I welcome this opportunity to speak about the New Decade, New Approach agreement of January last year, restoring to full operation the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, including the Executive, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the North-South Ministerial Council.
On 9 January 2020, on behalf of the Irish and British Governments, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Simon Coveney, and the then Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Julian Smith, published the New Decade, New Approach agreement as the basis for the political parties in Northern Ireland to operate the power-sharing Executive and Assembly again. On 11 January, the five main parties accepted the agreement as the basis for them to re-form the Northern Ireland Executive.
The agreement was forged through long periods of negotiation in a number of different formats in the three years since the Executive had collapsed in January 2017. It involved difficult compromises on sensitive issues and I pay tribute to all those involved. This was a very significant shared achievement by the parties in Northern Ireland and by the British and Irish Governments, restoring the power-sharing institutions of the Good Friday Agreement to operation after a regrettable and protracted three-year absence.
The five-party Executive has now been in place for over a year making decisions for the people of Northern Ireland, MLAs are back working in the Assembly and Ministers from North and South are meeting in the North-South Ministerial Council.
The period since the agreement has been one of unprecedented challenges, dealing with the outworkings of Brexit and responding to the Covid-19 pandemic. However, I remain convinced that the full implementation of the agreement will provide a stronger and more resilient foundation for the power-sharing Executive, thanks to the work of all the parties to reach consensus with the support of the British and Irish Governments.
At its heart of the New Decade, New Approach agreement is a commitment to address the issues that are of importance to the people of Northern Ireland. It sets out priorities for the Northern Ireland Executive on a number of key areas, including health, education, infrastructure and welfare. It reflects an ambitious agenda for investment and reform of public services. The agreement also outlines a number of important reforms and commitments to ensure greater stability and transparency in the Northern Ireland Executive and Assembly, including changes to the petition of concern, to ensure it operates as intended.
Before turning to the Irish Government’s commitments made in the context of the agreement, I will address the sensitive issues of language and of legacy. On the issues of rights, language and identity, the parties affirmed in the agreement "the need to respect the freedom of all persons in Northern Ireland to choose, affirm, maintain and develop their national and cultural identity". This was accompanied by a commitment to a package of legislative measures on the Irish language and on the arts and literature associated with the Ulster Scots and Ulster British tradition. It was agreed that this package of legislation would be presented to the Assembly within three months of the restoration of the institutions. I urge now that progress be made so that this legislation can be brought through the Assembly in the immediate period ahead in line with the commitments of the New Decade, New Approach agreement.
The Stormont House Agreement of 2014 sets out a balanced, comprehensive framework to address the painful legacy of the past in Northern Ireland. It is the path forward on this issue and progress is crucial for victims, survivors and families who have waited for far too long and for society as a whole. The British Government made a number of commitments in the context of the New Decade, New Approach agreement. Notable among those was its commitment to introduce legislation to implement the Stormont House Agreement to provide a comprehensive and balanced framework to deal with legacy issues in Northern Ireland. It is critical that we see progress on this alongside the other commitments we collectively made.
The Stormont House Agreement framework was agreed by both Governments and the political parties in Northern Ireland after intensive negotiations and it must be implemented. We will continue to press the British Government on the implementation of the agreed collective framework. Politics in Northern Ireland will continue to be adversely affected if concerns around the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement are not addressed by the British Government.
In the context of the New Decades, New Approach agreement there were specific commitments by the Irish Government "in support of greater co-operation, connectivity and opportunity North/South on the island" working in partnership with the Northern Ireland Executive and the British Government. These are focused on delivering projects that benefit people across the island, including greater connectivity between North and South, investing in the north-west region and in Border communities, research and innovation, supporting the Irish language in Northern Ireland and supporting reconciliation as an integral part of the peace process.
These commitments are reflected in the shared island chapter of our Programme for Government, ensuring their delivery is at the heart of the work of this Government. Specifically, the Government has recommitted to the funding of £75 million over the next three years for the A5 project and agreed the launch of restoration work on phase 2 of the Ulster Canal project, including with the support of €6 million from the shared island fund. Work on a strategic review of the rail network on the island of Ireland is advancing and the Narrow Water bridge continues to be a key priority. We are developing proposals for an enhanced North-South programme of research and innovation and as part of our commitment to investment in the north-west and Border communities, including further support for the north-west strategic growth partnership, I met on Thursday last with the Donegal and Derry and Strabane councils, which are working in close partnership together and very effectively. The expanded reconciliation fund of the Department of Foreign Affairs, the International Fund for Ireland and the new PEACE PLUS programme for Northern Ireland and the Border counties will provide critical funding for work on peace and reconciliation.
Restoration of the Executive has enabled the North-South Ministerial Council to operate fully again. I was honoured in July 2020 to welcome the First and deputy First Ministers to Dublin for the plenary North-South Ministerial Council meeting of the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive, the first in more than three and a half years. In December the Executive hosted a further plenary meeting, although on this occasion the meeting took place virtually due to Covid-19 restrictions. In these two plenary meetings and across the 12 North-South sectoral ministerial meetings, we have worked to advance these agreement commitments and other collaborative initiatives for the benefit of people North and South, and we will continue to do so.
As part of our shared concern to tackle the Covid-19 pandemic on this island both North-South Ministerial Council plenary meetings discussed measures to protect public health and limit the spread of the virus. Rebuilding societal and economic recovery will be a key challenge for the Government and for the Northern Ireland Executive in the period ahead and I believe working together for the benefit of the people North and South will help to unlock the full potential for recovery on this island. The British-Irish Council continued to meet without the Northern Ireland Executive. We were all very pleased to welcome the First Minister and deputy First Minister to the 34th British-Irish Council summit in November last year, which included a very useful discussion on economic recovery in the context of Covid-19.
As we continue to navigate this pandemic, and as we look forward to when we can take appropriate steps to reopen society and rebuild our economy, the functioning of all the parts of the Good Friday Agreement is critical for us all. Stable and effective power-sharing within Northern Ireland, effective and constructive North-South co-operation and positive and co-operative east-west partnership are all vital dimensions of delivering for all the people of this island and these islands both right now and in the long term.
Ensuring that we all, collectively and individually, deliver on the commitments made in the Good Friday Agreement and all subsequent agreements, up to and including the New Decade, New Approach agreement, is how we will ensure the stability and productivity of all those relationships. While they are essential, however, the commitments made at the time of the New Decade, New Approach agreement, are far from being the outer limits of our aspirations for our relationships on this island.
Our shared island initiative recognises that we need to do more on the island, through the framework and institutions of the Good Friday Agreement, to make progress with reconciliation, build a consensus around a shared future and address the issues that matter most for the people. Whatever one's constitutional perspective - nationalist, unionist or neither - this must be a fundamental concern for our shared future on this island. There is no version of the future worth working for that does not have lasting reconciliation between the communities and traditions on this island at its core. The shared island initiative is about seeking out, developing and realising the full extent of the opportunities that the Good Friday Agreement framework gives us in order to ensure that we make progress with an agenda of reconciliation in the years ahead. This is an agenda that everyone on the island - Irish, British, both or neither - can engage with confidently. It does not diminish or compromise anyone’s identity or beliefs. The shared island initiative is a whole-of-government priority, and the shared island unit in my Department is tasked with driving and co-ordinating this work across all Departments.
As part of the New Decade, New Approach agreement, the Government undertook to "update and enhance the commitment to jointly funding cross-border investment". That is exactly what we have done by means of the shared island initiative. In budget 2021, the Government announced the shared island fund, with €500 million in capital funding being made available over the next five years, ring-fenced for collaborative cross-Border projects. This complements our existing all-island commitments, including to the North-South bodies, cross-Border health services and the reconciliation fund, as well as the significant support for peace and progress on the island that will be delivered through the EU PEACE PLUS programme. The shared island fund confirms our readiness to invest in our shared future on the island.
I have already outlined how we are working now with the Northern Ireland Executive and through the North-South Ministerial Council to drive progress with long-standing cross-Border infrastructure commitments, such as the Ulster Canal, the Narrow Water bridge project and the A5 road transport corridor. We also aim to develop and deliver a new generation of collaborative cross-Border investments that will contribute to progress on climate mitigation, transport connectivity, reversing biodiversity decline, research and innovation and an economy which fully harnesses talent and capacity right across the island.
As was stated in the New Decade, New Approach agreement, the Government believes that "the North-South Ministerial Council can take forward important, action-oriented dialogue" on "strategic challenges for these islands including all-island cooperation and coordination to tackle climate breakdown." The climate crisis is a generational challenge for us all on the island. We need to strive for ways to address it together. We can achieve far more working in a co-ordinated way than we can separately. I have also had constructive engagement with the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, on the shared island initiative and conveyed our readiness to engage on an east-west basis as we take forward this work to address together the shared strategic challenges we face on the island.
As part of the shared island initiative, I also launched the shared island dialogue series to foster inclusive civic discussion on key issues for the future, for example, the environment, in respect of which the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications facilitated the discussion, health, education and the economy. We also had a dialogue involving young people living on the island of Ireland, many of whom would have been born after the Good Friday Agreement came into being and who were in a position to give their perspectives on the future living on this island together in harmony and reconciliation.
The shared island unit is also commissioning research, involving the National Economic and Social Council and the Economic and Social Research Institute, that will be published to inform and to stimulate debate, on how we can take forward a shared island agenda in the years ahead. It will focus on areas like environment, enterprise policy, regional development, tackling poverty and supporting social enterprise. Strengthening social, economic and political links is also a key focus. Through the civic dialogue and research work we are progressing, we will deepen our understanding - in Government and in wider society - on how we can best work together on the island in the years ahead, to take up the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement.
Progress with reconciliation will not just happen. We need to work shoulder to shoulder to meet the demands and take up the opportunities of our time. Our shared island initiative is focused on ensuring that collectively, we grasp the opportunity and work towards a shared, inclusive, reconciled future for all founded on the Good Friday Agreement.
This is a critical time for Ireland and Northern Ireland. It is a time when effective political leadership has never been more necessary and when reconciliation should be to the fore. Calm voices are needed, particularly in the post-Brexit context. For its part, the Government will work in partnership with the British Government and the Northern Ireland Executive, through all of the institutions, to ensure that we collectively deliver on our commitments to see the New Decade, New Approach agreement delivered in full. I look forward to hearing the contributions of Deputies on this important agreement.