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North-South Implementation Bodies

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 26 April 2022

Tuesday, 26 April 2022

Questions (1, 2, 3, 4, 5, 6, 7, 8, 9, 10, 11, 12)

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the Shared Island dialogue all-island women's forum civic initiative. [13967/22]

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Seán Haughey

Question:

2. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the latest Shared Island dialogue initiatives. [14205/22]

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Brendan Smith

Question:

3. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the latest Shared Island dialogue initiatives. [14208/22]

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Mick Barry

Question:

4. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the Shared Island dialogue on sport. [16697/22]

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Ivana Bacik

Question:

5. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the latest Shared Island dialogue initiatives. [17877/22]

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Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the latest Shared Island dialogue initiatives. [17986/22]

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Paul Murphy

Question:

7. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the latest Shared Island dialogue initiatives. [17989/22]

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Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

8. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the latest Shared Island dialogue initiatives. [18040/22]

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Neale Richmond

Question:

9. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Shared Island unit of his Department. [18297/22]

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Paul McAuliffe

Question:

10. Deputy Paul McAuliffe asked the Taoiseach the details of the recently published National Economic and Social Council report, Shared Island: Shared Opportunity. [20364/22]

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Neale Richmond

Question:

11. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the National Economic and Social Council comprehensive report on Shared Island: Shared Opportunity. [21062/22]

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Peadar Tóibín

Question:

12. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of his Department's Shared Island initiative. [21125/22]

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Oral answers (23 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 12, inclusive, together.

Through the Government's Shared Island initiative, we are engaging with all communities and traditions to build consensus around a shared future and to deliver tangible benefits for the whole island, underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement. The Shared Island dialogue series is a key part of our approach, bringing together more than 1,300 civic leaders so far from across all communities, traditions and regions to discuss how we can work for a shared future on this island in practical and meaningful ways.

Nine Shared Island dialogues have been convened to date, including on tourism and sport this year. Most recently, a dialogue was convened on 24 February by the Minister of State with responsibility for sport, Deputy Jack Chambers, at the Sport Ireland campus. This brought together over 120 stakeholders to discuss the role that sport plays in building trust and understanding across communities, and how we can enhance sports co-operation on the island.

Dialogues will be held throughout this year, now on an in-person and regional basis, focusing both on sectoral issues and wider societal concerns for the whole island. The next dialogue will be convened by the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, on "enabling rural and community development on a shared island" on 20 May in Monaghan.

I have participated recently in a number of civil society-led dialogues on Shared Island themes, including at the John and Pat Hume Foundation in Derry and at an event with Queen's University. Last Thursday, I spoke at the launch of a new Shared Island conversation series of the Think-tank for Action on Social Change, TASC, that will focus on "building inclusive prosperity based on social and economic equality". I also look forward to meeting with the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement this Thursday to discuss the Government's Shared Island initiative.

The initiative is also leading to exciting new civil society projects, including the All-Island Women's Forum, bringing women together from across the island to further develop women's role in peacebuilding and civil society and to address under-representation of women. The President addressed the first in-person meeting of the forum in Enniskillen in February and I look forward to engaging with its work as it develops over this year.

On 12 April, I participated in the launch event in Dublin Castle for a major report to the Government by the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, on Shared Island: Shared Opportunity. Following broad-based consultation across the island over the past year, NESC has made a series of recommendations on how we can deepen beneficial co-operation across the island in economic, social and environmental terms. It found very significant support in practice for all-island approaches to key challenges.

The council's recommendations will be positively considered by Government Departments and we will consult and seek to take forward agreed recommendations with our partners in the Northern Ireland Executive and the UK Government. Finally, the Government is continuing to work to deliver beneficial North-South co-operation and investment as a key part of our Shared Island initiative, including, most recently, on 2 March, when I and the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science announced over €37 million in awards to 62 projects by the Higher Education Authority, under the Government's major North-South research programme, resourced through the Shared Island fund. On 1 April, in a meeting with the North West Regional Development Group in Derry, I announced a new €5 million shared island development funding scheme, open to local authorities across the island. This scheme will support the development of a pipeline of new projects by cross-Border local authority partnerships to deliver on agreed regional development goals and the Shared Island dimension of the national development plan, NDP. The Government will also continue to engage with the Northern Ireland Executive and the UK Government to seek to take forward collaborative investments, implementing our goal under the revised NDP to invest for a more connected, sustainable and prosperous island for all.

The Northern Assembly recently passed legislation providing for statutory entitlement to at least ten days' paid leave for victims of domestic abuse. Similar protection is urgently needed here. We know that some organisations in the public and private sectors already provide domestic violence paid leave for their employees. This entitlement is usually supplemented with training for managers to ensure victims can secure the workplace support they need. The Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, undertook to include domestic violence paid leave in the forthcoming work-life balance Bill, but the draft heads of this legislation, as published last week, make no reference whatsoever to this promised workplace protection. Deputy O'Reilly and I published robust legislation in 2020 providing for ten days of paid leave for victims of domestic abuse. The legislation was drafted in consultation with the sector. It has been endorsed very widely by unions and the sector. We have had very wide engagement on the issue. There is wide support for the provisions of the Bill. It is broadly agreed that the Organisation of Working Time Act 1997 is the legislation within which the protections should be placed. Our legislation received cross-party support during recent committee scrutiny of the Bill, yet at Government level, the Minister, Deputy O'Gorman, and the Tánaiste have refused to engage on this proposal. Does the Taoiseach agree that there is an urgent need for a statutory entitlement to paid leave for victims of domestic violence? If that is the case, I ask him to support our legislation, which, incidentally, is before the committee again today.

I thank the Taoiseach for that comprehensive report. I acknowledge the work undertaken to date under the Shared Island initiative, including the Shared Island dialogue. It seems that the task of building a consensus around a shared future is ongoing, and that the work is increasing in pace. I note that the Taoiseach will be launching another report from the ESRI on Thursday on the education and training systems on both sides of the Border. This follows a previous ESRI report on the primary care systems North and South. In addition, a new series of dialogues is under way on the theme of building inclusive prosperity. There is a lot happening. In passing, I also wish to compliment the John and Pat Hume Foundation for the role it is playing in building common ground on the island of Ireland, in Northern Ireland and between Ireland and Britain.

At a recent think tank on the Shared Island initiative organised by TASC, to which the Taoiseach referred, the Taoiseach expressed concern about the functioning of the Stormont Assembly and the North-South Ministerial Council ahead of the Assembly elections next month. Does the Taoiseach agree that the Irish and British Governments will need to be ready to intervene, in a proactive way if necessary, to get the Northern Ireland institutions up and running as soon as possible following the elections, and to generally encourage the full implementation of all aspects of the Good Friday Agreement?

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. I had the opportunity to listen to some of the discussions in the Shared Island dialogue on the provision of health services on this island. There was a great outline in those discussions of the opportunities to provide more health services on a cross-Border and all-Ireland basis. Indeed, in those discussions there was impatience with the slow pace of progress in this area. I recognise the importance of the establishment of paediatric cardiac care in Crumlin and also the great progress with cancer care in Altnagelvin for the north west of our country. We have some co-operation in the central Border area through the 1992 scheme of co-operation and working together that is being funded by the EU and the Irish and British Governments. However, we need a greater delivery of acute hospital services on a cross-Border basis. I am thinking of right across the Border area. South-West Hospital in Enniskillen should be co-operating with Sligo, Cavan and Monaghan hospitals. In the north east, Daisy Hill Hospital in Newry should be co-operating with Drogheda and Dundalk hospitals. I think there is great potential there to bring additional health capacity to the Border region. It would help to complement existing services and bring about greater efficiencies. In that context, we need better access to accident and emergency care on a cross-Border basis. I think the Shared Island initiative can considerably enhance additional health capacity throughout the Border region that will benefit communities on both sides of the Border in a better delivery of services and easier access for communities.

I note the importance of the Shared Island dialogue. Indeed, we recognise the merits of this initiative. I note, as the Taoiseach said, that an important all-Ireland women's forum was held under the auspices of the National Women's Council in March, aiming to address the under-representation of women in politics on the island. I should say as Chair of the Joint Committee on Gender Equality that the committee will be addressing this issue when we seek to ensure the implementation of the 45 important recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly. I note the Taoiseach also spoke last week at the TASC Shared Island dialogue focusing on social and economic activity. I ask whether the Taoiseach has considered a dedicated dialogue with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and other unions in respect of the trade union movement specifically, which, as we know, operates on an all-island basis. Indeed, it has played a critical role in our history and draws support from all communities on this island. It is a century now since the Labour Party and the Irish Congress of Trade Unions called a general strike as Ireland was on the brink of Civil War. We believe in an agreed united island, founded on fairness, equality and solidarity for all people on the island. We want to see a process involving citizens' assemblies, approved by both the Oireachtas and the Assembly in Stormont, as a means of exploring how a united Ireland can be achieved on a truly consensual basis and by agreement across the island. I ask whether the Taoiseach agrees with that proposal, and with the concept of dialogue specifically dedicated to discussions with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions and other unions.

On the Deputy's last point, a general strike across the country to address the cost of living crisis would be a good idea at the moment, and would be a good example of unity on a Shared Island basis, but that is not the point I wanted to make.

The Taoiseach referred to the role of women on an all-island basis. Notwithstanding the Government's commitments on the new national maternity hospital, which we are very sceptical about, I wonder whether all procedures that should be available to women, and are legally available to women, will actually be provided, given the influence of the Sisters of Charity on the St. Vincent's Hospital Group and their ownership of the site. What sort of signal does it send to the North, to women and to the idea of diversity and inclusivity on an all-island basis, when we are trying to overcome decades of sectarian division, the idea of sectarianism itself and the domination of State institutions of services like health and education, that the new national maternity hospital will be on a site owned by a private religious charity? Does that not just completely undermine any credibility we might have as being serious about a different type of Ireland that breaks from the past and will be attractive to people from all political traditions, about bringing about unity in this country and about bringing genuine co-operation, on an all-island basis, to critical things like women's healthcare?

Indeed, there is the wider fact that the majority of our schools and much of our health service continues to be in the hands of private religious organisations dominated by one particular religious viewpoint. Is that not problematic? Does the Taoiseach not think we have to do something about that and to separate church and state in all areas, particularly women's healthcare, if we are to be taken seriously in terms of uniting this country on an all-island basis?

I spent much of the last week campaigning for People Before Profit candidates in the Assembly elections. The issue on the doors everywhere, just like in the South, was the cost of living and rising energy costs in particular. People are being hit extremely hard. As a glimpse of the kind of elections we may have if this crisis continues, people were absolutely furious with the big parties for doing nothing to protect them from energy costs, when they can see and there was widespread awareness that the big energy companies were pocketing massive, historic profits.

Our proposal for a £1,000 credit for households affected by the crisis was warmly welcomed by people. It has the benefit that whereas tax cuts will disproportionately benefit high energy users, who are disproportionately people with higher incomes, a flat £1,000 credit for households would be a progressive measure and those on low incomes would gain the most. The question is whether the Government has considered such a measure - a €1,000 household credit measure - to protect people in the South, something that would be a real action that would insulate people from soaring energy and other costs.

The shared island unit dialogue certainly needs to be expanded to deal with the constitutional issue but the unit needs to attempt to deal with cross-Border issues. A particular issue at the minute is hybrid remote working. The example I give is people living in the North and working in the South who were remote working, many of whom have been told they now need to be at work five days a week. There is obviously a tax registration onus for employers. This is something we definitely need to deal with. Tech companies are making advertisements stating that to apply for a job, people need to be resident in the South. This is not particularly acceptable and it is something we need to come up with a sensible solution to.

We have two other threats at the minute, the Nationality and Borders Bill and the possibility of a hard border for non-Irish and non-British people on the island of Ireland, which is obviously not good enough. We also have the legislative threat to the Irish protocol. This cannot happen. On a further issue that we need to deal with, a constituent told me about Ukrainians who are staying with them for temporary protection and they need a biometric visa to go to the North which costs about €100. We need a sensible solution to that.

In the midst of elections in Northern Ireland and the backdrop of continuing chaos at Westminster, the Andrew Marr show on LBC believes that the British Government is going to include a provision in the Queen’s speech that will give British Ministers the powers to suspend and breach the terms of the Northern Ireland protocol through domestic legislation that will allow them to halt border checks. What preparations are under way by the Irish Government, with the European partners, to address this attempt to breach international law? Crucially, what role can the shared island dialogue play in ensuring that the real voices of people in Northern Ireland, the business people, the manufacturers and the farmers who are actually benefiting from the protocol, are heard among all this political noise?

Inné, bhuail mé féin agus Gemma Brolly, iarrthóir Aontú i nDoire Thoir, le Conradh na Gaeilge ar Bhóthar na bhFál i mBéal Feirste. Dhírigh muid isteach ar an bhfeachtas don reachtaíocht Gaeilge a chur chun cinn sa Tuaisceart.

It is incredible that the Irish Language Act has been promised since 2006 in the North of Ireland and it has been promised multiple times in agreements and discussions by both Governments ever since. The Assembly was resurrected on the basis of the Irish Language Act going through and, indeed, the British Government said up until last month that it would deliver on the Irish Language Act. However, like much of the Good Friday Agreement, it exists on paper but it is invisible in reality now, North and South.

This Government is a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. The Government is not co-guaranteeing anything with regard to the Executive, the North South Ministerial Council or the Irish Language Act. The British Government has reneged on this against the will of the people of the North of Ireland but it has also reneged on the Government. Does the Government not feel embarrassed in any way that it was involved in an agreement to bring back the Assembly on the basis of the Irish Language Act being implemented and the British have reneged on it again? A previous Taoiseach from Fianna Fáil said they would not stand idly by. Is Fianna Fáil and the Government not standing idly by now?

To put the historical record correctly, the word “idly” was never used in that particular statement.

Deputy McDonald raised the first question, although it was not specifically on the shared island and was on domestic violence and the statutory provision for paid leave. The Minister, Deputy Roderic O'Gorman, is committed to that and has made commitments in that regard. He will follow through on that and I want to assure the Deputy of that.

Deputy Haughey raised the issue in regard to the ESRI and its work on education. I am looking forward to that on Thursday because I think that is important. Bit by bit, the research that is under way under the shared island unit is very substantive, from the National Economic and Social Council to the ESRI studies on primary care systems in health, on education and on broader issues that lend themselves to North-South co-operation, particularly climate change, biodiversity, health and so forth. The fundamental point that Deputy Seán Haughey made is one I agree with. It is extremely important that the politicians and parties that are elected in the aftermath of the election fulfil their mandates and establish the Assembly and the Executive. It is very clear that people in Northern Ireland want their elected representatives to act on their behalf. They do not like abstentionism. They want people to take their seats in the Assembly and they want Ministers in the Executive to make it work for the people of Northern Ireland in respect of a whole range of services.

It is interesting that all of the parties in the election have now focused on services. In New York, there were kinds of banners on front pages and headlines looking for unity now, but that has all gone away over the last three weeks and it is about health, about education and about social services. It is interesting to watch and observe, and I have observed it.

We were always on about that.

On the health services, which were raised by Deputy Brendan Smith, I visited Altnagelvin recently. The work that has gone on between North and South has been very effective, in particular the huge funding that went into the capital provision for the comprehensive cancer care centre there. With regard to Deputy Smith's point, when I was in Altnagelvin I met an individual who had travelled from Donegal having suffered a heart attack. He had stents provided very quickly in Altnagelvin and was out the following day. In our configuration, we are saying that people in the north-west should head to Galway as the major tertiary hospital. In the fullness of time, as Deputy Smith said, in the various hospitals along the Border we should look at it regionally in a cross-Border, practical way.

There is no need to be so catty or cynical about it.

I am just saying that the penny is dropping. Genius.

It is not dropping. I have been involved since I was Minister for Health. I want to be positive about this. We need others to participate in this. We need the Northern health authorities to participate in this. We had participated in this through investment and, likewise, the Northern Executive in the past agreed on a cardiac service for children and that there would be one national centre on the island because the volume of patients matters in services of that kind. I think we can do more in respect of health services across the Border and that is something I would like to expand even more. The CAWT initiative has been effective and I will engage with the Health Service Executive and the Minister for Health in that regard.

Sometimes, on the Executive side, there are different views and perspectives on this, as everybody knows. What is important is trust - that we build up trust with all traditions on the island that this is not some Trojan horse but that it just makes practical sense for the people in the region and that catchment area that they have quicker access to health services, particularly in regard to heart, cancer, paediatrics and so forth. That is the spirit within which I would like to proceed on that front.

I agree with Deputy Bacik. The trade unions have offered, as have the employer organisations, to work on the all-island aspect.

Through the Labour Employer Economic Forum, LEEF, that we have established, there is an agenda on shared island and a sub-committee of LEEF is dealing with the shared island issues. To be fair, the Irish Congress of Trade Unions has been a cross-Border body for a long time and there has been strong engagement. We need to support that. We stand ready, through the shared island unit, to support practical initiatives across the trade union movement. If any issues come forward, we will respond to them. That point was made to me in the aftermath of the TASC debate last week when I met with people afterwards.

In terms of Deputy Boyd Barrett's question, we need to provide modern facilities for women in this country in the areas of maternity, gynaecology and so forth. Every day we lose in getting the national maternity hospital off the ground is a day lost in terms of quality care for women. In that context, the Government has worked with the HSE to improve on the outcome of the Mulvey negotiations at the time of the mediation during the previous Government. My understanding is the proposal will represent a very significant advancement, absolutely guaranteeing all procedures that are legally available in this State to women who would avail of services in a new hospital. We need to move on with it and there has to be a transfer of property and so on and State control.

In education, we have moved on with Educate Together a lot over the years. There is plurality of choice now for many parents. That will progress, evolve and improve. In healthcare, it has been more patchy but the health board hospitals are State owned and we have independent hospitals such as St. James's Hospital and Beaumont Hospital. The creation of the HSE created a more national framework for hospitals-----

I apologise for interrupting the Taoiseach. I will let him run over the time for these questions by 15 minutes as the questions put by three or four Deputies have still to be answered. We will then move to the second group of questions but we will not reach the third group.

On the health front, we are moving to a situation where, increasingly, all of the tertiary hospitals and other model hospitals are State run, funded and controlled. That is where it is heading because of the complexity of health. In my view, that is the way it has to go on the health side.

Deputy Paul Murphy spoke about his campaigning for People Before Profit in the election and said that from his perspective, people are furious with the absence of any movement on the cost of living by the Executive and the main parties. He suggests a credit of €1,000 for every household across the board. That does not seem very targeted either. I have no doubt people would be very pleased if they were told that on the doorstep. Anybody told he or she will get €1,000 if he or she votes for a candidate will be pleased. I am not sure it deals with the inflationary issue but that is a matter for broader economic debate.

Deputy Ó Murchú made a fair point about hybrid remote working in terms of tax registration. The Minister for Finance is looking at that and has agreed to engage with the Executive on that. There are issues there. They are not simple but we have to work on them to facilitate cross-Border hybrid working. The Nationality and Borders Bill is a significant problem. We will have to work with the British Government on that. I would prefer if these types of proposals did not keep emerging from the UK Legislature. They are not helpful. They will be damaging to Northern Ireland, in particular and from a practical point of view, tourism in Northern Ireland. If one thinks about it, it makes no sense. Northern Ireland is developing and moving on economically. The protocol is helping. Inward investment is happening in Northern Ireland. When I was in Derry recently, there was confidence.

I am very conscious that we are in the middle of an election and I will not rise to the bait. It is not that Deputy Richmond is providing the bait but these proposals have been announced and pulled back, announced and pulled back. Let us allow the election take place in as calm an atmosphere as we can possibly facilitate from our perspective. We will take up those issues. I am a great believer in adherence to national law, as are most modern states and parliaments. We will watch that space too.

Aontaím leis An Teachta Tóibín go bhfuil géarghá ann reachtaíocht agus Acht na Gaeilge a chur i bhfeidhm agus tá dualgas ar Rialtas na Breataine na gealltanais a thug siad a chur i bhfeidhm agus a chomhlíonadh. Beimid ag coimeád an bhrú ar Rialtas na Breataine é sin a dhéanamh. De réir dealraimh, níl siad chun é sin a dhéanamh roimh an toghchán ach deirtear go mbeidh siad sásta é a chur i bhfeidhm i ndiaidh an toghcháin.

An féidir leis An Taoiseach bualadh le Conradh na Gaeilge?

Is féidir liom bualadh le gach aon duine. Bhuail mé cheana féin le Conradh na Gaeilge.

Tá a fhios agam.

Braitheann sé ar an dialann ach beidh mé sásta.

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