I welcome the opportunity to open the debate on Northern Ireland. We all want to see a modern, forward-looking and prosperous Northern Ireland. In the times in which we live, however, whether it be north, south, east or west, we cannot be insular. We all must be aware of, and responsive to, external, international and global issues beyond our direct control. That is the reality of the world economy today. We are all interdependent, one way or another. A more dynamic Northern Ireland economy means more exports, more trade, direct and indirect, and more investment, ultimately to the benefit of all on the island.
I last met Northern Ireland’s First Minister and Deputy First Minister in Japan in early December where we were separately going about the necessary business of promoting trade and investment to the benefit of both jurisdictions. Significantly, Ministers from Dublin, Westminster and Stormont will in the coming days embark to Singapore on the first international joint trade mission. Led by the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton; his Northern Ireland counterpart, Mrs. Arlene Foster, MLA, and the British Parliamentary Under-Secretary of State for Transport, Mr. Stephen Hammond, MP, the trade mission aims to pursue trade and investment opportunities in the aviation sector.
The peace process and North-South relations are very important, but they are not the only pieces of the jigsaw. The North-South relationship is not just about resolving past differences and developing further economic co-operation. It is also about integrating new identities into our society. What it means to be Irish, what it means to be British, what it means to be an Ulsterman or woman, what it means to be a European, all of these identities are in a state of flux and change. It is also of great concern to both parts of Ireland what will happen as regards the constitutional arrangements on our neighbouring island. We need to inform ourselves on what is happening on our doorstep. We need to take a keener interest in political developments in Britain, particularly in its relationship with the European Union. It matters very much to us, North and South, how Britain renegotiates its membership of the European Union and how it will vote in a future referendum on EU membership. We share a common interest in Britain remaining a full and active member of the European Union which would be immeasurably weakened without Britain being a full, active and committed member.
The majority in this House agree that membership of the European Union has been extremely positive for Ireland. Much of Ireland's economic progress during the past 50 years is due to our membership of the European Union. The country has been transformed by the benefits of our membership. Northern Ireland has also benefited from Britain's membership of the Euorpean Union. In particular, Ulster farmers have been big winners under the Common Agricultural Policy. Northern Ireland has also benefited from a strong EU regional policy and the cross-Border INTERREG programme. The European Union has been an active political and financial supporter of the peace process. Were Britain to leave the Union, it would have very serious consequences for Northern Ireland and enhanced North-South co-operation. This island is already on the edge of Europe. Britain disengaging from the European Union would make the case for investment in Northern Ireland even more challenging. Europe and, especially, our role as a small country within the eurozone must help Britain to resolve its relationship with Europe.
It also matters to us all on the island, North and South, how the people of Scotland will vote in their referendum on independence this September. A “Yes” vote for independence would obviously have an impact on Northern Ireland.
I turn to the suffering inflicted on ordinary people, on all sides, on the island of Ireland and beyond during the Troubles which it is difficult to comprehend and, yet, too great to forget. The consequences are there for all to see. It knows no divide - suffering is no respecter of borders, creed or age, but it reminds us of the fragility of our shared humanity across the island. This is the terrible legacy of the Troubles and remains a daily reality for numerous families and individuals and continues to have an impact on politics and society on these islands. The inner strength and resilience of people who have suffered are very evident from my engagements in the past two years.
I have met victims and families of appalling violence from Kingsmill, east County Fermanagh and Enniskillen, the disappeared and the Dublin-Monaghan bombings. I have met the families of the disappeared and the widow of Pat Finucane. Just last week, I met the families of those who died in terrible circumstances in Ballymurphy in 1971. As with all victims, I was glad to offer the Ballymurphy families both my sincere sympathy and my active support in their quest for justice and truth. The tremendous dignity and bravery that these victims of unjustified violence have displayed in the face of unimaginable suffering is an example to everyone. What these people have lost no one can return, but collectively they reinforce my faith in humanity and the power therein, of goodness and of ordinary common decency and understanding. As politicians on all sides across these islands, we owe them the assurance that the painful lessons of the past have been learned and that the suffering they have endured will not be visited on future generations. As political leaders, our collective focus must be on ensuring and building a shared and prosperous future. It requires a sustained effort and drive on all our parts. However, there still is a tiny minority who remain committed to violence. As we know from recent events, this threat is clear and real, but the determination of the people of the island, North and South, to oppose such violence is far stronger.
Through the Good Friday Agreement, the people on all parts of the island of Ireland made clear their commitment to peace and to a society founded on mutual respect and equal rights and opportunities. The Good Friday Agreement has opened up opportunities for us North and South, east and west, to get to know one another in new ways. It has opened up new possibilities and new perspectives regarding our shared history. Both Governments are the constitutional guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement. Our collective responsibility is to encourage all political parties to work the Agreement to its fullest potential. Northern Ireland clearly is a much better place because of the Good Friday Agreement but we must all, particularly the political parties in Northern Ireland, build on it so as to realise reconciliation. In this connection, I acknowledge the work of Members of both parliamentary Houses of the Oireachtas from across all political parties and groupings who, through their contributions as members of the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and the North-South Inter-Parliamentary Association, continue to work for, foster and further British-Irish and North-South relations. This work and these relationships matter. They matter enormously as with every step taken together, the benefits of all-island co-operation boost every county.
The constitutional issue is resolved for this generation and now it is time to reach a new accommodation and a new understanding between both parts of this island. Doing things together that make a difference to ordinary people must become the new reality in respect of jobs, economic growth and working together to increase prosperity for all the people of this island. It is within this wider context that Members should give recognition to the recent steps taken by First Minister Peter Robinson and Deputy First Minister Martin McGuinness in continuing Northern Ireland's journey towards a more united and reconciled society. They invited Dr. Haass and his team to assist with the work of the working group of representatives from each of the five Northern Ireland Executive parties established to examine the contentious issues of flags, parades and the past. Again, the establishment of the working group formed part of the Executive's wider initiative termed "Together: Building a United Community", a strategy aimed at improving community relations. I very much welcome the initiative taken by the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. The fact that the initiative came from them and did not involve the two Governments is in itself a positive signal that the political parties are taking ownership of and trying to address these contentious issues.
As the Government was not one of the five parties conducting the negotiations, its primary position has been one of support for the parties, rather than to oppose or endorse any specific proposal. Having said that, I welcome the progress that was made within the talks process over a short time. The Haass proposals provide a basis for taking these outstanding issues forward. Now is a time for the five political parties in Northern Ireland to show continued leadership, and I welcome the fact that they currently are meeting and engaging not just in respect of the past, parades and flags but are back to the big issues that must be resolved. I have stated repeatedly that the Irish Government stands ready to work with the Northern Ireland Executive and with the British Government to support these further efforts to achieve greater peace and the common goal of building a united community. I pay tribute to the Tánaiste for his active work on the Haass talks over the Christmas period.
As politicians, one of the things we can to do is rebuild trust. Together, we already have begun to explore new perspectives in respect of our shared history, through the decade of commemorations encompassing the Ulster Covenant, the Great War and the Easter Rising and through to Independence and partition. We are taking the opportunity of new relationships on and across these islands to rebuild understanding and trust over this decade of commemorations. We have made some progress in recent years in dealing with historical differences in a non-violent way. Politicians, both British and Irish, with help from the United States and the European Union, are entitled to take some credit for that. In March 2012, the British Prime Minister and I concluded a joint statement on British-Irish relations, which set out a vision of closer co-operation between Britain and Ireland and identified a range of areas where this could be advanced. This work is being carried forward through an extensive programme of work under the stewardship of the Secretary General to the Government and the Cabinet Secretary, as well as at political level through the annual summit meetings. Recently, the British Prime Minister, David Cameron, and I visited the war graves in Flanders to honour all those Irish and British soldiers who died in the First World War. This was the first such joint visit to commemorate the terrible loss of life that occurred during the First World War. The ever-strengthening relationship between Britain and Ireland will be evident in the upcoming State visit of President Higgins to the United Kingdom in April this year. The State visit in April follows on from the historic and highly successful visit to Ireland by Queen Elizabeth in 2011.
The peace process shows that politics does matter and politics can make a profound difference. However, having found common agreement on the constitutional argument, we need to drive the economic and social agenda North and South. This is the reason the Government, in the programme for Government, has committed to working for greater cross-Border economic co-operation to accelerate the process of recovery and the creation of jobs on this island. I and members of the Government are availing of all opportunities, including meetings within the framework of the North-South Ministerial Council established under the Good Friday Agreement, to have continuous and constructive engagement with Northern Ireland Ministers on matters of mutual economic interest, to advance initiatives designed to boost economic activity on the island and to seek practical co-operation in providing services. Since 2011, Ministers have attended more than 80 meetings within the framework of the North-South Ministerial Council.
There are numerous and recent examples of this positive progress across the North-South Ministerial Council's work sectors. In respect of agriculture and rural development, progress is being made on the delivery of an all-island animal health and welfare strategy action plan. As for trade and business, InterTrade Ireland is working to encourage and stimulate greater co-operation to increase applications to EU framework programmes, including enhanced levels of participation by small to medium-sized enterprises. In respect of the EU's funding programmes, the Special EU Programmes Body is facilitating North-South participation in the INTERREG IV transnational and inter-regional programmes, with 61 project partners secured to date across the relevant programmes.
In aquaculture and marine and waterways, there is ongoing maintenance of the waterways, provision of additional moorings and efforts to increase awareness of the waterways across all navigations. In the environmental area, research is being undertaken to identify further opportunities for beneficial joint working on EU directives in the areas of environmental quality and protection. In the tourism sector, the island of Ireland is promoted abroad by Tourism Ireland and the Government is working with the Northern Ireland Executive to ensure the sector's potential is fulfilled. Projects such as The Gathering and Derry UK City of Culture all played their part in this success. In 2013, Fleadh Cheoil na hÉireann went North for the first time and was a resounding success. In education, liaison between the two teaching councils is being encouraged with the objective of facilitating full mobility of teachers across both jurisdictions. In the area of health, construction of the £70 million radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin commenced last year and will be operational by 2016. Moreover, joint programmes in education, training, research and prevention by the Ireland-Northern Ireland-National Cancer Institute Consortium will continue. On child protection, the launch of the inter-jurisdictional protocol for the transfer of child care cases between Northern Ireland and Ireland and the work to progress its implementation and the agreement on a new work programme focusing on five specific work streams is under way. In sport, the hosting of a high level conference on sport and sectarianism took place in November 2013, with participation by the Gaelic Athletic Association, the Irish Football Association and the Irish Rugby Football Union.
In 2014 there will be another significant cross-Border sports event in the Giro d'ltalia. In the longer term the recent agreement to co-operate on a possible 2023 Rugby World Cup bid will, I hope, result in major benefits for the tourism industry throughout the island. I hope we will eventually achieve success in that regard.
Clearly, there are other sectors not immediately within the remit of the NSMC that have the capacity to grow. The agrifood sector on the island has a very bright future and the abolition of milk quotas in 2015 will open up new, exciting opportunities for the dairy sector, in particular. If there is one economic certainty, it is that the demand for food will continue to grow. Ireland's most important natural resource, its land, will be at the centre of sustainable development for generations to come on the island. We have the potential to create a powerful food culture which will be recognised around the world.
One of the greatest successes of North-South co-operation in recent years is the creation of the single energy market. That market, together with new electricity connectors between Ireland and Britain, will support the renewable sector and stimulate competition in this key economic sector. The proposed North-South electricity interconnector is a very important part of the new infrastructure that we are building together on the island. It is, of course, of particular importance for Northern Ireland where security of supply will become an increasingly important issue in coming years. Both jurisdictions on the island, therefore, have a direct interest in working closely together in research, new generation and energy storage technologies and together can make a strong case for a major European Union investment programme in renewable energies in Scotland and Ireland.
Northern Ireland in particular but also the Republic has a well developed education system and a very supportive educational culture. The provision of education services for international students is one of the areas where the island of Ireland has a comparative advantage, particularly as regards language. The provision of education services is a very lucrative market. We can grow our share of this market, providing an immediate income stream but also long-term benefits for our economies.
On a practical level, everybody needs to focus on how our two economies might grow and prosper and provide job opportunities and a sustainable future. In our most recent discussions at the North-South Ministerial Council and as part of the St Andrew's review, we have also agreed, in particular, on the need to use every opportunity to focus on getting better outcomes, putting in place policies that will lead to growing exports and foreign investment, working together on accessing overseas markets such as China, India and Brazil, upgrading services, creating jobs and improving young people's skills. We have agreed that Ministers will examine priorities at their sectoral meetings, especially as they affect economic development, job creation and the best use of public funds and the most effective delivery of public services.
I look forward to discussing the progress we have made on the review when I host the next plenary meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council in Dublin in June. I still want to see further co-operation that will create more employment and boost exports. I have in mind opportunities to develop synergies on increasing our joint draw-down of innovation funding under Horizon 2020 and jointly examining the potential to develop cross-Border clusters of economic activity. In the Europe of today states have never been more interdependent. This applies as much to Northern Ireland as anywhere else. Therefore, co-operation and collaboration are necessities. By working together, politically and economically, we can build a better future for all people who make this island their home. While we must look at issues of the past, we must not forget that the future is where we all have to live together. Therefore, we should not waste time in seeing that the opportunities which present are developed.