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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 11 Oct 2017

Vol. 253 No. 10

Northern Ireland: Statements

I am very pleased to participate, on behalf of the Government, in the making of statements in the Seanad on Northern Ireland. The discussion is timely, as this is perhaps the most critical phase for the devolved institutions under the Good Friday Agreement since their restoration just over ten years ago. Ten months have passed since they were last fully operational. That is a source of deep concern for the Government as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, as I believe it is for Members of this House. That is why we are having this debate. Most directly, it means that the people of Northern Ireland who provided a fresh mandate for a new Assembly and power-sharing Executive in elections in March are not being served by an elected and accountable devolved government, to which they are entitled under the Good Friday Agreement.

The Executive is responsible for taking what are very pressing budgetary and other decisions on public services and investments. A host of other important devolved matters and issues which impact on people's daily lives in Northern Ireland await attention, debate and decisions through the devolved institutions under the Good Friday Agreement. In the absence of an Executive, the North-South Ministerial Council is also unable to progress its essential work, as an integral part of the Good Friday Agreement, to deliver all-island co-operation across the sectors to the practical benefit of people living on the island, North and South. In addition, as we all know, the United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union presents unprecedented challenges for Northern Ireland and the island as a whole. Phase one of the Article 50 negotiations between the European Union and the United Kingdom is well under way, dealing with the separation issues, including the Irish-specific concerns. There was further discussion of that issue as recently as yesterday. The Government is playing its role in the Article 50 negotiating process as a committed EU member state, working with all of our continuing EU partners and the EU institutions and with intensive and positive engagement with Mr. Michel Barnier and the Article 50 commission task force. However, absent this year has been a formal Executive voice to represent Northern Ireland's interests in the UK-EU exit process, as necessary, in Belfast, London, Brussels and elsewhere. That is also a cause of deep concern for the Government, given the breadth of shared interests on the island that need to be defended.

The Government is keen and ready to continue the very valuable work that was commenced last year on a partnership basis with the Northern Ireland Executive through the North-South Ministerial Council, NSMC, to identify shared interests and a shared approach to seeking solutions to the challenges raised by the United Kingdom's decision to leave the European Union. At the highest level, our shared interest, North and South, is to protect the gains of the peace process founded on the Good Friday Agreement, including the open border. The Government is continuing to pursue that issue with the support and solidarity of our EU partners. It believes both Administrations on the island should work in a co-ordinated way, whenever possible, to address the generational challenge of Brexit for the island and for the peace process founded on the Good Friday Agreement. The fact is that without the Executive and the Assembly which are at the institutional heart of the Agreement the process will not be able to move forward as it should and must in order to deepen reconciliation, as the Agreement commits all parties to doing.

It is in pursuit of a deeper peace and full reconciliation that successive Governments have worked for full implementation of all provisions of the Good Friday Agreement and the later agreements. This goal and duty is reflected in A Programme for a Partnership Government. It is something that I as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade will continue to pursue as a matter of the highest political priority, as did my predecessor. However, an Executive and an Assembly are necessary if critical outstanding issues from the agreements, including the Irish language, rights and legacy, are to be fully realised on an agreed basis. These are the major difficulties we face with the continuing absence of the Executive, the Assembly and the North-South Ministerial Council. Devolved government in Northern Ireland cannot move forward, nor can all-island co-operation take place through the NSMC. Northern Ireland's interests in dealing with Brexit cannot be fully represented and the peace process cannot move fully forward as it should. That position is not sustainable for much longer. As I have said, this is a most critical point for the devolved institutions under the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process as a whole. As co-guarantor of the Agreement, the Government has a responsibility to give every support and encouragement it can for the effective operation of all institutions, including the Assembly, the Executive and, of course, the North-South Ministerial Council.

We have worked to this end throughout this year, with the British Government and the political parties, including in the discussions that took place between March and June at Stormont Castle, on outstanding commitments arising from previous agreements. As the Government has reported to the Houses of the Oireachtas over the course of the year, encouraging progress has been made on a number of the key issues. For instance, in dealing with the difficult legacy of the Troubles, something envisaged under the Good Friday Agreement and provided for within the framework of the Stormont House Agreement, there were intensive further discussions at Stormont Castle. Progress was made in dealing with a number of key difficulties with the legacy framework, from the time of the 2014 and 2015 discussions in Stormont House. The Government believes it is critical that we build on the momentum and we will continue to do so in the weeks and months ahead in order that the agreed legacy bodies can finally be fully established. That, alongside other essential legacy services such as inquests, will allow work to start to meet the legitimate needs and expectations of victims and survivors who have been left waiting for far too long.

The political parties in Northern Ireland have been taking forward the discussions on forming a new Executive. Discussions on Executive formation took place between all parties at Stormont Castle between March and June. Following some further consultations between the parties over the summer, there has been intensified and sustained engagement in recent weeks between the DUP and Sinn Féin in order to resolve key differences which have proved to be an obstacle to the formation of an Executive. That is to be strongly welcomed. As the two parties mandated to lead the next Executive, they will need to establish a basis on which a new Administration can work, consistent with their mandates but also in accordance with the principles of the Good Friday Agreement of mutual respect, parity of esteem and genuine partnership. In my ongoing contacts with the parties I have underlined the risks that attach to a prolonged absence of the devolved institutions in the context of Brexit and the peace process overall. I have urged them to continue their engagement and seek routes to achieve the bigger goal of getting all institutions of the Good Friday Agreement operating fully again. I continue to work closely with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. James Brokenshire, in this engagement with the parties. On 25 September the Taoiseach discussed in London with the Prime Minister, Mrs. May, the imperative of ensuring a way forward for the devolved institutions. The two Governments are at one in the view that all possible efforts must be made to support and encourage the parties to achieve the essential objective and form a new Executive, making good on the mandate given by the public in the Assembly elections in March. I welcome the statement made in this regard by the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland in the House of Commons on Monday and his continued readiness to bring forward legislation to enable an Executive to be formed once an agreement has been reached. That needs to be supported.

The parties in Northern Ireland are continuing their discussions this week. I suspect they are meeting as we speak. I do not underestimate the real differences that still remain to be bridged if a new Executive is to be agreed. However, I believe they can be resolved if both parties are willing to work with one another. Time is now a very real factor with budgetary and other necessary decisions on public services building up, creating genuine pressures in Northern Ireland.

These need to be addressed by elected and effective devolved government in Northern Ireland, as provided for in the agreement. The time to deliver that for the public in Northern Ireland and for the wider peace process is now.

At this point, I believe that with a further step forward by the two main political parties there can be a basis for the necessary resetting of political relationships, including by addressing outstanding issues from previous agreements, which would get the devolved institutions of the Good Friday Agreement operating fully again on a sustainable basis, which is important for both parties. I am hopeful that the political parties will urgently and successfully conclude their discussions to open the way for a new Executive within the mandate of the current Assembly. That needs to happen sooner rather than later.

I would like to see a fully inclusive Executive, with all parties involved, including the SDLP, the Alliance Party and the UUP. That would be a much more balanced Executive than the previous one. The larger parties would accept that.

I want to affirm to the House that I and the Government will continue to do everything possible to support that outcome. It should, in turn, open the way for the important next steps in the peace process which I am anxious to pursue on behalf of the Government.

It is unusual for me to come to the House and read a speech as I have today. I am normally somewhat more engaging, but sensitive discussions are happening today. I urge people to be somewhat cautious in terms of how they approach this debate. We need to recognise that we are at a sensitive point.

The DUP and Sinn Féin want to make the current negotiations work, but they face real challenges which are very political and difficult. We spent a long time facilitating bilateral discussions between the two parties over the summer. We want to see those conclude successfully sooner rather than later. That is why I am somewhat cautious in terms of what I am saying about the detail of what is being discussed because I do not think it would be helpful for me to be offering a running commentary today when we are trying to make progress with the two parties in Belfast.

With that in mind, I will try to respond to any statements and suggestions for constructive questions from Senators. I look forward to hearing what they have to say.

I thank the Minister for the update on his work and that of his Department regarding getting the Northern Executive up and running. I have some questions. If the Minister does not have the answers today, I ask him to send them to Senators at a later date.

How many officials in the Department are dealing directly with officials in Brussels regarding the impact of Brexit on the joint bodies established under the Good Friday Agreement? How many meetings have they held? What will happen to the secretariat in Armagh if there is a hard Brexit and a hard border? What will happen to the 104 organisations which rely on the Good Friday Agreement?

When I joined the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, I suggested it carry out a detailed analysis on what is yet to be implemented in the Good Friday Agreement. One would think that would be common sense. Instead, we received a press release from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade. We sought a line-by-line and issue-by-issue analysis, equivalent to the Fresh Start Stormont House agreement. I ask that, as a courtesy to the joint committee, the Minister ask the Department to provide the committee with an actual line-by-line analysis of what needs to be done. We do not wish to force that request to a motion.

The two recent elections in Northern Ireland have had a radical effect on the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process. The DUP vote was only 1,000 ahead of Sinn Féin, which had a dramatic effect on unionism.

I have a letter to the Attorney General from the solicitors for Raymond McCord, inviting the Government to be a party to a case in the High Court in Belfast in November. He is a unionist whose son was murdered by the UVF. The member of the UVF who ordered his murder was a paid informant of the RUC.

Mr. McCord is taking this case not because he wants to see a united Ireland - he does not - but because he wants to stop both sides using the issue for their own electoral gain. The case is seeking clarity from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland as to how the Secretary of State would determine whether a referendum on unity would be called under Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution.

The Government is invited to participate in the case, thereby fulfilling the constitutional obligations outlined by a former Attorney General, the late Rory Brady. Is the Government going to be a party to the case? The Office of the Chief State Solicitor has responded acknowledging the letter and initiative, but has not given a determination.

The UK elections, which were disastrously called by Theresa May, resulted in Northern Ireland being further polarised and the Tory Government relying on the DUP to stay in power and to survive. As a result, the Good Friday Agreement has been held hostage and direct rule cannot, unfortunately, be far away. If this continues, and given that Brexit is around the corner, the future for Northern Ireland is neither clear nor bright.

If the UK does not sign up to a single market or customs union, the only way Northern Ireland and the Border can remain open to people and goods is following a referendum, as allowed for under the Good Friday Agreement, which will allow the people of Northern Ireland to remain in the EU.

I happened to be in the Horse and Jockey in Tipperary during the Minister's election campaign when Fine Gael voters voted. I was glad to hear that the Minister won the majority of their support. I saw his poster which stated "Simon Coveney: Uniting Ireland". I heard him speak about the issue on the radio. I have not heard him speak about it since. I know it is not a slogan.

The Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement appointed me to compile a report on what needs to be done by the State in order to secure what was voted on by the people of Ireland, namely, the amendment to Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution and how to achieve that aim. The report was unanimously adopted by all members of the committee.

Other than the New Ireland Forum 33 years ago, I could not find any other report or analysis from any Department or the Oireachtas on achieving the main aim of the State. In the report I quoted Mr. Justice Richard Humphreys and his book, Countdown to Unity: Debating Irish Reunification, in which he discussed the political establishment not wanting to touch the issue of a united Ireland. He outlined the logic to this quite clearly. He said the reason they want a perpetual state of the status quo is because of the fear of a return to violence.

That is a legitimate concern. It is why I asked President Obama's senior policy adviser on the National Security Council, Michael Ortiz, who is an expert on countering violent extremism, to write a report for our committee on what needs to be done in order to ensure that there is no outbreak of violence in the run-up to a referendum. He said it is quite simple. We have to provide jobs and educational opportunities to the most disadvantaged areas in Northern Ireland. That is why the committee recommended the establishment of a task force in respect of that issue.

Of the ten poorest regions in Northern Europe, nine are in the United Kingdom and Northern Ireland is one of them. The United Nations human development index ranks the Republic sixth in the world in terms of health, education and income. The Oireachtas Library and Research Service ranked Northern Ireland 44th on the same scale.

Dr. Kurt Hubner, of British Columbia University, in an analysis for the report I compiled said there would be a benefit to the whole island economy of €35.6 billion in the first eight years after reunification. Since the report was published and launched by the committee, I have met unionist politicians, religious leaders and senior paramilitaries members in the loyalist community. Many believe that there will be a referendum within the next ten years. They have concerns about that, as one can imagine.

As a result of the draft report, I was contacted by a senior member of the Ulster Defence Regiment, UDR. Once upon a time it was the largest regiment in the British Army. I asked him to make a submission to the report, which he did.

It has concerns about land ownership and whether people would be asked to return the land given during the Plantations in retribution for former members of the security forces who had been involved in collusion, about which the Minister spoke. It is also concerned about how the British identity would be protected and respected after reunification. These are legitimate and heartfelt concerns held by those communities and there is an obligation on the State to address them with generosity and a realistic solution. That is why one of the key recommendations made in the report I compiled is the establishment of a new Ireland forum 2 to address all of these concerns and set out a vision for Ireland for the next 100 years to accommodate all people on the island. If the Minister truly believes in reunifying Ireland, as the slogan on his poster states, I hope he will establish new Ireland forum 2. I hope he will put in place the policies needed to reunify the people of Ireland in peace and prosperity. He will be told by many in his party and the Government to keep the status quo and not to go near the main aim of achieving the State's objective as outlined in Articles 2 and 3 of the Constitution. I hope he will ignore those who do not want to see change and wish the status quo to continue. I hope he will listen instead to the advice of the person voted by the people as Irishman of the 20th century, T. K. Whitaker, who in November 1968, on the eve of the Troubles, gave advice to another Cork man, Mr. Jack Lynch, in a note:

We were, therefore, left with only one choice, a policy of seeking unity in Ireland between Irishmen. Of its nature this is a long-term policy, requiring patience, understanding and forbearance, and resolute resistance to emotionalism and opportunism. It is not the less patriotic for that.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this subject, I also welcome the Minister. I accept fully what he says about the requirement in current circumstances to remain at the level of generality for fear of compromising delicate negotiations which are in train.

Arising from the remarks of Senator Mark Daly, it seems that there are several issues of which we should be conscious. First, it is all very well to talk about a referendum and making preparations for one, but the precondition for holding a referendum under the Good Friday Agreement is that it appears to the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland that there is a majority who wish to see a change in the status of Northern Ireland. It is not that people would like to have a referendum. In that respect, we can learn a little from what is happening in Catalonia. It is one thing for people to say they favour the holding of a referendum, it is another matter completely to say they want a change in the status of Northern Ireland.

I do not believe talk of a referendum at this point is justified or justifiable. In that respect, I differ from Senator Mark Daly because I believe that, although Northern Ireland is coming into balance demographically - the Catholic community is at somewhere between 43% and 47% or 48%, while the so-called Protestant community, if one can use that label, is of the same dimension; therefore, a balance between the two traditional major groups in Northern Ireland is coming into view - it does not follow that the majority would favour a united Ireland or that public opinion in Northern Ireland is at tipping point. All of the public opinion surveys that have been conducted indicate that, notwithstanding the huge demographic change that has taken place in Northern Ireland and that the old 2:1 hegemony of unionism, Protestantism and ascendancy versus Catholic nationalism and republicanism in Northern Ireland has disappeared, that does not mean that there is a will in Northern Ireland for either a referendum or a united Ireland.

I agree fully with Senator Mark Daly that we should consider the words of the late T. K. Whitaker, a former Member of this House, who counselled against opportunistic emotional approaches to Northern Ireland and that the policy of the State should and must be towards unity but that it should be persistent, patient and measured. That is not because I fear the reunification of the country. I earnestly hope and aspire for it. However, at the moment the major task confronting nationalists and republicans on the island is fostering the reconciliation process in Northern Ireland. I fully accept what Senator Mark Daly said about the calamitous effects on the North of Brexit and the pessimistic view one would have to have of the prospects for Northern Ireland if a hard Brexit takes place. I am very hopeful, however, that there will be a solution to the Brexit matter - a soft Brexit in which there will be an analogue to a customs union partnership between the European Union and the United Kingdom and that, therefore, it will not be necessary to have tariffs on the Border. That is something for which I earnestly hope. I believe it can be achieved and the Government should be working towards that end. There are people in the European Union who are not as keen on or as bothered about it. A small minority still have a tone of punishing the United Kingdom for leaving the European Union and making it difficult for it to do a sensible deal with it. Guy Verhofstadt, who has a role in the European Parliament, and Jean-Claude Juncker gravitated towards the proposition that even if the United Kingdom changed its mind, it could not come back on current terms into the European Union but would have to become an integrationist state in order to remain part of it. That is part of the same psychology that they really want to see the back of the United Kingdom in the European Union. That is a dangerous sentiment in some circles in Brussels.

Ireland must take a line in the European Union which is directed towards having the softest possible Brexit. We must be courageous in doing so and not be afraid of being seen to be under the influence of some people in the United Kingdom in seeking that way out. It is in our interests that there be a soft Brexit and a partnership between the United Kingdom and the European Union. We must very patiently but with determination seek that way out as our preferred option and make it clear that is where we are going because the damage caused by a hard Brexit on both parts of the island would be almost incalculable and its capacity to drive the island further and further apart, especially if the United Kingdom were, for instance, to engage in the provision of state aids to attract industry and commerce from this state into the North, would be very significant. The tragedy of the Brexit referendum is that it puts pressure on the political faultlines between the two parts of the island.

If we are in the business of reconciliation which I believe is the ultimate republican virtue, we should take a long hard look - I say this particularly to members of Sinn Féin - at how reconciliation would, in fact, be brought about.

We had a civil war in this country. Something I discovered in Cathal Brugha Barracks one day was a piece of paper written by Garret FitzGerald's father directing the destruction of all files relating to military tribunals and such by fire on the day that it was anticipated that power would be handed over to Fianna Fáil in 1932. Some people might ask if it is not scandalous that our history was going into a bonfire but the symbolism was that he did not wish for this bitterness to continue. The generations on both sides which followed the Civil War, perhaps by their silence, effected reconciliation.

The constant drumbeat about commemorating people who lost their lives on one side in the Troubles is not designed to bring about reconciliation on the other side. One does not see all these parades or roadside monuments to remember Ulster Defence Regiment, UDR, men or women who lost their lives and there is a divisive effect on the minds of people who see one commemoration taking place in one county or district of a county and who know that there were other people who are being forgotten. I do not mind people showing solidarity with the political movement from which they come but every action has some kind of political reaction. I want to emphasise that if we are to reconcile the two communities in Northern Ireland, it is not going to be a see-saw 51% to 49% vote in some referendum held in the next ten to 15 years. That is not how a united Ireland is going to come about. It will come about with a confluence of economic interests, a history of working together on joint projects of joint concern, and a genuine defusing of those aspects of the political culture of Northern Ireland that divide people.

I want to address what Senator Mark Daly said. There has been an abstinence of political activity here relating to the nuts and bolts of Irish unity but part of that is explained by the need to put mutual collaboration between the two communities in Northern Ireland and the establishment of mutual trust and conciliation ahead of the relentless ambition towards the earliest possible establishment of Irish unity. There is nothing dishonourable in it. It is perfectly reasonable in the circumstances. It is a matter of what one's priorities are. My priority as an Irish republican is to see reconciliation in Northern Ireland. It is not to start planning or speaking constantly about the earliest opportunity to have a referendum because, at the moment, I am conscious of the fact that if a referendum were held in Northern Ireland in the next five years, the proposal for Irish unity would be beaten two to one. People here who forget that fact endanger the other, much more important point, which is to conciliate the two communities in Northern Ireland.

I am deputising on behalf of my colleague, Senator Joe O'Reilly, our regular spokesman on foreign affairs, who cannot be here since he is representing Ireland at the Council of Europe in Strasbourg. I sincerely welcome the Minister, Deputy Simon Coveney, to the House and thank him for his remarks. As this is the first time I have had the opportunity to engage with him in his new portfolio, I wish him all the best in his vitally important role.

The current impasse in Northern Ireland is understandably of major concern to all in this House as well as to many people across this jurisdiction and Northern Ireland itself. I welcome that, as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the Government is determined to do everything in its power to ensure that all of its institutions operate effectively, including the devolved assembly and power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland and, vitally, the North-South Ministerial Council. I am reassured by the Minister in his comments that some progress is being made in the current discussions between parties and I join him in welcoming the sustained engagement between the DUP and Sinn Féin, particularly over the last number of weeks. I join with many others in hoping for a speedy resolution at this sensitive time, although I also add my support for the idea of including political parties beyond the two main parties in Northern Ireland, such as the Alliance Party, the Ulster Unionist Party, UUP, the SDLP and other members of the Assembly. I was also heartened to hear in recent days from the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, that he is confident that a deal can be reached in the near future. I fear, in the context of Brexit, that this deal would perhaps be too late to ensure that Northern Ireland's voice is heard properly, particularly at Westminster and in Whitehall.

Brexit will be a monumental challenge for this island in particular as our Border, post-Brexit, will become the only land frontier between the European Union and United Kingdom. The relatively normal and harmonious situation that we are now used to can and will change utterly in the case of either a hard Brexit or, even worse, a no deal scenario. The Border region, both North and South, would be devastated economically and socially if this was to occur. I and other Senators who sat on our Seanad Special Committee on the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union heard at length from scores of organisations about the difficulties that it would present for every facet of life. Everything must be done to prepare for, but hopefully avoid, the worst-case scenario. It is in that regard that a rapid restoration of the Northern Ireland Executive is now more important than possibly ever before. With the looming European Council meeting to decide if enough progress has been made between European and British negotiators on key issues such as the Irish question, I implore all those in this House and beyond to use every tool at their disposal to encourage compromise and make sure that Northern Ireland's voice is heard strongly. Let us give the 1.8 million people of Northern Ireland the opportunity to have their voice heard fully in the Brexit negotiations.

In my recent work on a European level, I have been confronted by many European colleagues and indeed domestic stakeholders who have queried if this Government has focused too much on Northern Ireland so far in the Brexit process when wider issues such as trade are also vitally important. While I agree, of course, on the importance of agreeing a good, open free trade agreement between the EU and UK post-Brexit, I am sure this is a priority for all EU member states that enjoy, to varying degrees, a good trading relationship with the UK.

However, Northern Ireland presents a unique problem for the post-Brexit process which Ireland is most exposed to. Ireland is duty-bound to push to ensure there is a positive resolution to it or, in reality, that the amount of damage caused by Brexit is simply limited. A key stumbling block to any future relationship is customs, and the Government is wholly correct to continue to push for the UK to either remain in the existing customs union or for a new EU-UK customs union to be agreed upon. There are no technological solutions to the Border issue. The return of any border, soft, hard, movable or electronic would be a massive negative backward step.

I thank the Minister for his frank and clear engagement here this afternoon. I wish him and all interested parties the best of luck in the coming weeks. I repeat my call for every effort to be made to restore the institutions in the North. On behalf of my colleague, Senator O'Reilly, I echo his many concerns about the particular Border region in the post-Brexit era as it relates to his home area of Cavan-Monaghan.

I welcome the Minister. I have always had a great interest in the situation in the North. I previously mentioned my strong family links to the North, so it is a very personal issue for me and is very close to my heart. My work with the RISE Foundation has often brought me to the North, where I have worked with cross-community organisations. That was of great interest to me and the cross-community project was fascinating. It was very powerful from a therapeutic point of view. I know it is very difficult for any work to be done at the moment because we have devolved institutions. I believe that they can only function if there is equality. We have to look at issues relating to same-sex marriage and the Irish language Act. I am happy to hear today that progress is being made in this area and I am delighted that there will be and have been talks.

I will talk about Brexit and its implications for the North and the Border region, in particular, which are very serious and I believe it poses a great challenge to the island of Ireland, both economically and politically. A large majority of the population on the island are in favour of remaining in the EU and are against any imposition of a border. If the UK leaves the customs union, it is very likely that there will be a border and this will be incredibly harmful to the agricultural sector and other industries in the North. It could also pose a real danger to the peace process. It is essential that we work hard to avoid a hard border. I know that the Minister knows all of this.

It is absolutely vital. CSO data show that approximately 15,000 people cross the Border every single day, and we have to ensure that this is not disrupted. We are talking about people’s lives - relationships, businesses, and everything else that demands their going from North to South easily, or vice versa.

It goes without saying that, in all of this, we have to make sure that the provisions of the Good Friday Agreement are always respected. It is a fantastic agreement. The Good Friday Agreement has been the bedrock of peace, stability and reconciliation in the North of Ireland and any final Brexit deal needs to be mindful of this. We must ensure that the status of the North is not changed without the consent of a majority of the people as this change of status would be in contravention of the terms of the Good Friday Agreement.

There is a case for a unique solution or special deal for the North. We really need to focus on building a cross-community approach to this, which the Minister mentioned in his speech, and ensuring that everyone has an opportunity to input. Much of the public debate has been around avoiding a hard Border, either across the island of Ireland or down the Irish Sea. The only sure way to avoid either of these outcomes is for the UK as a whole to remain in the customs union with the European Union.

We should also be clear that EU funding has been vital for many community services and initiatives in the North of Ireland, and we cannot let those projects just fall away once the UK leaves the EU. Despite the formal end of the conflict, a substantial proportion of the adult population continues to suffer the adverse mental health effects of chronic trauma exposure. This is where I did the work with the The Rise Foundation. It is likely that the legacy of ill mental health associated with the conflict, if not adequately addressed, will endure for many years.

As a member of the cross-party Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, I recently organised a trip to meet cross-community groups in north Antrim and Belfast. All of the groups expressed concern about the impact of Brexit on their communities. One of the groups with which I have worked, called Bridge of Hope, is a community health and well-being service based in north Belfast that supports individuals affected by the conflict and poor physical and emotional health. It expressed concern that it may not get similar funding from the UK Government when its European funding stops in 2020 and that this could lead to the cancellation of services in one of the most deprived areas of Belfast. We cannot let these people down.

The EU-funded PEACE programme has provided over €2.2 billion for cross-Border projects on education, young people, shared spaces and relationship building. This has played a hugely important role in addressing the trauma and legacy mental health issues that have remained as a result of the conflict. Unless properly addressed, these issues can be longstanding and do untold damage to families and communities. We cannot allow this to happen. This funding must be maintained.

The reality is that there are still many legacy issues that need to be addressed before society can move on. The legacy issue has to be properly funded and brought to a conclusion. The onus is on the Irish Government to ensure that the British Government plays its part and accepts its role and responsibility in dealing with legacy issues.

It is also vital that we maintain common standards and approaches across the entire island in key areas such as environmental protection, which is an area that I am particularly interested in, healthcare, education and human rights. This is particularly clear when it comes to the environment. It seems very possible that the UK may no longer be bound by key EU environmental directives post-Brexit and this has caused a great degree of uncertainty.

Environmental issues by their nature transcend borders and there is a big overlap on issues such as biodiversity, waterways and air quality. We need a co-ordinated, consistent approach across the whole island, treating it as a single bio-geographic unit and realising that our rivers run across borders. British Prime Minister Theresa May has said the UK will remain a leading actor on climate change. We have to ensure that this means no slipping in standards.

Similarly, this all-island approach must be taken for human rights protection too. If the UK withdraws from the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights or the European Convention on Human Rights, we must ensure that they are not replaced with a bill of rights which is watered down and less far-reaching. We simply cannot row back on people’s rights. Human rights protections must be equivalent on both sides of the Border. This is outlined in the Good Friday Agreement and we need to maintain it. It was great to see the dismantling of a peace wall in Belfast in recent weeks. It is to be hoped that this was the first of many. These barriers must be abolished and communities have to learn to live together.

In the past number of years some people have been marginalised and imprisoned without charge for years. The case of Tony Taylor comes to mind. He is incarcerated in Maghaberry Prison. His wife outlined his awful living conditions when she presented to the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. The mistreatment of prisoners has long been a cause of unrest and must not become a threat to the peace process. All politicians should make their voices heard in calling for his release as no evidence has been produced to justify his detention.

The abandonment of the Six Counties in 1922 has left a deep scar in the Irish psyche. I believe that it has a parallel with the guilt felt by parents who abandon a child. The Minister may not like me saying it but that is how I feel. I also believe that the main southern parties have an obligation to organise throughout the Thirty-two Counties and advance their stated objective of the reunification of Ireland. The onus is on all people on this island to establish a nation that respects the traditions of all communities and creates a country of equals.

I commend the work of our Government and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Simon Coveney, for his ongoing work with all the parties in trying to restore the political institutions in the North. I know this Government is determined, as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, to ensure that all the institutions are working effectively, including a devolved assembly and power-sharing Executive in Northern Ireland along with the North-South Ministerial Council.

There has been much talk of a united Ireland and we must ask ourselves what it is we want. Nearly 100 years ago my grandfather, James Feely, was a Sinn Féin councillor and a member of the IRA. He was arrested for a raid on Rockingham House for arms and guns. He went to Dublin on the train and 2,000 people saw those men off to be tried and sent to Mountjoy Prison. He joined the hunger strike with Austin Stack and they were granted their political demands. He was then sent to Belfast to be tried, where he was imprisoned. I, therefore, wonder what is a united Ireland. Is a united Ireland a single sovereign state? I have noticed how Sinn Féin does not talk about a united Ireland but about unity. We must look at it from a different point of view. We need to unite the minds of the people. We have one Ireland, but perhaps it is not the united Ireland that people have been talking about for the past 100 years.

At the same time that my grandfather was carried shoulder-high, 126 young men from my town in Boyle went to fight for Home Rule or whatever and never returned home. We forgot about these young men. Was that the united Ireland that we wanted? We have airbrushed them out of our history. The past 15 or 20 years, we have come to remember and commemorate the sacrifice and the lives of men who were Irish and of my DNA but who, because of some event in history in 1916, of which we are very proud and which we have commemorated, we have simply airbrushed out.

It is not a one-way street. A united Ireland has to be a two-way street, which is why I believe we need to do a lot more to reach out to unionism. We need to do an awful lot more to reach out and work on the relationship between Ireland and the United Kingdom from a political perspective and in terms of a friendship.

I have chaired the Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement and am still a member of the committee. Senator Black's trip to Rathlin island and Northern Ireland was positive and beneficial and we learned a lot. We need to do an awful lot more of that. We will be in Liverpool this weekend at the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly. It is a forum for good. It brings politicians from all sides together. I have noticed in Westminster, where there are 800 or so in the House of Lords and 600 or 700 in the other House, that there is huge goodwill towards the island of Ireland. That goodwill was not there when bombs were going off in London, Birmingham and Northern Ireland. We have come to a stage now where there is a huge amount of goodwill.

We speak of the Irish caucus in Washington. There is an Irish caucus on the next island which is made up of men and women who come from Roscommon, Northern Ireland and elsewhere. We need to work with them. That is why I am bringing perhaps 20 or 30 Oireachtas Members to Westminster on 6 November. It is because that is where those relationships are built up.

The best day was the day of the Anglo-Irish Agreement, which was signed 33 years ago. When one looks at 100 years and 33 years, one can see it is a third of 100 years. That agreement gave us a say in the affairs of Northern Ireland.

We are moving in the right direction and all the parties are working together. When we talk about a united Ireland, we need to unite the people of Ireland. We need one Ireland. There are people who automatically look away when we talk about it so we must choose our language correctly. I wish the Minister every success. I was in Manchester last week at that famous breakfast with Arlene Foster and Michelle O'Neill. It was frosty to a certain extent but one could see that the two leaders were trying to work together. We need to give them as much space as possible and we need to get the institutions up and running. Again, we have a role. Not all of us think the same way but the role is to have peace on the island of Ireland and peace for our neighbours. We have come a long way in the past 32 years since the signing of the Anglo-Irish Agreement.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as a bheith linn agus uasdatú a thabhairt dúinn. I share the sentiments expressed by the Minister regarding tempering and considering our remarks and contributions today given the live talks and negotiations. I am sure it was a sincere and genuine mistake on the part of Senator Richmond but these statements are not statements on foreign affairs; they are statements on Northern Ireland and that is how we should approach it when we come into this Chamber. We should look upon it-----

It was a mistake.

I appreciate that fully but I thought it was important to say it.

Reconciliation was referred to by Senators McDowell and Feighan in terms of what needs to happen. I agree with Senator McDowell, which does not happen very often, that it is a core tenet of Irish republicanism and a core tenet of my Irish republicanism and the republicanism of my party. If Senator Feighan wants to know what kind of united Ireland we aspire to, he should take the proclamation down off the wall and read it because it is all there, including the issue of reconciliation. If we are talking about Sinn Féin's record and the record of republicans relating to reconciliation, I do not think anyone has set a better example or a better trajectory on that path than the late Martin McGuinness who on several occasions famously met with Queen Elizabeth II, the commander in chief of the British armed forces. He led a Sinn Féin delegation to Messines and the Somme where he laid a wreath at the Ulster Memorial Tower. In my capacity as Lord Mayor of Belfast, I laid a wreath at the Cenotaph in memory of all the people mentioned by Senator Feighan and indeed those from my city who lost their lives in the First World War.

All of this feeds into the broader political issues we have faced in recent months. It has all been done with zero reciprocation. We stretch ourselves to attend civic events at Belfast City Hall for the signing of the Ulster Covenant or the Battle of the Somme but when there is an historic event, the first of its kind, at Belfast City Hall to mark the centenary of the Easter Rising, unionist politicians refuse to attend, therefore, leading to our President not attending that event, which was a slap in the face to nationalists and those nationally minded people in the city of Belfast and across Northern Ireland. If we are going to lecture people on reconciliation, we must see that reconciliation is a multi-way process that involves more than just republicans, who I believe have not just led on the issue of reconciliation but have lived and are living that reconciliation, difficult as it is at times.

Regarding Senator McDowell's remarks on the Border poll, it is fair to say that Brexit has changed everything. Demography is changing. The Unionist political majority in Northern Ireland has ended and I do not foresee it coming back. He references a series of polls. The only poll I know of involves that very well-known and balanced publication The Belfast Telegraph, which surveyed a couple of thousand people so I do not know where the evidence that there would be no desire for either a poll or a discussion on unity comes from. We should be preparing for that. As Senator Mark Daly rightly says, we are constitutionally obliged to prepare for that. The Good Friday Agreement allows for that so why would we not at least begin a national dialogue? We have facilitated it around Brexit, which has changed the political paradigm on the island so why would these Houses not consider the formation of a joint Oireachtas committee to look at the reunification of the country, be it a new Ireland forum or a civic dialogue?

I do not expect the Minister to comment on the specifics of the Irish Language Act and the ongoing discussions but it is a very important issue and worthy of comment and contribution in this House. I welcome the Minister's very clear public contribution on his behalf and on behalf of the Government that lends support to the majority of MLAs and political parties in Northern Ireland for a stand-alone rights-based Irish Language Act. It is supported by 50 out of 90 MLAs in Northern Ireland and the majority of the parties there and was agreed at St Andrews ten years ago. An Dream Dearg, Conradh na Gaeilge, schools, sporting clubs, community groups, families and many more from all over Ireland have come together and taken to the streets to show the vibrancy, dynamism, youthfulness, inclusivity and diversity of the Irish-speaking community. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, James Brokenshire, has refused thus far to meet with representatives of the Irish language sector. I do not think that is helpful or conducive to the kind of negotiation we want to see concluded. Even Arlene Foster and the DUP have met those representatives so I think the Minister would agree with me that it is an unacceptable and untenable position and one that causes deep offence to the broader public when the Secretary of State does not extend that basic civility to those representative bodies. Perhaps the Minister will consider raising this privately with Secretary of State Brokenshire.

In 2006 and 2007, there were 3,660 children at Irish medium schools. This increased to 5,873 last year, up 60.46%. Comhairle na Gaelscolaíochta predicts that by 2021, there will be 7,220 children receiving education through the medium of Irish, a rise of 97.23% from 2006. As the Minister knows, it is these children that the implementation of an Irish Language Act is for. The symbolic and practical nature and outworking of an Acht na Gaeilge will have a positive and affirming impact on the lives of these children, their families and their neighbourhoods as well as the broader society in Northern Ireland. The clear support of the Minister and Government for that demand is very welcome among Irish speakers and those who cherish and respect the Irish national identity and I commend the Minister for that.

On the issue of citizenship, the Minister has perhaps seen me tagging him on Twitter over the past couple of nights. I welcome his letter, which I received the other day, directing officials to assist in the case of Emma and Jake DeSouza. Their plight involves an application for a residency visa for Jake, who is a US citizen. Emma is an Irish citizen resident in Northern Ireland who is currently refusing the obligation being placed on her by the British Home Office to renounce British citizenship, a citizenship with which she has never identified or held as under the rights afforded to her under the Good Friday Agreement, she is solely an Irish citizen. We have seen another highly publicised case over the past few days that saw another Belfast couple face similar difficulties and anxieties while applying for a visa from the British Home Office simply for asserting a right to be an Irish citizen. Yesterday, I wrote to the British Home Secretary, Amber Rudd, encouraging her to ensure that when dealing with visa applications from Northern Ireland, Home Office officials are fully briefed and trained up on the rights of people in Northern Ireland to be Irish citizens and so that, hopefully, they can prevent any further undue anxiety or stress as a result of this ignorance of the Good Friday Agreement. Perhaps the Minister and his officials might raise this with the British Government.

Partitionism is not just mechanical. It does not just intrude in the mechanics and logistics of our lives. A psychology of partitionism prevails. When the Good Friday Agreement gave us citizenship and afforded us the right to participate in the life of the Irish nation, it never said that Northern Ireland was perpetually settled and done. Conan Doherty, an author writing for, of all publications,, wrote regarding James McClean and the Ireland match that "[I]t wasn't a tactical decision by players to join Ireland because they couldn't get onto the north's side".

It is not a bloody decision; one is either Irish or one is not. A person does not have to think about it. Whether it was for a cheap laugh, these great servants of Ireland should not have swipes taken at them after doing what they did for their country in such an important battle. James McClean grew up with just as much love and fire and just as many dreams to play for Ireland as David Meyler. Derry is as Irish as Cork. That is the reality for many of us; it is cultural, psychological, social and political. If we are to ask the British Government and unionism to respect our place as Irish citizens, people and figures, we need to have a serious conversation about how we reconcile people in the South with those of us in the North who are Irish and how our citizenship is treated with equal status.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Aire fá choinne an díospóireacht seo ar chúrsaí Tuaisceart na hÉireann agus an dóigh ina bhfuil idirdhealú á dhéanamh ar na deacrachtaí polaitiúla atá ann faoi láthair. Tá lúcháir orm go bhfuil an deis seo againn a leithéid de dhíospóireacht a bheith againn.

I welcome the Minister and want to add my tuppence worth to the debate. I listened in the office to the Minister's contribution in which he outlined that sensitive discussions were taking place. He said we should be aware of this and temper our remarks with that in mind. That is what I intend to do. However, there are matters that must be aired. I know that, depending on one's political persuasion, this may be seen as an opportunity to look at the issue of a united Ireland. However, that is a much more complex issue. Before we go to the end of that road or bóithrín, there are many issues to be addressed in the North. I say this as somebody who lived there for four years while attending university. I have strong links with the North of Ireland, through relatives, political links and sporting connections.

To say the position in Northern Ireland is dysfunctional would be an understatement. I know a number of school principals to whom I spoke over the summer. They do not even know what their budgets are from week to week. As a consequence, they cannot hire staff. Such a position is detrimental to people with special needs and so on and that is only in the education sphere. It goes right across the board into the health service and so on. We are looking at legacy matters that have been discussed, apart from the Irish language issue. It was my understanding that was agreed to at St. Andrew's, but now it is being left to the grown-ups at Stormont to try to deal with the baton they have been passed. Unfortunately, however, they are unable to do so. Has there been direct dialogue between the Minister or his officials and the Democratic Unionist Party on the Irish language issue?

There are other legacy matters to be dealt with, including the need to establish a truth commission to try to provide some solace for the families that lost loved ones during the Troubles, during which over 3,600 people were murdered, not to mention those who were maimed. One individual living in my constituency in County Donegal lost his wife during the Troubles because of collusion by the police force in Belfast which provided information for one of the Ulster Volunteer Force, UVF, brigades. It tried to shoot him at point blank range and shot his wife dead in August 1988. I raised the matter with the previous Minister, Deputy Charles Flanagan, who was more than helpful in the matter. Such issues must be addressed and the electorate in the North is seeking answers to such questions. Not having an effective and working Executive at Stormont is disrespectful to the electorate in the North which is in a state of flux. If an agreement is not reached forthwith, there will be social and economic consequences for every community across the North. The Irish language is an important matter, so too are the people who are trying to get hospital appointments and whose kids are seeking approval to receive the help of special needs assistants. There are school principals waiting to have their budgets approved. There are, therefore, key issues that need to be addressed.

I appeal to both parties to get on with it and get the institutions up and running. We know that the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Brokenshire, has indicated that we are heading towards direct rule in the coming weeks if Sinn Féin and the DUP cannot come to an agreement. A serious coming together must happen. If there is not an opportunity for the two Governments to impose pressure on the DUP and Sinn Féin to agree to provide latitude to enable the institutions to come together, there will be an urgent need to have an independent broker, whether it be a special envoy from the United States or somebody else.

The deprivation indexes in the North are shocking. There are more multi-millionaires in Belfast than in many cities across England, Wales and Scotland - it is third on the list - and most of them are not Catholic. When one digs into the figures, in Belfast alone, 80% of the deprived population in Belfast alone, in economic terms, are Catholic. There is a serious need for the divvying up of the available resources for those who need them in the North. It is time those in Stormont got on with dealing with the real matters that affect people week in and week out. The posturing that has been ongoing since the election is not helping anyone. Sinn Féin is doing its utmost in that regard. The DUP must engage. Whatever needs to happen must happen. Direct rule would be an absolute disaster at a time when Brexit has been thrown into the equation as another factor.

There are many concerns and the Minister has a major task ahead of him. I wish him well in the discussions that will take place in the coming weeks.

I thank Members for being reasonable in their comments and not raising matters unnecessarily that might cause difficulties in the context of other discussions that are ongoing. This is Parliament and we must be able to speak openly, but at the same time people must be conscious of other discussions that have been ongoing for quite some time. They have been ongoing for months at this stage and although progress is being made, difficulties are being posed for both parties and their leaderships.

I will start with Senator Brian Ó Domhnaill's comments. Most Members of this House do not need to be reminded of the consequences of direct rule for Northern Ireland. It would be devastating if it were to happen, not just in the context of Brexit but also in the context of community relations and the need to find pragmatic and practical ways of reconciling. Political leaders must show the many who follow them how to behave, interact and build trust and faith between two communities that come from very different places on many issues. Since becoming Minister, I have tried to spend as much time as I can north of the Border, speaking to people on the streets of Derry, Belfast and elsewhere. I took up the invitation from Ms Arlene Foster to bring my family to the North to spend a weekend there. If I might be forgiven for a moment for indulging in a personal experience, I had a powerful moment with my children. I was trying to find a way to introduce them to the story and legacy of Northern Ireland.

I found a way of doing this on the Peace Bridge in Derry, where we literally sat down and spoke about why the bridge needed to be built and who paid for it, ironically in the context of Brexit. I tried to simplify for an eight year old and a six year old the complexity of the history, pain and tragedy, and progress of Northern Ireland.

I want to be a proactive Minister on these issues, assisting parties and communities to start talking to each other and, in time, trusting each other, so we can find real ways of bringing about reconciliation that matters. I recognise that even though all of the speakers have a slightly different emphasis on what they are saying, reconciliation is a common theme among everybody, particularly those who have lived, for some or a lot of their lives, in Northern Ireland.

In terms of the direct dialogue with the DUP on the Irish language, I have spoken to the DUP on all of the issues, just like I have spoken to the other parties, and there is a responsibility on political leaders in a Government in Dublin to get to know and try to build some trust with all community leaders and all political parties in Northern Ireland, the DUP included. I hope I have been pretty forthcoming in recognising the role Arlene Foster is trying to play at the moment, in particular her comments on the Irish language. She is the first DUP leader ever to speak to her own community and say it should not fear the Irish language. She is the first DUP leader to say the party should be legislating, but there are limits to what she can achieve and those limits, obviously, are being explored, just like there are limits to what Sinn Féin can live with on the same issue.

If there is to be a way forward on a difficult issue like this, and there are other issues as it is not just the Irish language, then both leaders and their negotiating teams need to find a way to accommodate each other, and this is not easy politically. Some people find it frustrating when they hear me commenting or speaking about it, and perhaps the less I say in that type of commentary the better, because it is up to the two parties on a bilateral basis to find a way of accommodating each other, recognising the complexity and politics of these issues within their own communities and support bases, and being able to take brave decisions to move the issue forward, because there is a bigger context here, which is that Northern Ireland needs a government.

Decisions on many of the issues to which some of the Senators have referred, practical matters in Northern Ireland such as how schools are run and how the health service is run and the response to flooding and other issues, cannot be made without political input. I hear it every now and again, when people say to me they do not have much faith in the political institutions of Northern Ireland, that maybe the status quo is not so bad. The status quo is not sustainable. Civil servants cannot continue to make decisions. There are many areas where they simply do not have a political mandate to make decisions, so politicians outside of Northern Ireland will have to start making decisions at some point in the not too distant future if it is not possible for directly-elected politicians in Northern Ireland to find a way of putting an executive and a functioning assembly in place that allow them to solve the problems of the people they represent. This is why this is so important, and why the British and Irish Governments have a responsibility to try to facilitate the structured dialogue that is continuing. These negotiations, I am glad to say, are in private for the most part now. They were very much in public at the start of the summer, and that structure proved difficult, particularly after two very divisive elections, and let us be honest about this. The Assembly election and the Westminster election in Northern Ireland were very divisive elections. There is new leadership in both Sinn Féin and the DUP and, for that matter, in the SDLP and the UUP. With new leadership comes new pressures, and we have seen communities in many ways being more divided on key political issues than we have seen for some time.

Yes, a breakthrough is needed, and I want to recognise the efforts the negotiating teams in Sinn Féin and the DUP are embarked upon at present. I also want to thank the other political parties for their patience. The SDLP, the UUP and the Alliance Party have largely been observers over the summer. While, of course, there is engagement, they recognise an assembly is not possible without the two largest parties finding some accommodation of each other. In my view, they have shown remarkable generosity and maturity in the context of how they have responded to date. They need to be involved in the negotiations in the context of forming an executive, but they know there is a barrier to overcome first between Sinn Féin and the DUP, which is what all of us are trying to assist with right now.

I do not think I need to talk about the consequences of direct rule. Most people realise where that takes us. It is not a good place, and it is something the Government would be very concerned about if it looked like we were moving in that direction. There is also a timing issue. Northern Ireland needs a budget. What we are coming down to now is practical realities. If there is not an assembly and an executive to pass the budget there are responsibilities on others to pass a budget and bring financial clarity to a whole series of sectors that need state support and funding. As I said, we all want the directly-elected representatives in Northern Ireland to be the people making decisions on these matters in terms of prioritising how money is spent.

With regard to Senator Ó Donnghaile's comments on the DeSouza case, I have written to him on this and we will continue to follow up with him on it. In the Good Friday Agreement there is very strong reference to the right of citizens in Northern Ireland to be able to choose Irish citizenship if they want to, British citizenship if they want to or dual citizenship if they want to. Of course, this has consequences in the context of Brexit because with Irish citizenship comes EU citizenship and the rights that flow from this, which is an added complication but an important one.

In terms of reconciliation and the need for reciprocation in both communities, that is true but, depending on where one comes from and how one has been affected by the tragedies and violence of Northern Ireland, it is very difficult for some people to find a way of doing this. Real leadership, in my view, comes from people who are willing to continue to try to promote and act in a way that promotes reconciliation, even if there is nothing coming the other way. We need to continue to do this rather than in any way making it contingent on getting something back. I accept the Senator was not saying this.

It has not been contingent.

Over time, and this is where the Whitaker comments come in, patience and perseverance are what are required. Anybody who looks to be opportunistic in terms of trying to achieve his or her, albeit legitimate, political ends in Northern Ireland and is trying to rush agendas and using other political crises to do so is, in my view, undermining the overall project here, which has to be about uniting Irish people and Irish communities, North and South. When I was involved in the leadership contest in my party I had the slogan "Uniting Ireland", and I was very clear about what that meant, which, by the way, applied to communities outside of Northern Ireland also. We have seen a divided society develop in Ireland, given what we have been through in the past ten years. Big political parties like mine have an obligation to try to bring people together.

We have been trying to do that in some of the decisions we have made in the budget announced yesterday, but in the context of Northern Ireland, it is about bringing communities together in a way that can allow them to trust each other, talk to each other and put the past in a context that allows communities to move on. That is what I mean by trying to unite people. If we can do that, then other exciting things are possible, but if we try to do it in reverse, to force a political agenda in a way that is threatening, then we will continue to divide communities. A majority community today could potentially become a threatened minority community tomorrow. That is not what the uniting Ireland agenda should be about. It should be about generosity, recognising the diversity and difference on this island, and recognising who people are, where they come from and what they hold as important in the context of their own identities. The genius of the Good Friday Agreement is that it caters for all that in terms of east-west relations, North-South relations, and a way of changing the constitutional structures on the island of Ireland should a majority of people want to do that. Personally, I think that is some time off. We have a responsibility to prioritise reconciliation and understanding. We have a lot of work to do in that area before other questions under the Good Friday Agreement's conditions are followed.

I take Senator Feighan's point. This is an evolution of relationships between Ireland and Britain. We have come a long way and we are now being tested in quite a fundamental way by something that has come out of left field, in some ways, in the context of Brexit. I would caution against using the difficulties and complexities around the Brexit debate as a way of trying to pursue another end of a united Ireland agenda. We need to work with unionism and nationalism in Northern Ireland to find practical solutions that protect the interests of this island as a whole and protect the interests of the Irish-British relationship, which, regardless of what happens in Brexit, has got to remain a close interwoven relationship because we cannot undo it even if we want to, and I do not believe we want to. Unfortunately, Britain has chosen to leave the European Union but there is a negotiation ongoing now which Ireland is in the centre of, as we should be, and we have worked hard to ensure that we have placed Irish issues at the centre of those negotiations. We continue to do that to try to address some of the issues that many of the Senators have raised. However, there is a danger sometimes that positioning on Brexit questions provokes and encourages a divisive response in Northern Ireland that forces people back into the unionism versus nationalism debate. Brexit should not be a green versus orange issue. I certainly will work to try to ensure that it is not.

My view is pretty well known on the issue of the customs union. I find it very difficult to see how we can solve the Border challenges on the island of Ireland in the context of Brexit unless Britain and Ireland and the rest of European Union are part of a shared customs union. We can call it whatever we want, Britain staying in the customs union or Britain negotiating with the EU task force a customs union partnership, but the net result has to be same. When one drives from Dublin to Derry or Dublin to Belfast, if one is moving from one customs union to another, there is no way of avoiding some Border infrastructure, whether it is at the Border or in people's businesses or farmyards, if one is having to manage the movement of goods from one customs union to another. That is why there are no easy answers to this in the context of the current approach by the British Government, and we need to continue to explore solutions here. The language has improved in this context. There is now talk of transition periods and maintaining the status quo during that. There is talk of a customs union partnership as opposed to simply just leaving a customs union. There is talk of a trade partnership as opposed to demanding a free trade agreement. I think the British Government is exploring ways in which we can try to discuss these matters when we get to phrase two of the negotiations. However, let us not forget the job we need to do in phase one first, particularly in the context of Northern Ireland, the Border, protecting the Good Friday Agreement and its full implementation, protecting a common travel area, on which I think we are making good progress, and the need for us to work with all parties in Northern Ireland in an effort to find a practical way forward on that. Our efforts to do that would certainly be a lot easier to do if we had a First and deputy First Minister and an Executive that was all inclusive.

I thank colleagues for their contributions. If they have suggestions or queries, they can contact me at any point on these issues. Once again, I remind people that we are at a very important point. This week is an important one in the context of Northern Ireland and the job that we need to do together. I hope it will have a successful outcome by the end of the week.