Dáil debates

Wednesday, 14 February 2024

Recent Developments in Northern Ireland: Statements


2:25 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Tapóidh mé an deis seo chun cúrsaí Thuaisceart na hÉireann a phlé. Cuirim fáilte roimh filleadh na n-institiúidí agus guím gach rath ar gach éinne a bheidh páirteach iontu sna blianta amach romhainn.

Two weeks ago, on 1 February, we celebrated St. Brigid's Day, long recognised in Ireland as signalling the beginning of spring. As the poet Raftery wrote, describing the change of the seasons:

Anois teacht an earraigh

beidh an lá ag dul chun síneadh,

Is tar éis na féil Bríde

ardóidh mé mo sheol.

"After St. Brigid's Day, I will set my course." On 3 February, Northern Ireland set a fresh course. Those who were elected in May 2022 took their seats in the Northern Ireland Assembly and the mandate given by that election was finally respected. I offer my congratulations to Michelle O'Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly and their families as they take up the roles as First Minister and Deputy First Minister, to Edwin Poots on assuming his role as Speaker and to all the other members of the executive. The immediate task of the new executive is to set out the policies and priorities that can drive Northern Ireland forward. I look forward to working with them all in what will be rewarding and challenging roles. I also wish Matthew O'Toole well, in his role as leader of the opposition in the assembly.

The return of Northern Ireland's political institutions, and by extension, the return to full operation of the North South Ministerial Council, was a necessary and overdue step forward. People from across politics and civil society, from all communities, from across these islands and from much further afield have rightly celebrated the restoration of the assembly and executive. However, it is a matter of regret that it took so long to get here. Opportunities have been missed and relationships must now be repaired.

The absence of functioning political institutions has had real effects on people's lives. In my visits to Northern Ireland over the past two years, I have heard directly the frustration at the lack of local ministers in office as people deal with multiple crises, including education and health systems operating under enormous pressures, cost-of-living challenges and public pay disputes. These are important issues requiring difficult and delicate choices, best made by local leadership who understand the trade-offs required.

Leadership will be required within and without the executive to address the risk of a growing disillusionment with politics that has emerged with the various suspensions of government in Northern Ireland, most recently since the May 2022 elections. While perhaps understandable, it is corrosive and counterproductive. All elected representatives have a duty to and vested interest in working to counter it. I am heartened by the conversations I have had with MLAs from all political backgrounds who are eager to serve their constituents, inject momentum into civic life and rebuild a sense of hope in the future.

I welcome that MLAs who were elected for the first time in 2022 will get the opportunity to do what all of us here do, namely, represent their constituents, raise their concerns in their assembly and advocate for their local communities. The vast majority of those elected recognise the need for functioning politics to find long-term sustainable solutions that can deliver a Northern Ireland that works. They understand the need for a devolved government that is prepared and ready to adapt and change to meet the many and complex challenges of the coming decades. I believe they also recognise that stop-start government has held Northern Ireland back.

A question being asked frequently and with increasing urgency is what work is required to ensure the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement are on the most sustainable possible footing. Some parties have presented detailed visions for the reform needed. Others reason that a much more restrained approach is required. Few would argue that the institutions have operated as effectively as we might have hoped. Clearly, respect for the fundamental protections and balances achieved in the Good Friday Agreement must be at the heart of conversations going forward. Equally clearly, structural change is needed. The people of Northern Ireland should not be expected to tolerate further cycles of instability and suspension of the institutions. As a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the Government has a duty to protect the delicate balance of the agreement but it also has a duty to ensure that the institutions operate as effectively as possible.

I have said consistently that there must be room for the Northern Ireland parties and the British and Irish Governments to look together at the institutions to ensure they work for the Northern Ireland of today. The agreement itself provides for this. It is my view that the realities of today are not those of 1998 and that there is scope to consider some reform. I acknowledge this is a complex and sensitive matter, with different opinions around the table, but we simply need to find a way to end the cycle of instability, suspension and political torpor. Strong partnership between parties in Northern Ireland, and the Irish and British Governments, with respect for the fundamental principles of parity of esteem and rigorous impartiality, will be as crucial to any future arrangements as it has been to the crafting and operation of today's institutions across all the strands of the agreement.

The consolidation of peace and reconciliation in Northern Ireland remains an ongoing journey and this restoration of the Executive represents another important milestone on that journey. I do not underestimate the work it took to get here. I acknowledge the leadership shown by Jeffrey Donaldson in bringing his party back to the devolved institutions, and the forbearance shown by other political parties in allowing time and space, even as public services came under enormous pressure. The Government also exercised patience during this period, as the DUP negotiated directly with the British Government to come to an agreement which would allow it to return to the Executive.

The path that brought us here raises potentially troubling issues. I have listened carefully to the criticism from Northern Ireland's party leaders of their exclusion from discussions between the DUP and the British Government, including on issues that affect all communities. I empathise with them because when politics in Northern Ireland has worked, it has been based on an inclusive approach involving all parties and the two Governments as guarantors working in partnership. Anything else risks introducing a seed of future instability. Excluding those with a legitimate interest narrows the perspectives that shape the solutions with which we all have to live. This increases the risk of unintended consequences and of setting poorly thought-through precedents.

As guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, the two Governments committed to the principle of parity of esteem not just as something that should be at the heart of politics within Northern Ireland but that should be at the heart of how we, as Governments, engage with the people and parties of Northern Ireland. We committed to the principle of consent, which respects the right of everyone to pursue the constitutional future of their choosing through democratic and peaceful means, and in the agreement, we also committed the sovereign power to "rigorous impartiality" founded on rights. The agreement's principles are woven together in a delicate balance, and they strengthen and reinforce one another. As co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, the British and Irish Governments have a solemn duty to uphold these principles and to act in accordance with them.

We remain attached to these principles, which are essential to the vital and painstaking work of reconciliation. There is much work yet to be done to fulfil the agreement's vision but it is clear that the only way to achieve this is by respecting and upholding its values. Co-operation, east-west and North-South, is essential to achieving this and essential to maximising the opportunities facing this island. With this in mind, I am very much looking forward to the North-South Ministerial Council returning after more than two years in abeyance. The revival of regular NSMC meetings means that this Government and the Executive will be able to continue to have the important conversations necessary to address shared challenges and to grasp opportunities. We want to engage constructively with our new colleagues and to assist and work together in areas where North-South co-operation makes a positive difference.

The peace process has been transformative for the all-island economy and the significant growth in trade represents a major dividend of the peace process. In 2022, total cross-Border trade in goods and services was worth an estimated €11.6 billion, which is an almost threefold increase since 1998. The benefits of North-South trade permeate all parts of the all-island economy but it is of particular significance to the SME sector. For many SMEs, North-South trade provides a valuable opportunity to take their first steps into new markets. The cohesive all-island economy serves as an essential incubator for innovation, taking home-grown SMEs and supporting their development into global exporters. The agrifood sector is a major driver of the all-island economy, with the meat and dairy industries especially involved in cross-Border processing and supply chains. Dairy industry products, which have an export value of over €6.5 billion, move North and South several times during processing. The meat industry is similarly integrated. In the drinks industry, Irish whiskey is a protected geographical indication worth over €1 billion to the all-island economy. Our success in these areas and others should push us to do much more together and to fully realise our shared island's economic potential. That is partly why the frictionless flow of trade on this island was so important throughout the process of Brexit, because it is of real value to people and communities on both sides of the Border.

This North-South, east-west flow is preserved through the Windsor Framework, which recognises Northern Ireland's place in the UK internal market, as well as giving Northern Ireland unique access to the EU Single Market. This represents a real economic opportunity for Northern Ireland. I was glad to see that Foreign Secretary Cameron and European Commission Executive Vice-President Šefčovič recently spoke and reiterated their shared commitment to the full implementation of the Windsor Framework. The European Union has warmly welcomed the restoration of political institutions in the North and outlined their importance in bringing long-term stability. It has also been very effective in terms of the PEACE fund, along with the work that Maroš Šefčovič, in particular, did in informing and sensitising himself to the realities on the ground in Northern Ireland, and the issues around the practicalities concerning trade, business and certain industrial sectors. I know the European Commission will continue to engage closely with the United Kingdom Government through the channels established by the Windsor Framework. I welcome that the members of the Northern Ireland Executive will be able to participate in those channels now too.

It remains critical that the framework is implemented fully and in good faith so that we can protect and bolster cross-Border trade links to the benefit of all parts of this, our shared island, and help Northern Ireland take full advantage of the extraordinary opportunity it now has. What is important also is that the mechanisms that have been provided for within the Windsor Framework are utilised constructively and effectively. It is often an under-commented aspect and dimension of the Windsor Framework that there are significant joint committees and mechanisms through which any issues that arise can get resolved. There needs to be a commitment to utilise those mechanisms effectively.

In terms of the opportunities that are available, a visible sign was the recent visit of Joe Kennedy III, the US Special Envoy to Northern Ireland, just as the institutions were re-forming. I was pleased to host him in Dublin during his visit. He is very confident that Northern Ireland's unparalleled market access, supported by the Windsor Framework, is a distinct attraction for international investors. While Joe Kennedy is the special envoy, all in this House know the level of interest in Northern Ireland that permeates politics at all levels in the United States. I was in Washington D.C. last week and I am confident that the interest is as strong as ever. Our friends on both sides of the aisle want Northern Ireland to do well, they want the island of Ireland to do well and, as so often in the past, they stand ready to help. One of the main purposes of my visit was to brief members of the House and Senators in respect of the breakthrough and the restoration of the institutions. They warmly welcomed the restoration of the institutions. They have retained a keen interest in the issues and are looking forward to the St. Patrick's Day week in Washington, when we can have further discussions on these issues.

When we work together, this island has so much potential.

This is why, through the shared island initiative I established as Taoiseach, we are strengthening cross-Border infrastructure and investing in innovation, research and skills. As a Government, we are putting significant resources into the shared island initiative, with €1 billion up to the end of this decade. We are supporting projects, large and small, which are focused on bringing people together, and investing in infrastructure, dialogue and innovation to better position this island for the years to come.

As we look to our future, we can usefully draw from past experiences. We know from our history that education plays a powerful role in driving economic and social progress that is sustainable and inclusive. That is part of the reason the shared island initiative will support ambitious new higher education provision in the north west through shared island funding of €44.5 million for construction of a new teaching building at Ulster University's campus in Derry. This was a breakthrough investment for the north west and in terms of the extra capacity it will give. We welcome the strong relationship that has developed between Ulster University and the new Atlantic Technological University, which has enormous potential for the north west of this island.

In particular, the ESRI, as part of the shared island research strand, commissioned important research in respect of school completion in the North and in the Republic. The findings were insightful and stark, in that school completion was much higher in the Republic. Part of the reason for that was the DEIS programme, which has been in place for several years. The lesson there is it is a long-term project. We have been working with the Department in Northern Ireland and we can learn from each another in respect of school completion. It has always been my view that one of the great lost opportunities of the Good Friday Agreement was the absence of doing something concrete on school completion, particularly among marginalised communities and where there is a tradition or pattern of people not completing second-level school and not progressing to third level. For the future, we need to deal with that and support any new models that emerge that can help in school completion and progression to third level.

My Department, the Department of Foreign Affairs, is administering the shared island civic society fund to support cross-Border civic society partners to work more effectively with one another on issues of common interest. I was extremely encouraged by the level of interest we received in the shared island civic society fund this year. It is a clear expression that people and communities want to do more together to make this island an even better place. We are supporting civic society organisations that work on an all-island basis and creating space for dialogue and connections to develop. One of the more interesting developments was matching and partnering local authorities in the Republic with local authorities in the North. Through the shared island initiative we provided seed capital and seed funding to enable them to develop projects with common purpose to provide common solutions that could then be the pipeline for more substantial funding as they became viable as projects following an initial research phase.

On the dialogue strand, the shared island dialogue series has exceeded all expectations and is driving all-island engagement in a diverse range of sectors. It is my strong belief that our shared island initiative and the philosophy and commitment underpinning it can play a meaningful role in advancing reconciliation on this island.

I wish to update the House on the question of legacy, which I know is a topic many Members present have been following closely. Since I last addressed the House on Northern Ireland, the Government took the decision to initiate an inter-state case against the United Kingdom Government at the European Court of Human Rights in respect of the United Kingdom's new legacy Act. I have been forthright and consistent in expressing fundamental concerns about this legislation's impact on victims and its incompatibility with the European Convention on Human Rights since it was first introduced. I know these concerns are shared in this Chamber. The legal advice we received was categoric in respect of the view that it was not compatible. Obviously, I regret that this is the space in which we find ourselves. It is a situation that we did our best to avoid. However, the Act pushed through by the British Government in the face of almost universal opposition fails to address the most fundamental concerns. The British Government shut down the political avenue - it refused to pause the legislation's progress - and left us only with the legal path. We owed it to the Good Friday Agreement itself because human rights are an integral part of that agreement and compliance with the European Convention on Human Rights was an important and integral part of the agreement. At the time of the agreement, human rights and equality were fundamental and we believed we would be walking away from the agreement if we did not take this case. Although there has been extensive public commentary on the decision to initiate a case, further discussion belongs properly in the European Court of Human Rights. It is for the court now to decide on the question of compliance with the convention.

In the meantime, there are many other important issues on which we will continue to work closely with the British Government. Our relationship is too broad, deep and important ever to be defined by a single issue. We have a duty of partnership in respect of our role as guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement to see it operate as effectively as possible across all of its strands.

The course of the seventh Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive will include challenges and opportunities as its leaders, supported in every way possible by this Government, work together to make a meaningful difference for the people they represent, and move us closer to the future the Good Friday Agreement imagined.

Today, on the feast of St. Valentine, we should remember that the Good Friday Agreement has many admirers around the world who look to Northern Ireland as an example of a society that has successfully moved past violent conflict. Much like true love, which we celebrate today, the path to a successful and prosperous post-conflict society is not one that always runs smoothly. Patience, tenacity, goodwill, compromise, empathy and hope for the future are necessary ingredients, and, I hope, are no longer in such short supply. I look forward to hearing Deputies' perspectives on recent events.

2:45 pm

Photo of Mary Lou McDonaldMary Lou McDonald (Dublin Central, Sinn Fein)
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There are moments in life and politics where you can feel the significance as the moment unfolds, where the political landscape is fundamentally altered and you sense that all is changed, and changed utterly. The restoration of the political institutions in the North last Saturday week was such a moment. The re-establishment of the Executive and Assembly after nearly two years is an immensely positive development for workers, families, communities, the economy, the North and, indeed, for Ireland as a whole. It is a most welcome moment of progress to be celebrated. I wish all the new ministers of the Executive from all parties the very best as they now work together to deliver good government for everyone. I especially express my good wishes to my Sinn Féin Party colleagues and friends: First Minister, Michelle O'Neill; finance minister, Caoimhe Archibald; economy minister, Conor Murphy, infrastructure minister, John O'Dowd; and Aisling Reilly, who has taken up an important junior Ministry in the Office of the First Minister and Deputy First Minister.

The election of Michelle O'Neill as First Minister is truly historic. For the first time ever, a nationalist leads government in the North, in a state that was designed and operated to ensure this could never happen. It is a genuine moment of transformation and it is emblematic of the seismic generational change that is happening across Ireland. A century after the foundation of a state designed to keep people down, designed to divide, we now emerge into the light of the possibility of tomorrow. Michelle O'Neill will be a First Minister for all. She will lead an Executive for all with the goal of advancing the politics of inclusivity, progress, partnership and equality. The days of second-class citizenship are over for everyone and they are not coming back.

I mean everyone, regardless of background, religion or tradition, each with an equal stake in the future. No distinctions, no qualifications and no exceptions, no ifs or buts - everyone equal, full stop. Twenty six years after the Good Friday Agreement brought a terrible conflict to an end, delivered peace and changed the future for a generation, today's political leaders have the incredible chance to ensure that the young people of today have the opportunity and the prosperous future they deserve.

The first responsibility of the new Executive is to make life better for everyone, for workers, families and communities. The Executive faces many serious challenges, including tackling the crisis in the health service, shielding households from soaring living costs and delivering fair pay for public sector workers, those who admirably work in services that have been left on their knees and who should not have to protest on picket lines for decent pay. Overcoming these challenges will require real partnership, co-operation and a real commitment to politics that works. Tory austerity has ravaged the North of Ireland and has done real damage to society and to people's potential and aspirations. This is recognised by both the Executive and the newly-formed Opposition. To say that the North is not correctly funded is a tragic understatement, unfortunately. The Tories in London care little for the people of the North, whether they be nationalist, unionist or neither. They never have and never will and austerity is the sharpest expression of that truth.

A collective effort is needed to ensure that the British Government does not get away with short changing this generation. There is an exciting alternative to Tory austerity, an opportunity to drive real economic change, attract game-changing investment and create well-paid jobs. The North enjoys the advantage of access to the Single Market and the all-island economy. There is no limit to the potential of our all-island economy. It provides an immense opportunity to take Ireland to the next level and we agree with the Government that this is something we must seize with both hands. Of course, the Irish Government has a central role to play, not alone as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement but also in driving North-South co-operation and collaboration in building the all-island economy and delivering the much-needed funding for key infrastructure such as the A5, Casement Park and other strategic projects. We look forward to the re-engagement of the North-South ministerial bodies to advance this positive, uplifting vision.

As we work in partnership to build a better future for all, republicans continue to work for the reunification of Ireland, just as those who cherish the union will continue to argue for its preservation. Ireland is changing and we are called upon to help shape that future together. I believe that Ireland's most promising future is found in reunification. The Government must prepare and plan for constitutional change and for unity referendums in this decade. Such referendums are provided for under the Good Friday Agreement and that will not change, regardless of the belligerence of the Tory Government in London. The unity conversation belongs to unionists as much as it belongs to republicans. A new Ireland must be home to all, a home where everyone's identity, heritage, tradition and culture matters. Let us pursue and debate our political aspirations openly, honestly and in the spirit of goodwill, friendship and generosity. With the restoration of the political institutions, we hold in our hands a golden chance to match the hopes of a generation. We are striving for something better, to meet the challenges of today and realise the promise of tomorrow. Our job now is to reach beyond expectations, not to remain hemmed in by the past but to reach hopefully for a future that is ambitious for progress for workers and families and ambitious to unlock the limitless potential of our all-island economy and the incredible talent and potential of our young people. This is a time to embrace change and progress and above all, to embrace partnership and good government for all.

2:55 pm

Photo of Matt CarthyMatt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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Do not let anyone ever again tell us that change is not possible because sometimes it happens right in front of our eyes. Saturday of last week was one of those days when change, once unimaginable, came dropping slow and then, all at once. For a Sinn Féin representative, a Northern republican and nationalist, and a proud Irish woman from rural County Tyrone to become First Minister in a state that was designed to oppress everything she stood for was quite simply considered fantasy by previous generations but it happened. When Michelle O'Neill stood up in the Assembly Chamber to promise that she would be First Minister for all, she was doing what many others said was impossible, not just a century or a decade ago, not just before the historic Assembly election results but even a fortnight ago.

There is a lesson in all of this, that we must never give up on change. We must never let those who seek to frustrate, deny or delay change tell us that it cannot be done. There is a lesson for those of us who want change in this State because, of course, there are those who will say that it has always been Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael, or Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, and therefore it will always be that way. There will be, and there are, those who say the housing crisis cannot be fixed or that our health services will always be in crisis. There will even be those who will try to convince that it makes no difference if there is a new government, that things will stay the same but those people are wrong. There can be change. In fact, change is happening and Sinn Féin is leading that change. Just like there were powerful voices who sought to frustrate Michelle O'Neill and the Sinn Féin team in the Assembly and prevent them from fulfilling their mandate, so too are there very powerful forces that will do everything to stop a government of change in this State. What happened in the North in the last few weeks has shown that when people demand change, when they work together to deliver it, it comes, first dropping slow and then, all at once. The message is clear - never, ever give up on change.

I got involved in politics because I want to help to deliver a united Ireland. I believe passionately that a united Ireland can be a better and fairer Ireland, that every person, family and community can be better served by a unitary Irish State without outside interference. That is an entirely legitimate aspiration and objective and the route to achieving it is set out in the Good Friday Agreement. Others have a diametrically opposing position and that is also legitimate. They are entitled to express that position as forcefully as they see fit but it is not legitimate to deny anyone the right to advocate for their constitutional ambition. Likewise, it is not legitimate for parties in this House who say that they agree that a united Ireland would be a better Ireland but then refuse to support any initiative to actually advance it. The establishment of a Northern Executive under the leadership of a Sinn Féin First Minister is just the latest development that points to change happening, that points to Irish unity. It reinforces what was already evident and those who refuse to plan, debate and engage are being as reckless as those Brexiteers who said they had an ambition but no plan to actually achieve it. Sometimes change cannot be stopped. It can occur in a planned or an unplanned way but to maximise the benefits of Irish unity for everybody who shares this island, Sinn Féin wants it to be a planned process, involving all of us working together.

There is no contradiction in anything I have just said with Sinn Féin's absolute commitment to work with all parties in the Executive and Assembly to deliver for every community across the North. I welcome the fact that this week the Assembly supported Sinn Féin's motions to make affordable and accessible childcare a key priority in the lifetime of this Assembly and to protect Lough Neagh, among other issues. Sinn Féin is absolutely determined to work with all parties in the North to ensure that the citizens of the North are served and that the absolutely despicable under-funding of public services by successive British Governments is addressed.

I welcome the fact that Sinn Féin has key ministerial portfolios in terms of finance, the economy, and infrastructure. They will be at the centre of driving the economic changes so desperately needed and in maximising the access to markets to deliver on the all-Ireland economy and to advance regional development and job creation. I know that because I come from a community that will benefit from all of those initiatives. I come from a Border community that has suffered as a result of Partition just as much as people in the counties across the Border. That is why I welcome the announcement that I am told is imminent on the developments in terms of the A5 road project. This is a crucially important infrastructural development. It is important at particular stretches to protect the people who have to drive on that route. Overall, this road can become a key economic driver for a region that has been neglected for far too long.

I must say to the Tánaiste when he is here that it is absolutely imperative that the Irish Government funds the A5 because communities in Donegal, Monaghan, and across this State will benefit.

3:05 pm

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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No one has done more than this Government in terms of funding North-South infrastructure.

Photo of Matt CarthyMatt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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If the Tánaiste will allow me to finish-----

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Carthy could acknowledge that at least.

Photo of Matt CarthyMatt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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If the Tánaiste would allow me to finish-----

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Carthy addressed me. I am sorry. I apologise, a Cheann Comhairle.

Photo of Matt CarthyMatt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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I did address the Tánaiste, and I was going to finish my comment.

Photo of Micheál MartinMicheál Martin (Cork South Central, Fianna Fail)
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Deputy Carthy brought me into the conversation.

Photo of Matt CarthyMatt Carthy (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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It would be absolutely ludicrous for the Government to suggest it will invest in the A5 – I believe it should – if it does not also invest in the stretches of the N2 south of the Border that allow adequate connectivity from north to south. For far too long the Border regions, both North and South, have both been seen as the end of something as opposed to gateways to an all-Ireland market that benefits everybody across this island. The same is true of the Ulster Canal. I welcome the development that we have seen but I ask for both the Oireachtas and the Assembly to work together to bring about what could be a fantastic economic driver for the entire region and the entire country.

I ask for imagination when it comes to rail transport. There needs to be a rail network advanced from this city to the north west. I would advocate that at every level.

There is also a broader role for the Irish Government to fulfil that is enshrined within the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements. I do not think it is acceptable that it was sidelined at times in previous months by its British counterpart. That must end.

Sinn Féin welcomes that the Irish Government is taking an interstate case against the British Government in response to its callous, so-called legacy Bill. The Irish Government is co-guarantor to agreements that contain commitments to taking a victim-centred approach to legacy issues. Therefore, it is absolutely right that the Irish Government has shown leadership in this regard.

In a couple of months' time we are going to mark the 50th anniversary of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. We will gather again at the memorial in Talbot Street in Dublin and in The Square in Monaghan to remember the families of the 33 civilians and an unborn child who died in bombings in May 1974. We will pay tribute again to all of those who have campaigned for truth and justice over five decades since then. They should not have had to wait for that length of time to get to the truth. The Irish Government and all of us in this House must remain committed to ensuring that the British Government releases its files in respect of that case.

With your indulgence, a Cheann Comhairle, could I pay tribute to my party colleague and long-time republican activist, Francie Molloy, who announced this week that he will not be contesting the next election? Like many republican activists, Francie got involved in politics at a time of great turmoil. I guess he could never have imagined that somebody from his community is in the position of First Minister of the state in which he was born. To my mind, it speaks of the change that this country has seen, that so many people have given so much for. We must all embrace that change and take the next steps forward.

Photo of Pearse DohertyPearse Doherty (Donegal, Sinn Fein)
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The 3 February was an historic day. It was also a day full of hope. The restoration of the Assembly and the appointment of a new Executive truly marks an opportunity for a better and shared future.

I echo the words of the First Minister, Michelle O'Neill, that the restored Assembly and new Executive have an opportunity to commit themselves to an ambitious agenda for change and to work in a spirt of co-operation and common cause, despite differences, to build a better future for all. That is the First Minister's commitment. It is also Sinn Féin's commitment to work together and advance the solutions, hopes and aspirations that unite all of our people. We want to provide better jobs, decent pay and opportunities. We want to provide more affordable childcare to parents. We want to ensure equal and full access to healthcare. We also want to tackle the scourge of poverty, improve public services and deliver critical infrastructure that improves living standards and supports development.

No one in this House should ignore the fact that a long shadow has been cast by a decade of Tory austerity and the devastating impact it has had on public services and the welfare of people in the North. Now, however, we have a restored Assembly and new Executive to stand up for the people of the North and to work for them.

As has been mentioned, 3 February was also a day of great historic weight. When this island was cruelly partitioned, it was done in a way to prop up a sectarian state that was constructed on the basis of discrimination and inequality. This was a state designed to suppress the nationalist minority. In the decades that followed, that design was made manifest through the discrimination and violent suppression of the nationalist community. Those days are over. Today, we see a nationalist First Minister in the North. It points to something that many people of a different generation thought would be impossible. However, others continued to believe that change was possible and we see the results of that in recent weeks.

I was in the gallery and I was able to witness that historic moment of change. Earlier, members of all political parties and none, paid tribute to Alex Maskey, who stood down from elected office as Ceann Comhairle of the Northern Assembly. His political life probably marks the change that is happening in the North. He was elected to Belfast City Council in 1983 as the only Sinn Féin councillor at that time when it was a unionist-dominated city council. Alex was the first republican mayor in 2002. Sinn Féin is now the largest political party on Belfast City Council. He was elected as Speaker of the Assembly and he stood down on the day that a nationalist woman from Tyrone took her place as the First Minister in the North.

I say that because the Tánaiste and the Government must recognise what everybody else sees, namely, the shifting sands, and the change that is taking place. We need to prepare for it. What happened on 3 February was another signpost in regard to the trajectory of where we are going and the constitutional change that will happen on this island. It is important that the Governments and all parties prepare for the change that is before us.

As a result of our peace process, we now have full equality and mutual respect is guaranteed. We know that the job of the restored Assembly and the new Executive is to work now and to deliver for everyone. The importance of that work is not restricted to the North but extends right across the island of Ireland. We must strengthen our all-Ireland economy, enhance North-South co-operation in important areas such as healthcare and education and deliver key infrastructure projects that benefit communities and businesses North and South. One such critical infrastructure project is the one that has previously been mentioned, namely, the upgrade of the A5 and the roads adjoining it in Donegal and Monaghan. It is a key priority for Sinn Féin, as the First Minister, Michelle O'Neill, has made clear on her appointment. The A5 road upgrade was agreed by the British and Irish Governments in the St. Andrews Agreement back in 2006, more than 17 years ago. As we left St. Andrews 17 years ago, those of us on the Sinn Féin delegation knew that this project was key to unlocking the economic potential of the north west, which is a region that repeatedly records the highest levels of deprivation on the island and which bore the brunt of partition. This road project is about much more than economic development as it is also about saving lives. It is one of the most dangerous roads on the island of Ireland. Since 2006, more than 50 people have lost their lives on the road. Lives have been cut short and lives have been changed forever.

I attended the recent public inquiry in Omagh and heard the testimony from people who lost family members on that road. The message was clear: enough is enough. We need the Government to recommit to what was in the St. Andrews Agreement – nothing more and nothing less. That was a joint commitment from the Irish and British Governments at the time. The Irish Government committed to fund this project on a 50:50 basis.

That commitment was scaled down in 2014 to £75 million. I understand there is a willingness now to increase the level of funding for the A5 but I ask the Minister to live by the commitment given in the international agreement struck in St. Andrews to fund that project on a 50:50 basis. It is key to unlocking the potential of the north west and to saving lives for many people who use that road daily.

3:15 pm

Photo of Brendan HowlinBrendan Howlin (Wexford, Labour)
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Deirtear gurb é an rud is annamh is iontach. After numerous false dawns and Groundhog Days, finally, the institutions envisaged in the power-sharing arrangements of the Good Friday Agreement have been restored in Northern Ireland. Two years after the people of Northern Ireland elected the members of the Assembly, there is at last a working Assembly and a functioning Executive. The historic fact of the election of a Northern Ireland First Minister from the nationalist, republican tradition is noteworthy and significant. That it was finally achieved on the day as a normal and expected outworking of a democratic election is all the more remarkable. Northern Ireland was created to have a permanent unionist majority with the understanding that its premier would always be of that tradition. While the Good Friday Agreement created a new joint entity - First Minister and deputy First Minister - of equal power, the title of "First Minister" still has symbolism and potency. The speeches of First Minister, Michelle O'Neill, and deputy First Minister, Emma Little-Pengelly, were both thoughtful and hopeful in a stated joint determination to make the institutions work for the people of Northern Ireland. God knows, good and effective government is much needed. There are any number of critical issues to be addressed. I wish all of those who will hold office there and the new official Opposition every success in their daunting tasks.

One issue that will require attention is securing a public sector pay deal. I am firmly of the view that the mass mobilisation by the Irish Congress of Trade Unions of public servants from teachers to nurses, transport workers to ambulance crew, had a massive impact on focusing politicians on the need to get back to work. An unprecedented 170,000 public sector workers took to the streets, bringing Northern Ireland to a halt. Their message was loud and clear and it was heard. It is understood that money to settle the pay claims of public servants is included in the £3.3 billion package provided by the United Kingdom Government. That money is now apparently conditional on the new Executive raising its own £113 million of own resources. The deputy First Minister, Emma Little-Pengelly, who was part of the discussions with the United Kingdom Government, has stated no conditionality was involved in the offer. I hope the British Government will provide what was promised without delay. The leader of the SDLP has called for transparency on exactly what was agreed. The Northern Ireland Office said it "contains built in commitments to ensure progress at pace ... [including] publishing and implementing a plan to deliver sustainable finances - including delivery of a balanced budget for 2024-25 by raising a minimum of £113 million through locally generated income" As someone who knows how difficult it can be to achieve a balanced budget, it is clear that challenging discussions lie ahead. Any discussions on finances must start from an agreed baseline.

The service challenges facing the new Executive are equally real and challenging. There are more than 420,000 people currently waiting for a first consultant outpatient appointment in a population of 1.9 million. That is almost half a million people. One in three of those patients have been waiting for more than two years for this initial consultation. The general secretary of Northern Ireland's largest public sector union, NIPSA, stated, "what we are witnessing is haemorrhaging of public servants out of Northern Ireland, either to different parts of these islands where they are better paid or to further abroad". After two years of no democratic government, the opportunity now exists for ministers to tackle these issues. It will not be an easy task and they must be given more than good wishes from the United Kingdom Government and from the United Kingdom Treasury in particular, to prove that the Administration can provide sustainable solutions to the people now looking to it.

I want in this discussion on Northern Ireland matters to raise two further issues. The first is the issue of the legacy legislation pressed through by the Tory Administration in Westminster over the heads of all the political voices on this island and many in the United Kingdom Parliament itself. The Tánaiste referenced this issue in his remarks. It has been suggested by a former Northern Ireland secretary, Lord Hain, that Troubles-related inquests are being delayed by state bodies right now, which are, as he stated, "running down the clock" to 1 May. Under the legacy and reconciliation Act, inquests not concluded by that date will close. A new fact-finding body will then be established and will provide amnesty for those who co-operate with investigations. As the Tánaiste said, the Irish Government has initiated an interstate case against the British Government. It is the Irish Government's view that the Act is incompatible with the European Convention on Human Rights, a view shared, I think, across this House and this island. An update on this legal action, despite the comments of the Tánaiste, would be welcome, as would an indication of the timelines envisaged before the court makes a decision.

A second issue I wish to mention is a matter raised with me and other Labour colleagues by our British Labour Party colleague, Stella Creasy MP. Her view is that the Safety of Rwanda (Asylum and Immigration) Bill has implications for the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol. I understand that my colleague, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, has raised this matter with the Tánaiste. Again, I welcome his views on the issue. The case is simple. In the letter Deputy Ó Ríordáin wrote to the Tánaiste, he stated the Tánaiste is probably aware that the Bill, that is, the safety of Rwanda Bill, is covered by a note from the Home Secretary to the effect that he is unable to make a statement that, in his view, the provisions of the Bill are compatible with the European Convention on Human Rights. This is because the purpose of the Bill is to severely restrict access to the courts by asylum seekers who want to contest their transfer to Rwanda. The Bill would apply throughout the United Kingdom, including Northern Ireland.

There are two major concerns, as I understand it. First is the question of the compatibility of this approach with a guarantee of the Good Friday Agreement under the heading of rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity. Second, the Northern Ireland protocol is implemented in part by section 7A of the European Union (Withdrawal) Act 2018, under which EU rights must be recognised and given legal effect in UK law with access to appropriate remedies. I would be obliged to hear from the Tánaiste as to that matter. If it is not the case that these violate both the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol, he might let us know.

We wish Godspeed to the new Executive in Northern Ireland. Its success ultimately is our success. I believe it is our common hope that the full potential of the structures so creatively imagined in the Good Friday Agreement will finally now be able to be realised.

3:25 pm

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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I am very pleased to have an opportunity to speak on recent developments in Northern Ireland and the opportunities that now arise for more collaboration, cross-Border trade and political co-operation on many levels. The restoration of the assembly and the executive is an extremely welcome development for Northern Ireland but also for the island as a whole and for British-Irish relations. We are ready to engage constructively with the executive to assist each other and work together in areas where North-South co-operation can make a positive difference for people North and South and for people living in Border areas.

Last week, I met the Northern Irish Minister for the Economy, Conor Murphy, at the offices of InterTradeIreland in Newry. Believe it or not, this was the first time in 22 years that Ministers from both jurisdictions, North and South, were present in those offices at the same time. This sends a strong signal that both Ireland and Northern Ireland are ready to continue our hard work towards developing a stronger, more resilient and more sustainable all-island economy. The response we got from the InterTradeIreland team could not have been more positive. It is an organisation that, in many ways, has been managing and surviving over recent years without direct political intervention, participation and direction. Considering the political realities, InterTradeIreland has done an extraordinary job in recent years. It has helped more than 50,000 businesses. Its initiatives have been responsible for thousands of extra jobs. It also helped a great many businesses through the complexity of the Brexit years.

Our meeting was productive and allowed us to discuss our respective remits and explore areas of potential collaboration. This collaboration is only natural, particularly as the value of cross-Border trade now stands at more than €9 billion. To put that into context, it is almost a threefold increase since the Good Friday Agreement just over 25 years ago. The growth in trade and development of an integrated all-island economy is one of the key dividends from the peace process. This is something that has come from more than 25 years of close collaboration between North and South and that I am confident we will continue to grow and develop between our respective Departments in the years ahead.

Northern Ireland now has a unique economic opportunity. Positioned as it is with access to both the UK's internal market and the EU's Single Market, it is in a unique position and has a unique opportunity. In many ways, the challenges of Brexit for Northern Ireland have been the source of polarisation and division over recent years. They have had a corrosive impact on relationships within politics on this island and between these islands. However, we can now look ahead to the opportunities the changes Brexit has brought about can deliver for business and investment in Northern Ireland. The Government wants to help Northern Ireland realise these opportunities in the spirit of collaboration and partnership that underpins the Good Friday Agreement. It is through working together that we have been able to transform the peace that we have built on this island into prosperity for people and businesses in both jurisdictions but there is a lot more work still to do.

The Minister, Conor Murphy, and I also had an opportunity to talk to the team in InterTradeIreland, the North-South body responsible for trade and business development, which is jointly funded by my Department and his. Given its nature as a North-South body, InterTradeIreland is best placed to help businesses on the island adapt to the new trading environment and harness the opportunities that exist. It does this through its many supports, including its cross-Border trade hub, which provides businesses with invaluable and tailored advice to help them trade on an all-island basis.

InterTradeIreland also highlighted to us its challenges as an organisation. As I said earlier, it has faced these impressively despite the lack of a fully functioning North South Ministerial Council, NMSC, which is required even to refresh the membership of InterTradeIreland's board or to make financial and funding decisions. As the council has been unable to meet for two years, there are a number of important decisions that must be taken in respect of the North-South bodies, including InterTradeIreland. These decisions can only be taken by the council. I, therefore, look forward to the early resumption of meetings of the NSMC, which will allow the Minister, Conor Murphy, me and others at those meetings to discuss in detail how we can continue to support the work of InterTradeIreland and, more generally, build business and trade collaboration between our two Departments, between the agencies we are responsible for and across our two jurisdictions.

A key element in harnessing the stability and collaboration on our island is the shared island initiative, which has contributed significantly in recent years. The initiative complements existing North-South structures and aims to harness the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement, to enhance co-operation, connection and mutual understanding on the island and to engage with all communities and traditions to build consensus on a shared future.

At the core of the shared island initiative is our commitment to work with all communities and all political traditions. The restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive will only make that easier. Given the weekend we have just had, when we said goodbye to the former Taoiseach, John Bruton, I am reminded of the importance of interacting with the unionist community, listening to them, trying to understand their political perspective and trying to put ourselves in their position, perhaps in respect of the pressures, changes and vulnerabilities exposed through the Brexit years. I and others may need to do more to build a shared island in the context of a new period of trust, improved relations and collaboration. Having met the First Minister and deputy First Minister, who sat together at that funeral, I am really encouraged by how the new Executive has begun. I do not think they were faking it. Both the First Minister, Michelle O'Neill, and the deputy First Minister, Emma Little-Pengelly, are making a genuine effort to make this work. As a Government and an Oireachtas, we need to do everything we can to support that in a way that is constructive but also sometimes challenging. We will certainly do that from the perspective of business and enterprise. I look forward to working with the Minister, Conor Murphy, in that effort.

In 2020, the Government committed €1 billion to the shared island fund for this decade, providing ring-fenced resources to move forward with all-island investment priorities. So far, we have allocated almost €250 million from the fund to more than 15 major projects and multi-annual programmes. We have a lot yet to do. A good example is the joint funding of €70 million agreed by the Minister, Deputy Harris, with his Northern Irish and British ministerial counterparts in 2022 for two major research co-centres to conduct world-leading work on climate and food sustainability. The climate challenge we face does not respect borders. As we live on the same island, are connected to the same gas pipelines and operate on the same electricity grid, we need to work collaboratively and plan for and roll out a sustainable future from the perspectives of emissions management, energy management and biodiversity.

A shared island needs shared infrastructure, a shared all-island economy and a shared vision. In that regard, my Department has been working closely with the Northern Irish Department for the Economy, Enterprise Ireland, InterTradeIreland and Invest Northern Ireland to explore opportunities for continued development of the all-island economy, accruing economic and societal benefits for both North and South in alignment with our respective policy priorities. The proposal being developed by the agencies would see an unprecedented level of collaboration and partnership on enterprise policy on the island, which is something I am very anxious to encourage. By working collaboratively towards the development of cross-Border enterprise supports, this proposal paves the way for a more cohesive approach to enterprise policy between the two jurisdictions.

It also provides the opportunity to build upon the unique opportunities presented by Northern Ireland's post-Brexit position allowing the agencies to further build upon the positive changing nature of trade on the island while positively influencing society and the environment. I am hopeful we will see more progress on this shared-island proposal in the coming weeks. I look forward to sharing more information about it once we get things across the line in the context of perhaps having a debate on it in this House.

When one travels as much as I have been privileged to do, as a former Minister for Foreign Affairs, and as the Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment, one begins to realise how the rest of the world sees the island of Ireland as one market, the markets of the UK and Ireland as a market, and the European Union in the context of the single market. There are real opportunities to brand Ireland, North and South, respecting both perspectives, both traditions and other traditions politically. We are very fortunate on this side of the Border to have two enterprise agencies in IDA Ireland and Enterprise Ireland that are the envy of most countries in the world in the success these agencies have delivered around economic development. Invest Northern Ireland has also had significant success and has huge potential. I would encourage - and I am already encouraging - as much collaboration as possible between those entities. Everyone can benefit on the back of that.

It is also important for us to focus on the east-west relationship. The absence of a functioning executive and assembly in Northern Ireland has put strain on the relationship between Britain and Ireland politically from an east-west perspective. Over the past two and a half decades one of the things that has pulled the British and Irish Governments together has been a unified sense of purpose in how we sustain, maintain and support a developing peace process. We need to continue to do that. We need to continue to reach out and rebuild relationships that have become somewhat remote over the last five or six years. We are well placed to do that now with an executive up and running and functioning well.

Let us not forget that the trade relationship east-west is worth about €100 billion a year. Some 200,000 people are employed in the Irish economy who are directly employed linked to trade across the Irish Sea. There are real opportunities there for us to build and grow that relationship on the back of an all-island economy that is functioning again and on an openness to remove as many barriers as we possibly can to facilitate east-west trade in the context of the new realities post-Brexit.

3:35 pm

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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Long awaited comes at last, and this has certainly been the case with the executive in the North. We all extend our congratulations and our best wishes to the success of that executive. It comes as one of the key factors of the Good Friday Agreement in the hope that it offered of a co-operative Government that would work together for the benefit of everyone and to build a society that would recognise it had a bright and new future. This is certainly what we all want to see come from that.

Of course, the work ahead is difficult and arduous. We know this. Last Friday evening, I chaired the Sinn Féin comhairle ceantair in Fermanagh. We do not usually leak from Sinn Féin meetings but I will share a little bit of it anyway-----

Photo of Seán Ó FearghaílSeán Ó Fearghaíl (Kildare South, Ceann Comhairle)
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You will not get expelled or anything?

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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No, not a chance.

Photo of Simon CoveneySimon Coveney (Cork South Central, Fine Gael)
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The Deputy is more disciplined than we are anyway.

Photo of Martin KennyMartin Kenny (Sligo-Leitrim, Sinn Fein)
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The difficulties that lay ahead were spoken about. While there is great hope and a great sense of opportunity in all of this, there are real difficulties. Reference was made to the public servants who had been out on strike. The difficulty in the health service in the North is one of the really terrible issues and particularly at the Fermanagh and Enniskillen hospitals. The A3 road project was also spoken of. I am aware there is a legal requirement from the St. Andrew's Agreement to come together North and South to deliver that. Other things were discussed such as the recent cross-Border rail review between both jurisdictions. We need to do a lot of work together, from both jurisdictions, to make that happen. The people at that meeting were saying we really need all-Ireland co-operation to make this work. That is clearly required. In fairness the people from the unionist community and from the DUP who now at last have come to this position recognise that also. It means there is a particular onus on the Government in this State to step up to the mark and show that we also will work to make that happen and provide for people.

The reality is that the Good Friday Agreement delivered a peace, but delivering a lasting settlement that is going to be there forever requires work, ongoing work and continuous work. This is why it is so important that all aspects of politics on this island come together to ensure we give it the fair wind it deserves. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, referred to seeing the First Minister and the deputy First Minister at the funeral of John Bruton last week. It is not false; this is a real opportunity and we must embrace that opportunity and move it forward.

Photo of Mark WardMark Ward (Dublin Mid West, Sinn Fein)
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Speaking as a republican it was a very emotional day to see Michelle O'Neill become First Minister of the North. This is historic. The partitioned part of our island was designed to ensure something like this could not happen, but happen it did. We have witnessed historic change happening in the North in front of our very eyes. This change is happening right across our island. The Government needs to put this change into the context of the wider politics of Irish unity. The most recent Ipsos poll inThe Irish Timessuggests the number of unionists in the North who say they would not be able to accept Irish unity has fallen from 32% to 23%. This is significant. Believe it or not, 60% of people in the North, unionist and nationalist, believe there should be a referendum on Irish unity within the next ten years. A citizens' assembly on Irish unity needs to be convened. We need that all-of-society and all-island conversation. We need engagement about the future, what it looks like, how we transition to it, and how we provide public services. These are all the things that really matter in people’s lives right across the island. This engagement must include those of a unionist persuasion and those of a British identity.

The restoration of the political institutions in the north and Michelle O'Neill's election as First Minister is a hugely positive development but the executive faces challenges including chronic underfunding as a result of Tory austerity. Public services have been left on their knees. The much talked about £3 billion the British Government released is nowhere near enough. The North is playing catch up and all parties must come together to call on the British Government to finally adequately resource public services. We need to see this collaborative approach as we enter a new era of politics, North and South, if we are to improve the quality of lives for everyone who shares our island.

Sinn Féin is now the biggest political party on the island and we will play our part as we enter this new era. It is incumbent on all parties across the island, and particularly those in Government, to do the same. Right now Michelle O'Neill and her team are fulfilling her commitment to be a First Minister for all.

Photo of Gary GannonGary Gannon (Dublin Central, Social Democrats)
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I echo the words of so many on the welcome return of power-sharing in the North. As a student of history and as someone who has sat in this Chamber for the past four years, the words "historic" and "monumental" are too often overused. The scenes of Michelle O'Neill as Northern Ireland's First Minister and Emma Little-Pengelly as deputy First Minister were, however, truly historic and monumental. I was watching it live on TV and one could not help but note other issues of this significant event as it happened. An old friend of mine Andrew Muir, became the first openly gay Minister in the North. It was incredible. Matthew O'Toole also took his place as the leader of the Opposition. That is exactly what a healthy democracy should look like in the debating and exchanging of opinions. When some of the voices of the past that had tried to bring us back to a darker past stood up to give their views they were noticeable because of how much they stood out from where everybody else seemed to be. That was powerful.

Throughout our history, helping to build and maintain respectful and peaceful relationships between all of the peoples and communities of the island of Ireland has been among the greatest challenges we have faced. With the MLAs back on the assembly benches the success of the reconvened assembly and the executive will be judged, as are all of us in this House, by the people we represent.

The challenges the new Ministers and Government face are many, as already discussed, and include spiralling waiting lists, public sector pay issues and, of course, the stability of the institutions themselves. We should never be nonchalant about this. We all, throughout the island of Ireland, have an important role to play in ensuring power-sharing continues.

It is equally important that we continue to respect the spirit and intent of the Good Friday Agreement. Reconciliation must remain central to our future, regardless of political uncertainties. We carry the past with us and we cannot help but feel the weight of it when we meet anybody on this island who had to go through the horrors of the Troubles. We must all be part of building a shared future. It is time to move on from talk of the limitations of a devolved parliament to the possibilities of an evolved, all-island Republic. I have heard some in this Chamber talk about a decade of persuasion as we look towards the inevitability of what is coming. In fact, more than that is needed. We need several years or a decade of reimagining what a future in which there is a united Ireland looks like. We must reimagine our future, dream our future and build that shared future on this island. The turgid work of statecraft should start now if we are live, work and thrive together.

The question of what that future will look like is one of the exciting conversations we would love to be able to have. Referendums on constitutional change will take place some weeks from now. What should the Constitution look like as a whole if we are thinking about a united Ireland? Why can we not start those conversations now? Why can we not imagine a blank green field in which we sow the seeds of an all-island Republic? What would our health system look like? What does an education system that is not influenced by any church look like? These are exciting conversations that we can and should be fostering right now.

Preparing for a united Ireland involves navigating complex historical, political and social landscapes. A key consideration is the necessity of fostering inclusive dialogue among diverse communities, acknowledging their distinct identities and fostering a sense of unity, while also acknowledging that within those distinct identities, there is a massive degree of similarity. Addressing historical grievances and promoting reconciliation is crucial to building a shared future. The British Government's legacy Bill threatens that. We are all on the same page on this point across the Chamber. I echo the Tánaiste's comments on how we should seek to challenge the legislation. When it comes to addressing historical grievances, I have met people like Stephen Travers and Eugene Reavey who experienced incredible horrors during the Troubles but who get up every morning and dedicate themselves to difficult conversations where the objective is peace.

Economic integration plays a pivotal role in achieving that peace. The shared island initiative has had its achievements and will continue to achieve things. It is hugely welcome. Strategically aligning policies and infrastructure investments can bridge economic disparities between the Republic and Northern Ireland. We need to see those investments as part of our future, including building railways and motorways and investing in Ulster University in Derry. All of these actions are really important in ensuring smooth transitions. Strengthening institutions that uphold democratic principles and human rights will be vital to achieving a cohesive and inclusive society. Education must become a cornerstone by which we promote understanding and appreciation of all identities on this island. Encouraging cross-community educational initiatives can foster unity from an early age.

Communication platforms must be leveraged to engage citizens in discussions about the transition and ensure their voices shape the evolving narrative. Some of the more interesting conversations I have had during my time in politics have been as part of the initiatives that took place at the Glencree Centre for Peace and Reconciliation. I met members of loyalist working-class communities there and had conversations about their experience, including their feeling of not being able to relate to somebody from the South, and conversations about where we might meet in the middle. Those sorts of conversations are a small drop in the water but they are really powerful and it is absolutely essential they continue.

Collaboration with international partners and organisations is essential for garnering support and expertise in the process of state-building. The process should prioritise peaceful negotiation and diplomatic channels. Such efforts are emblematic of the peace we need in the world at this time. We must seek common ground to build a stable foundation for a united Ireland. Balancing the aspirations of all stakeholders and embracing diversity will be critical for a successful and harmonious reunification, which has to be our goal. It can never be overstated that we all have a role to play in this. That work should start now. There is no reason to step back from it.

3:45 pm

Photo of Seán HaugheySeán Haughey (Dublin Bay North, Fianna Fail)
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I am sharing time with Deputy O'Dowd. I express my condolences to the Bruton family and the Fine Gael Party on the sad passing of former Taoiseach John Bruton last week. John Bruton played his part in the Northern Ireland process. Others have spoken about how pleased he would have been to see the Northern Ireland First Minister, Michelle O'Neill, and the deputy First Minister, Emma Little-Pengelly, attend his State funeral at the weekend.

Saturday, 3 February, was an historic day and the proceedings in Stormont certainly gave us all grounds for hope. Many people worked hard to get us to that point. I join other speakers in congratulating the new Ministers on their appointment. It is clear they have a lot of work to do. Their in-trays are very full and they face many challenges. For a start, the health services need urgent attention, particularly the long waiting lists for hospital appointments. As we have seen from recent strikes, public sector pay is also a big issue. The British Government has put £3.3 billion on the table to deal with these problems but it is clear that more money will be needed. The Irish Government, no doubt, will continue to provide financial assistance through the shared island initiative and in other ways.

As we know, the Good Friday Agreement established the British-Irish Intergovernmental Council, the British-Irish Council and the North-South Ministerial Council, the latter of which deals with 12 subject areas. I really hope meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council can commence as soon as possible. It would be beneficial for everyone on this island. The EU and the UK have agreed the Windsor Framework. I pay tribute to the European commission Vice President, Maroš Šefčovič, for staying the course in this regard and for his patience and resilience in reaching a final settlement. In this context, the British Government and the DUP have signed off on the 80-page document, Safeguarding the Union. Northern Ireland is in the unique position to be part of the UK internal market while also having access to the EU's Single Market. It must be noted that we have not heard anything officially from the Commission about the deal. We must assume it can live with it. We need to get on now with the ongoing implementation of the Windsor Framework.

Despite these positive developments, it is a fact that under the current Conservative UK Government, British-Irish relations are not particularly good at this time. They began to deteriorate following the 2016 Brexit vote and the fallout from that. The UK's legacy Act has also contributed to this state of affairs. I welcome the announcement by the Tánaiste in December that the Government will be taking an interstate case against the UK to the European Court of Human Rights in respect of the legacy legislation. The Stormont House Agreement set out clearly what should be done as regards legacy. The legacy Act cast all of that aside. The legislation was strongly opposed by all the parties in Northern Ireland, by human rights organisations and by relatives of victims. The Government was left with no choice but to act and it is right to embark on this course of action.

Other issues concerning British-Irish relations have also arisen. The SDLP leader, Colum Eastwood, has warned in recent days that the UK Government has abandoned the principle of rigorous impartiality and is undermining the Belfast Agreement with its pro-union stance. He has a point. The UK and Irish Governments are co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement but the Safeguarding the Union document does not come across as impartial. It seems the role of the Irish Government is being downplayed by the British Conservative Government. That is a worry.

Given what we have seen in recent years with the collapsing of the Northern Ireland institutions, there is no doubt that reform of these institutions is needed and cannot be put off indefinitely. The safeguards put in place to ensure cross-community support are an issue. It is a fact that the two largest parties in the assembly have no incentive to make changes, but let us get the current arrangements up and running and come back to these matters at a later stage.

There is no doubt that Brexit and Northern Ireland leaving the EU against the wishes of a majority there has given momentum to the case for a united Ireland and calls for a Border poll at some stage in the future. That simply cannot be denied. It will be fascinating to observe developments in this regard in the years ahead. Whether it will be in my lifetime, somebody else's lifetime or how long people's arms are, it is an academic question. I think the momentum is there, and it will be very interesting to watch it.

3:55 pm

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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Molaim an díospóireacht seo. Tá sé thar am go raibh rudaí ag dul ar aghaidh sa Tuaisceart agus fáiltím go bhfuil sé sin socraithe anois agus go bhfuil administration nua le hairí nua sa Tuaisceart. Molaim Michelle O'Neill agus Emma Little-Pengelly freisin as ucht an comhoibriú atá á dhéanamh acu. Ní thuigfimid go deo conas mar a thitfidh rudaí amach sa Tuaisceart ach tús maith é leath na hoibre mar a deir an seanfhocal. I welcome the developments in Northern Ireland. In particular, I congratulate Michelle O'Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly, the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and the new members of the administration in the North. It is indeed very welcome. It is very late in the day, considering the number of times the assembly has been abeyance or not meeting. It is really important that they have got off to a very good, co-operative, hard-working start. As a Member of the Oireachtas and Chairman of the Good Friday implementation committee, I will do everything I can, along with the committee members, to ensure that we continue to work and co-operate with all parties in the North. In fact, one of my colleagues, Deputy Feighan, has set up a new organisation of elected representatives. We will meet in Stormont next Thursday and at least 25 Members of this House will be in attendance. Hopefully, it will be an important new start for us as well.

I also welcome to the Oireachtas today the British Labour Party spokesman, Mr. Hilary Benn. My committee and I have just met with him for an hour and a half. He showed himself to be totally familiar with all of the issues, North and South. He gave us his time, he listened to all the points we made, and he responded very well to them. I would hope that if and when he does take office, there will be a new atmosphere North, South, east and west. I want to stress the fact that when the British and Irish Governments are ad idem, things work out. In particular, the Good Friday Agreement happened because the stars aligned in Britain, Ireland and America, and we all worked together. We got a hugely successful outcome based on peace and a future working together. It is our duty, as politicians and particularly as a committee, to deliver on that and we will do our very best to do so.

I also acknowledge the work of Lord Caine, a British Minister. He is the person who brought in the controversial legislation. He has met with our committee a number of times and is fully familiar with our views. We have had a frank exchange of views on many occasions, but he has always been available to us.

For those who might be interested, members of the North South Youth Forum will be attending the committee tomorrow. They will be talking about how they see their countries in the future. It is hugely important that the voice of young people, who will hold office in the future, will be in this Parliament tomorrow. We are really looking forward to it. I think more than 30 of them are visiting. We look forward to a very useful debate.

On the issue of the border poll, Brexit and the intransigence of different parties has brought that agenda forward, certainly in terms of what my constituents are saying to me. They saying that they want to see a united Ireland, but they also want - and this I think this applies across all parties in this House - consent that unionists willingly embrace and get involved in. We cannot have it any other way. Our island has been divided for too long. Historically, the problems go back hundreds of years, but we have an opportunity again to address them. It must be the proposition of this House, and of all parties in this House, to prepare for a border poll, and not just to call a vote. We could have a vote like the Brexit vote. We saw what happened there. We must have facts and propositions that are thought through and worked on in health, housing, education, finance and infrastructure - all of those things. At the core of it all must be the willingness to consent of all the communities in the North. We cannot forget that the Unionist community is no longer the majority community. There are increasingly disparate views in the North. Working together makes the best sense.

At our meeting today, Deputy Brendan Smith made the point that the value of North-South trade has gone from something like €2 billion 20 years ago to more than €12 billion a year now. The North-South economy is hugely significant. It is hugely important that we work together. It is important that the Taoiseach outlined his priorities under the shared island initiative. He talked about working together, and how after 25 years we have only really scratched the surface of what we can do. We must now seize this opportunity for a new phase. I want to see new links developed and old relationships flourish on a cross-Border basis. The Taoiseach said this Government will not be found wanting. The Government has committed €25 million to the shared island fund, which will be used to expand higher education provision in the north west and to move forward with the Ulster Canal restoration and the Narrow Water Bridge project in north County Louth. Those projects are very important to me and a Deputy on the other benches. Hopefully, we will be able to welcome, see and use that. You can put your posters up there.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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Great stuff

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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He cannot.

Photo of Fergus O'DowdFergus O'Dowd (Louth, Fine Gael)
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Huge progress has been made. It is based on the fundamental of working together, and a symbiotic North-South relationship in business, politics, sport and everything. The future is really bright and this is an excellent start. I welcome this debate.

Photo of Mairead FarrellMairead Farrell (Galway West, Sinn Fein)
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Cuirim fáilte roimh an bplé seo ach go háirithe ós rud é go bhfuil an Feidhmeannas tar éis teacht le chéile arís agus is rud iontach é sin dár ndóigh. Tréaslaím le mo chomhghleacaí féin Michelle O’Neill a post nua agus tá mé ag súil le feiceáil céard a bhéas á dhéanamh sna míonna atá le teacht. I welcome the opportunity to discuss this. It is particularly welcome that we are able to discuss what happened on Saturday, 3 February, and the fact that what happened was a very historic and momentous day. It was a day that many would never have thought possible, including many in my own family as well. To me, without question, the day really was a day of hope and of looking towards the future, and what might be. I congratulate my own colleague, Michelle O'Neill, on her new position as First Minister. It has been very clear from the get-go that Michelle will be a First Minister for all. We now need to ensure that all of the all-island institutions are up and running so that we can deliver a better future and a better Ireland for everyone.

Teachta O'Dowd mentioned that we need to make sure that we are preparing for that future that I hope to see, namely, a united Ireland. He is correct that we need to make sure that we are preparing, and that we cannot see happen what has happened in other places, where referendums were run without preparation. That is why we have always been very clear on the need for the Government to have and to constitute a citizens' assembly to discuss that very future.

I also congratulate my colleague, Conor Murphy, on his new post as Minister for the Economy. It is an extremely exciting time, specifically for the third level sector. I know he will have a strong focus on third level mobility for North and South and increasing cross-Border mobility, which is crucially important for our all-island economy and indeed for students' experiences going forward. I look forward to that.

4:05 pm

Photo of Patricia RyanPatricia Ryan (Kildare South, Sinn Fein)
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We are living in historic times. The restoration of the political institutions in the North and Michelle O'Neill fulfilling her role as First Minister is a moment to celebrate. I congratulate her and her team. Challenges have been overcome to get us here and more challenges await us in the future. They are challenges such as public services being at breaking point, housing and cost-of-living crises, and health services being chronically underfunded and overwhelmed. The need to approach these challenges together, in a unified way, has never been stronger. The Irish Government must move forward with the newly restored Executive, in unity, to work together strategically to ensure funding for essential infrastructure, improved funding for health and other essential public services, which will benefit and serve Ireland as a whole. Working together to ensure job creation, regional development and promoting an all-island approach, with North-South co-operation at the foundation of it all, is the way forward.

The time for rhetoric and negativity is gone. Michelle O'Neill as First Minister and Emma Little-Pengelly as deputy First Minister, are working together in conjunction with the Irish Government to move forward positively to actively achieve the best for the country as a whole. These challenges also present opportunities to work together in unity to follow through on the full meaning of the Good Friday Agreement with an all-Ireland approach to drive economic change. In the words of the late Martin McGuinness, "The most important thing to say is that Sinn Féin isn't going back to anything. We are a party on the move." Michelle O'Neill, as First Minister for all, and Sinn Féin will be the driving force behind that move.

Photo of Gino KennyGino Kenny (Dublin Mid West, People Before Profit Alliance)
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It is good that Stormont is functional again. It is certainly historic in that it breaks the long lineage of unionist dominance for over 100 years in the northern part of Ireland. I would argue that, for the last two years, there has been a democratic veto by the DUP on spurious grounds in regard to the protocol. There are many factors relating to that protocol. As a result of that veto, working people of the North of Ireland have been greatly damaged with regard to public services. That has only been compounded by Tory austerity. We only have to look at waiting lists for the NHS in the North. Hundreds of thousands of people are waiting for ordinary medical treatment.

One of the inspirational developments in the past two years has been trade unions and workers coming together, regardless of their religion, on the picket line and breaking the horrible sectarianism of the past. It just shows that when working people come together via their trade unions, strikes and their workplace, there is a potential for a different Ireland, other than a partitionist Ireland.

What has happened is important. Working people are hopefully seeing a different constitutional aspiration with regard to the North of Ireland. Can it happen? Yes, it can. Working people, regardless of what their religion is and where they are living in this State, have a bond of solidarity and support regarding who we are and what our economic interests are. There are other economic interests in this State that do not have regard for economic interests of working people. That has become more profound and has been compounded by the partitionist nature of the State. The glimmer of hope is not only there in Stormont but also the power of working people, North and South.

Photo of Mick BarryMick Barry (Cork North Central, Solidarity)
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18 January was a day to remember in Northern Ireland. That was the day of the general strike in Northern Ireland's public sector. Transport workers, health service workers and teachers were on strike. More than 170,000 workers overall were on strike in defence of pay, which had lagged way behind inflation, and in defence of the people's public services. It clearly showed the most powerful and dynamic force in Northern society. It is not nationalism or unionism, but the power of a united working class. Now that Stormont is back up and running, the question for the Executive is what it will deliver for the working class. Pay parity with workers in England must be restored. Pay increases which protect against inflation and guarantee living standards must be implemented. Social services, including health and education, must get the investment they have been starved of. There must be no more Tory cuts.

The £3.3 billion funding package that the Tories have pointed towards is conditional on the Executive raising £113 million in what are described as revenue-raising measures. The Stormont Executive parties have not ruled out attacking working class people in various ways in order to raise those funds. Household rate increases, hiking student fees and attacks on free transport passes have been mentioned.

I warn all of the Stormont parties against a tax of this kind. If the DUP was represented in this Chamber, I would make that point directly to it, but it is not. Given that Sinn Féin is the only Stormont Executive party in this Dáil, I will address my final comments to the Sinn Féin Deputies. Your party has ambitions to lead the next Government in this State. Working class people here will judge you on a number of levels, one of which is what you support and do not support now in Northern Ireland. Mary-Lou McDonald has correctly criticised what she correctly described as Tory austerity. Sinn Féin has the finance, economy and infrastructure ministries in the Stormont Executive and has the power to do something about this. Tory austerity must not be passed on to the people of Northern Ireland by the Stormont Executive. There must be no household rate increases, no increase in student fees and no attacks on free transport passes or any other anti-working class policies of that kind. The working class of Northern Ireland have suffered for long enough under this Tory Government. There must be no more suffering heaped on them from Stormont.

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I call Deputy Conway-Walsh. This is a five-minute slot.

Photo of Rose Conway-WalshRose Conway-Walsh (Mayo, Sinn Fein)
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That is great. I could talk all day about this subject, so I am fine. My colleagues are not here. The first thing I want to do is congratulate Michelle O'Neill and acknowledge how historic it was to have my own colleague become a republican First Minister. I wish her and Emma Little-Pengelly, both of their teams and the other MLAs the best of luck in the really hard work that they have to do in the months ahead. We are acutely conscious of the deficit that has to be made up. It was rightly referred to as Tory austerity. The first battle they have is trying to get sufficient funding to be able to provide what needs to be provided for every citizen, regardless of his or her religion or constitutional preference, across the Six Counties.

I will talk about the Irish and British Governments being guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement. There is a space in that regard. In reflecting on what has happened in recent years, both Governments have been negligent in their roles as co-guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement because they have stood back from it. I appeal to them both to take the responsibility of those roles very seriously in terms of the outstanding elements in that agreement, and subsequent agreements, which need to be addressed. That should start with the proposed bill of rights. It is absolutely imperative that the bill of rights and an all-Ireland charter of rights be put in place in the North and throughout the country. That is the way everyone will be protected and everyone's rights will be protected. It was provided for in the Good Friday Agreement.

I also raise the matter of the Stormont House Agreement Bill. The unilateral action of the British Government in pushing through the enactment of that Bill, against the will of all the political parties on this island, is absolutely appalling on so many different levels. We must collectively stop the British Government from this unilateral behaviour, which leads to the breaking of international legally binding agreements. The message that is giving to the world is that it is okay to make legally binding agreements and then turn your back and walk away from them. That must never happen again. As Deputy O'Dowd said, we met Hilary Benn earlier. One of the issues we brought up with him was Keir Starmer's commitment to repeal the legacy Bill, which needs to be done.

We need to tackle many issues on an all-island basis, including climate change, decarbonisation, energy security, food security, and human capital and labour supply throughout the island. It is imperative that the North-South institutions, such as the North-South Ministerial Council, get up and running as quickly as possible and that they really work for people across the island. I also ask that education be brought into the North-South Ministerial Council.

I also raise what is said every day in the Chamber about being prepared and having to learn from Brexit in respect of a referendum on Irish unity. Despite that, the Government will not do the very thing that is necessary to prepare, which is to have a citizens' assembly on the constitutional future. On the one hand, the Government is saying it must be done, while on the other it will not do it. That citizens' assembly has to be done. We have a responsibility. I do not care what people's preference is. We have a responsibility to have a citizens' assembly so that people can have their say and we can have answers to the many questions. The Good Friday implementation committee is doing a piece of work on the constitutional future, which looks at the economy, women and the Constitution, climate change, agriculture, education and all these elements, but that alone will not be enough. I welcome all the work being done across academia. The ESRI reports and research being done there are very important, but we must have a citizens' assembly on the issue because we must be prepared for a referendum on Irish unity, as provided for in the Good Friday Agreement, as soon as possible. We have to prepare now.

The PEACEPLUS programme offers opportunities for all the local authorities throughout this island to exchange with local authorities in the North. We have to work on reconciliation, peace and prosperity. The only way to do that is to do it together.

4:15 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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I will move on to the Regional Group and then go to Deputy Cathal Crowe, as the Regional Group expects to be up next.

Photo of Peadar TóibínPeadar Tóibín (Meath West, Aontú)
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It is a pity the Tánaiste is not in the Chamber for this debate. He is the senior Minister responsible and is not here to listen to different voices.

I welcome the restoration of the Executive. The past two years have been a disaster for ordinary people in the North of Ireland. They have suffered significantly due to the lack of proper, functional institutions. I will mention the role of the public service unions, which was massive in forcing the DUP back into the Assembly. I thank all the people, including the many Aontú members, who took part in those public service protests, including our deputy leader, Gemma Brolly.

While news of the restoration of the Executive is welcome, it is now blindingly clear that Stormont must be reformed. No one party can ever bring down the Stormont Executive again. No one party can ever be allowed to hold the people of the North to ransom again. It is imperative that this is not forgotten by the two Governments. I raised this over and over again with the Taoiseach and Tánaiste. In fairness to the Tánaiste, he has accepted there is a need to reform Stormont and how it functions. The problem I now have is the issue of timing. Often, inertia is the default speed the Government travels at when it comes to the North of Ireland, but it is very important that reforms of Stormont happen before the next election. That means changing the laws under which Stormont functions.

The past number of months have been incredible. The democratic rights of the people of the North of Ireland were dependent upon the decision of a minority party. The democratic rights of 1.8 million people depended not upon an election but on the decision of a few dozen DUP members of the Executive. The DUP is a minority political party, yet it held up the democratic rights of everybody else. That is wrong and cannot be allowed continue. If truth be told, the Irish and British Governments tolerated this. They tolerated that level of ransom-holding by the DUP. The negotiations that brought the DUP back into the Executive were a nonsense as well. The idea that only the DUP and the British Government were in negotiations with each other, that all the other political parties were excluded from those negotiations, and that was the key that opened up the Executive again, is absolutely incredible. In truth, there has been a change in the direction of the North as a result of this new deal, which is a construct of the Tories and the DUP.

Will a date, process and time span be given for reform of the North of Ireland? If they are not, we will see crises arise over and over again. There is a serious consequence to all of this. The North's economy, society and very fabric are fraying at a phenomenal rate at present due to the lack of investment and the lack of a functioning Assembly. It is in the middle of a major political crisis. One in seven people are on hospital waiting lists, 300,000 people are living in poverty, and 45,000 people are on waiting lists for houses at present. Key public sector investment is significantly lower than anywhere in Ireland or Britain. Road infrastructure is in a mess. The A5 is the location of continuous deaths. Currently, Lough Neagh is turning into a cesspool. Policing is shedding staff at a serious rate at the moment. Maternity services are being shed in Causeway Hospital, surgery services are being shed in Newry Hospital, and Enniskillen is losing its accident and emergency department. It also needs to be called out that Michelle O'Neill was the person who launched the Bengoa report, which is the template for these services being closed. It cannot be the case that Sinn Féin is at the centre of the closure of health services in the North of Ireland. Currently, spending in schools is lower than it is in Ireland, Scotland, England or Wales. Sinn Féin, the DUP, the SDLP, the UUP and the Alliance Party have cut more from school spending in the past ten years than anywhere else on these islands. The pupil-teacher ratio is steadily in trouble in the North.

All of this points to a financial crisis that very few people are talking about. The instincts of most of the parties in the North of Ireland are to get a few bob from their local landlord, which is the Tory Government. That should not be the way. Scotland currently raises 20% of its spending through local taxes, and Wales raises 10% of its spending through such taxes, while in the North it is only 5.5% through rates and a few other charges. We need to see the devolution of more taxation powers back to the North of Ireland from London. That has to happen.

I welcome that the Government is taking the British Government to the European Court of Human Rights in connection with the legacy Bill. Aontú has pushed that solidly in recent years. However, it is important to note the latest reports that former Northern secretary Peter Hain has said he has been told authoritatively that key legacy inquests are now being delayed on purpose to lapse before 1 May, so there can be no resolution or justice for people. That is a total abuse of the justice system, and I ask the Government to come out strongly against that, hammer the British Government over it, and make sure they reverse that and that the inquests in place deliver justice for the families who need it so much.

4:25 pm

Photo of Peter FitzpatrickPeter Fitzpatrick (Louth, Independent)
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I welcome and strongly support the restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly at Stormont. The people of Ireland, North and South, have been adversely affected by the behaviour of the DUP and its boycott of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. The political institutions of the agreement have not been fully functioning since February 2022. Since October 2022, the all-island institutions of the agreement have not met. I applaud the political leaders of Northern Ireland for taking the necessary steps to restore those core institutions. I look forward to seeing the renewed stability of a power-sharing government that strengthens the peace dividend, restores public services and continues building on the immense progress of the past decades. I am confident that through ongoing co-operation and consistent dialogue with both the United Kingdom and Ireland, Stormont’s restoration will facilitate the North-South and east-west relationships that are critical to the Good Friday Agreement.

Five years without government have left Stormont’s finances in a perilous state and public services have suffered, above all, health. The Minister for Health first needs to sort out the public sector pay dispute which has seen healthcare workers, from nurses and ambulance drivers to physiotherapists and midwives, go on strike. In the longer term, workforce planning comes under the health portfolio and needs to improve in order to attract new blood while incentivising current staff to stay on in both hospital and community settings. The Irish Government investment in the North, co-ordinated by the shared island unit, is a positive and foresighted development. Investments like the one to increase places for nursing students will benefit everybody on the island.

All communities have been affected by the outworking of Brexit and all must deal with a new reality and new requirements that fall far short of the arrangements that were possible while the United Kingdom was part of the European Union. Workers and families carry the burden of a cost-of-living nightmare. Inflation and higher mortgage interest payments are badly stressing household budgets. Energy costs and food prices all remain alarmingly high. Public services are in crisis and the sick, elderly and young wait for basic treatments and surgery on ever-lengthening waiting lists. Stormont’s revival will come with a lot to tackle, which requires cross-party agreement on the big decisions, and unfortunately the lack of funding is a common problem for all Stormont departments. Now that the parties in the North have restored the institutions, we need to work together. I believe that DUP concerns were heard, resulting in an ambitious agreement reached between the EU and the UK in the Windsor Framework.

Northern Ireland is now in an enviable, unique economic position whereby it is able to trade with both the EU Single Market and the British internal market. Economic attraction, business and jobs that will flow into Northern Ireland as a result of the Windsor Framework. This will be beneficial to everyone living in Border areas on either side of the Border. I am from Dundalk and this will be beneficial to my area because businesses will be attracted to south Armagh, Newry and Down, which should spill over the Border to Dundalk and the surrounding area. We want to see Northern Ireland take full advantage of these economic opportunities to bring in much-needed investment and drive increased economic prosperity. When we deliver stability, we will deliver enterprise.

London has promised to unlock a £3.3 billion aid package to address the region’s public finances and services crises, which have spiralled during the two years of political limbo. Approximately £600 million to resolve this dispute is included in the £3.3 billion offered by the UK Government to a restored Stormont, but the assessment of the new Minister of Finance, Sinn Féin’s Caoimhe Archibald, is that it only provides funding for one year and falls short of what is required. It is vital that we look ahead to the future and drive forward a positive agenda, make the most of opportunities for North-South co-operation and work to deepen connections and overcome challenges across the island of Ireland. Developing the all-island economy will be an important part of this. It has already delivered so much and still has so much potential that we can unlock. Cross-Border trade in goods and services is now worth about €10 billion per annum and supports thousands of jobs across sectors from agrifood to tourism. Behind these figures are real people, jobs and lives.

One of the big lessons from the past 25 years of progress is that progress could not have been achieved without the joint approach by the Irish and British Governments. The problems of recent years arise primarily because there is no joint approach by both Governments. Last year marked the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. The democratic institutions the agreement established remain critical for the future of Northern Ireland, and governments that find ways through hard problems together will draw even greater opportunity to the island of Ireland.

The growth of an all-island economy is a real dividend of the peace process and one that the Government would like to see grow larger still. Protecting and growing an all-island economy is a core priority for the Government. There are many intersecting crises in terms of public finances, the cost of living and health and education. The best way to address them is to have a functioning Executive and cross-Border co-operation. Political stability, maturity and a pragmatic approach are required. As politicians in the South, we need to do everything we can to work at a greater level with politicians in Northern Ireland. It is only by doing so that we can break down the barriers. It is about building trust and relationships. Organisations such as the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly are there to build these relationships and they have helped to do so. It is a measure of the important economic relationship and vision that we have and of our intent to work in partnership in a proactive way to the benefit of all the people on the island of Ireland. Our relationship with our closest neighbours will always be one of our most important, and this is a relationship in which it is in all of our interests to invest.

I welcome the restoration of the Assembly in Northern Ireland. Coming from the Border area of Dundalk, I remember the Troubles and everything else in the past. I would not wish it on anybody. I wish everybody the best of luck and, as I have said, it is important that the Irish Government, British Government and all of us work together to make sure Northern Ireland gets to where it needs to get.

Photo of Cathal CroweCathal Crowe (Clare, Fianna Fail)
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We are having an important debate this afternoon. We were all glad to see restoration of the Northern Ireland Assembly and the Executive. I sincerely and heartily congratulate Michelle O'Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly on assuming their roles as First Minister and deputy First Minister, respectively. It is shameful it took this long to get everyone back around the table. It is particularly shameful how the DUP conducted itself in this period, holding Northern Ireland to ransom. I join others in praising the public sector workers who I think had a huge bearing on the eventual outcome. Politics is difficult on the best and worst of days, but certainly in Northern Ireland there was a stalemate on all sides. It took public servants and public sector workers taking to the streets with placards and shutting down Belfast city to get people to listen. That was a good outcome and I acknowledge their role in this because it has already largely been forgotten.

I will also comment on the notion of an all-island economy, which is espoused by the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Micheál Martin. From the get-go, when this Government took office in 2020, he felt, as the then Taoiseach, that there was a need for a shared island unit in the Department of the Taoiseach. Many of the problems we face as a nation do not just break down on the linear boundary of the Republic and the North of Ireland. We live in a 32-county Ireland and we face problems like climate change and economic challenges on an all-island basis. Few problems see a boundary, turn around and head back the other way. Most problems we face are certainly all Ireland. It is good that the dialogue engaged in by the shared island unit has deepened over the past three years.

I have yet to identify a Member of this House who is unionist or who believes that having six counties of our island belong to the United KIngdom is something good or positive. It is not. My bedrock political belief, going back to when I was a teenager, has been that we should have a united Ireland. That is still my fundamental belief and the day that my party, the Government or politicians collectively no longer hold it will be the day I give up coming to this House. I believe we are getting to that point slowly but surely. While I might disagree in this Chamber on many days and on many matters with our colleagues across the aisle in Sinn Féin, the one issue that unites us and them is that we want to see a united Ireland.

How we get to that point might be quite different.

I want to pick up on some of the points Sinn Féin Members have made. The notion espoused by its leader of having a unity referendum by 2030 might be desirable to some, but I think it is very high risk. I do not think we can be blind fundamentalists in our approach to this. I am a member of my party's Good Friday Agreement and Northern Ireland committee. I have been up and down to meet the DUP, the SDLP and many stakeholders in this process. It becomes abundantly obvious - it is not always understood by us here - that there is major fear in the unionist community that Brexit, which has been a total botch job, and everything that has followed since bring them very close to having their identity pulled apart altogether. Fast-tracking a unity referendum ASAP, to use the term mentioned here a while ago, would run contrary to the Good Friday Agreement where we need to bring people with us.

I would also like to see a unity referendum but at the right time. We do not need to look too far from these shores to see how a referendum held at the wrong time with the wrong result can be very detrimental. I am obviously referring to the Scottish referendum on independence which I think was pursued with too much haste. It was a once-in-a-generation ballot; they will not get the chance again. I very much want to see a unity referendum but we should not be making grandstand soapbox speeches saying it has to happen by 2030. I think that would lead to far greater problems. It is just the kind of unsettling language the institutions in Northern Ireland do not need as they all sit back to get down to the work they were elected to do.

Many people spoke about the contribution the British Government will make to the institutions in Northern Ireland. It has had to play a role over many years in supporting the functioning Government there. I have long been a historian. There are many artefacts from this island still held in cardboard archive boxes in the National Museum in London which is wrong. Our State needs to demand those artefacts back. This did not just start in the 12th century with Richard de Clare and the Normans. It continued through the 14th century and right up to the early 1920s. Some of our best and most important artefacts were plundered and taken away. The historian in me would not mind if they were on public display over in London. I would not care and would not be making this point if they were in a glass box now in London. If people could go in and see a torc, a tiara or something of significance to Irish history, that would add value to the public interest. However, at the moment most of these are held unopened in archive units in places like Kew south of London and they have been there since way back in the 1920s.

It is time the Irish State, as the Egyptian Government has done across many decades, demand that these artefacts be returned to Dublin and then hopefully those that belong in more regional centres can go to regional museums. However, we cannot just have this static position for thousands of artefacts. The National Library and National Museum records show that many artefacts are in London which is wrong. If they were on public display, it would be fine, but they are not. They are gathering dust in cardboard boxes. We need to bring them back to the museum across the street.

4:35 pm

Photo of Paul McAuliffePaul McAuliffe (Dublin North West, Fianna Fail)
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I follow Deputy Crowe's contribution by acknowledging the work that Deputy Jim O'Callaghan did with me and Dublin City Council in returning the Countess Markievicz Na Fianna Éireann banner from the British Museum. On that occasion it was returned and is on public display. A lot more could be done on that.

I start my contribution by congratulating those people who took office, both at Executive level but also I imagine with a great sense of eagerness the Members of the Assembly. Anybody who gets involved in politics is elected so they can do things. I have no doubt there will be huge energy in that Chamber and in that Executive to try to achieve something. It is a very historic moment. Obviously, I congratulate Michelle O'Neill the first First Minister from the national side. That is worth acknowledging and it does say something.

It also sparks the conversation around what we used to call parity of esteem. Let me explain to those who may not be as familiar with the 1990s. At the time, parity of esteem was about saying that both communities had the right to aspire from their point of view and that that aspiration should be treated equally and should be respected. As the demographics change in Northern Ireland, so too does the responsibility of delivering parity of esteem. Previously, that responsibility lay with the majority unionist population, unionist politicians and the British Government. However, increasingly that responsibility will shift back towards nationalist Ireland. If we want to ensure that both communities - there are more than two communities on this island - have parity of esteem and if there is a growing number of people who believe in a united Ireland as I do, then it is up to us now to demonstrate how parity of esteem could be delivered within a united Ireland. It is up to us to talk to the unionist community about their concerns and their fears. I just say that because while it was a fantastic day to see a national as First Minister, it brings with it the responsibility of shifting ground.

Last year we celebrated the 25th anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. Recognising that achievement was incredibly important - recognising the people who moved out of their tribe, moved beyond their party positions, moved beyond their personal positions and came to a compromise. In many cases nobody won. People secured certain things, but nobody won. Out of all that, we have had the peace we have had, built on the key principles, the idea of pursuing it exclusively through peaceful means, the idea of parity of esteem, and the Downing Street Declaration that Britain would have no selfish, strategic or economic interest in Northern Ireland, which since Brexit the British Government has increasingly moved away from. Those principles that the peace process is built on are still as important today as they were prior to the Good Friday Agreement.

While we must acknowledge the achievement, there is a huge challenge ahead to ensure the Good Friday Agreement principles, if not the document itself, stay relevant. One of the most obvious conclusions from looking at the Chamber on the first day of the Assembly was the shift in the volume and numbers of the centre ground, of those people who did not vote for parties that had an affiliation to either side of the power-sharing and balance. That is a challenge because increasingly as time goes forward, we need to ask whether the Minister for Justice should be excluded from the Executive selection process. Is there a continuing logic for that? While technically there is a leader of the Opposition, in reality is there any significant opposition? How do we start to respect that middle ground? Perhaps people who come to Northern Ireland who do not have either affiliation or aspiration, very much see themselves as being of Northern Ireland. The programme that Andrew Trimble presented during the week demonstrated some of the complexities of identity and the conversation we have yet to have.

I believe reform of the structures of the Executive is an absolute must. However, the question is how to do that on the basis of an Assembly that effectively has been collapsed for 40% of its time. It has not functioned. On both sides, the trigger of collapse has been used. The only people that has hurt are the people in Northern Ireland who have not had that democracy and have not had their representatives meet for 40% of its existence. Can we imagine if in the past 25 years, the Dáil had not sat for 40% of the time? It would be just unacceptable. The idea that democracy can be collapsed has to be addressed. Yet at the same time, I am saying it needs to be reformed. I know my party leader often talks about us working the Good Friday Agreement and working it hard. He is right; we must do that. There is also an entire generation of people who do not have the sacred-cow view of the Good Friday Agreement that my generation would have. They ask the questions about why it cannot be changed.

I say this in reference to the American role in the peace process. I was particularly saddened when I heard Colum Eastwood say he would not be travelling to Washington this year. I hope the Taoiseach travels to Washington. I hope he expresses to the President of the United States exactly what the Irish people believe in regard to what is happening in Gaza and I hope he does so with a strong voice because Members in this House feel very strongly on it.

The American element is so important. I think of John Hume and what must have been hours and weeks wandering around Washington trying to look for a listening ear. I am saddened to think we are not continuing to use that to ensure the peace process in Ireland and in the Middle East can be furthered.

4:45 pm

Photo of Catherine ConnollyCatherine Connolly (Galway West, Independent)
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We are moving to the next slot, which happens to be the Government again. Glaoim ar an Teachta Alan Farrell. Is he going to share the slot?

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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I am happy to share with Deputy Lahart. I welcome the opportunity to speak on this important matter. I am vice-chair of and a proud participant in the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. It is important, when speaking to our colleagues in the North and across the water, that we recognise our shared future. The restoration of power-sharing in Northern Ireland is such a positive development because the power-sharing authority is there to serve the people.

Deputy McAuliffe commented on the potential for further collapsing of Stormont. That would serve no one and therefore a changing of the way Stormont is constituted is entirely necessary. I do not think any political party or group in Northern Ireland should have the right to suspend democracy for the variety of reasons we have seen. As the Deputy said, it has not sat for over 40% of the time. It certainly has been for more than a decade although I cannot remember the precise number. That is unacceptable because power-sharing is key to delivering lasting peace and to building on all the public services the Assembly is responsible for. Without an operational power-sharing arrangement, we will see a continuation of the paralysis that has afflicted Northern Ireland for the past two years. It overwhelms and overshadows the vast majority of public representatives and parties who want to work the system as best they can on behalf of the electorate. It is in everyone's interests to see power-sharing succeed and Northern Ireland flourish, particularly for the people themselves. They want leaders who will deliver comprehensive policy solutions to the challenges facing their communities daily.

We must recognise the pressures the institutions of Northern Ireland face, particularly given that, in contrast to the Irish economy, the British economy is not doing well and, on that basis, I understand there are a number of cuts coming. That is very unfortunate but it shows the importance of insulating the public against such cuts, which could have been done over the past 18 months or so but has not.

Since the establishment of the Good Friday Agreement, Northern Ireland's key institutions have been dormant approximately 40% of the time. This poses a significant challenge for the governing institutions, which are best placed to deal with day-to-day issues. The stability and sustainability of Stormont's operation is critical in the time coming. I know the Taoiseach and Tánaiste have engaged extensively with counterparts in Northern Ireland during the lifespan of this Government and that must be continued through the duration of this Dáil and beyond.

A timely reconvening of the North-South Ministerial Council will also play an important role in enhancing our ability to react and adapt in a coherent and impactful manner to the issues that lie ahead of us.

It is often tempting to discuss Northern Ireland in terms of what has been done. While it is vital we reflect on and understand that history, we must not do so to the neglect of discussing what can be. The Good Friday Agreement began the process of focusing on what can be achieved working together and I believe that working in tandem we can continue growth in trade, tourism and development across the Border. Harnessing the potential of people on both sides of the Border will grow businesses, improve infrastructure and lead to more dynamic innovation responses to some of the biggest challenges facing our island and the wider world. There are a number of shared infrastructural components of the island, including our energy grid and interconnectors. It is important that work progresses to ensure we deliver on our collective commitments to the planet.

In years to come, we will have opportunity to further those infrastructural links between North and South. The Euro 2028 competition will be held in both parts of the island and is something I look forward to. It gives us an opportunity to co-operate, particularly on transport links between communities, which is one example of the benefits we can see.

It would be remiss of me not to mention my deep concern about the United Kingdom's legacy Act, which is an insult to the victims of violence in Northern Ireland and actively seeks to deny justice for those victims. If we are ever to close the circle of history, we must have justice and accountability on all sides for the crimes committed during some of the darkest days of Northern Ireland's history.

I recognise the recent comments of Peter Hain, former Northern Ireland secretary in the UK, who has voiced concern that there are attempts under way on behalf of the British state to effectively run down the clock on current legacy inquests taking place in Northern Ireland under the legacy Act which will lapse on 1 May. We must do everything in our power to influence that process.

It is incumbent upon us in public life, whether we identity as nationalist, unionist, British, Irish or Northern Irish, to provide for and build a society that gives people hope for a better future and a more prosperous and peaceful society that recognises differences and overcomes the challenge of history. That will ensure that never again will we allow the barrel of a gun to dictate the future of any person on this island.

Photo of John LahartJohn Lahart (Dublin South West, Fianna Fail)
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Like the last speaker, I am a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and it is one of the most worthwhile and valuable things I have undertaken in my time in the Dáil.

Like previous speakers, I want to generously congratulate Michelle O'Neill on her appointment and election as First Minister and Emma Little-Pengelly, as her deputy First Minister. It is almost an understatement to call it a unique day for nationalism on this island and it is one the deputy First Minister embraced with great dignity and a sense of nobility. It is a day people of my generation never thought they would see and it has almost come and gone without a real sense of ownership of it and not in a triumphalist way. It is a landmark occasion.

A colleague who is an English MP and a member of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly made a comment to me at one of our recent meetings which I found interesting. It marked for me, on reflection, how things have changed on this island. He made the point the Republic was a cold house for Protestants. I said there were some who would say it is a cold place for Catholics in recent years. Clearly, it was a cold place for Catholics for hundreds of years. I do not want to get into the arguments about that but things have moved, changed and evolved.

It often amuses me how some in this House have felt a sense of ownership of the term "republicanism", which I have found offensive. I am an Irish republican and people in this House, particularly on the other side of the House, will have to accept there are many republicans in the House who do not sit on that side and that there are different shades of republicanism on this island. We live on an island where we now see there are nationalists who want to remain part of the United Kingdom, nationalists who want to be part of a united Ireland and unionists who want to be part of a united Ireland. This is a fluid, flexible position.

I grew up in a country where the tricolour was associated too much with politics. It was not until 1988 and the European Championships in soccer that Irish people in the Republic were able to embrace the tricolour for what it was, which is a symbol of our country. It had been sullied in the eyes of some people and used as a political weapon and to make a political statement.

It was difficult in previous times to say those kinds of things so it is an indication of how far we have come.

Deputy McAuliffe referred to conversations in his contribution. A number of conversations need to be had, and I think we are moving slowly beyond the position where conversations are stopped because they are too combustible. We are approaching a level of maturity where we can talk about things on this island without losing our heads. There are some conversations that were never had, including in the Republic. For so long, many people on the other side of the House and even some on this side of the House have thought a united Ireland is colonisation in reverse, where we absorb the unionist and Protestant population into a republic, and that is the end of it. I call it the “Ireland's Call” conundrum in that there is still a large section of the population of the Republic who do not understand why we have “Ireland’s Call” as an anthem representing an all-Ireland team and who wonder why Amhrán na bhFiann is not played. Although I am not mad about “Ireland’s Call”, that is just the politics of it. I wonder how many people would compromise on the national flag or the national anthem if we were designing a flag or anthem that embraced the Thirty-two Counties or embraced Protestant, Catholic, dissenter and all the traditions.

I think of the conversations that were not had. There are angry nationalists and republicans in the North - the Six Counties - who feel they were abandoned by Governments in the Republic. There are people in the Republic who would love to have that conversation too, and who feel the Irish Government was bullied by an intransigent British Government that simply would not tolerate or countenance any input from an Irish Government. There are many republicans in the Twenty-six Counties who looked on in shock, torment and distress at what was happening in the Six Counties of the North. We have not had these conversations to allow people to express their anger and also for people in the Republic to say that this is what it was like for us when we were building a republic here too, a very fragile republic.

These are important conversations. They are part of the colourful and intensely complex residue of colonisation, which is an imperial form of abuse. To attack each other and to fall out with each other is actually to fall into a further trap of imperialism and colonisation. The only people who win are the people who continuously seek to divide us and highlight the difference between me, on this side of the House, and Deputies on the other side of the House, when there is very little that separates us. I am a republican and other Deputies are republicans but, very often, people seek to divide on very nuanced lines. The only losers are Irish people and republicans who value the conversation that is going on.

I am grateful for the opportunity to put those kinds of thoughts on record for the first time in my eight years as a TD. I look forward to further conversations and to listening to what my colleagues on the opposite benches have to say.

4:55 pm

Photo of Pauline TullyPauline Tully (Cavan-Monaghan, Sinn Fein)
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Like other speakers, I welcome the return of the Assembly, the restoration of the Executive and the functioning of the North-South bodies. It is good to see MLAs back in the chamber and being able to get on with the work they were elected to do in May 2022. It is particularly welcome that the DUP has finally decided to re-enter the democratic institutions and that the outcome of the Assembly election is now finally being respected. I take this opportunity to congratulate Michelle O’Neill on her election to the position of First Minister, Emma Little-Pengelly on her election as deputy First Minister and, indeed, all of the Ministers who have taken up their new roles. I also wish the outgoing Speaker, Alex Maskey, all the best as he steps down from elected politics.

There is a historic change taking place in the North. We have witnessed the election of a First Minister from a nationalist and republican background to an institution set up to ensure this would never happen. That such a day would ever come would have been unimaginable to previous generations. Because of the Good Friday Agreement, that day has now been realised and more change is coming. More and more, people from all sections of society, on both sides of the Border, are joining the conversation on Irish unity. More and more people are asking questions and seeking answers.

An Irish Government needs to take the lead in enabling a national conversation on unification. Deputy Lahart spoke about having conversations about things such as our national flag and national anthem. I would welcome that. We need to see an Irish Government lead out and have those conversations with everybody on this island. While elected unionist politicians may not want to be seen to be involving themselves in these conversations, former politicians, business people, trade unionists and many other people from civic unionist backgrounds are actively and regularly engaging and, in some cases, promoting these conversations.

It is not just Sinn Féin saying that the Government needs to lead this conversation. Numerous leading academics working in this area are on record as saying this needs to happen, and that we do not want to sleepwalk into another Brexit-type scenario where no forward planning or preparation has taken place. Indeed, at the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, said that this decade is a realistic goal for a border poll to take place but that significant work on complex issues would need to be done beforehand. He is correct. One thing is for sure. If others are determined to miss this opportunity, Sinn Féin is prepared and willing to take on that significant work.

Photo of Ruairi Ó MurchúRuairi Ó Murchú (Louth, Sinn Fein)
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Lá stairiúil a bhí ann, an 3 Feabhra, nuair a toghadh Michelle O’Neill ina Céad-Aire. We have all overused the term “historic” before but I think we need to look at what happened when Michelle O'Neill became First Minister. I congratulate her on that. She is the first nationalist First Minister in the North. It has been a long journey from Basil Brooke, James Craig and a Protestant parliament for a Protestant people. We are delighted that we have an Executive up and running. I also congratulate Emma Little-Pengelly on becoming deputy First Minister, and my colleagues in Sinn Féin, Conor Murphy, Caoimhe Archibald, John O’Dowd and Aisling Reilly. I also add my words of congratulations, not only on his retirement but also on his life of activism, to Alex Maskey, who stood down as Ceann Comhairle of that particular institution.

I agree with what Deputy Tully said in following on from Deputy Lahart. We do need to have these conversations. Brexit has changed everything in that it has put Irish unity front and centre, but we need the Government to lead out. The Government has said before, and I have heard it from both the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste, that they do not believe a citizens’ assembly is one of the mechanisms that are necessary. If so, it is up to them to come up with an alternative that works. We need a forum or facility where everyone who shares this land can have a conversation on what might happen. We all know it is a possibility, so even those who are against it should prepare. There is a wider piece of work that needs to be done. I know the shared island unit has started some pieces of research but that needs to be done at a far greater level so we do not end up in a Brexit scenario.

To me, a united Ireland is a new Ireland. It is something new. It is where we can deal with the issues that exist with regard to health, housing or any crisis that we are dealing with, such as the drugs scourge. We all have to work together as we are a small island. It would be remiss of me not to say that we need to see continuity in regard to governmental interest. We have seen the shared island funding and the promises that have been made on the A5 and the Narrow Water bridge. These projects need to be seen through alongside the co-operative projects in regard to third level education and mobility. We can definitely do better than what came before. We might not all agree on the past but we can all agree that we can build a better future. This is a very good start. It is one of the more positive news stories we have had in the last while.

Photo of Alan FarrellAlan Farrell (Dublin Fingal, Fine Gael)
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We move to the Rural Independent Group. I call Deputy Nolan.

Photo of Carol NolanCarol Nolan (Laois-Offaly, Independent)
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Stable and meaningful governance is in the interests of all of the people of this island. Of course, there will be differences and disagreements but to witness the utter paralysis which the North was subjected to in a political sense over recent years has been at times a deep source of dismay and frustration.

We have all watched the endless bickering, positioning and squabbling between the parties in the North. At times, many of us wondered whether there was another agenda at play.

Now that Stormont has returned, however, the normal everyday problems of people's lives are coming to the fore once again. Only today it has been reported by Vincent Kearney that, less than two weeks after the restoration of devolution, the Stormont Executive is in dispute with the British Government over a promised funding package. As I understand it, the UK Treasury has allocated £3.3 billion to support the new power-sharing administration, but the administration says that is not enough to fix the significant and diverse range of problems it faces. Those issues include the cost of childcare. Full-time childcare in the North is estimated to cost more than £10,000 per child per year. In 2023, a major review by the Department of Education found that the majority of parents on low or middle incomes consider childcare to be unaffordable. I hope all parties in the Northern Executive will come together and prioritise a resolution to these kinds of issues instead of engaging in political posturing and grandstanding of the kind that works for no one.

5:05 pm

Photo of Mattie McGrathMattie McGrath (Tipperary, Independent)
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I, too, am delighted to speak on this issue. It is long awaited. I salute those involved in the peace process, none less than former Minister, and a colleague of mine in Tipperary, Martin Mansergh, and, indeed, the late Fr. Alec Reid, John Hume and all the people who tried. We got the peace process and then we saw Stormont stop and start repeatedly, but anois ag dul ar aghaidh, buíochas le Dia. I compliment the First Minister, Michelle O'Neill, as well as Ms Little-Pengelly and all the team. I especially congratulate Paul Givan, who is an-chara liomsa, a good friend of mine. I am delighted he is in the portfolio of education.

There is so much to be done, I could not believe it. Deputy Howlin and I were part of a BIPA delegation that visited the North recently. We found there is so much poverty there, just like here, but I was astounded to see it is even worse. We met groups such as the Society of St. Vincent de Paul and other charities that work with people. The amount of issues they encounter is incredible. It is the same as here but it is more acute. All this was being ignored. When I was in Stormont last October with BIPA, I walked up and down the corridors and saw the doors of the offices of the deputy First Minister and the First Minister dúnta. It is great to see Stormont open again. They are doing what they are getting paid to do and what the electorate expect them to do. I wish them well. I hope they will do well.

There are so many issues there. I will mention one of them, which is the road from Monaghan up through Ballygawley and Aughnacloy and onwards in the North. It is such a bad road. Parts of it in Monaghan are bad as well. That needs to be progressed. There is carnage on the road. There was a minibus accident not too long ago near Ballygawley. That is one issue that needs to be addressed.

There are people like Michael Gallagher, who lost a loved one in the Omagh bombing. There are so many people there who have legacy issues that need to be sorted out. Go n-éirí go geal le na teachtaí go léir. I wish them well.

Photo of Michael Healy-RaeMichael Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I wish Michelle O'Neill, the First Minister, the deputy First Minister and all the other politicians well. With the devolved government returning to Parliament Buildings at Stormont, Members of the Legislative Assembly are now tasked with addressing a backlog of public sector challenges. This comes after a period since February 2022 when the Northern Ireland Civil Service had to shoulder the burden of running the country without ministerial direction. During this period with no Executive, senior officials continued to manage government Departments based on the policy direction set by the Executive prior to the collapse.

The past two years, however, have seen Stormont's budget under severe strain, with budget cuts imposed by Westminster, partially due to the overspend resulting from the prolonged absence of a functioning Executive. This has made the situation much worse. The cuts have had a significant impact on vital health services, leading to longer waiting times for diagnosis and preventative treatments. In particular, health providers are struggling to meet the increasing demand for mental health services. Without access to emotional resilience tools, the potential for further harm to some of Northern Ireland's most vulnerable and marginalised communities is likely to increase.

I take this opportunity to wish all the politicians there good luck in their work. It is a very important job. As I always say about politics, to have people debating, engaging in their work and using their brains and political skills is a lot better than violence. I am grateful to those from all parties, North and South, as well as the religious and lay people who were involved.

I will relay a funny story. I remember the time Timothy O'Sullivan from Kilgobnet in Beaufort and I were above there playing our part in cross-Border relations. I thought we would have to send for Timothy O again if they did not get going now, but thankfully they have.

Photo of Danny Healy-RaeDanny Healy-Rae (Kerry, Independent)
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I, too, am glad to have the opportunity to say a few words on this very important development where the parties have come together to operate the power-sharing Assembly in the North. For too long, they had not been agreeing or working but we are glad it is happening now. I appreciate both sides - Sinn Féin and the DUP - coming together. We wish Michelle O'Neill all the very best as First Minister, and give our best wishes to the DUP as well. We hope they continue to work together.

Similar to those we represent down here, people from every sector of the community there have been disenfranchised. In the North, that results from the inability to access funds from the UK. They have been promised more than £3 billion and we hope they get the required funding. They say they need more but let them operate with what they get first and then let the DUP and Sinn Féin fight for more together.

We welcome that all communities, whether they are Catholic or Protestant, will now reap the benefits of the Good Friday Agreement. They are entitled to that. They have suffered for long enough. It is good that the children of today do not have to go through what their parents and grandparents went through for many years up there. We are glad that children do not have to go through the bloodshed and mayhem that was once the order of the day. We wish them very well. Any help they need from the Government should be forthcoming.

Photo of Richard O'DonoghueRichard O'Donoghue (Limerick County, Independent)
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I, too, welcome the developments in the North and wish Michelle O'Neill and all the parties concerned the best of luck. In a situation such as that in the North in recent times, where things were being run off old policies and there was no real direction, it causes suffering to people because there are no proper services in place. I refer to what has happened to businesses there, with various contracts being pulled due to a lack of funding. Even from looking at auctions and so on, where things were meant to be in the pipeline but funding was pulled and there were different developments, one can see that people who were employed in that context have been suffering. Machinery and different things were being sold off because of the lack of a government. I hope the parties in the North will now have a democratic debate and look after the vulnerable people who need to be looked after. There should be a proper democratic debate in respect of all sectors. The parties there should come to a position where they actually look forward to representing all the people of the North, no matter their religious background or the country from which they come. They should all be looked after in a proper manner. The parties need to get the system back on track, show leadership and demonstrate that they can work together for the betterment of the country. They need to take care of vulnerable people. The various people in their posts should show they can give direction and provide accountability to look after the people going forward.

Photo of Marc Ó CathasaighMarc Ó Cathasaigh (Waterford, Green Party)
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This is a welcome opportunity to debate these issues in the context of what was a very happy day for all of us looking north, with the return of the Assembly, the restoration of the Executive and the decision of the DUP to re-enter power-sharing. It is fitting to congratulate Michelle O'Neill and Emma Little-Pengelly on their appointments as First Minister and deputy First Minister, respectively. It is something we all enjoyed viewing.

It was a good day for Irish politics and politics across these islands.

The Green Party, like Sinn Féin and People Before Profit, is an all-island party. For that reason, during the elections in 2020, I was up in Belfast, knocking on doors and canvassing. Unfortunately, no Green Party candidate was returned in that election and the Northern Ireland Assembly is much the poorer for that, but we will be back, I am sure. While I am no expert on Northern Irish politics, the sense I got from people I encountered on the doorsteps was clear and palpable. What they were looking for was for politicians to get on with it. They were looking for a politics that was going to work for the people. It is a straightforward demand from people who elect their Parliament or their representatives, that said Parliament or Assembly gets on with the work of governing in the way it should.

As I said, I am no expert on Northern politics and other people have raised issues that are specific to the context in the North but I want to focus on a number of cross-Border issues that occur to me. The education committee yesterday had a really useful exchange on North-South mobility among students. The numbers are really poor and are far lower than I would have expected. The OECD has done some very good work on this. In particular, the number of people from Northern Ireland who are travelling to the Republic for their university education is not where I would like it to be. There are several practical reasons for that, including the cost of accommodation and the timing of CAO applications but there was no real opportunity to tease out those when we did not have a functioning North-South Ministerial Council. At present tertiary education is not within the scope or remit of the North-South Ministerial Council and it was not possible to change those terms while there was no functioning Executive. This is something the chair of the education committee raised with the Tánaiste previously and finally we might see movement on it. We would all agree that having North-South student mobility can be only a good thing. It gives students more choice as well as helping to build connections and understanding from one jurisdiction to the other.

Zooming out a little and applying a wider lens, in the same conversation on North-South mobility for students one of the things identified was that the public transport systems do not speak to one another. For students in Donegal attending university in Derry, for example, or students from Dundalk travelling to Queen's University, the challenge is that the transport systems do not talk to each other. That is because we have a transport Minister here in the Republic but we have not had a functioning Assembly. Our Minister has not had a counterpart to whom he could speak in the Northern Assembly. We saw that play out with the all-island rail review when we had to sit on that document for a long time simply because there was not a functioning Assembly in the North.

Another case in point is biodiversity and natural heritage, an obvious area where cross-Border co-operation can yield benefits. Only last week the Government here published the national biodiversity action plan but we know that nature does not recognise borders. The foxes in the fields, the starlings in the sky and the fish in the stream care not at all about which jurisdiction they are inhabiting. It would be far more beneficial to our natural world across this island if we moved to protect our biodiversity on an all-island basis.

Zooming out again, the recent developments have opened up an opportunity, as Deputies Lahart and Tully said earlier, to have a wider discussion on the future of all of the people living on this island. It is a pity, and I say this as a member of an all-island party, that many of us have allowed this conversation to be co-opted by Sinn Féin. I do not mean that as any criticism of Sinn Féin, but we have allowed the definition of a republican to become narrower than it should be in a constitutional republic. As I said, I am not criticising Sinn Féin because it is a core issue for that party, in the same way that nature, biodiversity and care for our shared environment is a core issue for the Green Party. Any debate is improved by participation and the wider that participation is, the more nuanced and reflective the debate is likely to be. We should reclaim the term republicanism and apply it more broadly. Rather than stepping away from the issue, we should lean into those conversations that are going to become more and more necessary in the decades to come.

When I think of the long term I am very influenced by the thinking of Professor Tadhg O'Mahony. I refer to his thinking in a more general sense, not specific to Northern Ireland. He says that if we are debating the decisions of today and tomorrow - we see this in the Chamber all of the time - then there is almost always disagreement. If we say that tomorrow we are going to do X, then in the normal push and pull of politics, somebody will find another point of view to put forward. However, if we apply a 50-year lens and we ask where we want to get to, very often a degree of consensus emerges around that longer-term vision. That means that on a cross-party basis and taking the long-term view, we can agree on where we want to get to and then work backwards. We can ask what steps we want to take to arrive there. I do not think saying things like a united Ireland is "within touching distance" is useful. It plays well to one community but there is another constituency in the North, in particular, that would be quite alienated by that kind of language. However, if we apply that 50-year lens, maybe all of the people living on this island would be able to find some sort of consensus in terms of what the future holds. Perhaps not, but it would be a more fruitful discussion than just thinking about today and tomorrow. If we apply that long-term thinking and begin from the point of a shared understanding and work backwards, what could we do? What could we apply that thinking to?

Deputy Tully spoke about Brexit. That is something we should learn from in the contrast because we do not want to repeat the mistakes of history. The Brexit proposition, which only narrowly got across the line - it is worth noting it did not have majority support in Northern Ireland - was nebulous. People woke up on the morning after the vote, realised they had Brexit and asked what it was going to look like. We do not want to be in that situation. We would all agree that the Brexit process has been shambolic, so let us not repeat that. If we can agree that a united Ireland is at least a prospect within the next 50 years, then surely it is prudent to begin the forward planning and to begin to figure out what we think that might look like. It would surely make far more sense to do that than to hold a referendum and then wake up in the morning and ask "What now?". The challenges that prospect gives rise to are significant. The logistical, cultural, and political challenges would be very real. I spoke about education earlier. Think of the challenge involved in taking two education systems and working towards a point of convergence. That is, more than likely, a multi-year project and not just logistically. We would also have to think philosophically about what we want our education system to do. The same would apply in health, transport and every other sector of our society. While there are real challenges, there are real opportunities as well. For example, if we retained a devolved government in the North, if that is something the unionist tradition would like to have, what possibilities would that hold out for the reform of local or regional government in other parts of this country? If we had a re-empowered southern assembly, for example, that had actual powers, how beneficial could that be to our democracy in general?

A central question we have to address is how we view this process. Deputy Lahart spoke about this earlier. Are we talking about the 26-county Republic simply subsuming the Six Counties and making some sort of accommodation within its existing structures, laws and Constitution or do we take the opportunity to start again, to create a new Republic, developed together by all of the traditions on this island? What would that re-imagined Republic look like? How would we use that opportunity if it was handed to us? This is the much more exciting and inclusive possibility but we would certainly need to have the groundwork done.

That is not a possibility you can fully investigate if you wake up the morning after a referendum and ask yourself "what now?". I very much welcome the recent positive developments in restoring the Executive in Northern Ireland. It is a clear response to those voters I met in 2022 who wanted their politics to work for their communities. We know that history does not stand still. In my view, we have a responsibility both North and South to look to the future, to apply that long-term lens and decide if this is something that we want as all traditions on this one island. If this is something we want, then let us begin the forward planning now so that when we wake up the morning after the night before, we are ready to move forward.

5:25 pm

Photo of Seán FlemingSeán Fleming (Laois-Offaly, Fianna Fail)
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I thank the Chair for the opportunity today for this House to consider recent developments in Northern Ireland. I take good note of all the points raised by Deputies in the course of our debate. While we may sometimes differ on points of emphasis or perspective, I know that all Members of this House are united in wanting to see the power-sharing institutions operate as effectively as possible for the people of Northern Ireland and across this island. I thank them for their constructive contributions to that end in today's debate.

With the Assembly now reconvened, the Speaker and Deputy Speakers elected and the Executive up and running, Northern Ireland and the island as a whole can begin to unlock progress and move forward. Momentum matters, and I am confident that the new Executive will take forward this work with energy to proactively address the pressing day-to-day challenges facing Northern Ireland, supported in every way we can by this Government.

As elected representatives, we have a particular appreciation of the political decision taken two weeks ago that enabled representatives from all parties and communities in Northern Ireland to finally be able to take up their democratic mandate. We recognise it is long overdue for the people of Northern Ireland to have their voices heard, and their interests represented but we recognise also that, for some, it was a difficult decision that had to take time. Now, the restoration of the Executive and the Assembly provides a more stable footing for the path ahead.

Over the last two years, the Government and our officials have stayed in close touch with the Northern Ireland political parties and the British Government in support of ongoing efforts to restore the institutions. We engaged, provided support and created necessary space for discussions. We were clear that the blockage of the political institutions could not be allowed to drift indefinitely, that the absence of power-sharing was creating and deepening challenges for all communities, and that it was having a range of detrimental knock-on effects across this island, not least by preventing the full operation of the North-South Ministerial Council.

As co-guarantor, we have a responsibility to deliver the full benefit of the Good Friday Agreement to all on this island. We have real opportunity and momentum this year to realise the benefit of having the political institutions across all three strands, which are interlocking and interdependent, up and running. As the Tánaiste and Taoiseach have made clear, the Government stands ready to support the work of this new Executive, to engage constructively and to work together in areas where co-operation could make a positive difference to citizens' daily lives.

While the recent developments at Stormont are very welcome, Northern Ireland presents challenges, including the cost of living and public sector pay and healthcare challenges, and these will not be resolved overnight. It will require further collaborative efforts to make the progress necessary to restore the faith of people in Northern Ireland in the ability of politics to deliver for them. Protecting and affirming that faith is a responsibility that all of us as elected leaders have.

I know that Deputies across the House value the cross-Border co-operation that has been the hallmark of so much of the progress achieved since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement. It is regrettable that the absence of devolved strand one instructions in Belfast over the past two years meant that the North-South Ministerial Council, established under strand two, was also blocked from operating fully in recent years. The Government is eager to see the early resumption of meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council so that we can provide new impetus to practical co-operation that delivers for citizens in areas from tourism to food safety to trade.

In addition to regular meetings of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, I also look forward to enhanced thematic co-operation on an east-west basis in the years ahead. While the British-Irish Council has continued to meet, including a successful summit meeting last November, a vital voice has been missing for some time. We look forward to Ministers from the restored Northern Ireland Executive taking up their roles in the British-Irish Council. Through this forum for east-west co-operation, member administrations can consult, share expertise and build strong partnerships to address social, economic and environmental concerns that affect us all.

I am sure that committees of the Dáil will also wish to maximise opportunities to consult and collaborate with the newly appointed Northern Ireland Assembly committees, as has been the case and has been beneficial under previous mandates, and to continue to engage proactively with the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly.

The Government continues to co-operate with partners across these islands, as well as with international partners, in support of stability and prosperity. United States Special Envoy Joe Kennedy III's recent visit to Dublin was very welcome at a decisive time for Northern Ireland. In their discussions, the Tánaiste and Special Envoy Kennedy agreed that we stand ready to seize the opportunity on hand for greater stability and prosperity.

We are fully committed to supporting economic growth across the island of Ireland and will continue to promote the benefits of this island for trade, tourism, and investment. This is the consistent expectation of business and community stakeholders. Our closely integrated all-island economy is one of the key dividends of the peace process and remains a priority for everybody on the island. The Government will continue to work to create an enabling environment for businesses, North and South, to grow cross-Border trade and further unlock the potential of the all-island economy.

Functioning devolved institutions will help Northern Ireland maximise the opportunities that arise from access to the European Single Market and their place in the UK internal market, supported by the Windsor Framework. The Government welcomes that Foreign Secretary Cameron and European Commission Vice-President Šefčovič have reiterated their shared commitment to the full implementation of the Windsor Framework. The EU has been resolute in its support for the Good Friday Agreement, including in the context of the Windsor Framework. We will continue to study the details of the proposal and liaise with the Commission.

As joint stewards of the Good Friday Agreement, the relationship between Ireland and the UK is of fundamental importance. Partnership between our two Governments must be based on a shared understanding of our responsibilities as guarantors of the agreement. The Government will remain in close contact with partners in the British Government and the Executive to do everything possible to keep politics in Northern Ireland on a sustainable and stable footing.

Deputies have raised a number of issues and I will briefly refer to them. Some Deputies raised the shared island initiative. We will begin by making an allocation from the shared island fund in 2024 to progress our objectives and commitments under the programme for Government and the national development plan. We hope to work with a new Executive and with the British Government to take forward new all-island investment co-operation.

We are firmly committed to capital investment in the A5 road upgrade, as provided for under New Decade, New Approach and we want to see this progress without undue delay. We also want to step up cross-Border investment co-operation, for instance, on educational attainment issues in Northern Ireland, on enterprise development and on the provision of specialist healthcare services in an all-island context. Under all scenarios, we will continue to pursue and develop opportunities to invest in and deepen relationships on both a North-South and east-west basis.

Deputy Tóibín mentioned reform of the Assembly. Now that the Assembly is back up and running, MLAs should have a discussion on the topic of reform. It should not be imposed from outside. As the Deputy noted, the Tánaiste has listened to the views of Assembly parties on reform and we hope that the MLAs now take up the opportunity to discuss this reform.

The possibility was raised of a citizens' assembly on the constitutional provisions of the Good Friday Agreement. It is not envisaged that we would have such a citizens' assembly. The Government's focus at this time is on the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement operating as intended again, and to see our North-South and east-west relationships restored and reinvigorated after the challenges of recent years.

We were asked what the alternative is if there is not an Assembly. I just laid it out - it is to make sure of the full operation of the Good Friday Agreement.

There was also a mention of the legacy Act. In Stormont House, we, along with the parties in Northern Ireland, agreed a collective way forward on legacy issues. The compliance of the UK legislation with the European Convention on Human Rights, a fundamental requirement of the Good Friday Agreement, will be tested by the appropriate authority, the European Court of Human Rights. In the meantime, both Governments have much to do to work together. I draw this debate to a close now and welcome the clear support Dáil Éireann continues to offer to the full and effective operation of all strands of the Good Friday Agreement. Successive governments have drawn upon that support and sense of shared purpose in navigating challenging periods over the years. We will continue to do so. I thank Members for their contributions.

Cuireadh an Dáil ar fionraí ar 6.31 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 7.30 p.m.

Sitting suspended at 6.31 p.m. and resumed at 7.30 p.m.