Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement díospóireacht -
Thursday, 10 Mar 2022

Engagement with Representatives from the East Border Region

We are very happy today to have engagement with representatives from the East Border Region, EBR. Ms Michelle Hall, chairman, is from my own County Louth. Joining her are Mr. Robert Burgess, vice chairperson for Newry and Mourne, Ms Dette Hughes, programme manager, and Ms Pamela Arthurs, chief executive. I welcome the witnesses on behalf of the committee. We are delighted they took the time to attend. I will read a standard note on privilege before we begin.

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 give evidence from a location outside of 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. Witnesses may think 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 on 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 the good name of the person or entity. Ms Arthurs will address the committee first. She is very welcome.

Ms Pamela Arthurs

I thank the Chairman and wish members of the committee a good afternoon. I thank them very much for inviting our delegation today; its is always a pleasure.

Members of the East Border Region, EBR, last presented to this committee in February 2019. It is fair to say that while a key consideration then was obviously the impact of Brexit on the Ireland-Northern Ireland Border area, no one could have foreseen an even greater challenge in the face of Covid-19.

In March 2020, EBR, like so many other organisations globally, had to radically change our whole concept of working from 100% office-based to 100% home-based. Throughout its long history, which is almost 50 years now, EBR has always adapted a thoroughly pragmatic approach and the response to the pandemic was no different. Board members and staff rose to the occasion.

As a project partner on nine large strategic INTERREG VA projects to the value of €104 million, it was essential that all claim deadlines were met and that our 60 partners were paid in a timely manner. To date, I am pleased to say that EBR has not missed a deadline. The INTERREG projects are currently being implemented and outputs are consistently being met. Members have been provided with a copy of our annual report, which outlines further information on these excellent genuine cross-Border projects.

Apart from managing INTERREG VA, there have also been notable achievements since 2019. The first I want to address is the East Border Region charter. Since our inception back in 1976, EBR has worked under the backdrop of the European Union. In January 2020, because of Brexit, one half of the region was for the first time no longer part of the European Union. As a genuine cross-Border organisation, EBR needed to address the situation. Our response was to apply to the Department of Foreign Affairs' reconciliation fund to assist with capacity-building activities with our elected members, officials and key stakeholders to address the very real impact of Brexit on our cross-Border region.

Having secured the funding, for which we were grateful, in both 2019 and 2020, EBR agreed to develop a charter. This innovative charter is elected member-led and that is very important. It represents a renewed mandate for EBR to be a principal mechanism for cross-Border co-operation on behalf of the member local authorities. Each local authority endorsed the charter at full council. Again, in the context of the time, that was very important. This was in the form of a declaration of commitment which, again, as I said, was significant in the context of Brexit. The local authorities committed to working together to improve the prosperity of citizens of the region and the public and private services they can access. The attendance of both the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and Minister Conor Murphy at the official launch of the EBR charter in June 2021 showcased the innovative nature of the charter and the commitment of both governments to cross-Border co-operation.

East-west co-operation is another significant development since 2019. Since its inception, EBR has focused primarily on North-South co-operation but Brexit again highlighted the need to develop relationships on an east-west basis. In the aftermath of the referendum, as negotiations between the UK and the EU intensified, it was clear that many UK politicians were not familiar with the intricacies of the Ireland-Northern Ireland Border area. EBR, and we are again grateful, has just been awarded €53,000 from the reconciliation fund for a one-year programme to inform and highlight the particular needs and priorities of the region to MPs and officials in London, Wales and Scotland.

Looking pragmatically towards the future, what are our opportunities? We are pleased to say there are two real key opportunities for cross-Border co-operation on the island, the first of which is the PEACEPLUS programme. The €1.1 billion PEACEPLUS programme represents a real opportunity for local authorities and key stakeholders in our region and, indeed, across the whole eligible area to access funding for cross-Border projects, which will make a positive contribution to the economic, social and environmental development of the region.

EBR thematic working groups, which align to the themes of PEACEPLUS comprising officials, elected members and key stakeholders, are currently developing projects in anticipation of the opening of the programme later this year. Our priorities have been identified, and, in the course of all the work we have been doing in terms of thematic working groups, it has not changed over the years. We have always got common issues. There are always common priorities. When we look at what has been highlighted across the region, both North and South, we see economic development, business development, skills and entrepreneurship, regeneration tourism, biodiversity, climate action and energy. The projects will focus on addressing the impact of both Brexit and Covid-19 on our region.

The €1 billion Shared Island Fund is another key opportunity for EBR. Already, the fund has contributed to a key infrastructure project within our region, the Narrow Water Bridge, which will have both national and international significance. EBR has championed this genuinely cross-Border project since the early 1970s when we were formed. We are delighted to see that project progress. Similarly, the shared island funding to progress the upgrade of the Ulster Canal is extremely welcome. This is another strategic cross-Border infrastructure project that will benefit the citizens on both sides of the Border. The strategic rail review is certainly also welcome from our perspective.

In conclusion, while the challenges facing all of us over the past few years have been immense, EBR has demonstrated resilience in the face of adversity. I am honoured to lead the organisation because we have always had that pragmatic solution-based focus. During this period, significant monies have been drawn down into our region and there is a real opportunity to realise many of our cross-Border objectives in the coming years. In 2016, when the referendum first occurred, none of us could foresee that we would actually be in a fairly good position in 2022.

EBR recognises and welcomes the ongoing support of the Irish Government for our work. High-level support and commitment from both Governments is essential to making a real difference in our region. As well as Government support, we believe successful cross-Border co-operation also requires a bottom-up, needs-based approach which is driven and delivered locally.

EBR is well placed. It has a proven track record in co-ordinating, facilitating and managing cross-Border co-operation.

Thank you. Next, Councillor Michelle Hall will make her opening remarks. Then Councillor Robert Burgess will speak. The man goes last, or close enough.

Ms Michelle Hall

As a relatively new member of East Border Region, having been elected in the local elections in 2019, I am acutely aware of the outstanding work which those elected members and officials who have gone before me have done to facilitate and enable cross-Border co-operation in our region. In the early days, those members worked under the shadow of a wider political situation. Cross-Border co-operation was difficult, but they persevered. They recognised there is a need for, and strength in, working together. In 2022, there is still a need to work together on a cross-Border basis, simply because it makes sense. Indeed, Brexit has reinforced this fact, and I am proud of the response in EBR to Brexit. As usual, we rolled up our sleeves and came up with a solution which would enable the six member counties to continue working together. The solution came in the form of the EBR charter.

Wider events in the world today also put into sharp focus the massive benefits of collaborating on a cross-Border basis and the consequences when people stop co-operating. As we know, the Border has witnessed its fair share of political turmoil. All associated with EBR are steadfast in our resolve to reinforce peace. EBR's desire to foster peace in Ireland and Northern Ireland led us to join the Association of European Border Regions, AEBR, in the 1980s. Since that time, EBR has played a key role in the organisation. We have hosted two annual conferences and an AEBR executive committee meeting in our region and we are highly regarded throughout the border regions across Europe. Mr. Jens Gabbe, former secretary general of AEBR, stated that EBR is today an indispensable and important link in the Europe-wide network of AEBR, and that it provides substantial examples and experience for other border regions to emulate. This cross-Border co-operation has contributed to the remarkable positive economic and social development in Ireland and Northern Ireland in recent years and created verifiable added value.

Cross-Border co-operation, however, is still not easy and must be constantly nurtured. Capacity building is therefore vital to successful cross-Border co-operation. Remote working as a result of the pandemic has put pressure on the board of EBR and has demonstrated the need for ongoing capacity building. In the past, many issues were resolved on the outskirts of meetings over a cup of coffee, and that simply was not possible on Zoom. This situation is reflected across Northern Ireland and the Border counties. Therefore, I ask members of this committee to consider the focus of the shared island fund, which prioritises significant capital projects. As Ms Arthurs has indicated, there are some excellent examples in our region, such as the Narrow Water bridge and the Ulster Canal, which will contribute to the cross-Border product, but there is still a real need to fund cross-Border capacity-building activities to nurture and encourage the cross-Border process.

In East Border Region's experience, meaningful cross-Border co-operation results from capacity building at three levels - the elected members, officials and key stakeholders. This work must be recognised and it is essential that it is properly resourced. A modest amount of money from the shared island fund towards its approach would make a real difference.

Mr. Robert Burgess

I thank the committee for the opportunity to address it today and to brief the members on the current work of the East Border Region. A unique feature and asset of the East Border Region is that elected politicians from all political parties, North and South, make up the board of the East Border Region and drive policy and strategy. The East Border Region was the first local authority-led body to have a Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, chair. It is an open, transparent and fully-inclusive organisation. The chair of the EBR rotates between North and South each year.

As the committee is undoubtedly aware, Brexit has caused division in Northern Ireland. Politics has never been an issue in the East Border Region and politicians from all political parties, North and South, have worked constantly towards cross-Border co-operation which benefits all the people of the region. Brexit is an extremely divisive issue and has resulted in politicians and communities in Northern Ireland once again becoming divided along traditional political lines. Brexit has also damaged the trust which has been developed since the Good Friday Agreement between some of the elected members in Northern Ireland and their southern counterparts. This has emphasised the difference in opinions between elected politicians. Brexit has also highlighted the need to build relationships with the British politicians who have demonstrated a lack of knowledge and understanding of Ireland and the Northern Ireland Border issue and challenges.

Covid-19 has highlighted the need for the benefits of cross-Border working. Never before have we had such strong evidence to prove that collaboration, communication and co-ordination action are essential. It is essential that the East Border Region establishes and builds effective relationships which facilitate co-operation in a challenging political landscape, recognising the additional challenges presented by the Northern Ireland protocol. The project will add a new east-west dimension, effectively including British politicians, officials and key stakeholders in addressing regional reconciliation challenges. It is essential that as we attempt to move forward as a reconciled society we have the understanding, support and buy-in of the Westminster government and all the devolved administrations. Funding from the reconciliation fund will enable the East Border Region to begin this work in 2022. We are hopeful that further funding will become available to implement our three-year plan in respect of east-west co-operation and exploring opportunities for future collaboration.

Thank you for your statements. They show unity of purpose and co-operation. It is great that all parties are represented and that we can all work together on common projects that we all agree with.

I will outline how we conduct the meeting for our witnesses. I go through the different political groups and each group has 20 minutes to ensure everybody gets in. The order will be Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, Social Democratic and Labour Party, SDLP, Alliance Party of Northern Ireland, the Green Party, Sinn Féin, the Labour Party, Independents and Aontú. We have three members attending online as well. I call Senator McGreehan for Fianna Fáil who has 20 minutes for questions and answers.

Our guests are very welcome. It is lovely to see another Louth person. I was at a committee meeting earlier with another Louth person. It is great to have the accent coming back to me although, in fairness, he was a little more posh. He does not have the classic Louth accent; he is south Louth. However, it is lovely to see Ms Hall, Mr. Burgess and, of course, the duo of Ms Arthurs and Ms Hughes. It is great to have them at the meeting.

To get straight to business, I congratulate EBR on the innovative charter. I am proud of it as well as I was vice-chairperson when the process was started. I am honoured to have taken a wee part in that success. It is a very good document. It is future-proofing what the East Border Region is. My predecessor on Louth County Council, Councillor Peter Savage, was there in 1976 and was one of the originators of this cross-Border co-operation. The East Border Region has had many successes and there is great capacity in it for further development.

My first question is about the position Ms Arthurs spoke about for the east-west relationships. When is that position going to be put in place?

When is it going to come to fruition? What help can this committee give the person who takes up that position? What help can the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly provide, because there are strong east-west links? If the Oireachtas and the Assembly could support that person in that role in building those links, that would be really important.

What does East Border Region see as the biggest challenge facing it as an organisation that works across the Border? Aside from the obvious challenge of political differences and so on, it does not have multi-annual funding and goes from project to project. It is important that we work towards a dedicated regional authority that will work across the Border and which has a mandate to do so in all of the Border counties. It must be facilitated to work more closely with the Irish Central Border Area Network, the body in the north west and so on. Do the witnesses have any thoughts on that?

Ms Pamela Arthurs

With regard to east-west co-operation, our primary core role relates to North-South co-operation but Brexit changed things in light of the negotiations between Westminster and the EU and the divisions that filtered through to our board meetings and so on. We regularly facilitated visits to the Border region for members of parliaments across Europe. However, when we had British Members of Parliament there, we were taken aback by their lack of knowledge. They said themselves that they had not been there before and were not aware of the intricacies of the Border area. We then thought that we needed to do something to inform them and to look at matters on an east-west basis. That is really where it came from. What can the Irish Government do? It has already done something in that, just last week, it awarded us funding. It is not a person that we are bringing in per se. We want to bring our elected members over to Westminster and to develop programmes of activity over there that will inform people. We also want to bring Members of Parliament and so on from Westminster to the region to inform them as to the needs and priorities of the region. That is what it is primarily about.

We have a one-year programme initially. As I said, we have been awarded funding so it is now about the linkage. The Ceann Comhairle's office has said it will assist us. We need to talk to the right people and to achieve the outcome we want. It is really about gathering information and building capacity, but on a slightly different basis. It does not take away from our core purpose but helps us to work more effectively on a cross-Border basis. This is new to us and, if we are back before the committee in a couple of years, I have no doubt we will be able to inform members about it.

The Senator asked what our biggest challenge is in working across the Border. I may let my colleagues come in on this but, for me and for Ms Hughes, the programme manager for East Border Region, the biggest challenge is consistently sourcing core funding. We need to have approved projects. That is how we secure our money. The local authorities fund approximately a quarter of our core costs. Without those programmes, we struggle. The big struggle for us arises between the seven-year European Structural Fund programmes. There is always a gap and, during those gaps, we always have to lose good people. That is our biggest challenge. The rest of the work we are doing is consistently challenging. Things also arise that we have not foreseen such as Brexit or the pandemic but we can deal with those. The biggest challenge is about forward planning when you know you need to be successful in drawing down new moneys if you are going to be successful with projects.

We are facing that now with most of the INTERREG 5A projects. I hope all of the members have a copy of the annual report, which outlines those projects. They are excellent projects but they will begin to finish at the end of this year and the beginning of next year. The PEACEPLUS programme will come on stream at some point this year but it may be another year and a half before we actually secure money. This is a problem for a host of organisations that depend on PEACE and INTERREG funding. They are all in the same boat. It happens every time we move into a new programme. For me, that is the biggest challenge.

Ms Michelle Hall

When we came on board in 2019, we had a capacity-building trip to Brussels. Senator McGreehan and Councillor Burgess were also there. That really helped in co-ordinating all of our groups and in forming relationships in a way that would not have been possible through board meetings alone. Unfortunately, since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic and the associated restrictions, we have not had a physical meeting. All of our meetings so far have been online, which results in difficulties with communication and body language. You just cannot replace the in-person meetings. We have new members who have not been to any of the meetings. They do not know any of the other councillors. We need to build up all of those relationships again. It sometimes feels like we are starting from the beginning. Going forward with the PEACEPLUS funding will be exciting. We are very grateful to have the funding to go to London and meet some of our counterparts. That will be the start again of building those relationships with politicians and understanding that, while we may come from different political backgrounds and belief systems, we can communicate on a very natural level when we are in a room together. We just want to improve the lives of people in the Border regions. Our main focus is on improving the lives of ordinary people in the Border counties of Ireland and Northern Ireland.

Mr. Robert Burgess

The previous two speakers have answered nearly everything that could be answered but, on east-west relationships, the question of checks on the Irish Sea border is creating mayhem at the minute. Perhaps there is a way the Irish Government could help to iron that out, especially with regard to checks on livestock which create a problem for those who want to go to shows and so on and those who import and export agricultural products. Part loads coming in also seem to create mayhem. Anything to do with agriculture seems to be a problem because customs officials think it is all coming South. If there is any way the Irish Government could help to ease that problem, it would be greatly appreciated.

Senator McGreehan is a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Disability Matters, which is meeting at the moment, and that is why she had to absent herself. She wanted to apologise for that.

Like Senator McGreehan, I welcome all of the witnesses and their presentations. It was very progressive and forward-thinking of the members who established the cross-Border group in 1976 to do so. We can all envisage how difficult things were politically on this island and on an east-west basis at that time. I note the remarks of the chair, Councillor Hall, and the vice chair, Councillor Burgess, with regard to the need for greater collaboration and knowledge, particularly among politicians in Britain, with regard to the Northern Ireland situation. I recall that, at the time the whole issue of Brexit arose, I was chairing the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Trade, and Defence. The first parliamentary delegation from Britain to visit was a delegation from the Foreign Affairs Committee of the House of Commons, which visited Cavan-Monaghan at my invitation. Deputy O'Dowd was subsequently involved in bringing groups to his constituency. Parliamentary groups from practically every member state of the European Union were very generous with their time in coming here to meet their counterparts in our committees on European affairs or foreign affairs. They actually went to the Border regions to learn for themselves. I walked the Border roads of my own Cavan-Monaghan areas, which Ms Hughes knows well, very often with different European groups.

They came here to familiarise themselves with what our representatives were saying at European Union meetings. Then they went back to their own parliaments and supported the proposals our Government put forward, as well as those put forward by our representatives in the European Parliament. Great credit is due to parliamentary groups from many member states, individual Commissioners and MEPs. In fairness, quite a number of the committees of the British House of Commons and House of Lords came here subsequently and had good engagement with different committees. It was a great learning exercise, but it needs to be done on a constant basis. The Chair of our committee, Deputy O’Dowd, facilitated a meeting of this committee yesterday with the Northern Ireland Affairs Committee of the House of Commons at which we discussed current issues. As Mr. Burgess said, naturally Brexit arose. Senator Currie, the Chair and I were present. All political opinion was present at that meeting, both from the House of Commons and the Oireachtas. There was a clear message that we need to get a consensus. We need to get the outstanding issues regarding the protocol resolved. I can assure Mr. Burgess that the Government, as well as all political opinion within the Oireachtas, is anxious to get a resolution on some of the outstanding issues.

I tabled questions to the Taoiseach yesterday about Brexit. He emphasised again that we are working closely with the European Union to try to ensure the issue is resolved and that it is gotten off the table. It is not in anybody’s interest to have obstacles to trade. It is not in the interest of any part of this island, or of Britain. There is positivity and a willingness on the part of the European Union, and particularly on the part of the Government, to have those issues dealt with it. When we discussed it in the past, we would not have thought we would have seen such good progress but thankfully we have seen it, with the projects Ms Arthurs mentioned in her introduction.

In 2019 we wondered whether the Narrow Water bridge project would ever happen. We did not think the Minister Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, and the Minister, Nichola Mallon, would be at the site to announce substantial funding to get that project moving. That is very welcome. Similarly, in my own area, I want to see the Ulster Canal progressed. That is being carried out on an incremental basis. It is so important to have flagship projects. In any cross-Border grouping, much of the good work they do is unseen by the public at large and by people in elected office. It is great to be able to point to some flagship projects the East Border Region promotes and facilitates.

We had the Special EU Programmes Body, SEUPB, before the committee last week, including Ms Gina McIntyre and her colleagues. She stated that PEACEPLUS programme would be open for applications by the summer of this year. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, in responding to questions in the Dáil has emphasised that funding is in place and he is anxious to get it moving as quickly as possible. The shared island unit has substantial funding available to it. There is a specific chapter on cross-Border all-Ireland development in our national development plan. Significant funding is provided in that plan for cross-Border projects. I, therefore, believe that you are looking at a time when yourselves and your sister organisations, Irish Central Border Area Network, ICBAN, and the North West Region Cross Border Group, can look forward to very substantial projects that perhaps in the past we could have only dreamed of getting movement on. However, these things do not happen too quickly. I know very well that a huge amount of work has been done by the East Border Region in progressing the projects. From that point of view, naturally we want to support them.

I take the point made that programmes end and we do not know where we are going next year and about the rollover. It has changed a bit here in more recent years. Budgeting for Departments was on an annual basis. There was not as much multiannual budgeting and planning as there is nowadays. It was very difficult to plan projects when there was no certainty regarding future funding. I want to compliment the group on its work. There was great vision and foresight among the public representatives and officials supporting them and who putt the East Border Region in place in the beginning. I know that the group has been associated with many good projects over the years.

I presume the group is laying particular emphasis on the areas of tourism, remote working and the digital economy. I am thinking particularly of an area like Monaghan, which might be peripheral to most of the group’s cross-Border region. I want to ensure it is not left out of any of the projects going forward. I will add my voice to those of my good, strong Monaghan colleagues in advocating at an official council level as well as public representative level.

There are two minutes left in the slot. Are the witnesses happy with everything the Deputy said?

Ms Pamela Arthurs

I will respond in respect of Monaghan. The elected members there will not let us leave Monaghan out. They are very-----

Neither will the officials, in fairness.

Ms Pamela Arthurs

Nor the officials. All our work needs to impact the whole region. Some of the projects will impact maybe only two council areas or whatever. We are focusing now on PEACEPLUS and on a major coastal programme, which is obviously only in areas along the coast. If we are not delivering for a part of the region, then it does not work. Again, that is a challenge for us. We have to meet it. We have always said that this about cross-Border economic development which benefits the people of our region. That is our mantra and that is what our politicians support as well.

I will move on to Fine Gael. I represent the county, although I do not think I have got a posh voice. People say that other people talk differently. I do not think they do and I know that Ms Hall will back me up there. I want to congratulate the East Border Region for working together on the projects in which it is involved. The key to the future of this island is everybody working together on issues that do not divide us. In my own county, I welcome in particular the comments in the East Border Region’s annual report about County Louth, such as the Carlingford Lough greenway, which is progressing, and the Narrow Water bridge, which is a huge project. Something else that caught my attention was the electric vehicle issue. As the price of fuel goes up and up every day, it is a huge issue. Where is that project now? I know the East Border Region had its conference in 2021. Where are these charging points going to be? How many are we going to have?

Ms Pamela Arthurs

We had an event in Monaghan yesterday to bring together all of the local authorities to update them on the progress-----

That is good.

Ms Pamela Arthurs

-----and to share best practices. Scotland is a partner in that project and Dundee City Council is a leading light in respect of electrification of the fleet across the whole city. We have 73 fast charging points to implement as a part of that project, which will cover the west coast of Scotland, Northern Ireland and the Border region. Scotland has selected its sites and its procurement is in the Official Journal of the European Union, OJ. Ireland has agreed the sites, along the six Border counties. We are currently looking at the necklace and from Larne right along to Newry and across to Derry in Northern Ireland. There are three separate procurements with various issues. Cross-Border co-operation is always challenging and procurement is particularly so. We have three separate procurements there. We would hope to see the roll out of the chargers late this year or early next year.

I am sorry but how many will be in this region itself?

Ms Pamela Arthurs

In the Border counties in Ireland, we are looking at 26 chargers. The rapid chargers take 15 to 20 minutes. We are proposing that they will be double chargers along the Border. We might have some more singles in Northern Ireland, but this will depend-----

If we do not have a briefing on that, could Ms Arthurs send one on?

Ms Pamela Arthurs

Yes, we could.

Tourism is also hugely important to the region. It brings with it potential for economic activity, overnight stays and makes it attractive to people. We were talking earlier about Airgíalla, the traditional area for music and song in Louth, County Down and parts of Armagh. There is a huge wealth of tradition and knowledge that goes back through all cultures and all religions.

Is there any emphasis on that from the witnesses? I appreciate there may or may not be, but if there is, it would be great to have a cross-Border festival celebrating the wealth and traditions of all people up there. I read some of the wonderful poetry and listened to some of the music. It might be a great idea. Are the witnesses doing that already?

Ms Dette Hughes

I will respond to the question. As Ms Arthurs mentioned earlier, we have set up a number of thematic working groups and one of those groups is for tourism. It has been extremely active and very successful in drawing down cross-Border funds to date. The group is actively working on a number of tourism projects on the themes the Chairman mentioned, such as cultural heritage. It is looking at programmes on food tourism and gastronomy, walking trails and cultural heritage trails. They are all on the radar. The tourism officers in our six councils are working very hard to develop these projects in that respect.

That is very important because in many cases when we think of culture, we think of perhaps the Fleadh Cheoil, which is a big one, but there is a wealth of regional culture and it transcends boundaries. I am delighted the witnesses are doing that.

I can just imagine the complexities of the work in recent years, first because of Brexit and then because of the pandemic. The whole point of this is to try to bring people together and we were told to stay apart. I agree that we have even seen the benefits of person-to-person contact in the past month. I congratulate the witnesses on the charter and on charting their way out of the pandemic as well.

Core funding has been raised previously by the Irish Central Border Area Network. I hear what has been said about that and I support the witnesses. They do need reliable multi-annual funding so that they can plan ahead and also keep their talent. That is a question as well as a statement, in that it is difficult to retain talent in those circumstances.

I wish to ask about healthcare. Someone has been in touch with me from the Daisy Hill future committee about the possible closure of emergency surgery there and the impact that might have on the region. If we are talking about attracting foreign direct investment or from an employment perspective in the region, do issues with the hospital have an impact on what the witnesses are doing? Is there potential there for cross-Border co-operation? I am not an expert on this but when I look at what is happening in the north west, with Letterkenny and Altnagelvin, I wonder about synergies here as well, because we can do more in terms of cross-Border co-operation in health.

Is the Nationality and Borders Bill on the radar in terms of what problems it could present for tourism? It is on our radar in terms of the changes to the common travel area.

My other question is on the Atlantic economic corridor and where the EBR fits within it and the work that is being done in that regard. Are there opportunities to come together to apply for funding for sporting organisations? That is something I have been asked about in the past year or so.

Mr. Robert Burgess

Daisy Hill is a big concern. It is not only a big concern for the people living in the area, but for people who live in the surrounding district, as it covers a big rural area. The problem we have currently is retaining surgeons and staff. If there was a way of working North and South, it would definitely be a way forward. There is a big rural area that needs to be supported. If we have to go to Belfast or anywhere else, it takes two to three hours due to traffic.

Would people go to Belfast or Coleraine?

Mr. Robert Burgess

More people are sent to Belfast. There is the Ulster Hospital as well, but the issue is the time factor required to get there.

That is something-----

Mr. Robert Burgess

If there is any way it could be supported North and South, it would be a big benefit for both areas. There would be no problem with that.

Daisy Hill Hospital managed to keep the accident and emergency unit, but if emergency surgery is removed then it is an accident and emergency unit in name only.

Mr. Robert Burgess

If there is an accident on a farm and someone needs help urgently, we are lucky enough to have the air ambulance, which helps out, but we need the hospital. That is where we are.

That is something on which we could link up.

Mr. Robert Burgess

Senator Currie is 100% right about tourism. We need all the help and support we can get on a North-South basis for tourism. The Narrow Water Bridge is a pet project of mine too. It would relieve a lot of congestion as well in Newry. We have talked about it for years. Senator Currie is 100% right, if we could get help and support, we could get the job done.

On the point about the hospital, perhaps we could arrange a meeting between the HSE and the people in Newry, if that has not already happened, to see if there can be some facilitation on exchange of specialties or elective surgery to keep the hospital open. Perhaps we could talk to the witnesses about that afterwards.

Mr. Robert Burgess

Yes, that is no problem. I will try to arrange that.

I am very happy to hear that.

Ms Pamela Arthurs

There has been a lot of cross-Border co-operation between the health boards, through our colleague organisation, Cooperation and Working Together, CAWT. We will leave that to it, as they are the experts in that field.

In terms of sporting organisations, there are opportunities in the new PEACEPLUS programme. Again, our focus would be on the economic development of tourism and climate in the region. There are opportunities in terms of cross-Border co-operation, moving forward. In terms of the Nationality and Borders Bill, we need an open Border for our region to work. It is as simple as that. People need to be able to cross the Border freely, as we have always done. Many people closest to the Border simply do not even know where the Border is at this point. That is a point we have made so many times since Brexit. They are the key points unless anybody else wants to add anything.

Ms Michelle Hall

We are so lucky in terms of tourism that the Border region in Ireland is so beautiful, for example, the coastal area in Louth, Down and Antrim. That has been more apparent with Covid. In our area around Clogherhead and Baltray, people just flocked to the beaches. There could be a lot of development there as it is very underdeveloped in regard to tourism. Much more could be done with the links with Northern Ireland in Downpatrick and Antrim.

The motor home industry is very popular in Ireland. That is also very under-developed here and it would be very easy to improve. The coastal drives are very important. We must keep the Border open. We cannot close the Border for such reasons.

Ms Pamela Arthurs

Another current initiative is the Carlingford Lough greenway project. It does not matter what the weather is like. Part of the greenway has been completed – the Newry element – and if you are standing there, it could be anywhere in the world and you would say it is a fantastic area.

There is so much we want to do around Carlingford Lough on a cross-Border basis. We have loads of plans that need to be resourced.

There is also the Loughs Agency. There is very rich fishing in the area. There are oysters in the area, as evidenced by the Carlingford Oyster Festival and so on. There is considerable potential.

The Chairman is making us hungry.

Carlingford oysters are top class.

I was particularly interested in the answer to Senator Currie's questions about sport. Do our guests have anything to add in that regard?

Ms Michelle Hall

Sport does not fall within our remit, as such. I can say that through the PEACEPLUS programme, there are opportunities for sporting organisations. A number of years ago, before I moved to East Border Region, I worked in Newry and Mourne District Council, as it was then. That was one of the first councils to twin with a council in Ireland when it twinned with Clare County Council. That was excellent for cross-Border co-operation because it brought together a range of different groups, including sporting groups. We spent weekends in Clare and at other times we brought everybody to Newry and Mourne. It was an excellent but basic thing. It involved the exchange of knowledge and allowed us to get to know those regions. Many of the groups in Clare had never been to Northern Ireland. That was back in the early 1990s. It was significant and paved the way for much of the work we are doing now. The areas closest to the Border are obviously more likely to work together, which makes sense. It is difficult to figure out how we can extend that because there always has to be a carrot for people to work on a cross-Border basis. That carrot for us was the local authorities. For the different organisations with which we work, the carrot is the money. Unfortunately, we still need that money. It is my role to work on a cross-Border basis but no official in the six member councils or along the Border has such a role. There must be a reason to get involved in cross-Border co-operation. It must make sense. We say it does but we still need money. That is why we are so pleased that the €1.1 billion PEACEPLUS programme is still there. I am thankful to Ireland and the rest of the member states in the EU for that. This is INTERREG money dispensed under PEACEPLUS. It is from the same funding stream. It is the biggest programme of its kind on the Continent. No other border region in Europe has this amount of money and we are thankful and grateful for it. It shows the support of other member states for the peace in Northern Ireland, which consistently and constantly needs to be worked at.

Mr. Chris Hazzard

I thank our guests for their presentations. Some of the attached documents have been very interesting reading. My questions are based on three areas. The first of those relates to the Shared Waters Enhancement & Loughs Legacy, SWELL, project, and an update thereon. Some €35 million has gone into Carlingford Lough and Lough Foyle. That is a substantial amount of money but it is badly needed. We are currently pumping the startling equivalent of 800 wheelie bins of raw sewage per day from Omeath into Carlingford Lough. Construction has, thankfully, begun on a new treatment plant, although there are other sites of pollution in the lough. Where are we at with that project and what is its potential? The project includes investigating the sites of pollution and those responsible for it and is also involved with figuring out how to restore the delicate ecosystems in the lough. An update on that would be useful.

I will also ask about Narrow Water bridge, which is obviously an asset for the local communities of north Louth and south Down, and the wider area. Now that work on the project is moving apace, how do we start to look at what I might term "bolt-on" projects around it? We must ensure that we not only develop a piece of infrastructure that sits there but also develop other things around it to the benefit of local communities. Some mention was made of congestion in Newry. The southern relief road is probably going to have a better effect on that congestion than the bridge, which will be an asset to tourism. What steps do we take now to ensure more is done? I met with the Narrow Water bridge community network group last week. It has developed proposals for Ireland's first ever dedicated cycle expressway around Carlingford Lough. There has been some mention of the greenway and stuff like that. The greenway is a fantastic initiative and we need that modal shift in the area. However, there are a number of problems. For example, some of that route has recently been closed for emergency safety works. We have an awful habit of doing things in bits and pieces, adding to projects four or five years down the line. With the Narrow Water bridge coming, there is an opportunity for us to sit down and ponder the wider holistic picture and ask what we need. How does the community play a role in that? How do we use the likes of our guests and the local councils to deliver some of that?

Mention was made today of Airgíalla. It is a shame that Ireland's Ancient East does not come up into the North. We want that to change to bring in Downpatrick, Armagh and everywhere else. Next week, I will visit someone who during the pandemic uncovered the site of the old Magennis clan fort, dating to the 15th and 16th centuries. That is a significant find in south Down. We could use the likes of the tourism thematic group to see how we can protect it and create a world-class visitors' centre, for example. The Albert Basin project has a world-class vision for developing the Newry area. There has also been investment in the Warrenpoint Baths and the whole development of the marina and promenade there. These are large tourism projects. How do we connect it all together? We want people in Germany and Dublin to think they want to go on holidays to the area for two weeks. Holiday accommodation was mentioned earlier. How do we develop more of it? There has been an explosion of Airbnb in south Down but that has had a negative impact on the rental market. There are plenty of online rental sites. I will not name any of them but we know what they are. If one looks for rental properties for a family in south Down, one can count them on the fingers of one hand, whereas there are pages and pages of available properties in north Down and Belfast. Airbnb has hammered the rental market in south Down. How can we grow tourism sustainably?

The PEACEPLUS programme is, of course, fantastic. How does the community feed into the thematic groups? I am currently working on a community project around the restoration of native woodland in Kilbroney. We have real opportunity there with the oak forest, which is one of the last remaining native oak woodlands on the island. That woodland is small but there are huge remnant features of forests throughout the Kilbroney area. We have a real opportunity to develop Ireland's only sea to summit native habitat that goes the whole way undisturbed. That would be an asset environmentally and in other ways. It seems ideal for the PEACEPLUS programme. I would like our guests to visit the area or speak to the guys involved. How can the community become involved in the works that our guests do?

There has been a lot of mention of the health situation. It is welcome that we look at the likes of Daisy Hill Hospital on an all-island basis. There is a gap north of Drogheda. We have managed to halt the plans to reconfigure stroke services, which would have meant people in the Mourne area, for example around Kilkeel, travelling for longer than the golden hour people talk about with respect to stroke treatment. That would have been devastating. It was not possible and I am glad that decision has been reversed. How do we make the hospital more sustainable and open up the opportunity for elective surgery for people in Monaghan, Louth and everywhere else? I thank our guests. We will no doubt pick up on some of these issues in a subsequent meeting.

Ms Dette Hughes

On the SWELL project, most of the capital works on the Northern Ireland side are complete at this stage.

The committee will be familiar with the new wastewater treatment plant that has been installed at Warrenpoint. That was 100% funded by SWELL. There is also a project at Newpoint as one leaves Newry. Those two facilities were funded through the project. The member is absolutely right and it is not just about improving the infrastructure. On that project the Loughs Agency is a partner and so is the Agri-Food and Biosciences Institute, AFBI. They both do really valuable research and modelling. They took samples of the water quality prior to the infrastructure works being completed and they have been doing them in an ongoing process for two years. They are able to very clearly see and provide hard scientific evidence on the level of improvement in the water. It has been useful.

They have a slight issue in that Irish Water, the southern partner, is only starting its capital works. If work is to be done on Carlingford Lough, for example, only part of the infrastructure is in place and we would not get a complete picture just yet. The work is ongoing and we are already working on a second phase, which will effectively be SWELL 2. There is €32 million set aside in PEACEPLUS dedicated to that project. It again looks at wastewater management and some more sustainable practices and innovative approaches to improving the water quality. It will look to work with farmers and the land incentive schemes, etc., to try to improve practices. It is not just about putting all the blame or responsibility on water companies but rather trying to make the farmers and everybody else who uses the water act more responsibly. It is very much about trying to adopt that holistic approach.

Our elected members got a presentation from the SWELL team and they can provide fantastic evidence. We are happy to arrange a presentation to members from that project team and they can provide the exact scientific evidence that it has collated. It is really much more than infrastructure but not many people actually know that. Perhaps it is the best-kept secret.

On the question of PEACEPLUS and Kilbroney, with our thematic working groups we are only at council official level. In the next month we will bring those officers together again. We will then widen the process and involve a wider stakeholder audience. We are happy to engage with anybody we feel would add benefit and bring something to those discussions. It is a clean slate as far as we are concerned. We have always said it is a process that operates from the bottom up; we do not come up with the projects but rather we work with our councils and stakeholders, who tell us what is the need. We then help them to develop the projects.

If it is okay with witnesses and members, I have an appointment so Deputy Smith will take the Chair until I return. I am sorry but I cannot avoid it. It is not that I am in trouble or anything. Tá sé as Gaeilge.

Deputy Brendan Smith took the Chair.

Ms Pamela Arthurs

There was a question on the Narrow Water Bridge. For a number of years when we formulated our tourism strategies, we considered tourism on a cross-Border basis. We always said we needed to build a product in the region. We were looking at tourists coming to Dublin and they were turning to Kerry and whatever. It was a question of how to get tourists into the region and this came down to the product. The Narrow Water Bridge for us is superb and a real product. Looking at the business case throughout the years for the Narrow Water Bridge, bridge tourism itself is niche, and there are tourists that will come just to see a bridge. It is one element. Again, we are working closely with councillors here, and the councils are really important in developing around the product. Currently, we are developing the greenway that will link to this and there is the Carlingford car ferry project, for example. Carlingford is a European destination of excellence, and it has many tourists.

We need the bridge to be built and we are making good progress there. As has been mentioned, the Newry city deal will be very important as well and there will be so much invested again in the region. It is about bringing that all together but we must work closely with councils, which will be pivotal in this process. I agree with the comments about not wanting a product just sitting there and we need a whole suite around it. It is certainly on our radar already and the key is to get the bridge built.

Mr. Chris Hazzard

This is in no way a dig at council officials but it is the case that sometimes the public can be light years ahead of officialdom. People are dying to see some of these projects. For example, for a long time the Narrow Water Bridge was not even listed in some of the documents that Newry, Mourne and Down District Council used to try to attract investment. There was no mention of the bridge. It is really important to get the public included with many of the community groups driving forward initiatives and that want to act. Sometimes people are light years ahead of elected representatives and officialdom so it is important that we open the door. Very often such people include entrepreneurs and the people who will open guest houses and do different things to drive investment. It is important and good to hear that the public has a way to get into the process and bring forward ideas.

Mr. Robert Burgess

Much has been covered relating to tourism in the south Down, Newry and Mourne areas. I am asking for a bit of help with the canal from Newry to Lough Neagh. I have tried for years to get it and I have no doubt councillors have tried in the past. If we get the project up and running, it would bring much tourism to the south Down and Newry areas. It is a pet project.

Ms Michelle Hall

I have seen what happens with tourism during the summer. People arrive to the airport in Dublin and go on the motorway to Newgrange and Brú na Bóinne but they do not know where to go afterwards. We had to wait for a while and could not get into those locations, and people were turned away because of Covid-19 restrictions. Less than half the normal number of people were allowed in. The people were wondering what to do and I suggested they go to the high crosses at Monasterboice, which was a "tentative" new UNESCO site at the time, although the application has been withdrawn. Those people had never heard of it. If people fly into Belfast, it would be the same, as they would go to the Giant's Causeway but would not know all the little day trips that are available. We, as locals, know them. My husband and I have a list of places for people to visit straight away. Staff at Brú na Bóinne did not advise these people where to go and they turned them away without giving an alternative. These are small actions that can really bring money into a local economy.

We all know the really exciting places to go and I brought people along the Boyne estuary, which is a beautiful drive from Drogheda to Baltray. It has sea mounds designed by Captain Bligh of the mutiny on the Bounty, and they are more than 200 years old. You just do not see them anywhere else. That is an example of local knowledge and as councillors, that is how important our job is. We must feed the local knowledge into the projects that we hope will proceed with PEACEPLUS. We hope to link with other organisations, and there are many such links between Northern Ireland and southern Ireland. We could do much more on that.

Mr. Mickey Brady

I thank the delegation for the presentation and I am very aware of the work done by Ms Arthurs over the past number of years. Daisy Hill Hospital has been mentioned and I have campaigned for a number of years on that.

We are campaigning not just to retain Daisy Hill Hospital but to expand it. The problem with emergency surgery is Six Counties-wide. We can no longer get general surgeons because surgeons want to specialise. The trust is in the process of trying to resolve the problem, which affects all hospitals across the region. There is a great opportunity for Daisy Hill Hospital to become the main acute hospital because it is the only hospital in the area between Drogheda, Craigavon and Belfast. This presents a great opportunity for cross-Border co-operation. A number of beds have already been set aside in the renal unit in Daisy Hill Hospital for people from north Louth. They are able to avail of dialysis at the hospital and get home early, whereas previously they had to travel to Dublin and spend many hours there. That is a big issue.

The East Border Region has been very supportive of the city deals. Newry, Mourne and Down District Council, in particular Newry, will avail of the southern relief road to relieve congestion and help city regeneration. There are a number of exciting projects that will reach fruition, hopefully in the near future

Mr. Burgess spoke about the Newry Canal, and I fully agree with him. The Newry Canal, which was completed in 1742, is the oldest canal in Britain or Ireland. There is a great opportunity to develop the canal as a big tourist attraction. I believe this should have been done many years ago, but having never been a councillor, I do not want to go into what councillors should or should not do.

The purpose of this committee is the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. What more can each border region do to ensure that all aspects and parts of the Good Friday Agreement are implemented? Go raibh míle maith agaibh.

There are two minutes remaining in this slot. Perhaps Ms Arthurs or her colleagues would like to come back in.

Ms Pamela Arthurs

It would be remiss of me not to refer to the memorandum of understanding between Newry, Mourne and Down District Council and Louth County Council. The councils are doing excellent work on cross-Border co-operation. The Dublin-Belfast economic corridor is integral, as four of our council areas are part of that corridor. We all want to complement each other's work and work together to improve the whole cross-Border offering.

On what we can do with regard to the Good Friday Agreement, that is more a question for the politicians. Even before the Good Friday Agreement, we were bringing people together. The politicians decided to face each other across the Border and work together on a cross-Border basis. They did not need any reason to do so, other than that it made sense and that the areas they represented bordered each other. We have been addressing this consistently since the 1970s. In that time, there has been a host of challenges. When we first started this work, the initiative came from our elected members and was supported by the officials. There was no money anywhere. No government supported cross-Border co-operation. We are in a totally different space now.

Organisations such as EBR, the North West Region Cross Border Group and, subsequently, the Irish Central Border Area Network, ICBAN, in grouping together and bringing politicians together at a local level, despite what was happening at a national level, have made a big difference in the work we do. As our chairman said in her address, it is still not easy. We still need support. We are grateful to be down here. In the early days, we could not get a Minister from either government to come along to view the work we did. I believe we have done a lot, but there is an awful lot more to be done. This will be done through collaboration and our members working together and with governments. We welcome that support we receive. The carrot is still needed. It is about working with other key agencies. We have 60 partners we currently work with in the INTERREG 5A programme. We need that support. Mr. Brady has asked what more can we do. We can keep doing what we are doing because that works at local level.

Ms Claire Hanna

I thank our visitors. A lot has been covered and I do not want to go over the ground colleagues went over, including thematic areas around health and some of the valuable and overdue projects. Reference was made to funding and how East Border Region is one quarter funded by the local authorities. I wanted to ask about the experience of the East Border Region with the shared prosperity fund, which, unfortunately, I am not expecting to be a very good experience, and some of the other funding streams that were proposed to replace the EU funds. How has the East Border Region found that process and what engagement has it had? Has it had any encouraging news around opportunities?

What are EBR's views and experiences of the city deals? The Belfast region city deal comes right down the spine of the Border also. Has Ms Arthurs had the opportunity to work much on that? Does Ms Arthurs see it as being able to add value to what the East Border Region is doing and is the East Border Region able to add value to that?

Ms Pamela Arthurs

When the UK Government first talked about the shared prosperity fund we contributed to that. There was not really any opportunity within it for cross-Border co-operation. We made the point, as did other organisations, that cross-Border co-operation was essential. It took me back to the days many years ago when we were looking at Shaping our Future, which was produced in the early 1990s. The Shaping Our Future document in Northern Ireland stopped at the Border. When road infrastructure was being improved, for example, one of the questions our members had was whether the roads would also be improved on the other side of the Border. That is where we were back in the 1990s. The short answer with regard to shared prosperity funding is "No". We have not had any positive engagement with that. There is €1.1 billion for PEACEPLUS funding, but in Northern Ireland we are losing all of our other EU funding streams. While the €1.1 billion is excellent and we are very pleased with it, obviously there is a lot of money that is not coming in.

Ms Hanna also asked about city deals. These are a real game changer, certainly for the Newry, Mourne and Down district. We are now working with the local authorities to see if there are programmes going forward that would complement and extend some of the city deal benefits across the Border. As I said, Newry, Mourne and Down District Council and Louth County Council work really well together. Their joint management teams meet on a monthly basis and I am part of that. The memorandum of understanding committee meets regularly. There is really strong engagement between both councils. They have also just updated their strategy. We all work together and complement each other. We are not stepping on toes. Our mission now in working with the Dublin-Belfast economic corridor is to draw down as much money and support into the cross-Border region.

Ms Claire Hanna

Unfortunately, that response chimes with other experiences of the shared prosperity funding. It is exactly what many of us have been worried about for a number of years. We have cautioned since before the referendum that the funds would not be matched. There was a debate in Westminster just last week about the lack of engagement on it, the lack of information being provided about the priorities and the net loss there will be to very valuable projects and groups such as the East Border Region.

As I said, I was not anticipating Ms Arthurs telling me she had had a good experience of it but I am sorry to hear that and it is something we are working away on.

I thank Ms Hanna. Dr. Stephen Farry MP of the Alliance Party is online. Does he wish to contribute?

Dr. Stephen Farry

I thank the Acting Chairman. I wish our guests a good afternoon. I am speaking from what is probably the most northern extremity of the EBR in Bangor in the Ards and North Down Borough Council area. I will toss in a couple of things but want to make a point beforehand on the electronic travel authorisation issue. The House of Lords this week agreed an amendment to forgo that in relation to movements on the island of Ireland. It must come back to the House of Commons and there may be a bit of a ping-pong between the two bodies around this, though I hope common sense will prevail in that regard. I hope that is a small bit of encouragement.

I want to touch on the geography to an extent, not least given my opening comments. I have a two-part question that may seem slightly contradictory, so apologies for that. The first part involves how the Border region tends to work for what would be the most outlying extreme points. I refer to County Meath and Ards and north Down, as opposed to the synergies there may be closer to the Border itself. What are the direct benefits for those councils? The second part may be slightly contradictory. How good or counterproductive is it to have, in a sense, two large cities completely beyond the jurisdiction of the EBR? Is it helpful to have a focus away from those or are there potential lost synergies through not really bringing them into account with what is happening with the corridor, especially from an economic point of view, given they are probably the main drivers of gross value added, notwithstanding the fact we are trying to spread things out a bit better?

Ms Pamela Arthurs

I might come in on Bangor and north Down. Those two areas are part of the eligible area for the INTERREG 5A programme, which is the programme we have consistently been dealing with. We have dealt with all the programmes to date and therefore they are as eligible as Newry or Dundalk for the funding. As I said, the funding was a carrot. Why would Bangor or north Down look towards working on a cross-Border basis unless there was some benefit to the people of the region? We can point to a host of projects that we have secured through the INTERREG programme to date, that we hope to secure under PEACEPLUS, and that benefit the people of Bangor, north Down and indeed Meath and a wider region. It is a good question because even when the councils joined the EBR, some of the officials asked what they had in common and why they would work on a cross-Border basis. That is what is excellent about capacity-building. When they sat around the room like this talking about the priorities under tourism or economic development, the officials realised their priorities are by and large the same as those of their counterparts in Louth, Meath, Monaghan or elsewhere. Therefore, they were able to co-operate on a cross-Border basis and secured funding throughout the districts, so there is an impact there.

On the counterproductive point between the two large cities, we are a Border area. We have collaborated because we are a Border area in between the two main cities and that was how we were formed in the first place. Our local elected members said we have higher unemployment, are more disadvantaged and do not have foreign direct investment. They raised a suite of things that were common across the Border. That is why we actually exist. On the two cities, our elected members may want to say something on this but we hear consistently everything is going to Belfast or to Dublin. That is what we are about. We are about bringing moneys and investment into the cross-Border region.

I thank Ms Arthurs. Does Dr. Farry want to come back in?

Dr. Stephen Farry

I am happy to pass to the next person.

I thank Dr. Farry. Are there any other members online who did not have an opportunity to speak and wish to contribute?

Ms Michelle Gildernew

I am online, Acting Chairman, though my camera is off. Mr. Brady may want to come in. He only had five minutes in the previous slot.

Yes, but each grouping got 20 minutes, though some did not take it. Does Ms Gildernew want to make a contribution herself?

Ms Michelle Gildernew

I am okay.

All right, so there is no other grouping or party online that did not get a chance to speak. Does anybody want to make a quick contribution or put a quick question to any of our guests?

Mr. Mickey Brady

The memorandum of understanding between Newry, Mourne and Down District Council and Louth County Council works very well and is a good model for other councils where cross-Border co-operation is concerned. It has been very successful in the past number of years and continues to be.

To elaborate on the Daisy Hill issue, is there anything more we can do locally about it? There has always been doom and gloom around Daisy Hill. We need to be much more positive about it. Daisy Hill is going to remain and as I said, we are campaigning to get it expanded. There are many opportunities, especially with the city deal coming in and a civic centre being built to allow Daisy Hill to expand in terms of its present location. That is something that is very much on the cards and I hope it happens in the next relatively short period of time. On the cross-Border stuff, I mentioned the renal unit in Daisy Hill. It does a wonderful job of providing treatment for cross-Border patients. I am wondering if there is anything else that the EBR can help us with in the context of Daisy Hill because it is my understanding that by 2023 the majority of the Irish population will live along the east coast. That is a huge opportunity for the provision of a very good acute hospital. I wonder if there is anything else the EBR can add to that.

I thank Mr. Brady. I think Ms Arthurs, when responding to Senator Currie earlier, said health issues have been dealt with by a sister organisation, CAWT, over the years.

Ms Pamela Arthurs

Yes. In saying that, on raising the whole issue with the elected members, it might be worthwhile if we have an agenda item in the future to raise it and see what we might be able to contribute, moving forward. If it is looking on a cross-Border basis it is within our remit to do that.

I thank Ms Arthurs. Senator Currie wishes to contribute again.

One of the suggestions put forward by the Daisy Hill future group that would help involves securing funding for an MRI scanner for the hospital. If there are any opportunities to do that as a stepping stone, it would be good. We should probably pick it up with the shared island unit as well as the Department of Health.

Mr. Mickey Brady

On that point, one of the issues around the MRI scanner is the power supply to Daisy Hill. It needs to be seriously upgraded so an MRI scanner can operate and that is a big priority for the group.

Ms Pamela Arthurs


Mr. Chris Hazzard

The rail review was mentioned in passing. Newry is one of the fastest growing urban centres in Ireland and there is increasing demand for travel between Dublin and Belfast. However, the rail options are fairly limited, especially in the morning and evening. I would have loved to take the train this morning but there are none late enough home to make it doable, so you take the car instead. That must change going forward. The rail review is therefore really important. What sort of input has the EBR had with the review, especially given the east economic corridor between Belfast and Dublin?

Deputy Fergus O'Dowd resumed the Chair.

Ms Pamela Arthurs

We have championed the upgrade of the rail infrastructure in the past, although not in recent times. Indeed the last INTERREG programme funded the upgrading of the carriages of the Enterprise, but we have not been engaging with the current rail review. It is something that, perhaps, we could look at in the future.

Ms Michelle Hall

When we had our charter consultation that was one of the things that was raised. We were shown the map of the previous railway lines and how that has all been dissipated over the years. I have worked hard to get a local Bus Éireann route going between Drogheda and Dundalk along the coastal route and that is going to be extended now to Carlingford and Newry. That is a good, positive thing and people are welcome to come to Termonfeckin from Newry and to visit me anytime for a cup of tea.

Mr. Chris Hazzard

I will hold Ms Hall to that.

Ms Pamela Arthurs

In addition, in the new PEACE PLUS programme there is €165 million for sustainable transport. We will not know until it comes out, but that is looking at an hourly service of the Enterprise so that will be critical. It is a fairly significant amount of money there.

Mr. Chris Hazzard

To go back to a previous time, when I was Minister for Infrastructure in the North we looked at the hourly service in and out, but the big problem was the DART in Dublin. That gets priority in the mornings, in and out. Even if one had invested all the hundreds of millions in the new carriages and one was ready, it is a matter of dealing with the southern authorities to ensure one gets the routes in and out of Dublin in the mornings and at night. However, that is welcome.

Mr. Robert Burgess

Mr. Hazzard probably knows about the consultation paper that was taking place. The Northern Ireland Local Government Association, NILGA, strongly supported the train from Belfast to Dublin to be a fast route. The problem was it was slowing down to let people on and off in Newry. That was creating some mayhem at different times. It was only going to stop in the morning and afternoon and the rest of the time it was going straight through. That is what was coming in the consultation paper. However, we are taking a look at the links between most of the disused railways across Northern Ireland and Ireland. Could we set up a full new rail network? Mr. Hazzard is 100% right that we need a fast rail track. That is where we need to be.

On that point, if it is helpful I have been meeting with Irish Rail as a Dáil Deputy. Senator Currie and others know that the DART is coming to Drogheda, which is great news for us. There is going to be a DART every ten minutes. Hopefully, that will lead to increased capacity. There is certainly capacity on the Dundalk-Drogheda line because there are very few trains on it other than the Enterprise, so there will be a massive facility there for greater connectivity between north Louth and south Louth and also from south Down and other places. The other point, which goes to the core of your point, is that Irish Rail is committed to an additional line from Malahide into the city so trains and the fast Enterprise can go unimpeded into the heart of Dublin.

Mr. Chris Hazzard

It will be interesting to see if there is capacity then to put more carriages on even from Newry to Drogheda and allow people to switch onto the DART.

That would be great. You can be on the first one. Perhaps we should meet with representatives of Irish Rail on another day because that is where it is at. There are great changes coming and there is huge growth in population. The Belfast-Dublin corridor is the most significant growth centre, with Newry, Dundalk and Drogheda on that. They are designated growth centres. That is where the future investment needs will be.

Does anybody else want to make a contribution? I apologise for being absent. As nobody is offering, we will finish the meeting. I thank Councillor Michelle Hall, chairman, Mr. Robert Burgess, vice-chairman, Ms Dette Hughes, programme manager, and Ms Pamela Arthurs, chief executive, for their contributions.

The joint committee adjourned at 3.15 p.m. until 1.30 p.m. on Thursday, 24 March 2022.