Wednesday, 21 April 2021

Questions (5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12)

Neale Richmond


5. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach the status of the latest activities of the shared island unit of his Department. [16456/21]

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Gary Gannon


6. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Taoiseach the status of the shared island unit of his Department. [17188/21]

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Richard Boyd Barrett


7. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the priorities of the shared island unit of his Department. [17201/21]

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Ruairí Ó Murchú


8. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Taoiseach when he expects the shared island unit will meet with those involved in the Dublin-Belfast economic corridor report; and the details of the North-South initiatives being considered. [17205/21]

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Aengus Ó Snodaigh


9. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Taoiseach an bhfuil plé déanta go fóill ag a aonad um oileán comhroinnte maidir le ról na Gaeilge i dtodhchaí chomhroinnte na hÉireann. [18418/21]

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Matt Carthy


10. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Taoiseach if the shared island unit in his Department has conducted an economic appraisal of the challenges and benefits a united Ireland will present. [19938/21]

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Mick Barry


11. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach the position regarding the priorities of the shared island unit of his Department. [20333/21]

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Peadar Tóibín


12. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of his Department’s shared island initiative. [20477/21]

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Oral answers (11 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 12, inclusive, together.

On 22 October, I set out the Government's vision and priorities on shared island in an online event at Dublin Castle. In budget 2021, the Government announced the shared island fund, with €500 million being made available out to 2025, ring-fenced for shared island projects. This provides significant new capital funding for strategic investment in collaborative North-South projects that will support the commitments and objectives of the Good Friday Agreement.

The Government is working with the Northern Ireland Executive and the British Government to progress existing and new cross-Border investment projects. Our priorities for such investment are set out in the programme for Government. Progressing cross-Border investment projects was a key focus of our discussions at the North-South Ministerial Council plenary on 18 December, and in December more than €6 million in funding from the shared island fund was approved by the Government to launch the delivery of phase 2 of the Ulster Canal.

As part of the shared island initiative, the unit is progressing a comprehensive research programme, working with the National Economic and Social Council, the Economic and Social Research Institute, and the Irish Research Council, with research outputs being published through 2021 and in subsequent years. Strengthening social, economic and political links on the island and the promotion of all-island approaches to the strategic challenges facing Ireland, North and South, are key objectives of this work. As I have said previously, our shared island initiative does not preordain any constitutional outcome under the Good Friday Agreement. Our work takes place in that context.

I launched the shared island dialogue series to foster constructive and inclusive civic dialogue on a shared future on the island, founded on the Good Friday Agreement. To date, three dialogues have been held. I addressed a dialogue with young people on 26 November on the theme of New Generations and New Voices on the Good Friday Agreement, on 5 February, the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications participated in a dialogue on climate and environment on the island, and on 25 March, a dialogue on civil society engagement on the island was held, with participation by the Minister for Foreign Affairs. The dialogue series will continue through this year, including with a focus on equality, economy, health and education issues for the island. We are ensuring new and under-represented voices, including of women, young people and ethnic minorities, are represented in these civic discussions on our shared future on the island.

Building a shared island will require co-operation at all levels, and I warmly welcome the increased focus and ambition for cross-Border co-operation at local authority and regional levels, including through the Dublin-Belfast economic corridor launched on 24 March, the framework of regional priorities of the Irish Central Border Area Network, also launched on 24 March, and the North West Regional Development Group's recently agreed statement of updated regional priorities. I and a number of Ministers have engaged directly with these important cross-Border initiatives in recent weeks to affirm the Government's support for their work and readiness to collaborate with them, taking account of their regional development strategies and our commitments and objectives on a shared island as set out in the programme for Government. The shared island unit in my Department is actively engaging with local authorities and the cross-Border local authority forums in follow-up.

Ar deireadh, bhí plé tairbheach ag aonad um oileán comhroinnte mo Roinne le hionadaithe Gaeilge maidir leis an tionscnamh oileán comhroinnte, agus tá cuireadh tugtha dóibh a bheith páirteach sa tsraith idirphlé maidir le hoileán comhroinnte. Tá an t-aonad ag súil le leanúint leis an bplé seo i gcomhar leis na Ranna líne iomchuí a bhfuil freagracht orthu i leith na Gaeilge.

I am grateful to the Taoiseach for his comprehensive response and his continued and vital enthusiasm for the shared island initiative that he established. Events in recent days and weeks have shown us the absolute need for that initiative to be successful and for engagement to take place at every level, political, societal and economic, across this island, without, as the Taoiseach said, there being any predestined constitutional outcome. I am very relieved that the North-South Ministerial Council meeting on enterprise and innovation has gone head today, although it was really disappointing that the council meeting on transport failed to proceed last week. The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference really needs to meet and I ask the Taoiseach to put that proposal directly to the British Prime Minister and to engage fully on it with both the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

With all the issues we are facing on this island, including the post-Brexit landscape and coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic, co-operation between North and South, and east and west, has never been so important. I implore the Taoiseach to make sure the Government is constantly bringing forward that positive engagement. Even if some people are not necessarily up for conversations or working towards common solutions to practical problems, the Government must never be found lacking in that regard.

I have a question regarding the ambition of the shared island initiative on the issue of education. I note the head of the shared island unit has highlighted that education is a priority for it. I ask the Taoiseach to put some bones on that and outline what it actually means. I have heard talk of investment in universities. In the past couple of weeks, as we saw members of certain communities rioting, it was clear that one of the many things they have in common, on both sides of the peace wall, is that they come from areas with an extremely low level of educational attainment. Does the Taoiseach believe the shared island initiative can create investment that will finally start to address those issues? I understand research is a priority but there is an abundance of research already available demonstrating that communities with a low level of educational attainment are where issues and confrontations are likely to emerge.

We have a housekeeping difficulty again in that Deputies Boyd Barrett, Ó Murchú, Ó Snodaigh, Carthy, Barry and Tóibín are all offering but there are only a few minutes remaining. I propose that we take ten minutes from the next question and bring them forward to allow the Deputies to speak on this group of questions. It will mean that we only have time to deal with two groups of questions today. Is that agreed? Agreed.

If we are going to overcome sectarianism and division and move forward to a united Ireland, which certainly is something I would like to see, we have to be an example in terms of what unification would give to people. I have talked a lot about the importance of having an all-Ireland national health service. Something else that is critical and can help us to unite people is taking a lead on the question of providing decent jobs. I want to cite a particular example of where we are not taking the lead in that regard.

I have had reports recently from Dublin Port concerning certain Brexit-related operations that led to the employment of several hundred workers by Doyle Shipping Group. From what I understand, it seems that these workers are, in effect, working for Revenue, the Departments of Health and Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and the Office of Public Works, but have been contracted out to Doyle Shipping Group, which is treating them absolutely disgracefully. It has not paid them the hourly rates they are supposed to get, it is not giving them their proper overtime rates and it is unilaterally trying to change their contracts. When some of the workers, including one who contacted me, questioned Doyle Shipping Group about this, they were sacked unceremoniously. There was no consultation; they were just gone. I assume these workers are being paid by Departments. This does not exactly bode well in terms of how the State protects the rights of workers. I do not expect the Taoiseach to know the details of this situation here and now but I ask that he look into it. It is unacceptable that this sort of thing could be happening on what is, in effect, a Government-supported project and employment at Dublin Port.

I spoke to the Taoiseach previously about the report of the Dublin-Belfast Economic Corridor group. The report is produced by all the local authorities, North and South, in the area of the corridor, in conjunction with the University of Ulster and DCU. It deals with all the positives the area enjoys, including infrastructure, a young and dynamic population and the existence of the various universities and learning institutes. Thinking of the future for the likes of my own town of Dundalk, Drogheda and Newry, I see them as centres for innovation and enterprise even beyond what they are now. There is a huge amount of potential for this area, which has been impacted greatly by partition and dealing with the outworking of issues associated with Brexit.

Some of the proposals in the report would dovetail with the work, or what the work should be, of the shared island unit. The Taoiseach spoke recently at a Dundalk and Newry chambers of commerce joint event on Brexit, where he referred to the Narrow Water Bridge project and the Newry southern relief road. Will the Taoiseach give an update on those projects? There is also the wider issue of the need for greater cross-Border rail connectivity. Translink has indicated that we could have an improved Dublin-Belfast Enterprise service by 2024, with greater frequency and better rolling stock. However, Iarnród Éireann tells me that this will not be possible before 2026 or 2027. We need to see whether there is any possibility of improving on those timelines.

What issues are being impacted at this point in time as a result of the North-South Ministerial Council meeting on transport not being able to proceed because of the DUP not taking up its position? I agree with the calls in this House regarding the necessity of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference meeting. We need the involvement of the two Governments at the top level. There have been issues with rioting and such in the North. There has obviously been a stoking of the situation by political unionism for political purposes. However, we must remember that we are long removed from the unionist monster rallies against the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the 1980s and the spectre of Ulster resistance and such. We are far removed from that. We need leadership, a plan in regard to Irish unity and a conversation on what that would look like.

For our communities, particularly working-class communities, North and South, nationalist, unionist and other, what is required are jobs. It has been shown in much economic modelling that the real dividend that this island, North and South, could get directly from Irish unity would be an economic dividend and a jobs boost. What we need at this point in time is leadership to ensure that happens. I ask the Taoiseach to come back to me on his plans to meet the Dublin-Belfast Economic Corridor group, his plans for dealing with the issue of the North-South Ministerial Council meeting and in respect of the particular projects to which I referred.

As Deputy Ó Snodaigh is not in the Chamber, I will move on to Deputy Carthy.

I thank the Taoiseach for the update on the activities of the shared island unit. It is important to note on the record of the House that he and his Government failed to take an opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to creating an all-Ireland civil debate by ensuring there would be a unionist voice in the Seanad, when he stitched up yet another back-room deal between his party and Fine Gael. There was an opportunity to put a unionist in the Seanad who would contribute to the ongoing debate, but the Taoiseach failed to take it up.

It strikes me very evidently in my conversations on these issues with organisations, including many farming organisations and bodies that operate on a North-South and all-Ireland basis, many within the Border region specifically, that the debate around the constitutional question, as the Taoiseach framed it, is already happening apace. People are having the discussions around dinner tables and in community centres. Obviously, a lot of it is taking place in online Zoom and MS Teams meetings at the moment.

The debate is happening everywhere except in the Department of the Taoiseach because the Taoiseach seems to be absolutely resistant to having a conversation on what a united Ireland might look like. Many people are asking that simple question. It does not have a simple answer but it is a question that people want to participate in. The Taoiseach is doing a huge disservice to his position and office by refusing to create the space for that conversation to take place and I call on him to rethink it. I also call on the Taoiseach to rethink some of what I would describe as the reckless language he has been using. To describe as explosive the notion of having the implementation of one aspect of the Good Friday Agreement is, in my view, utterly reckless. I ask the Taoiseach to move away from that and from yesterday's language.

Let us start talking about the future of our country. Those of us who want to see a united Ireland do not just have some notion of putting right the historical wrongs or some romantic fantasy or anything like that. The reason we want to see a united Ireland is because we believe it will be a better Ireland for all who live here. We believe it will create the capacity for us to address the inefficiencies within our healthcare system and other public services. We believe it will allow us to develop a vibrant all-Ireland economy that serves all communities. That is legitimate and positive in my view. If we believe a united Ireland will be better for all the people in the country, then we not only have a right but an obligation to work towards it. I ask the Taoiseach once again to be part of that process.

I will oppose any measure which would increase sectarian division among ordinary people. That includes any hardening of the Border North-South and any hardening of the border between east and west. Hardening of the east-west border would serve to increase the insecurity of ordinary Protestants about the future and generate a sense of their being coerced into an economic united Ireland. I am not sure whether I am the only Dáil Deputy who issued such a warning in the Brexit debate in this House. Does the Taoiseach not accept that a peace process controlled by establishment parties and sectarian politicians has failed to deliver either a peace dividend or overturn sectarian division? Finally, I salute the actions of the Belfast bus workers against sectarian violence. The half a dozen actions such as the ones they carried out are what we need for a real peace process uniting Catholic and Protestant working-class communities.

On Easter Monday a gun and 200 rounds of ammunition were found in a house a little outside Moy on the Armagh-Tyrone border. The gun is thought to have been used by the Glenanne gang in the murder of nationalists in the area. It was found a mile from the house of an Aontú Mid Ulster Councillor, Denise Mullen, whose father was murdered by the Glenanne gang in front of her when she was four years old. The gun was handed into the PSNI station in Armagh. Some days later, the community followed up with people in the PSNI station to see whether the police service was investigating its provenance. At that stage those in the PSNI station said the PSNI had not received any gun. They denied any gun had been dropped into the station whatsoever. Denise Mullen contacted the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman. I contacted the Taoiseach's office and the Office of the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Four days later, the PSNI admitted a gun had been left in with the ammunition.

Shockingly, this is not the first time something like this has happened. The same thing happened in Dungannon police station six years ago when a gun was handed in. The police initially denied it had been brought in and then had to admit it. This is a threat to the confidence of many nationalists in the ability of the PSNI to be able to investigate what the Glenanne gang did. They murdered 120 nationalists in that area over a short period. I have asked three taoisigh, namely, Deputy Micheál Martin, Deputy Leo Varadkar and Mr. Enda Kenny, to meet victims and survivors of the Glenanne murder gang. To date, no Taoiseach has agreed to meet or accept the invite of those victims. I understand it has been difficult for the Taoiseach and I am not putting any blame on him. Covid-19 has got in the way of his ability to do it. However, I would ask that, even if it is through MS Teams or Zoom, we start the conversation around those families in their search for justice.

I fully agree with what Deputy Richmond said in terms of the need for strong continuing dialogue. I am always open to dialogue and conversation on issues pertaining to the future of this island and to all of the questions relating to that. Indeed I have been open to them since the beginning of my political career when I was elected a councillor and Deputy. I do not need Deputy Carthy to lecture me on my interest or engagement in this issue. I think Deputy Richmond's point about the three sets of relationships, namely, the British-Irish, the North-South and the two traditions, is important. They underpin the Good Friday Agreement. We have to fulfil that potential, and in my view it has not been fulfilled to date. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, has had some good and useful meetings in London this week. I spoke to all the leaders of the political parties last week and had good conversations in respect of the issues that arose in the previous week. We are continuing that engagement.

Deputy Gannon made a point on education and early school leaving, and I agree with it 100%. One of the failings since the Good Friday Agreement has been the inability of the Northern Ireland Executive, along with the two Governments, to carry out a major investment programme in school completion to prevent early school leaving in the communities that need investment the most. Maybe at the time it should have been contemplated. That is something I am passionately committed to. There are serious issues in terms of early school leaving, non-school completion and non-progression to further and third level education in conurbations within Northern Ireland. That is a problem. Many representatives of the universities have said this to me and many educationalists have said this to me as well. If we do not address that, we will continue to sow challenges and problems for the future.

I am not aware of the specific incident Deputy Boyd Barrett has raised, but obviously decent jobs a decent economy are key to the North-South relationship. That is part of what the shared island is about. It is to increase connectivity and get good projects flowing. I am not aware of the specifics of the situation pertaining at Dublin Port.

Deputy Ó Murchú made another point and again I can reference the various projects we are pursuing. We have already allocated resources to research projects. We are looking at North-South industrial projects in terms of city deals, commitments to an industrial estate in Derry and parallel development in Letterkenny and Donegal. The idea is that there will be a joint initiative in the region around industrial promotion, creation of jobs and rail connectivity.

I heard what Deputy Carthy said. To be fair, Sinn Féin will be past masters at Seanad deals and are no strangers to them, whereas what happened today was an open democratic election that was transparent from the get-go. We do not need that kind of cynical commentary on what is a properly conducted bona fide election.

The Deputy also referred to creating space for discussion. Let me repeat the point that I have created a lot of space for discussion. The shared Ireland dialogue series is to create space for people to have a discussion without preconditions about how we share this island in future and how we live together in a better way than we have lived in the past. For example, we still have too many peace walls in Northern Ireland. We have to work hard at this.

Deputy Barry commented using the old trope about establishment politicians, whoever they are. We live in a parliamentary democracy. We have an electoral system that elects people by direct franchise. Then the Parliament elects the Government. Often, I think that phrase "the establishment" is a con job and has no real meaning other than to try to brand people and undermine the status of people as if they are some sort of alien group who are against the people. It is a completely false proposition.

I will meet with the victims and families to discuss the actions of Glenanne group. If we can arrange that, I will certainly facilitate it. I have met some in opposition but that would have been in a different context. I am not aware of the specifics in terms of the issue around the gun being handed in to the PSNI. I will finish on a broader point. It is important, given all that has been achieved in respect of policing in Northern Ireland, that we continue to support the PSNI and express confidence in the PSNI and its capacity to police fairly and impartially on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland.