Tuesday, 11 May 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 6 and 7 together.
The Cabinet committee on Brexit and Northern Ireland operates in accordance with established guidelines for Cabinet committees and, where appropriate, substantive issues are referred to Government for discussion and approval. In general terms, the Cabinet committee oversees implementation of relevant programme for Government commitments in the area of Brexit and Northern Ireland and ongoing relevant developments. The committee was formally established by the Government on 6 July 2020 and had its first meeting on 29 October 2020. The Cabinet committee last met on 4 March 2021. The next meeting remains to be scheduled.
Relevant issues are also regularly considered at meetings of the full Cabinet, including most recently on 27 April, when a comprehensive memorandum on Brexit was presented. In addition to meetings of the full Cabinet and of Cabinet committees, I also meet Ministers on an individual basis to focus on particular issues where required.
Ireland was allocated €1 billion of the €5 billion fund in January 2021. The fund was intended to mitigate the losses to Irish businesses etc. in the context of Brexit. It is said that some member states are trying to reconfigure how that fund is being distributed. Are we secure in the allocation we have been given? Has any part of it been drawn down at this stage?
In regard to the shared island unit, the €500 million that has been made available will be out to 2025. Is there a list of projects at this stage and has any of the funding been drawn down yet?
The Taoiseach referred earlier to the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement in their totality and the extent to which they have to function and deliver. He referred to strand two, the North-South Ministerial Council and, indeed, the cross-border bodies. These are integral to the arrangements we have across the island. As the Taoiseach knows, DUP Ministers have sought to disrupt this, in protest, they say, at the Brexit protocol. What action have the Taoiseach and the Government taken to ensure all the institutions operate successfully? When might a North-South Ministerial Council plenary be convened? Will these matters be addressed by the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, which I understand is to be held next month?
As the Taoiseach knows, despite the democratic wishes of the people and their elected representatives in majority, the North is facing a considerable realignment in terms of benefits that have been recklessly lost as a result of Brexit. In that regard, can the Taoiseach outline what progress has been made on the PEACE PLUS programme in terms of support for the North, when the draft programme will be submitted to the European Commission and when the Government expects to launch the programme to allow critical funding supports to be awarded to the North?
First, on Deputy Catherine Murphy's question in terms of the Brexit fund, there have been, or were, some representations being made by other member states to try to eke out an additional share of funding. However, we are close to agreement on this and Ireland was allocated close to €1 billion under the fund. We are close to a resolution on this now at European Council level and I anticipate, at the next Council meeting perhaps, that we should have agreement on it. It is important funding, particularly for sectors that have been affected and impacted most by Brexit, in the regions and rural Ireland in particular.
On the shared island funding, we have allocated moneys. At the last North-South Ministerial Council plenary before Christmas, we indicated a number of areas for funding, particularly the Ulster Canal. Some €13 million has been allocated, €7 million from the shared island fund and approximately €6 million from the rural regeneration and development fund, to phase 2 of the Ulster Canal. A total of €12 million is for phase 2 and €1 million is to get the design ready for phase 3. We want to complete the Ulster Canal project in its entirety, utilising the funding in the shared island fund and the regeneration funding. That is a very good project in itself. We are also looking at a joint industrial project, partnering with City Deal in Derry, to provide an industrial complex on the Derry side and on the Donegal side. That is in partnership with the North West Regional Development Group.
We have already funded some minor research projects under the shared island funding itself. People can bid for up to €20,000 in funding for research projects. There is also a more substantive research piece being developed in partnership with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, and his Department in respect of collaboration between third level institutions on the island of Ireland on issues of mutual benefit to the island. That could be cybersecurity, for example, or it could be climate. There will be competition for that funding and it is intended that the universities or institutes of technology would bid for it. We have also committed to the A5 and to Narrow Water Bridge and we have some work to do to get them going. These are the projects that have been committed to already under the fund. We have also invited community groups and so on to put forward ideas for further funding.
In response to Deputy McDonald, I have met all the North-South bodies and gone through the fund with them. We stand in support of the bodies in respect of any particular projects they may have under their aegis, to get those projects going, from Ulster Scots to the Irish language to a range of other projects on the tourism side, for example, which could give a very interesting North-South dimension for people travelling North and South and tourism coming in from overseas. There is a good list of healthy projects and I can arrange that some briefing be made available to the Deputy in that regard.
In terms of the North-South Ministerial Council, my understanding is that the next meeting is due in June, which is important. As I said earlier, with the situation within the DUP and the election of a new First Minister, we obviously must await the outcome of that election. The outgoing First Minister has made it clear and articulated publicly that they are not boycotting the North-South Ministerial Council. My view is that there is a very clear obligation on all signatories to the Good Friday Agreement to honour the agreement and participate in these North-South meetings, which are important in terms of the wider issues.
On PEACE PLUS, it has been a very successful round. We secured €120 million in an initial allocation from the European Union. That, of course, gets matched by the Government, the British Government and the Northern Ireland Executive. It is now estimated that up to €1 billion, through all the matched funding, will be available for PEACE PLUS. There has to be some work done between the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the other relevant stakeholders in terms of the operationalisation and allocation of that fund. It is an exciting project in itself.
There is a substantial amount of money there, which illustrates the continued benefits of European Union membership and also reflects the Union's interest in peace on the island of Ireland. The EU has made a long-standing commitment to that peace.
I recall when I was Minister for Foreign Affairs many years ago, the DUP and Sinn Féin had difficulties and we were in Downing Street. It was just after we had lost the first Lisbon treaty referendum, which was about the only subject at that time that the DUP and Sinn Féin agreed on. Both parties were happy that we had lost the first referendum, though, thankfully, the second referendum was won. I make the point that the European Union's interest in the North has been positive and constructive. The EU sees it as one of the success stories in terms of peace processes across Europe.
Europe is sensitive to the current issues and Commissioner Maroš Šefcovic and Mr. David Frost are now engaged in a process that I hope will facilitate a working through of some of the issues that have arisen in respect of the protocol. I hope we can have a constructive engagement on that front because it is important. We must all work collectively to reduce tensions on an ongoing basis. We will have ongoing interactions with the British Government in respect of the need to ensure that whatever we do, we do it with a view to maintaining stability and peace, defusing tensions, and enabling the workings of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement as effectively, efficiently and peacefully as we can.