Implications for Good Friday Agreement of UK EU Referendum Result: Discussion

I welcome everyone to our first meeting. Apologies have been received from Mr. Mickey Brady, MP.

I extend a special welcome to Mr. Pat Doherty, MP, Mr. Mark Durkan, MP, Dr. Alasdair McDonnell, MP, and Mr. Francie Molloy, MP.

The agenda has been circulated to members. In the first session we will hear the views of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, on the implications of Brexit for the Good Friday Agreement. Following a short break, we will hear, in the second session, the views of Mr. Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, MLA, Minister of Finance at the Stormont Assembly, on the fiscal implications of Brexit. After that, we will enter private session to do some housekeeping in respect of, for example, issues relating to our work programme.

I remind members and witnesses to keep their mobile phones turned off and not just on silent, as they interfere with the recording equipment.

I welcome the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade and thank him for attending. He will make an opening statement, after which I will open the floor to questions. For procedural reasons, I remind members and witnesses 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 Chair to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to do so, they are entitled thereafter only to 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 are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable.

I extend a warm welcome to the Minister and ask him to make his opening statement on the implications on the Good Friday Agreement of the British referendum decision to leave the EU.

I am pleased to have the opportunity to discuss with the committee the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and the important developments relating to the ongoing peace process. As the Chairman will be aware, this is the first time that I have participated in the committee's proceedings since it was formed with new members and a new Chairman following this year's Dáil and Seanad elections. I look forward to continuing my regular and positive engagement with the committee in our collective task of supporting and assisting the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement.

I am pleased to see a number of colleagues from their respective constituencies in Northern Ireland and I thank them for their attendance. They are welcome. They make an important and valued contribution to this committee and I look forward to their observations and questions on issues.

I will commence by addressing the UK referendum decision and the Government's view on its implications for the Good Friday Agreement. The result sent a political shock across Europe and beyond and registered in both parts of this island in particular and fundamental ways. The Government's four headline concerns are known: Northern Ireland and the peace process; the Border and common travel area; the economy and trade; and the importance and future of the EU. Since the day of the result, the Government has implemented its published contingency plan. As part of that, I carried out a round of contacts over the summer with all of my 27 EU counterparts to outline the unique circumstances that exist on the island of Ireland and the major concerns of the Irish Government. The Taoiseach met Prime Minister May, Chancellor Merkel, President Hollande, President Tusk and other Heads of Government in Europe in order to do the same. The Government's intensive engagement with our EU partners, including the UK Government, continues and we are further deepening the analysis and preparations across the whole of Government for the eventual UK-EU negotiation process, which we expect will commence in the spring of next year.

As part of this, I have already met the British Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, David Davis, and, of course, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire. In Northern Ireland, a majority voted to remain and this wish was particularly pronounced among the nationalist community, although not by any means exclusively so. Many people across both communities are now understandably concerned that leaving the European Union would have implications for political stability and the ongoing process of reconciliation and prosperity.

In addressing this concern since the result of the referendum, the Government has clearly and consistently emphasised that the Good Friday Agreement is an international agreement that remains in force regardless of the decision of the United Kingdom to leave the European Union and that the Good Friday Agreement remains the basis for engagement by both governments in Northern Ireland. This was confirmed by the Taoiseach and British Prime Minister May at their first discussion on the issue on 13 July and their first meeting in Downing Street on 26 July. The continued political commitment to the Good Friday Agreement by both Governments, the Executive, other parties in the North and by virtually all quarters of society across these islands provides a very important source of stability and consensus at this challenging time. As a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and succeeding agreements, the Government is determined that its institutions, values and principles be fully protected throughout and at the end of the UK's negotiation of its new relationship with the European Union.

It is vital the agreement in all its dimensions can be relied upon by people and our political systems throughout the uncertainties and challenges that are undoubtedly presented by the proposed exit of the UK from the European Union. The work of this committee, in supporting the full and continuing implementation of the agreement, therefore has an added fundamental importance as we deal with the full range of issues covered in the agreement, from provisions and consent in constitutional status to human rights protection, parity of esteem and identity to the institutions reflecting the totality of relationships on this island and between Britain and Ireland. Doing that will clearly require effective North-South and east-west co-operation, and the institutions of the agreement have already proven their value and indispensability in this regard.

The North-South Ministerial Council plenary meeting was hosted by the Taoiseach in Dublin on 4 July and I was present, together with my Government colleagues, the First Minister and deputy First Minister and all the Executive Ministers. At this meeting, the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive agreed to work closely to ensure Northern Ireland's interests are protected and advanced and that the benefits of North-South co-operation are protected in any new arrangements emerging as regards the future of the UK and its relationship with the European Union. It was also agreed that a full audit would be undertaken across all sectors of co-operation to identify the possible impacts, risks, opportunities and contingencies arising in the phases preceding and following the UK's withdrawal from the European Union. This work commenced immediately and is progressing across all the North-South co-operation sectors. A number of the serious implications raised by Brexit are fundamentally cross-Border in nature and these were highlighted and agreed by the Government and the Executive at that North-South Ministerial Council plenary session in July. Protecting European Union funding, sustaining the economy and trade and maintaining the common travel area are priority areas where we agreed a need to work closely.

We must be clear that there are no silver bullets for any of these issues and they will only be effectively dealt with through concerted North-South co-operation in addition to the wider strategic engagement by the Government with all 27 EU partners, with the Executive working closely with the UK Government. The next North-South Ministerial Council plenary session is scheduled for 18 November and that will provide an important opportunity to build on the discussions between Ministers with the North-South sectors and explore further the agreed key priorities for both the Government and the Northern Ireland Executive in dealing with the UK's exit from the Union.

I look forward to the continued positive, practical and effective work of the council in helping both administrations, North and South, to deal with these issues as raised by Brexit. This will be an ongoing dialogue between our two administrations for some time to come. This is in addition, of course, to the important standing work of the council, which is ongoing. The British-Irish Council has also taken on an added significance as a forum for addressing the implications of the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. Both the Taoiseach and I participated in the extraordinary summit of the council in Cardiff on 22 July that was convened to consider the outcome of the UK referendum.

There was consensus among the eight members on the importance of the council as an institution of the Good Friday Agreement and as a forum to share views and to enhance co-operation at this challenging time. The next summit meeting of the British-Irish Council will be in November. The Good Friday Agreement affords us institutions, principles and procedures that will prove invaluable in managing the complex process of the UK exit from the European Union in a way which preserves and sustains the enormous level of progress made on this island in recent times. However, as the committee is well aware, there remain a number of important elements of the Good Friday Agreement which still have not been implemented. These include the Irish Language Act, the Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland and the North-South consultative forum. Full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and the successor agreements is a priority for me, as Minister, and for the Government, as it has been for previous Governments. We will continue to work with all parties to seek progress on the implementation of the outstanding provisions. The prospect of the UK's exit from the European Union gives an added reason to implement all provisions of the agreement fully in order that its full balance and integrity protects and sustains the peace process into the period ahead.

With the permission of the Chairman, I wish to add a final point on the implementation of the Stormont House and Fresh Start agreements. As the committee will be aware, these two agreements, in 2014 and 2015, together address a range of issues that were hampering and, indeed, threatening the continued operation of the political institutions in Belfast. Although we are not yet there, I have to acknowledge that there has been sustained and significant progress with the implementation of each of these agreements since they were concluded. This has been driven by the political commitment and a determination on all sides and overseen in the quarterly review meetings by the two Governments and the parties to the Executive. Like the Good Friday Agreement, anything short of full implementation will leave important issues still effectively unaddressed.

The major outstanding area from the Stormont House agreement is dealing with the legacy of the past. This is a critical agenda for Northern Ireland in order that the needs of victims and survivors of the Troubles can be fully met and deeper reconciliation in society can be fostered with positive and active participation of the political, police and judicial systems. Despite extensive effort, it did not prove possible to agree the establishment of the Stormont House legacy institutions in the talks that led to the Fresh Start agreement in November. Since then Government has undertaken extensive consultations with a range of victims groups, civil society representatives and the political parties. The British Government has also undertaken a range of meetings, including by the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland following his appointment in July.

Given the importance of addressing the legacy of the past to our goal of genuine healing and reconciliation, I emphasise to this committee the continued strong commitment of the Government to getting the legacy institutions established as soon as possible. I discussed the legacy issues in detail with the Secretary of State at our bilateral meeting in Dublin two weeks ago. While I acknowledge that there are still outstanding issues to be resolved, I agreed with the Secretary of State that concerted efforts should be made to find a way forward in the period ahead. Dealing with the legacy of the past is essential to allow politics and society to focus on the challenges of today and to bring whatever truth and healing is possible to individual victims and survivors in Northern Ireland and throughout the island of Ireland.

This concludes my opening statement. I thank the committee for its time and engagement and look forward to dealing with its queries and listening to its observations, advice and guidance regarding the matter of the agreement.

I thank the Minister and now invite questions from those who indicate. I call Dr. Alasdair McDonnell first.

Dr. Alasdair McDonnell

I thank the Minister for his statement. I have a couple of points I wish to make but I will take up his final point on the legacy issues first. In doing so, I pay tribute to the Minister and to Deputy Sean Sherlock, who is now on this side of the table, if one likes, for the outstanding work and massive contribution they made at Stormont and the endurance they had with one Theresa Villiers, who was not always easy to work with. Both of them were superhuman in their efforts. The Minister will be aware from that time, and no doubt continues to be aware, that the legacy issues are a running sore. Beyond the comment he made here in general terms, can the Minister offer us any comfort that things have been progressing in a meaningful way in the past nine or ten months towards the conclusion we had hoped for all those months ago?

I would like to speak again on the second point, but I would like to deal with legacy first.

We might take three questions together if the Minister agrees.

I am in your hands, Chairman.

Dr. Alasdair McDonnell

I want to finish on the hard Border. The most significant worry for anybody on the island, North or South, is the question of some sort of hard Border being instigated, created or put in place. The difficulty people have is that control of the movement of people, as demanded in the result of the referendum, cannot be effected without a control point. If it is not going to be on the Border, can it be at an entry point to Britain? Will control be in place at an entry point such as Heathrow Airport, Stranraer or Holyhead, or will it be at an entry point into the Irish Republic? It will be very difficult to have free movement within the island of Ireland and some sort of control on movement or immigration.

I thank the Minister for attending. Like my colleague, I compliment him and the Government on their efforts to ensure Ireland is as prepared as it possibly can be for the inevitable exit of the UK from the EU. Like my colleague, Dr. McDonnell, I have a concern about Border issues. The day after the referendum, I was one of the first people to mention the possibility of a hard Border. We have had reassurances from the Minister, the Taoiseach and senior British politicians that there is no desire to return to any type of Border. However, whether it is a hard or soft Border, the implementation of any kind of control on the Border will set back the peace process and will have disastrous implications for free movement on this island. It would also have the potential to turn Belfast into an Ellis Island. The Brexit referendum was driven largely by racial or immigration concerns, primarily on the UK mainland and not so much in Northern Ireland. I have concerns there. What reassurances have we had from European leaders from the other 27 countries that they will not try to enforce a border on the country?

There will be a need for Britain to repeal EU legislation that has been enacted over the years. There has been some talk about anti-discrimination and workers' rights legislation. What reassurance have we that the British Government will try as hard as possible to ensure any new legislation it introduces, as Brexit unfolds, will be as closely aligned as possible with European law?

A significant amount of funding comes to the Border area on both sides. I cannot see the EU continuing to fund the peace process in the North, regardless of whether we have a soft or hard Border, while funding will come to the South. We could find ourselves in a situation in which the North of Ireland would become significantly worse off. I see this as a danger to the peace process. I hope I have not thrown too much at the Minister. I would appreciate his thoughts.

I, too, welcome the Minister and his officials. I am trying to get my head around the status of PEACE IV, the Special European Union Programmes Body, SEUPB, and INTERREG. There are concerns about the future status of projects in the pipeline.

We will have the North's Minister of Finance here later. Will the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, give us his political perspective on where PEACE IV and INTERREG stand? Approximately €550 million from Europe is allocated in this regard. Many people in the Border areas have an expectation around that matter and there is some question mark over it. What is the Minister's perspective on it, particularly in light of the deadline on these projects coming in November vis-à-vis the Treasury? Do we know the Treasury's position? Has that position hardened with regard to commitments there? These projects have serious implications for people.

Will the Minister address those points?

These are issues that will be taken up by other members of the committee. I acknowledge that the issues raised by Dr. Alasdair McDonnell, Deputy Sherlock and Senator Craughwell are perhaps the most important ones in this engagement. We have not reached a conclusion on any of them because the negotiations have not yet commenced. The issue raised by Dr. McDonnell on the hard Border is one that has been raised on a number of occasions, not only in the context of my discussions with members of the UK Government and the leaders of political parties in the Northern Executive but also among my EU colleagues. There has been a series of statements made by a number of UK Ministers directly involved that it is not their desire to see a return to the borders of the past. I welcome that; it is essential. I look around the table here and see long-standing Members of Parliament such as Deputy Brendan Smith, newer Members like Deputies Breathnach and McLoughlin and Mark Durkan, Francie Molloy, Pat Doherty and others who have worked - perhaps all of their adult lives - along the Border area. They know the importance of ensuring that the Border remains invisible for a number of reasons, not least the fact that 30,000 people cross every day for various reasons and that it has been invisible for the past number of years. This is a real concern and one that will continue to occupy a priority position in the negotiation.

I have acknowledged what UK Ministers have said and I have also acknowledged the Irish Government's position. It is important to note that, ultimately, in the context of the negotiations, which have not yet commenced, this could be an issue decided not between the UK and Irish Governments but by the wider remaining membership of the European Union. That is why I have met every one of my 26 EU counterparts. I have raised this specific issue in the context of the primacy of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process which has, in the context of the past 50 years of its engagement, been a very positive project for the European Union. I refer to the specific contribution of the former MEP John Hume many years ago in making his colleagues in the European Parliament and beyond aware of the need for a wider European engagement with the process. That is widely acknowledged.

Not only was there a certain sympathy and knowledge on the part of my EU colleagues, but there was a certain understanding of the unique position on the island of Ireland and the inherent dangers to the peace process of any significant changes to the Border in terms of it becoming heavily fortified. Members of the Oireachtas, Westminster and the Northern Assembly need to ensure this issue remains very much top of the agenda. While statements on the part of the UK Government on this issue are welcome, I am not sure if they can be regarded as assurances. We need to ensure that, by the end of these negotiations, in whatever time it takes, we will have appropriate assurances not only from the UK Government, but from our EU colleagues.

I acknowledge the contribution of Deputy Sean Sherlock with me in the matter of the Stormont House Agreement and the Fresh Start agreement, as well as his engagement in North-South relations over the period in which he served as Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. He quite rightly raised the issue of funding in which he was involved. It is important this issue remains on the agenda. It was discussed at the plenary meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council in July. More recently, there was a sectorial meeting of the special EU programme body which took place in my office in Iveagh House. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, and the Northern Ireland Minister of Finance, Máirtín Ó Muilleoir, agreed to write jointly to the European Commissioner for Regional Policy, Corina Creu, on the issue. This work is continuing. Both Ministers have been in touch with each other and in contact with Europe. It is important we see the letters of offer which have been issued to the applicants as soon as possible. I note certain assurances given by the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer regarding other EU funding. It is important we acknowledge these are pretty complex financial issues. There are also technical legal issues involved. It needs to be worked through. However, I can do no more than to give the Chairman and committee members assurances that we will keep them fully informed of developments. There is a commitment on the part of the Government that we can see through these issues towards a successful implementation of these programmes.

Issues were raised by committee members in the context of the referendum campaign. However, we need to deal with issues now in the context of there being moves on the part of the UK Government towards withdrawal. I acknowledge the statement from the UK Chancellor of the Exchequer, Philip Hammond, in which he offered words of comfort and certain assurances over a range of EU-funded programmes in the UK. Obviously, these assurances will only come into play when the UK withdraws from the EU and when that stream of funding is no longer available.

I agree there can be most serious consequences for the future of EU-funded cross-Border programmes. What this would involve, how it will work through and its implications, are all issues which remain to be fully worked through and understood. The committee can be assured they will form a priority on the part of our relations both in our ongoing discussions with UK Ministers and in the wider European Union.

We need to be committed, as I expect everyone is, to the maximum drawdown of funding here. At this stage, I would not be in a position to make any assumptions until the negotiation process gets under way.

The issue of the repeal by the British Government of certain legislative provisions in the areas of workers' rights, human rights and advances, as I think it fair to describe them, that this jurisdiction and the UK have incorporated into our respective domestic laws over 40 years will be complex and challenging. It is important that it is fully understood. There were times during the referendum campaign when I felt that an appropriate level of debate, much less understanding, of the challenges ahead did not exist. However, I assure the committee that the Government and I fully acknowledge the importance and superiority of the Good Friday Agreement in letter and spirit. I have discussed this issue with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. James Brokenshire, MP. I suspect that the members here have also done so at party leader level in recent weeks. I acknowledge statements by Mr. Brokenshire and assurances he has given me that any appropriate change in legislation on the part of his colleagues in the British Government would be wholly consistent with the terms and conditions of the Good Friday Agreement. I welcome that but we need to ensure that this is the case by closely monitoring what will be a hugely challenging and legally complex process that could well take a number of years to work through.

Chairman

I thank the Minister. A number of speakers are left so I ask that members' questions be as succinct and exact as possible.

Deputy Charles Flanagan

I will revisit the legacies issue but I am sure other people will refer to it also. I will respond at that stage if that is acceptable.

Chairman

That is fine.

Deputy Brendan Smith

I welcome the Minister and his officials and I thank him for his detailed presentation. He emphasised that the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement will remain a priority for him and his Government colleagues, as it should be for all of us here in the Oireachtas. An Irish language Act, a bill of rights, a civic forum and a North-South consultative forum are all issues that need to be addressed and progressed. I sincerely hope that it will be possible to do the latter.

The Minister mentioned a number of us who have had the honour of representing our constituencies in Dáil Éireann for some time. As a Member of this House in the 1990s, I spent a great deal of time dealing with issues relating to the Border. They involved people being harassed, particularly at weekends. Mr. Adrian O'Neill, a senior Department official who is here with the Minister, was the person on the Anglo-Irish desk at the time who I persecuted every Monday morning and Sunday night with regard to buses being delayed or people being harassed on the way home from football matches. I never thought that we would be back talking about possible border controls in our own province of Ulster. I never thought it would be possible. Sadly, this may be the situation with which we may be confronted. I hope that will not be the case. Since the mid-1990s, all of us - North and South - have underestimated the fact that there has been huge economic development on a North-South and South-North basis. People in this State and in Northern Ireland underestimate the movement of individuals on a daily basis going to and from work on either side of the Border. I represent two rural counties - Cavan and Monaghan - in the south of Ulster. There is a huge movement of people from the North to the South and vice versa on a daily basis, which is very welcome. If there are restrictions on the movement of people or goods, it will be a nightmare that will prevent further economic development. This would be a huge hindrance to people's daily business and to the further economic, social and political development of our island.

There are serious concerns along the Border regarding the possible impact of Brexit. They have already arisen due to the uncertainty caused by the decision, particularly the drop in the value of sterling and the impact this has had on business.

Thankfully, there are many small and medium enterprises which have developed in recent years on our side of the Border which trade exclusively in the sterling area. Likewise, there are firms on the Northern side which trade exclusively with us. They will be impacted very heavily due to uncertainty on the value of sterling and currency fluctuations. In one of the rooms next to this one, the mushroom sector is meeting the Joint Committee on Agriculture, Food and the Marine. The sector has already been badly hit due to the drop in the value of sterling. This is impacting not just on that sector, but on other sectors also, and the impact has not been quantified as of yet. Thankfully, many of our major enterprises in farming and the agrifood sectors have developed businesses on an all-Ireland basis. Lakeland Dairies in my constituency was predominantly a Cavan, Monaghan and north midlands enterprise, but is now a huge enterprise North of the Border also. It has manufacturing sites on both sides of the Border. Likewise, LacPatrick, which was formerly the Town of Monaghan Co-Operative and Dairy Society, is a major agrifood company with sites on both sides of the Border. We cannot imagine the difficulties that will arise for such enterprises because they move raw material North or South depending on the need at each plant. On the idea of having restrictions, Dr. Alasdair McDonnell referred to the difficulties that would arise even from the so-called "soft Border". It would impose additional expense on business and make us less competitive. Any type of Border would be a huge hindrance to economic development in the Border region and the country as a whole.

There is a huge task ahead. I welcome the fact that the Minister stated very clearly that he wants to work with the committee. I mentioned at the last meeting of the committee the need to involve civic society to a great extent in the work of the political system and of the public service. Some thought must be given to the establishment of an all-Ireland civic forum on Brexit because we need an all-island project to bring out the best in the political system, the public sector and civic society to ensure that we address in a meaningful way all of the major issues that face us as a result of the decision in the British referendum.

Mr. Pat Doherty

I thank the Minister and his staff for attending today. At paragraph 8 of his opening statement, the Minister stated that a majority in the North voted to remain. How is that vote to be respected? What will be the impact if it is not respected on, for example, the special EU programmes body and InterTradeIreland? There are other bodies but I pick on those two. Currently, the North-South Ministerial Council is represented to the EU by both Governments. What would be the role of the Irish Government in taking that forward if Britain were to leave the EU? What particular emphasis would then fall on the shoulders of the Irish Government? I ask the Minister to expand on that if he could.

I welcome the Minister and his officials to the committee. I hope this is a serious start to the dialogue on the myriad issues covered by the Good Friday Agreement with, as is clearly necessary, a particular emphasis on Brexit over the next period of time. At the risk of being repetitive, I will cover the issue of funding, which has been alluded to by other members, to stress the importance of funding certainty for the peace and INTERREG programmes. For community groups, local authorities or any of the myriad organisations which look to plan for funding, it is no good to have a stop-start situation. Local authorities, for example, need to plan the spending of this money right up to 2021.

I appeal to the Minister to ensure that the British Exchequer gives an early commitment to supporting those programmes in order to allow for the necessary planning to bring those projects to a conclusion.

The second issue has already been referred to by Deputy Smith. It is the question of ensuring that there is joined-up thinking and dialogue from both a North-South and an east-west perspective. There was a symposium in the Mansion House last week, which was a great start, as is today's committee meeting, concerning the dialogue on related macro issues. I am equally concerned about micro issues. The Taoiseach has referred to the need for a conversation, including the farm gate and grocery store, given the impact that Brexit will have. Large organisations may have the wherewithal to embrace the difficulties that Brexit has posed for us, but more important we must examine how individual community groups can express their concerns. It is only when one gets down to the nitty-gritty that one can realise the unravelling of this Brexit situation is almost too complicated to imagine.

I would like the Minister to comment on those two issues.

I acknowledge the fact that I do not live in a Border area, nor have I ever. I do not represent a Border area but I do not see that as a disadvantage because there are vehicles such as this committee. I keep in close contact with my Government colleagues from the Border area, including Deputy McLoughlin and Senator Feighan. I welcome the experience and expertise that Deputy Smith has provided over many years, and which Deputy Breathnach has in more recent times. I am anxious to hear their concerns.

I have been in Border areas and I am happy to continue that engagement both North and South. This committee is a useful forum in which practical issues can be highlighted with a view to addressing them. I welcome contact on all occasions from people on the northern side of the Border. I acknowledge my positive working relationship with colleagues in the North during my period in office. That should now be subject to a great level of intensification.

I agree with Deputy Smith that civil society should be engaged. We should use the opportunity to harness the expertise and experience involved, having regard to the extent of the challenge. There is a need for the widest possible engagement and conversation on the implications following the result of the UK referendum, both North and South. Many individuals and groups across the island of Ireland are not engaged daily with the political establishment. Deputy Smith is right to say that they should have an opportunity to have their voices heard and acted upon. That is in everyone's interest. In the coming weeks, the Government will put forward ideas on how best to harness this expertise and experience. It is important to have the widest possible engagement and I am satisfied that that will take place before the end of this year. I will be happy to hear the views of committee members in this respect, and will remain fully engaged with them.

I wish to welcome Mr. Pat Doherty, MP. The North-South Ministerial Council and the sectoral meetings will now take upon themselves a greater level of urgency.

I have been in contact with ministerial colleagues recently and North-South ministerial sectoral meetings involving a range of Departments, including those with responsibility for environment, aquaculture and marine, education, agriculture, trade and business and health and food safety, have been arranged for dates that include 26 October and 9 November. We will hold a plenary session on 18 November. The Special EU Programmes Body, SEUPB, will meet on 2 December. I spoke to the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport today and said I am looking forward to having dates confirmed. I would be happy to act as overall co-ordinator and have been in contact with colleagues in Armagh. Members know of the level of commitment to and understanding of these issues on the part of our secretariat in Armagh. It is important to continue to engage.

As the negotiations proceed, those forums can engage with our respective Governments. I underline the commitment of my colleagues in government to the sectoral meetings and the overall engagement within the North-South Ministerial Council. I urge members who are not here and do not take up their seats here of the importance of, and the real need for, their engagement also and that of their constituents and communities at sectoral level.

I certainly respect the 56% vote in Northern Ireland. It creates a real challenge in the context of the overall negotiations that England, outside London, and Wales voted to leave but Scotland voted to remain. My primary interest, as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, is in the vote of the people of Northern Ireland. I have impressed upon my UK colleagues and all of my European counterparts that the unique situation on the island of Ireland is such that 56% of people in the North cast their vote voted to remain within the EU. However, the legal structures are such that we do not deal with Northern Ireland or Wales as members of the European Union but with the UK. It is important, however, that, in the context of negotiations, that full consideration be given to the fact that people in Northern Ireland who had the opportunity to cast their vote and did so in the full knowledge of what was at stake voted to remain. That feeds in to what I have been doing in pressing my EU colleagues and will continue to do so, not for any special pleading or case but that due regard be given to the unique circumstance on the island of Ireland where there will be an EU frontier across the island from east to west and all the consequences that flow from that, as outlined by everybody here. We need to do some work together on that.

Mr. Francie Molloy

I thank the Minister for his presentation. It is very important that we hear at first hand about the different parts of the negotiations. Living in a Border county, I know the difficulties of trade and people moving back and forth across it for work and other reasons and for businesses that are expanding, North and South. We can view it purely in financial terms, which is very important, but we can also view it in human rights terms. While British Ministers have said they want to ensure those rights are not taken away, some of the speeches before the referendum concentrated on the issues of human rights - and within these, workers' rights - and to reduce them in the context of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

The members of the new communities coming into my area have fears about whether they can stay to work.

Businesses are also worried as to whether their workers will stay. The number of passport forms that I am signing has increased dramatically because people are trying to find some stability.

It should not be a question of hard or soft borders but, rather, what we are doing to ensure that there are no borders. We must, given the fact that we have done away with borders, find a long-term solution to this which involves no borders. This affects the farming community in particular. The movement of people back and forth across the Border is one issue, but the movement of animals and livestock is also a difficulty. The pig industry in Cookstown, for example, will be dramatically affected if livestock cannot move across the Border in the normal way. The devaluation of sterling has had a big effect on that industry already. These are the issues we must look at. The main point is that any long-term solution must ensure that there are no borders of any kind in the future.

Senator Feighan is next. I remind members to turn off their mobile phones because they interfere with the recording equipment.

We have had some very positive developments in the past 30 years, including the Anglo-Irish Agreement, the Good Friday Agreement, the visit of the Queen to the Republic of Ireland and the visit of our President to the UK. I am very concerned about the current situation. The British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly met Professor Michael Dougan, who is a professor of European Law at the University of Liverpool. He argued that the four EU freedoms, namely, the free movement of people, goods, capital and services cannot be implemented in the context of what is happening in the UK. The political establishment in the UK has gone missing. This is like a car crash. It is so serious in terms of its potential impact on peace on the island of Ireland. The British Government is saying that it will be all right on the night. Others are saying that the EU might put the boot in but there are things that the EU simply cannot do. I ask that Professor Dougan be invited to speak to this committee to outline the serious consequences of Brexit. British politicians have said that it will be all right on the night, that they can do this and that but this is extremely serious and if we do not address it, we will be in a very difficult position.

As others have rightly stated, people here were shocked at the referendum result, especially given that the majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. I have three particular concerns. First, we cannot have a border on the island of Ireland. A border would be a rallying call for dissidents and would be unworkable. The only place that we should see a border is in the Irish Sea, between the island of Ireland and the United Kingdom. I am stating a political fact here. This is fact because there is no other way that can be implemented. Second, we must think outside the box and as Deputy Brendan Smith rightly said, we need an all-Ireland forum. We already have the North-South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and the North-South Interparliamentary Association, all of which are good in themselves. However, what is happening at the European level is critical. At present, there is an average of 26 meetings per day taking place in the EU and the members of Irish and British negotiating teams are working together but that will not continue. We must look at other ways to unite the people of this country and the United Kingdom. There are areas that we must explore - not necessarily the Commonwealth - in terms of strengthening those links. There are strong business and diplomatic links between the UK and Ireland which must be strengthened. We must find ways to support the Good Friday Agreement and to secure our country's future.

Does the Minister have a view on other aspects of maintaining political links? How can we establish cultural, historical and economic links? We need to talk about these matters now because nobody else is talking about them apart from us here on the island of Ireland. We have been let down by the establishment and by the people who voted against as a protest vote. They did not think about peace on the island of Ireland or of the Good Friday Agreement.

Notwithstanding what the Minister has said about engaging with all the foreign affairs Ministers in Europe, and I know the extent of the engagement North-South and with Britain, how confident is he that when the EU negotiates with Britain, Ireland will have a place at the negotiation table because of our unique position in terms of the North? I am sure everyone will agree that the nitty-gritty will be sorted out at the negotiations. If Ireland is not at the negotiation table, we will be at a disadvantage.

The Minister has said he will come back to the legacy issues. I am concerned about the outstanding issues related to the Dublin and Monaghan bombings. We have the Oireachtas group here and Justice for the Forgotten. We meet the relatives regularly and we have a meeting tomorrow. Deputy Brendan Smith and myself attend those meetings. It would be a positive if we could say to the relatives that their issues will be resolved. Will Brexit push a resolution further away?

The Minister mentioned an audit by the North-South Ministerial Council. Will he report on it at intervals? Where will the audit be of use?

I will respond briefly to a point raised by Deputy Breathnach that I probably did not deal with adequately earlier. I want to make it clear that the Government remains fully committed to the successful implementation of the PEACE and INTERREG programmes. A lot of money is involved. In fact, the Government is proud of its role in securing funding for the fourth round of the PEACE programme. As Deputy Brendan Smith alluded to, it will mean €0.5 billion for the region over the period 2014 to 2020. It is important that we continue to engage fully on this issue. Statements have been made of a positive nature but it is important that we acknowledge at this early stage that we wish to see these undoubtedly successfully programmes completed because of their importance for the region. Indeed, my colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, has been actively involved as part of the Government's contingency planning for the withdrawal of the UK. His Department has identified the implications of Brexit for the two programmes. The issue is currently being addressed between my colleagues in the North and also at EU Commission level. It is important that these issues are adequately addressed because of their importance to the region.

Regarding the points raised by Mr. Pat Doherty and Mr. Francie Molloy, and also Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan, I fully agree that the priorities for advancing North-South co-operation need to take on a more intensified aspect. Ministers have worked across a range of sectoral areas with a view towards prioritising North-South co-operation in the areas of responsibility, including joint trade missions. There have been a number of successful trade missions by way of joint engagement, although they have been too few in number. We can work on a further intensification and develop further joint missions that will be of mutual benefit. We have a network of 80 embassies spread across the world and the embassy here is fully available to assist in any way that it can with Northern colleagues. We will continue to reach out to Northern Ireland's economic and business sector to grow cross-Border economic links, as Mr. Francie Molloy quite rightly said.

If we look at tourism, for example, we are now achieving record results with the help of Tourism Ireland. It is vital that we continue to build on this and of course, any fortified or hard Border that would involve the checking of cars, the slowing down of transit or the introduction of checkpoints would certainly militate against that. We need to ensure that we make every effort to maximise the benefits.

The audit to which Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan referred will be fed into the plenary. There is a mechanism by which the Oireachtas is fully updated on the outcome of the plenary. If members find it helpful, I would be happy to assist in that information programme with the Oireachtas by means of this committee.

Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan raised the specific matter of the Dublin and Monaghan bombings, an issue upon which I have had some engagement in recent times. I raised it yet again with the recently appointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the course of my meeting with him. The Government remains committed to implementing the decisions taken by the Oireachtas on two occasions in recent years. I underlined the fact that I expect a response from the British Government to the long-standing request by the Dáil. I continue to emphasise that in the absence of a satisfactory response, this issue remains one of deep concern to every Member of the Oireachtas. The Taoiseach also had the opportunity to raise the issue with the British Prime Minister. I assure Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan that I will continue to engage with the British Government on this issue. I met the families on the 42nd anniversary of the bombings and I believe Deputy Maureen O'Sullivan was also there. This is an important issue that is relevant to her constituency and that of other Members of the House. It is a source of regret to me that there has not been a greater level of progress on this issue but I assure the Deputy that I will continue to raise it. I raised it at both my first and second meetings with the Secretary of State, Mr. Brokenshire. I look forward to making progress on this long-outstanding issue.

I wish to return to the legacy issue because I did not really address the question posed by Dr. Alasdair McDonnell but perhaps some of the committee members would like to come in now and I can return to that before we conclude.

There are five more members indicating, so we will go to them now and return to the Minister afterwards.

Mr. Mark Durkan

I thank the Minister for his words, not just his opening presentation but also his answers to questions raised. I also thank him for all of the work he undertakes.

There is concern that, in the post-referendum situation, too many of us are being asked to drift along and rely on assurances from British Ministers that there will not be any hard borders, that they will respect the Good Friday Agreement and so on, in circumstances where it is quite clear that they have no plan, map or satellite navigation system for where they want to go. Just tailgating on those sorts of assurances is not good enough. Like other members, including Senator Feighan and Deputy Brendan Smith, I believe we must see broader bandwidth regarding where we go from here in terms of properly protecting and upholding the Good Friday Agreement, as well as minimising and mitigating the adverse impact of the Brexit decision on the island as a whole. That means we need a wider forum. It is not enough to rely on whatever good exchanges take place inside the North-South Ministerial Council because it has a limited remit and is subject to veto mechanisms. We were told today about protocols that prevented a document prepared by the Civil Service in the North assessing the adverse impact of Brexit from being published. It could not be published because people were able to use the veto mechanism to which I refer.

That mechanism also extends to the work of the North-South Ministerial Council, both to its agenda and any outcomes. In circumstances where that veto is held by people who campaigned in a cavalier way for Brexit, and with complete disregard for its wider implications, many of us are under-assured when we are told that much of this can be taken care of by the North-South Ministerial Council. We need to ensure, therefore, that there are broader channels of consideration, and I do not just mean party political involvement. There needs to be key sectoral inputs and considerations on a North-South basis.

In that regard, I hope the Irish Government would not be curtailed by the reaction to the Taoiseach's remarks in Glenties in making very clear that any new EU-UK treaty catering for Brexit must make explicit provision in respect of Irish unity, and that in the event of people in Ireland voting for a United Ireland there would be no question mark over new terms having to be negotiated for the North to come in to a United Ireland and into the EU or new terms having to be negotiated for the South as well. It is not enough to rely on the precedent of Germany because many people are saying we are in different circumstances and that said precedent would not be invoked. We cannot say there would not be a problem. We have to deal with it in terms that explicitly relate to the Good Friday Agreement because unless they are assured it is directly and specifically to do with the Good Friday Agreement, other countries elsewhere in Europe will be wary of the precedent of regions being able to member state "shop or hop" in that regard. That is why explicit and unique provision has to be made. We cannot be overly sensitive to the complaints we might hear from some Unionist politicians when we make that point. Equally, we cannot be too sensitive to some of the sensitivities I hear from some English colleagues in the House of Commons when we make these points. The latter will say that they do not want to discuss the matter because Scotland will insist on something being negotiated to allow it be able to come in or that, in the event of independence, it will have a smooth path to membership.

We must take care of our interests and principles as mandated by people when they voted, North and South, for the Good Friday Agreement. We have to put those at a premium. The Irish Government has a bigger responsibility, given the terms of the new Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution, in respect of protecting the Good Friday Agreement's provisions in those sorts of areas than has the British Government. There are comments we will need to hear from the Irish Government in respect of its singular role as a guarantor of the Agreement rather than us just hearing that there will be commitments by the two Governments as co-guarantors.

In respect of the hard border issue, that might be an easy issue to deal with because everybody seems to be saying that they are opposed to a hard border or that nobody wants it. However, as the Minister rightly said, some of that may not be entirely in our own hands, depending on decisions that are made elsewhere or by others in the EU. Even if we avoid what people are calling a hard border - a physical customs post - the fact is that there will be a danger of incipient "borderism" because the more we have a difference of standards and the less commonality around regulations, standards and laws, the more some people will make it their business to enforce those differences and seek them to be policed, even by businesses, groups and individuals. It is that level of incipient borderism about which many people are concerned. We should not underestimate that it exists, even in the current context.

One need only look at what happens to wedding cars crossing the Border in some parts of the country to see that borderism exists, even under the current regime. We are told that there will be no agenda for borderism and that everything will work smoothly under the Agreement. There was an element of borderism in recent times when the haulage levy was introduced in the North by the current Minister for immigration, who did not seem to care about the Good Friday Agreement and who argued that his Government's policies required him to act in a way that did not treat people in Northern Ireland differently from their counterparts anywhere else. I mention that as an example of where people apply the policies they have in Great Britain and extend them equally to Northern Ireland. In recent times, the British Government has increasingly spoken about immigration and terrorism together. We saw it in Theresa May's statement after the G20 summit, one section of which was headed "immigration and terrorism". I accept that another word was thrown in there. The word "refugees" was used in the text but not in the heading. The Westminster Government is increasingly talking about immigration and terrorism together and using the same instruments to deal with them.

We should remember that terrorism legislation passed in the Westminster Parliament in recent years makes specific provisions about the Border area in Northern Ireland. The power of police or anybody with constabulary powers to seize a passport at airports or ports, or within a mile of airports or ports, applies specifically to any area within a mile of the land border in Northern Ireland. When James Brokenshire was introducing this legislation as the Minister responsible for it, he clarified for me that it applies to anywhere within a mile as the crow flies. There is already pressure in the UK for that to be extended. People are asking why the use of these powers should be limited to within a mile of ports and airports and calling for the relevant area to be extended. Although this is supposedly a terrorism measure, we have to fear that the increasing tendency to address terrorism and immigration together in statements and in legislative terms could have implications for how the Border is treated that are not flashing on the radar at the moment. The point I am making is that those of us in Border areas who are dealing with these issues and listening to British Ministers when they are addressing their own colleagues, and not just when they are addressing audiences in Dublin or Northern Ireland, are aware that such Ministers are not reliably showing the care and regard for the Good Friday Agreement that we would hope they would show for it. We have to take that care to ourselves.

I ask members to keep their contributions as brief as possible. We are coming under a little time pressure because we want to give the Minister an opportunity to respond. The next two speakers are Senators Coghlan and Mark Daly.

I will be very brief. I welcome the Minister and thank him and his officials for attending. I appreciate what the Minister said. I think the prospects are frightening, quite frankly. If Brexit takes place - I presume it will because that is what the UK authorities are saying - we will not enjoy the Single Market free trade arrangements we have at present. As Deputy Brendan Smith said, many agrifood and drinks businesses are engaged in part-manufacture North and South. They enjoy free movement of goods but it is obvious that this will not be allowed when controls and tariffs are introduced. As Mark Durkan said, regardless of how well-meaning UK assurances are, they count for naught. I think the current uncertainty and volatility will continue with substantial adverse consequences for trade, etc., as we go forward. Britain has totally set its face against any free movement or immigration. As a country that will continue to be an EU member state, Ireland will not be able to stop people from coming here. We would like to see free movement across the Border, but I cannot see Britain allowing it. I see significant adverse consequences. I do not know how the Minister will address them. I know he means well and he has been doing everything possible. I think this is continuing in the dark. The Minister hinted that we will be grappling with cotton wool until we get into negotiations. We cannot get a grip on anything. I look forward to hearing the Minister's further comments.

I suppose one of the startling facts about the situation relating to the Border is that there are more land crossings between North and South than there are between the EU and all of the countries to the east of it, which would make one mindful of the scale of the problem we face. I have one specific question, as colleagues have touched on many areas.

On our position on the European Court of Human Rights because it forms part of the Good Friday Agreement, the UK has been trying to leave the European Court of Human Rights for a long time. Long before Brexit, they have been giving out about it. The Irish position, I would propose, and hope the Minister would support, is that, whatever about Britain - being England, Scotland and Wales - retaining jurisdiction and being able to leave the jurisdiction of the European Court of Human Rights, Northern Ireland should remain under it. It is desperately complex to see, if a country is leaving, how the European Court of Human Rights would still have such jurisdiction, but that might be. Norway and Switzerland may be under the European Court of Human Rights and countries which are not necessarily in the EU would come under that court.

As my colleagues have pointed out, the British public representatives do not understand the scale of the problem they face. Mr. Dan O'Brien pointed out that this is like doing 55 trade negotiations simultaneously, and one trade negotiation can take seven years. When one is trying to conduct not only trade negotiations but a fishery agreement, a security agreement, a health agreement and an education one all at the same time, it beggars belief. The problem here is we need to make a special case for Northern Ireland because the European project is, in essence, a peace process. The EU itself is a peace process. Northern Ireland still is a peace process and this has the potential to destabilise the peace process. That is the way we need to get our European colleagues to understand it. This has the potential to destabilise Northern Ireland.

Briefly, grave concerns have been expressed to me, as a representative from a Border constituency, about the uncertainty in cross-Border trade, farming - already, the cattle and sheep trade has been affected as a result of this - and sterling in future. With the drop in the value of sterling, businesses are transferring elsewhere and that is of concern to many.

I want to know about the support the Government can provide for the north-west gateway to help the Border economies. The Minister outlined some of the issues in relation to concerns. Somebody mentioned also the €10 haulage levy which is having a detrimental effect on quite a number of hauliers. Finally, the Minister might outline the progress made against organised crime in rural areas. Organised crime still has a damaging effect in the Border economies.

There are two more speakers, briefly, Senators Ó Donnghaile and Black.

I thank the Minister. It has been a comprehensive discussion so far, I say respectfully, because, through no fault of his own, the Minister has told us a whole lot without really telling us anything. I suppose that is the nature of the climate we are operating in post Brexit. When the British Government does not know what it is doing, I do not expect the Minister to be able to come in here and deal with some of the issues that have been put to him.

As a committee, our remit is to look at the implementation of the Agreement and for me, as well as the obvious and consistent concern that has been raised here about the Border, there are a number of other fairly fundamental issues. Some members have touched on the European funding and no doubt we will have a discussion with the Minister, Mr. Ó Muilleoir MLA, about that, but nothing will convince me that any British Government will reimburse or replace the moneys that we receive from the EU, whether it is for peace initiatives, infrastructure, agriculture or whatever, particularly at a time when the British Government has already cut £4 million out of the block grant. We are in danger of being removed from the human rights protections that are afforded to us under membership of the EU against our will.

We are being left marooned by a Government that refuses to introduce the UK Human Rights Act in the North and, in the context of some of the earlier remarks, that is currently using national security as a veto in terms of some of the legacy issues we face. Furthermore, on a point of particular importance to me, the only protections afforded to the Irish-speaking community in the North in the absence of the Act are those of the European Charter for Regional or Minority Languages.

As the Minister is aware, 56% of people have voted to remain in the EU and an even higher percentage of individuals throughout the country voted for the Good Friday Agreement. There is a danger of us being marooned by a decision taken by England and Wales. We need to get to a point where the Minister is better informed in terms of the broader experience throughout the country. Two court cases are currently under way in the North challenging this decision. Next weekend, business leaders, those from the community sector and others are organising and mobilising around the Border communities against this decision.

I thank the Minister for what has been a comprehensive discussion. I believe we need to get to a position where the Minister is able to come to us. More important, in terms of the negotiation that will take place at EU level, he should be acutely aware of the dangerous subversion of the Good Friday Agreement and its institutions that the vote taken in England represents.

I will conclude on this point. One of the opening remarks made by the Minister related to seeking to protect the institutions such as the North-South Ministerial Council, etc. However, the decision in respect of the Border could be taken elsewhere by the European member states. This already presents an obvious contradiction. Paramount in terms of our role is protecting the legitimacy and primacy of the Agreement. It is very positive that the Minister acknowledges the need for a national discussion and forum to outline some of the issues. I hope we will have the opportunity at institutions such as this and others to tease out these issues.

I thank the Minister for coming before the committee. I do not envy him the job he has ahead. I am keen to highlight the issues that my colleagues have spoken on, especially in respect of funding. I have worked closely with community initiatives in north Belfast such as Bridge of Hope, which does fantastic work, especially for people who have been affected by the conflict. The issues that have arisen relate to mental health and addiction. In a way, it is a crisis. We are talking about people's lives. Indeed, we are not only talking about people's lives, we are talking about the legacy of the conflict on the people in the North. It is vital that we work towards getting funding for these communities, because they are keeping things going. I have worked closely with these communities and I have brought trainers and community activists together to work on these issues. I have seen the work they have done. They are phenomenal and they dedicate their lives to what they do. I am keen to highlight the urgency in respect of the issue of funding. Again, I thank the Minister for coming before the committee.

Senator Black referred to funding. I wish to acknowledge the importance of funding from the Northern Ireland Executive, the UK Government and my Department. Since its establishment, the reconciliation fund has seen in excess of €46 million disbursed to a total of almost 2,000 projects. Of course, we will continue to ensure that these funds are made available. This is an issue of importance in the context of the forthcoming budget.

This is a priority for me as we continue to address issues that are directly impacting on people's lives, families and communities if we are to create a better understanding between people and traditions on the island of Ireland and between Ireland and Britain. This issue has been the subject matter of discussions between the Secretary of State, Mr. Brokenshire, and me.

Regarding Senator Daly's comments, I wish to address the Human Rights Act and what the Government is doing to ensure that the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement are fully respected and not affected in any way that might be regarded as adverse. It is important to note that the European Convention on Human Rights is a separate regime from the EU. Leaving the EU does not mean leaving the convention. In terms of the protection of human rights within Northern Ireland's law, the incorporation of the convention is one of the key principles underpinning the Good Friday Agreement. I stand by the Agreement as far as this issue is concerned. There is an ongoing legal obligation to incorporate the convention in Northern Ireland's law, one that should not, will not and cannot be affected by the decision to leave the EU. I raised this matter two weeks ago with the Secretary of State, who confirmed the British Government's position, in that any change that may be envisaged by the British Government to the UK's Human Rights Act would be made in such a way as to be fully consistent with the British Government's obligation under the Good Friday Agreement. Mr. Durkan is right, in that we have a legal position on this matter. That is important in the context of the Irish Government being a co-guarantor of the Agreement. We will continue to monitor the situation closely. I also raised this issue with the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Mr. David Davis. I will reiterate what has been stated to me at a meeting: this issue is acknowledged by the British Government. I will keep a close eye on it.

Deputy McLoughlin asked what was being done for the north west. He is right that the withdrawal of the UK from the EU could have an adverse impact on trade and commerce in the Border area. The Deputy will be aware that, in accordance with A Fresh Start, we have committed €2.5 million to developments in the north west. I look forward to the Northern Executive matching this fund. There are people present who are in the Executive, so they might be able to bring back from this meeting the message that, although €5 million is obviously considerably better than €2.5 million, our €2.5 million is there. This issue will be the subject matter of discussion at the North-South Ministerial Council plenary session, which has been scheduled for 18 November.

Senators Ó Donnghaile and Feighan and Mr. Durkan spoke about the need for wider engagement. They were right. We have the North-South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Council, the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and the North-South Parliamentary Forum, which has perhaps not been as actively engaged in recent times as it might have been. It may take on an added level of importance in the context of these discussions. We also have this committee. However, there is a need for broader channels. We must engage with civil society and business. Recently, I met trade union interests, whose concerns must also be taken on board.

As to farmers, Mr. Molloy, I do not know how many pigs cross the Border, but more than 50,000 cattle cross it every year. It is essential that we ensure this type of agricultural engagement and free movement of agricultural produce. Education is also important.

We need a broader conversation. The Taoiseach is aware of that and addressed the matter in the Dáil prior to this meeting's commencement.

I will reply briefly to Mr. Molloy and Senator Daly regarding the united Ireland provision. This is an issue in which I stand by the terms, provisions and letter of the Good Friday Agreement. It is a part of my solemn obligation and duty to ensure that all aspects of the Agreement are fully respected and provided for in any new arrangement between the EU and the UK. There will be two sets of negotiations. In the context of the withdrawal, Ireland will be firmly at the table. The UK will not. Therefore, it is important that we engage in a way that is fully respectful of the issues at hand. In that context, I find this engagement useful. We must ensure that the interests of the people, economy and society of Northern Ireland are taken on board by those who are at the table. That will include the Irish Government, but we must acknowledge that the principle of consent and the possibility of change in the constitutional status of Northern Ireland are firmly built into the Good Friday Agreement, which was endorsed by a large majority of people North and South in the spring or early summer of 1998. That is where I stand on this issue. I have impressed upon my British Government colleagues, and the Taoiseach has impressed upon Prime Minister May, the need to ensure that the letter, spirit and principles of the Good Friday Agreement are fully respected.

Regarding the Border, it is important to acknowledge what Prime Minister May said while in Belfast as well as the early visit by the Secretary of State for Exiting the European Union, Mr. Davis, who met some of those present. I met him for over an hour in Dublin. I asked him to visit Dublin and he did so at an early date. It was the first of many engagements. I have had a number of engagements with the new Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. James Brokenshire, who spoke to some of those present while in Belfast. It is important that we continue to engage at this level to ensure that our position on the matter of the Border is acknowledged by Britain.

Having spoken to each of my other 26 EU colleagues, there is an acknowledgement, understanding and appreciation of the peace process and the unique status of the island of Ireland in the forthcoming negotiations, the important role played by the EU in the peace process and the need to ensure that the impact on cross-Border relations is minimised. I will continue to engage at that level. It will of course be an issue that features on the agenda during the negotiations.

On the matter of legacy issues, I apologise to Dr. McDonnell and others who raised it. This issue was discussed in considerable detail during my discussions with Mr. Brokenshire at our bilateral meeting in Dublin two weeks ago. He has been engaging in a round of talks with the wider community. While some of us North and South were otherwise engaged in electoral matters earlier in the year, my officials were engaged in rounds of talks with victims and survivors.

These consultations proved to be very valuable and will inform the approach in having agreement ultimately reached on these issues. It is a source of regret that we did not get matters finally over the line in the context of the Stormont House Agreement. We have agreed that the legacy institutions, as identified in the Stormont House Agreement, still offer the best way forward. It is a comprehensive framework allowing for the needs of victims and survivors to be central to the approach. I acknowledge the input of Mr. McDonnell's party colleagues in reaching agreement. It is important that we can show an earnest willingness now to move forward on the limited number of issues upon which we need to find consensus. The setting up of the institutions should not be held up by dealing with the final chapter of the agreement.

I acknowledge the contribution of all party members around the table, particularly those in the North. I know Deputy Brendan Smith consistently raises these issues through parliamentary questions and debate. I look forward to reporting progress on that before the end of the year.

I sincerely thank the Minister on behalf of the committee for being with us today and his patience in answering everybody's questions. Brexit is a big issue for us as a committee and we will examine it very closely. We look forward to engaging further with the Minister and his Department. I also thank the officials for coming before us as well.

Sitting suspended at 6.41 p.m. and resumed at 6.43 p.m.