Wednesday, 17 November 2021
Ceisteanna - Questions
I launched the shared island dialogue series to foster inclusive, constructive civic dialogue on key issues for a shared future on the island underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement. Over the past year, there have been seven dialogue events and two round-table discussions. I participated in the first dialogue event last November, hearing from young people on their perspectives for the future of the island. Subsequent dialogues have focused on climate and environment, civil society, equality, economic recovery, health co-operation and education, with participation by Ministers.
More than 1,000 civic representatives have participated in the dialogue series from across all regions, communities and traditions on the island. The dialogue series has proved really worthwhile and valuable from the Government's perspective and from feedback received from participants. Exciting projects are also emerging from these discussions, such as the All-Island Women's Forum that has been established by the National Women's Council.
I will be participating in a shared island event in December that will look at progress with our shared island initiative to date and further implementation next year. As part of the approach, the shared island dialogue series will continue next year, with early discussions to focus on tourism and sport. The shared island unit in my Department is also considering how a next phase of dialogue is undertaken, including, I hope, being in a position to convene more in-person discussions next year.
If we are to overcome sectarian divisions and partition on this island, we need to provide a vision for an alternative Ireland - I would argue an eco-socialist Ireland - that protects all minorities and delivers real changes and improvements for people's lives. The issue of abortion rights for women in the North is crucial. It is shameful that women and pregnant people in the North are being left behind those in the South and in Britain. They are still being denied the right to choose. It is particularly disappointing that Sinn Féin, which has adopted a pro-choice position in the South, is helping to continue the anti-choice status quoin the North. It recently abstained on a poor and shameful anti-choice Bill from the DUP. There should be no abstaining on the right to choose. That is why People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll has long been a strong advocate for choice and, therefore, voted against this terrible Bill. One cannot have a partitionist approach to women's rights - saying one thing in Dublin and another in Belfast.
On what has just been said, Sinn Féin has an all-Ireland approach, as it has in relation to everything else and that includes women's rights. I welcome the shared island unit. I wish it would go further in certain fields, as I have said before. There are only benefits to be had in relation to a dialogue and engagement with all. That is why I have previously asked for a citizens' assembly. I am not looking for an over-and-back in relation to that. That is my view and I imagine the Taoiseach's view has not changed in the last fortnight on that. Those who will be offended will be offended by this or by any of the conversations taking place at this time on unity. We need to grasp that issue and plan for what is becoming, in an awful lot of people's eyes, a reality coming down the road. That is the situation as it is. It has been entwined with the politics of the British Government on Brexit and the protocol. Border Communities Against Brexit is looking to carry out a number of protests close to my part of the world. There will be a protest in Flurrybridge, Carrickcarnan, at 3 o'clock on Saturday, 20 November. This is about protecting the protocol and ensuring there is no return to a hard border. That is absolutely necessary.
On Narrow Water Bridge, are we still looking at in or around 2023 as the time to begin building? Is there a timeline for delivery and ensuring we have the finances for what is an absolutely necessary piece of infrastructure?
Beyond that, on the shared island unit, a significant amount of money and resources have gone into planning and modelling, involving the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, and engagement with universities. Will the Taoiseach give us some information about what that resource will provide us in relation to how we can shape a new united Ireland, and within that, to approach necessary changes - North and South - in framing a new and better Ireland?
I welcome the shared island dialogue and appreciate the report given by the Taoiseach. As we know, Northern Ireland's society is becoming increasingly more diverse. An increasing number of people identify themselves as neither nationalist nor unionist. An increasing number of people do not classify themselves as Irish, British or Northern Irish. There is a new diversity there. I welcome the dialogue in this regard. Is the Taoiseach satisfied that the voices of young people, who bring a new perspective to old challenges and intractable problems, are being heard in this dialogue? Is the Taoiseach satisfied that unionist participation in these dialogues is happening and that unionists are making a constructive contribution to the discussion?
I thank the Deputies for raising these questions. I take the point made by Deputy Paul Murphy. I would like to think that the National Women's Council has formed an all-island women's forum that could become a good forum and channel for discussion and debate of the issues identified by the Deputy. I cannot comment on Sinn Féin having a dual approach. It is not new.
Sinn Féin could have ended it a long time ago with Covid certificates, but it chose not to. Sinn Féin might have changed that last night after a long period. The point has been well made by Deputy Paul Murphy.
I refer to Deputy Ó Murchú's point on the citizens' assembly. I have said that 1,000 people have already met in the shared dialogue, covering subjects from biodiversity and climate change to women's rights and women's issues. Young people have met. Enterprise has met. That does not happen in a citizens' assembly. It is a different model and a different idea, and I think it is valid. The long journey of reconciliation and developing shared perspectives, which has to be between communities and traditions on a consistent basis, cannot be done by creating an assembly that runs for a number of weeks and gives an outcome. That does not actually-----
That is why we need to be careful about presenting it as a cause célèbreand suggesting that it is the most important thing, because it is not. The most important thing is to get people engaged with each other. I have experience from many years as a public representative and I have learned a lot throughout that journey. I do not go into the sloganeering anymore. When I was younger, we used to have slogans too but they did not advance anyone too far. We should use the Good Friday Agreement. I regret that Sinn Féin took a decision years ago that resulted in us not having an assembly for three years. It was crazy. We should utilise the Good Friday Agreement institutions to the full. Within the Good Friday Agreement, the constitutional position is provided for in terms of how that advances. Before we get there, a lot of work has to be done and a lot of engagement is required.
Deputy Haughey raised issues in terms of the shared island dialogue. Civic unionism has to participate. Political unionism is actually not against it. While it is not participating up front, it appreciates the investment that is coming with the shared island initiative.
I am intrigued by what Deputy Ó Murchú said about Narrow Water Bridge. You guys lost that opportunity years ago, as did a previous Government. I am determined to get it over the line through the local authority. In the documentation we have provided, there is €3 million for tendering and all that. I want progress to be made and co-operation the whole way. One single agenda is to get that over the line.
On the ESRI and National Economic and Social Council, NESC, reports, the research programme with the ESRI is focusing on aspects of health, education, enterprise and an all-island economy post Brexit, which NESC has worked on. Scoping papers for each research topic were published on 17 May. Final reports will be published in December and early 2022. They will be important reports. Specifically, in 2021, the ESRI worked on building understanding of the structure and composition of cross-Border trade and services, so we will get a better understanding of that on the island of Ireland; examining the primary healthcare system of Ireland and Northern Ireland and drawing out implications for policy; examining patterns of educational participation and attainment in the two jurisdictions; and assessing what lessons can be learned for the future.
I have an issue around school completions. In the North, school completion rates in certain communities could be much better than they are. That is a factor. We are in a stronger position, but maybe lessons can be learned both ways. The ESRI is looking at issues that could enhance the attractiveness of the island as a whole to high-value foreign direct investment. I do not have enough time to go through everything, but NESC is covering a whole range of areas, as I have identified. On 28 October, NESC published a shared island report on collaborating on climate biodiversity challenges on the island. It has published scoping papers on the economy and regional development, tackling poverty, mental health, social enterprise and climate.
A lot of good solid research work is being done, funded through the shared island initiative. On a much bigger scale, we have provided €40 million for research conducted jointly between third level institutions in the North and the South. We will fund it all but we want equal collaboration between third level institutions in the North and the South on matters of mutual interest to the benefit of the island.
Deputy Haughey raised the issue of young people. It is very important that young people in the Republic get engaged in the debate about the future of the island. We have had a number of engagements and would like more to allow young people in Dublin, Galway, Waterford, Cork, Limerick and elsewhere to engage with young people from Northern Ireland. We are facilitating that.
We also want to facilitate political exchanges between people from different political backgrounds and traditions. Some such engagements would be conducted under the Chatham House rule. I engaged in meetings of this kind back in the early 1990s and they were very valuable. Politicians could feel safe and secure in coming into an environment for a weekend of engagement knowing no one would comment publicly on what was said. To break down barriers, it is important that people cannot be manipulated as a result of something they may say at a meeting. It is important that people can speak frankly about things. We need an awful lot more of that. To its credit, the British-Irish Association has been doing that for more than 30 years. That has been a very valuable instrument. I have been involved in a number of meetings of that kind myself and they have given me a better understanding of where people are coming from. At the end of the day, we are all politicians and we understand the pressures put on us by our constituencies and electoral bases. That is something we need to continue to work at. I would like to see that developed further.
I hope I have covered most of the issues. On the protests in respect of the protocol, we need a negotiated resolution. We need to keep tensions at a certain level. We need to dial it down. When talking to unionist colleagues and other colleagues, I have been at pains to point out that there is a process for negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom Government. I would say to the United Kingdom Government that it is extremely important that this matter does not get elevated to a question of identity or connected with some other area to which it does not really apply. It is about ensuring that goods can travel from Great Britain to Northern Ireland with the minimum of checks. The European Union is up for that.