I thank the Chairman for the invitation to update the committee on the work of the shared island unit following our very useful and interesting engagement last November. To recap, I have responsibility at assistant secretary level in the Department of the Taoiseach for the shared island unit. I am joined by Mr. Eoghan Duffy, principal officer with the unit.
As the committee will be aware, the programme for Government outlines the Government's commitment to working with all communities and traditions on the island to build consensus around a shared future underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement. In October, the Taoiseach set out the Government's priorities and vision for the shared island in a major speech at an online event in Dublin Castle. As the Taoiseach noted, the Government's priorities under the shared island initiative are: to work in partnership with the Executive, through the North-South Ministerial Council and with the British Government, to address strategic challenges facing the island; enable priority delivery of all-island infrastructure commitments and foster new investment and development opportunities on a North-South basis; and foster constructive, inclusive dialogue and deliver a comprehensive programme of research to support the building of consensus on a shared future underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement.
As I think I said on the previous occasion, the Taoiseach established the shared island unit in his Department last September. It is crucial that this matter is being taken forward as whole-of-government initiative. While we are there, to co-ordinate, drive and motivate work, it is a cross-Government piece of work.
This is the first year of the shared island initiative. Operationally, the unit's work is focused on three areas: commissioning research; fostering dialogue; and building a shared island agenda, including delivering on the commitments in the programme for Government.
Obviously, we are working closely with colleagues in other Departments who work on issues relating to Northern Ireland and the Good Friday Agreement and, of course, through the mechanisms of the North-South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.
If it is okay, I thought it would be useful this morning if I gave a brief update of where we are under these three main areas of work.
On the first, in terms of building a shared island, the promotion of all-island approaches to the strategic challenges facing the island, North and South, and delivering on the programme for Government commitments are the key focus. As many of the committee members will be aware, those programme for Government commitments are also reflected in the Government's commitments as part of the New Decade, New Approach, NDNA, agreement.
The committee will be aware also that, in budget 2021, the Government announced a Shared Island Fund of €500 million over five years, that is, out to 2025, ring-fenced for capital investment in North-South projects. It is important to point out that this is intended to be additional funding. Where Departments are already spending on North-South issues, that should continue. For example, where a Department has a budget for a North-South body or is supporting a particular programme of work, that continues. This funding, under the Shared Island Fund, is intended to be additional and, therefore, bring the weight of the Government's commitment to the shared island initiative to the table.
What will we spend this on? What are we funding? Here, we are guided by the programme for Government and the NDNA commitments. In summary, these include working with the Executive on cross-Border infrastructure initiatives, including the A5, the Ulster Canal, the Narrow Water bridge and cross-Border greenways; working with the Executive and the British Government to achieve greater connectivity on the island; new investment and development opportunities in the north-west and Border communities; supporting a North-South programme of research and innovation, including the possibility of an all-island research hub; and broader work on all aspects of North-South co-operation and the all-island economy.
The Taoiseach has emphasised the importance of moving ahead with long-standing cross-Border investment commitments, working closely with the Executive to achieve full delivery as rapidly as possible. For example, on 28 April, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Humphreys, launched phase 2 of the Ulster Canal restoration project with full funding of €12 million now available for this. That funding was put in place through €6 million from the Shared Island Fund and €5.6 million from the Rural Regeneration Development Fund. Because in all of these cases it is about the work we are doing today but it is also about planning for tomorrow, the Shared Island Fund has also provided a further €1 million for phase 3 of the Ulster Canal project to undertake feasibility and pre-construction work, and this has now begun. The Ulster Canal is a good example of how, with political priority by the Government, a partnership approach with the Executive and with local authorities, and necessary additional resourcing provided through the Shared Island Fund, a major North-South project can move ahead under the shared island initiative. Many of the committee members will be more familiar with places along the Ulster Canal than I but, clearly, in the case of the Ulster Canal, we are delivering a public amenity and sustainable tourism initiative that connects communities and supports jobs and business opportunity on both sides of the Border.
Another example is that, on 7 April, the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Northern Ireland Minister for Infrastructure in the Executive, Ms Nichola Mallon MLA, launched an all-island strategic rail review - an important part of our commitments under the programme for Government and the shared island initiative. The review will consider how the rail network on the island of Ireland can improve sustainable connectivity between cities, enhance regional accessibility and support balanced regional development. Of course, it will also include those aspects that people talk about a great deal in terms of developing higher speed and spine rail connectivity on the island. This builds on the commitment in the NDNA. It is an ambitious review which we are taking forward in partnership and will look at opportunities to enhance rail right across the island.
I will mention one other point. This is a first, but key, step in terms of the Sligo-Enniskillen greenway. Leitrim County Council and Fermanagh and Omagh District Council have been working together and now have agreed a tender for joint technical consultant work to undertake preliminary design work and route selection environmental assessment on the Sligo-Enniskillen greenway. It shows that many of these projects are at different stages but we need to continue to drive them through each of those stages as we move forward and then deploy the funding as and when the time is right.
The Government will make further allocations from the Shared Island Fund to invest for a more connected, sustainable and prosperous island consistent with the priorities set out in the programme for Government. The Taoiseach has referred to the particular potential and priority of delivering a North-South programme of research and innovation, and of supporting enterprise growth in the Border regions, including through co-operation on technology parks. These are areas where we are actively engaged in working through and developing ideas at present.
Throughout, the Government's approach is a partnership one, working with the Executive, with the British Government where that makes sense and with local authorities. The local authority dimension is important. There already is strong co-operation between local authorities in the Border regions, in the North West Strategic Growth Partnership, the Irish Central Border Area Network, the Dublin-Belfast economic corridor and the East Border Region. The Taoiseach and a number of Ministers have engaged directly with these cross-Border initiatives in recent months to affirm the Government's support for their work and readiness to collaborate with them as part of the Shared Island initiative. We are now following up with them in a more practical way around what might come out of the various strategies and priority plans that these groups have.
The Taoiseach himself has been engaging. We are all limited by Covid restrictions but he has, for example, met virtually with the North West Strategic Growth Partnership, with the two local authorities, Donegal and Derry and Strabane. The Taoiseach has met with the CEOs and chairs of the North-South bodies and he has also done a number of business engagements, including recently with the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce. In all of these, there is an opportunity to both talk about the shared island initiative but also to hear from these bodies what their interests and ideas are.
Second, we see the research very much as about deepening understanding of the island and it is a core part of the shared island initiative. We have developed a comprehensive programme of research, with the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, and the Irish Research Council, IRC.
Yesterday, the shared island unit and the ESRI published first papers examining, "The Economic and Social Opportunities from Increased Cooperation on the Shared Island". These were preliminary scoping papers but, effectively, the project of work for 2021 will focus on four areas: cross-Border trade in services; primary healthcare on the island, North and South; North-South patterns of educational participation and attainment and the lessons this might give us for the future; and enhancing the attractiveness of the island for high-value foreign direct investment. That is the ESRI piece.
We have a separate partnership with NESC, which is preparing a report to Government on shared island this year. Crucially, that will be informed by extensive engagement with stakeholders, North and South. That will bring a different set of ideas and perspectives to the table.
The shared island unit is also partnered with the Irish Research Council's new foundations programme and announced recently a new funding stream of €200,000 for researchers to apply to. This will focus on: political, policy and economic co-operation; and civic, social and cultural connection and understanding on the island.
For all this research work, the idea is that it will inform policy and contribute to the conversation about how we can work together across the island, taking up the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement.
The third element of our work centres on dialogue, outreach and engagement. This operates on two levels, one of which is the shared island dialogue series which the Taoiseach launched last October. The series aims to foster constructive and inclusive civic dialogue engaging all communities and traditions on issues for a shared future on the island. Some of the dialogues focus on themes which fall out of the Good Friday Agreement while others focus very much on sectoral areas and sectoral co-operation.
Before I go into the dialogues in more detail, I would stress there is also a huge programme of ongoing engagement from the unit with the full range of stakeholders North and South, albeit somewhat constrained by having to be done virtually. We have engaged with more than 130 different groups or individual stakeholders separate to the shared island dialogue series. This is very much about talking and developing an understanding of the shared island initiative but also very much about hearing from people what they want and what they want to see in the initiative.
In terms of the dialogues themselves, we have hosted four so far. The first was launched by the Taoiseach on 26 November and was a dialogue with young people on the theme of new generations and new voices on the Good Friday Agreement. On 5 February, we had a shared island dialogue on climate and environment on the island in which the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, participated. On 25 March we had a dialogue on civil society engagement with participation from the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, and on 10 May the Minister for Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth, Deputy O'Gorman, participated in a dialogue on equality on a shared island. We are developing a programme of future shared island dialogues, the next of which will take place in early June focusing on the all-island economy. Future dialogues will focus on health, education and other areas.
I will try to give the committee a sense of these dialogues. Obviously they are taking place virtually. We tend to have around 100 participants. We could have a lot more because there is a lot of interest but we want these sessions to be a dialogue rather than a conference, as it were. We put a lot of effort into ensuring a very diverse range of participants, both North and South. One of the underlying themes in our work on the shared island dialogues has been to include voices and perspectives that are not traditionally so well heard, including those of women, young people and ethnic and minority communities. Very often, their perspectives can be quite different from some of the more traditional ones. We put a lot of work into participation, shaping the panel discussions and developing the themes.
We also do a lot of follow-up work, which is becoming more and more important for us. Follow-up work can mean developing the connections that are made in the dialogue or developing policy ideas and initiatives. We have seen really constructive, imaginative and practical discussion in these dialogues so far. We have been quite pleased with the diversity of engagement and the extent of our reach. Some of the suggestions and proposals, for example, on how civil society groups engage and work on the island are being followed up by us already in consultation with colleagues in other Departments. The same is true for policy issues. Reports and recordings of the dialogues are available on our website at gov.ie/sharedisland. The idea of the dialogues is that they would contribute to wider civic discussion and inform how the shared island initiative is further developed.
I have given the committee an overview of our work in terms of the broader political framing as well as the three core areas of work on which we are currently focused, namely, understanding a shared island through research, the shared island dialogues, and building a shared island through delivering on commitments in the programme for Government and the New Decade, New Approach, NDNA, agreement. I look forward to questions and comments from members. My colleague, Mr. Eoghan Duffy, is also happy to answer questions.