Engagement with Irish Central Border Area Network

I want to propose the rota for questions. This was a Fianna Fáil nomination. It is not a political nomination but each party nominates groups that it would like to come in. I will call Fianna Fáil members first followed by Fine Gael, the SDLP, the Alliance Party, Independents, Aontú, Sinn Féin, the Labour Party and the Green Party. We have seven guests coming so I will ask the chairman of the Irish Central Border Area Network, ICBAN, Councillor Eamon McNeill, to nominate the people who will speak in reply to each question. I propose to give 15 minutes to each group where its members can ask questions or make a statement and then our guests will give their replies. After approximately 14 minutes, I will let members know that there is a minute left in that particular slot in order to be fair to everybody. Is that agreed? Agreed.

Our engagement this morning is with ICBAN to discuss its strategy document The Framework of Regional Priorities for the Central Border Region of Ireland/Northern Ireland, 2021-2027. In particular I would like to welcome Councillor Eamon McNeill, who is the chairman of ICBAN and of the framework of regional priorities, FRP, implementation sub-committee. On behalf of the committee, I welcome our guests: Councillor David Maxwell; Councillor Gary Doherty; Councillor Paul Robinson; Mr. Brian Johnston; Mr. Shane Campbell; and Mr. Andy Hallewell. I appreciate that Brian Johnston, head of tourism at Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council has a prior appointment and will have to leave at 11 a.m.

I must read a privilege wording that I must say legally to the witnesses. We say this at every meeting. The evidence of witnesses physically present or who give evidence from within the parliamentary precincts is protected pursuant to both the Constitution and statute by absolute privilege. However, witnesses and participants who are to give evidence from a location outside the parliamentary precincts are asked to note that they may not benefit from the same level of immunity from legal proceedings as a witness giving evidence from within the parliamentary precincts does and may consider it appropriate to take legal advice on this matter. Witnesses are also asked to note that only evidence connected with the subject matter of the proceedings should be given. They should respect directions given by the Chair and the parliamentary practice to the effect that, where possible, they should neither criticise nor make charges against any person, persons or entity by name or in such a way as to make him, her or it identifiable or otherwise engage in speech that might be regarded as damaging to that person, persons or entity's good name.

I call Mr. Campbell, ICBAN chief executive officer, CEO, to make his opening statement. He is very welcome.

Mr. Shane Campbell

If the Chair does not mind, Councillor McNeill will say a few words of welcome. I will then read out the statement.

Mr. Eamon McNeill

On behalf of the Irish Central Border Area Network, we very much welcome this invitation to meet again with the joint committee. I am a councillor from Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council and chair of ICBAN. I will briefly introduce the other members of our deputation, which includes elected members, illustrating our cross-Border, cross-community and cross-party ethos, together with officials from member councils and ICBAN. They are Councillor David Maxwell, our vice-chair, from Monaghan County Council; Councillor Gary Doherty, Donegal County Council; Councillor Paul Robinson, Fermanagh and Omagh District Council; Mr. Brian Johnston, head of tourism at Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council; Mr. Shane Campbell, ICBAN CEO; and Mr. Andy Hallewell, ICBAN innovation officer. We very much look forward to this morning's engagement. I will now ask our CEO, Mr. Campbell, to read our submission.

I will make it very clear to Mr. McNeill that I was instructed his CEO would in fact make the opening statement and would be the first speaker. I did not intend any disrespect to Mr. McNeill or his office. I apologise if any offence was taken in that respect.

Mr. Shane Campbell

The Irish Central Border Area Network, ICBAN, is a local authority-led cross-Border development partnership, which works in the area of the island known as the central Border region. The eight council members of the partnership are Cavan, Donegal, Leitrim, Monaghan and Sligo County Councils, and Armagh City, Banbridge and Craigavon Borough Council, Fermanagh and Omagh District Council and Mid Ulster District Council. The partnership has been advocating for common solutions to common cross-Border problems since 1995. The region, though largely rural, contains some larger urban centres. It is remote from national capitals and, as a consequence, the area and its communities have been regularly overlooked in terms of investment.

The joint committee has sought evidence on the opportunities for our cross-Border region through the new strategy initiative known as the framework of regional priorities, which I will refer to as the framework or the FRP hereafter. This is our second related meeting with the joint committee, having previously submitted evidence on Valentine's Day, 2019. The joint committee’s follow-up report, Communities and Cross-Border Cooperation: Challenges and Opportunities, stated that: “The Committee endorses the role of Local Authorities along the border in developing a bottom-up needs-based strategy for the Border Corridor to offset the challenges and identify any opportunities associated with Brexit.”

Since that meeting in February 2019, we have been working on developing the FRP strategy document, which was launched in March of this year. It is a strategic cross-Border and regional response to the three key challenges of our time; Brexit, the pandemic and climate change. I am aware that the committee has been provided with a link to the FRP document and I will outline some of its key messages. This is an agreed strategic response on behalf of the eight member councils that make up the area known as the central Border region. It draws upon the unique needs, strengths, assets and characteristics of our rural region. It is an area with a population of more than 870,000 and is recognised as an area of outstanding natural beauty, with a coastline, mountain ranges, loughs and rivers etc. Most of the area's population live outside the main towns and our industry is driven by local entrepreneurial flair, serviced by some of the best educational and training institutions.

The most significant employment bases in the region are agriculture, advanced manufacturing, food processing, retail-wholesale and hospitality. Local authorities and other key stakeholders are keen to widen our industrial base by targeting the potential in agri-food, green energy and the bio-economy, and further into advanced manufacturing and artificial intelligence, robotics and cobotics. However, we recognise that one of our key assets is our landscape and natural environment and we focus on responsible use of this through the United Nations sustainable development goals planning framework, which is the basis of our developmental approach. We are keen to promote the quality of life and natural landscape of our region to both Governments, as they grapple with finding solutions and ways forward out of the public health crisis.

In promoting our regional priorities, we make the case for balanced regional development across five interlocking pillars or themes - economic development; greening our region; liveable communities; education, skills and training; and infrastructure and connectivity. The regional priorities are considered as key accelerators that will help grow the population, improve connections and create jobs within the three areas of core, natural and enabling infrastructure.

On core infrastructure, businesses need a modern effective transport infrastructure through which they can get their goods to market. There is a high dependency on travel by road in our region. In the absence of a rail network, strategic road corridors are key for access and movement. While there have been improvements across the region, important strategic projects remain, which have not been sufficiently advanced and are hindering regional growth and regeneration. We draw the committee's attention to two key arterial corridors that link and service the region and are critical to unlocking the potential of what is the wider north-west quadrant of the island. One is the completion of the long-planned N2 to A5 Dublin to Donegal dual carriageway project, which is key to the longer-term development of the area. Another is the key arterial route, the N16-A4, which runs from Sligo to Ballygawley and onwards, linking the west to the city of Belfast, as well as the ports there and in Larne. Our region has the greatest flows of freight of any of the cross-Border regions, according to evidence from Transport Infrastructure Ireland, which also suggests that spending per head on transport infrastructure in the Border area is only approximately 45% of that in other regions. The ways and means must therefore be found to accelerate its delivery.

The business case for the Ulster Canal highlights many positive outcomes that can come from this scheme. While we welcome support for phase 2 works, and the planning and development supports for phase 3, we wish to underline the need to achieve the high-level vision for the Ulster Canal of linking the Erne system to Lough Neagh. All the cross-border councils directly involved in that area promote the canal’s regeneration.

Timely and much-needed improvements in broadband provision are also critical. Our small towns and villages could flourish again because they would be effectively future-proofed. Such connectivity would enable many businesses to operate in rural areas, which offer the added attractiveness of idyllic locations, leisure and recreation, cheaper living and less crime etc. We all know of the vital importance of broadband in enabling remote working and access to education, health and other key services during this pandemic and these lockdowns.

On natural infrastructure, there is collective local authority support for opportunities to promote slow tourism markets, such as cycling and walking, local artisan food experiences, literary tourism etc. The FRP strategy promotes a focus on the responsible utilisation of natural assets. This includes a greenway vision from Sligo to Lough Neagh, linking the Sligo Leitrim Northern Counties Railway, SLNCR, Sligo to Enniskillen greenway plans with those for the Ulster Canal, connecting to Lisburn and Belfast and with linkages to the Wild Atlantic Way. Developments in blueways across the area, along with river catchments and water quality improvements, can also regenerate communities and stop cross-Border pollution. Other key elements of what we could term our natural infrastructure have already been touched on, such as developments to promote agri-food, new growth opportunities in the bio-economy, and of course the Ulster Canal’s key vision.

On enabling infrastructure, over the past 30 years and more there have been significant developments in supply chain linkages, particularly in the agri-food industry, between towns and communities on both sides of the Border. There is now a need to build on these linkages and to harness the commercial connections between key towns on both sides of the Border through creating economic corridors. These would connect subregional pockets and inter-firm collaborations where key industries, including engineering, manufacturing, tourism and agri-food etc., are flourishing.

In planning terms, it should be recognised that it is not just about connecting urban areas, but also about connecting centres of production with their customers, workers and supply chains. An important development opportunity to note has been driven by three Northern Ireland councils, the mid, south and western councils. They want to develop this region as an economic growth engine. The councils have been applying for city growth deal supports through the UK treasury. If supported, these plans will help drive productivity and infrastructure improvements on the Northern side of the Border. Reciprocal supports need to be considered for the adjoining Border counties of Monaghan, Cavan, Leitrim, Sligo and Donegal. Together, these could then help accelerate growth in the entire central Border region.

Other key elements of enabling infrastructure include promoting linkages between industry, education and training providers on various matters, including industry needs, new product development processes, patenting and joint marketing. Our region also needs government-backed industrial spaces and technology parks to promote opportunities, particularly when the market fails to invest in these.

We bring these key issues to the attention of the joint committee because we seek its help and guidance in promoting opportunity for investments in the central Border region, across government. Our emphasis has been on the positive and on the potential of the area. Our region has developed much, despite receiving lesser investment than other areas on the island. Therefore, supports for hard infrastructure, soft infrastructure and key quality-of-life factors could help transform the area to the benefit of both jurisdictions. What could not be achieved if our area received a level of investment comparable with other similar regions?

We would welcome the committee’s support in promoting the region as an area of national importance. Such a designation must be reinforced by a national commitment to support the ambitions of the framework of regional priorities strategy and the regional priorities set out therein. We appreciate the committee taking an interest. We would welcome advocacy across government. As can be seen through the FRP, this is a collective issue for all the area’s councils. We do not ask for government to solely resolve the issues, but we seek overarching, high-level interest and assistance to help tackle them.

I thank Mr. Campbell for his opening statement. I call on Fianna Fáil to nominate its speakers, who will have 15 minutes between them.

I will share time with Senator Erin McGreehan. Senator Niall Blaney is in the Seanad but hopes to join us later. I welcome Mr. McNeill and Mr. Campbell. I also welcome their presentation, which gave a positive outline of the potential of our region. I am glad that I suggested, when this committee was first formed in this Dáil, that we meet with different cross-Border partnerships through the local authorities, such as ICBAN. The presentation demonstrates the value of meeting with them.

Similarly, when we met representatives of the shared island unit, I emphasised to them that there is a huge amount of knowledge and an existing co-operation model in the east Border region - the north-west partnership and ICBAN - and that this should be utilised. I understand the shared island unit has considerable contact with ICBAN and with others. I sincerely hope that can be built upon.

I compliment ICBAN on its work on Brexit in recent years. I read all the material Dr. Katy Hayward contributed. It was useful in informing our local communities of the particular challenges that exist due to Brexit. I also welcome that Mr. Campbell identified areas of particular strength in that general area. He mentioned the importance of the farming and agrifood sector, tourism, hospitality, engineering and construction products, as well as the particular challenges that are shared throughout this island and elsewhere in dealing with Brexit, climate change and the Covid-19 pandemic.

Councillor David Maxwell is a strong advocate for the development of the Ulster Canal, as am I and other public representatives in the Cavan and Monaghan region. There is a strong Government commitment in that respect. The project needs to be progressed as soon as possible but the restoration has always proceeded on an incremental basis. I saw in my old home area the restoration of the then Ballyconnell-Ballinamore Canal. That led to the construction of Shannon-Erne Waterway, which has been a powerful source of economic activity and attracts major tourism to our region. I wholeheartedly concur with ICBAN in regard to the importance of the Ulster Canal, the blueways and greenways, and all the downstream benefits from the Ulster Canal development.

Regardless of what challenges there are, whether Brexit, the pandemic or worldwide economic downturns on a cyclical basis, the Dublin-Belfast corridor and similar areas will be able to look after themselves. However, areas such as the counties ICBAN represents will face particular challenges during economic downturns. Mr. Campbell highlighted areas in which we have particular strengths, namely, agrifood, engineering, tourism and hospitality. For most of those who export products, Britain is the key market. In dealing with companies on both sides of the Border, the first export market for a Cavan or Monaghan company is Fermanagh, Tyrone, Armagh and elsewhere in Northern Ireland. Similarly, our neighbouring counties north of the Border often depend on the Southern market as the first export outlet. Subsequently, they go on to grow and export predominately to Britain. There are, therefore, huge challenges for many of our companies because of their heavy dependence on the British market. We have to be conscious of the ongoing challenges of Brexit.

Mr. Campbell noted that our region does not have one major urban centre. Two neighbouring partnership areas in the east Border region have large growth and urban centres which are beneficial to them. Likewise, in counties Derry and Donegal, the north-west partnership, Derry and Letterkenny are major centres. Fortunately for the region, these centres have a university and an institute of technology. These are important ingredients in contributing to an area’s economic success. We have to keep focusing on the particular challenges that face us because of the dispersed nature of our population and because those counties are by and large rural.

Mr. Campbell mentioned education. In the context of the development of technological universities in this State, I believe in placing a greater emphasis on the provision of education, particularly further and higher level education, on an all-Ireland basis. Has ICBAN worked with the colleges of further education in Northern Ireland and their counterparts in this State to build up the capacity to provide more focused education and training?

On the Ulster Canal and the opportunities to grow tourism, we should take the relatively recent example of the Marble Arch Caves UNESCO Global Geopark, of which Cavan Burren Park is part. It has been successful. Thankfully, there will further developments of the Shannon Pot. We know of the success of the Cuilcagh boardwalk. These are good examples of cross-Border co-operation from the past 15 or 20 years. In advocating for a region, we must continue to identify other projects that can bring initial economic activity to the area and build on its natural strengths.

In view of the pandemic, has ICBAN, in co-operation with the local authorities, done advanced work on the possibility of having more remote working and bringing people back to the areas it represents? I have in mind the new way of working, whether the hybrid working model or working from home.

I would like to hear Mr. McNeill's comment on that.

Mr. Eamon McNeill

I thank the Deputy for that. He has covered many aspects. The network covers quite a large area, as Mr. Campbell said in his presentation. It is unique in that it covers quite a large range of industries, businesses and people. My colleagues might want to respond to questions on broadband and education.

Mr. Shane Campbell

Deputy Brendan Smith's first question was on linkages between the third level institutions on a cross-Border or all-island basis. Our strategy document is very much built on the drive of the other regional stakeholders, their assets and strengths and the opportunities they bring. Included, of course, are our institutes of technology but also our colleges of further education.

We have had much partnering and good work and many positive projects and outputs created through the colleges and institutes working in our region. We are conscious of this and want to build on it. It is work that the colleges and institutes wish to do together. We have a forthcoming meeting with the president of IT Sligo. We will be linking in with the colleges in our region to discuss this matter and to determine how, through their working together with the eight member councils, our efforts and industry can be used to drive our region's fortunes forward.

The Northern Ireland councils, as part of the city growth deal ambitions and the strategy work, are very much working on the basis of coming together with the education and training providers to meet the needs of the area. We note the good work in the Republic between the education and training bodies, the institutes, the local employment offices, LEOs, and the local authorities. It is a question of how we can build on that. That is a key component of our strategy. The strategy has one key pillar, which concerns education, skills and training, or what we would refer to as the human capital of our area.

Deputy Brendan Smith referred to some of the very successful projects in our area, which are a testimony to the fact that where there is a need, our local authorities, communities and businesses can come together to meet it very successfully. We are working together quite actively on developing a new range of projects. It is very much within the ambitions of the framework of regional priorities, FRP, and the opportunities associated with councils and others working together.

We are mindful that there are supports and opportunities available at this time through shared island funding, UK shared prosperity funds and PEACE PLUS. We have a unique opportunity, with all these funds becoming available together, to meet the infrastructural needs of our area, provided that we have the projects. The local authorities have the industry and will to work together to try to address these issues. That work has been ongoing since the launch of the strategy, or even before it. It is always ongoing. We anticipate building it up more for the future.

Remote working is vital. We have seen it in our area and in all other areas in these times but we are mindful that our area has had more not-spots, shall we say, than others. We have a dispersed population and hard-to-reach areas. The people in these areas have the same right to broadband access as anybody in a town or larger population centre. Our work in recent years has been very much focused on broadband because we have been asked by the local authorities to bring them together to find solutions to the broadband challenges. Elected representatives, including councillors, will be well aware of the number of queries, complaints and issues raised with them about broadband, particularly in respect of rural areas. Broadband is probably one of the most commonly raised issues. We have completed several reports for both sides of the Border because of the various broadband strategies and policies of each jurisdiction. We wish to build on that. Since our reports have been completed, the issue of remote working has come more to the fore. That had featured very much within our strategy. We are mindful that if rural areas can provide access to services, they can be more competitive even than the larger towns and cities, which are dealing with issues of urban crowding. These have come to the fore, especially during the pandemic.

To enjoy the qualify of life, the idyllic surroundings etc. in our area, it is a matter of having an opportunity to access education, to be entrepreneurial and to be creative. People might require the basic health service that others can get because they may not be able to travel at certain times to the towns and villages. We note the good work of many of the county councils. Donegal County Council and others have been working on remote-working strategies. We are keen to build on this.

Last week in Northern Ireland, a report on broadband investment in Northern Ireland was released by the Northern Ireland Audit Office. The work on that report was initiated three or four years ago by ICBAN and was a follow-up to the reports we had identified. The report sets out several key considerations and lessons for the delivery of the broadband programmes in Northern Ireland and how, through the Northern Ireland Audit Office-----

There is a minute left. If Mr. Campbell wants to continue, he may as well use the time. I do not wish to interrupt mid-sentence.

Mr. Shane Campbell

I will finish on that point. The Northern Ireland Audit Office report draws together quite an amount of evidence on the challenges of remote working in a rural area. The office's work focuses on Northern Ireland but the issues that arise are evident on the other side of the Border. They are the issues that affect people in terms of their being able to do all they need to do at home. They can arise where parents are home-working and kids are trying to do their schooling. Those issues will probably continue to arise. This requires the speedy delivery of the national broadband plan and, in Northern Ireland, Project Stratum. They would certainly make a difference to the opportunities in the central Border region.

That was a very significant contribution.

This is really good. I thank the delegates. It is great to see my friend Mr. David Maxwell, who is from Louth village. Mr. Maxwell and I are Fine Gael politicians from the Border area so we are an endangered species. It is great to see him.

There are a couple of points I want to touch on, one being on natural infrastructure, particularly from Sligo to Lough Neagh. Where I am from in County Louth, there is an initiative called the Louth seafood trail. I advocate connecting it with Newry and Mourne. The trail would bring people right up through County Louth and then they would get the Carlingford Lough ferry and go along the whole south Down coastline to experience the seafood on offer. Food trails are really interesting and good. Are the delegates doing something similar? They have the likes of Neven Maguire in west Cavan. I am referring to a food trail that could extend from Sligo right across the Border and into the North. Something like that would be really popular. What support is being received from local authorities on both sides of the Border? I find from experience that one local authority might be doing well with an idea while another, on the other side of the Border, might be a year behind in its planning. What has to be done to make sure the local authorities on each side of the Border are at the same level and at the same point in planning for a joint project? In this regard, where do the delegates come in?

The same goes for greenways because some local authorities are further along with their greenway projects than others.

How does ICBAN play a role in making sure local authorities are at the same level and standard, as they ought to be, in respect of joint projects?

As regards broadband, the witnesses referred to the broadband report that was commissioned. The State has invested substantial funding in broadband in the Republic. What is the level of investment in Northern Ireland? Is it at the level needed to get broadband into all towns and villages? For example, in the Republic we use the town and village renewal scheme in that regard, which is a really good way to set up broadband hubs and remote working hubs in rural villages. Are there similar schemes run by local authorities in Northern Ireland through which one can get remote working hubs into small villages? I understand there is a need for remote working hubs, but what is the vehicle in local authorities in Northern Ireland through which they can be delivered? Are there other types of funding streams?

To return to the issue of natural infrastructure, where is the key funding stream for natural infrastructure coming from? Should it be targeting the shared island unit or should there be a unique and more dedicated funding board for cross-Border projects such as these? From where does the majority of the funding stream for cross-Border projects come?

I ask those addressing the meeting to move closer to their microphones as we cannot hear them as clearly as we would like.

It is really good to meet the witnesses. It is nice to have another person from Tyrone involved in the meeting - it is where I am from originally. I have found the discussion thus far really interesting as I can see opportunities arising from it. Reference is made in the witnesses' opening statement and conclusion to certain asks with regard to the Border area being recognised as an area of national importance. That is really important. We can see how that works on other parts of the island, such as the Dublin-Belfast economic corridor in an economic context, but also the Wild Atlantic Way, for example, and what it has done, and the Atlantic economic corridor. Until today, I have not interacted with the witnesses. I would love this to become an entity that has the same recognition as those initiatives but that depends on it building an identity. There is a little bit of packaging and marketing to be done in that regard. As the document provided by the witnesses states, there is a need for place-making. I apologise if I am going over issues the witnesses have already considered, but there is significant opportunity within the region for place-making.

Senator McGahon referred to the potential of greenways, blueways and food trails. The witnesses referred to the natural assets. The people of the Border area are unique and that is a selling point. There is a real opportunity here to build an identity. I worked in advertising and marketing for 15 years, including for Fáilte Ireland, and I bring some of that to the area I represent. What feasibility studies has ICBAN done with regard to various experiences and types of place-making, whether that is tourism, amenities or business-orientated? There is significant potential there. Investing in the area makes it a more attractive place to live, which will be ever more important because of remote working. I agree with the remarks regarding investment in infrastructure. I do not want to hog too much time as I wish to hear from our guests.

Even before Covid, I was much involved in the area of remote working. I am happy to speak to our guests outside the meeting about linking in with various groups such as RoRemote or people who look into analytics around attracting diaspora back to an area, or to discuss funding for hubs. There could be potential with regard to the various funding streams that are available for the Border in particular in the context of hubs because my understanding is that the North is investing in hubs as well. I am very much on the same page as our guests and I am happy to engage with them outside the meeting with regard to marketing, packaging and remote work. I agree with their asks relating to an area of national importance and the importance of infrastructure and investment, as well as remote work.

I thank our guests for their presentation. It is lovely to have them here. On the issue of repopulation, extremely rural areas such as Glenfarne in north Leitrim, which is almost on the Border, as well as Belcoo, Blacklion and Manorhamilton, are suffering from continuous depopulation. A new house has not been built there since 2016. People are dying off and no one comes to replace them. It is a significant challenge for the communities and businesses. What is the perspective of the witnesses on the challenges for such areas? They would, of course, benefit from greenways, but if they do not have enough people living there, it is really difficult.

Mr. McNeill may wish to call on speakers for his organisation or Mr. Campbell may wish to indicate. It is up to the witnesses to respond to the questions as they wish.

Mr. Eamon McNeill

Three of my colleagues are indicating. Mr. Campbell will respond first, to be followed by Mr. Hallewell and Mr. Johnston.

Mr. Shane Campbell

I thank the Fine Gael delegation. I will answer the questions on a couple of areas. I know Mr. Hallewell wishes to come in on a few issues, as does Mr. Johnston and potentially some other colleagues. Senator McGahon asked about food trails. We have just completed a study on food trails and food festivals in our region. It will probably be available later this week on the ICBAN website. We wanted to research what is out there and who is doing what on both sides of the Border. We also wished to engage with these groups on the opportunities they see to upscale those initiatives into a regional offering. The feedback is very much that community initiatives such as food trails and food festivals are currently paused because of the pandemic but they want to get up and running again, re-engage with their markets and enhance those opportunities before considering regionalising. The linkages with those food trails and food festivals are very often with local authorities. They have all been very supportive and are all buying into the idea. They welcome the intervention of ICBAN on behalf of the eight member councils in looking at this as a key opportunity for food tourism, if one likes, in our area. We have also drawn on best practice and international good practices and experience to help in that regard through work with internships in Queens University Belfast. This is an area that is certainly an opportunity for our region in the future and it is something we wish to build and draw on, but it may be a year or two before we can get into that.

On the questions in respect of greenways and how to play a role in that regard, I will let Mr. Hallewell discuss some of our initiatives and what we have been doing.

As regards broadband investment in Northern Ireland, there has been €78 million of investment from the Government into Northern Ireland and there is investment by the big telecommunication companies such as BT, among others, which is not as easy to quantify. That has taken us to a certain level of service but there are black spots. The Project Stratum programme will invest €165 million but that still leaves a shortfall. We hoped it would have completed the delivery but there will still be hard-to-reach areas without access to broadband. The Northern Ireland Audit Office report that we helped to initiate identifies that a sum of €14 million should be clawed back from BT to the Government as a result of the investments to date.

If that was brought back it would also make a significant inroad.

The local authorities, through the growth deal strategy are targeting how investments in 5G can enhance productivity among SMEs and the industries of our region. It will be interesting to see what will happen after the conclusion of Project Stratum's £165 million. I am not sure how many, but there are premises that will be without connections so it will need further investment and a £14 million claw-back would certainly help in that regard.

I will ask my colleague, Mr. Hallewell, to speak on the natural infrastructure and how we may look to fund that, particularly around PEACE PLUS.

There are about 2 and a half minutes left in this slot.

Mr. Shane Campbell

I want to say to my fellow Tyronney, Senator Currie, that we would be delighted to engage further on remote working opportunities. I can come back on that at a later stage in the meeting about the place-making work that we are doing.

Mr. Andy Hallewell

We have been trying to take quite a strategic approach on greenways and look at the potential for the whole region. Our starting point is a vision of a greenway almost as a central artery that runs from the west coast to the east coast, beginning in Sligo and ultimately ending in Belfast, going through Lough Neagh. We want to get funding to develop a master plan. Through that we have begun to identify the opportunities that can arise from that type of central artery which takes in the Sligo Leitrim Northern Counties Railway, SLNCR.

I will briefly outline some of the opportunities are dotted along the Border, along that central artery. The Wild Atlantic Way in the west can be connected into the artery. We have also identified a cluster of unusually rich assets located around the Border between Fermanagh, Cavan and Leitrim. That encompasses the areas of Blacklion which was mentioned. In food tourism, Neven Maguire is very prominent, and two or three miles up the road is the geopark and the Cuilcagh boardwalk. There are also two water bodies that are cross-Border, where a blueway is being developed as a canoe trail. If you bring all those natural assets together there is something very rich and attractive to visitors but is also something that the community can get behind. The challenge that has been identified is turning that into jobs for local people and into economic opportunities. Our next steps will be to try to align with the regional tourism strategies, talking to tourism bodies and the councils on how we can develop these very rich areas along the Border which are offshoots of that central greenway.

I will give one other example. Deputy Smith asked if we can identify new opportunities beyond the geoparks and the Wild Atlantic Way. There is a majestic wilderness of Sliabh Beagh in the Monaghan Fermanagh cross-Border area. There is an opportunity to develop that area and link it in to the central greenway too. There are many opportunities for synergies between the different natural assets to be promoted for the benefit of the region and local residents but also bringing money into the local economy. That is a flavour of what we are looking at now. It is very early days. We are currently working on the specification. We want to get funding for that and then develop a master plan which we can take to the funders, local authorities and the regional tourism bodies.

Ms Michelle Gildernew

It is great to see everyone here today from Mr. Campbell's team, they are all welcome back to the committee. For a very small team, it punches above its weight and we are very lucky to have the ICBAN team to represent the central Border region. I particularly welcome my party colleague, Councillor Gary Doherty, and also my constituency colleague, Councillor Paul Robinson. It is great to see everyone, but that is a wee special mention for those two.

There is so much I could ask Mr. Campbell given the challenges in our area of deprivation including hidden poverty, higher cost of living including housing, fuel and food, the poor roads, the minimal rail infrastructure - we only have rail in Sligo and Portadown on either side of that huge swathe. My question refers to what the report calls the fourth essential utility, broadband. I welcome what was said today about the potential for claw-back and the difficulties that have arisen out of previous broadband initiatives. Broadband provision is particularly bad in two council areas, Fermanagh and Omagh and Mid Ulster, in that order. These are the council areas most populated by those not boxed that Mr. Campbell mentioned. With the benefit of hindsight, given what the NIAO and the Comptroller and Auditor General have said recently, and looking at the experiences of NIBIP and SRP2 and the difficulties there, and trying to balance the commercial exercise with the need to provide essential services, does Mr. Campbell think Fibrus and Project Stratum should learn from the audit office report and concentrate on getting everyone over the 30 Mbps required for minimal broadband, even if some of those areas have the potential to go to ultra-fast?

Ms Órfhlaith Begley

I welcome everyone, it is a pleasure to have them before the committee. Now more than ever it is crucial, as Mr. Campbell alluded, with the challenges facing the Border region, not least Brexit and the Covid-19 pandemic, that we need better North-South, cross-Border co-operation. I commend the work that ICBAN has been doing. Unfortunately, many challenges remain in the central Border region, particularly infrastructure and connectivity. I represent the constituency of West Tyrone and have been a champion of the delivery of the A5 western transport corridor. My colleague, Councillor Doherty, also knows its importance, not only for the north-west region but the entire island. It can unlock the economic potential of the region as a whole. I commend the cross-council committee that has been established to press for the delivery of the N2-A5 western transport corridor.

ICBAN recently had an engagement with the shared island unit. I welcome that the A5 is one of the key cross-Border projects in the shared island unit. I wanted to get a sense from ICBAN of that engagement and what the requests were. One thing I have sought on this is that the Irish Government would uplift its contribution.

What were the requests, or what was the engagement, in regard to that? One of my requests in the context of this project is that the Irish Government uplift its contribution in respect of the A5 in order that it will co-fund the project to the current contribution it has made to the A5. How has the shared island unit been beneficial in pressing for cross-Border projects?

Remote working hubs are an initiative I have been driving in my constituency. A digital hubs project in Omagh is ready to go and could act as a catalyst, particularly for rural villages and towns, by bringing people back into them, and Omagh is a perfect example of that. Has there been an approach in regard to developing a network of remote digital hubs and what is the status of that?

Mr. Mickey Brady

I thank our guests for their presentations. I commend ICBAN on the work it does. My question relates to cross-Border workers, an issue I have been dealing with for some time. A group, the Cross-Border Workers Coalition, now advocates for people who may be living on one side of the Border and working on the other, and facing problems with taxation and so on. Moreover, people who live in the North and work in the South missed out on Covid payments and that issue was not addressed. I understand ICBAN had some engagement with workers on 16 June, when it had a meeting with people who have experienced this problem. [Interruptions.] As has been said, there is a need to attract workers back to Ireland, but if the cross-Border rules are not changed, that may not be conducive to that.

Mr. Eamon McNeill

I thank the three MPs. Mr. Campbell might respond on the broadband issues, while Councillor Doherty will respond to the A5 issues.

Mr. Shane Campbell

The report that has been delivered took as a starting point our work on the Fibre at a Crossroads reports. The basis of our interest and reporting on this was very much that Government investment should be targeted at rural areas. As I understand it, the UK Government Building Digital UK, BDUK, approach and strategy related very much to the fact that significant population centres, that is, larger towns and cities, could make broadband investments affordable without the need for a Government subsidy. In the report the audit office has completed, it was understood that the level should have been set at 20% and there would have been a 20% take-up for the NIBIP and the SRP2, the two broadband initiatives or funding programmes that were referenced earlier and were studied as part of the report. The take-up of those was 66% and 33%, respectively, and the 33% figure is still increasing. We had previously asked whether there was a need for Government intervention in the first instance into those areas, and argued that surely the funds should have been targeted at rural areas. That was the purpose of the original Government investments in broadband programmes because the market has to be allowed to deliver. That is very much how broadband and telecommunications work. Where there is a market failure, the Government should step in, and that market failure is very evident in our rural areas.

As for the learning, the report is quite new, and we hope the Stormont Public Accounts Committee will consider that document and its findings and pursue the recommendations in the interests of ensuring that people in rural areas will have the same access to broadband services, bearing in mind how important those services now are, as to people in other areas. Everybody should have that key speed of at least 30 Mbps. Particularly with regard to where the investments are now going, it is very much fibre driven, which provides an opportunity for any speed and an ability to do many more things than copper connections could ever have provided.

A report is due later this year from the audit office into the Northern Ireland Project Stratum programme and its procurement. We will look with interest to that because, as we understand it, the framework that was the basis of the investment in NIBIP and SRP2 is not the basis of Fibrus’s for the delivery of Project Stratum. We hope, therefore, that that learning has been considered by the Department and the Government in Northern Ireland and that, as a result of that, more and more people will be connected, given that that is what we are seeking. In the first instance, we encourage all the Northern Ireland MPs at this meeting, in their interventions with their party colleagues who may be involved with the Public Accounts Committee in Stormont, to ensure it will be given scrutiny. It is probably one of the foremost and most important reports into broadband that has been delivered north or south of the Border in recent years.

Councillor Doherty might like to comment on A5-N2.

Mr. Gary Doherty

The A5 western transport corridor and the N2 connection into it is a vital flagship project for our region. We have identified in the FRP that the A5 will address the regional imbalance at the core of the work ICBAN does. It will also connect communities to improve job prospects and address road safety, which was a significant priority for the delivery of that scheme. As members will be aware, there have been more than 40 deaths in the past 15 years alone on that stretch of road, so one can see the absolute necessity of the project for the safety of road users, not to mention the development of ICBAN on the north-west regions as a whole.

The five councils most impacted by the A5-N2 project, namely, those of Donegal, Fermanagh and Omagh, mid-Ulster, Derry city and Strabane, and Monaghan, have established a cross-Border committee to lobby for the delivery of the project, while a number of members of the ICBAN board are members of that committee, including Councillor Maxwell and me. We are very frustrated with the delays in this project, which has been subject to three legal challenges since 2007.

Following a meeting between that cross-Border committee and the Minister, Nichola Mallon, in April, we were assured she hoped the project could progress at pace. There are considerations to be given to the objections submitted in the past, but we were assured the public inquiry would be scheduled for next year and, one hopes, that the project would still be achievable within the original timeframe of 2023-28. As Ms Begley noted, we recently met the shared island unit and emphasised, as we always do, the importance of the A5-N2 project. As a group, we are happy with the engagement with the shared island unit thus far since the publication of the FRP, and it has shown it is willing to work with us on the catalyst programme we have identified and by giving its renewed support to the A5.

The ICBAN sub-committee on the implementation of the FRP will meet regularly with the shared island unit. From our perspective, it is important that the A5 and N2 are always on the agenda and that we secure this critical project for the development of our region, since the value of the A5 and N2 simply cannot be overstated.

I know that a review of rail on an all-Ireland basis was recently announced. I received correspondence from the Department for Infrastructure in Stormont and from the Department of Transport following a motion that I tabled at Donegal County Council. While the A5 is crucial for development of the region, rail connectivity has significant potential for our region. I believe that it would tick all the boxes for the work that ICBAN is doing and that we have identified in the FRP, and also the work that the shared island unit is doing. It would be investment in climate, the Border region and the all-island economy. I know that rail is probably a longer-term vision for the area. We are aware of the scope of work and investment that would be required but the value of rail connectivity for our region would far outweigh any potential blocks on progressing that idea.

Mr. Colum Eastwood

I thank Mr. McNeill and his team. It is great to have them here. The issues that they have talked about are important, especially with regard to the A5. It is essential to get it delivered. We need to cut through all of the legal issues. I am glad to hear Mr. Doherty talk about the all-Ireland rail review. Considering the issues with climate, we need to get that over the line and to be ambitious with rail connectivity across the island. There are also the issues with broadband.

In the limited time that I have, I will raise the tax issue, which Mr. Mickey Brady has already raised. I have worked with the Cross-Border Workers Coalition. It met the Minister for Finance recently. There is all of the talk about bringing people home and remote working. The pandemic has changed in a radical way how we connect and work in a radical way. It is a change that was coming but has been fast-forwarded by the pandemic. Somebody living in Muff, a mile from the Border, and wanting to work remotely for a company based in Derry, is double-taxed. That has to be resolved. I am sure members are aware of this. It was set aside during the pandemic but we should all work to try to ensure that the Government takes this issue seriously. I know it is aware of the issue. If we are serious about bringing people home and allowing people to work remotely, while we need broadband connectivity, there is no point in having it if people are getting taxed twice as much as they should be just to work remotely. I ask members, in all of their contacts with Government, to raise that issue because it would be vital for the areas that they represent. We are doing this and I know that others are.

Does Mr. McNeill want to nominate speakers?

Mr. Eamon McNeill

Several hands have been raised. I will start with Mr. Campbell and then if Mr. Johnston wants to come in, he has had his hand raised a few times and I am conscious that he has to leave at 11 a.m.

Mr. Shane Campbell

I have a quick response to Mr. Eastwood's question and welcome the point made by him and Mr. Mickey Brady. Mr. Brady referred to a meeting that we had in the last week or so. It is a focus group that we are working on with Queen's University Belfast, looking into the issues of employment, cross-Border workers, EU migrants, etc. It is part of a research project called Border Catalyst. It is supported by the reconciliation fund of the Department of Foreign Affairs. A survey is open at the moment that asks people who live in the central Border region a range of questions about how their lives are being impacted daily by Brexit and the Northern Ireland protocol. That is due to close on 30 June but in the meantime, we are running focus groups. We welcome the points that have been made. Similar points were made at the focus group, which the two MPs have mentioned, and I liaised with the Queen's University Belfast team to ensure that we consider those. One of my children is now a cross-Border worker and we see now how those issues can impact on her. We will take those forwards.

Mr. Brian Johnston

I do not want to cut into Mr. Eastwood's time because most of my answers were probably covered in previous sessions. I will give a brief overview of the growth deal. Much of what has been discussed today covers the potential for funding from the growth deal on the northern side, with great support from the Department for the Economy, Department for Communities and the Department for Infrastructure in the North. There is much support for what has been discussed about remote working hubs. I apologise for cutting into Mr. Eastwood's time. I addressed this with previous questions.

Mr. Eamon McNeill

Does Mr. Eastwood want to come back in on any other issues?

Mr. Colum Eastwood

I will not take any more time. I thank members. We have heard the call from Mr. Campbell for MPs to do whatever we can on some of those issues. We are happy to do that. We will work with Nichola Mallon to make sure that whatever can be progressed in areas within her competency will be progressed.

Mr. David Maxwell

This is my first time speaking. I thank Deputies, Senators and the Chair for allowing us to have this meeting. On a general note about ICBAN's work on greenways, blueways, the Ulster Canal, the N2, the A5, Farm to Fork, business and education, ICBAN is the lowest tier of our elected government. It comprises local councillors on both sides of the Border meeting monthly. We have representatives from all political parties and none on the board. Many MPs, Deputies and Senators have asked what ICBAN is doing in a range of areas. Our problem is funding. We are operating with local council contributions. With the FRP, ICBAN is looking to develop projects and to bring them up to another level to get them working for the benefit of people in the central Border area. As a number of people have said, the central Border area is probably the poor relation to many areas. Deputy Brendan Smith alluded to it at the start. There is the Dublin to Belfast corridor, with Dundalk and Drogheda, while in the north west, there is the Derry to Letterkenny corridor, which has a bit of help. We have nothing in the central Border.

We have met the shared island unit. We hope that it can ask ICBAN to develop projects. We could work them up to a stage where they can be brought forward. If any Deputy, Senator, MP or MLA can help us to do that, that is what we are there for.

We are local councillors. We are meeting and, with the events happening North and South at the moment, it is critical we have as much contact as possible across the Border to work those projects up. There are numerous projects. Mr. Eastwood and Mr. Brady referred to taxation for cross-Border workers. As a councillor based in Monaghan, I note the number of Northern workers coming to Monaghan to work and going home in the evening as well as workers leaving Monaghan. This is happening along the Border. We hear about the big-ticket items with Brexit but for the ordinary working person crossing the Border every day, it is about their livelihoods. How can we in the central Border region make their lives better by working up all these projects? ICBAN can only do so much. Its membership would like to do more but it is down to the funding we would need. The council contributions keep us ticking over and we are trying to pick a number of projects we can work up within our budgets. There are other projects we could work up to the next phase if we had the funding. I put the call out to any MPs, MLAs, Deputies and Senators to do anything they can to help. We are here to work to make life better for our constituents, North and South, in the central Border region.

Mr. Eamon McNeill

I echo what Mr. Maxwell said. The staff in ICBAN are punching above their weight. We need only look at the recent framework document ICBAN released. It has to be commended. There is good potential and, with more support, we can do more.

Does Mr. Eastwood want to comment?

Mr. Colum Eastwood

We do not need to use all the time if it is not necessary. All the issues have been covered well. We have heard the call around funding and we will do what we can around that.

I have raised the trans-border tax relief and double taxation in the Seanad. It is important we get a solution to that.

Sorry, there is no problem taking the Senator's question but I am trying to keep the order of speakers.

I will wait and come back in.

I want to get this right because in the past members gave out about the way I managed meetings and they were right to do so. If Mr. Eastwood is finished, the next speakers are from the Alliance Party. We will move on and get back to Senator Currie. She will be first in the Fine Gael slot. I want to be fair to everybody.

Dr. Stephen Farry

While I represent North Down, my family roots lie in County Fermanagh. Hopefully, I have a wider family stake in many of the issues that have been discussed. I will pick up on some of the themes Mr. Maxwell mentioned. Is the uncertainty around European funding post Brexit causing a concern? We have the continuation of PEACE PLUS, albeit with a potential gap, and INTERREG. In terms of Structural Funds, we are in an uncertain situation with the mooted shared prosperity fund coming but with virtually no detail and the potential for Northern Ireland, in particular, to lose out on a large amount of money we previously would have had under the Structural Funds. The Whitehall department has given an indication that there may be scope for cross-Border proposals in that regard, which is somewhat encouraging. We are waiting for confirmation of that.

On a more general point, will contributors give a few more reflections on the potential impact of Brexit, in terms of disruption to natural interchanges happening on a cross-Border basis? While the protocol means we still have free movement of goods, Brexit has nonetheless broken up the Single Market in terms of the movement of services, capital and EU nationals. There is also the issue of uncertainty around frontier workers. Are there any reflections on that?

Mr. Shane Campbell

I will respond on funding. EU funding is vital to the cross-Border region, as everyone here knows. A major consequence of Brexit for the Border region is finding how those funds could be replaced. EU funding has provided that mechanism, carrot and opportunity for stakeholders on both sides of the Border to work together. Cross-Border working, as we know in ICBAN, is extremely difficult. When we add in complexities we will face in future around different funding programmes, the position will be infinitely more difficult than it was in the past given what EU funds enabled. We raised this matter at a meeting a number of months ago with the Minister of Finance in Northern Ireland, Conor Murphy MLA. Going back to the Brexit campaign, UK regional funding was supposed to replace the loss of EU cross-Border funding. As Dr. Farry has stated, it looks like shared prosperity funds from the UK Government will fall far short of that, leaving a deficit in terms of the important infrastructure, investment, etc., we have been talking about in the Border region.

Yesterday, we received notification of joint work looking into transnational INTERREG programmes such as the Northern Periphery and Arctic Programme and how these may come together for preparatory funds for 2021 to 2027. We are running two EU projects that have been beneficiaries of transnational INTERREG funds. We do not have an opportunity as it stands to build on those or develop the legacy of those around tourism and immersive technologies. We would like to drive those on, having taken them to this stage. We are elite partner in one project and partner in the other. We are learning a huge amount, bringing significant investment into our region and bringing in learning from the Republic of Ireland, Scotland, Finland and Iceland through those programmes. It is a huge loss for us not to have those opportunities in future and to see needs in our area that could be best met by working together on a transnational basis and bringing in other ideas to support our SMEs and communities.

We raised with the Minister of Finance, Mr. Murphy, that both Governments should consider that PEACE PLUS will only be short to medium term. We are thankful we have it as it amounts to an investment of €1 billion. We have shared island funding. What happens after 2027 when there probably or possibly will not be PEACE PLUS funding? Will there be a successor to that? Can the two Governments come together? Do they need to start those considerations now, promoted by this committee and others? How can the two Governments bring their funds and policies together so we do not have back-to-back development and can look at the common issues and needs? Can we find mechanisms and means by which Irish Government funding and Northern Ireland Executive funding can be brought together for infrastructure needs?

However, as Councillor David Maxwell says, the likes of us are not able to avail of any immediate funding streams at the moment for management, co-ordination or promotion of cross-Border working. It is great to see funds for infrastructure but, unfortunately, there are no opportunities between the two Governments or in either of the Governments on the island for something as specific as promoting cross-Border co-operation. What we would love to do - and we will probably do this in the autumn and bring it to the committee - about this question of the national significance of the central Border region is to put that on the map to show the committee the possibilities when we map out greenways, blueways, river catchments, economic corridors, food trails, food tourism opportunities, the A5-N2 and A4-N16 routes and so on to show the assets of our area. I am responding in a way also to what Senator Currie said about how we can promote this region. That is how we can do it. We will do it visually and will probably share that with the committee in the autumn. What is critical, as Dr. Farry says, is the funding opportunities we need to deliver that in the longer term. The €1 billion of PEACE PLUS funding and the shared island funding will not address that. There are pre-existing issues over many years, the challenges of Brexit and Covid and climate change. They will need continued joint work by both Governments. I hope that answers Dr. Farry's question.

Dr. Farry, are you happy with that?

Dr. Stephen Farry

That is all good. Thank you, Chair.

We are into the next slot for Independents and Aontú. We have apologies from Senator Black. I see Senator Mullen was speaking a minute ago in the Seanad. I do not know if Deputy McNamara or Deputy Tóibín is present. They are not present. We are back to Sinn Féin then, followed by Labour or the Green Party. Then I hope we will have a little time to go around again.

I thank the witnesses for this engagement. As a former councillor myself, I understand the challenges and the time and labour involved in putting together the documents they have put together and doing the work they have done. This is the way forward and is one of the most practical documents I have seen for a long time. What really speaks to me is the part where they ask what could be achieved if the area received a level of investment comparable with other similar regions. They can understand why that statement would really resonate with me, coming from Mayo. They have all the answers here. I will hone in on a couple of things.

Because my portfolio is higher education, I am very excited about the opportunities presented by the technological university linking up Galway-Mayo Institute of Technology, GMIT, with the institutes in Sligo and Donegal and then on to Derry. I am glad ICBAN has a meeting coming up there. There are a couple of things within this around the deeper co-operation between the two third level education systems on the island that we really need to hone in on. As was said, we need to increase cross-Border co-operation in the third level education sector. That has been included in multiple Government programmes across the board in the South, in 2007, 2009 and 2020. The new Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science has included it as well in its statement of strategy for 2021 to 2023 with the goal of advancing North-South co-operation. There is still, however, very limited integration and co-operation.

Taking just the area of co-operation and cross-Border student enrolment, the most recent figures available are for the 2019-20 academic year. They show that 1,588 students from the North attended higher education institutions in the South and that 2,090 students from the South attended higher education institutions in the North. That speaks for itself. Overall, student mobility has declined in the past ten years by 18%, and students from the North make up less than 1% of students in the South in enrolment terms. That tells us that all the good work we are doing on this is not hitting where it needs to hit. As an aside, John O'Dowd, my counterpart in the North, and I are doing a specific piece of research on what the barriers are in that regard. We know that some of them relate to the Universities and Colleges Admissions Service, UCAS, and the CAO application systems, extending Student Universal Support Ireland, SUSI, to the North and several other things that have been thrown up for us. We have to tackle this for once and for all. My question about that part of it is whether the witnesses think further education colleges have the capacity and the independence to reach out to develop sustainable structures to support cross-Border education and training. I have concerns in that regard. While the universities seem to be on a better level, notwithstanding the low figures, I am not sure whether the structure is there for further education, which the witnesses have agreed is hugely important, or whether they have the capacity to deliver what we need to deliver in terms of cross-Border education. I also note the part of the submission where the witnesses say there are particular challenges around Traveller education and Protestant boys. I ask the witnesses to speak to that as well if they do not mind.

I also need to ask the witnesses about the western rail corridor, the connectivity along the Wild Atlantic Way and the economic corridor along the west. Somebody mentioned the connectivity between Dublin and Belfast. In the west our concern is the huge potential along the western seaboard, going right up to the North, around and down in terms of the western rail corridor and the arc there from Rosslare connecting Waterford and Cork and continuing on to Limerick and Foynes. There is enormous potential there in terms of tourism development and freight. How do the witnesses see that fitting in with the work they are doing?

I have to ask the witnesses about the practical impacts on ICBAN of Brexit and the protocol in particular. I am interested in their views on that.

If we have time, somebody might address what we can do to mitigate the Australian trade agreement. I have concerns about that as it relates to agri-development and the impact that that will have on the agriculture sector in the North. As for ICBAN's unionist engagement, as a group, what have the witnesses done in that regard and what are their plans to ensure that everybody's voice is heard?

I have an awful lot of other questions but I will not put them. I hear what Mr. Campbell says because I used to work on the LEADER programme. It is important we do something tangible now about the exchange of learning and - I do not like to call them transnational projects - the cross-Border projects that can be facilitated under LEADER and PEACE PLUS. That is an imperative piece of work that needs to be done in how we develop that into the future and what we need to do as Deputies to work with ICBAN to do it.

I know that is a lot of questions. The witnesses might divide them between themselves to give me a few answers.

Mr. David Maxwell

I will come in as a Border unionist councillor and answer the Senator's question about the connection with unionists in the North. ICBAN has representation from all parties and none, so the DUP, the Ulster Unionists and everybody else are represented. In all my years on ICBAN we have never had a falling out; all the decisions are arrived at by consensus. We might have our disagreements but we arrive at a consensus opinion. As for the chair and the vice chair, the unionist parties and the nationalist parties both have to get the chance to chair; there has to be a North-South split. Mr. McNeill is the chair this year. I am the vice chair from the South, representing Fine Gael. Last year Fianna Fáil and, I think, Sinn Féin were in the chairs. The positions are continuously given out on an all-party basis so everyone feels included. This is what I like about the ICBAN model. We all work together, we have representation from all parties and we talk monthly.

We are working together and that needs to continue, especially given how things are going. It works well. No one or two parties hog it all; it is evenly split among both traditions and all parties.

I thank Mr. Maxwell. Perhaps he would speak to the challenges of engaging with the Protestant boys to whom he referred in the education section.

Mr. David Maxwell

I cannot remember referring to that. Did I refer to it?

It is in the human capital section of the report. The reference is to the Travelling community, working class boys and males in general being under-represented in third level. What needs to be done?

Mr. David Maxwell

Mr. Campbell might like to answer that question.

Mr. Eamon McNeill

Just before that, after Mr. Campbell comes in Councillor Robinson might contribute. He is one of our delegates.

Mr. Shane Campbell

Yes, that has been identified in our research in terms of looking at the population cohorts that are under-represented. It is a newly developed strategy. There are certain areas of it that we have yet to progress and develop. In the past six months our emphasis has been more on the natural infrastructure and opportunities in that regard with a small team of resources. In the coming months we will be turning more to areas of economic development and education and training. The opportunities and abilities of the further and higher education sectors to support the needs of industry and to drive forward the economy is something we will discuss with the member councils. We meet on a regular basis with directors of the councils who, together with the board, drive the programme of work and set the strategies and the priorities. That will be one of the areas that we want to turn to that has not had due attention just yet. It will not just be on the higher education side, but it will also look at those cohorts of the population that have not had the same opportunities.

We make applications regularly to the reconciliation fund. The reconciliation fund of the Department of Foreign Affairs is always mindful in its strategy of targeting marginalised groups. We want to look at how best we can engage with those groups in the future. While we see the challenges in engaging with them, we want to engage with them. We are completing our Brexit research and inquiring about marches and migrants as well-----


Mr. Shane Campbell

That will become a focus of our programme of work. I cannot yet say exactly what we are going to be doing, but it will be a focus for the future.

Mr. Eamon McNeill

I thank Mr. Campbell. I have invited Mr. Robinson to speak and he will be followed by Mr. Hallewell and then Councillor Doherty.

Just to let the committee know, there are about four minutes left.

Mr. Paul Robinson

I thank the committee for inviting us to today's meeting. I support what Councillor Maxwell was saying about the unionists on the Border. I am a unionist from the Border side too. I represent Roslea and Erne east in Fermanagh. We get on very well on the ICBAN. It is very organised and everyone has their say.

I am sorry to interrupt Councillor Robinson; we can hear him, but we cannot see him. If he turns his camera off and on, then hopefully we will see him. We will stop the clock.

Mr. Paul Robinson

Can you see me now, Chairman?

Yes, Councillor Robinson should go ahead.

Mr. Paul Robinson

I support what Councillor Maxwell said earlier about the unionists in the Border area. We are a minority in the area. The group works very well together. Everybody has their say and everybody gets a chance to chair the meeting. I chaired ICBAN a couple of years ago and I really enjoyed it. I was the first one who came down to meet the committee in February 2019. It worked very well. I will not repeat what Councillor Maxwell has already said.

Mr. Eamon McNeill

I thank Councillor Robinson and call on Mr. Hallewell to speak.

Mr. Andy Hallewell

I will add a very quick soundbite on the back of what Mr. Campbell described. In 2018 we had a project that was funded by the reconciliation fund. We brought young people together from both traditions and both sides of the Border to look at Brexit. It was a difficult sell because they were not into Brexit in any shape or form. We used the vehicle of storytelling to try to elicit some of their thoughts and feelings about Brexit. We ended up having a residential event in County Donegal. We brought with us a group of young people from a very deprived part of Omagh from the unionist tradition. Many of them said to us during the event that they had never travelled across the Border before and they had never thought of doing so. It is one example, although a kind of microcosm, but it is something which could be built on through the opportunities of PEACE Plus and other measures.

Mr. Gary Doherty

Deputy Conway-Walsh mentioned cross-Border collaboration in education. I wish to briefly mention the cross-Border further education and higher education cluster between Donegal Education and Training Board, Letterkenny Institute of Technology, the University of Ulster and the North West Regional College, which has been ongoing for the past year or two. The work is supported by both Donegal County Council and Derry City and Strabane District Council. It is an excellent example of what can be achieved with the collaboration of further and higher education bodies on both sides of the Border. The development of shared services that is happening in the north west could be an example to other regions and it is something ICBAN could explore in the coming years.

I welcome the members of ICBAN to the meeting. I apologise, as I missed the start of the meeting. I was speaking on a Commencement matter in the Seanad on mica.

I am aware of the great work done by the organisation through the years with politicians from all persuasions working in collaboration. It is a good example of how this country can come together and make politics work. I believe the collaboration between ICBAN and the shared island unit is important. I apologise for missing many of contributions. I would have liked to be present, but I could not be. However, I have listened to the contributions since.

Mr. Campbell referred to some of the infrastructure projects that are politically acceptable on the ground. I want to leave the witnesses with one point today. As a Government representative and the spokesperson on Northern Ireland for Fianna Fáil, I want them to feel free to contact me or my office on any project. I am sure the same is true of Deputy Brendan Smith and Senator McGreehan. At the end of the day, it is politics that make projects work and that is what we want to do.

That is how the regions are going to prosper, whether it is infrastructurally, or through the collaboration to which the other Donegal man, Mr. Doherty, and others referred. That is how the regions are going to prosper. I ask the witnesses to get in touch with us if there is any help we can give in respect of contact with the shared island unit. I am sure other colleagues-----

Apologies, there is a problem with the display screen. We cannot see the Senator. We have reconnected.

I am sure that the Fine Gael and Green Party Government members will be in a position to help the witnesses in any way we can. They should keep up the good work. They have done a lot of good work in the past and long may they continue to do so.

Mr. Eamon McNeill

I thank the Senator and appreciate the words of support he has given to ICBAN.

I call on Senator McGreehan. There are two minutes remaining in the slot.

I wish to ask one brief question. As former member of the east Border region, I am innately aware of the importance of the work done by ICBAN and the Northern and Western Regional Assembly. They advocate for economic development. More importantly, it is about the personal relationships that are built up across the Border. We all know that the Border region, from the west to the east, has been underdeveloped, underutilised and disadvantaged because of the jurisdictional Border.

I feel that the three Border organisations are very important. However, the common voice of a Border economic zone or a Border zone would be most valuable. Given that there are currently eastern and midland and northern and western regional assemblies, how would the witnesses feel about having the three Border organisations coming together on an assembly basis? How do they feel that would work?

All along the Border there are different issues and problems on each side, but innately, it is about the economic and social hinterlands being divided. How would the witnesses feel about a Border assembly?

We are very short on time. The Fianna Fáil time slot was allocated exactly as agreed. I am trying to be as fair as I can to everybody. Senator Currie indicated that she wished to speak before Senator McGreehan. I propose to hear her contribution first, then there should be enough time for Senator McGreehan's question to be answered. It is a very good question. In fairness, we did try to connect with Senator McGreehan a few times during the meeting. I want to be fair to all members. I call Senator Currie.

I thank the Chairman for accommodating me. I did have the issue of double taxation on my list of points to raise. I did not actually mention it the first time round. Other contributors raised the issue. It is one which I have been pushing in the Seanad and with the Minister for Finance. The last update I received was that the issue is on the agenda of the tax strategy group and the papers are to be published this summer. The complication is that the transborder workers' tax relief that normally exists outside of the Covid-19 pandemic does not just relate to the North. Therefore, for someone who lives in Buncrana and works in Belfast, pays tax in the North and not in the South, that transborder workers' tax relief actually involves places other than the North. The group is looking at a solution. I must say that it is absolutely essential to resolve the issue in terms of the potential of remote work. It is an issue that I will follow up and on which I will also perhaps engage with the witnesses directly.

There is time left in the Fine Gael slot. Does the Senator wish to add anything?

No, I am happy enough.

I have a question. I welcome all of the contributions made. It has been a fantastic engagement, focusing on a region that needs significant broadband development. My question concerns demographic change. I know that the witnesses are from different counties, including Cavan, Donegal, Leitrim, Fermanagh, Armagh and so on. How challenged are their respective areas in trying to hold onto young people or to attract people to work? Broadband will be the number one challenge. Are there any other significant issues in relation to demographics that are different to other areas along the Border?

There are around four minutes remaining. We must finish at 11.30 a.m. by order of Covid regulations. I invite the witnesses to sum up and address the questions raised, if they so wish.

Mr. Shane Campbell

I will quickly provide a few responses. I thank Senator Blaney for his contribution. We very much welcome the opportunity to engage with all the political spokespersons in all the political parties across the island.

Over the summer and into the autumn, we really need to promote the opportunities outlined in the framework. The board has identified that having gone through some formalities in terms of getting our strategy out and early engagement with the two Governments, we now need to engage in more depth with the political parties. We have made a great start on that today. We would be delighted to follow it up. We would welcome further correspondence from the members, as Senator Currie has expressed, on the issue of double taxation. We would welcome more information on that, or issues to which we can refer in our work.

In response to the Chairman's question on demographics, the key challenge for our area is the ageing population, and how to service and provide that population with the supports it will need, while at the same time, retaining our young people as the future drivers of our economy. We believe that we have a whole-of-economy and society approach in the strategy which, if it could be implemented and were to be supported, would provide opportunities and advantages for different cohorts of our population. That is my final contribution.

I will wrap up by thanking Mr. McNeill and Mr. Campbell for leading the delegation. They have given us a lot of food for thought. I am aware that two hours is a short slot for a meeting. I know that some contributors, and Senator McGreehan, in particular, asked good questions. Perhaps the witnesses can respond to the Senator in writing. Her suggestion is certainly worthwhile considering. I know that we are under time constraints. I apologise for having to end the meeting after two hours. I thank the witnesses for their time.

The joint committee adjourned at 11.29 a.m. until 12.30 p.m. on Thursday, 1 July 2021.