Wednesday, 23 September 2020
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
Shared Island Unit
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Teachta Chambers. Déanaim comhghairdeas leis an Aire Stáit as a cheapachán. Táim ag dúil go mór le bheith ag obair leis as seo amach, go háirithe i dtaca le cúrsaí Gaeilge agus cúrsaí Gaeltachta de. I welcome the Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach, Deputy Jack Chambers, and thank him for coming here this morning.
The questions, as laid out in this Commencement matter, are very clear and succinct in terms of what they ask. They reflect a sense of urgency and anticipation most acutely, but not exclusively, felt by Irish citizens and, more broadly, by people in the North given the very live political climate. Members of this institution and, indeed, other institutions are very keen and anxious to see this unit begin its work, to help enable and assist in that work and to see what the shared island unit is about and what it can do to help assist people within this very difficult and fraught political climate.
How will the shared island unit give effect to Article 2 of the Constitution? Article 2 refers to the birthright and entitlement of everyone born on this island to be part of the Irish nation. In welcoming the shared island unit and understanding some of its work remit, as laid out thus far, my party and I have argued for more, of which the Minister of State will be aware. There is a very real need to plan for constitutional change, demographic change and the change in political realities across this island.
It is important that when we talk about a shared island sometimes people understand that in terms of a great historical divide in the North and that is it.However, this State needs to tell people how it plans to share this island, that is, how it will give effect to that Article 2 of the Constitution. For example, will the shared island unit talk about how this institution can give effect to speaking rights for MPs in the North which has been a long-standing promise of Fianna Fáil? That would be a great way to show people that we are also serious in this institution about sharing the island.
Will we engage the media about the more recent phenomenon of amputating the Six Counties off maps and of placing bars on audiences in the North from entering competitions, some of which, ironically enough, are for tickets to the all-Ireland final? Will we look at the full-frontal assault on the Good Friday Agreement and Article 2 of the Constitution that is manifest in cases, such as the Emma De Souza case, where people who seek to simply assert their constitutional and Good Friday Agreement, GFA, right to be accepted as Irish citizens are being taken through the courts.
I want to work with colleagues right across Government and the Seanad and the Dáil, on how we plan for constitutional change in a positive, inclusive, informed and engaged way. In the interim I am keen to hear from the Government what it can do in the here and now, that it does not need to wait a long period of time and it need not exhaust all kinds of fora, assemblies and dialogues. There are merely three or four that I have outlined. There are many more that are within the gift of the Government to resolve. Through the shared island unit beginning its work urgently and actively, I hope we can resolve some of those issues.
Gabhaim buíochas leis an Chathaoirleach, agus leis an Seanadóir Ó Donnghaile freisin.
I thank the Senator for raising the Government's commitments on a shared island. The Taoiseach has asked me to respond to the points that the Senator has raised.
As the Senator will be aware, the programme for Government sets out the Government's commitment to working with all communities and traditions on this island to build a consensus around a shared future. This work will be underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement and the absolute respect for the principle of consent. The Taoiseach has also stated that there should be a renewed push to use the potential of the Good Friday Agreement to deliver sustained progress for all communities on the island.
A shared island unit has been established in the Department of the Taoiseach in support of these commitments and priorities for the Government, and its work is now under way. The unit is led by an assistant secretary, with two staff already appointed and further assignments in train.
The work programme for the unit is currently being further developed. The terms of reference for the unit's work are to examine the political, social, economic and cultural considerations underpinning a future in which all traditions on the island are mutually respected. Strengthening social, economic and political links North and South, and the promotion of all-island approaches to the strategic challenges facing Ireland and Northern Ireland are also key objectives.
Research and dialogue will be key to the unit's work. It will work collaboratively across Government and with research, civil society, sectoral, business and community organisations on the island.
The Government recognises the indispensable role of the Oireachtas and the Northern Ireland Assembly in representing people's views on relevant issues for the future of the island, North and South. The Government looks forward to engaging in the Dáil and Seanad and through Oireachtas committees as we implement our commitments in respect of a shared island, as set out in the programme for Government. The work of the committee on the Good Friday Agreement will be particularly relevant for the unit to follow, and other Oireachtas committees may also have contributions to make on a shared island, as may elected representatives in Northern Ireland.
In undertaking its work, the shared island unit will engage with political and civil society representatives and all communities on the island on an inclusive basis. In conducting its work, the unit will seek a broad base of contributions from across civil society on the island, including from groups that have been proportionally under-represented in the peace process, including women and new communities on the island. The Government will work to support and contribute to an inclusive, holistic and constructive discourse that can build consensus on a shared future in which all traditions are mutually respected. The Government's approach will at all times be founded on harnessing the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement to sustain progress, mutual understanding and reconciliation for all communities on the island.
On Tuesday, 20 July, in a response to a written question, the Taoiseach stated, "Work on its [the shared island unit's] structure, staffing and work programme is under way and I hope the unit will start this work in the coming weeks." In all of that, we have not been provided with an actual start date. We are all very familiar with the sentiment and the objectives of the Good Friday Agreement and that is why we have an existing committee on the Good Friday Agreement. The Good Friday Agreement, of course, among many other things, did not and does not settle the constitutional question; it actually asks us the constitutional question. When we couple that with our own constitutional obligations in this State to prepare for constitutional change, I do not see any evidence of this in either the very vague and opaque responses we have received in regard to this mysterious unit or the answer provided to me this morning.
As I said, I support this unit and it is very important that we all support this unit. However, we cannot just continue to support the sentiment of a unit and we need to see the Government come forward with tangible plans. The Good Friday Agreement, which was rightly lauded again this morning and is something we all cherish and hold very dear, is now, live and imminently, under assault. It is being torn up, across many of its stages, in the British Houses of Parliament and in No. 10, Downing Street. Never before has the need for the work as outlined by the Chief Whip been so necessary but there is a huge expectation, and a great deal of concern out there among people, that the Irish Government needs to be doing more.
One way to do that is to actually begin the work of this unit. The Government has the consensus and it has the support. There are very few things the Government can talk about which garner such universal, cross-party support. In thanking the Minister of State for coming to the House, and in reasserting my party's and other parties' support for this unit, it is crucial, particularly given the dynamic we are in at the moment, that we start to hear tangible, practical timelines. We need to get this right, and I appreciate there is much work involved. However, this was a Government commitment, not a Sinn Féin promise. This was in the programme for Government. In July, the Taoiseach told us he expected the work to begin within a few weeks. We will debate a very important Fianna Fáil motion tonight on the internal market Bill and the threat being posed to the Good Friday Agreement, and so much more on this island, as a result of what is happening in Britain. Everyone will accept there needs to be a clear, concise timeline so we can get an understanding of when this unit will begin its work and what its work will actually mean, and then we, as Oireachtas Members, can start the process of assisting and being involved and engaged with that work.
I acknowledge and note, on behalf of the Government, the Senator's contribution and views. In my initial statement, I set out that the unit has been established. The Government was formed at the end of June. It was a key priority in the programme for Government and it has been established with an assistant secretary general in the Department of the Taoiseach, and the work is now under way. There is no opaqueness about the definitive position, about its structure or about the fact its work programme is actually commencing, and that is clear and important for the record.
A co-operative cross-party approach in the Oireachtas on the peace process and the Good Friday Agreement has always been sought and the Government will continue to work in that spirit. The Government respects and affirms everyone's right on the island to make the case for the constitutional future for Northern Ireland they wish to see, whether they are nationalist, unionist or neither. The Government is committed to working with all communities and traditions on the island to build consensus around a shared future underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement. Consistent with that, the Government will work to harness the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement to deliver sustained progress for all communities on the island, implementing our commitments as set out in the programme for Government.
It is also important to note the cross-Border infrastructure projects which are very important in that context, such as the A5, the Narrow Water bridge, the Ulster Canal and the Sligo-Enniskillen greenway, as well as looking at broader strategic approaches to healthcare and other matters that are cross-Border on the island.I have set out that the shared island unit has been established in the Department of the Taoiseach. The Government wants to see this unit harness the best ideas, evidence and partners to realise the potential of the Good Friday Agreement, which has been transformative for relations and reconciliation between communities on the island. The Government looks forward to continued engagement with the Senator and all in the Oireachtas with regard to its priorities and commitments in respect of a shared island.