I move: "That the Bill be now read a Second Time."
Is cúis áthais dom an Bille tábhachtach seo a chur faoi bhráid na Dála. The British-Irish Agreement (Amendment) Bill 2006 comprises a short technical amendment to the British-Irish Agreement Act 1999. The amendment concerns one of the North-South bodies, namely the Special EU Programmes Body, SEUPB, which was established to manage the EU's PEACE and INTERREG cross-Border funds. Next year, under the new EU financial perspectives, there will be changes in the funding structures for the period 2007 to 2013. While the PEACE programme will continue much as before, the policy areas and objectives currently covered by the INTERREG programme are being transferred to a new EU territorial co-operation objective. As a result, some of the terms currently used in the 1999 Act to describe the SEUPB's remit will become out of date on 1 January 2007.
It was always the Government's clear intention that the SEUPB should continue in its role in managing the EU funds. The British Government shares this intention. The two Governments confirmed this shared understanding through an exchange of letters, signed by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Peter Hain, MP, on 25 July of this year. These letters make it clear that it was the joint intention of the two Governments that certain terms used in the 1999 agreement, such as the phrase "community initiatives", would include "successor, substitute and equivalent Programmes, building on the same substantive objectives, priorities, policy areas and activities". This exchange of letters constituted an international agreement and this Bill gives domestic legal effect to that important agreement.
As the House will be aware, the Good Friday Agreement provided the basis for a balanced political settlement in Northern Ireland. It recognised the importance of relationships between North and South and between east and west. At meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council, Ministers from both jurisdictions come together to undertake "consultation, co-operation and action" on matters of mutual interest, to the benefit of the people, North and South.
The agreement also provided for co-operation in a number of specific sectors, to be progressed by new North-South Implementation Bodies, commonly referred to as the North-South bodies. However, since the suspension of the institutions in 2002, the North-South Ministerial Council has not been able to meet and the bodies have been unable to operate in a manner that would allow them to reach their full potential.
The Irish Government has consistently sought to bolster and protect the North-South bodies. In spite of the restrictions imposed on them, the bodies have continued to pursue co-operation and deliver important public services to the people, both North and South. Their achievements range from the Food Safety Promotion Board's eye-catching safe food campaigns to the work of Foras na Gaeilge and the Ulster Scots Agency in promoting our island's cultures and languages. The Loughs Agency is ensuring the development of the aquaculture industry in the Carlingford and Foyle loughs, Intertrade Ireland is stimulating business links between the North and South and Waterways Ireland, the largest North-South body, continues to manage one of our island's most important recreational and tourism assets, namely, our canals and waterways. We saw in the news just today how Tourism Ireland has once again managed to increase visitor numbers to the island as a whole, making this year a record year for tourism in our country.
The SEUPB's success is all the more remarkable given the constraints imposed on it by suspension. Since its establishment in 1999, it has acted as a conduit for over €1 billion to 12 counties, both North and South. In practical terms, this means that some 6,500 projects have received funding from the SEUPB.
The PEACE programme in particular has provided assistance on the ground to support reconciliation and to help the region develop a more peaceful and stable society. The INTERREG programme, for its part, has helped create genuine cross-Border partnerships and has greatly improved the economic and social landscape of the Border region.
The SEUPB is highly regarded throughout the European Union for its management of the EU funds. It is used as a model of best practice. It has met the demanding financial targets set by the EU each year. The impact of the funds that the body manages can be seen throughout Northern Ireland and in the six Border counties, namely, Donegal, Sligo, Leitrim, Cavan, Monaghan and Louth. The distinctively European character of the funding brings a special added value. By highlighting aspects of our shared identity, it facilitates programmes on a cross-community and cross-Border basis, which might not have been possible otherwise.
In promoting peace and prosperity, the EU, through the SEUPB, has made an important contribution to the peace process. While much has been achieved with EU funding to date, there is no doubt that the support of the European Union will continue to be very important as we move forward. We are at an important juncture in the peace process in Northern Ireland.
The agreement reached at St. Andrews in October last sets out a clear way forward for all of the northern political parties to commit to the full operation of stable power-sharing government in Northern Ireland and the restoration of all of the institutions envisaged in the Good Friday Agreement. It provides for full support for policing and the criminal justice institutions, including the Policing Board.
The British Government has introduced legislation that provides for devolved government to be restored in Northern Ireland in March of 2007 and for the electoral endorsement of the St. Andrews Agreement by way of elections to the Northern Ireland Assembly in March of 2007. Both Governments have made it clear, however, that an election will only take place if the parties are working constructively towards participation in a power-sharing Executive by 26 March of next year. We have seen signs of progress towards power-sharing in recent weeks. We have had clear indications that, subject to the outcome of the election and other necessary conditions, Dr. Ian Paisley and Mr. Martin McGuinness would be the First and Deputy First Ministers, respectively, on restoration next March.
This week, the parties are sitting together in the Assembly and at the Programme for Government Committee discussing their policy priorities and the practical issues facing Northern Ireland, such as education, the economy, local government reform, policing and justice. Dr. Paisley and Mr. Adams have each spoken of their personal commitment to making progress towards restoration by next March. The Government believes this will require real leadership from both the DUP and Sinn Féin. The DUP must show that it is ready to share power with Nationalists under the arrangements laid down in the Good Friday Agreement. That means direct engagement with Sinn Féin as its prospective partner in Government.
Movement is required from Sinn Féin on policing. Both the Taoiseach and Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Dermot Ahern, have said they would like to see Sinn Féin call its Ard-Fheis to deal with this issue sooner rather than later, in any event by January next. For its part, the Irish Government will continue to work in close partnership with the British Government, as well as with all the parties, to secure our overriding priority, that is, the restoration of power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland and full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. Only full restoration will allow the North-South bodies, including the SEUPB, reach their full potential and further develop North-South co-operation in their respective areas. Restoration of the devolved institutions will also allow meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council to resume. Government Ministers will once again be able to sit down with locally elected Northern Irish Ministers to advance North-South co-operation for our mutual benefit.
The Government has sought to give a strong impetus to North-South co-operation. Both the Irish and British Governments recognise that there are significant benefits and advantages in working together. For example, the two Governments have recently launched an ambitious agenda for strengthening economic co-operation. This included a number of ground-breaking joint initiatives, such as further collaboration in research and development and a new targeted approach to enterprise training, as well as to identifying labour market needs, on an all-island basis. We have also agreed to pool our resources in trade promotion, opening up trade missions to businesses across the island and placing the overseas offices of Enterprise Ireland and Invest Northern Ireland at the disposal of companies, North and South. Trade missions to India and Canada have already included companies from both parts of this island.
The Governments have identified co-operation on the planning and delivery of infrastructure as the key to maximising returns on the major investments being made North and South. Greater co-operation will also help ensure more balanced regional development, especially in the Border region. In this regard, the all-island dimension will be an important horizontal theme of the Government's next national development plan for the period 2007 to 2013.
The Governments are committed to working together to create a more integrated and regionally balanced road network, enhancing key routes between the major urban centres on this island. In addition, the Government is moving ahead to re-open the remaining few cross-Border routes, closed as a result of the Troubles. Some significant progress has already been achieved, for example, in the upgrading of the Dublin-Belfast road. We have also agreed with the British Government to jointly invest in City of Derry Airport.
The Irish Government is committed to taking forward plans for the restoration of the Ulster Canal to create a further major inland waterway for the Border region, similar to the Ballinamore-Ballyconnell project, which we executed in the 1990s. In the energy sector, the single electricity market will be operational in 2007. Plans are advanced for the development of further interconnection of our electricity and gas supply systems on a North-South and east-west basis. The two Governments have agreed to work together to maximise the contribution of renewable and sustainable energy to the future energy needs of this island.
The Government also believes that key public services, such as health and education, can be delivered more efficiently and effectively on an all-island basis and will be advancing co-operation in this area also. This Government will continue to take these initiatives forward with the British Government in the coming months but looks forward in particular to working with Northern Irish Ministers, in the context of restoration, which will also allow the North-South bodies to become fully operational once again to the benefit of all.
In the meantime, the Government wishes to ensure that the SEUPB can continue its strong role in managing the EU funds that have been so important in promoting peace and prosperity throughout the Northern region. In recognition of this key role, the Government is ensuring that the SEUPB's future remit is clear. This Government believes that the SEUPB and the other North-South bodies will have an important role to play, in ensuring that the economic benefits of the hoped for new dispensation are widely enjoyed, not only in Northern Ireland, but throughout this island.
As Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, I have worked closely with the special EU programmes body. I have seen at first hand how its work has improved the quality of life of thousands of people, bringing them together, across communities and borders. I have also participated in the very difficult Strand II talks and have worked to strengthen North-South co-operation and the North-South bodies.
I wish to commend the work of this unique body, its chief executive, Mr. Colgan, and all of its executive staff and I commend this important Bill to Dáil Éireann.