Stormont House Agreement: Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade

On behalf of the committee I am pleased to welcome the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, to discuss the outcome of the all-party talks in Northern Ireland and the resulting Stormont House Agreement. This topic is fundamentally important to the committee, as a renewed agreement is intrinsic to the future of Northern Ireland and provides a blueprint to move forward.

I invite the Minister to make his opening statement.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to appear before the committee to update it on the political talks that were held in Belfast in the final quarter of last year, which resulted in the Stormont House Agreement on the eve of Christmas Eve. I acknowledge the great interest of the committee in the matter, which builds on the foundational work of the Good Friday Agreement and subsequent agreements towards achieving a truly reconciled, peaceful, stable and prosperous island of Ireland. I greatly value the work of the committee and the role of the Chairman in the provision of parliamentary oversight of this important area. This is my first opportunity to appear before the committee to consider these matters.

Shortly after I took office in the summer of last year, it became apparent to me that the Northern Ireland Executive was at a political impasse, for a variety of reasons. The immediate context was the failure to find agreement on reform of the welfare system and on a budget. These difficulties arose in a context where there were a number of other political issues outstanding from the inconclusive but nevertheless important Haass talks of 2013, dealing with the legacy of the past, parades and flags. There had been some political consideration of the Haass issues between January and July 2014, until the party leaders talks were suspended as part of the so-called "graduated response" by Unionists to a parading decision in north Belfast. The North-South Ministerial Council which had been scheduled for the first week of July was subsequently also postponed.

By September last year, the clear message from a number of the parties, including Sinn Féin, the Social Democratic and Labour Party, SDLP, and the Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, was that all-party talks, with the direct involvement of both Governments, were required if the political impasse was to be broken and the Northern Ireland political institutions stabilised. It appeared to me that there was potential for a range of issues to be unlocked if they were addressed in a holistic manner which recognised the sometimes implicit, and sometimes explicit, links between them. For this reason, when the First Minister Peter Robinson wrote an opinion editorial article in the Belfast Telegraph in September calling for Government intervention, our firm position was that the resulting talks must embrace a broader agenda than just welfare and budgetary matters, as important as these were to the Northern Ireland Executive and to the British Government. In particular, the talks presented an important opportunity to address the inconclusive Haass issues, especially the legacy of the past, and outstanding commitments from previous agreements.

This committee needs no lessons in the damaging consequences of a failure to address the legacy of the past. It has visited the North on a number of occasions and meets with key stakeholders on a regular basis. Incidentally, for any future visits, my officials in Armagh and Belfast would be very happy to assist with the arrangements in any way possible. I know the Chairman will avail of that opportunity and I encourage him to do so. During the week last October that the political talks began in Belfast this committee heard a very stark account by the Northern Ireland Community Relations Council of the mood on the ground across communities in Northern Ireland. At that time, the committee expressed grave concerns at the lack of progress in community relations in Northern Ireland and urged both Governments, as guarantors of the Good Friday Agreement, to engage proactively to consolidate reconciliation on the ground. The Irish Government entered the talks with this goal in mind. Together with the British Government, we proposed that talks should start with the twin aims of advancing the reconciliation agenda and economic renewal.

These are some of the considerations that informed our position throughout the 11 weeks of talks in Belfast. The talks were intensive and, at times, very challenging.

This was only natural in discussions that addressed what we believe a truly reconciled and prosperous Northern Ireland should look like. There were many voices which did not believe that the talks could deliver an agreement, but Northern Ireland’s political leaders, with the support of the two Governments, ultimately demonstrated the will and the sense of compromise needed to overcome such challenges.

The Stormont House agreement covers a broad range of political, social and economic issues and has the potential to advance significantly its twin aims of reconciliation and economic renewal. Very importantly, the agreement establishes a new comprehensive framework for dealing with the past. These mechanisms have the potential to transform how we address the legacy of the past, by providing us with new and better tools to carry out investigations, to share stories, to retrieve lost information and, above all, to heal wounds.

The agreement sets out a plan for financial and budgetary reform. It proposes a way forward on flags, identity, culture and tradition through the setting up of a commission. It envisages the devolution of responsibility for parades to the Northern Ireland Assembly. It establishes a programme of institutional reform at Stormont and progresses a number of outstanding aspects from the Good Friday and St. Andrews Agreements.

The agreement also made provision for important steps in North-South co-operation, some of which have already been taken. In line with the agreement, a report on new sectoral priorities for North-South co-operation was brought to the North-South Ministerial Council institutional meeting on 25 February in Belfast. This will also be a standing agenda item for future institutional meetings within the North-South Ministerial Council. It was also agreed at that meeting that the relevant Ministers from both the Irish Government and the Northern Ireland Executive will meet in May in the north west to discuss a future strategic approach to that region.

Due to the priority being attached to the talks during the autumn, I was unfortunately not in a position to come before this committee to discuss the outcomes of the two plenary meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council which I attended last year. The first of these was on 3 October in Dublin Castle and the second on 5 December in Armagh. Consistent with the last number of years, the challenging economic environment provided an important context for our discussions at these meetings, as well as efforts that are being made to co-operate to support economic recovery, the creation of jobs, the best use of public funds and the most effective delivery of services for citizens. Another key discussion point was the opportunity for greater collaboration in drawing down EU funding. Other important discussions included the north west and child protection and e-safety. I will be happy to return before the committee following the next plenary meeting, which is scheduled to take place in June, to discuss North-South matters in greater detail.

The Stormont House Agreement is an important achievement, but its true value will be measured by our success in its implementation. In many ways the months we spent negotiating the agreement were only the beginning of the work. Our focus in the period ahead will be to ensure that its potential is fully realised. In this regard, the Stormont House Agreement stands out from some previous agreements in having a very clear, formalised structure to guide its implementation. This includes quarterly review and implementation meetings, six-monthly published progress reports and a collectively agreed implementation timetable that gives us a detailed timeframe to plan our work.

The first two implementation and review meetings have already taken place. I attended the second review meeting last week in Belfast. It was a useful opportunity to take stock of the progress we have made over the last three months. Implementing the agreement requires intensive, complex work but we are making steady progress across a range of areas, not least in setting up the framework on the past. Officials from Dublin, Belfast and London meet regularly to take forward this work, while Northern Ireland’s party leaders meet weekly to consider their responsibilities under the agreement.

The implementation process is not without challenges; such a process never is. In recent weeks, the party leaders have faced their first challenge in this regard, in respect of welfare. In my contacts with them, I have encouraged all parties to stand back and consider the overall potential benefit for the people of Northern Ireland offered by the Stormont House Agreement and to ensure that its potential is fully achieved. I know that work is ongoing by the party leaders in Northern Ireland to resolve the welfare issue. I understand that a measure of progress is being made, albeit not as rapidly as we might all wish. It is very important that the current impasse on welfare does not negatively affect the implementation timetable in other areas and issues.

The success of the agreement is contingent upon the faithful implementation of the totality of its provisions. During the months of January and February, the five parties in the Northern Ireland Executive did very good work in advancing the implementation across a number of strands of the agreement. Our collective objective must be to build on that good work of partnership and to maintain forward momentum.

In the period ahead, the agreement will shape the Government’s approach to Northern Ireland and will dictate much of our work on the matter of that agenda. The Houses of the Oireachtas will have an important role to play regarding the implementation, as legislation will likely be required to set up some of the mechanisms to deal with the legacy of the past as contained in the agreement. The Department of Justice and Equality will take a lead in the first instance in preparing such legislation.

The Irish Government remains fully committed to playing our part in furthering genuine reconciliation and accelerating economic renewal across the island of Ireland. This is our ambition and I believe the Stormont House Agreement provides us with the map to achieve this. I wish to acknowledge the Chairman's work in this regard and the work of the committee. I continue to urge the committee to ensure a positive and active programme in the form of relations between this committee and its colleagues in the Northern Ireland Assembly and Executive and the people of Northern Ireland.

I thank the Minister for attending here today and making his presentation. At the outset of his presentation he refers to the involvement of both Governments and the necessity for them to have a hands-on approach in what are at times delicate situations surrounding the implementation of the agreement. The Minister is involved in putting in place an implementation plan for the outstanding issues and that is very welcome. If there is a down-side to all of this, it is that there is no Unionist participation in this committee. It would be very beneficial to everyone if they did take part. Unfortunately, they have not done it as of yet. I also compliment the chairperson and other chairpersons on the work they have done in respect of outreach into communities in the Six Counties, in particular, going into the most affected areas, be they loyalist or Nationalist or republican areas. All of that is very important. Last week, we had people from a UVF background here. This is a useful exercise because it is only by dialogue and listening to people that we can help to resolve it.

The Minister spoke about legislation which will be required to establish some of the mechanisms to deal with the legacies of the past. Does he have a timetable for that legislation? Will there be similar legislation in both the North and the South? Will this committee be consulted in advance in respect of the status of the legislation?

The Irish language issue, the bill of rights, the Pat Finucane inquiry and other outstanding issues have not been resolved. These issues were not part of the talks. Have provisions been made to deal with these issues? Will the Dublin-Monaghan bombings be part of the mechanism to deal with the legacies of the past? Is there a commitment from the British Government on dealing with the legacies of the past?

I thank Deputy Ferris for his comments.

This is a matter for the Department of Justice and Equality. Work has commenced on the legislation. I expect it will be enacted to allow for its operation in 2016. I expect the heads of the Bill to be published later in the summer. With regard to the consultative process, the Deputy is aware that, like all items of legislation, the Bill will go to the appropriate committee in the first instance, the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality, for consideration and discussion. Given the important role of this committee, I imagine it is possible in these circumstances for contact to be made between the Chairman of this committee and the Joint Committee on Justice, Defence and Equality for participation. In the circumstances, such an arrangement is appropriate. As far as publication is concerned, I will ask the Department of Justice and Equality to notify the Chairman when the heads of the Bill will be published.

I acknowledge the comments of Deputy Ferris on community relations and the active and positive role of the committee. There was a constructive meeting only last week, which I acknowledge. I value it from a Government perspective and it is important in the context of the overall objective to have a climate of stability, peace and reconciliation. With regard to outstanding commitments from previous agreements, Deputy Ferris is aware these issues were considered in the context of the Stormont House talks. Throughout the talks, from September to Christmas Eve, we maintained the view that the best way to strengthen peace and reconciliation across the island is to implement fully the commitments undertaken in previous agreements. Ultimately, the Stormont House Agreement did not see as much progress on some of these matters as I would have wished but nevertheless the agreement contains important elements, including the provision of civic advisory panel and endorsement by the British Government of the principle of respect for, and recognition of, the Irish language in Northern Ireland. Notwithstanding the content and form of the Stormont House Agreement, the Government remains committed to the full implication of previous agreements. We will take advantage of every opportunity to move forward on this important work. Each agenda of the North-South Ministerial Council contains a headline issue on the matter of progress.

Deputy Martin Ferris specifically mentioned the bill of rights and I wished to see the setting up of a bill of rights for Northern Ireland but there was not the appropriate level of consensus in the context of these talks. The agreement enshrines many of the principles the Government expects to see in any eventual bill of rights. In it, parties commit to serving the people of Northern Ireland equally, to act in accordance with the obligations of government to promote equality and respect and to prevent discrimination, and to promote a culture of tolerance and mutual respect and mutual understanding. There will be other opportunities to avail of in securing progress on these issues. I acknowledge there are outstanding matters that need to be progressed.

On the matter of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, the Government supports the all-party Dáil motions of July 2008 and May 2011 encouraging the British Government to allow access by an independent judicial figure to all original documents in its possession relating to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. I raised the issue on several occasions with the Secretary of State, including on her visit to Dublin in February. I am assured she will consider afresh how best the British Government can respond to these Dáil motions but I acknowledge we have not made the level of progress I would have wished. I continue to raise the issue and I will keep the committee informed of any progress in this regard.

On the matter of Mr. Pat Finucane, the position of the Irish Government remains unchanged. We continue to support the call of the Finucane family on the British Government to establish an independent public inquiry into the murder of Mr. Pat Finucane in line with commitments already made by both Governments at Weston Park in 2001. I have reiterated the position to the Secretary of State on her visit to Dublin in February and the response on her part is in line with the response of the British Prime Minister that the de Silva report and the apology by Prime Minister Cameron to the family constituted the Government's response to the case. I will continue to urge for full compliance with commitments already agreed and made at Weston Park.

I thank the Minister for the detailed report. On 20 January, I had the opportunity, along with other members of Fianna Fáil Party, to welcome in the Dáil debate the Stormont House Agreement and to compliment the Minister on his hands-on approach to this issue. As a party, we have been critical and have highlighted the need for both Governments to take a more hands-on approach during the Haass talks. We are glad the Minister has taken this approach and there have been dividends from it.

Regarding the historical investigations unit to be established, legislation will have to pass Westminster and having a new Government will cause some delay. In reply to a recent parliamentary question, I note the commitment of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Minister for Justice and Equality to bring forward any legislation we need as soon as possible. In the Dáil debate, I quoted from Lethal Allies, Anne Cadwallader's book:

In between the Dublin Bombings of 1st December 1972 and the 20th January, 1973, Fermanagh-based members of the UDR and UVF carried out three bombings within an hour - Clones (County Monaghan) Belturbet (County Cavan) and Pettigo (County Donegal) - all on 28th December 1972. Two teenagers, Geraldine O'Reilly (aged fifteen) [from Belturbet] and Paddy Stanley (aged sixteen) [from Clara, County Offaly], were killed in Belturbet.

No one has been brought to justice for those atrocities. I know the O'Reilly family very well and I know the family from different commemorations in Belturbet. I am sure the Minister knows the Stanley family. A complaint has been lodged from with the police ombudsman's office in Northern Ireland about the murders in Belturbet and I hope no blockage is put in the way of having this incident referred to the historical investigations unit when it is established. If carnage or murders are to be investigated by the historical investigations unit when it is established, they must be cleared by the police ombudsman's office first. The Dublin and Monaghan bombings were referred to the police ombudsman's office and accepted. Similarly, the murder of two people in the Drogheda in December 1975 and the murder of Mr. Mone in Castleblayney in March 1976 have been accepted by the police ombudsman. I sincerely hope that the murder of those two young teenagers in Belturbet will be investigated.

None of us can realise the terrible trauma and suffering those families continue to go through while nobody has been brought to justice for those horrific murders. I hope that whatever discussions or work the Minister and his officials can undertake to ensure that this atrocity is investigated are undertaken.

I had the opportunity to meet the Secretary of State, Theresa Villiers, when she visited Dublin in February. Along with Deputy Martin, I again highlighted the need for the British Government to respond positively to the two unanimous requests of Dáil Éireann regarding giving an eminent legal person access to files pertaining to the Dublin-Monaghan bombings. More than 40 years have passed and the least people deserve is the truth regarding who carried out those atrocities.

Does the Minister think welfare reform is parked for the next five weeks during the course of the British general election, or has any progress been made in recent talks between the five party leaders in Northern Ireland since the beginning of this year?

Another thing that baffles me is the lack of progress on the establishment of a civic forum. I presume this has been blocked by Sinn Féin and the DUP. It is a devolved matter and a matter for the parties. There was a civic forum and it is a matter of re-convening it. I have said on numerous occasions that I do not know who is threatened by a civic forum. I visited Armagh only two weeks ago and met different groups. A proportion of the population feels alienated from the political process. We all know that the civic forum will not have the answers to everything but at least if it is a forum to give different groups, representative organisations and advocacy groups a platform to air their views and put forward their proposals, it can be helpful. The Minister might let us know what a civic advisory panel will mean. Why not establish a civic forum, perhaps in a different format from that which existed previously? It should be established. It would seem that the two main parties have blocked its establishment to date, which is ridiculous.

The Minister mentioned the meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council in June. I presume his Department is involved in deciding the agenda for this meeting or meetings. An issue that is of widespread concern in the Border counties both North and South is illegal trade. There is illegal trade in diesel, petrol, tobacco products and clothing. Gangsters and criminals have built up huge businesses through illegal trade. We have seen damage to the environment in counties Louth, Monaghan and Cavan and north of the Border. There is a threat to public health, the waterways and the provenance and authenticity of our food production systems. Our party put forward legislation calling for the establishment of a North-South statutory body to pull together An Garda Síochána, the PSNI, the Revenue Commissioners and their counterpart in Northern Ireland, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government, and the EPA and its counterpart north of the Border. It is estimated that this State loses a minium of €260 million per year in revenue due to these illegal activities. I do not expect the Minister to comment on our proposal, which we hope the Government will accept, in respect of establishing a body that will save the State money rather than being a cost to the State. This issue could be put on the agenda of the next meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council and the genuine concerns of communities living in Border counties could be dealt with. We constantly see diesel and petrol spillages on our roads, which cost local authorities a huge amount of money to clean up. Small businesses are being put out of business due to illegal trading. All of these issues need to be addressed and this can only be done on a North-South basis. I know An Garda Síochána and our customs authorities do exceptionally good work on this side of the Border, but it is an issue that needs to be dealt with politically on an all-Ireland basis, and the necessary statutory agency needs to be established to deal with it. I hope that this issue can be discussed at the next meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council.

Deputy Smith raised a number of issues. Welfare reform is a matter exclusively for the parties in Northern Ireland. Meetings have taken place at a high level over recent weeks. I take the opportunity at this committee to call on all the parties to redouble their resolve with a view towards reaching agreement on the matter, which is obviously complex as well as being important. I would have thought it was possible to mark progress as agreed prior to Christmas on the completion of the agreement. That did not prove possible. Having regard to the fact that the Assembly is in recess, I understand that should agreement be reached, the Assembly will be recalled to have the final stages of the welfare Bill completed. I cannot say with any certainty that this will happen. I spoke to party leadership figures last week. I keep in very close contact and I hope the outstanding difficulties can be resolved. Again, I am happy to keep the Chairman updated. I am sure there are members of the committee who are as well informed on this matter as I am. I believe it is important to ensure that this does not give rise to an impasse and I am concerned at the fact that the context is the general election campaign. Deputy Smith used the word "parked". I hope these matters can be resolved and I would be concerned by any impasse that might develop which could have an impact on other important aspects of the agreement, so I urge everybody involved to seek a resolution, notwithstanding an acceptance on my part that there are complex and difficult issues involved.

In respect of the historical investigations unit, HIU, I know of Deputy Smith's deep interest in the atrocities in his constituency. He has mentioned the Belturbet bombings and the Castleblayney atrocity on numerous occasions. The intention is that the investigation unit will be established next year. This will involve the passage of legislation. It will take forward cases that were previously under the remit of the historical enquiries team as part of the PSNI and the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland. We need to find a mechanism through which cases under the remit of the Police Ombudsman of Northern Ireland can be transferred to the HIU, but I share Deputy Smith's view that the atrocities mentioned would be covered. It will involve legislation here and in Westminster. I hope there is no delay, notwithstanding elections and possible reshuffles and changes. I can reassure the committee that once agreement was reached on this issue, the resolve was there on the part of everybody to ensure that matters could be progressed. All appropriate arrangements will be set in place to ensure there is full co-operation with the HIU.

On the issue of the civic forum, I share Deputy Smith's view. I would have preferred a forum of the type that has been proposed in the past. However, it is important that we welcome what was agreed in the provision under the Stormont House Agreement to set up a civic advisory panel. The target date is June. The panel will advise the Northern Ireland Executive on a range of social, cultural and economic issues. Notwithstanding that, we will continue to explore other possibilities in respect of the long-proposed North-South consultative forum, as envisaged under the Good Friday Agreement. Bodies such as this committee play a vitally important role in ensuring a direct connection with civic society. I urge the committee to continue to do so. It is essential that all efforts are considered to ensure the voice of civic society is heard and included on all occasions in our policy formation.

Members have addressed the issue of illegal trading in the Houses and outside. I take particular note of the deep interest in this matter of public representatives who reside in the Border area. I recently attended a meeting in Dundalk where this issue was very much top of the agenda. I acknowledge the recent report of the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly, which was welcome in the context of bringing these matters into the public domain. The Government attaches huge importance to combatting organised crime of all sorts. As Deputy Smith will acknowledge, there is a strong operational and strategic focus among the Garda authorities on the matter in this jurisdiction. The Garda continues to work closely with the PSNI and, beyond that, with the UK National Crime Agency in combatting the activities of organised criminal gangs.

There has to be a particular focus on cross-Border crime, including fuel laundering and smuggling and tobacco fraud. Based on my discussions with the Minister for Justice and Equality and in Northern Ireland, there is significant co-operation and exchange of information, ideas and intelligence in a way that was not the case in the past. I refer to the annual cross-Border organised crime conference organised jointly by the Garda, the PSNI, the Department of Justice and Equality and the Department of the Minister of Justice, David Ford MLA, in the North. We need to ensure an element of resolve regarding this issue. I note Deputy Smith's initiative and I would be happy to talk to the appropriate agencies in that regard. Members will be aware of the involvement of the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and, in particular, the reaction of the Minister following the release of the recent report, whereby he wrote to his counterpart in Northern Ireland, Mark Durkan, highlighting the negative and adverse environmental impact of fuel laundering on both sides of the Border and the high cost of cleaning up the toxic waste produced by these operations. He will ensure greater co-operation from an environmental perspective.

These issues are also discussed at the regular meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council, including most recently at the plenary meeting last December. I assure members that this will also be agenda item at the forthcoming plenary meeting. I am sure the Chairman will join me in asking that anybody with information about criminal activity make immediate and direct contact with the Garda or the PSNI. No stone must be left unturned in bringing to heel these criminal gangs that are engaged in highly organised illegal activity, which is not only causing serious damage to the environment but is also having an impact on the Revenue Commissioners. This is unacceptable criminal behaviour. Anyone with information should assist in bringing these people to justice and putting them out of business, and allowing for due process under the administration of the criminal justice code.

I welcome the Minister. I commend him and the two Governments on all the work they have done. I am particularly happy about his comments on the next meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council in the north west in May. Many of the issues the committee has discussed relate to infrastructure, particularly the road network, although we have visited the Narrow Water bridge project and so on. Will the Minister outline the prospects for investment in this regard? In all the discussions I have had with local authorities on both sides of the Border and interest groups, there has been a great wish to meet the Minister and the Taoiseach, if possible, to have these matters discussed at the council meeting. I am sure it is a priority for the Minister, but this has been raised at many meetings of this committee and we will no doubt have other meetings about, and outreach visits to, many of these projects.

I refer to the legislation that was discussed earlier. I have a particular interest in the Irish language, and another official languages Bill will be introduced during the next session of the Dáil. Language, however, is a legacy issue in the North in the context of the bill of rights mentioned by previous speakers. While it is not easy to answer this, I would like the Minister to outline a timeframe for addressing this, because it is important given that we are introducing more legislation here in this regard.

We have met relatives of those affected by the Dublin-Monaghan bombings, the Pat Finucane case and the Omagh bombing, and we hear the same message - that they want to meet Ministers and the Taoiseach, because they feel these issues should be pursued further.

I share the Deputy's view that infrastructural improvements and developments are vital in the context of peace, stability and prosperity. The A5 dual carriageway is seen as a key infrastructural project and it was very much under discussion in the context of the agreement.

I was pleased the Government reaffirmed our commitment of funding to the tune of £50 million in financial support towards the project. That will benefit the north west but also the island as a whole. We committed under the agreement to examine opportunities for further funding within the context of the forthcoming capital expenditure programme. There is also the matter of EU funding and support.

I acknowledge the very positive role of the European Union in supporting North-South co-operation and reconciliation across a range of issues. The PEACE and INTERREG cross-Border programme will provide funding of more than €500 million to Northern Ireland and the Border counties up to 2020. It was agreed at the North-South Ministerial Council plenary in October that Ministers on both sides of the Border would pursue further opportunities and examine how best they might maximise the drawdown of EU funding across a range of issues. Health is another issue with which Deputy Kitt is familiar. I refer to the North-South agreement on the provision of children's cardiac surgery on an all-island basis at Crumlin hospital. Agreement has also been reached on the new radiotherapy unit at Altnagelvin hospital.

In terms of the Narrow Water Bridge, Senator Jim D'Arcy will be aware of issues that come under the remit of Louth County Council. I note the committee's involvement. I assure members that the issues under discussion are very much on the Government's agenda. The Taoiseach visited the North last week and had an opportunity to meet a number of groups. He had a very successful engagement at a Confederation of British Industry, CBI, dinner where he outlined the progress achieved and sought further opportunities in terms of ongoing economic co-operation and ultimately the provision of jobs for people in particular in the north-west Border counties that have had higher than average levels of unemployment.

On the specific reference Deputy Kitt made to the Irish language Act, members will be aware that the provision of an Irish language Act was included in a paper tabled by the Government in the course of the Stormont House talks. I admit a level of disappointment that the commitment did not form part of the final agreement. However, there was an explicit endorsement in the agreement by the British Government on the principle of the recognition of the Irish language and of respect for the language in Northern Ireland. I believe we can develop those matters further in the context of further engagement.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire. I congratulate him on the work he did leading up to the Stormont House Agreement. It looked to be dead in the water and then the Minister rode in like the Lone Ranger and he sorted it out. I know there were others involved but the Minister played a massive role. I am sure after this gig he will be heading for the United Nations.

After so many years of the Legislative Assembly we appear to be going through a difficult patch. Does the Minister believe the d'Hondt mechanism served its purpose and that it might be better to move to a different type of arrangement? Is there any talk about such a change in the foreign affairs circles in which the Minister moves? That leads me to the transfer of powers to the Assembly. Deputy Brendan Smith referred to diesel laundering, much of which is a revenue matter. It is a Treasury issue rather than a North-South issue in terms of dealing with markers and VAT rebates if that is necessary. However, the issues could all be thrashed out on a North-South basis if power was more devolved. What is the position in terms of the devolution of powers?

I wish to discuss 1916. Is it intended to have 1916 commemorations in the North? I very much welcome the fact that Deputy Pearse Doherty welcomed the programme of events announced to commemorate 1916. I hope any commemorations in the North would not be triumphalist or be seen as exclusive, which could lead to friction. It is important that commemorative events in the North would be inclusive and would look to the future because we must share this island.

Diesel laundering is a major problem. Currently, there is a fragmentation in the criminal system. There is an opportunity for Revenue and the Garda to take control of the situation in a way that has not been done before which deals with both sides of the Border. Deputy Smith has long spoken on the issue, as we all have. I have spoken to those directly involved in trying to bring the activity to an end. Extra resources are required. I concur with the point made by Deputy Smith that the investment would pay for itself. Currently, the situation is akin to the police forces fighting cannons with pikes. They must be better resourced and some of them need to be better supported. There is a lot of information available but it is not going through the system in the way it should due to lack of resources, including legal resources.

Institutional reform was very much on the agenda in the context of the talks, albeit one that did not directly involve the Government. I do not see an immediate appetite to change the structure as set up by the d'Hondt mechanism, the aim of which was to ensure a large degree of power sharing. I do not think the time is right for such a change. However, there is a provision for members to engage in voluntary opposition at any stage, should they wish.

However, I do not envisage a change to the d'Hondt system. I believe there are strong arguments in favour of its retention into the future.

On the matter of commemorations, members will be aware of the official launch by the Taoiseach and the Minister for Arts, Heritage and the Gaeltacht, Deputy Heather Humphreys, earlier this week. It is an opportunity for everybody on the island to engage and mark the commemoration of the historic events of 1916. There will be an international element. Many of the events are currently being developed and rolled out. I urge everybody to avail of the opportunity to reflect not only on the events of 1916 but also on the 100 years that have elapsed, including the historic Good Friday Agreement 18 years ago. Again, there will be an opportunity to mark that agreement and I hope this committee will be involved. I share Senator Jim D'Arcy's view about the manner of commemoration and the need for us to be sensitive, notwithstanding the need to reflect on the Rising and how it occurred.

Senator Jim D'Arcy also mentioned the matter of devolution. Obviously the passage of the legislation in Westminster to enable the devolution of power to set the rate of corporation tax is important. That will bring great benefits and has the capacity to transform for the good the economic climate in Northern Ireland. That is very welcome.

On the matter of smuggling, I do not wish to go back over issues already discussed by Deputy Smith but I agree with what Senator Jim D'Arcy said. It is absolutely essential that co-operation continues to develop in the manner in which it has over recent years. The two Ministers with responsibility for justice meet on a regular basis. Both of them attended the cross-Border crime conference last October. From my ongoing engagements with the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Fitzgerald, and the Northern Ireland Minister of Justice, Mr. Ford, the committee can be assured that every effort will be made to deal with this issue, notwithstanding the resource issue mentioned by Senator Jim D'Arcy.

I welcome the Minister. I will start with the issue of fuel laundering. I raised it in a Topical Issue debate about six weeks ago and I also raised it at the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. It is a serious ongoing issue. Unfortunately, much lip-service is paid to the measures that have been taken to tackle it, but the problem has been getting worse since last October. There is much talk about what has been done, but far more must be done. It must be more than just words. There must be real action.

In my constituency it is now almost a daily occurrence to see bowsers dumped at the side of the road, which was not the case a year or two years ago. This issue must be tackled head-on. It is not simply a Revenue Commissioners issue; at this stage it is a health issue. Water courses are being polluted by the diesel sludge. More action must be taken by the Irish Government and the authorities in Northern Ireland to deal with the problem. I do not believe enough is being done at present. There is much talk but real action is required by the Police Service of Northern Ireland, the Garda, the customs service, the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government and the Minister for the Environment in the North to tackle this. Politicians talk all the time about what they are going to do and what will be done, but I see what is happening on the ground. The situation is getting worse, not better, so it must be resolved. Real action must be taken and I hope the Minister will raise this issue at the next meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council. He should seek reports from the officials who are dealing with the issue. Rather than anecdotal evidence there should be real evidence of what is being done to deal with it. That would be a major step forward.

Infrastructure was raised and the Minister mentioned the A5, but many other projects must be carried out in the north east, rather than in the north west. From the 1920s through to the 1950s the basic road and rail infrastructure in the north east was dismantled. It has not yet been replaced. We are almost 20 years into the peace process but the road from Belfast to Monaghan and Cavan must be upgraded. I hear no talk at Government level of doing anything about it. It is the main arterial route from south Ulster into Belfast, which is the major city in the North, but nothing has been done to upgrade it. All the talk is about the road to the north west, which is fine, but what is happening in the north east?

This applies to all of the Border roads. Under the EU Programme for Peace and Reconciliation, PEACE I, the Border roads were reopened. However, only a small amount of money was spent and the roads were not upgraded to modern standards. We do not have the cross-Border road infrastructure that one would expect in a modern industrial nation. The roads were designed in the 19th century and resurfaced after the peace process started, but they have not been widened or straightened. It means there is a lack of connectivity between Monaghan, Armagh, Fermanagh and Tyrone which hinders economic development in the region. Twenty years after the start of the peace process this has not been tackled. Some type of approach should be made to the roads service in Northern Ireland and to the local authorities in the South, and extra funding should be provided, to deal with this problem.

On the issue of funding, there is much talk about a lack of resources. I co-authored a report for the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly less than a month ago which indicates where money could be obtained to cement infrastructure development along the Border. I wrote in the report about the European Investment Bank and how both the British and Irish Governments could access funding to improve infrastructure development in the Border region. In fact, the report recommends that both the British and Irish Governments target the Border region specifically for infrastructure development. It is an issue that can be dealt with over the next number of years but it must be dealt with urgently. The region was left behind. It is something people do not appear to realise. Our entire infrastructure was dismantled because of political interference on both sides of the Border between the 1920s and 1960s and it has not been put back in place. Although there is talk about some development along the Border, the macro picture has not been grasped by either Government in terms of what must be done. To ensure people in the Border region have an input and a positive view of the future, there must be proper investment in that region simply to bring it to where it should be vis-à-vis the rest of the Republic and Northern Ireland. That is not the case at present, so this must be done.

The north-south interconnector is a topical issue at present. I attended a landowners meeting a few nights ago which was also attended by 95% of the landowners in County Monaghan. None of them wants the north-south interconnector to be installed overground and every one of them will object to that. Unlike our friends in Mayo and in the south of Ireland, we have not been given alternative options in terms of specific underground routes. That is shocking. Everybody should have equality of treatment in a republic and the least we should expect, nearly ten years after this project was first mooted, is that the people in the communities affected would have real underground options brought to their attention and that there would be consultation about those options. I represented the County Monaghan anti-pylon people during the first An Bord Pleanála hearing. At the time I was not involved in politics at national level. It is like Groundhog Day because we are back where we started. There is still the same route that nobody wants going overground and through the community, but nobody seems to be listening.

This project does not have community acceptance on either side of the Border. The communities in Armagh and Tyrone do not want it going overground either. At least if we knew there were specific underground routes that were properly costed we could evaluate whether there were alternatives in that regard, but we have not been given those alternatives.

If we do not have an alternative, how can we evaluate whether the current project or plan is the best one? No alternatives have ever been given, so I would like the Minister to raise this issue with his colleagues in Northern Ireland because it is a cross-Border project of common interest. At the moment, however, it is being handled badly and has no community acceptance. It needs to be revisited before a new application comes forward. I am asking the Minister therefore to raise the issue at Cabinet level. He should ask his ministerial colleague, Deputy Alex White, to reassess this project in light of the fact that in the west and south EirGrid seems to be coming up with new proposals and new ways of dealing with the issue that it has not come up with in the north east. We expect equality of treatment in terms of how these projects are handled, in the same way as they are in Mayo, Roscommon or in the south. We expect to have other technical options put before us, but it has not happened thus far. It is exactly the same project as in 2010 when it failed at the previous oral hearing, and it is unacceptable.

Commemorations are important and we should be proud of who we are as a people. We should know who we are and not bow down or be worried about celebrating the start of a revolution to remove the British presence from Ireland. We decided as a people to become an independent nation, which is a matter for celebration. It is not something to be bashful about. I hope that in the forthcoming celebrations we will be straightforward about it. I do not think the Americans or the British would be bashful about celebrating their own history, so we should not be bashful about celebrating ours. I hope the commemorations will reflect the fact that 1916 was the start of a revolution to remove a foreign presence from our country.

We must always be mindful and respectful of all diverse views on this island, but at the end of the day the majority of people on this island want to live in an independent Ireland ruled by ourselves. The 1916 Rising was the start of that process and it should be commemorated. We have no reason to be bashful about it. It is important for the Government to be mindful of exactly what 1916 was all about.

The final issue I want to raise concerns the Dublin-Monaghan bombings. It is a matter that has been ongoing for 40 years and is a festering sore for people in the Border region. We have not received answers from the British Government about this, but we need answers. Until there is a genuine, proper response from the British authorities on this matter, it will continue to be a festering sore for the families and communities affected. I urge the Minister to raise this issue with the British authorities at every opportunity he gets. It is important that this issue is put to bed.

As regards the Dublin-Monaghan bombings, which we discussed prior to Deputy Conlan's arrival, I reiterate that I will continue to raise this issue. It is one about which I believe we need to be supplied with appropriate information and documentation. I raised the matter recently but will continue to do so. I agree with what the Deputy has said.

The issue of smuggling was aired by Deputy Smith and others. I assure Deputy Conlan that this matter is being examined across a range of approaches, including Revenue, Customs and Excise, the police and, more recently, the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government. That issue will be on the agenda of the forthcoming North-South Ministerial Council.

The Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, Deputy Alan Kelly, has recently been in contact with his Northern Ireland counterpart, Mark Durkan, with a view to ensuring a greater level of co-operation on environmental matters. I share Deputy Conlan's concern in that regard. This is not just a Border issue. I was somewhat surprised recently to be advised by members of the Garda Síochána in my own constituency about fuel outlets that I might not be minded to support in terms of purchasing fuel. This is a nationwide issue that needs to be tackled comprehensively. The committee can take it that the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and her Northern Ireland counterpart, David Ford, are very much on the one page in dealing with this matter through a close degree of co-operation among all agencies involved.

As he has done before, Deputy Conlan mentioned a most important issue which is the infrastructural deficit consequent on the period of instability during the Troubles over the years. He is right to say that there needs to be a focus on how best we can ensure North-South co-operation in such a way as to maximise economic benefits in the Border areas. Obviously it involves funding and I reiterate that over the next five years the EU has committed €500 million to Northern Ireland and the Border areas. Much of that will go towards improving infrastructure and redressing the infrastructural deficit.

The International Fund for Ireland will also be involved in this regard. At the North-South Ministerial Council, reference is continually being made to plans for infrastructural improvements and other benefits. The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Donohoe, attended a meeting of this committee recently to discuss roads. If this committee, including Deputy Conlan and Deputy Smith as representatives of the Cavan-Monaghan constituency, wishes to make any submission, I am sure the appropriate authorities would be open to engaging in any county or regional roads programme of the type that has been mentioned. We must highlight the strategic cross-Border transport priorities.

The Chairman will understand that I am not going to become involved in the pylon issue, but this committee may wish to invite the Minister, Deputy Alex White, to attend. I know that Deputy Conlan will avail of other parliamentary mechanisms to raise the matter, including Topical Issues and parliamentary questions. I do not wish to comment on the matters of overgrounding or undergrounding. I have similar issues in my constituency. I would say, however, that this is an important project for ensuring economic benefits for that region. As Deputy Conlan, Deputy Smith and others know, this region requires investment and improvement. One of the first questions any potential investor will pose concerns power and power security, which are matters of some importance. However, it would be unfair of anyone to draw me into the pylon issue with regard to undergrounding or overgrounding.

As regards the economic benefits of North-South co-operation, I wish to mention the input and work undertaken by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Sean Sherlock. He is the first Minister with specific and direct responsibility for North-South trade and economic development. He does a fine job. I urge committee members to keep in contact with him concerning strategic priorities and opportunities. He spends a great deal of time working on cross-Border issues and I would like to acknowledge his great work in this regard.

International support for the peace process must always be acknowledged. In this instance, in the context of implementing the Stormont House Agreement, I acknowledge the ongoing support, influence, assistance and guidance of the United States authorities. In particular, I note the contribution of US Senator Gary Hart.

Earlier this week I had the opportunity to speak to Vice President Joe Biden in Boston and he sends his good wishes and support. Members of this committee can be assured of the support of the United States Administration and that of other international actors. Earlier this year I had the opportunity of meeting with my Canadian counterpart and we had a good exchange on Northern Ireland matters. He and his colleagues in Canada maintain a deep interest in the affairs of Ireland and Northern Ireland and wish to see the full implementation of the Stormont House Agreement with a consequent dividend in terms of economic and social benefit and peace and stability and all that goes with it.

I thank the Minister. Does Deputy Ferris want to ask a supplementary question?

I wish to comment on what is referred to as Border criminality, fuel laundering and the dumping of sludge. It is much wider than that. There is extortion and people have been badly injured. Recently one person, Frank McCabe Jnr, was blinded and lost his eye when he was removing a derogatory poster when he was going to work at 6 a.m. Another person was shot in the south Armagh area. There was a mobilisation of people right across south Armagh. Thousands of people came out to confront the people involved in that type of criminality or any type of criminality. Deputy Adams spoke at it and said that if anyone had any fears of going to the authorities in the Six Counties or the Twenty-six Counties, he was prepared to give the names or do whatever was necessary. That was the entire community moving against this criminality. Some of it comes from their areas and from other areas. I know that Deputy Adams has met senior gardaí in his constituency of Louth on this and I also know that he has met the PSNI about this type of criminality. I am also glad that the Minister referred to the fact those types of activities are not confined to Border regions and are fairly widespread. A number of years back in my own county, which is a long way away from the Border, there was similar criminality. The only way to deal with it is for all of us to work together as elected representatives with our communities to stamp out this type of activity because it is fairly widespread.

I thank Deputy Ferris. On the issue of cross-Border criminality, I was part of committee A at the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly which reported on cross-Border criminality, and it was eye-opening to say the least. We held many cross-Border meetings. I suppose when there is a border and two jurisdictions, across Europe or across the world, there will always be people taking advantage of different excises and different issues. I think people find it hard to believe that this is still ongoing and that resources have not been put in to tackle these issues. Many people have complained, as I did three years ago when my engine was made unworkable because laundered diesel was put into it. It is an ongoing issue. Yesterday, the Minister for Finance said many people are talking about petrol stretching. In the age-old tradition, most politicians will go to the local radio or the newspapers but will not report it in the proper structured way in which it should be reported. The Minister, Deputy Noonan, said that even though there have been many complaints of fuel stretching, reports have not been made on an official basis. We all hear anecdotal evidence but it needs to be reported in order that we can get a true picture of the situation.

I remember coming back from Belfast after a meeting and I decided to look at the beautiful Bernish viewpoint. Two big white fuel oil tankers came up a small road that was not the width of a table and it was quite obvious that they were not part of a legitimate business. One could drive at 60 miles per hour on any road through south Armagh and one would see the stations. One does not have to be a genius to know this is going on. It is an issue that has been raised often and we know the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, is doing everything possible along with the Department of Justice and Equality and the Department of Finance.

The committee has discussed the Narrow Water Bridge project. One suggestion that was made was to establish a working group of officials in parallel with the North-South Ministerial Council to help both jurisdictions to work more collaboratively on these projects. Perhaps the same approach could be applied to an interdepartmental group working North and South to address the illegal trading issue this meeting is discussing.

A stocktake review of the 2010 agreement between prisoners in Maghaberry Prison and the Northern Ireland Prison Service was published in 2014. I have been to the prison and met with dissident republicans and there are outstanding issues that need to be resolved. I understand that officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade are monitoring the situation in the prison, including progress made on the implementation of these recommendations. Could the Minister update the committee on how much progress has been made on this? Is it his opinion that the prison service is making real and genuine efforts to resolve the outstanding issues that seem to cause so much tension and unrest?

The Stormont House Agreement covers a broad range of political, social, and economic issues and it has the potential to advance significantly its twin aims of reconciliation and economic renewal. There is an elephant in the room in terms of economic renewal. What does the Minister see as the key priorities? In that context, what are his views on a possible exit of the UK from the EU and the potentially serious negative impact that would have on cross-Border trade?

Following the recent British Irish Parliamentary Assembly plenary session in Dublin, politicians from the United Kingdom and the island of Ireland endorsed the bid to host the men's Rugby World Cup in 2023. What are the Minister's views of the importance of this initiative and has he any suggestions on how this committee could support the bid?

I thank the Chair. On the last issue, I am sure the committee could lend its support. There was a very successful launch of the bid to stage the Rugby World Cup with the full support of all the party leaders in the North and the South. It is a very exciting opportunity and I think if the Chair were to lend his support by contacting the IRFU, it would be most helpful.

I get a sense from the meeting that the cross-Border smuggling issue is one of great importance to the Chair and the members of the committee. I believe that the Minister for Justice and Equality would be happy to accept an invitation from the Chairman on behalf of the committee, notwithstanding her very busy agenda with legislation and other duties, but perhaps an update from her would be appropriate. In any event, I will convey the very strong views of this committee to her at an early opportunity. I know she is in direct regular contact with her counterpart, Mr. Ford. I urge everyone to invite their constituents to provide any information to the appropriate authorities. I know Border Deputies do this regularly. This is a real and serious issue and I condemn the recent attacks on individuals in south Armagh which are directly linked to cross-Border smuggling. It is unacceptable and it is important that every effort be made to deal actively with the issue.

The stocktake report the Chairman mentioned was published in November 2014.

It offers an opportunity to create an environment free of conflict in Maghaberry Prison. I met interested parties, including those involved in drawing up the stocktake report. I urge Members in this committee and beyond to continue contacting the stakeholders. The Northern Ireland Prison Service has committed to implementing the recommendations. I hope this will happen at an early date, but it is an issue I am monitoring closely.

On the matter of the possible departure by the UK from the EU, there would be consequences for Northern Ireland. The preferred course of action is for the UK to remain firmly within the EU. However, the matter is the subject of debate in the UK general election. Let us wait and see the shape of the new Government. I would be happy to report back to the committee. As part of the committee's remit, I invite it to examine papers that have been published on this issue. I assure it that our Government is keeping a close eye on the situation.

I thank the Minister for meeting the committee. This discussion has been opportune, given the recent signing of the-----

I wish to address an important point the Minister raised, namely, regional business development in terms of the North-South interconnector. He did not want to go into the issue in depth, but no converter stations are proposed for the interconnector. They would have allowed any regional benefit-----

Deputy, this-----

Let me just finish my point.

Please, this is not the Minister's brief or function.

I understand that, but this is a point of information. I am unsure of what the project is like in Laois, but the first application five years ago called for converter stations in Monaghan, Cavan and Meath. In the new application, no converter stations are proposed. This means that there will be no benefit in our region. It will only be a point-to-point interconnector.

We have noted that. I thank the Minister and his officials for their work on the historic Stormont House Agreement. Our committee is working closely with them.

On St. Patrick's Day and the work that has been done in that regard, in my own capacity, I visited the Roscommon associations in Toronto, New York and Washington. I met the Minister, who was on his way to Toronto with his officials in economy class. Most people would not know that. I saw the Minister's work programme for the three days, selling Ireland and working with our friends from an economic point of view. The work done by all Ministers was incredible. I thank them. This has been the way for the past five or ten years. St. Patrick's Day is a major opportunity to sell our country.

As Deputy Ferris outlined, members of the loyalist community visited us last Wednesday. There is an opportunity on Capitol Hill and in the UK for people to get into the political process. The door is open. Our committee will work with everyone to ensure the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

I thank the Minister for attending. We appreciate the time he has taken.

I thank the committee.

The joint committee adjourned at 12.05 p.m. until 10.10 a.m. on Thursday, 23 April 2015.