Tuesday, 19 October 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 11, inclusive, together.
The Government's shared island initiative is working to harness the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement to enhance co-operation, connection and mutual understanding on our island, engaging with all communities and traditions to build consensus around a shared future. The shared island unit in my Department acts as a driver and co-ordinator of this whole-of-government initiative. On 4 October, as part of the revised national development plan, NDP, the Government announced significant additional funding and an increased level of ambition for collaborative cross-Border public investment. The shared island dimension of the NDP sets out our investment priorities for the decade ahead to work through all-island partnerships and build a more connected, prosperous and sustainable island for all.
Under the plan, total all-island investment through the extended shared island fund, the Project Ireland 2040 funds, the Government's annual funding for North-South co-operation and the PEACE PLUS programme, delivered with the EU, UK and Northern Ireland Executive, is more than €3.5 billion. Under the NDP, the Government has committed to allocate ring-fenced, multi-annual capital resourcing for all-island investment out to 2030, at least at the current level of the shared island fund. The Government is making allocations from the fund to deliver our commitments and objectives on a shared island. Progress so far this year includes funding to deliver phase 2 of the Ulster Canal and commence development work on phase 3, commencement of an all-island strategic rail review, shared island funding to progress the Narrow Water Bridge project to tender stage, and the launch and commencement of the new North-South research programme. The latter will see €40 million allocated from the shared island fund over five years to support the deepening of links between higher education institutions, researchers and research communities. As part of my visit to Belfast on 8 October, I heard from research leaders at Queen's University about the strong interest in, and beneficial all-island impacts we will see from, the programme. The Government will continue to develop investment and co-operation initiatives to enhance our shared island, implementing our objectives as set out in the programme for Government and the NDP.
To support the Government's agenda for deeper 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, the National Economic and Social Council, the Irish Research Council and other partners. Research will be published in the final quarter of this year and in 2022, focused on opportunities to deepen co-operation across a range of economic, social and environmental domains. At the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, in July, it was 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 initiated the shared island dialogue series to foster inclusive civic dialogue on our shared future that engages all communities on the island. I addressed the first shared island dialogue with young people in November. Dialogues on climate and environment, civil society engagement, equality, economic recovery on the island, and health have been held this year, with participation by Ministers.
Additional information not given on the floor of the House
On 1 October, a dialogue was held on the future of education on a shared island, with participation by the Minister for Education, the Minister of State at the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, and more than 130 education and civil society stakeholders. The dialogues are bringing together more than 1,000 civic representatives this year in different sectors and across all regions, communities and traditions to discuss how we can better work together for a shared future. Further dialogues will be announced shortly and the series will continue next year.
These dialogues are proving to be positive, practical, forward-looking discussions on the opportunities and challenges we face in striving for a more reconciled future on the island. They are also affirming the breadth of common ground, solidarity and readiness to work together there is in communities across this island, while not shying away from hard questions. Exciting projects are emerging from the dialogues, such as a newly established all-island women's forum, bringing together women leaders from across the island to address under-representation and further develop women's role in peacebuilding and civic society.
The Government will continue to prioritise and resource our shared island agenda for ambitious, practical co-operation, investment and civic engagement, focused on common concerns for the people of this island and building a shared future, underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. I welcome the substantial chapter on the shared island initiative in the national development plan.
Specific commitments are made there for cross-Border and all-Ireland projects, both in the area of infrastructural development and the delivery of services.
The NDP also references the fact that the economy of the central Border area is predominantly driven by small and medium enterprises. The last time we discussed the shared island unit during Taoiseach's Questions, I mentioned the needs of the central Border area, including Cavan, Monaghan, Fermanagh and Tyrone. There needs to be a particular focus to ensure we get a fair drawdown from the shared island fund. Those counties, both North and South, face particular challenges due to Brexit that are well documented in research and they also face challenges due to the pandemic that we have not seen the downside of yet. I am anxious that particular projects in the central Border area would be given priority and I am glad the NDP mentions the Cuilcagh lakelands UNESCO global geopark and the potential to develop such projects. Along with county councillors, I discussed the need to expand that particular park on the Cavan and Fermanagh border with the Taoiseach. It is that type of initiative that is essential if we are to grow the economy of the central Border area.
I thank the Taoiseach for that detailed update and I wholeheartedly agree with the comments made by Deputy Brendan Smith, particularly on the central Border region as he knows I have ties to the area as well. I would like to ask supplementary questions on two areas. The Taoiseach mentioned the shared island economic recovery dialogue. There is a great opportunity for the State to lead here based on the generous proposals of the European Commission last week on the Northern Irish protocol and the withdrawal agreement and to harness the true potential of the shared economic opportunities available to the entire island. That is crucially important. More practically, there is a political role to be played here due to the abdication of responsibility by certain parties in Northern Ireland towards the North-South Ministerial Council. This is somewhere that the shared island unit of the Department of the Taoiseach and the shared island initiative can play a particular role in harnessing the collective will for greater all-Ireland co-operation, particularly in the economic sphere.
I want to raise the issue of workers and trade union rights, North and South. In the South we are governed by the Industrial Relations Act 1990, which banned political strikes, solidarity actions, solidarity strikes and secondary picketing, and which restricted workers' rights to organise. In the North, workers and trade unionists face Thatcher era legislation with similar effect. The power to change these laws has been devolved to Stormont for more than 20 years but none of the parties in the Executive has attempted to change them. This is why People Before Profit MLA, Gerry Carroll, has introduced the trade union freedom Bill, which would scrap those restrictions and give power back to workers to organise. It would allow workers to take solidarity action, make it simpler for workers to take industrial action and give workers greater rights to organise in trade unions. It is mirrored by the similar Bill that People Before Profit has introduced on First Stage in the Dáil, the Trade Union Recognition Bill. That is the kind of shared island we need to see.
Like my colleague, Deputy Richmond, I would like to mention the wonderful opportunity the people of Northern Ireland have in the offer the European Union has made on the protocol. That has been welcomed in Northern Ireland and I hope it will be adopted in due course. My question on the shared island unit is on whether or not its continued operation will be damaged in any way by the lack of participation by certain parties in Northern Ireland in its stated goals. I ask the Taoiseach to make a comment on that.
Along with my colleagues, I want to congratulate the Taoiseach on the initiatives taken. Having regard to his discussions with the various leaders, community groups and academics in Northern Ireland, is it accepted that the potential for the concept is greater than was first anticipated? Can the Taoiseach see a situation where this particular initiative can take the place of encouraging others to come together in common cause for the economic and social benefit of this island, North and South?
Can the Taoiseach give his view on whether the shared island unit can play a part in addressing domestic and gender-based violence on a cross-Border basis? The establishment of the all-Ireland women's forum is welcome, as is the diversity of its membership. The shared island unit could play a role in addressing what was described by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, as the scourge of domestic and gender-based violence, which is a particular issue for Border counties. There are purpose-built refuges for victims of domestic violence in Cavan or Monaghan, for example. Last week, the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, conceded that he does not know if a refuge will be established next year in either county. Without a budget provision, we can be sure that it will not be delivered. Recognising that there are issues peculiar to counties on either side of the Border and that the shared island could create the space in which these issues could be addressed on a cross-Border basis, I would like to ask the Taoiseach whether he is open to such consideration.
I thank all the Deputies for their questions. The first question from Deputy Brendan Smith was on the central Border area and the need for the shared island fund to focus on that area. The Deputy has spoken to me about the geopark and I have asked my officials to investigate that and to engage with him. We are open to projects in the area of climate change and biodiversity and this project would add value to the dialogue series we have already had on those issues. It is in the arena of initiatives that have been undertaken by the unit, working with local interests in Cavan and Fermanagh and across that central Border area that the Deputy so consistently raises.
Deputy Richmond raised the economic recovery dialogue and the protocol. We have identified a potential partnership between Derry and Letterkenny in respect of city deals and enterprise parks on both sides of the Border that would be joined and that would have a common governance oversight which could create jobs and facilitate economic development in that area. The North West Strategic Growth Partnership is strong and it acts irrespective of politics across all divides and I met the group. Both county councils are on it and they are focused on an economic agenda in the north west. We are anxious to support them in any way we possibly can and one of those areas is the common enterprise park in that locality.
I refer to the protocol, and Deputy Alan Farrell also raised the lack of participation between the North and the South. The shared island unit is without prejudice to people's constitutional positions and, therefore, it has received a broad welcome. Some parties are cautious in their engagement but there is no such caution in civil society and those in business and industry are also engaging.
On industrial relations, the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, had a plenary meeting on 5 July. That is the forum for Government to engage with representatives from employers and trade unions. It has developed a work stream to look at shared island issues, labour market dynamics and deepening understanding of all-island labour market issues. These issues include: opportunities and impediments for firms; issues facing frontier workers such as remote work and related issues; further and higher education; training and skills; and so on. There is a healthy workers' agenda in place there.
On Deputy Durkan's point, I see huge potential. I met representatives of Queen's University Belfast last Friday week, which was interesting. It has an all-island tissue bank as well as the all-island cancer consortium and a whole range of research that has an all-island relevance. That means the more than €40 million funding we have allocated has an all-island benefit. It will knit together academics and researchers on the entire island, irrespective of geography, with a common pursuit to develop science for the benefit of all.
In terms of domestic and gender-based violence, which Deputy Carthy referenced, we have had some outcomes through the dialogue series. One of the existing projects that has emerged from the dialogue on women is the newly established all-island women's forum. That is bringing together women leaders from across the island to address under-representation and further develop women's role in peace building and civic society. I would like to think that there is an opportunity in this to look at the domestic and gender-based violence issue as well and come forward with proposals around it.