I have received apologies from Deputy Fitzmaurice. At the outset I remind members, staff, witnesses and those in the Public Gallery to turn off their mobile phones. Mobile phones interfere with the sound system and make it difficult for the parliamentary reporters to report the meeting as well as affecting the television broadcast and web stream.
I draw the attention of witnesses to the fact that by virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. I advise that any submissions, opening statements or other documents supplied by the witnesses to the committee will be published on the committee website after the meeting. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable.
The committee is meeting today to discuss the matter of supporting communities and sustaining small rural businesses within the Border region after Brexit. I welcome the following witnesses to the committee: from the Centre for Cross Border Studies, Dr. Anthony Soares, deputy director; from the East Border Region, Ms Pamela Arthurs, chief executive; from the Northern Ireland Local Government Association, NILGA, Councillor Seamus Doyle, a member of the NILGA executive, and Ms Lisa O'Kane, programme manager; from the Rural Community Network, Mr. Aidan Campbell, policy and public affairs; and from the Irish Central Border Area, Mr. Shane Campbell, chief executive. It is proposed that the opening statements and any other documents supplied by the witnesses to the committee be published on the committee website after the meeting. Is that agreed? Agreed.
This is an appropriate time to consider the risks to the Border region, particularly in terms of rural and community development. After the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union two and a half years ago, it is still not clear what Brexit actually means in practice. The withdrawal agreement and a political declaration may or may not be agreed by the United Kingdom Parliament. There are basic scenarios in relation to Brexit. There will be a soft Brexit with a withdrawal agreement and a transition period, there will be a hard Brexit without a withdrawal agreement, meaning that the UK would basically crash out of the EU, or there will be no Brexit at all. There is no good Brexit so we are trying to get the best possible outcome for all of this island and for the EU as a whole. An added difficulty is that there is no functioning Executive in Northern Ireland.
We should always remember that policies on one side of the Border can have serious effects on the other side of the Border. There have been successes, such as the PEACE IV programme, which funds actions that promote social and economic stability in Northern Ireland and the Border region of Ireland and is co-funded by the EU and the Irish and UK Governments. Some €240 million will be invested by the EU, Ireland and the UK over the programme period. When there is co-operation between both sides, both sides can benefit. A good example was rural transport with the joint control of the Great Northern Railway in the 1950s by both Governments North and South. Later in the 1960s, the Northern Ireland Government closed all cross-Border railways except the Dublin-Belfast line. Consequently, there are no railway lines in counties Donegal, Tyrone, Fermanagh, Cavan and Monaghan and there is no railway line anywhere between Derry and Mullingar.
The committee looks forward to enhanced co-operation at local and regional level. We are interested in hearing the views of representatives here today on how we can mitigate the risks to the Border region and how we can enhance rural and community development. The joint committee looks forward to the witnesses' contribution to policy formation in the area of rural and community development in the Border region. As the committee has agreed to publish the witnesses' opening statements, perhaps they can focus on the main points and speak for three to five minutes. I also suggest that members limit their questions to between three and five minutes. I call Dr. Soares, deputy director of the Centre for Cross Border Studies, to make his opening statement.