Gabhaim buíochas leis an gCathaoirleach. Is pribhléid dom a bheith i láthair anseo, mar Thaoiseach, chun labhairt leis an gcoiste. Táim buíoch den choiste as ucht a gcuid suime sna hábhair seo. It is good to have the opportunity to meet with this committee today to discuss the Government's shared island initiative. Cuirim fáilte roimh spéis agus rannpháirtíocht an choiste, ar príomhghnéithe iad agus muid ag tabhairt an tionscnamh ar aghaidh. Tá áthas orm go n-iarrtar ar chomhaltaí an choiste seo agus ar chomhaltaí choistí ábhartha eile an Oireachtais a bheith rannpháirteach inár n-imeachtaí agus inár n-idirphléití éagsúla maidir le hoileán comhroinnte.
I launched the initiative 18 months ago as a whole-of-government priority setting out a broad, positive, inclusive agenda focused on engaging with all communities and traditions to build consensus around a shared future and delivering tangible benefits for the whole island, underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement. The agreement, resoundingly endorsed by the people of this island in historic referendums almost 24 years ago, empowers us all to work for a better and reconciled future without in any way compromising our different and equally legitimate identities, beliefs and aspirations for the future of this island, whether nationalist, unionist or neither.
The Government's shared island approach involves raising the level of ambition for what we achieve through all-island partnerships; working with the Northern Ireland Executive, the UK Government, local authorities and civil society, delivering on cross-Border investment commitments and developing a new generation of projects focused on our major shared challenges, North and South; and fostering inclusive civic dialogue and a comprehensive programme of research to inform our shared island policy and to help build consensus on a shared future.
I would like to set out to the committee how we have taken this work forward so far and through this year. Through the revised national development plan, NDP, last year the Government set out an unprecedented commitment of €3.5 billion for all-island investment out to 2030, including an extended and increased commitment of at least €1 billion this decade to the Government’s shared island fund established in October 2020. As part of the revised NDP, we defined new investment priorities across virtually all sectors to deploy this funding.
Our goal is to work through all-island partnerships to invest for a more connected, sustainable and prosperous island for all. The Government is working intensively to do that. I established a shared island unit in my Department to drive and co-ordinate delivery of our priorities across all Departments. In 2021, the Government allocated €50 million from the shared island fund to start moving ahead with two long-standing cross-Border projects - the Ulster Canal and Narrow Water Bridge – that have been talked about for decades. The Government also commenced a major new North-South research programme. Last month, with the Minister, Deputy Harris, I announced more than €37 million in the first awards by the Higher Education Authority under the programme, resourced through the shared island fund. We are funding research teams in universities from all corners of this island to work on pioneering projects over the next four years, for example, on cancer and vaccine research, biodiversity conservation and developing an Atlantic innovation corridor across the multi-city region of Derry, Galway and Limerick. These are just some of the 62 successful projects.
Earlier this month, I announced a new €5 million shared island development funding scheme open to local authorities throughout the island. Local authorities want to work together on a North-South basis, for instance to create tourism trails, conserve heritage, protect biodiversity and help meet regional skills needs. This new funding initiative provides the seed capital to local authorities to bring their proposals to the point where they can then apply for more substantial support in both jurisdictions. The aim is to empower councils to develop a pipeline of new cross-Border capital projects that will deliver common regional development goals and maximise the opportunities from working together on an all-island basis. Through this year Ministers across government are working to advance new shared island fund projects, which includes electric vehicle charging infrastructure; cross-Border community climate action partnerships; Border region enterprise development and all-island civil society partnerships. I also want to see culture, arts and creativity as a key pillar in the shared island initiative. We are taking account of shared island themes and opportunities in developing the new Creative Ireland programme that will run for the next five years. We are working to foster more co-operation between our arts councils and by culture Ministers to support a deepening of artistic and cultural exchange. In the time ahead we need not just to better accept cultural diversity on this island, but to celebrate it.
The Government is also working with the Northern Ireland Executive and the UK Government to move ahead with our cross-Border investment commitments under the New Decade, New Approach agreement. This includes capital investment to support expanded access and collaboration on higher education in the north west region, working with Ulster University’s Magee campus and the new Atlantic Technological University Letterkenny campus and delivering new cross-Border greenways and our transport connectivity commitments, including the Government’s contribution to the A5 upgrade. The shared island fund means that we have the resourcing ready to go for all of these major projects.
The Government and the Northern Ireland Executive have also commenced the first ever all-island strategic rail review to be completed later this year, including a focus on better connections for the north-west. Informed by the outcome of this review we will make new strategic investments in sustainable rail, working with the Northern Ireland Executive and the UK Government. We want to do significantly more with both the Northern Ireland Executive and the UK Government. The PEACE PLUS programme, funded by the European Union, the British and Irish Governments and Northern Ireland Executive, will provide more than €1 billion over the next seven years to support peace and prosperity on this island.
We want to complement this with new, more strategic and impactful dimensions to our North-South and east-west relationships. I have had good engagement with Prime Minister Boris Johnson and with political leaders in Northern Ireland on how we can do that as part of our shared island approach. By working and investing together on common goals, including on climate action and sustainable transport, we are aiming to move ahead this year to establish new all-island research hubs, supported on the Government side through the shared island fund and by Science Foundation Ireland to bring industry, research agencies and institutions together to conduct world-leading research and development in areas of common priority for both jurisdictions. These hubs will contribute to our collective foreign direct investment, FDI, offering and indigenous enterprise base that supports good jobs in towns and cities throughout the island. The Government wants to see a deepening of beneficial co-operation and societal connections on the island in all areas. That is how we can, both in government and in society, take forward the core commitment of the Good Friday Agreement to "strive in every practical way towards reconciliation". As I know this committee will agree, that is a fundamental interest for us all on this island. I have asked all Ministers to bring forward new investment, policy and co-operation initiatives that will deliver on our shared island priorities as set out in the NDP. This work is under way co-ordinated by my Department.
My Department has also commenced a wide-ranging shared island research programme, working with the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, the Irish Research Council and other partners. Earlier today, I participated in the launch of the fourth ESRI shared island research report, which is the first systematic examination of education systems and outcomes across both jurisdictions on the island from primary through to tertiary levels.
The ESRI has also examined and published reports in recent months on the structure and collaborative potential of the services economy, foreign direct investment and of primary healthcare systems, all on an island-wide basis. ESRI work under way, to be published later this year, is examining renewable energy supports, productivity levels as well as migrant integration and early years experience and policy, North and South. On 12 April, I participated in the launch event for a major report to Government by NESC - Shared Island: Shared Opportunity. This was the first NESC report with a dedicated and strategic all-island focus.
Following broad-based consultation throughout the island over the past year, the council has made a series of recommendations on how we can deepen beneficial co-operation throughout the island in economic, social and environmental terms. The council found very significant support in practice for all-island approaches to key challenges. The Government will positively consider NESC’s recommendations, co-ordinated by my Department, and we will seek to take them forward in consultation with the Northern Ireland Executive and the UK Government. We want to see all of the outputs under the shared island research programme informing policy, planning, political debate and agreed actions on how we work for a more equitable, connected and prosperous society on this island in the years immediately ahead.
Níl aon amhras ach gurb é seo an chéad ócáid sa tír ina bhfuilimid ag déanamh an mhéid taighde seo ar an oileán ina iomláine. Tá an méid oibre a rinne an ERSI ar chúrsaí oideachais ríthábhachtach. Molaim é do bhaill an chomhchoiste mar déileálann sé le cúrsaí oideachais ó thaobh míbhuntáiste de go háirithe sa Tuaisceart agus na caíonna agus na deiseanna atá ann níos mó a dhéanamh chun infheistíocht agus comhoibriú idir oideachasóirí sa Tuaisceart agus sa Deisceart teacht le chéile chun déileáil leis na ceisteanna sin agus réiteach na faidhbe sin a chur i bhfeidhm.
Broad-based, inclusive all-island civic dialogue is also central to the Government’s approach. Over the past year and more, more than 1,300 citizens and civic leaders have participated across nine events so far in our shared island dialogue series. Inclusion is at the heart of these dialogues, involving people from across all sectors, communities, political traditions and regions. We are ensuring the inclusion of voices that are not sufficiently heard in our peace process, particularly those of women, young people and ethnic minorities. The dialogues are looking in practical ways at how we can better share this island, for instance, on climate action, healthcare co-operation, tourism and sport. Dialogues are also engaging with societal questions around identity, culture, equality and inclusion. Those are issues that we need to acknowledge and discuss and on which we need to do better together on this island.
The Government is hearing from those most directly involved in different sectors how a shared island agenda can be further pursued around impactful, beneficial, achievable actions by Government and civil society. Shared island dialogues will be held throughout this year on an in-person and regional basis, a basis on which we did have an opportunity to proceed during the first year. The next dialogue will be convened by the Minister for Rural and Community Development, Deputy Heather Humphreys, on enabling rural and community development on a shared island, on 20 May in Monaghan.
These discussions are affirming the goodwill and common ground there is in civil society, across different communities and political traditions, to co-operate on common challenges for this island. They are also making clear that people do not view identity in simplistic, binary terms, as it is too often portrayed in politics, particularly in Northern Ireland. New voices, perspectives and experiences in our communities are reframing debates and defining new priorities for how we share this island in the years ahead.
In a dialogue I participated in with young people, equality, climate, education, economic opportunity and mental health were among the greatest concerns. They want to see these issues far more to the fore in how we work through the Good Friday Agreement. The dialogues are directly informing how the Government is working to deepen our North-South and east-west partnerships through the Good Friday Agreement. They are also proving to be a starting point for broader and deeper civic conversations on a shared future. They help build understanding, confidence and consensus around taking forward a more ambitious shared island agenda for the years ahead that can benefit all communities. The Government will continue to support and engage with civic initiatives as an integral part of our shared island approach.
I want to say something about the political context for this work. Next week, the people of Northern Ireland will vote to provide a new democratic mandate for the devolved power-sharing institutions at Stormont. It is vital for the future of Northern Ireland and for relationships on these islands that the political parties take their mandates from the Assembly elections and move quickly to form a new Executive. That is what the people of Northern Ireland want. This is a moment for political leaders to live up to the commitments of the Good Friday Agreement, which is overwhelmingly supported by people across this island. Political leadership by all with a role and responsibility is also fundamental in getting beyond the issues around Brexit and the protocol that have hindered the peace process over the past six years. We need to return the focus to working collectively to support progress and prosperity for all in Northern Ireland and across this island and to realising the opportunities in our societal, economic, cultural and political relationships through the framework of the Good Friday Agreement. These are the Government’s objectives and responsibilities as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. We are significantly prioritising, resourcing and delivering an ambitious, practical agenda to support that through our shared island initiative.
I thank the Chair and committee members. I look forward to discussing this work with them and to ongoing engagement with the committee on the shared island initiative.