Border investments that will contribute to progress on climate mitigation, transport connectivity, reversing biodiversity decline, research and innovation and an economy which fully harnesses talent and capacity right across the island.
As was stated in the New Decade, New Approach agreement, the Government believes that "the North-South Ministerial Council can take forward important, action-oriented dialogue" on "strategic challenges for these islands including all-island cooperation and coordination to tackle climate breakdown." The climate crisis is a generational challenge for us all on the island. We need to strive for ways to address it together. We can achieve far more working in a co-ordinated way than we can separately. I have also had constructive engagement with the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, on the shared island initiative and conveyed our readiness to engage on an east-west basis as we take forward this work to address together the shared strategic challenges we face on the island.
As part of the shared island initiative, I also launched the shared island dialogue series to foster inclusive civic discussion on key issues for the future, for example, the environment, in respect of which the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications facilitated the discussion, health, education and the economy. We also had a dialogue involving young people living on the island of Ireland, many of whom would have been born after the Good Friday Agreement came into being and who were in a position to give their perspectives on the future living on this island together in harmony and reconciliation.
The shared island unit is also commissioning research, involving the National Economic and Social Council and the Economic and Social Research Institute, that will be published to inform and to stimulate debate, on how we can take forward a shared island agenda in the years ahead. It will focus on areas like environment, enterprise policy, regional development, tackling poverty and supporting social enterprise. Strengthening social, economic and political links is also a key focus. Through the civic dialogue and research work we are progressing, we will deepen our understanding - in Government and in wider society - on how we can best work together on the island in the years ahead, to take up the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement.
Progress with reconciliation will not just happen. We need to work shoulder to shoulder to meet the demands and take up the opportunities of our time. Our shared island initiative is focused on ensuring that collectively, we grasp the opportunity and work towards a shared, inclusive, reconciled future for all founded on the Good Friday Agreement.
This is a critical time for Ireland and Northern Ireland. It is a time when effective political leadership has never been more necessary and when reconciliation should be to the fore. Calm voices are needed, particularly in the post-Brexit context. For its part, the Government will work in partnership with the British Government and the Northern Ireland Executive, through all of the institutions, to ensure that we collectively deliver on our commitments to see the New Decade, New Approach agreement delivered in full. I look forward to hearing the contributions of Deputies on this important agreement.
Just over a year ago, the Northern Ireland Executive and the political institutions were restored following negotiations and the publication of the New Decade, New Approach agreement. Leis seo, bhí deis ann ré nua a chruthú don Rialtas sa Tuaisceart, a bhí bunaithe ar chomhionannas, freagracht agus dílseacht do chomhroinnt chumhachta a bhí fíor agus fadtéarmach. Chomh maith le muinín a atógáil, bhí dúshlán mór ann don Fheidhmeannas mar gheall ar an bpandéim agus an Bhreatimeacht.
Despite these massive pressures, Ministers have shown that things can be done very differently to what has come before. Ministers have shown that locally-based public representatives are best placed to deliver for communities. This has been demonstrated time and again, particularly in the Executive’s co-ordination and support of the community response to Covid-19, the delivery of robust financial supports for businesses, workers and families and the roll-out of the vaccination programme.
Major progress has been made in making the Executive work for the people. There is great potential to build on the advancements of the past 12 months that have often been drowned out by the din of Brexit. However, we are clearly in a turbulent period. The post-Brexit environment was always going to be volatile. This is seen in the reckless attempts by the DUP and Tory Brexiteers to undermine the Irish protocol. The DUP’s legal challenge is dangerous, and goes against the clear interests of workers, business and communities. Arlene Foster should turn away from this course and refocus on working with all parties in government to shape a better future for all. It is a time for cool heads, calm leadership and real partnership.
I welcome that the Government has been proactive on this issue. The achievement of the protocol shows what can be done when the Oireachtas follows a unified approach on matters of national interest. Creidim go bhfuil sé fíorthábhachtach go bhfuil cur chuige aontaithe ón Oireachtas maidir leis an gcomhaontú. We all want to see a government in the North that delivers for every citizen. The day of resistance to equality, change and real power sharing must be consigned to history. People want and are entitled to much better. An all-Oireachtas approach could make a significant difference in ensuring that the future of the North is one shaped by co-operation, trust and the fulfilment of agreements made.
That will require real engagement by the Taoiseach and it means the Government holding the British Government to account for its failure to honour its agreements.
Making agreements is important but keeping agreements is even more so. Progress always relies on the making, keeping and implementation of agreements. For far too long, the British Government has flouted many of its obligations under the agreements it has made in respect of Ireland. Such flagrant disregard demonstrated by the British Government for agreements has been the single greatest obstacle to reconciling the past, achieving progress and charting a better future for the island. It is time for the Government to put it up to Boris Johnson. Now is the time for Downing Street to leave behind the policy of dodging its agreements, see the bigger picture and realise that failure to honour its commitments jeopardises a real opportunity to deliver.
Nowhere is this urgency more required than in the need finally to implement the Stormont House Agreement of 2014. The British Government committed to implementing that agreement within the first 100 days of the New Decade, New Approach agreement. Not only has it reneged on that commitment but in the spring of last year, it made a huge political and policy departure away from the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement. It is very clear that the proposals by the Tories last April were designed to undermine the legal mechanisms already agreed by the British Government, the Government and political parties in the agreement. That cannot go unchecked and unchallenged because the Stormont House Agreement is central and essential to dealing with the legacy of the past. It ensures that all victims of the conflict have access to agreed mechanisms for delivering truth and justice. The undermining and obstruction of those mechanisms is wrong and it is disrespectful to families and communities that have waited for decades. The British Government's resisting of the mechanisms and its citing of bogus national security concerns flies in the face of the task of dealing with the legacy of conflict. Instead of showing leadership, Downing Street continues to cover up for the actions of British state agents, the British Army, the police and the political establishment. This is unacceptable and it must now be confronted strongly.
The need to deal with the past cannot be separated from the imperative of making politics work today. The damage done to public confidence in policing by the absence of parity so amply demonstrated by the PSNI in recent weeks is a testament to that reality. People who have lost loved ones have waited too long for the British Government to get its act together, respect them and embrace the work of reconciliation. There is a pressing need to ensure that the legacy mechanisms of the Stormont House Agreement are now implemented fully and in a human rights-compliant way.
There also needs to be progress on legislation for the protection of Irish language. This is an important part of the Good Friday Agreement and was provided for under the St. Andrews Agreement 15 years ago. The official recognition of the Irish language in the North, as agreed by the parties, will represent a historic step, both practically for Irish speakers and symbolically in terms of parity of esteem for both traditions. It is important that this opportunity is seized and built upon. The enactment of Acht na Gaeilge is crucial to realising a society that is truly inclusive and progressive. Chuir glúin de chainteoirí Gaeilge in iúl dúinn an mhian atá acu Acht na Gaeilge a chur i gcrích tríd an bhfeachtas, Dearg le Fearg. Caithfear anois freagra a thabhairt dóibh. Irish language rights do not threaten or diminish anybody. This is an issue of respect, recognition and rights.
The British Government must also step up to the plate in delivering agreed funding for cross-Border projects. I recognise and acknowledge that the Government has committed €500 million in the budget for cross-Border infrastructure projects that will benefit the whole island. We need to see the British Government deliver its financial commitments of £140 million, on which Brandon Lewis continues to drag his heels. Tá deis ann don chomhaontú a bheith ina ré nua do Rialtas láidir ó Thuaidh.
By embracing a partnership approach and implementing outstanding agreements, we can make politics work. We can shape an environment in which conversations about the future happen in a spirit of respect and with our eyes firmly set on realising the extraordinary potential of our island. This is particularly important as we move towards a century of partition. Partition resulted in profound political, social and economic damage both North and South. It created two reactionary states and stifled the potential of all our people. Now is the time to look to the future with real ambition and to step even further beyond the work of the Taoiseach's shared island unit to shape an Ireland that will fulfil the promise left unfulfilled to many previous generations. As a united Irelander, that future, to me, is one of Irish unity. Others will have come from different perspectives and have different views. Let us have those conversations and debates. Let us prepare for change together as an Oireachtas unified in common aspiration for our island. History will not judge kindly those who choose to ignore the winds of change that now blow at full force all around us.
I welcome the opportunity to speak in this debate. I acknowledge my colleague on the Business Committee, Deputy Mac Lochlainn, who has been calling for this debate on behalf of Sinn Féin for the past couple of weeks. It was nice to see it on the clár today. It is important that we have this opportunity to discuss the New Decade, New Approach agreement, which is a very important agreement.
I am conscious that this is the first time I have spoken on Northern Ireland issues in this Dáil. I hope it will not be the last. Before my time in the Dáil, I was struck by the fact that when people spoke in the Chamber about the institutions of the North, they could sometimes sound patronising or detached. That is something I am very conscious of and I hope I will not come across like that. It is great to see the assembly back after three years. We hope this agreement will ensure that we never again see another three-year period without the assembly being in operation. We also look forward to seeing the Executive back up and running. An issue that has been lost over the past year is that it is not just about getting the institutions back up and running for the sake of it. Their operation is important for the economy, society, education, climate change and many other issues in Northern Ireland. It is a deep document and one that contains many good aspirations.
I assume the Minister for Foreign Affairs will be responding at the end of the debate. I would like to hear from him regarding one of the legal obligations on the Northern Ireland Executive, namely, the requirement to have an anti-poverty strategy. We do not talk enough about poverty in this Chamber and on this island. Poverty is not unique to Northern Ireland. Unfortunately, there is poverty in every county on this island. An anti-poverty strategy in the North should be matched by an anti-poverty strategy in the South. In fact, there should be a strategy for the elimination of all poverty. I do not wish to go off on too much of a tangent but I will point out that the programme for Government contains 13 references to poverty, but nearly all of them are parsed in terms of fuel poverty or some other type of poverty. The entirety of poverty, including economic poverty and social exclusion, is something about which we need to talk more. I would like to hear what the Government is doing to assist the Executive in tackling poverty, specifically in respect of the anti-poverty strategy that is a legal obligation on the Executive to produce as part of this agreement.
Politics is never static, not least in the North.
Over the past year, the global shock wave of Covid and the regional shock wave of Brexit have been felt particularly harshly in the North. This is very difficult and one has to be wary when taking a snapshot regarding Covid because circumstances can change so quickly. There were points during the year when we felt we were doing well regarding Covid but there is now a sense that we are not. We can say, however, that in 2020 Northern Ireland was badly let down by Westminster regarding the Covid response. The strategies were non-existent and the numbers of hospitalisations and deaths were far too high for far too long. This is another example of the lack of respect accorded to Northern Ireland by Westminster and, in particular, by the current Tory Government.
With regard to Brexit, there has also been a lack of respect. The way in which Northern Ireland has been kicked about like a political football by the Tory Government has been absolutely shameful. It is very disappointing to see the DUP and some of the other unionist parties now backing legal action against the Northern Ireland protocol and making its dismantling their priority, be it in Westminster, the Executive, Brussels or the courts. That is damaging and wounding. Ultimately, it will not do the parties involved any good because it will damage many households across all communities in Northern Ireland and here. Given that we must work together to ensure that we are tackling the problems in every community, North and South, including poverty and economic disadvantage, and allowing people to put food on the table and a roof over their heads, it is exceedingly disappointing to see the relevant parties going down the road they are on.
The elevation of Lord Frost to the British Cabinet to deal with the EU affairs has had a somewhat worrying, if not chilling, effect on us all. I refer here to how he is going to approach the protocol, Brexit and the treatment of the document over the next couple of years.
Fáiltím roimh an díospóireacht seo. Tá sé an-tábhachtach go bhfuil na tuairimí á nochtadh againn ó gach taobh den Dáil agus gur féidir linn comhoibriú leo siúd a bhfuil ar an taobh Thuaidh den teorainn. Tá sé tábhachtach, ó thaobh cúrsaí eacnamaíochta agus sóisialta de, go mbeidh an dá chuid den tír seo ag comhoibriú chomh mór agus is féidir leo.
I welcome this debate. I speak as Chairman of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and as somebody from a family whose members have had a variety of backgrounds, as with many people on this island. My father, for instance, had two brothers who fought on the side of Óglaigh na hÉireann in the War of Independence. On my mother's side, we had an uncle who fought in the Second World War and sadly died on the very last day of that war. We have such traditions in our house, as have many others. That is why progress has been made by successive Governments in bringing together the different strands in our society and the different views, North and South, the concentration being on bringing about initiatives and financial supports, particularly the €500 million promised by the Government - this is to roll over across a five-year period - and on significant and important infrastructure projects that will improve relationships and the economies in both the North and the South. That is the key to our future. Our history will never go away but we have to work with those who want to work with us. The Government is working extremely hard in that respect. The programme for Government involves working with all communities and traditions on this island to implement the Good Friday Agreement and to have multi-annual funding for strategic investment in new opportunities. There are new opportunities in health, for example. We should have a North-South cancer strategy. I understand from the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, that the Department of Health has had a meeting on this and that there is a working group on it.
I particularly welcome a major project in my constituency, namely, that relating to the Narrow Water bridge. The bridge will have a major impact and help and support the communities on both sides of the Border in terms of tourism and access. This is very close to the hearts of my colleagues in the North, on the DUP and nationalist sides, and in the South. Therefore, there are many good things happening. They are very welcome. The N5 is exceedingly important, as is the concept of the university for the north west. These are all practical projects that will make a great difference to communities and society, North and South.
I appreciate go bhfuil an t-am beagnach caite anois. Tá súil agam go mbeidh níos mó ama againn don díospóireacht seo as seo amach but the debate today is positive and constructive. I have not heard anything from any speaker so far suggesting that we cannot all work together with our colleagues in the North. That is the job of my committee. That is what we hope to do, but nevertheless we need the unionists to participate more in our interaction, particularly with the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. I am delighted to work on that.
We must work continually to ensure the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. We have all been mandated to implement that international agreement through the referendums held in the North and the South in May 1998, both of which were overwhelmingly endorsed by the two electorates. The successor agreements, namely, the St. Andrews, Fresh Start, Stormont House and New Decade, New Approach agreements, also need to be implemented. The Irish and British Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive are obliged to make progress with urgency on the issues agreed. Urgency on the part of some of the stakeholders has sadly been lacking over the years.
Among the many benefits of the Good Friday Agreement have been the development of the all-Ireland economy and the major growth in cross-Border trade. Peace and stability have enabled those welcome developments, leading to much greater integration of the economies, North and South. There is still so much more that can be done to generate more cross-Border economic activity and create much-needed employment opportunities, particularly in rural areas and the Border region, North and South. Such economic development must be underpinned by the prioritisation of much-needed additional infrastructural investment in areas such as Cavan and Monaghan.
The protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland agreed in the context of Brexit provides important safeguards to protect the Good Friday Agreement. We need to protect the protocol. We need it to work for Northern Ireland and all the rest of our island. We must recognise that there are challenges in adapting to the protocol. The EU, governments and statutory agencies must all work within the framework to put in place solutions. Full engagement between all stakeholders is needed to deal with teething problems that have arisen. This is particularly urgent for some businesses, such as those in the agrifood sector, with new requirements taking effect from 1 April. The shared island fund, worth €500 million over five years, is very welcome and will be a key catalyst in helping to realise the potential of the Good Friday Agreement in addressing challenges on an all-Ireland basis.
Legacy issues need to be prioritised anew. Sadly, there are so many Troubles-related atrocities and deaths that have not been comprehensively addressed. The perpetrators of so many heinous crimes, including the Dublin–Monaghan bombings and the Belturbet bombing of December 1972, have never been brought to justice. Not alone has nobody been brought to justice for these murders but the grieving families have not got the truth about who planned and carried out the abominable crimes. It is almost 50 years, or half a century, since some of the heinous crimes took place so we need the British Government to co-operate fully and ensure there is a thorough and comprehensive investigation into them, particularly the Dublin–Monaghan bombings and the bombing in Belturbet in December 1972.
I pay tribute to the Taoiseach for his approach to Northern Ireland since the Government was formed. We support the shared-island approach. We have a duty in this Parliament to do whatever we can to support the Assembly and the democratic process in Northern Ireland.
I am a member of an all-island party, a party that rejects labels like unionist, nationalist, loyalist and republican. We reject the false binary that is written into Northern Irish politics, whereby Northern Ireland Assembly Members must choose to designate themselves as unionist or nationalist. The constitutional status of Northern Ireland does not divide the Green Party, and it should not divide society either.
We support the shared-island approach because we believe in common values such as decency, tolerance and respect.
From the linen mills of County Antrim to the clothing factories of Limerick city, we share a heritage of hard work and industry. My background as a mechanical engineer is informed by innovation driven by people like Harry Ferguson of County Down and John Holland of County Clare. As a rower in my youth, I competed with rowers from all over this island, including many from our great northern clubs. Together we went on to represent the island of Ireland. Some went on to represent Great Britain too, and I have celebrated their successes. We share this island with respect for our heritage and in the desire to work for a better future. We have much to learn from each other. We can start by respecting the democratic mandate of all those elected to serve while also recognising that the democratic mandate we hold does not absolve us from the obligation to listen to all views.
One year on from the New Decade, New Approach agreement, I urge that we make sure we are doing our part to ensure the provisions of the agreement are adequately resourced. This State has obligations to support commitments made under the agreement and we must make sure we are doing everything we can to ensure the institutions and provisions are properly resourced.
I have a deep love for this shared island of ours, its beautiful and rich landscapes and its diverse people, who continue to exert an enormous positive influence on the world. We have different traditions and identities on this island but that is not a weakness. It is a source of strength.
In this moment, we have the vantage point of being able to look back at a century of partition and all it has entailed. We look back at a linear progression of misery, despair and hopelessness, pitted with milestones of suffering. This year marks the 50th anniversary of the Ballymurphy massacre and the introduction of internment.
The Good Friday Agreement provided us with a new point of departure, a moment that allowed for an historical pivot which faced our island into a future that allowed us to garner hope. We discuss today the progress made under a new mechanism designed to provide fresh momentum towards a just and lasting society. It is a journey that I and increasing numbers of people North and South of the Border believe will culminate in unification. There is no doubt that there are challenges ahead. There will be disagreements and, in all likelihood, heated words but that is politics. That, indeed, is progress. The momentum and consensus on this island around addressing the legacy of our collective past and recognising and celebrating our respective cultures on a basis of equality and the developing discourse on Irish unity will not be abated or derailed by Tory indifference or the small minority of people in the North who, operating from a place of fear, seek to hold on to a past that has dissipated with progress.
The onus is now on the British Government to reciprocate by simply living up to its obligations and promises and delivering on its undertakings. This includes meeting its financial commitments and honouring and implementing commitments in New Decade, New Approach and the Stormont House Agreement and on dealing with the legacy of the past. We also need to see legislation enacted to ensure respect and protection for the Irish language and identity.
If Brexit and Covid-19, with their devastating financial, social and health impacts, have taught us anything in the past year, it is that we need an all-Ireland approach to health, the economy and infrastructure. The Good Friday Agreement set out the context for a referendum on unity. The agreement asserts that it is for the people of the island of Ireland alone to shape our future and exercise our right of self-determination on the basis of consent freely and concurrently given North and South. A new and united Ireland must be a place for all, whether one is Irish, British, both or neither. The orange and British identity is important to a section of the community who share this island. It is, therefore, important to us all. The Government has a duty and constitutional obligation to prepare for unity and the referendum on unity. Our future as an island lies together.
I am struck by An Taoiseach saying that it is important for Northern Ireland to have effective government. I think that is a requirement for everyone, but when we realise that much of the New Decade, New Approach agreement is uncosted and that the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee in Westminster recently heard that the €2 billion pledged already will be insufficient to meet the commitments in New Decade, New Approach, it raises questions as to how effective the agreement will be.
One of the other issues we need to look at is the block grant from Westminster to Northern Ireland and the Assembly. The grant has effectively been stagnant, meaning its power to deliver has been eroded over the years by inflation. With an uncosted agreement, vague commitments that are not being followed through on and only 13 months left in the assembly's term, many are asking how much will actually be achieved. That speaks to the need for the Irish Government, as one of the many parties involved, to push for effective government and proper achievements. We need to show leadership down here too. Victims and survivors look not just to London but to Dublin for leadership on the issues of legacy and the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement. For the Independent Commission on Information Retrieval to function properly, legislation will be required in both Dublin and Westminster, yet in seven years we have seen no legislation come to the House and no attempt to push legislation to establish the independent commission. That would show leadership and put moral pressure on the British Government to act. We need to look not just to London but to Dublin and at what we can do here to implement these agreements.
I appreciate the opportunity to share a few thoughts in this very important debate. I commend the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, on his efforts just over a year ago, with his former colleague, the then Secretary of State, Julian Smith, to make this agreement possible and get the Northern Ireland Executive back up and running. I was taken with the Taoiseach's opening remarks. The work he has done on the shared island initiative shows a personal and political commitment that should be an example to all of us in this House.
I am struck by the generous and reflective tone of the contributions to this debate from Deputies of all parties and none. When we talk about this issue and our shared island, that is the tone we should adopt. We need to approach this issue in a sensitive and humble manner and be aware of the possibilities and opportunities for every resident of this island, regardless of political affiliation. We need to see the practical political realisation of the aims of the Good Friday Agreement and, with no predetermined outcome or objective set in stone, we need to take this opportunity to regularise the North-South and east-west institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. They are grossly underutilised. That goes for the North-South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference and the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which is co-chaired by my colleague, Deputy Brendan Smith. If we had a formal calendar for arranging these meetings on a bimonthly or monthly basis, we would get the consistent political engagement we need, particularly on a North-South basis but also through the shared island approach of reaching every sector of society.
It should become normal for people from County Clare to go on their holidays to the north Antrim coast and for Leinster fans like me to go to Ravenhill, when travel is allowed in due course. We need to demystify many issues and ensure our Republic is a warm and welcoming place for everyone on this island. When we tackle those practical, personal and long-standing obstacles, we will move much further along.
As I conclude on that note, I join with others in condemning the attacks and threats made to the Minister, Nichola Mallon, this week. They are absolutely disgraceful. I know we are better than that as a people and an island. I will conclude with that. I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle very much for the opportunity to speak.
I am glad to have some speaking time on this topic today. The New Decade, New Approach agreement aims to initiate inclusive discussion on how we can all thrive on the island of Ireland. We must live in harmony and respect our island's complex history. I want to briefly speak on history because if the general election had not gone well, I would probably be in a classroom right now teaching history.
This time 12 months ago, I sparked what probably become a national debate overnight by refusing to attend a State commemoration for the Royal Irish Constabulary. That commemoration was ultimately abandoned and it was the right thing to do. I really want to state on record in this Chamber that our island's history must be preserved and remembered. It should, however, teach and prevent us from repeating mistakes. It should also not be the sole guiding light for the sculpting of the future of our islands. I hold the bedrock political belief, and always have, that Ireland as an entire 32-county island should be united as one nation. The united Ireland I see being realised, hopefully, in my lifetime, differs to that envisaged by Eamon de Valera, Constance Markievicz and company. Brexit and Covid-19 have taught us that this island requires huge co-operation across borders. People now look at many different metrics in terms of a shared Ireland, or even a united Ireland, regarding things such as the economy, healthcare systems, taxation etc.
I note that our colleague, who is now Cathaoirleach of the Seanad, Senator Mark Daly, undertook a number of studies. He looked at the different metrics to which I have just referred, for example, the economy, health systems and judicial systems, and compiled an extensive report on each. That is the direction in which the Taoiseach's Department and the nation need to be going. Over the next decade and beyond, we need to look at continuing along in the vein of the Good Friday Agreement in constructive dialogue with our counterparts in Northern Ireland and those who represent the United Kingdom in the Parliament of Westminster.
Ultimately, since the foundation of Dáil Éireann in 1919 and as we approach the centenary of partition and our statehood, the belief of our country, from its existence right back to a century ago, has always been that we would be a united country. We can only do so by using modern metrics such as the economy, medical systems and transportation systems. We need to look at those modern 21st century metrics, not just which flag flies above State buildings.
In that regard, the work undertaken by Senator Mark Daly, as the sole paddler of a canoe in the Seanad in the previous term, should be taken on by the State as a meaningful document to guide discussion, hopefully, leading to a united Ireland in our lifetime, happening in the right way that sustains people on both sides of the island and that respects traditions in all corners of the island.
On 5 February, a group of survivors and families of victims of the Ormeau Road massacre gathered at the Sean Graham bookmakers, where on that day in 1992, five innocent men were slaughtered by loyalists with the assistance of British state agents. In what subsequently became notorious scenes, the PSNI disrupted the small dignified ceremony and arrested Mark Sykes, one of those who was actually shot but managed to survive the attack.
These events have highlighted again the acute and sometimes double standards that have applied to the conflict in our country and, just as importantly, to the resolution of legacy-related issues. Thousands of families still await truth and justice. The process for resolving these issues was agreed at Stormont House in 2014. However, one signatory to that agreement, as it happens, probably the most important signatory, has failed to live up to its responsibility. The British Government has steadfastly refused to adhere to its agreed actions and, in fact, has stubbornly resisted all efforts to deliver truth to bereaved families. This can be seen recently in its refusal to establish a public inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane. The Finucane family and the Ormeau Road families are among hundreds of people bereaved at the hands of loyalists who operated with the support and frequently the direction of British forces. Often, these actions occurred in this State, including bombings in Dublin, Monaghan, Castleblayney and Belturbet and the assassination of John Francis Green. Often, British forces cut out the middlemen and murdered Irish citizens directly.
This week marks the anniversary of the death of Aidan McAnespie. Aidan was just a 23-year-old man when he was shot dead in 1988 by the British army at Aughnacloy, near the Monaghan-Tyrone border, while he was walking to a football game. The British army had repeatedly warned Aidan and members of his family that it intended to get him, and it did. His family have since campaigned for truth and justice. I want to put on the record of the House today our pride and esteem in the McAnespie clan for their dignified and determined efforts. I repeat their often-made call for the Irish Government to publish the Crowley report, which was conducted after Aidan's murder. It is the least they deserve.
I want to put on record that all families who were bereaved during the course of the conflict, regardless of which organisation was responsible whether they be republican, loyalist, British or other state forces, deserve truth and justice. An assurance is needed that there will not be a hierarchy in respect of legacy resolution as there was during the conflict. Of the hundreds of murders carried out directly by the British army, only four soldiers served any time in prison. Not one served more than five years and all were readmitted to their forces. Their victims have been denied justice, and very often truth, on every occasion.
Therefore, as we look forward, which is what these debates must be about, we must recognise that every year of justice delayed is justice denied and injustice compounded. The process that was agreed at Stormont House must be enacted and this House must be united in that call.
A year on, the New Decade, New Approach deal speaks volumes about what was originally in it. Other Deputies have referred to the fact that many of the proposals in the deal have been aspirational without any effort to include proper figures for spending, giving a real cause for concern.
Behind the headlines, however, repeated references to the need for rationalisation and efficiency reviews, which is political speak for austerity and job losses, proposals to deal with a further reform of the Northern Ireland Civil Service and the rationalisation of what they call "arm’s length bodies" are a thinly veiled confirmation that the Executive and the Assembly intend to continue with their long-running practice of gutting decently-paid jobs in the public sector. What one year on tells us more than anything else is how partition has served this entire country so poorly, particularly given that was the year of Covid-19. North and South of the Border, we saw a lack of co-operation and collaboration, and indeed, a lack of dealing with health in a unified all-island way. I am not convinced enough was done by any member of Government or any member of the major parties in Stormont to really push for an all-island strategy. As I said, partition has served us poorly since James Connolly predicted it would create "a carnival of reaction". It has, however, served us most poorly indeed over the last year. We need to get over ourselves and look to creating that all-island health service which is so urgently needed.
I note too with a sense of incredulity, to be honest, that the cash for ash scandal, that is, the renewable heat incentive scandal that collapsed Stormont the last time around, was to be dealt with by the establishment of a committee which would look into changes that would be needed as result. However, none other than the very person who was at the helm of that debacle is involved in establishing that committee and yet, we were promised there would be no return to thestatus quo.
There are some welcome suggestions on the Irish language. I believe, however, many activists in the Irish language will be very disappointed with the overall outcome of it. I want to finish by saying that People Before Profit, as the only socialist presence in the Assembly, will do all we can to hold the Executive to account and learn the lesson that real change comes from below, as per the nurses and health workers.
Last year, with the return of the Stormont Executive, we were promised a new decade, a new approach. It has been a turbulent year but what is the verdict one year on? Last week, the BBC Northern Ireland "Spotlight" programme focused on the level of reliance on food banks by many in Northern Ireland, particularly young workers.
It shone a spotlight on the number of people who are really struggling during this pandemic. The show said that the Stormont draft budget was a slap in the face for those young people and others who are relying on services that are now facing cutbacks. Are we going to have a new approach on this question or will it be like the decade from 2010 to 2019 when the parties in the Stormont Executive passed on the cuts and attacks on working people that Westminster imposed?
Will we see a new decade with a new approach for women on the issue of abortion? We will not if the DUP has its way. The DUP is cynically using the concerns of disability activists in order to push back against women's rights on the abortion issue. There is a big question there for Sinn Féin and for the other MLAs. Will they back the campaigns being organised by women and trust women or will they let the DUP away with these attacks on the right to choose?
Since the start of the new year we have had some serious warnings on the dangers of sectarianism, not least the threats against port workers and others. A coming together of sectarian parties at the top does not constitute a new approach for a new decade. What would do so is an anti-sectarian and socialist alternative from below that is built in and across both communities. That is how we will have a genuine new decade and approach.
I welcome the opportunity to examine the implementation of the New Decade, New Approach agreement. This agreement was published in January 2020 in an effort to re-establish the Stormont Executive and to initiate a series of badly needed reforms to public administration in the North for the benefit of all its citizens. By and large, the comments and contributions by Deputies today have been cordial and positive and that is welcome.
It should be noted that there are still outstanding commitments from the Stormont House Agreement and the Fresh Start Agreement. It is critical that the New Decade, New Approach agreement does not become like other half-implemented agreements. One significant aspect of this agreement is the increased funding that is promised. Big commitments were made last year and I understand just £1 billion of new money was delivered by the UK Government to it. I call on the Minister for Foreign Affairs to keep up the pressure on his counterpart in London to deliver on those commitments.
I welcome the establishment of the shared island unit in the Department of the Taoiseach. The unit was allocated a €500 million budget for five years. This innovative shared island fund will ensure the Irish Government meets its commitments to the citizens of the North and of the wider Border region. As we enter the post-Brexit era, the shared island fund will see investment in the region in all-island initiatives such as research, health, education and the environment. This will enhance the all-island economy, society and improve North-South co-operation. I await further progress in areas such as infrastructure, energy and innovation. It should be noted the shared island fund goes beyond already agreed funding for the North-South bodies, such as: the reconciliation fund, cross-Border health arrangements, and the EU support for the region via the EU PEACE PLUS programme. Taken together, the commitment by the Government amounts to over €1 billion of funding out to 2025.
The Taoiseach’s vision in this regard and his commitment to improving North-South relations need to be commended. The shared island fund is central to harnessing the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement, to deliver sustainable progress for all communities and ultimately to lay the groundwork for a more united island.
I am glad to have an opportunity to speak on this important subject. At the outset I congratulate An Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs for the tremendous work they have done and continue to do. I include past Taoisigh and Ministers for Foreign Affairs in that as well. It is no harm to take stock. Politics has many challenges around every corner. Brexit was one such challenge and Covid was another. Those two challenges came together and it was not to the advantage of anybody that this happened.
I want to emphasise one or two points. When the late Reverend Ian Paisley and the late Martin McGuinness concluded, agreed to and signed up to the Good Friday Agreement, they achieved something that many of us did not think was possible in the climate that had prevailed on the island of Ireland for the previous 30 years but they did it. I believe they did it for a good reason. They had learned from their experiences and they had wondered how much had been contributed to society as a result of the previous 30 years. They rightly concluded that it was time to sit down together and pursue a common goal for the common good. They were successful in that and we should recognise the scene and the example they set, notwithstanding the respective positions they came from.
The shared island concept is excellent. It is in that area that I want to address a few words. I had occasion in a previous Dáil to see the efforts and success of work undertaken by Trevor Ringland and Hugo MacNeill at community level in Northern Ireland to address the issues and concerns of unionists who felt that they had been deprived of certain positions as a result of the Good Friday Agreement. They were successful and that work needs to be continued. Strange as it may seem, we cannot aspire to a united Ireland without remembering that the people have to be united first. We have to have a common goal. The people, North and South, must be facing in the same direction and have the same common objectives. If we do not go that way we will not have success. Let us not forget that the history of next year and the next decade will be written on the basis of the decisions that we take now.
We may well have to offer further financial assistance when the occasion arises in the near and medium-term future. This will do two things. It will show our commitment to the issues that we claim responsibility for and aspire to and that will be a good thing. It will also show that we are prepared to make sacrifices to address the issues of any imbalances that may occur in Northern Ireland. It is not just sufficient to say that on the one hand we want a united Ireland and at the same time we want the British Government to intervene more by way of supporting the concept that existed for generations. It is hugely important that we look carefully and closely at the degree to which we may have to expend money in the future to support the institutions that are there now to reassure the general public and to make certain that we do not slide back into recrimination and counter-accusation that was the pattern in the past.
We can learn a lot from history and I hope we have learned already. We have enough history between the institutions on this island, North and South, the population on both sides of the divide in Northern Ireland, and with our colleagues across the water in the UK. We have established enough ground there already. As her majesty, the British Queen said, when she spoke in Dublin Castle about the things that happened between the two countries, it might be better if some of them had never happened at all. It is no harm to reflect on that because it means a lot and if it does not mean a lot to us then we have not read our history properly.
We can do a lot more. We can still do a huge amount in supporting those who have concerns on both sides of the political and religious divide in Northern Ireland. We need to move away from those old-fashioned concepts and move into something different. We need to assist the people in Northern Ireland in achieving a forward progress that is useful from their point of view, useful from the point of view of the all-island concept and useful to peace and prosperity on the island of Ireland.
One of the most important elements of the New Decade, New Approach agreement and of all the preceding agreements, is the provision of educational innovation and research opportunities across the island. The agreement commits the Irish Government to delivering for the people of the North on a sustainable economic basis.
A post-conflict education system must be underpinned and permeated by the principles of the Good Friday Agreement, by parity of esteem, by mutual respect and by equality of opportunity. Indeed, the absence of an education system reflecting these principles will impede and delay the vision we all share for a new Ireland. The integration of third level education across this island is no threat to anybody's identity. Expanding and creating educational and subsequent employment and enterprise opportunities for everyone, regardless of their religion, their constitutional preference or where they live, is the responsibility we must all live up to. We must move beyond the pilot stage of models of good practice by resourcing and mainstreaming these models.
We must prioritise the removal of unnecessary barriers. One of the most obvious of these is the mutual recognition of professional qualifications in a post-Brexit environment. While I appreciate recognition is currently being given on a sectoral regulator-to-regulator basis, we need to establish a permanent framework, using the common travel area the protocol and bilateral agreements, to provide certainty and clarity.
The commitment in the New Decade, New Approach to bring pupils together from schools, North and South, from the national and unionist communities to discuss issues of mutual concern and learn from each other must be advanced. The target of 100 such cross-Border engagements per annum must be reached. Any delay on this initiative caused by Covid restrictions must be made up for.
The development of an all-island research hub is crucial to the sharing and maximisation of our expertise for the benefit of all communities. Research and development capacity is a key driver in economic growth and social development. While partition remains a fault line running through our society, we need to find ways to minimise its ability to separate us. Obviously, the conclusion to that is Irish unity.
The impact of partition is glaring when we look at the movement of third level students. Sadly, cross-Border enrolment on this island is extremely low. We have seen a decline of almost 40% over the past ten years in the number of students from this State studying in the North and students from the North make up fewer than 1% of enrolments here. This represents a complete failure of our young people. Going to university in Belfast should be the same as going to college in Cork. There needs to be one application system for colleges for all students across the island. The development of a technology university in the west and north west is an opportunity for us to link educational opportunities along the western seaboard to the Ulster University Magee campus and beyond.
My party leader spoke earlier about Acht na Gaeilge being a core component of the New Decade, New Approach. At the time, the Minister stated that it was a win for those passionate about the Irish language. We cannot ignore what is happening in respect of the Irish language in the North. As recently as last night, we had a situation at Lisburn and Castlereagh Council where my colleagues were interrupted and attempts made to shout one down when he opened his remarks in Irish. This cannot be allowed to continue. We need to play a part in condemning that and ensuring that it does not happen. The Irish language is a language for all. It is a language for the universal.
I very much welcome the opportunity to take part in this debate. As we all know, the New Decade, New Approach agreement was signed in January of last year and it was to bring a lot of hope and opportunity to the people of the North of Ireland. Nobody could have predicted then the great difficulties we were about to and continue to face. At the time, we had Brexit looming large and today it is on our doorstep creating much difficulty for people and businesses on both sides of the Border.
Unfortunately, what the Covid pandemic has shown us is that the deep divisions in the North are as strong as ever. We have seen over the past 12 months those divisions played out in public as the island struggled to come to terms with both Brexit and the Covid pandemic. My view on this is that spoken words are the easy option when what is needed is real work and action on the ground. There have been many words spoken and promises made but, in reality, little has changed and very little action has been taken.
During the Covid pandemic, I have constantly called for an all-island approach. Before Christmas, when the incidence figures in the North were among the highest in the world, I called for the closure of the Border for all but essential workers and travel. It was no coincidence that the rate of infection in counties along the Border went through the roof. It was clear at the time that the approach being taken on both sides of the Border was different and was leading to very different outcomes. Only a couple of weeks ago, when we introduced additional powers to allow the Garda to stop those crossing the Border for all but essential reasons, it was noted that the PSNI was not doing the same on its side of the Border. In Dundalk, it was quite clear from the amount of Northern Ireland-registered cars driving through the town centre that the 5 km rule was not being observed.
On related matters, I praise the Northern authorities on the speed at which they are now administering the coronavirus vaccine. This has been a credit to them and put in perspective our cumbersome approach on this side of the Border.
Another matter I would like to raise is the reported legal challenge that the DUP and other unionists are making to the Northern Ireland protocol in the EU-UK Brexit deal. It is reported that they will make a two-pronged legal and political attack on the protocol. It is understood that the DUP's five-point plan includes a boycott of the North-South ministerial engagements on issues relating to disputed trading arrangements as well as an online petition which has secured the party's parliamentary debate on the protocol. No doubt this legal action will create even more political division in the North and raise tensions. I would like to know if the Government has spoken to its UK counterpart in respect of this matter. The Government should be making the point that in order for Brexit to work for everyone, we need to put politics aside and deal with issues in economic, social and practical contexts.
In the New Decade, New Approach agreement, reference is made to a number of the commitments given. There are two that I wish to raise here. The first relates to the funding for the A5. The Government has pledged £75 million for this project. I would like to know if that funding is still earmarked for the project. If it is not, can we secure a commitment that these funds can be used for other projects instead, include that relating to the Ardee bypass. The second matter I wish raise relates to Casement Park. Under the agreement, a commitment was given that funds would be set aside to develop the grounds there. As chairman of the Louth County Board, like other GAA people I am sad to see the decline of these grounds. Can we get clarity on these issues?
Finally, I would like to discuss the issue of third level education and the potential difficulties many of our students will face when they attempt to enrol in courses in Northern Ireland and the UK. Can the Government confirm that it has discuss this matter with the UK Government and that arrangements are in place to facilitate seamless application for students on both sides of the Border to attend third level facilities such as Dundalk Institute of Technology?
The New Decade, New Approach agreement contains many promises but, unfortunately, there has been a failure to deliver these. We all look forward to a day when politics, particularly north of the Border, can be more inclusive and when those involved can work for the betterment of those on all sides of the community.
The Good Friday Agreement and the Executive that flowed from it helped to bring an end to the Troubles and one of the most tragic conflicts in the world. The Good Friday Agreement was an incredible achievement. The institutions that were created, in comparison with what went before, represented incredible progress. However, we have to get real. Twenty-three years later, those institutions are proving to be incredibly dysfunctional. The New Decade, New Approach agreement came about because the five parties in the Northern Ireland Executive could not work together. That the North was without an Administration for three years while MLAs were each getting paid is the definition of political dysfunction.
If one measures the outputs of Stormont, it does not fair too well. By means of a freedom of information request, Aontú Councillor Emmet Doyle in Derry found that between 2010 and the start of the pandemic, the five parties of the Executive, including Sinn Féin, the SDLP, the DUP and the Alliance Party, cut 887 beds from the hospital services in the North. This has proven catastrophic in the teeth of Covid as patients had to be treated in hospital car parks. Policing came into sharp focus recently. In that context, the shocking events on the Ormeau Road in Belfast a few weeks ago constitute another example of why northern nationalists' confidence in policing is at such a low ebb. I might also mention the Stormont House Agreement, the Irish language and the fact that poverty is wholesale in many parts of the North. There is economic dereliction in many parts, especially west of the Bann.
All of this is happening under the gaze of the Stormont regime. That regime and the Executive are affected by in-built instability.
If one party seeks to throw its toys out of the pram, the whole of the North lurches into crisis. The people of the North of Ireland deserve better than such instability and dysfunction. It is time for us to understand that Stormont is not fit for purpose and for the people of Ireland, North and South, to start working together to see how Stormont can be reformed and what comes next. That is why I ask the Minister to ensure that the Government constitutes an all-Ireland forum so that we can start the discussion on the development of stable, all-Ireland, democratic institutions.
I welcome this debate because it comes at a difficult time. As we have seen in recent weeks, tensions are high in the aftermath of Brexit. We should view Brexit not as a trap to try to confront the constitutional issue, which is so divisive in Northern Ireland, but as an opportunity to show that we can offer a practical partnership in helping people in Northern Ireland to confront some of the problems they face. Ironically, the EU's blunder may be an opportunity for Ireland to demonstrate its capacity within the EU to watch out, as we are obliged to do under the Good Friday Agreement, for the interests of people on all sides in Northern Ireland. This is not a time for delighting in the discomfort of the unionist community or for reinforcing the binary politics that have been so damaging in Northern Ireland. It is a time to seek to understand the challenges that those communities face, and it is important that we do so now.
Over the summer, I had the opportunity to read Say Nothing: A True Story of Murder and Memory in Northern Irelandby Mr. Patrick Radden Keefe. His book shows the sense of betrayal that many people who have been willing to give their own lives and injure or kill other people in the pursuit of their goals are likely to feel in any political vacuum that might emerge. It is important that we use the concept of a shared Ireland to create a new arena where we can find aims that we share in common and work together to achieve them.
It would be remiss of us today not to consider another community that is struggling to protect its parliamentary institutions. I speak of the people of Myanmar. A junta seized power on the day a new parliament was to convene, a day of great hope for the people of Myanmar, based on trumped up complaints about election procedures, false and threadbare accusations against the political leadership and enforced digital surveillance. As a country that has seen the benefit of democratic institutions, we need to stand up and support those in Myanmar who are calling for the restoration of their democracy.
As the youngest Member of the House and the first to be elected to the Dáil whose lifetime has only known peace under the Good Friday Agreement, I wish to discuss the need to ensure that we create a shared island that is inclusive and tolerant of all people on it. When we move towards a shared island, we must continue to engage in open dialogue with all of the people on it to ensure that every person's voice is heard. We do not want to end up with a situation where sections of society feel abandoned or excluded. This is an important consideration.
I welcome the continued use of the all-island civic dialogue as a forum for addressing British-Irish related issues. The concern that the invoking of Article 16 has caused in Northern Ireland is a serious problem. The protocol must work, and be seen to work, for Northern Ireland's people and businesses. Brexit is a shared problem for this island and we can overcome the worst of its effects by working together.
I am a great believer in building economic ties through shared business networks and capital infrastructure projects. Yesterday at the transport committee, I raised the potential for Ireland to engage with our British counterparts following Britain's proposal to construct a tunnel between Northern Ireland and Great Britain. It would be an excellent way of continuing to build North-South and east-west relations. It is through such open dialogue and shared economic interests that we can continue to strengthen economic relationships across the islands.
We must expand and develop mechanisms for engagement between the Houses of the Oireachtas, the Northern Ireland Assembly, the UK Parliament and the devolved assemblies in Wales and Scotland. It was a great honour to take part in the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly on Monday.
We must continue to ensure that each Department maintains strong links with its Northern Ireland counterpart and that the Northern Ireland Assembly continues to work effectively. It is only through working together and showing the positive benefits of doing so that we can hope to move together towards a stronger relationship on the island.
In light of the threat of a collapsed Northern Ireland Executive and increased community tensions, it is timely that we review an agreement that was born out of similar circumstances. The Good Friday Agreement was an opportunity for us to demonstrate how a shared island might lead to a united Ireland. The commitments that the Irish Government gave in the New Decade, New Approach agreement, in particular those around infrastructure, are tangible examples of how that shared island can be developed. Our Government has made a strong commitment not just in words, but in financial terms by allocating €500 million to the shared island fund for cross-Border infrastructure. The North-South Ministerial Council has focused on the Ulster Canal and the Narrow Water Bridge. Recently, the Taoiseach met the North West Regional Development Group to update it on the shared island unit. The Irish Government has the willingness and funds to progress cross-Border investments. I want to see that same willingness and commitment from other parties to the agreement.
I compliment my SDLP colleague, the Minister of Infrastructure, Ms Nichola Mallon, MLA, who has met the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, to commence a feasibility study on a high-speed rail link between Belfast, Dublin and Cork and may have ambitions to include Limerick and Derry. Today, a £250 million city deal was confirmed by the British Government. The Minister, Ms Mallon, and Mr. Colum Eastwood, MP for Foyle, campaigned for many years for that deal, which will include funding for the A5. The Irish Government stands ready to meet its long-standing commitment to contribute funding to that road upgrade. Last year, I had the privilege of welcoming to Dublin the campaign for a university in the north west. We are working on how to use the shared island unit to progress that concept. The real challenge for New Decade, New Approach is not in naming these projects, but in funding and delivering them and in working out the day-to-day issues facing governments in any infrastructural project.
Someone told me recently that, in the Good Friday Agreement, many Irish people had let go of the Articles 2 and 3 claim to the North in return for a shared institution in the North and being part of a wider relationship between Britain and Ireland and within Europe. That shared institution has not worked to its fullest since then and, unfortunately, the relationship between the islands has become more stressed due to Brexit.
Before we proceed in the march towards unity – that is absolutely where I would like us to go – we must demonstrate that we can share this island and do so through the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. Saying that is easy for us in the South, given that we are not at the coalface, but I encourage everyone sitting around the Northern Ireland Executive's table to make use of the institutions, not lurch into collapse and instead work towards a functioning government.
Tá áthas orm labhairt ar an topaic seo. Tá sé fíorthábhachtach. The New Decade, New Approach agreement was brokered to help restore confidence in devolved government at Stormont. It was a welcome move, as it underlined the necessity for all sides to work as constructively as possible in order for the people of the North to have some kind of stability, which they richly deserved. Perhaps we could do something similar in the South.
On a more serious note, the issues under discussion – stability, good governance and so on – do not exist in a political vacuum. They are taking place in the context of a renewed focus on the shared nature of our island and the need to speak proudly, but with respect, to the varied political and historical loyalties that exist on it. That is why I recently submitted a parliamentary question to the Taoiseach asking for an update on his Department's shared island unit.
As part of his reply, the Taoiseach confirmed that €500 million will be made available until 2025, ring-fenced for shared island projects and multiannual capital funding for investment on a strategic basis in collaborative North-South projects that will support the commitments and objectives of the Good Friday Agreement. I am happy to see that Border counties and others will benefit from this proposal.
Maidir leis an Ghaeilge, ba chóir go gcuirfí reachtaíocht a bhaineann leis an teanga, cearta daonna, cearta teanga Gaeilgeoirí agus Acht na Gaeilge i bhfeidhm gan moill. Rinne eagraíochtaí mar Chonradh na Gaeilge sárobair agus bhí feachtas láidir acu ach tá níos mó ag teastáil anois. Ba chóir go mbeadh an Ghaeilge agus na cearta atá ag daoine sna Sé Chontae maidir leis an Ghaeilge cosanta ó thaobh an Achta agus an reachtaíocht de. Tá súil agam go dtarlóidh sé sin.
It is true that tensions are very high in the North. There are serious and widening levels of disagreement around Article 16 and the Northern Ireland protocol. It is critical, therefore, that our rhetoric on these and other matters is not deliberately inflammatory or divisive. In that regard, I welcome all measures that aim to create light rather than heat and mutual respect for all traditions on our island.
I am delighted to speak on this today. I salute the architects of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace that we now enjoy. I look forward to the New Decade, New Approach agreement. I happened to be in the residence of the British ambassador in Washington two years ago, on the day before St. Patrick's Day. The most senior civil servant in Northern Ireland at the time, whose name eludes me but I am sure the Minister knows him, had to take the stage instead of the First Minister or deputy First Minister, who were there, because they were not active or functioning. He was quite annoyed. He left his hair down because he was retiring. He really gave out that they did not get their act together and were not working together. I think of all the work done by the likes of the former Minister of State and Senator, Martin Mansergh, Fr. Alec Reid and many others, including the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, to get the peace we have and then we see the legacy issues that are not being dealt with.
Before we can really embrace the New Decade, New Approach agreement, we must deal with these legacy issues. If we take the Omagh bomb and Mr. Michael Gallagher and his family and the other families, it was a terrible atrocity. The former Taoiseach, Enda Kenny, promised to meet Mr. Gallagher, and said what he would do for him, but when he got into power he abandoned him like a hot potato. He promised he would get truth and justice with Fine Gael in government but it did not happen.
The former Garda John White died during the year. His mother was laid to rest only last week. She was broken-hearted after the way her son was treated. He made efforts to ensure the Omagh bomb was not delivered or planted. He was mistreated and sidelined by the Garda powers. He was made a scapegoat. We must deal with these legacy issues.
Recently, it was the anniversary of Aidan McAnespie. I did not know him but my wife's brothers and sisters worked with him in Monaghan and the treatment he received and testament he told them. Every other day he arrived in work late because of blackguarding, skulduggery and ill-treatment at the checkpoint in Aughnacloy. It was common knowledge they were going to do something serious to him and they murdered him.
There has been no sign of any meaningful investigation or inquiry into these issues. Where are the new decade, new visions and new approach? We must sort out the legacy issues and we must be meaningful, honest and upfront. We can only do so much down here but we must not mislead families in the North who want justice or play politics with them and then abandon them. I salute Michael Gallagher and what he does every year on the commemoration committee. He continues to go through trauma. We must be honest with ourselves and be fair and reasonable to the people who expect us to help them.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle for the opportunity to contribute to this debate on the New Decade, New Approach agreement. It is certainly hard to see progress in the North when the assembly and institutions are constantly in flux. This is the nature of the peace process and we have become used to it. This should not really have been the outcome but sadly it is. Partly it is the nature of the compromises that had to be made in the dysfunctional society that prevails in the North, a consequence of the occupation, conflict and attempt to make a society that represents all and works for all.
An attempt has been made to show that an elected body could work and that the aspirations of all members of society could be met by the assembly. It is important for all the people of the island that the system works and shows that it works. Eventually, what we in the South will have to show the unionists in the North is that, ultimately, they would be better off in a united Ireland. If anything, the Brexit fiasco has shown that in reality the UK does not really care about the North and will use it for its own ends.
There are a number of things that are necessary for the functioning of a society. We must have confidence in a performing police service that represents all the people and works for everyone. Unfortunately, a recent case has highlighted, although not, it seems, in a sectarian way, that all societies need a police force they can depend on. I am speaking about the case of Noah Donohoe. As most of us in the House will remember, Noah was a young 14-year-old boy who went missing last June in Belfast. Six days later, his body was found in a storm drain in a part of the city that he did not know nor would have gone to at any time. There appears to have been a failure of action by the police that is leaving Noah's family in the horrific position of having to investigate this crime on their own. They have identified and rebuilt Noah's last journey by walking the route and identifying and following up on hundreds of security cameras that cover it. They have identified things the police should have done and acted on but did not. The question that has to be asked is "Why?" The family has looked south for help and support, and that is why I am raising his case today.
This case shows that the police force still has a way to go. Perhaps we should count ourselves lucky that it is not a sectarian issue we are speaking about but the failing of a police force in so-called "normal" circumstances. It is in these normal circumstances that the whole community needs the police to act impartially and properly in the investigation of crime. It seems clear to me, from what I have heard from Noah’s family, that the police have not acted properly in this investigation. For a grieving mother to be left with no option but to investigate herself and get further in the investigation than the police did is criminal and indefensible. Why should a mother who, as we all saw on television yesterday, is understandably torn up by the tragic death of her son have to carry out an investigation because it seems the authorities are not doing so? The proof of this need was shown when Fiona Donohoe made a public call for people with phone evidence to come forward, and they did. How could the PSNI not have done this? Why is it being left to a grieving family to come up with this?
These and other questions are some of the issues that Noah's family need answered. They need our help to get these answers. I urge the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste, the Minister and everyone who can help to do so to ensure that Fiona can grieve in peace in the knowledge that all will be done by the PSNI to investigate and get to the truth of Noah's tragic death. It is urgent and pressing that people have confidence in the PSNI to investigate all crime and leave the legacy of the Troubles behind. I believe that is a vital part of starting to rebuilding society.
A little over a year ago, I stood together in the cold with the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Julian Smith, and we announced we believed we had found the basis for an agreement on which all parties could come together and restore the Executive, the assembly and the North-South Ministerial Council. In an act of political courage and imagination, and in a spirit of compromise, the five parties did just that. It had taken three tough years to get us to that point. Hard compromises were made on all sides. No one got everything they wanted except one thing. They ended the stalemate and got politics working again, and gave people in Northern Ireland a democratic voice that they had not had for three years.
The years since the New Decade, New Approach agreement have presented exceptional challenges, some, I think, we expected and others we could scarcely have imagined. Though the storm of Covid has not yet passed, there has been a shared determination in difficult circumstances by the newly restored Executive and Assembly to hold the ship steady through it and try to keep people safe.
The key to keeping that ship steady through future storms, big and small, is ongoing delivery on all of the commitments made by us collectively in the New Decade, New Approach agreement and previous agreements, right back to our shared foundation of the Good Friday Agreement.
The Taoiseach has spoken in detail about the work we are doing to deliver on the commitments of the Government for greater connection and deeper reconciliation. The shared Ireland initiative is an ambitious and inclusive framework for our commitment to strengthen the North-South relationship, work together to face major strategic challenges, develop our shared island's economy and invest for the benefit of Border regions. These are areas of common ground. They are practical, positive and are rooted firmly in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement.
As we look ahead, it is vital that we all keep making progress towards the full realisation of the New Decade, New Approach agreement, NDNA. That means delivery across the board, from both Governments and the Northern Ireland Executive. Some of the hardest things to find agreement on in the endless hours of negotiation were around issues of language and identity. However, we eventually found a detailed compromise and way forward through a balanced package of legislation and, as with all of the New Decade, New Approach agreement commitments, it is vital that this is taken forward now as agreed. Recognition and respect in the areas of language, identity and diversity are core to building and maintaining trust between communities and political leaders. Follow-through on commitments made is important in that regard.
Deputies have raised today the lack of progress in addressing the legacy of the past. Most, if not all of us, have sat with families of those who lost their lives in the Troubles. All of us should feel an obligation to respond to the legitimate pleas of victims and their families but also to help all of society address the legacy of the past in a way that fosters reconciliation and, we hope, new and stronger relationships.
When the New Decade, New Approach agreement was reached last year, the Irish and British Governments separately reaffirmed our commitment to the Stormont House Agreement. The British Government made a specific commitment to introduce legislation that would see it fully implemented. It is not about whitewashing paramilitary violence or state collusion or endorsing one or other narrative of the conflict. Rather, it is about investigations, information recovery, oral history and acknowledgement of the truth for all victims, communities and all of us.
In March, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland announced new proposals for dealing with the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland which departed from the framework. In the months since then, I have engaged regularly with him to underline the clear and consistent position of the Government that the Stormont House Agreement is still the way forward and we will continue to engage and reaffirm this commitment.
The provisions of the Stormont House Agreement were not easily agreed, but they were agreed collectively. It is our responsibility now to see it implemented and not allow wounds to be reopened or pain to be passed on to a new generation. The new agreement was called the New Decade, New Approach agreement for a reason. The title was intended to reflect the demand from ordinary people across Northern Ireland in particular, that politics work better for them and that, while acknowledging very different political views and aspirations, we still demand that political parties do not let debate slide into stand-off or disagreement into breakdown.
We must not easily forget the intensity of public frustration at the absence of the Executive and Assembly for over three years. I remember vividly that moment in St. John's Cathedral when Fr. Martin Magill spoke for many when he asked why in God's name it took the death of a special young woman, Lyra McKee, for political leaders to come together.
The NDNA is not a dry list of promises. Rather, it is an expression of determination by political leaders on behalf of their constituents to make politics work. While it is not directly the subject of today's debate, it is important to recognise that the events of the past few weeks with respect to the protocol have been difficult and have caused understandable frustration and angst. I have seen the concerns raised about the impact of the protocol and its implications for the Good Friday Agreement, and it is important that I take a moment to address them directly.
We must not, and have not, dismissed the genuinely held fears and concerns of any community in Northern Ireland. We also must be clear and honest, however, about the situation. Nobody, be they unionist, nationalist or any other constituency, wants politicians to promise solutions that do not exist, cannot be delivered or would make things worse. Brexit is a policy that was, and was intended to be, profoundly disruptive. There is no scenario that delivers Brexit while life and business carries on precisely as it did before. We know that.
The protocol is a carefully constructed and good faith effort by the UK Government and the EU to try to ensure that the disruption for Northern Ireland is the least impactful it could be, preserving the delicate balance that the Good Friday Agreement established. It does not conflict with the Good Friday Agreement; it is there to protect it. It does not change the constitutional position of Northern Ireland; it explicitly reaffirms it and explicitly affirms the principle of consent as laid out in that agreement.
It does not seek to achieve a united Ireland by stealth or to add new areas of North-South co-operation. It simply allows existing co-operation to be maintained and protected. Crucially, it is also subject to periodic consent by the Members of the Northern Ireland Assembly, starting in four years' time. While cross-community consent mechanisms under strand one of the Good Friday Agreement are applicable only to matters of devolved competence for the Assembly, this periodic consent provision will ensure that every Assembly Member from every community in Northern Ireland will get an equal say in the continued application of the protocol.
I recognise that none of that assuages the real concerns in unionist communities. I recognise that none of that answers the real issues businesses are experiencing. However, the answer cannot and will not be to throw away the protocol and start again. That is in no one's interests, above all of those of Northern Ireland businesses looking for trade certainty and economic opportunity and the citizens of Northern Ireland who are seeking stability, prosperity and a reconciled society.
It is in everyone's interests that the protocol works sustainably for all communities and that the unique benefits for businesses in Northern Ireland of having unfettered access to Great Britain's internal market and to the European Union's Single Market are fully realised. We will continue to engage and listen to concerns. We will seek to address them through the protocol, a solution and hard-won compromise that provides stability, legal certainty and flexibility and is subject to democratic consent.
There is a process and framework for finding workable solutions on the ground, through the work of the specialised committee and the joint committee which is meeting today. That is the way forward. We will continue to advocate for flexibility and generosity in terms of the solutions that are necessary to real problems.
I feel sure that it will be put to me again by people speaking on behalf of the unionist community that neither I nor the Government is properly listening to the depths of their concerns. I take that seriously. We can all do better at listening to each other. For my part, I will continue to engage as much as possible with all parties on these issues, as well as those most impacted by Brexit in all communities, North and South, and those businesses experiencing real problems.
These are relationships that matter to us, not just now in the heat of Brexit but because they are relationships that are essential to our current and future well-being on this island.
This year, Northern Ireland will have existed for 100 years. In December, together with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, I addressed an event, virtually of course, to mark the centenary of the Government of Ireland Act 1920. It was hosted by Queen's University Belfast. As I said on that occasion, this centenary of partition and the foundation of Northern Ireland is an opportunity to listen to each other about what it means for each of us, in the spirit of what Seamus Mallon called A Shared Home Place. The Good Friday Agreement calls on us to respect and ensure equality for the identity, ethos and aspiration of unionism just as it does for nationalism. President Higgins has spoken of the need for a hospitality of narratives. This year, even with everything else that is happening, I hope we will have an opportunity to learn from each other, acknowledging that we can have, at the same time, a shared history and a diversity of memory, as well as a common story and a very different experience of it.
In those 100 years, we have faced much darker times than we face today. We have overcome them. Through the Good Friday Agreement we have built a new beginning together and we have made it last, so that a generation of young people in Northern Ireland today has come to adulthood free from the shadow of violence and intimidation. We built that beginning on a commitment to better relationships within Northern Ireland, on this island, North and South and between the islands, east and west. The Government will do everything it can to make all those relationships succeed and prosper. The New Decade, New Approach agreement is a demonstration of that determination. It restored power sharing in Northern Ireland. It opened the way for the North-South Ministerial Council to resume and many meetings have flowed from that. It was made possible by British-Irish partnership and it shows what can be achieved by Dublin and London working together in close co-operation with all political parties in Northern Ireland. Its commitments now must be realised, even more so its commitment to making the relationships based on the Good Friday Agreement work into the future.
Finally, along with others, I condemn the intimidation and the threats that have been made to politicians from all parties and journalists in Northern Ireland in recent times. Most recently, it was Alex Maskey of Sinn Féin and Nichola Mallon of the SDLP, but it also occurred in unionist parties to multiple DUP MLAs and UUP MLAs. I have in mind Doug Beattie and others. In the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, Naomi Long, Stephen Farry and others have received threats in recent times. This is because they are democrats and are speaking the truth. We all should condemn the intimidation of people in public life and those who write about it in journalism. I hope it can be a reminder of where we do not want to go in the context of politics and democracy in Northern Ireland and, indeed, on the entire island.