East Border Region

Before we begin, I remind members, witnesses and people who may come into the Gallery to turn off their mobile phones. Members are requested to ensure that for the duration of the meeting mobile phones are turned off completely and switched to aeroplane, safe or flight mode, depending on the device. It is not sufficient for members to just place their phones in silent mode as this will maintain the level of interference with the broadcasting system.

We are meeting this afternoon with the representatives from East Border Region, EBR, to hear about their work and the challenges they face. In particular, I welcome Ms Pamela Arthurs, CEO, Alderman Arnold Hatch, vice chairman, Ms Dette Hughes, Councillor P.J. O’Hanlon, Councillor Terry Andrews, Councillor Sharon Keogan and Alderman Alan McDowell. We have apologies from Councillor Damien O'Reilly. The format of the meeting is that we will hear opening statements before going into a question and answer session with the members of the committee.

By virtue of section 17(2)(l) of the Defamation Act 2009, witnesses are protected by absolute privilege in respect of their evidence to the committee. However, if they are directed by the committee to cease giving evidence on a particular matter and they continue to so do, they are entitled thereafter only to a qualified privilege in respect of their evidence. They are directed that only evidence connected with the subject matter of these proceedings is to be given and they are asked to respect the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should not criticise or make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I invite Ms Arthurs to make her opening statement.

Ms Pamela Arthurs

If the Vice Chairman allows, Councillor O’Hanlon will go first, followed by Alderman Hatch and then myself.

That is fine. I call Councillor O'Hanlon.

Mr. P.J. O'Hanlon

I thank the Chair and members for inviting me to make a presentation on the work of EBR. The Ireland-Northern Ireland Border area is the focal point of Brexit negotiations. Much mention has been made of the peace process and the need to protect the Good Friday Agreement in all its parts. This is in no small part due to the proactive approach taken by local authorities along the Border in the wake of the June 2016 referendum on Brexit. EBR is a genuine cross-Border organisation. It includes three local authorities in the Republic of Ireland and three in Northern Ireland and comprises elected members from all political parties, North and South, chief executives and senior officials from the six member councils. The post of chairman rotates annually across the Border. EBR was the first cross-Border group to elect a chair from the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP. Apart from the institutions set up under the Good Friday Agreement, there are very few other genuine cross-Border organisations on the island of Ireland. Examples include the North West Region, ICBAN, the Centre for Cross Border Studies and Co-Operation and Working Together, CAWT, which operates between the health boards.

Cross-Border co-operation on the island of Ireland is relatively young. The impetus came in the 1970s from local elected representatives, North and South, who recognised the value of cross-Border co-operation. The North West Region in 1995 and EBR in 1996 were the first cross-Border organisations on the island. It is important to note also that cross-Border co-operation was not then fashionable. The policy of both Governments was "back-to-back" development.

One of the founding members of EBR, Councillor Jim McCart, who lived in Warrenpoint, County Down, stated:

Back in the early 1970’s there was literally no cooperation at any level, political or otherwise, between Local Authorities adjacent to the border. I didn’t know any of the councillors in Omeath despite the fact that I could look out my front door and see Omeath. It simply wasn’t the done thing.

Councillors and officials who were members of EBR worked under the shadow of the wider political situation. The political climate made it difficult to attend meetings across the Border but local representatives persevered because they quickly realised that back-to-back development was not working. They also realised that there were areas of common concern across the Border, that there was a strength in working together and that the Border region, North and South, was disadvantaged. Working on a cross-Border basis was extremely difficult throughout the 1970s and 1980s. There was no funding from the authorities in Dublin or Belfast because cross-Border co-operation was not fashionable.

EBR, however, has always worked against the backdrop of the European Union. Indeed, it was the European Union in the early 1990s which first provided financial assistance for cross-Border development in the form of the INTERREG programme and the subsequent PEACE programme. While there are more than 70 INTERREG programmes across Europe, the PEACE programme is unique to the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland and demonstrates the commitment of other EU member states to peace in Northern Ireland. Substantial EU INTERREG and PEACE funding from the 1990s enabled the transformation of the Ireland-Northern Ireland Border region economically and socially. It also ensured that local authorities were at the forefront of cross-Border economic development. EU funding enabled EBR to be more outward looking, to share and learn from counterparts in other areas across Europe and to realise that the Ireland-Northern Ireland Border area suffers similar problems to other border regions in Europe.

While the Good Friday Agreement was a catalyst for further cross-Border co-operation, it is important to note that such co-operation has never been easy and must not be taken lightly. Over the past 40 years, the members of EBR have believed that cross-Border co-operation makes sense. It still makes sense in the face of Brexit. Capacity and trust have developed between elected members and officials and EBR has built up an excellent track record in the management of EU funding. EBR has always adopted a bottom up and needs-based approach to cross-Border co-operation, where the views of local authorities and key stakeholders in the region are paramount. This strategy has been extremely successful as Alderman Hatch will now outline. I thank the committee for its time.

I call Alderman Hatch.

Mr. Arnold Hatch

Good afternoon. It is nice to see what I will not term old faces but faces I have known for some time. EBR is financially managing eight large strategic INTERREG VA projects to the value of €91 million. An application for a further €9.2 million is being assessed by the Special European Union Programmes Body, SEUPB. All of these projects are highly innovative and EBR is delighted to play a pivotal role in them. I have circulated a copy of our most recent annual report, which will provide members with some detail on each of these INTERREG VA projects. I hope members will find that interesting reading.

EBR has been involved in all of the INTERREG programmes to date, drawing down millions of euro for a host of projects which have benefited communities along the entire Border corridor. This money has contributed significantly to the modernisation of the Ireland-Northern Ireland Border corridor. I will outline a few examples to give members a flavour of the type of projects EBR is currently implementing. We are involved in two greenway projects. One is from Newry to Carlingford, and links in to the existing greenway from Carlingford to Omeath, and the other runs from Smithborough in County Monaghan to Middletown in County Armagh.

These are two genuinely cross-Border greenways and they will have a significantly positive impact on the Border region.

The current application, for €9.2 million, is to install a necklace of 73 rapid electric vehicle chargers along the Ireland-Northern Border and to include the western coast of Scotland. This is a highly strategic project involving organisations such as the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, Ulster University, Dundalk Institute of Technology and the local authorities along the Border corridor. It seeks to raise public awareness and increase the use of electric vehicles.

As well as working with our local authorities, EBR has entered into strategic partnerships with a wide range of key stakeholders that are implementing INTERREG VA projects. This includes organisations such as Irish Water, Northern Ireland Water, InterTradeIreland, and the Ulster Wildlife Trust, in addition to a number of universities in Ireland, Northern Ireland and Scotland. EBR provides a unique service to these projects in respect of the financial management of EU funding, thus ensuring all expenditure is in line with the programme rules.

The Co-Innovate programme led by InterTradeIreland will assist 1,409 businesses within the INTERREG VA eligible area and is particularly useful in the current context of Brexit. As a result of this collaborative approach and the expertise that has been developed over the years of managing EU funding, EBR has built up strong networks locally, nationally and internationally.

We remain an active member of the Association of European Border Regions, AEBR, which is a network of cross-border regions across Europe. EBR is respected by government departments in Ireland, Northern Ireland and Brussels, and it has developed good working relationships with the special EU programmes body, Deputies, Senators, MPs, MLAs and MEPs. The former secretary general of AEBR, Mr. Jens Gabbe, said EBR is an indispensable link in the Europe-wide network of AEBR. He also stated this cross-Border co-operation has contributed to remarkable positive economic and social development in Ireland and Northern Ireland and created verifiable added value. While there is no doubt that the myriad EU-funded projects that have been drawn down over the past 25 years have significantly contributed to the growth of the Border economy, there is no room for complacency.

Over the past 40 years, EBR has displayed an astute ability to adapt to the many challenges that have faced the organisation at both local and national levels. This flexible approach and the pragmatism displayed by local elected politicians and local authority senior officials have ensured that EBR has survived while similar organisations have come and gone. In the face of the Brexit challenge, it is essential that we adhere to our core principle, that is, to promote sustainable, cross-Border economic development that benefits the citizens of the region. Brexit, however, will be a game changer. I will now hand over to our chief executive of many years, Ms Pamela Arthurs, to discuss this further.

Ms Pamela Arthurs

The Ireland-Northern Ireland Border corridor will be most impacted by Brexit, irrespective of what type of Brexit we end up with. Even if there were no Brexit, there would still be an impact. The impact will be on economic, political and social levels. Economists agree that despite the supports the Border region has received to date, it still lags behind the rest of Ireland and Northern Ireland. Economists also agree that Brexit will exacerbate this. Business in the region is less confident and more reluctant to expand as the future is so uncertain. Current developments at Westminster have compounded the problem. This has already been evidenced. Mr. Dan O’Brien, chief economist of the Institute of International and European Affairs, stated at a Brexit event in Dublin on 4 December 2018 that while employment growth overall in Ireland is good, employment in the Border region has faltered since 2016. While Brexit has highlighted many needs that already exist, it has also highlighted future requirements.

What has been the local authority response to Brexit? In the immediate aftermath of the referendum, once we all picked ourselves up off the seats, local authorities began a sustained lobby to highlight the needs of the people of the east Border region. It quickly became clear, however, that we needed to work with our colleagues along the Border because it is a Border issue, affecting the North and South. Especially with the absence of a government in Northern Ireland, local authorities along the Border felt it necessary to articulate and lobby for the needs of the 1 million constituents of the Border region. I hope members are all familiar with the report, Brexit and the Border Corridor on the Island of Ireland: Risks, Opportunities and Issues to Consider. It was commissioned by the 11 local authorities which make up the Border corridor. Facilitated by EBR, this report brought together the chief executives of the councils and clearly identified that the economy of the Border region lags behind the economies of both the Republic of Ireland and Northern Ireland. It also outlines that the Border will be most detrimentally affected by Brexit.

What were the recommendations of the report? We need to address the structural weaknesses in the Border region. Also required are the upgrading of transport and broadband infrastructure, which would assist with connectivity in the region, and ongoing business support measures to assist businesses in preparing for and dealing with the impact of Brexit. The majority of businesses in the Border corridor are small. Many are microbusinesses, with fewer than ten employees. They do not have either the money or time to prepare for what they believe might happen as a result of Brexit. The uncertainty will see many of them go to the wall.

Also important are a focus on relevant skill levels in the region and some kind of Brexit transition programme along the lines of a territorial co-operation programme to assist the Border region to adapt to the challenges of Brexit. This needs to be broadly based because Brexit will affect every sector. I do not believe we care who provides funding, but the continuation of the EU-type funding programmes, or alternative funding programmes, is required. I refer to the broad range. We are most familiar with INTERREG, the cross-Border group, the PEACE programme, Horizon 2020, the rural development programme and Erasmus. We will lose a raft of programmes in Northern Ireland.

We believe in the east Border region. Members will have heard Mr. Hatch say we have always been ready to adapt to the particular challenges of the Border. We need new policy, new thinking and new methods of co-operation and partnership between local authorities in conjunction with central government in both the Republic of Ireland and Belfast. That is important. It is essential for Border management to work in the wake of Brexit.

To date, the majority of the funding that has come to the Border region through cross-Border initiatives has been from Europe, not the Government. There has been some funding from the South but nothing really from Northern Ireland. The money that has come in through the INTERREG and PEACE programmes, which are cross-Border programmes, has come from the European Union. Both Governments could argue they match funding but the impetus and drive have been from the European Union to date.

The 11 Border local authorities now want to work with both Governments to develop and propose creative solutions for Border management. Local authorities along the Border wish to develop a bottom-up, needs-based strategy for the Border corridor to offset the challenges and identify any opportunities associated with Brexit. One should bear in mind that there are members in the Northern Border council areas who believe there are opportunities. We must take the mandate of all those elected representatives. As local authorities, that is what we will do. This fresh strategic approach should be endorsed by both Governments to support the Border region practically. This is not about airy-fairy considerations.

This is about what we require practically. The strategic work will build on the report. Tomorrow we will meet chief executives from along the Border and officials from the Department of the Taoiseach and the Northern Ireland Executive to drive this forward. We want to use this to establish priorities for action. We need to engage with local stakeholders, social partners and business. It is needs based and must take account of the people of the area.

Implementation structures and sources of funding are very important. While local authority staff and elected members have the knowledge and commitment at local level, some aspects of the work may require a more regional approach. Issues may be identified that can best be tackled at Border corridor level. There may also be issues that are particularly pertinent to the east, central Border or north-west region. The strategy we are commissioning as we speak will identify these. We will have requirements along the Border corridor and at high level, and within these we will have priorities in each region.

High level support and commitment from both Governments is essential if this approach is to be successful. Existing local authority cross-Border groups, including ICBAN, ourselves and the North West Region Cross Border Group, are well placed. We have a proven track record in co-ordinating, facilitating and managing dedicated interventions in respect of this approach. To be carried out, it also needs to be led at top level, as this approach is, by the chief executives of the 11 local authorities but they require the resources to do this. In my view, the solution suggested by the Border corridor local authorities, which is bottom-up, needs based and driven and delivered locally has the best opportunity for success.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations.

I thank the witnesses for coming before the committee. When Mr. O'Hanlon began his presentation he reminded me of how local authorities can overcome all sorts of issues by working together. Sometimes things are driven locally that nationally we could not dream of doing. I am mindful of the fact that the day after the referendum Ms Keogan was on the phone to me demanding resources for local authorities for the Border region. There is serious drive at local level and I am delighted to have heard the presentation.

Not one of the witnesses presented anything negative. They have created an air of co-operation that feeds through what I have heard from various ambassadors. I am a member of the European affairs committee. All of the ambassadors speak in glowing terms about how they were treated on the Border and how they were briefed on it. This is the same as all of the parliamentary delegations that have come to Ireland. They have gone away in no doubt. Michel Barnier himself speaks about the Border with a level of passion one would not expect from a foreigner. This is down to the work being done by local authorities in the area. However, the day after the referendum I wrote a piece on the Border and, I am afraid, it was negative. It had anything but the positivity I have heard from the witnesses. Whether it is a hard or soft Brexit, I fear it will change our relationships forever but, after listening to Mr. O'Hanlon and Mr. Hatch, I am not so convinced that the change will be detrimental because I believe they will find ways of working around issues and this is important.

As we heard from the previous witnesses, much of the money that has gone into Northern Ireland since 1998 has gone in at a high level, such as into academia, and not much money is going down to the ordinary level. Infrastructure has been mentioned and my fear is that in a mismatch of funding post-Brexit the infrastructure on the Northern side will change to the detriment of the development of the economy or sustaining the economy as it is now. I am interested to know the view of Ms Arthurs specifically on how she sees the UK matching funding from the EU. I do not see EU money going North of the Border.

With regard to the flight of industry, I am sure the councillors from the South will accept it would be so easy for a company that wants to remain in the European Union but, post-Brexit, is on the wrong side of the Border - for the want of a definition - to slip across the Border and set up offices in Dundalk, Drogheda or County Meath. We have met businesses in Northern Ireland that have said they will do this if the business is interfered with.

The group of Independent Senators of which I am a member went to Belfast prior to Christmas to meet members of the business community. They told us the only thing they want is certainty. They do not care whether it is a hard, soft any other type of Brexit, they just want certainty so they can start to make plans. Has Ms Arthurs had any negative feedback from businesses in the area? Clearly this shows there is a huge commitment to the area. Have the businesses come to her and said they are in trouble?

Ms Pamela Arthurs

I would not be very hopeful about money coming from Westminster for cross-Border co-operation. An example I can give is that when a group of MPs in Westminster were looking into the UK prosperity fund that will replace EU funding a number of cross-Border groups were asked to comment on it and we did so. We delivered a strong response on the need for cross-Border co-operation. When the report was published it made little or no reference to cross-Border co-operation. We must bear in mind the Northern Ireland Border region will be competing with England, Scotland, Wales, the rest of Northern Ireland and Belfast. We have always been on the periphery and we are still on the periphery in this respect. I do not see money coming to replace the moneys from Europe that we along the Border enjoy, and bear in mind we punch above our weight with regard to the money we have received to date.

Europe is committed to cross-Border co-operation. The British and Irish Governments have committed to seeing out the current programmes and the PEACE PLUS programme, which will comprise INTERREG and PEACE as we know them today. The EU has committed it will fund this programme to the value of €600 million. We know we have this, irrespective of a no-deal Brexit. This shows the commitment of Europe and the other 27 member states to peace in Northern Ireland. There will be no funding from Westminster, unless, perhaps, we engage in sustained lobbying to try to raise the profile, but we must bear in mind that Brexit will cost money and there are many priorities that will come above cross-Border co-operation. I do not think enough money will be left to look seriously at cross-Border co-operation and the work we have done to date.

I am speaking about economic development and we can see INTERREG on the ground, which is good, but there will be a hard economic impact on members working together and this could possibly be lost. I hope an organisation such as ours, with 40 years of history, will be able to keep it going.

We will be able to keep that going, but without money, there is always a need for a carrot. As Councillor O'Hanlon said, cross-Border co-operation is never easy. One is constantly walking a tightrope, particularly in Northern Ireland with all of our history. It is something that is not easy and could be impacted despite the best intentions of everybody, not just here but on the boards of the groups along the Border.

Would Mr. O'Hanlon or Mr. Hatch like to say anything on that?

Mr. Arnold Hatch

On the question about industry slipping across the Border, I do not think it is as simple as that because it really depends on the type of industry. If a company slips across the Border and sets up headquarters in this country, 90% of the companies are probably getting their goods from somewhere in the UK, whether it is Northern Ireland or elsewhere. There will be difficulties if there is a hard Brexit and I think we all accept that. Some transport companies we know have set up on both sides of the Border, on both sides of the river, to get the best of both worlds.

In terms of infrastructure, we would see it as being very important to get the A5 started, as it has been on the go for so many years. Jim Nicholson, MEP, asked a question in the European Parliament this week about PEACE PLUS because it is not clear how that will be delivered in co-operation with the UK Government. We have to keep lobbying. One of the fortes of the East Border Region is that we can lobby right across Europe if we have to.

Mr. P.J. O'Hanlon

Following on from the points that have been made and what Mr. Hatch said about the A5, it is very sad that the first project that was knocked off the board when €100 million had to be found was the A5. I have lived along the Border and spent two years in Donegal. The people of Tyrone, Fermanagh and Donegal, without putting a tooth in it, have been forgotten about. The project has been talked about for 30 to 40 years. It is grand coming down here and having meetings and making presentations but it is disheartening for those living in those areas to see what is happening. One asks oneself what it is all about. How serious are we about Brexit? Unless we have a proper infrastructure in place, we are not sending a very good message out to the people in Border regions. Anyone who has travelled from Emyvale to Letterkenny knows it is a four to five hour round trip. It is nearly easier to travel from Emyvale to Cork than it is to go to the top end of Donegal. Nothing is being done about it. If we are genuinely serious about this, we need to invest and put infrastructure in place. Without being political, I accept there are challenges such as Brexit but to leave part of the island of Ireland without proper infrastructure, is extremely disappointing.

Mr. Francie Molloy

I thank the previous group for the presentations. It is enlightening to hear the work that is going on and the commitment to delivering it. Reference was made to the Border corridor. I have always thought we could have an economic zone the full length of the Border. Would Ms Arthurs envisage the three or four groups along the Border linking up to try to create that in the future? It may not be necessary to maintain all of the groups in order to create such an economic corridor right across the Border on both sides. Have the witnesses found any possible sources of funding? The European Union provides cross-border funding to countries that border it in order to alleviate problems. It would be useful to see the examples of that.

In the past, the Assembly's finance committee approached the British Government on the possibility of funding from the European bank. The UK, as a net contributor to the European Union at that stage, was reluctant to fund too many projects in the North because it would have to co-fund them as well. That is one of the problems we have in that situation. If we could create an economic corridor along the Border, rather than being a Border of disadvantage it could become an advantage in the future.

Ms Pamela Arthurs

I think that is what is needed if we are to properly tackle the disadvantage along the Border. Many people say one is better off on the east but there are still pockets of deprivation, for example, in Dundalk. We talk about the road infrastructure, which is important, but the B roads are not particularly good. There is a range of needs right along the Border.

We are currently talking to the 11 chief executives along the Border. We do not know what to call it. Sometimes there can be sensitivities around the name and whether it is an economic development zone or whatever else. It does not really matter what it is called, what is important is identifying the priorities and needs and getting them funded. That is essential and if we speak as one voice, we will be stronger.

We do have history in that regard. Twenty years ago the three groups – the East Border Region, ICBAN and the North West Region Cross Border Group – worked really closely because our members wanted local people to make decisions on the then INTERREG III programme. Some of those present might have been involved at that time. Civil servants in Belfast and Dublin did not want to let go of the control so what happened is that decisions for the Border were made in Dublin and Belfast by officials. We had a concerted lobby. The three groups worked together, which was a challenge. We had a Border corridor strategy at that time and we ended up with €53.9 million out of an €180 million programme which the Vice Chairman will remember. The programme was delivered locally be elected members and social partners. That was a high point of cross-Border co-operation. Unfortunately, what has happened since that time is the two programmes have become centralised again and sometimes one finds that the pure local cross-Border groups are not being funded to their detriment, depending on the priorities of the Government.

Even with the PEACE PLUS programme we need to have elements of that strategy for a Border corridor. We can develop that quickly and elements of it require funding, going into the consultation for PEACE PLUS. My view is that the genuine cross-Border needs should be funded by a cross-Border programme. I entirely agree with what was said about the strength and the impact being in working together. Many years ago when it was only the East Border Region and the North West Region Cross Border Group, they competed all the time and there was always this idea in the east that John Hume got everything for the north west. Perhaps that was not true but perception is reality. When we worked together 20 years ago we became a bit subsumed in INTERREG and managing the money and perhaps the higher strategic aims were lost at that stage because we have a small staff. In the face of Brexit there is an opportunity to turn something which is a big disadvantage into an opportunity moving forward. Again, the key point is that we need the Governments to work with us. We need them to recognise the need in the Border corridor as well. The good thing about the meeting tomorrow is that we have the Departments here and we also have the officials from the Northern Ireland Executive who will be around the table with us. Hopefully they will buy into the approach we are taking.

Just before I bring in Ms Gildernew, I wish to ask the same question as I asked of the previous group about the need for facilitation to ensure there is joined-up thinking on the economic approach to the entire Border region. Does Ms Arthurs see that as important? As I stated, many areas have the same issues but many of them also have strengths that can be used to attract funding. Does she see merit in that type of approach?

Do the three groups here - North West, ICBAN and the East Border Region - need to be facilitated in order to return to the position of 20 years ago?

Ms Pamela Arthurs

That is the situation now. It is probably the point at where it started 20 years ago where the chief executive and council level worked together. It is important that they do that. We have been facilitating that since the referendum. It is difficult to get a date that suits 11 chief executives in order to get them around the table but they have been doing that. I think that they will agree the approach and if they decide there are three groups, then we will develop that for them. There is a need to work in a cross-Border manner and the current structure is cross-Border groups. I do not anticipate that they will propose a new structure; there are already enough structures there, but it is about making the best use of them. In the East Border Region, we have continually adapted to whatever the need is and will continue to do so. It is best that it is currently led by the top level in the 11 local authorities. That is the message that the Governments here and in Northern Ireland have been given.

Mr. P.J. O'Hanlon

In my county of Monaghan, 80% to 90% of people employed are in small to medium enterprises. Brexit is a challenge to the whole island of Ireland, there is no question, but for counties such as Fermanagh, Tyrone, Armagh, Cavan, Monaghan and Donegal, it will have a massive impact compared with Cork and Kerry. The amount of business, and their interaction, that I have seen in recent years that crosses the Border has developed Monaghan as a county. So much good work has been done by East Border Region. Mr. Molloy is 100% correct. Something must be put in place. I am very concerned that the amount of business that is done on the Border between those counties would be significantly harmed compared with the rest of Ireland. We cannot allow that to happen. It has been so beneficial. For people who have lived along the Border, such as Deputy Breathnach, it has been fantastic to see how these counties have developed in recent years. If something is not put in place, whether it is bringing all the groups together as an entity and working together, I am fearful for what will happen along the Border. I do not want to contemplate that, we just cannot go back there.

Ms Pamela Arthurs

I wish to return to the matter of business along the Border. Members maybe familiar with Flurrybridge Enterprise Centre. It is across the road from the Carrickdale Hotel. Some years ago, people working in the Newry co-operative identified that site and said they wanted to build a business park there. At the time most people asked who in their right mind would build a business park there but it currently employs 300 people. It has taken small businesses - only small businesses - from barns and so on in the area - some of them may not have been as legal as they should have been - and brought them out there. Again, it was the EU which funded it, based on the local people identifying a need there. None of the units in the centre is empty. If one is leaving the business park and turns left, one is in Ireland and if one turns right, one is in Northern Ireland. Many groups have visited. One group of MPs from Westminster asked a businessman who is based there for many years why he would not just move across the Border or go to Dundalk. He told them that it suited him to be there and asked why he would do that. He said that he has leased property in Dundalk, which was costing him a lot of money, although he hoped he would never have to move to it, but that many others in the centre did not have the finances to start leasing in the South. That is the reality. I think many businesses would say that the worst thing is the uncertainty. When one knows what one is dealing with, one can start to deal with it but instead there is ongoing uncertainty which is costing people money. It was pointed out earlier in the week that businesses are not expanding because they do not know what will happen. They want some answers but they are not forthcoming.

Mr. Arnold Hatch

In Northern Ireland and the UK we have city and growth deals going on. Most of the councils in Northern Ireland are in some sort of a city deal, such as Belfast which includes Newry, Mourne and Down, while the consortium in the north west of Derry, Strabane and Fermanagh and Omagh, then Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Council etc., are involved in discussing a growth deal. Is there something similar for the regional assemblies or the Dáil that might buy into that concept of a structure along the Border which could focus on those Border counties?

We are here to discuss how we can improve the situation, which is not a reflection on the great work that the three organisations are doing. As I said at the earlier session, one could close one's eyes and listen to either group, or even people of different persuasions North or South; if one did not know their names and where they came from their problems are exactly the same.

To respond to Mr. Hatch's question, I agree that there is need for a co-ordinated strategy, accepting that the East Border group is working on one with the 11 managers. Someone at intergovernmental level needs to listen and recognise that as Mr. O'Hanlon and others have noted, in the vacuum that is there, and regardless of what happens, whether there is a soft Brexit or no Brexit, there needs to be an impetus for the region which needs reinvestment. The peace is fragile - that is not a throwaway phrase - and the area needs economic injection collaboratively and collectively. There was a clear message from the previous session that there is a need to identify the strengths of the different areas and work as a unit in relation to the various funding streams, regardless of Brexit. As Mr. Molloy noted, the Special EU Programmes Body, SEUPB, was before the committee over 12 months ago. It said there were opportunities for other programmes that were trans-territorial that may not necessarily involve parties' membership of the EU. We will have to wait and see about that. However, there is a real need for joined-up thinking, although I hate that phrase, in getting Europe and others to recognise the need for investment.

Ms Michelle Gildernew

Everyone is very welcome. Their contribution today has been very insightful and I am delighted to see them all in Dublin for this.

Ms Arthurs put it that if businesses know, they can plan. I have been saying that for the past two years. There is now more meat on the bones of what will most likely happen post Brexit. Businesses are finding that it is impossible to implement a plan.

This week Seamus Leheny from the Freight Transport Association tweeted that he had been contacted by a company that had applied for 37 licences and been given two. The agrifood industry is deeply integrated and the supply chain is across the island.

One of the businesses in the ICBAN region, which is part of my constituency, has primary processing on one side of the Border and secondary processing on the other, and it has been told it cannot import or export. There are all kinds of queries. What is being heard in the east Border region about the difficulties businesses are being forced to contemplate and how would the witnesses expect them to be addressed?

Ms Pamela Arthurs

I agree with Ms Gildernew. Initially, when the referendum happened, the mushroom industry was lost almost overnight, particularly in County Monaghan. Councillor O'Hanlon may want to speak on that.

Mr. P.J. O'Hanlon

To take the example of the mushroom industry, it is only innovation that has kept those businesses alive. Unfortunately, as a result of the currency situation, some companies and businesses will go to the wall. It is a sad state of affairs. Ms Gildernew spoke about the Fermanagh area but it applies throughout the region. The food industry is very important for the cross-Border region because of the agricultural background. What the Government needs to do is make it easier for these people. Somebody with a freight company making an application in regard to processed food, for example, has to deal with far too much red tape.

We are telling the committee what we feel are the issues on the ground, but it is the Government that needs to make decisions. I listened to a presentation two weeks ago by a gentleman from Customs and Excise on the issues and challenges. While I do not want to be dramatic, if we do not have anything in place for this, there is no doubt there will be serious consequences. All the good work that is being done economically in regard to jobs and so on will be seriously negatively impacted. Whether it is done by civil servants from Northern Ireland or the Republic, solutions need to be found to make life easier. It is difficult enough to run a business and make it successful and viable in the current economic climate without adding challenges. My deep concern is that, two months out from Brexit, and we all know the can will probably be kicked down the road-----

Ms Michelle Gildernew

It is 43 days.

Mr. P.J. O'Hanlon

It is 43 days and we are sitting here, talking about this. Where are the solutions? Who is sitting down with these business people and helping them out? I know different groups such as InterTradeIreland are giving grants. However, the public representatives from the North and South need to make life easier for these people and come up with solutions for them, and that is not happening. It is the uncertainty that is the problem at present and it is making people very afraid.

Ms Pamela Arthurs

It is fair to say there has been an awful lot more support here than in Northern Ireland, where there has been very little support for businesses. Councillor O'Hanlon referred to InterTradeIreland, but Northern Ireland businesses have not had much support for something that is so dramatic. Change is always difficult, but there has not been that support on the northern side of the Border. We heard about Brexit fatigue a year ago from people here. We have not had it in Northern Ireland, apart from my children saying they are sick listening to it on the news, and asking why, if it is all that bad, people are continuing with it. There has not been that support or that leadership in Northern Ireland that there has been here, where the local enterprise offices, LEOs, have been working consistently with businesses and there have been a number of workshops. We have not had the same degree of support when there is the same need in Northern Ireland.

Mr. Arnold Hatch

There really has not been that support and, given there is no Assembly, there is no focal point to go to. The chambers of commerce are going to Westminster and Theresa May is coming over here and getting different stories on different visits. Many small businesses are just sitting waiting until somebody tells them what the decision is so they can get the paperwork ready if they have to or do no paperwork if they do not have to. That is the point they are at. However, there is no Government-led support in Northern Ireland. We are a remote north-west corner of the UK, so we are not a big player in the total scheme of things.

Before I bring in Senator Black, others have referred to the difficulty with regard to the electricity interconnector and the impact for the east Border region in that respect. Others have mentioned issues of broadband and mobile coverage, especially in the cross-Border context, and the need for people to recognise those issues need to be addressed. Mr. Hatch mentioned the absence of the Executive. Clearly, we are being told that the postponement of the A5 is based on the fact arrangements cannot be made in that respect, and we were told the same in regard to what is happening with the interconnector. Does anybody care to comment on those issues around broadband and the need for us all to realise we have to start to work together to deliver for our region?

Mr. P.J. O'Hanlon

In regard to broadband, whatever about working together, we have had a plan here for many years and I do not know where it is going. There are parts of Monaghan which do not have broadband and the way things are going, without being disrespectful, the can is being kicked down the road with regard to the introduction of broadband. It is an issue for Government when it is going to deliver on that. From the perspective of local councillors in the east Border region who are trying to help the situation, there are people in these Houses dealing with this issue and we have had resignations and people coming and going in this context. The Government needs to get its act sorted out in regard to broadband. That is why it is here. While I do not mean to be disrespectful, I do not think it has been very successful.

With regard to the interconnector, nobody in County Monaghan is stopping the interconnector. Let us be clear about that. There is this perception that we are holding it up. Instead, we are looking for the interconnector to go underground. We were told, when this came out a number of years ago, that it was going to cost 40 times more to put it underground than overground, when I have been told it will cost twice as much. As a group in Monaghan County Council, we are 18 councillors from all political persuasions and groups. We do not always agree but we steadfastly stand together in regard to the interconnector. We are not stopping development and we are not saying we do not want an interconnector. However, the people of County Monaghan, including the landowners, deserve better and they have not been given the respect they deserve on this issue. We, as political groupings, stand together with those people, not because it is political but because it is the right thing to do for our county. There is not a word about Grid West. It is gone by the wayside and I wonder why. We all know why. What I am saying is that the group of 18 councillors have no issue with an interconnector but we want it underground. The people who are looking to do this, and I might as well say it while I am here, made a planning application 12 to 18 months ago that cost the taxpayer €7 million and had to be withdrawn. There is no accountability. Nobody is talking or dealing with the people on the ground.

Let us think about it. This unites Sinn Féin, Independent, Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael councillors. It does not happen too often and it certainly does not happen in this building, but we are united in regard to defending our own county, and we will always do that. Let us be clear. We have no issue with the interconnector but we have an issue with overground. That is what the people of County Monaghan want and that is what we are elected to do. While we are there, we will continue to do that.

Mr. Arnold Hatch

In regard to the interconnector, I come from the hub of the north, Portadown. There is an industrial estate there, the Carn industrial estate, where Moy Park, Irwin's and many food companies are located.

If we do not get a better electricity supply we will not be able to expand. Development in Craigavon is held up because of the lack of the interconnector. I cannot comment on whether it should go over ground or underground. As the planning application may well come to the planning committee of Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council, I have to keep an open mind on the subject. Regardless of from what source it comes, be that Scotland or Dublin, it is needed now for Northern Ireland to grow, never mind the Border corridor. We are only 20 miles from the Border and we are affected.

In terms of broadband, I was living in cuckoo land because I thought that the programme in the South would roll out a minimum of 80 Mbps of fibre to every household over the next for or five years. I presumed that was going ahead and we were sitting jealously watching from the North. One our of councillors who lives in the Banbridge area cannot get broadband. There are two contracts floating about, one of which is a local contract with BT which will take fibre to hubs which will then circulate it to businesses. The second contract is a BT contract which allows the company to decide where the work starts, which is usually the highest area, working outwards into the country because there is more money in the cental areas than there is in the peripheral areas. We are trying to get a contract which is the opposite. We want BT to service the worst areas first and work inwards. Regardless of what way it is done, we need it done now.

I thank the witnesses for their presentations. As I listened to them I realised the nightmare they are going through. I live in Dublin. I sometimes feel that even in Leinster House we are in a cocoon. Mr. O'Hanlon nailed it when he said that what is happening to the people in the Border regions is really sad. It is scary. Until I heard the presentations today from both groups I was not aware of the anxiety among people in the Border region. I get the impression from what the witnesses said that they feel the Border counties have been forgotten. It must be scary that businesses are anxious and constantly worried about job losses. All of this must be having a huge impact on people's lives.

Earlier, I spoke about mental health and the impact of anxiety on people. I know from my charitable work that the number of inquiries from the Monaghan, Castleblayney and Dundalk areas has increased. We have a service in Dundalk but there is a demand for our service in the Monaghan area, which seems to have arisen out of the referendum. My point is that but for the witnesses being here today talking about the fears, anxiety, stress and worry among people in the Border area, I would not have been aware of it. It is wonderful that they are unified in trying to address the issues. There is no doubt but that there is strength in unity. Ms Arthurs mentioned how the three organisations came to work together. There is no doubt that when people work together they are heard. The delegates are fighting for the people in their communities and that is important.

I do a lot of work in the mental health and addiction areas. These are areas I know a lot about and at every opportunity I raise them. The mental health of people is what I would be most concerned about. I cannot imagine what it must be like to live in a community that is anxious all of the time. I will put the same question to this group that I put to the group we met earlier. What would the delegations like the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement to do? Do they have a specific ask of us as a committee? This is a good committee. We are all very passionate about the Good Friday Agreement and the issues raised today. What do the groups need from us?

Ms Pamela Arthurs

I have been working for over 20 years in cross-Border co-operation. We can want to do various things along the Border and demonstrate the need for same but if central Government can work with us that endorses the work we are doing. We also know then that Government recognises that work. We have outlined the disadvantages for the Border area, North and South. We are working to put meat on the bones in terms of what needs to be done. As I said earlier, the Taoiseach's office and the Northern Ireland Executive have asked us to set out our requirements. It is important we can move forward together to develop the Border corridor. We have key asks and priorities in respect of which we need Government to support us. For example, earlier we mentioned the €600 million for the PEACE PLUS programme. We would like to see that money, and a large part of the INTERREG funding, focused on the Border area. We are grateful for the current INTERREG programme under which we are financially managing eight large strategic projects. However, I think this programme is very centralised. We are about local delivery that suits the needs of local people along the Border. The two member states can influence that programme to ensure it delivers on the identified needs of the Border corridor. We would like funding from this programme ring-fenced for the Border corridor. The EU definition of a border region is any region within 250 miles of a border. We can demonstrate that the areas closest to the Border are the most deprived and have the most need. Therefore, we suggest that these areas should receive a chunk of cross-Border economic development funding to assist them. The cross-Border organisations that work on a daily basis in these areas should also be supported. We need central Government to recognise and value the work we are doing and to put its money where its mouth is by supporting us. These programmes require buy-in from Northern Ireland as well. That is what would make a difference to us moving forward. The PEACE programme is there to be consulted on. We have taken part in consultations in the past and we have sometimes wondered if anybody listened. It is key that the areas that are most deprived and most in need of funding benefit from cross-Border moneys.

From what I have heard today it strikes me that the witnesses are the meat the sandwich and that sandwich is made up of three parts over which they have no control, namely, Brussels, London and Dublin. Belfast clearly has very little say on what is going on. I have heard and understand the witnesses' frustration. It strikes me that nobody is going to blink until everybody blinks and we are 43 days away from Brexit.

Going back to Senator Black's point on mental health, if I was a businessman in the North I would be screaming to the high heavens today. They told us that on 20 December when we visited Belfast. They wanted politicians to just tell them. Hard, soft, they did not care. We need to push for that.

Mr. Arnold Hatch

This may come as a surprise to Senator Black. I thought she came from north of Ballycastle. It is the same family.

My father comes from Rathlin Island, near there.

Mr. Arnold Hatch

Mental health is a big issue in Northern Ireland because there are more problems per head of population there than anywhere else in the UK. Mental health is high on the agenda. Ms Linda Barnes, a former BBC reporter, emphasised that. It may surprise the committee, but I can provide a specific ask. The Good Friday Agreement we have now is not what was agreed in 1998. Whether it is politically possible or not, we need to go back to the principle of designation as opposed to privileging the largest party. As long as the two largest parties nominate the First Minister and the deputy First Minister, there will always be division. That can be seen clearly since the agreement was changed to operating on the basis of the largest party rather than designation. That is my big ask. If we are ever going to get Northern Ireland up and running properly so that there is proper co-ordination between all the parties, it must be shared fairly and equally among all of them.

I support Ms Arthurs on how to get this structure together, but we need to keep talking. There must be an easy structure that would not make it too bureaucratic, which both Governments can feel comfortable feeding into. The east Border region has the longest record of delivering cross-Border programmes so we are in pole position in terms of delivery if the Governments can just give us the funds to do it.

Mr. P.J. O'Hanlon

First, I compliment Senator Black on the good work she does. She referred to forgotten people. I must be quite blunt and frank. We have an awful lot more in common with the counties north of the Border than we do with the counties in Munster and so on. That is the reality. Socially and culturally we have an awful lot more in common with them. For the past several years, the majority of people who have created employment in the counties along the Border and the county I live in come from Monaghan or Cavan. We now realise as counties that we are the ones who will solve our problems. Members asked if there was one thing the Government could do. The one thing we need is hope. I mean hope in respect of how we are going to develop. I am in Omagh an awful lot more often than I am in Killarney or Cork. That is not being disrespectful. Those are the places that interact with where I live.

I will go back to this point, though people say it will not have any effect. The A5 was the first project to go when there was an overspend of €1 billion on a hospital. The first message that was sent to the people, with Brexit 43 days away, was that it was off the agenda. What message does that send to the people along the Border? I ask the committee members to use whatever influence they have to change that decision. Brexit is coming down the line. I ask members to recognise that these people are going to be living and working with the challenges of that and commit to helping them as best they can. That type of understanding and that message to the people along the Border would mean an awful lot.

I thank Mr. O'Hanlon. I will make a couple of comments to conclude. Having heard representations from two groups and having met representatives of the north-west region on the ground, it is important for the day that is in it to pay tribute to all of the committees working along the border. Reference was made to the local authorities, the various committees and their executives, particularly the elected representatives from both sides who sit on them. Equally I note the communities that have benefitted from them. There have been many such communities over many years. I commend all those groups for their work.

On a personal basis, as someone who has lived along the Border and who, like the witnesses, is passionate about the issues, the full and frank discussions with them and the previous group speak for themselves. We could be negative but we have to be positive and ask what solutions can be found. This committee looks forward to working with them. We have heard what they have said. The secretariat has taken note of what has been said and, hopefully, we can find solutions to work together. Reference was made to the importance of getting the Executive up and running. Co-operation, both North-South and east-west, is the order of the day in our efforts to move and progress.

Without any further ado I want to particularly thank Alderman Hatch, Councillor P.J. O'Hanlon and Ms Arthurs. It would be remiss if I did not make reference to Ms Dette Hughes, Councillors Keoghan and Andrews from Newry, Mourne and Down District Council. Hopefully, we can have further interaction with them. This will not be the end of the discussion. Our next visit will be to the ICBAN area. It is in the planning stages, but we intend to undertake a visit to the region that would take a day or perhaps a little more, visiting projects and talking to communities. This will, hopefully, lend weight to what the witnesses have said.

On behalf of the committee, I thank the witnesses for providing that briefing. In adjourning the meeting, we are looking forward to having the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, here at our next meeting. We will meet again on 21 February, when the Tánaiste will hear not just our views but also those that have been expressed here. We will raise the concerns on Brexit and, equally important, the Border region's need for new and enhanced PEACE programmes and INTERREG initiatives to be put in place. We also recognise that an economic zone needs to be catered to, including my own constituency, from Carlingford Lough to Lough Foyle and beyond. I thank the witnesses for their attendance.

The joint committee adjourned at 5.10 p.m. until 2.15 p.m. on Thursday, 21 February 2019.