Tuesday, 6 July 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 18 and 19 together. The Government's shared island initiative aims to harness the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement to enhance co-operation, connection and mutual understanding on the island, engaging with all communities and traditions to build consensus around a shared future. I established a shared island unit in my Department to act as a driver and co-ordinator of this whole-of-government initiative.
In budget 2021, the Government established the shared island fund, whereby €500 million in capital funding up to 2025 was committed to and ring-fenced for investment in North-South projects. We are making allocations from the fund to support delivery of our commitments and objectives on a shared island, as set out in the programme for Government. The Government will work with the Executive in Northern Ireland, the British Government and other partners to deliver cross-Border investments that enhance our shared island.
Progress to date includes the following measures. In April, phase 2 of the Ulster Canal restoration project was launched, enabled by an allocation of €6 million from the shared island fund and €5.6 million from the rural regeneration development fund. The shared island fund has also provided a further €1 million for development work on phase 3 of the project, which has now begun.
In April, the all-island strategic rail review was launched jointly by the Minister for Transport and the Northern Ireland Minister for Infrastructure. The review is an important step in implementing the Government's commitment to enhance connectivity on the island, including rail connectivity. Last week, on 29 June, I was joined by the Northern Ireland Minister for Infrastructure, Nichola Mallon, as I announced €3 million in Government funding from the shared island fund to progress work on the Narrow Water bridge to tender stage, with further funding to be allocated once the due diligence process has been completed.
On Monday, the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and I announced that the Government will be investing €40 million from the shared island fund over five years in a new North-South research programme to support the deepening of links between higher education institutions, researchers and research communities on the island of Ireland. The Government will continue to develop and progress investment, policy and co-operation initiatives that contribute to the implementation of our objectives on a shared island as set out in the programme for Government.
To support development of a more ambitious agenda for co-operation and connection on the island, the shared island unit in my Department has commissioned a comprehensive research programme, working with the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, the National Economic and Social Council, the Irish Research Council and other partners. Research will be published through this year and next and will be focused on needs and opportunities to deepen co-operation across a range of economic, social and environmental domains.
I have initiated the shared island dialogue series to foster inclusive, constructive civic dialogue that engages all communities and traditions on key issues for our shared future. At the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, meeting yesterday it was also agreed to commence a work stream on shared island issues of interest for trade unions and employers within LEEF's remit of economic and employment issues relevant to the labour market. I addressed the first shared island dialogue with young people in November, which was on the theme of new generations and new voices on the Good Friday Agreement. Dialogues on climate and environment, civil society engagement, the equality agenda and economic recovery on the island have also been held this year, with participation by Government Ministers. The next shared island dialogue will be on health and will take place this week on Thursday, 8 July. These dialogues are bringing together hundreds of civic representatives and stakeholders in the different sectors, from across all regions, communities and traditions, to discuss how we can work together to build a shared future on the island. Recordings and reports are available.
I thank the Taoiseach for his very comprehensive response. There is obviously a very significant amount of work under way. I commend the Taoiseach on driving it forward. I also commend the team of the shared island unit. The Taoiseach announced the dialogue on health this week. Would it be worthwhile for the unit and the dialogue to consider the shared experience of Covid on the island and how our shared response could have been much better if there had been more co-operation across the island?
The Taoiseach will probably have missed the interview this morning with the doctor from Donegal who spoke about 50% of his patients who have had Covid showing symptoms of long Covid. Would it be worthwhile to carry out an all-island study on the consequences of long Covid and on how we can assist those who are suffering from symptoms of long Covid on an all-island basis?
I welcome the commitment to the Narrow Water bridge. The Taoiseach and I have been at many meetings at which it seemed like a pipe dream. I commend the Taoiseach on delivering and moving on that. Will the Taoiseach give me a commitment on the all-island rail review? Will the revised national development plan include a commitment to fund actions based on the findings of that review?
I have previously raised with the Taoiseach the need for the shared island unit's research funding model to be extended to include academics in both the North and the South who have a long history of shared work on policies relevant to the whole island. I welcome yesterday's announcement by the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Harris, of a significant funding commitment for the North-South research programme. This is very welcome. I do not doubt that it will deepen existing links between researchers, academics and third level institutions across the island.
I will briefly raise the issue of the funding announced by the Taoiseach last week to progress work on the Narrow Water bridge. The €3 million in funding provided from the shared island fund will progress the project to tender stage with construction to begin in 2023. What funding has the shared island unit and the Government committed to the construction of the bridge? Will moneys be allocated in the Department's budgets for 2022 and 2023 for this next important phase of the project?
As I have said to the Taoiseach many times, an important component of developing co-operation on the island and, ultimately, achieving what many of us hope to achieve, the ending of partition and a united Ireland, is having a quality all-Ireland national health service with the capacity to deliver for people. We have to learn the best lessons from one another and address the deficiencies in different parts of the health service. One positive lesson we can take from the North relates to the recent decision to pay front-line healthcare workers a £500 bonus. For all the applause healthcare workers got down here, they did not get any reward. As I have mentioned, while student nurses in the UK's National Health Service get a bursary of £10,000, we expect them to work for effectively nothing while on placement. Front-line workers in the North are getting £500 as a reward.
I have highlighted a number of areas, such as the area of psychology, in which those trying to learn must pay excessive fees and, in many cases, receive no funding whatsoever when undertaking postgraduate courses. In the UK's National Health Service, PhDs and doctorates in areas such as psychology are funded in order to incentivise people to move into those areas. Should we not take the best lessons in order to move towards the sort of quality national health service we need?
Research into the shared experience of Covid on the island, how the response could be improved and what lessons can be learned from the interactions that took place at the public health level is certainly an idea on which we can follow up. I am conscious of the fact that the chief medical officer in the North was very much directed from London and that part of that operation fell under the UK public health service. Nonetheless, he and our own chief medical officer came to a very good understanding and a good memorandum of understanding was developed. Deputy Calleary's general point with regard to improvements is valid.
On the Deputy's comments regarding long Covid, I did hear that interview this morning. This again points to the need for people to be very careful. It is not just about hospitalisations and deaths, although they are key. It is also about the impact of Covid on people's long-term health. Our understanding of long Covid is evolving. We need to be careful, particularly in light of what is going on in the UK at the moment and the idea that we can open up completely with no consequences. That is something about which I have concerns. A study on that would be very worthwhile. I will pursue that with the relevant bodies with regard to its facilitation.
The Narrow Water bridge is a very welcome development. The €3 million is to take the project to tender stage. We do not want to pre-empt the tender. We want to get the best value for money.
Commitments are in the €500 million fund to fund subsequent stages of the Narrow Water Bridge proposal. We are committed to that, as we are to the research into the Ulster Canal. The research will undergo international peer review, based on the programme for research in third level institutions, PRTLI, model for research I initiated in a different era. It is to make sure it is fair and transparent, deals with issues that can be of mutual benefit to all people living on the island of Ireland, and draws the best from the research capacities, North and South.
On the health service, research is under way by the ESRI on primary care systems, North and South. It aims to understand the differences between the two health systems and how they can complement each other and it looks at the strengths and weaknesses of each.
Deputy Boyd Barrett commented on nursing. One of the great innovations in this country was to move to a nursing degree programme. I initiated it as the Minister for Health at the time. It was a sea change and transformative of the nursing profession and of a lot of postgraduate education. It involved huge State investment, which does not get acknowledged in all the Deputy's commentary on nursing.