Monday, 5 July 2021
Nithe i dtosach suíonna - Commencement Matters
I thank the Acting Chairperson. It is very nice to see her in the Chair today. The Minister of State is very welcome to the House. I am grateful he is taking this Commencement matter.
The shared island unit is one of the many commitments in the programme for Government that has interested and excited me. The historical significance of the unit is underestimated. For the first time in the State's history, we have a dedicated unit whose sole responsibility is to examine policy, infrastructure and the future of this island on an all-island basis. We see from the recent announcement on Narrow Water bridge and the Ulster Canal a belief in the importance of the shared island and what it can do. These projects symbolise a belief in the people of the Border region and what it can achieve. It is right, as we enter a new century, that we look forward progressively and inclusively, harnessing all the talent and resources that this beautiful island holds. That is why I ask the Department of the Taoiseach's shared island unit to allocate funds to commence inclusive engagement with schools all across the island. This would symbolise the belief among our young people and their ability to shape the future. It is necessary that we seek to encourage our young people to dream, imagine and then create the impossible. Young people look at things without the many barriers we oldies face. They are the future. Helping them now to create the future they dream of is our responsibility.I absolutely commend the work done to date by the thousands of people who have come together in civic engagement sessions. It is very welcome. The Acting Chair, Senator Flynn, has been part of this civic engagement also. My proposal is possibly a model similar to the BT Young Scientist, whereby we create a space for young people to share their views, create projects and challenge themselves on how we move forward together over the next 100 years. People on the island have worked together for many centuries. Let us work together, no matter what the constitutional status of the two jurisdictions. Get young people talking and tackling the issues of unionism and republicanism, how to improve on the status quoor how to reunite the island. It is not us who have to live with the consequences of our decisions, it is our children who must do so. I want them to create the narrative that we can help to implement.
We are in agreement. From his previous portfolio as education spokesperson, the Minister of State knows, that education creates changes. It is through education that changes will be made, challenges will be overcome and friendships will be developed. As a consequence, we will have a positive shared future. Under this, there will be no doubt this positive future will grow. Prejudices, mistrust and fear of the unknown will disappear only through this dialogue and increased co-operation. Education is something in which we all partake and we must educate everyone on the island on our history and our shared history to appreciate one's identity as British or Irish and to encourage a space where one's identity is not threatened by someone else's belief and we can all be confident in ourselves. This is why I hope the school projects challenging our wonderful young people are a positive step. I acknowledge the announcement this morning of €40 million for all-Ireland higher education research projects. It shows the shared island unit has a real emphasis on education and bringing the work of the unit to our secondary schools would be very progressive.
My best wishes to the Acting Chair, Senator Flynn, not just in the role this morning, which is significant, but I hope for her and her community that it will become routine and part of the normal fabric of our society. This is very important. I thank the Acting Chair for all the work she is doing.
I thank Senator McGreehan for taking a patriotic approach to the island rather than an ultra-nationalistic approach of division. Senator McGreehan has taken a unifying approach on the issue of this island, and this is especially relevant given where she comes from on the Border. I thank her for raising the important role of schools and education. The Taoiseach has asked me to respond to the points that she has raised.
The shared island initiative aims to harness the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement to enhance co-operation, connection and mutual understanding on the island, engaging with all communities and traditions to build consensus around a shared future. The Taoiseach established the shared island unit in his Department to act as a driver and co-ordinator of this whole-of-government approach. In the budget, the Government established a shared island fund, committing €500 million in capital funding out to 2025, ring-fenced for investment in North-South projects. The Taoiseach has already announced substantial investments in long-standing all-Ireland projects that, quite frankly, were hanging around for too long, including the Ulster Canal and Narrow Water bridge. I thank Senator McGreehan for her work in pursuing the Narrow Water bridge project. It will be not just nationally important infrastructure but also a crucial piece of local infrastructure on the Cooley Peninsula and in south County Down. As mentioned, research collaboration on the island is also a priority for the fund. The Government is working with the Northern Ireland Executive, the British Government and other partners to deliver cross-Border capital investments that meet our objectives to enhance our shared island.
The programme for Government also includes a shared island commitment to expand the North-South school exchange programme. This affirms the Government's commitment under the New Decade, New Approach agreement to build on the success of the first pilot programme of bringing young people together from schools, North and South, with a target of achieving 100 cross-Border engagements per annum within a five-year period. This objective is being taken into account as part of the development of the EU PEACE PLUS programme from 2022 onwards, under the theme of empowering and investing in young people. The PEACE PLUS programme is unique because it is funding by the EU, the Irish Government and the British Government. With all the talk of division and a lack of a joint approach, the PEACE PLUS programme is a practical example of everybody working together and it is very important.
A second pilot North-South school exchange programme has received support under the reconciliation fund of the Department of Foreign Affairs. This programme and funding commitment by the Government makes an important contribution to the objective the Senator has raised, of bringing young people in schools throughout the island together, as they look to the future.
In launching the shared island initiative last October, the Taoiseach initiated the shared island dialogue, to which Senator McGreehan referred, to foster inclusive civic dialogue on key issues for our shared future. He highlighted the vital role that young people have to play in shaping the future of this island. The Taoiseach also addressed the first shared island dialogue with young people in November on the theme of new generations and new voices on the Good Friday Agreement. The participation and contribution of younger generations has been actively sought in the series of shared island dialogues that have been held so far this year. This will continue to be a priority in the Government's approach to fostering inclusive civic dialogue as part of the shared island initiative.
I thank the Minister of State. We are all on the same page. I thank the Minister of State for delivering the message from An Taoiseach and I thank An Taoiseach for all his work. He has been dedicated and he is a huge driver of an all-Ireland conversation. I very much welcome the North-South school exchange programme. It is very positive and good news. I hope it will be expanded into something similar to the BT Young Scientist. It is an example of how we can create the dialogue, friendships and future we want on this island. I thank the Minister of State for his time.
I will bring the exact proposal to the attention of the Taoiseach and he will be watching this closely today. I will also bring it to the shared island unit in the Department of the Taoiseach. Expanding the North-South school exchange programme is a crucial part of the programme for government commitments on a shared island. We need to bring young people together.
The Senator mentioned that I was an education spokesperson. Quite frankly, the number of educational movements North and South is not as high as we would think. Half of my class in college was from the North, as was the case in two other classes in Trinity College Dublin at that time. I was always of the impression that the number was huge because it was in my direct experience but then I found out when I was education spokesperson that it was not. We do have to address this and get more movement North and South, particularly in higher and further education. This would lead to significant benefits for everybody, for young people, for reconciliation and for the island.