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Dáil Éireann Debate, Wednesday - 26 May 2021

Wednesday, 26 May 2021

Questions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9)

Neale Richmond


1. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the ESRI and shared island unit publication on economic and social opportunities for increased co-operation on a shared island. [27998/21]

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Mary Lou McDonald


2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the research funding initiative related to the shared island initiative of his Department. [23897/21]

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Neale Richmond


3. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach the status of the shared island dialogue of 9 May 2021; and the details of the next dialogues to be held. [26070/21]

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Richard Boyd Barrett


4. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the status of the shared island unit of his Department. [26243/21]

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Paul Murphy


5. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach the status of the shared island unit of his Department. [26246/21]

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Gino Kenny


6. Deputy Gino Kenny asked the Taoiseach the status of the shared island unit of his Department. [26250/21]

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Alan Kelly


7. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach the status of the shared island unit of his Department. [26502/21]

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Mick Barry


8. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach the status of the shared island unit of his Department. [27887/21]

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Rose Conway-Walsh


9. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Taoiseach if the joint research programme of his Department and the ESRI on the economic and social opportunities from increased co-operation on the shared island will include an analysis of the potential benefits of increased co-operation in third level education and the actions necessary to facilitate that co-operation. [27950/21]

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Oral answers (12 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 9, inclusive, together.

On 22 October last, I set out the Government's vision and priorities on a shared island at an online event at Dublin Castle. Our approach is founded on the Good Friday Agreement and engaging with all communities and traditions to build consensus on a shared future on the island of Ireland. I established the shared island unit in my Department to act as a driver and co-ordinator for this work. Operationally, the unit is focusing its work in three areas: commissioning research, fostering dialogue and building a shared island agenda, including delivery of the commitments in the programme for Government.

The shared island unit is progressing a comprehensive research programme, working with the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, and the Irish Research Council. The research programme with the ESRI is on the economic and social opportunities from increased co-operation on the shared island. Research outputs will be published. The 2021 work is examining aspects of health, education, enterprise and the services economy on the island. Scoping papers on each of the ESRI research topics were published on Monday, 17 May 2021, and are available at As set out in the scoping paper, ESRI work on education this year is examining patterns of educational participation and attainment on the island, looking at how education and training systems, including at third level, shape these outcomes and assessing what lessons can be learned.

More broadly, the Government is committed to working to enhance all aspects of North-South co-operation on the island, including in third level education, and to supporting a North-South programme of research and innovation, including an all-island research hub. In budget 2021, the Government announced a shared island fund, with €500 million being made available through to 2025 and ring-fenced for shared island projects. 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.

On 28 April last, I and the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, launched phase 2 of the Ulster Canal restoration project, enabled by an allocation of €6 million from the shared island fund and €5.6 million from the rural regeneration development fund. The shared island fund has also provided a further €1 million for phase 3 of the project to undertake feasibility and pre-construction work, which has now begun. The Ulster Canal is an excellent example of what North-South co-operation can achieve, as an amenity that connects towns and communities in the central Border region and a sustainable tourism initiative that will create jobs and be a linchpin for other economic opportunities on both sides of the Border.

I launched a shared island dialogue series to foster constructive and inclusive civic dialogue on our shared future on the island founded on the Good Friday Agreement. I addressed a dialogue with young people on 26 November last on the theme of new generations and new voices on the Good Friday Agreement. Dialogues on climate and environment, civil society engagement and equality on the island have also been held in recent months, with participation by the relevant Government Ministers. The dialogue series will continue through this year, including with a focus on the economy, health and education on the island. The dialogues are engaging with hundreds of civic representatives in the different sectors across all regions, communities and traditions on how we can work together to build a shared future on the island. Reports on the dialogues are available at

We are under time pressure and a number of Members have tabled questions. I will give a minute and a half to each Member, but it will be at the expense of the subsequent questions because we are going to run out of time in the overall 45 minutes. Is it agreed to give each Member a minute and a half on this group of questions? Agreed.

I will try to keep my supplementary questions to one minute in fairness to the other Deputies. With regard to the shared dialogues, the Taoiseach said that hundreds of people have participated. Is it possible to get the specific number of how many people have taken part so far? The Taoiseach addressed what issues will be discussed. Is there scope to move to either blended or in-person dialogues? At what stage is this hoped to occur? Ultimately, what will be the result of the shared dialogues? Where will the reports go and with whom will they be shared?

More specifically on North-South relations, we have discussed the importance of attendance at the North-South Ministerial Council many times. Equally, it is extremely important for the Minister for Health to meet with the Northern Ireland Minister of Health in person as soon as possible. I call on the Taoiseach to confirm that will happen.

The point made by Deputy Richmond about the North-South institutions functioning is essential. I see no good reason that the Minister for Health would not meet with his Northern counterpart. That meeting should happen as a matter of urgency. More generally, and particularly in light of the new leadership of the unionist parties, we need to recall that all the Good Friday Agreement institutions must work efficiently so I call on everybody to honour those commitments.

I asked the Taoiseach about research commissioned by his Department as building blocks for the work ahead. It is welcome that the research is taking place. I also wish to mention other pieces of work being done. For example, the Royal Irish Academy's project, Analysing and Researching Ireland North and South, complements the work of the ESRI and NESC. The RIA is an all-island body. It represents academics North and South, including those from a unionist background. It brings together evidence bases, research and questions of policy. It contributes greatly to the public debate. Academics have said in different forums that the Government seems intent on adopting a Science Foundation Ireland funding model through research centres and they do not believe that is the right way to go about this. The Taoiseach needs to give that some consideration.

Has the Taoiseach sought to meet Mr. Edwin Poots since he became leader of the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP? We are very much at risk of a further breakdown in relations, and Mr. Poots is of the view that North-South relations have never been worse. Ms Nichola Mallon of the Social Democratic and Labour Party, SDLP, has sought legal advice on the boycott by the DUP of the North-South Ministerial Council meetings. Has the Taoiseach received any advice on this? The North-South Ministerial Council is a key part of the Good Friday Agreement.

If we want to promote the merits of sharing the island, it is not just about initiatives from the top. It is about breaking down division and showing the value of unity and alignment from the bottom. I gave the Taoiseach a concrete example of this a few weeks ago. Taxi drivers affected by the Covid pandemic in the North have been given a financial package of up to £3,000 to deal with overhead costs, insurance costs and all the costs and debts they have built up because of the loss of income incurred by Covid-19.

I asked the Taoiseach, as the taxi drivers have done, to do the same down here.

I understand the Taoiseach met with taxi drivers this week and still the Government, despite vague promises, has committed nothing in terms of a supportive financial package for an industry that has been decimated. As the Taoiseach knows, the taxi drivers will conduct a large drive-by protest at Leinster House tomorrow. The industry has been decimated and taxi drivers have asked for a supportive financial package that is similar to the one available in the North. Let us start aligning North and South in a tangible way that means something to ordinary working people and take our lead from the good example in the North, where a serious financial package was put in place for taxi drivers. Will the Taoiseach do the same for the industry that has been so badly decimated and the taxi drivers affected here, in advance of the protest tomorrow?

We often talk in this House about sectarian division. I want to say a few words about the exact opposite. Some weeks ago, workers at the Hovis bakery in Belfast decided to take industrial action over the fact that they have been offered less than 2% of a wage increase this year. Catholics and Protestants stood united on the picket lines for the 12 days of the strike, after which they won an 8% increase over two years, despite the fact that they had received pressure from the PSNI to disperse on the grounds of Covid-19 regulations. The protestors organised their picket lines in a socially distanced and disciplined way, and won.

They were visited on the picket lines by crèche workers from Queen's University Belfast who have been taking various forms of industrial action since International Women's Day on 8 March. They are, this week, escalating to a one-day strike. This is in opposition to unilateral changes in their working conditions. There is a theme here of Covid being used as an excuse by the management to try to force through those changes. Workers stand in their way and workers are making a stand. I wish them well and give solidarity greetings from the Socialist Party to both the groups of workers. They are an example to us all.

I welcome the fact that the Economic and Social Research Institute of Ireland, ESRI, is conducting research on the economic and social opportunities from increased co-operation on the island. I have read the scoping paper in detail, particularly the section on education. We need to come away with clear actions that can be implemented to increase North-South co-operation on third level education and associated timelines. We have been conducting reports and carrying out research on cross-Border co-operation since the Williams report in 1985, yet we have seen very little progress, particularly in student mobility. Since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998, the cross-Border enrolment of students in third level on this island has remained unacceptably low. It has, in fact, declined in the past ten years by 18%.

In the North, students from the South account for approximately 4% of the total student population while, in the South, students from the North make up less than 1% of the student population. We must ask why that is. It takes the same time to travel to Belfast from Mayo as it does to Dublin or Cork. We know many of the reasons. There is a difference in the admission systems, an inequity between A level and leaving certificate grades, and a lack of information for students and teachers, particularly around access and supports. I hope the ESRI will be instructed to lay out practical measures and actions that the Government can take to end this situation. I firmly believe that if we invest in an all-island educational system, we will see the benefits not only in educational attainment, but also in creating an understanding of the many cultures and traditions across our island.

The families and representatives of the victims of the Ballymurphy massacre were before the Good Friday Agreement committee yesterday. They movingly told of their experiences and what happened to them. The actions of the British in murdering its own citizens 50 years ago were those of a rogue state. The British took action to stop people finding out the truth in the intervening time and those were also the actions of a rogue state. The British are now reneging on international agreements that they have signed in the past number of years. Those are also the actions of a rogue state. What legal advice has the Taoiseach got about what this country can do in international law to force the British to adhere to the agreements they have signed with this State and the parties in the North of Ireland? We should be bringing the full weight of international law to bear on the British to make sure they fulfil their responsibilities, especially in providing justice for victims.

Deputy Richmond asked about the specific number of in-person dialogues that have taken place. I do not have a specific number with me but I can refer him to the shared island unit which can give an update and briefing on the matter.

We have been pressing for, and insisting on, full adherence with meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council. We are being told that there is no deliberate policy of non-attendance at some of the sectoral meetings. That is something we will continue to pursue and on which we will engage with the new unionist leadership.

Deputy McDonald mentioned the Royal Irish Academy. We are funding a broad range of research projects and are not committed to any one particular model. Science Foundation Ireland has done a lot of work with the UK research and innovation centre. That is important and it would be good for us to develop and fund expanded levels of research, involving North-South and, indeed, east-west co-operation. We have, for example, already funded a range of projects under the Irish Research Council. We are working with the council, which is obviously separate to Science Foundation Ireland. A funding call is currently open for academic contributions across the strands of political policy and economic co-operation, and civic, social and cultural connection and understanding on the island. Up to ten research projects will be funded, starting this year and concluding in mid-2022, as part of the Irish Research Council's New Foundations programme. That is one area.

The other area is working with the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science on a competition for collaboration between consortia, North and South, around specific research issues that would be of mutual benefit to all on the island. That is also being worked on and a broad-based approach to research is envisaged. The shared island unit and I are open to good quality proposals. We want to see an element of competition for the research funding and a strategic approach must be adopted, considering the value of the research programme. A whole range of topics are under consideration, including cybersecurity, biodiversity, technology and so on.

We are pursuing a meeting with the new unionist leadership and will engage. Deputy Tóibín raised a broader issue about adherence to the Good Friday Agreement and to all strands of it. Dialogue is the most important and effective mechanism, as we have learned over the years. That said, within the European framework, Europe is already taking legal action in respect of unilateral actions taken by the UK Government in respect of the commencement dates around the protocol. Nonetheless, a process is now in place between Maroš Šefčovič and David Frost in respect of the adherence to an international agreement that has been arrived at by the British Government with the European Union, which includes Ireland. In respect of the Good Friday Agreement, we believe that dialogue is the most effective route to deal with any issues.

What about the Stormont House Agreement?

The same point applies to the Stormont House Agreement. There can be no unilateral action under the Stormont House Agreement. There must be full engagement with all of the parties and, indeed, the two Governments. That is the approach of the Irish Government to that matter.

Deputy Tóibín asked about justice for the families of the victims of the Ballymurphy massacre. That is a matter for further discussion, as are a range of other issues across the board.

In response to the questions asked by Deputy Boyd Barrett, I met with taxi drivers last week and had a constructive and lengthy meeting with them. I will be reverting to the Minister responsible and the Government in respect of the issues raised at that meeting.

One can compare like with like in terms of supports in the North compared with the Republic. The Deputy's suggestion that nothing has been given here is wrong. A range of supports has been provided. The issue is the scale, quality and quantity of those supports and whether more can be done. We must work to do more to try to facilitate taxi drivers, particularly as the economy and society are reopening, in order that we can deal with the issues they have that are specific to their industry.

In the spirit of solidarity, Deputy Barry raised the issue of the workers in a bakery in Belfast and crèche workers in Queen's University Belfast. I welcome that the bakers got a resolution and successfully campaigned for improvement in their conditions and pay. We also hope the crèche workers can get a resolution on their issue.

Deputy Conway-Walsh raised the issue of education and ESRI research. The ESRI research covers cross-Border trade in services on the island of Ireland and work on the structure and composition of that cross-Border trade is under way. The ESRI will then compare the primary healthcare systems of Ireland and Northern Ireland and draw implications for policy. The ESRI generally does the analysis and research on implications for policy formulation and it is then up to the Government and other agencies to decide on implementation.

On education, the ESRI will compare patterns of educational participation and attainment in the two jurisdictions and assess what lessons can be learned for the future. One area that has not received the attention it should have over the last decade has been participation rates in third level education in all communities, particularly socioeconomically disadvantaged communities in Northern Ireland, as well as levels of completion of second level education. In some areas of significant socioeconomic disadvantage, progression to further and third level education has been far too low. A very substantive programme needs to be developed by the two Governments, with the Northern Ireland Executive, to deal comprehensively, once and for all, with the issue of educational disadvantage in the North. That will take time.

Some communities that historically relied on traditional forms of employment, whether it was shipbuilding, textiles or whatever, have not quite made the same adjustments that have been made in other areas of Ireland that suffered similar adjustments in an earlier period but managed to bring in technology and other new industries, and also developed educational opportunities. I believe that is key and I look forward to the ESRI report in that regard.

It is not so much about saying we can create an all-island system. There is an education system in the North. We can seek greater complementarity. I put forward proposals seven or eight years ago around curriculum complementarity, for example, the English curriculum and whether we can develop shared narratives around certain areas of historical study, and also around qualifications in terms of facilitating progression, North and South, to various third level situations. That has worked over the years but it can be improved upon, particularly given the changes this year in respect of the costs that will apply to Irish citizens for admission to Scottish universities and third level institutions. That will have implications for third level places here. We are looking at potential tie-ups between colleges, North and South, and having institutions working together on certain programmes and projects, whether that is Ulster University Magee Campus working with Letterkenny Institute of Technology or other institutions or whether it is Queen's University Belfast working with other institutions.

The ESRI is then looking at factors that could enhance the attractiveness of the island as a whole to high-value foreign direct investment, FDI, and identifying opportunities for greater co-operation and policy co-ordination. As part of the shared island fund, we are looking at funding and being part of the city deals project, which is around investing in industrial parks on the Derry side and the Donegal side, with a view to combining the various assets, be it the skilled labour force or the FDI attractiveness of the Southern side. It is about asking whether we can develop more FDI jobs in the overall north-west region and be facilitative of that. The investment in those parks will certainly be a very important development and we look forward to the ESRI's work in that regard.