Wednesday, 18 May 2022
Ceisteanna - Questions
Good Friday Agreement
10. To ask the Taoiseach if he will report on the recently completed ESRI shared island report, A North-South Comparison of Education and Training Systems: Lessons for Policy. [22878/22]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 to 16, inclusive, together.
Through the Government's shared island initiative, we are engaging with all communities and traditions to build consensus around a shared future and to deliver tangible benefits for the whole island, underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement.
The Government wants to see a new power-sharing Executive formed in Northern Ireland as soon as possible to serve the interests of all of the people of Northern Ireland, and to work in partnership with us to deliver beneficial all-island co-operation and investment for the people of this island, which is at the core of our shared island initiative.
The shared island dialogues are also a key part of the Government' s approach. We have brought together more than 1,300 citizens and civic leaders so far, from across all communities, traditions and regions, to discuss how we work for a shared future on this island in practical and meaningful ways.
Nine shared island dialogues have been convened to date, the most recent on tourism and sport at the end February this year. Excitingly, we are now in a position to move to in-person events which I have no doubt will enrich the conversations and connectivity in the dialogues. A key focus for us this year is regional engagement. A dialogue on rural and community development is being convened this week by the Minister, Deputy Heather Humphreys, taking place in Monaghan.
The dialogue series will continue through this year on an in-person and regional basis and will address sectoral issues and wider societal concerns for the entire island. The dialogues are also leading to civil society-led engagement, including the all-island women's forum, and the i-community shared practice hub being rolled out by The Wheel and the Northern Ireland Council for Voluntary Action.
A citizens' assembly on a united Ireland is not planned. The Government's focus now, and our commitment through the shared island initiative, is on working with all communities and political traditions, to take up the significant opportunities of deeper co-operation and connection on the island, and to build consensus on key issues for our shared future, underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement.
In our approach, the Government is taking full account of the political complexity and challenges in Northern Ireland, and is working to listen to and engage with all communities and their concerns. I have participated in a number of events with a shared island focus in recent weeks, which have engaged with more than 800 people, including: meeting with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement; an address to the John and Pat Hume Foundation in Derry; the launch of the comprehensive report to Government by the National Economic and Social Council on Shared Island; Shared Opportunity; and the launch of the latest shared island report by the Economic and Social Research Institute, examining education and training systems and outcomes, North and South, which is the first study to systematically examine education systems and outcomes in the two jurisdictions, from primary through to third level. The research explores a range of issues including educational attainment, educational inequalities in society, skills development and related labour market outcomes, North and South. A key message I take from the report is the rationale and need to step up all-island co-operation on educational underachievement.
The ESRI research adds significantly to the evidence and understanding we have on how our education systems serve students, families and communities on this island, how we could learn from each other North and South on education delivery and reform, and how we can do more together to enhance educational experience and outcomes for all. I believe these need to be central concerns for how we work through the Good Friday Agreement in the time ahead. That is why the Government will seek to work with a new Executive and the UK Government to enhance our co-operation and support on education issues in the time ahead. This is an important part of how we can work together for a more inclusive, prosperous and shared future on this island for all communities.
I congratulate the Taoiseach on his initiatives under this particular heading. This has obviously become difficult in light of the fact that a co-signatory to an international agreement has withdrawn and has decided unilaterally to disregard and tear up the agreement. To what extent is it possible at this stage to inveigle UK authorities of the urgent need to restore an international agreement to what it implies, which is an international agreement?
Roimh fhoilsiú na tuairisce seo ar an gcóras Stáit Thuaidh agus Theas, tá go leor ceachtanna ar féidir linn a fhoghlaim ón gcóras atá acu sa Tuaisceart. We are in a cost-of -living crisis. This summer, and each summer, one of the biggest bills families are faced with is the cost of schoolbooks on return to school. Families are spending hundreds of euro on schoolbooks each year. It is a programme for Government commitment to expand the free schoolbooks scheme. We are now two years into the Government's term and, aside from a small pilot, there is no progress towards free schoolbooks. Free schoolbooks have been available in the North since 1947. We are 75 years behind, and counting. Four generations of children and young people in the North have been given access to education that might not otherwise have been accessed. This is access that our young people have been, and still are, denied. Will the Taoiseach's Government commit to rapidly expanding the free schoolbooks scheme to every school across the country?
I thank the Taoiseach for the update on the shared island dialogue in the wake of the Assembly election. I reiterate the point that I know is shared by so many colleagues, which is our grave concern and alarm about the unilateral action the British Government is proposing to take, or indeed threatening to take, on the protocol. Its cynical attempt to describe it as a measure to protect the Good Friday Agreement will, in our view, damage the institutions.
We are very concerned, as I know all Deputies are, that if the British Foreign Secretary moves ahead with this naked political posturing, then it would be a breach of international law and has the potential to seriously undermine efforts to normalise the post-Brexit trade landscape on our islands. A unilateral action will not help resolve this. I should say that I spoke with the British ambassador this morning and put that view to him. I am glad to hear that formally, the British Government is saying it wants and would prefer a negotiated solution. It wants to see the Executive up and running again. Has the Taoiseach had direct engagement to ensure we reach that negotiation point and condemn utterly the unilateral action?
I welcome the publication by the shared island unit and the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, of the new research areas for 2022. I wish them well on their research.
Separately, yesterday was the 48th anniversary of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. I know the Taoiseach attended a ceremony to commemorate these terrible events on Talbot Street. Will he continue to press the British Government to give access to any documents in existence that would help establish the truth behind these appalling tragedies?
Following on from Deputy Brendan Smith earlier, what is the Taoiseach's view regarding the Northern Ireland Troubles (Legacy and Reconciliation) Bill introduced by the British Government yesterday? As the Taoiseach knows, this is a revised proposal. In my view, this proposal still constitutes a de facto amnesty and is not in accordance with the Stormont House Agreement. Will the Taoiseach be conveying our concerns about this legislation to the British Government as a matter of urgency?
People Before Profit will be facilitating a vote on the national maternity hospital tonight. We think the Government's decision to retain influence by a privately owned religious charity in the national maternity hospital is really an insult to the women of Ireland and to all those who suffered in Magdalen laundries and mother and baby homes. It also shows scant regard for the need to separate church and State as part of trying to achieve a united Ireland. How are we seriously suggesting that a united Ireland is something that will be attractive to people North and South if we do not separate church and State in terms of healthcare for women and healthcare generally and, indeed, education?
The shared island we stand for is a secular and socialist island. An essential point of that is no involvement of the church in terms of healthcare and education. That is a very basic thing yet the Government signed an agreement and lease with St. Vincent's Healthcare Group, where the first line of the constitution literally is about the mission of Mary Aikenhead, who was the founder of the Sisters of Charity, which was responsible for the running of the Magdalen laundries, thereby completely contradicting that idea.
The Taoiseach was very coy earlier in response to Deputy McDonald about how he will vote tonight on a motion that goes exactly against what the Government did. The motion from Sinn Féin, which we support, states that it should be a public maternity hospital on public land and so on. The Government did the opposite of that yesterday. What is the Government position? How will the Taoiseach be voting tonight?
One of the many benefits of the Good Friday Agreement has been the development of the all-Ireland economy. That economy has evolved without any political sloganeering, waving of flags or fanfare. I welcome the research on economic and social opportunities on an all-Ireland basis under the shared island initiative.
The Taoiseach may recall that at the Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, I mentioned that within those studies, there should be a subset with particular reference to the development of enterprise in the central Border area. We need additional enterprise centres and workspace because of the huge cost for start-up businesses and small enterprises in putting appropriate infrastructure and workspace in position. Cavan and Monaghan county councils and local enterprise offices, along with their colleagues north of the Border, are putting together proposals with regard to the need for funding on a cross-Border basis to develop enterprise centres. I hope that can happen because economically, we are the most vulnerable part of the Border region and we need new industrial infrastructure.
Once again, we are dealing with a British Government with Liz Truss and Boris Johnson and unilateral threats to undermine the Irish protocol. Our only hope is that the British Government is engaging in a farce it is not really too hopeful of seeing through, just to keep some of the Conservative Party happy. That is obviously not good enough, however. It gives succour to the DUP, which is in the middle of cul-de-sac politics. We really need to deal with that. What has the Taoiseach's engagement been with the British Government? Beyond that, we need to ensure that the research for the shared island unit is expanded, that we look at the potential for Irish unity, that the shared island dialogue is also expanded and we deal with the constitutional issue. That is the only thing that we need to do.
Deputy Durkan and a number of Deputies raised the issue of the British Government decision yesterday and announcement of an intention to bring in legislation to circumvent and undermine the protocol. That is unacceptable. I made it very clear that unilateral action is not the way to progress issues pertaining to the protocol. We have always accepted that legitimate issues have been raised with regard to the protocol. We have also been very clear, and I was very clear to the British Prime Minister last week, that the European Union has made very progressive and advanced moves in respect of the protocol, particularly last October, which were not reciprocated adequately. I have asked and made the point that the only way to resolve issues pertaining to the protocol is for substantive and professional negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom Government. Those should commence without delay.
In addition, the Assembly should be convened without delay. It is unacceptable in any democratic society that once the people have voted, the parliament for which they voted does not get established. If we think about it, it is just unacceptable that in the immediate aftermath of an election, the people cannot have their parliament convened. That should happen immediately.
In terms of Deputy Ó Laoghaire's comments, again, we have developed our systems here. We have a free book scheme, which has been expanded, and we will continue to work on improving access to it. Our outcomes are stronger. The Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, programme in particular was singled out by the ESRI as particularly important. That was introduced in the early 2000s and has had a huge impact in school retention. The most recent announcement by the Minister, Deputy Foley, again copper-fastens the work that was done by the Governments in the early 2000s in respect of DEIS. The degree to which it has had an impact was clear from the ESRI report.
I dealt with some of Deputy Bacik's comments in terms of the British Government's approach. I will make a general point, and Deputies Haughey and Brendan Smith also raised this, that the whole basis of the Good Friday Agreement and peace process was on both Governments working together, underpinned with working with all the political parties in the North. The current British Government has digressed from that in spirit it seems to me. That is manifest in the legacy proposals and it is manifest now in terms of the protocol. Brexit created a context; the protocol was designed to try to deal with the unique situation with Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement. Issues were raised that can be resolved; I have no doubt about that. Those issue can be resolved but there needs to be a proper engagement with the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement, which involves both Governments working lock stock together with the political parties to achieve progress into the future.
In terms of my attendance yesterday at the commemoration of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings and Justice for the Forgotten, I pay tribute to them. We are continuing to seek access to all documents from the British Government and doing anything we can here in terms of facilitating the Operation Denton report and the work of Jon Boutcher in that regard. I have equally already articulated my concerns in terms of legacy. Again, that unilateral approach is not acceptable. I have met the victims groups and they should be uppermost in our consideration. I do not believe there should be any amnesty for anybody who committed murder in Northern Ireland or for anyone who was involved in any atrocity. All parties to atrocities should be accountable and if prosecutions can take place, they should.
Deputies Boyd Barrett and Paul Murphy raised the issue of the maternity hospital and brought that up in the context of a shared island.
There is no church involvement in the new national maternity hospital. The church has divested itself from St. Vincent’s Holdings CLG, so there is no church involvement. It will be a secular hospital and all lawfully permitted services available in the State will be provided in this hospital into the future. There is full public ownership through the 300-year lease, which is not conditional, a term Deputy Bacik used earlier. The only condition on the lease is that we build a maternity hospital and maintain it-----
We are where we are in terms of ownership, voluntary hospitals and so on, which is historical. The idea was to co-locate a maternity hospital with a neonatal centre of excellence, adjacent to a tertiary hospital. That is what gave rise to Holles Street teaming up with St. Vincent’s hospital into the future.
We are looking forward to, I hope, working with city deals and regional enterprise parks in the north west, between Derry and Donegal, to be funded through the shared island initiative. The all-island economy has done very well and is doing quite well under the protocol. The protocol has proved to be advantageous for Northern Ireland and we are very anxious to maintain that economic development in the North.