Ceisteanna - Questions

National Risk Assessment

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

1. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the extent to which further potential risks have been identified in the context of the national risk assessment. [55793/21]

Paul Murphy

Question:

2. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach the extent to which further potential risks have been identified in the context of the national risk assessment. [55799/21]

Brendan Smith

Question:

3. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the national risk assessment. [55901/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.

The national risk assessment provides an opportunity to identify and discuss significant risks that may arise for Ireland. Since it was first published in 2014, it has provided an overview of strategic risks and has highlighted risks such as Brexit, housing and pandemics. The process is designed to ensure a broad-based and inclusive debate on the risks facing the country. This includes publishing the draft for public consultation. There are also opportunities for stakeholders and Oireachtas Members to contribute to the development of the final version.

The national risk assessment is not intended to replicate or displace the detailed risk management and preparedness that happens across Departments and agencies. Rather, it focuses on the identification of strategic risks and is a tool to assist Departments and agencies to update existing or develop new mitigation plans.

By any measure, the period since it was last published in 2019 has been particularly turbulent. Risks such as Brexit have come to pass, with very significant repercussions across our society. In particular, the pandemic has affected every element of daily life to some extent. It is impacting livelihoods and, most significantly, as we know, has come at great cost to health and life.

A new draft national risk assessment was published for consultation last July and laid before the Oireachtas. It seeks to capture the impact of the pandemic, including how it has magnified existing risks and the new risks it has introduced. It also suggests new or existing strategic risks. New or previous risks outlined in the draft published for consultation include economic scarring and digital exclusion, as well as the heightened risk to social cohesion given the uneven impact of the pandemic. Work is well advanced on finalising the national risk assessment 2021-22 which will be published in the coming weeks.

The new draft national risk assessment highlights a decline of people's trust in institutions as a risk facing the State. I would make the case that cronyism, corruption and a complete lack of transparency have meant that more and more people are disgusted by the politicians and the institutions in this State. I ask the Taoiseach to comment in that respect on the recent actions of his Minister of State, Deputy Troy. We know, thanks to an article by Mr. Aaron Rogan in the Business Post, that Deputy Troy, in his position as a Minister of State in the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, recently met big tech companies to discuss Ireland's national position on upcoming European legislation, namely, the Digital Markets Act and Digital Services Act.

He met them only after the companies were assured there would be no detailed minutes taken of what was being discussed. They wrote expressing concern as to the freedom of information dimension, assuming a note of the meeting would be kept that would be subject to freedom of information but that the note would not be overly detailed, and they were assured that only a high-level and anonymised overview note of the event would be drafted for records purposes and the meeting would be subject to the so-called Chatham rule. The details of who attended the meeting are not provided and there are no detailed minutes of what was discussed. Is this not very poor behaviour - an attempt to evade the lobbying rules and to have back-room, closed-door discussions with corporate lobbyists? Should the Minister of State, Deputy Troy, explain who attended the meeting and what was said?

Since the last national risk assessment was published in 2019, there have been major challenges for this country and, indeed, for the world. There is the ongoing Covid-19 pandemic, we suffered the cyber attack on the health services, the HSE and the Department of Health, and we also encountered Brexit and the fallout from that. We must have an all-island and all-Ireland approach to major health challenges. Co-operation and working together were established in 1992 in what is known as the Ballyconnell Agreement. It was a new programme where there was delivery of some health services across both jurisdictions on a cross-Border basis. That brought great benefits to communities on both sides of the Border. The island of Ireland is a single epidemiological unit for disease control relating to animal health. I was involved in that in the past when we developed all-Ireland animal disease policies. There must be similar practical considerations in respect of human health. In both the North and South we must improve access to healthcare. Cross-Border health provision must be given a major impetus, and meaningful collaboration and co-operation are essential to plan for the many challenges that exist.

We should recall that the Taoiseach's former Government colleague, Mr. David Byrne, who served with the Taoiseach in the Government as Attorney General, spoke as an EU Commissioner about the dangers of pandemics and the lack of a Europe-wide approach to meeting those major challenges. Now we see how meaningful, progressive and insightful his comments were. He is a man who served this country with great distinction both as Attorney General and as an EU Commissioner representing this country in the European Commission. We need a programme of research on an all-Ireland basis. The shared island unit established by the Taoiseach could give a great impetus to research and development of health programmes. Having met the All-Island Cancer Research Institute, I am aware important work is ongoing at present. That could be given extra momentum as well. I am aware the Taoiseach has engaged with the institute directly, too. That is very important.

Professor Deirdre Heenan of Ulster University has written extensively about the areas for co-operation in regard to the provision of healthcare on a cross-Border and all-island basis. We need to deal with the challenges not on the day that they are with us, but by planning in advance for challenges such as pandemics in the future, God forbid. We always need to prepare in good time, and we must prepare as one all-Ireland unit for dealing with diseases that affect human beings.

It will not be a shock that I will add my voice to what was said previously, particularly in respect of the necessity for planning on an all-Ireland basis for all the issues we are dealing with and all the strategic risks we face. Many of them will require even more than that. Obviously, there must be international co-operation, and within the European Union there is the facility to examine some of these specific issues. We could talk about any of them. With regard to housing, until we deal with the issue of ensuring there is supply, there is the necessity to deal with where people find themselves at present under severe pressure.

I want to look at some of the technological risks. There have been huge issues with the ransomware attack and the reality of how exposed we all are both individually and on a State-wide basis. There have been attempts to get a wider solution at European level. Will the Taoiseach comment on that? In the world we live in we must ensure we are protected as much as possible, given that sometimes we are dealing with subcontractor players operating outside the borders of the European Union. It is an absolute necessity.

It is very hard to see how we would not deal with an issue that the Taoiseach spoke about earlier, namely, the drugs pandemic and organised crime. If we are talking about a strategic risk across the board, that is one I see many of the people I deal with living with daily, whether it is burglary crime or drug debt intimidation. We must set a timeframe and move as quickly as possible with regard to the citizens' assembly, because I believe that sometimes this House does not have the capacity and capability to deal with the issues that have to be dealt with. If we are dealing with the economic ramifications of the situation in which we find ourselves now, obviously supply chain issues are massive due to Brexit and the pandemic. It is also about making sure, even though this is a difficult week as regards people who will possibly find themselves out of work due to the changed set of circumstances, that we examine those areas where we need skills set and ensure we do everything necessary to put ourselves in the right direction.

I thank the Deputies for raising those issues. In response to Deputy Paul Murphy, big tech companies meet Ministers regularly. They are responsible for thousands of jobs in the country, which should be acknowledged. I note the Deputy rarely acknowledges it in correspondence. That said, there must be meetings with such companies and they should be transparent. There is no issue, in my view, with meetings. They have to be. That is how I approach it. I do not know the full background to the circumstances there. As a Minister of State at the Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment, it would be natural and normal for Deputy Troy to meet companies. It would also be important in the context of the Digital Services Act because there are issues. Other countries have different agendas with regard to the legislation, but one of our concerns thematically would be that we do not believe in protectionism. I do not believe in the idea that there should be a fully Europeanised technology sector that must be discriminated in favour of through regulation or legislation against other sectors from different locations on the globe. I do not necessarily accept that. I am not saying that is going to be suggested, but we have a concern that laws can become protectionist whether by design or by accident. There are legitimate issues in that space that have to be discussed and understood in terms of the risk to employment here due to negative consequences that could arise from legislation.

The good story is that the European Union always works by consensus and will engage with every member state. We will make a contribution to that process. We will listen to stakeholders in that regard, especially the views of the country's citizens to protect people from a lot of what is happening online from many of the products of some of the companies, some of which have been injurious to people in terms of what is happening online generally and the negative use of algorithms. I would argue that the use of algorithms in the online platforms is the more substantive issue in terms of undermining the political system and political institutions. It has been the big transformational change in the past decade or two in respect of politics, how politics is commented on and how the narrative around politics develops.

Some of it can be useful and positive but much of it can be very negative. I am not just talking about the negative, hostile stuff and the hatred. Individuals are targeted online in a very hostile personalised way, the only objective of which is to undermine the individual. That is contributing to the undermining of individuals in politics and in positions of office. Much of it is not substantiated and when the algorithms come into play, we get the trending and all that. That is a risk.

However, if nobody took the minutes of the meeting, there is no record of who was there.

It should be clear who was there.

Deputy Brendan Smith made a very fair point on the all-island approach to the pandemic. There should be an all-island approach. For example, it would have been far better if Covid certs were part of an all-island approach. The party opposite, Sinn Féin, opposed the Covid certs here and have opposed them in the North. A cross-Border approach to hospitality would have made much more sense. The Deputy is right to point out that, epidemiologically, animal health is viewed on an all-island basis. He was involved in that as a former Minister for Agriculture, Food and Marine. So was the late Ian Paisley, who recognised that there are no borders for the spread of animal disease and the same applies with a human pandemic.

The politics in the North has undermined that approach and the current situation has not made it easy. That said, much good work has happened. The two CMOs are working, the Ministers for Health engage and so forth, but there has not been an overarching all-island epidemiological approach to this. For the health officials in the North, the focus of authority is London for the public health advice that they receive and deploy. The Executive also has its own views.

I reassure Deputy Brendan Smith that we will move substantially on the research issue. Deputy Ó Murchú agrees with that.

I agree that the drugs issue is of paramount concern. We cannot have communities being undermined by criminality and addiction. We need to approach it on a number of fronts. I am particularly anxious that we would restore greater resources to a community-based response to these issues, as we historically had, including when I was last in government.

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Alan Kelly

Question:

4. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the most recent European Council meeting. [54410/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the most recent European Council meeting. [55794/21]

Paul Murphy

Question:

6. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the most recent European Council meeting. [55800/21]

Seán Haughey

Question:

7. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent attendance at the European Council meeting. [55896/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 7, inclusive, together.

I attended a meeting of the European Council on 21 and 22 October in Brussels. The agenda covered Covid-19, energy prices, trade, external relations, migration and digital transformation. We also had a discussion on the rule of law in the European Union.

We discussed Covid-19, with a particular focus on vaccination rates across the European Union in the context of rising infection rates in many member states and tackling disinformation about the pandemic. We also discussed the importance of the global roll-out of vaccines and the central role of the World Health Organization in global health governance.

On energy prices, we discussed what we can do individually, as member states, and collectively, at European Union level, to mitigate the impact of recent price fluctuations on vulnerable citizens and businesses. We also considered medium and long-term measures to increase the European Union's energy resilience and green transition.

We also discussed digital issues, including ongoing progress on the Digital Services Act and Digital Markets Act, ahead of the publication of a European chips Act planned by the Commission.

We discussed trade, including its coherence with the overall international perspective of the European Union and, of course, critically the importance of trade to global economic recovery.

We discussed migration, including ongoing work to support countries of origin and transit.

We called on Turkey to implement fully the European Union-Turkey statement of 2016, including vis-à-vis the Republic of Cyprus.

We also discussed a new issue of enormous concern: the instrumentalisation of vulnerable migrants by the Lukashenko regime in Belarus.

We agreed conclusions on a number of important summits, including COP15 on biodiversity; the COP26 climate summit in Glasgow, which I attended; the Asia-Europe summit, in which I will participate when it will be held virtually on 25 and 26 November; and the European Union-Eastern Partnership summit to be held in Brussels on 15 December.

Tomorrow, Seán Binder, an Irish NGO worker and trained maritime search and rescuer faces trial in Greece for the crime of saving people's lives. In 2017 and 2018, he worked with a registered non-profit body that regularly engaged and joint operations with the Greek Coast Guard. His job was conducting search and rescue operations in the Aegean Sea, saving drowning refugees. Now he faces up to 25 years in prison for this humanitarian work. His rescue work is now being called smuggling. The charity fundraising he was involved in is being called money laundering. Monitoring for information about boats in distress is being labelled as espionage. This is a brutal and very worrying attack on humanitarian work and an attempt to scare other NGOs and humanitarian activists away from supporting and saving the lives of refugees. What will the Government do to support Seán Binder and to protect him from a potential gross miscarriage of justice? Will the Taoiseach speak out against this practice of attempting to criminalise humanitarian activity? Will representatives from the Irish Embassy attend the trial tomorrow?

I wish to raise the issue of migration, which the Taoiseach mentioned. It is clear that a humanitarian crisis is unfolding on the Belarusian border with Poland, Lithuania and Latvia. Thousands of migrants from Syria, Iraq and Afghanistan are experiencing enormous suffering and are living in appalling conditions with sub-zero temperatures. Their plight is becoming increasingly desperate. As we know these migrants are being flown in at the instigation of Alexander Lukashenko and are then being bussed to the borders. These migrants are in effect being weaponised. These actions by Lukashenko are totally unacceptable and reprehensible.

I welcome the fifth package of sanctions agreed by the EU foreign ministers this week. Unfortunately, this will affect Irish aircraft leasing companies, but they must be imposed for the greater good. If Belarus continues with these actions, would the Taoiseach ask the EU to consider further measures to sanction Belarus? Is there anything that Ireland or the EU can do immediately to alleviate the pain and suffering being experienced by these migrants caught up in this hybrid warfare?

I also ask about the massing of 90,000 Russian troops on the border with Ukraine. Russia, as we know, continues to interfere with Ukraine generally. I know the Taoiseach has been quite outspoken about Russia's activities in recent years. Does he think that an invasion of Ukraine by Russia is under consideration? As we know, Russia is a staunch ally of Belarus. What is the Taoiseach's assessment of the situation?

As I have a bit of time, I will throw in a second question with the Ceann Comhairle's permission. The Taoiseach mentioned COP26. Some people were disappointed with the outcome of COP26, particularly when the phasing out of coal was watered down to the phasing down of coal. Obviously, there were some successes. The 1.5°C target is in place and there are commitments to financial support for the various countries affected by deforestation. Given the Taoiseach's participation at COP26 and his participation at the European Council meeting, I would be interested to hear his thoughts on the outcome of COP26.

I will not repeat what has been said. Obviously, I add my voice in support of Seán Binder. I put the same question about Lukashenko and the weaponisation of migrants which shocks us all.

We all know how the energy crisis is impacting people. We are all beginning to get stories of people who cannot afford to pay for their gas, oil or electricity and are forced to consider alternatives that are not necessarily the greatest from the point of view of climate change, but that is what people will do.

The Taoiseach spoke about solutions by the State, which is one element, but the European Union has capacity on a wider level to engage in negotiations. I accept there are certain elements outside the State but the European Union can definitely provide a greater bang for our buck. What will that consolidated effort look like?

Beyond that, when we are speaking about climate change, where is the conversation on green bonds and long-term moves that need to be made? There is the question of the free flow of credit to facilitate states to do what needs to be done and the really heavy lifting so we can deal with the carbon budgets ahead of us. There is also the question of fiscal constraints, some of which were jettisoned during the pandemic.

On the questions raised by Deputy Paul Murphy, we always provide consular support to Irish citizens in any sort of difficulty. I will check to see that the embassy will be represented in the courts tomorrow. Greece is a member of the European Union and we do not, ordinarily, interfere in the judicial process in countries but we will keep a very close eye on this. We support humanitarian endeavours to protect migrants and we have been involved, as a state actor, in helping migrants in a very challenging position on our seas. I will examine this and ask officials in the Department of Foreign Affairs and elsewhere to pursue the matter.

Deputy Haughey raised a key issue in respect of Belarus and the Lukashenko regime. Suffice it to say that I am particularly angry about this matter, as are most leaders of the EU Council. We have condemned without hesitation the Lukashenko regime's exploitation of migrants for political purposes. We heard first-hand what is happening on the borders of Poland, Lithuania and Latvia, and it is quite shocking how people and migrants in particular are being used by Lukashenko as a retaliation measure against Europe for earlier sanctions arising from the kidnapping of a journalist on a plane in European airspace.

Ireland is co-sponsoring a fifth package of EU sanctions and new, broadened criteria were agreed by the European Union foreign ministers on Monday this week. I welcome that. This new package of sanctions will be finalised very soon.

Essentially, Lukashenko has stranded thousands of migrants in a freezing cold forest in an attempt to blackmail the European Union and that simply will not work. We must ensure migrants are warm, safe and fed, and Ireland has donated €100,000 to the Lithuanian Red Cross to help it to achieve that aim. We want to see international aid agencies and independent monitors given access to assist migrants on both sides of the border and we will continue to work towards this.

Some recent reporting has implied that because Ireland is an international hub for aircraft leasing companies, we will oppose sanctions on Belavia, the airline, and this is entirely untrue. Ireland fully supports the sanctions against all those responsible for the exploitation of migrants and we are co-sponsoring a fifth package of sanctions in this regard, as I stated. We all want Belarus to stop these flights using any aircraft, including those that are EU-owned. Irish officials are currently assisting the Commission in working out the legal and practical difficulties involved in ensuring sanctions are legally sound, work in practice and are not counterproductive.

We must also stem the flow of migrants to Belarus by sending clear messages about the risks involved. The European Union Commission and the European External Action Service have already successfully persuaded certain countries of origin and airlines to take action on this, which is welcome. They have gone to country authorities and airlines, explained what is going on and asked them to stop. It is a fairly strong response, to be fair. We must also be mindful of international protection and our duties and obligations under the Geneva Convention. We must respond in a balanced way and ensure the humanitarian crisis experienced by migrants is also addressed. It is a challenging issue all around.

On the question of Russia, there is some concern around increased mobilisation but it is very difficult to assess because this has happened before but not led to an invasion. One hopes it will not lead to an invasion. The indications some time back were that it would not but one can never be certain of this, of course.

On COP26, although there has been disappointment about the fossil fuels provisions, the work keeps alive the 1.5°C ceiling. The biggest game changer has been the United States and its changing of the preceding US Administration's approach in signing up to the Paris accords. President Biden's Administration has been very proactive in working with the European Union and China on climate change. In my last conversation with him, I paid tribute to him on the China partnership relating to climate change. It was at the weekend, when he rang to congratulate me on Ireland's success in the rugby. We discussed climate change as well. That the US is pushing so strongly in a global approach is yielding results. A fair degree of momentum will come from Glasgow, particularly with climate finance and adaptation supports. There is also a new dialogue emerging on loss and damage. These are concrete supports and declarations on deforestation have also been important.

The last-minute changes were disappointing, specifically the change in wording from "phasing out" to "phasing down" with regard to coal. It is still a very ambitious deal and that is the overall observation of our team there. I pay tribute to the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, who chaired an important session of the negotiations on behalf of the European Union. Ireland played a very proactive, strong and positive role at COP26 on a number of fronts.

The challenge for all of us is to deliver domestically and at European level. Deputy Ó Murchú spoke about the energy crisis. Europe is limited in this in some respects but what was clear from the meeting was that renewables are ultimately the way to go to reduce total dependence on Russian or imported gas. We will return to this regardless of whether Europe engages in the procurement of energy supplies on a pan-European basis. There is some distance to go before that happens, if we look at the realpolitik. Nonetheless, Europe is seized of the crisis. Looking at the energy mix, gas will always be a transitional fuel and we must push on with renewables.

Was there any discussion about green bonds and physical constraints or a roadmap?

There was a discussion. Again, the bulk of discussion concerned whether there could be pan-European measures on pricing.

Northern Ireland

Alan Kelly

Question:

8. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the shared island dialogue will hold its next meeting. [56126/21]

I launched the shared island dialogue series to foster inclusive, constructive civic dialogue on key issues for a shared future on the island underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement. Over the past year, there have been seven dialogue events and two round-table discussions. I participated in the first dialogue event last November, hearing from young people on their perspectives for the future of the island. Subsequent dialogues have focused on climate and environment, civil society, equality, economic recovery, health co-operation and education, with participation by Ministers.

More than 1,000 civic representatives have participated in the dialogue series from across all regions, communities and traditions on the island. The dialogue series has proved really worthwhile and valuable from the Government's perspective and from feedback received from participants. Exciting projects are also emerging from these discussions, such as the All-Island Women's Forum that has been established by the National Women's Council.

I will be participating in a shared island event in December that will look at progress with our shared island initiative to date and further implementation next year. As part of the approach, the shared island dialogue series will continue next year, with early discussions to focus on tourism and sport. The shared island unit in my Department is also considering how a next phase of dialogue is undertaken, including, I hope, being in a position to convene more in-person discussions next year.

If we are to overcome sectarian divisions and partition on this island, we need to provide a vision for an alternative Ireland - I would argue an eco-socialist Ireland - that protects all minorities and delivers real changes and improvements for people's lives. The issue of abortion rights for women in the North is crucial. It is shameful that women and pregnant people in the North are being left behind those in the South and in Britain. They are still being denied the right to choose. It is particularly disappointing that Sinn Féin, which has adopted a pro-choice position in the South, is helping to continue the anti-choice status quo in the North. It recently abstained on a poor and shameful anti-choice Bill from the DUP. There should be no abstaining on the right to choose. That is why People Before Profit MLA Gerry Carroll has long been a strong advocate for choice and, therefore, voted against this terrible Bill. One cannot have a partitionist approach to women's rights - saying one thing in Dublin and another in Belfast.

On what has just been said, Sinn Féin has an all-Ireland approach, as it has in relation to everything else and that includes women's rights. I welcome the shared island unit. I wish it would go further in certain fields, as I have said before. There are only benefits to be had in relation to a dialogue and engagement with all. That is why I have previously asked for a citizens' assembly. I am not looking for an over-and-back in relation to that. That is my view and I imagine the Taoiseach's view has not changed in the last fortnight on that. Those who will be offended will be offended by this or by any of the conversations taking place at this time on unity. We need to grasp that issue and plan for what is becoming, in an awful lot of people's eyes, a reality coming down the road. That is the situation as it is. It has been entwined with the politics of the British Government on Brexit and the protocol. Border Communities Against Brexit is looking to carry out a number of protests close to my part of the world. There will be a protest in Flurrybridge, Carrickcarnan, at 3 o'clock on Saturday, 20 November. This is about protecting the protocol and ensuring there is no return to a hard border. That is absolutely necessary.

On Narrow Water Bridge, are we still looking at in or around 2023 as the time to begin building? Is there a timeline for delivery and ensuring we have the finances for what is an absolutely necessary piece of infrastructure?

Beyond that, on the shared island unit, a significant amount of money and resources have gone into planning and modelling, involving the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, and engagement with universities. Will the Taoiseach give us some information about what that resource will provide us in relation to how we can shape a new united Ireland, and within that, to approach necessary changes - North and South - in framing a new and better Ireland?

I welcome the shared island dialogue and appreciate the report given by the Taoiseach. As we know, Northern Ireland's society is becoming increasingly more diverse. An increasing number of people identify themselves as neither nationalist nor unionist. An increasing number of people do not classify themselves as Irish, British or Northern Irish. There is a new diversity there. I welcome the dialogue in this regard. Is the Taoiseach satisfied that the voices of young people, who bring a new perspective to old challenges and intractable problems, are being heard in this dialogue? Is the Taoiseach satisfied that unionist participation in these dialogues is happening and that unionists are making a constructive contribution to the discussion?

I thank the Deputies for raising these questions. I take the point made by Deputy Paul Murphy. I would like to think that the National Women's Council has formed an all-island women's forum that could become a good forum and channel for discussion and debate of the issues identified by the Deputy. I cannot comment on Sinn Féin having a dual approach. It is not new.

Sinn Féin has a different approach on a lot of issues North and South, but we do not have time to go into it here.

We hope to end it.

Sinn Féin could have ended it a long time ago with Covid certificates, but it chose not to. Sinn Féin might have changed that last night after a long period. The point has been well made by Deputy Paul Murphy.

I refer to Deputy Ó Murchú's point on the citizens' assembly. I have said that 1,000 people have already met in the shared dialogue, covering subjects from biodiversity and climate change to women's rights and women's issues. Young people have met. Enterprise has met. That does not happen in a citizens' assembly. It is a different model and a different idea, and I think it is valid. The long journey of reconciliation and developing shared perspectives, which has to be between communities and traditions on a consistent basis, cannot be done by creating an assembly that runs for a number of weeks and gives an outcome. That does not actually-----

Everyone accepts that.

That is why we need to be careful about presenting it as a cause célèbre and suggesting that it is the most important thing, because it is not. The most important thing is to get people engaged with each other. I have experience from many years as a public representative and I have learned a lot throughout that journey. I do not go into the sloganeering anymore. When I was younger, we used to have slogans too but they did not advance anyone too far. We should use the Good Friday Agreement. I regret that Sinn Féin took a decision years ago that resulted in us not having an assembly for three years. It was crazy. We should utilise the Good Friday Agreement institutions to the full. Within the Good Friday Agreement, the constitutional position is provided for in terms of how that advances. Before we get there, a lot of work has to be done and a lot of engagement is required.

Deputy Haughey raised issues in terms of the shared island dialogue. Civic unionism has to participate. Political unionism is actually not against it. While it is not participating up front, it appreciates the investment that is coming with the shared island initiative.

I am intrigued by what Deputy Ó Murchú said about Narrow Water Bridge. You guys lost that opportunity years ago, as did a previous Government. I am determined to get it over the line through the local authority. In the documentation we have provided, there is €3 million for tendering and all that. I want progress to be made and co-operation the whole way. One single agenda is to get that over the line.

The Taoiseach is happy enough with the timeline.

On the ESRI and National Economic and Social Council, NESC, reports, the research programme with the ESRI is focusing on aspects of health, education, enterprise and an all-island economy post Brexit, which NESC has worked on. Scoping papers for each research topic were published on 17 May. Final reports will be published in December and early 2022. They will be important reports. Specifically, in 2021, the ESRI worked on building understanding of the structure and composition of cross-Border trade and services, so we will get a better understanding of that on the island of Ireland; examining the primary healthcare system of Ireland and Northern Ireland and drawing out implications for policy; examining patterns of educational participation and attainment in the two jurisdictions; and assessing what lessons can be learned for the future.

I have an issue around school completions. In the North, school completion rates in certain communities could be much better than they are. That is a factor. We are in a stronger position, but maybe lessons can be learned both ways. The ESRI is looking at issues that could enhance the attractiveness of the island as a whole to high-value foreign direct investment. I do not have enough time to go through everything, but NESC is covering a whole range of areas, as I have identified. On 28 October, NESC published a shared island report on collaborating on climate biodiversity challenges on the island. It has published scoping papers on the economy and regional development, tackling poverty, mental health, social enterprise and climate.

A lot of good solid research work is being done, funded through the shared island initiative. On a much bigger scale, we have provided €40 million for research conducted jointly between third level institutions in the North and the South. We will fund it all but we want equal collaboration between third level institutions in the North and the South on matters of mutual interest to the benefit of the island.

Deputy Haughey raised the issue of young people. It is very important that young people in the Republic get engaged in the debate about the future of the island. We have had a number of engagements and would like more to allow young people in Dublin, Galway, Waterford, Cork, Limerick and elsewhere to engage with young people from Northern Ireland. We are facilitating that.

We also want to facilitate political exchanges between people from different political backgrounds and traditions. Some such engagements would be conducted under the Chatham House rule. I engaged in meetings of this kind back in the early 1990s and they were very valuable. Politicians could feel safe and secure in coming into an environment for a weekend of engagement knowing no one would comment publicly on what was said. To break down barriers, it is important that people cannot be manipulated as a result of something they may say at a meeting. It is important that people can speak frankly about things. We need an awful lot more of that. To its credit, the British-Irish Association has been doing that for more than 30 years. That has been a very valuable instrument. I have been involved in a number of meetings of that kind myself and they have given me a better understanding of where people are coming from. At the end of the day, we are all politicians and we understand the pressures put on us by our constituencies and electoral bases. That is something we need to continue to work at. I would like to see that developed further.

I hope I have covered most of the issues. On the protests in respect of the protocol, we need a negotiated resolution. We need to keep tensions at a certain level. We need to dial it down. When talking to unionist colleagues and other colleagues, I have been at pains to point out that there is a process for negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom Government. I would say to the United Kingdom Government that it is extremely important that this matter does not get elevated to a question of identity or connected with some other area to which it does not really apply. It is about ensuring that goods can travel from Great Britain to Northern Ireland with the minimum of checks. The European Union is up for that.

Written answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
Sitting suspended at 2.02 p.m. and resumed at 3.02 p.m.