I welcome the opportunity to debate the situation in Northern Ireland. As Members are aware, engagement on Northern Ireland issues is a matter of the highest priority for the Government which, in common with the British Government, is co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. However, engagement must take account of the fact that the devolved institutions are in the lead in ensuring Northern Ireland becomes the peaceful and reconciled society envisioned in the Good Friday Agreement.
The Government takes a whole-of-government approach to Northern Ireland. That is particularly evident through the work of the North-South Ministerial Council which can play a central role in maintaining both parts of the island on the path of economic recovery and job creation. The Council and its work is an excellent example of the kind of work that is to the benefit of all parts of the island. As we have seen, Ministers come together to discuss areas of work and opportunities of mutual benefit in agriculture or transport, for example. By using such a body to work on behalf of all communities on the island, it allows Ministers to deliver a mutual benefit in making progress towards the kind of society articulated in the Good Friday Agreement.
As the Taoiseach said, in the current economic circumstances we are even more determined to concentrate on all areas in which co-operation makes sense and is capable of delivering real, tangible and practical benefits to people across the island. The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste work closely together and with the British Government in ensuring the two Governments maximise co-operation in support of the Northern Ireland Executive. The Taoiseach works closely with the British Prime Minister, with whom he now has an annual meeting in the St. Patrick’s Day period, in addition to their regular meetings in the EU context. The Tánaiste works closely with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on political issues, particularly in support of the political talks between the five leaders of the Executive parties to follow up the excellent work done by Dr. Richard Haass and Dr. Meghan O’Sullivan.
The Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, works closely with the Secretary of State on justice and security issues. Co-operation between the Garda and the PSNI is better than ever as they work together on countering the threat from dissident republicans, in respect of whom continued vigilance is required. As the Taoiseach mentioned, thanks to the efforts of the Ceann Comhairle and the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Mr. Willie Hay, we are fortunate that the North-South Inter-Parliamentary Association, foreseen in the Good Friday Agreement, was established in 2012. The inter-parliamentary dimension of the relationship within and across these islands is also nurtured through the work of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly established under the 1985 Anglo-Irish Agreement, the 30th anniversary of which we will mark next year. I record my admiration for the enormous achievement by the then Taoiseach, Dr. Garret FitzGerald, and his colleagues at the time. The situation in Northern Ireland is debated regularly by the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, the members of which hear from a wide range of voices on the island and undertake regular visits to Northern Ireland.
It is regrettable that MLAs from all Northern Ireland Assembly parties do not participate in meetings of the committee but I welcome the fact the Ulster Unionist Party leader, Mr. Mike Nesbitt, MLA, addressed the committee in 2012. The Government would like to see more engagement by Unionist political representatives with Members of this House.
Mr. Mike Nesbitt, MLA, chairs the Northern Ireland Assembly committee overseeing the Office of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, the OFM-DFM committee. Part of its remit extends to EU issues and I was pleased to brief it last October on the achievements of Ireland’s 2013 Presidency of the European Council of Ministers, with particular reference to North-South issues. In particular, I briefed its members on issues of direct relevance to Northern Ireland such as the strong progress made on negotiations on the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy and the EU budget. I also briefed MLAs on the increasing importance of the role of national parliaments and assemblies in the European Union, drawing attention to the increasing importance of the European Parliament under the Lisbon treaty and the need for national parliaments, assemblies, Council Presidencies and member states generally to deepen engagement with it.
I spoke about the debate developing around the UK's terms of membership of the European Union. I made it clear we absolutely recognised the right of any country to discuss or debate its membership or terms of membership of the European Union as a sovereign right. I also made it clear we believe the European Union is a far stronger place for having the UK in it and that we work together with the UK on a large number of areas. I emphasised Ireland greatly values our continued strong membership of the European Union and wants to see the United Kingdom stay in the Union. It is important all regions in the United Kingdom ensure their contribution is heard in the debate on its role and future membership of the Union.
The EU brings specific benefits to Northern Ireland. The EU’s PEACE and INTERREG programmes continue to play a key role in supporting cross-Border and cross-community co-operation in Northern Ireland and the Border region. In excess of €340 million has already been spent on PEACE and INTERREG projects in the current programmes. The PEACE III programme has seen several valuable cross-community projects such as the teaching divided histories project work with communities along the interface areas of Belfast and shared space projects such as the Peace Bridge in Derry, which has become an iconic reminder of how much progress Derry has made in overcoming past divisions.
Several high profile projects were launched under the INTERREG programme last year including the all-island tourism trail, cross-Border economic development projects and business support programmes aimed at small and medium-sized enterprises. The Government was disappointed that the Narrow Water Bridge and Maze Long Kesh projects had to be withdrawn. However, our immediate focus must be to ensure full expenditure under these programmes. The Government remains committed to the concept of the Narrow Water Bridge and to the development of the peace building and reconciliation centre at the Maze Long Kesh site.
As we are now in the critical final implementation stages of PEACE III and INTERREG IVA, the priority will be to ensure expenditure targets are met and EU funds are fully drawn down, so the benefit to this island in developing the peace process and the cross-Border economy is maximised.
I am particularly pleased that during our EU Presidency, the European Council decided to include a special allocation of €150 million for a new PEACE programme in its multi-annual financial framework. It is also positive that the British Government has indicated it will provide an additional €50 million of ERDF, European Regional Development Fund, funding to the PEACE programme. The Special EU Programmes Body, SEUPB, has undertaken its initial consultation process for both the new PEACE programme and the successor INTERREG programme. Preliminary drafts of the programmes will shortly be released for consultation. The focus of the new INTERREG programme, which covers Northern Ireland, the Border counties and the west of Scotland, is likely to be directed towards areas such as research and innovation, social inclusion and combating poverty, the low-carbon economy and the environment.
The Government believes the current talks process presents an opportunity to reaffirm the fundamental principles set out in the Good Friday and St. Andrews Agreements and to use those principles as the basis for agreement in the three areas of contention. The Government, as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and of the process as a whole, must ensure there is no weakening of those commitments. It is encouraging that the Northern Ireland party leaders are meeting again this week and I hope their discussions will lead to further progress. We will continue to support the process in any way we can and will work closely with the British Government to do so.
The Government will continue to keep Northern Ireland at the forefront of its agenda. We will maintain our whole-of-government approach, focusing in particular on the central role of the North-South Ministerial Council in keeping both parts of the island on the road to economic recovery and prosperity.