I wish also to acknowledge that one of our members, Mr. Eddie McGrady, former MP for South Down has retired from politics since I last appeared before the joint committee. I pay tribute to his contribution to politics on this island throughout his career and I wish him well in the future.
This is my second appearance before the joint committee as Minister for Foreign Affairs. I take this opportunity to commend the committee on the breadth of work it has undertaken during the past three years. Since my last appearance before the joint committee, there have been several important developments in Northern Ireland. We have seen further steps towards fully implementing the Good Friday Agreement and the St. Andrews Agreement through the Hillsborough Agreementwhich was concluded in February this year. It provided the basis for a very significant step in the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, namely, the completion of the devolution of policing and justice powers. The appointment of Mr. David Ford, a locally accountable justice Minister was a further important landmark in consolidating the peace process. There are other elements to the Hillsborough Agreement including parading, the operation of the Executive and implementation of outstanding commitments from St. Andrews. These have progressed to varying degrees and, like many things of great value and importance, progress has not always come quickly or easily. However, I am confident that working together and with the support of both Governments the political leaders in the North will be able to implement all aspects of the Agreements.
As experience again showed this summer, the cost in human and community terms of the tensions and confrontation around a small number of parades remains too high, not to mention the policing and security costs. In the past 48 hours, it has become clear that the draft parades legislation that arose from the Hillsborough Agreement is stalled. As was agreed at Hillsborough, in the absence of agreement on new arrangements, the Parades Commission will continue in existence. I understand that the Secretary of State, Mr. Owen Paterson, will shortly begin the process of appointing a new Parades Commission. Much of the progress that has been made over the past ten years in reducing the number of contentious parades to a small handful was due to the conscientious and often thankless work of successive Parades Commissions. In the absence of cross-community agreement on new arrangements, it is important that the new Parades Commission is of a high quality and afforded the respect and authority it deserves in dealing with the remaining contentious parades. I pay tribute to all those volunteers on both sides of the community who worked and continue to work to reduce tension around parades.
Sir Reg Empey has recently stepped down as the head of his party and I take this opportunity to pay tribute to him. As Deputy Leader and Leader of the Ulster Unionist Party Mr. Reg Empey has made a huge contribution to peace on this island and can be justly proud of his work as one of the architects of the Good Friday Agreement. I look forward to continuing to work with him as he continues his career in public life. I also congratulate his successor Mr. Tom Elliott and look forward to meeting and working with him in the near future.
I will focus my remarks today on the North-South agenda and on the work of the North-South Ministerial Council, including the most recent plenary, which was hosted by the Taoiseach at Farmleigh on 5 July last. The plenary at Farmleigh on 5 July 2010 saw constructive discussion between Ministers, North and South, on a range of pressing issues, including a thorough, wide-ranging and free-flowing discussion, with a particular focus on economic issues. To facilitate this, we tabled two discussion papers on shared fiscal challenges and innovation.
Ministers had an opportunity to consider the next phase of fiscal consolidation in each jurisdiction and the potential to achieve savings on a North-South basis by eliminating areas of duplicated expenditure and achieving economies of scale. Other shared fiscal challenges discussed included the appointment of an advisory committee on Northern Ireland to NAMA, the impact of the banks' recapitalisation on lending in the North and the future of the PEACE and INTERREG programmes.
Ministers also had an opportunity to discuss innovation. A key finding of the innovation task force earlier this year was the potential to expand North-South co-operation as a step towards developing the island into a leading region for research and innovation by developing valuable synergies. The Government committed in excess of €21 million to funding for North-South research collaborations during 2008 and 2009, while strong cross-Border linkages have also been developed through the US-Ireland research and development partnership and under the EU's Seventh Framework Programme.
We engaged with Northern Ireland Ministers in a discussion as to how economic agencies North and South might co-operate jointly to promote the innovation island and agreed a series of joint actions which would see InterTradeIreland taking a lead role in promoting an all-island ecosystem for innovation.
Both administrations stand to gain by promoting this island as a centre of excellence for innovation and cutting-edge research. In connection with this, there are plans for the EU Commissioner for Research, Innovation and Science, Máire Geoghegan-Quinn, to visit Northern Ireland to attend the trade and business development sectorial meeting in November.
We also considered progress in North-South co-operation since the ninth plenary meeting in December 2009. This included the close co-operation between relevant authorities North and South, including the agreement to an all-island animal health and welfare strategy and the joint enforcement to target shipments of waste. There has been continued co-operation in areas like child protection, including the innovative North-South child protection website.
Note was taken of the introduction on 28 January 2010 of the mutual recognition of driver disqualifications between Ireland and the United Kingdom and the continuing work on the longer term objective of mutual recognition of penalty points. Work continues on a co-ordinated approach to reducing permitted alcohol blood levels in both jurisdictions. Taken together, these measures will contribute greatly to enhanced road safety on the island.
On infrastructural issues, we noted that progress continues on the upgraded A5 road to Derry and Letterkenny and recognised the importance of this to the further development of the north west. It is hoped this project, along with the A8 Belfast to Larne upgrade, will make rapid progress. Another flagship infrastructure project, the final link in the Dublin to Belfast road corridor, was opened by the Taoiseach and the Deputy First Minister on 29 July 2010.
Even in these difficult economic times, we are committed to delivering on our roads investment package and building the all-island infrastructure which will allow our economy to return to a path of sustainable and enduring growth. Northern Ministers appreciated the assurances we were able to offer in this respect.
At the plenary, we also considered progress with the St. Andrews Agreement review of North-South bodies and areas of co-operation, the North-South consultative forum and the North-South parliamentary forum. On the review agreed at St. Andrews, we took note that the recommendations of the panel of experts and advisers would be forwarded to relevant Ministers for their views. These recommendations were on the first term of reference of the review, the efficiency and value for money of existing North-South implementation bodies and Tourism Ireland.
The report provided positive assessments of all the bodies concerned in this regard. Views are also in the process of being sought for the second and third terms of reference, namely to examine objectively the case for additional bodies and areas of co-operation in the North-South Ministerial Council where mutual benefit would be derived and input into the work on the identification of a suitable substitute for the proposed lights agency of the Foyle, Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission. I hope that following receipt of these views, the review group will be in a position to conclude its work.
The establishment of the North-South consultative forum has been discussed at all plenary meetings since May 2007. We have already submitted our ideas to the Executive on the role a North-South consultative forum might play in advising on social, economic and cultural issues with a cross-Border dimension.
In the interim, the first North-South consultative conference, facilitated by the Department of the Taoiseach, took place in Farmleigh in Dublin on 15 October last when representatives of the social partners and interested organisations, North and South, were brought together to explore relevant social, cultural and economic issues that have a North-South and cross-Border dimension.
The second North-South consultative conference took place on 24 May last and was addressed by Northern Ireland's Deputy First Minister, Mr. Martin McGuinness. The event focused on sport and young people and the role that innovation can play in economic recovery on the island. The event was well attended by a broad range of participants from these sectors and from the social partners and cross-Border groups. It is intended to hold a further such event in the coming months.
The North-South parliamentary forum is primarily a matter for the Oireachtas and the Northern Ireland Assembly. The Ceann Comhairle and the Speaker of the Assembly continue to work together supported by their working groups to progress this issue. I am heartened to learn that a North-South parliamentary forum conference will be held in October in County Down. Members will agree there is significant value in parliamentarians North and South coming together to debate and discuss issues of relevance to all our constituents. Once established I hope a North-South parliamentary forum will provide a substantive, representative and cost effective platform for this important engagement between the Assembly and Oireachtas.
North-South co-operation in all its aspects is vital to the future development of the island of Ireland. This is not a political statement but a practical one. As a small island it is crucial that we co-operate to compete in a globalised world. I hope this briefing emphasises that this is happening. Ministers and Departments are in frequent contact taking forward work across a broad range of areas. While much of this work is necessarily quiet, detailed and technical, it is no less important for that. It is real-world stuff, the kind of practical, strategic co-operation which will in the long run make a significant difference to the real lives of those we represent, North and South. This is particularly true in this time of serious pressure on public spending in both jurisdictions. We can and should work together to maintain and improve public services for our citizens.
Every elected representative, North and South, wants to increase investment and tourism on the island. We need to recognise that what benefits one, benefits all. In this regard, I am looking forward to joining with the First Minister, the Deputy First Minister and the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Owen Paterson, at the Northern Ireland investment conference in Washington DC organised by US economic envoy, Mr. Declan Kelly.
One issue which must be tackled head on in the months and years to come is the continuing scourge of sectarianism and division, the need to promote reconciliation on a cross-community and, indeed, on a North-South and East-West basis.
The parades-related violence in July is a reminder there is still work to be done at community level to overcome fear and mistrust and to promote mutual respect and tolerance. We must ensure the benefits of peace reach into every neighbourhood.
In that regard, my Department's reconciliation and anti-sectarianism funds are helping communities across the island of Ireland to build sustainable relationships based on mutual understanding and respect. These funds are making a real contribution to improving good relations and helping in modest ways to lay the foundations for a genuinely shared future for all the people of this island.
As we look to the brighter future that the Good Friday Agreement helped create for people across this island, we must also remember the painful past that many people still carry with them. The families who lost loved ones on Bloody Sunday, those who were injured on that terrible day and the city of Derry itself, came together on 15 June and witnessed the end of a long campaign for the truth to be set free.
In the time before the publication of the Saville report, family members of the deceased raised concerns about the publication process with this committee. The clear message from this committee reinforced the message from successive Governments and all parties in the Oireachtas to our counterparts across the water that the report, and the issue it was to address, were of historical significance to all the people we represent. As the committee heard earlier this month from the family members in question, the Saville report and the apology from the UK Prime Minister, Mr. David Cameron, were momentous for them, for the city of Derry and for their many supporters throughout the island of Ireland and across the globe.
There is a threat posed by so-called dissident republicans. Last week, the British Government raised the threat level in Great Britain arising from these groups, the threat level already being at the highest level in Northern Ireland. The two Governments and our police forces are doing everything they can to deal with this threat. The Garda Commissioner, Fachtna Murphy, also made this clear on Tuesday. I also want to make absolutely clear that those who seek to sow discord and engender hatred are simply unqualified partitionists who can lay no claim to the noble ideals of republicanism. Violent acts serve only to separate the people of this island; Catholic from Protestant, Unionist from Nationalist and indeed Northerner from Southerner. The path to unity cannot be built on such divisions. The only way that Irish unity, a goal shared by the majority of people on this island, can be achieved is through peace, reconciliation and consent. The people of Ireland endorsed this reality when they voted overwhelmingly to endorse the Good Friday Agreement. Those who do not have the stomach or the patience for the long haul should leave it to those of us who do. There is resolute determination across these islands that these misguided groups will not and should not undermine the peace process and our collective will and determination to live in peace and mutual respect. I call on them to cease and to desist from all violence.
On a final note, members of the committee will wish to be aware that the next North-South Ministerial Council plenary is scheduled to take place before the end of this year. I am not at present in a position to confirm a date, but I would be happy to meet members again as soon as possible afterwards and brief them on its outcome.
I am very grateful for your attention and I am pleased to answer any questions on the North-South agenda and other Northern Ireland-related issues which may be of interest or concern to members of this committee.