Léim ar aghaidh chuig an bpríomhábhar

Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement díospóireacht -
Thursday, 28 Apr 2022

Work of the Shared Island Unit: An Taoiseach

I welcome an Taoiseach here today. He is extremely welcome, as are his staff. We look forward to an excellent debate on the issues, which are of great importance, particularly those relating to the shared island unit and the fantastic work an Taoiseach is doing in that regard. I compliment his Department and, of course, Ms Aingeal O’Donoghue and Mr. Eoghan Duffy. They have been at meetings of the committee before, as has the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney. We have had very fruitful discussions.

We have received an apology from Mr. John Finucane MP, who cannot make it. Since parties elected in the North, to the UK Parliament and here in the South are represented on this committee, we will make use of a rotation to ensure every party represented in this Parliament and in the UK Parliament gets to speak. The rotation is as follows: Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, Sinn Féin, the SDLP, Alliance, the Green Party, Sinn Féin, the Labour Party and then Independent Members, including Aontú. We might have a few minutes at the very end for a wrap-up. That is the general rotation. The committee is happy with that. We also agreed that, after nine minutes of a contribution, we will indicate that there is one minute to go so that everybody gets a fair share. Is everybody happy with that? Yes.

I have to read the notice on privilege for everybody. The evidence of witnesses physically present or giving 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 who is giving evidence from within the parliamentary precincts. They 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 and 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 the person's or the entity's good name. We have to read that note before every meeting.

Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the Houses or an official either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. I remind members of the constitutional requirement that members must be physically present within the precincts of Leinster House in order to participate in public meetings. I will not permit a member to participate if he or she is not here. That is standard and arises from the requirements of the Constitution.

I now call on the Taoiseach to make his opening statement, if he is ready. Cuirim fáilte roimhe arís. Beidh díospóireacht an-mhaith againn anseo inniu, le cúnamh Dé.

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.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Taoiseach as ucht na hóráide sin. Molaim an obair iontach agus an déileáil atá déanta ag Roinn an Taoisigh le gnáthmhuintir an Tuaiscirt. Is iad na rudaí is tábhachtaí ná caint le gnáthdhaoine agus na rudaí a dteastaíonn uathu a sholáthar dóibh más féidir linn agus comhoibriú idir na daoine ó thuaidh agus ó dheas agus thiar agus thoir freisin.

I call on the representatives of Fianna Fáil. I ask them to nominate their three speakers or arrange it however they wish. They have ten minutes.

The Taoiseach, Ms O'Donoghue and Mr. Duffy are most welcome before the committee. I am delighted to have a discussion on this matter because the whole shared island concept has created a non-threatening space on the island, across societies, for the first time. I welcome the Taoiseach's presentation. There was a lot in it and it is a pity that we are constrained by time limits at this meeting. To make the best use of the time available to me, I am going to go straight into questions.

My first relates to the Taoiseach's opinion on the significance of the research. I know there are elements of society in Northern Ireland that, for example, cling onto the health services and use that as a vehicle to say they do not want an all-island economy. We value the health service even though its outcomes on illnesses such as cancer and coronary care are worse than the equivalent outcomes in the South. What is the significance of the research from the points of view of health, the all-island economy, education and young people who wish to attain jobs and lives? What is the point to all this research? Some would suggest it should be handed over to a citizens' assembly that should be allowed to do that work. What is the Taoiseach's opinion on that? Why do we not do that?

With respect to dialogue, I am conscious of the fact that conversations have got going. The difficulty for me and some who are creating conversation is that the dialogue is very much one-sided and nobody seems to be reaching out to the unionist community. What will a shared island dialogue with the Taoiseach's Department bring that is different? How do we engage the Protestant community in Northern Ireland? What is different in that regard? What do the dialogues bring?

I do not want to interrupt the Senator's train of thought but will the committee agree that we extend the time available to 15 minutes per group? The Taoiseach will not be left with enough time to answer the questions without that extension. Not everybody is present. Is that proposition okay with everybody? It is.

What is the Taoiseach's position on dealing with issues of legacy, truth and justice? It has not been mentioned today but we met with a group from the United States yesterday - the Ancient Order of Hibernians, AOH. The UK Government has put proposals out there that the Taoiseach has rejected. What is his opinion in that regard?

The Taoiseach is very welcome, as are Ms O'Donoghue and Mr. Duffy. Their time is precious and it is brilliant to have them here. I have said on many occasions that the shared island unit has been the single most progressive move on the island of Ireland since the Good Friday Agreement. It is a step change in how we look to the future as we try to build this island and its people to be stronger, better and more prosperous. The whole ethos is about bringing our jurisdictions together because keeping them apart is no good without the people in the island coming together. The shared island approach is pragmatic, practical and makes common sense.

Some people talk about making a plan for the future and creating a pathway. One can either choose to accept or ignore that. I choose to look to the facts. I see the acknowledgement of the legitimacy of the Taoiseach's office and of all the incredible work he and his officials are doing with respect to the research.

This morning I pointed to the research published by the ESRI on education and training systems. My question comes from that. We have research. We have the dialogue series and we have the projects. I believe that will create the blueprint to create the future that we want. In life, very few things are certain. However, it is certain that we are stuck together. This island is one island no matter what our constitutional status is. We must look to the fact of that. This shared island is the blueprint for the next 100 years, the next ten years, the next five years with all this on-the-ground work and all this incredible research.

I glanced through the executive summary on education. How will the Department of the Taoiseach lead all this incredible knowledge? How is the Department looking to spread that knowledge, working with the Northern Ireland Executive, when it comes to implement the changes based on the research and the incredible work that has been done to allow us to become more synchronised, with our policies converging close together?

I very much welcome Taoiseach's very positive message and his detailed presentation. The shared island strategy will build on the benefits the island generates from the Good Friday Agreement. Importantly, it can also harness the potential of the Agreement. It is not just a strategy, but a strategy underpinned by substantial public funding. A total of €3.5 billion is committed in the NDP for all-island development up to 2030. The Taoiseach stated there would be at least €1 billion this decade for the shared island initiative. That is fabulous funding, which can do an enormous amount across all sectors in our society. What he has outlined are not just ambitious but realisable projects. I very much welcome that the unit is funding local authorities. In our engagement with departmental officials previously, we discussed the great corporate knowledge and know-how in local authorities in the Border region. I am pleased that will be harnessed.

The Taoiseach also mentioned comhoibriú idir oideachasóirí at higher education level. I previously discussed with him the potential for the development of more structured co-operation on an all-Ireland basis in the provision of further education. I mentioned the potential for Cavan Institute with our neighbouring college, South West College in Enniskillen. I believe we need a strategy for further education. As we know, many of the people who may have underachieved at younger stages in life, go through the route of progressing to further education and getting third level degrees and even higher qualifications. Further education is very important in dealing with disadvantage and with skills deficits in some areas.

The Taoiseach also mentioned research hubs. Since 1998 on our island, enterprise and commerce have gone ahead and done a considerable amount on an all-Ireland basis. Some colleagues here will realise that in Cavan, Monaghan, Fermanagh, south Tyrone and Armagh we have seen the interdependence of business and commerce. In my home region, agrifood, engineering and construction projects are key drivers of economic development North and South of the Border. I would like to see funding for enterprise centres not just research centres, but centres where workspace would be provided.

I very much welcome that the shared island unit is involving sectors, not just a limited 80 or 90 people mulling over every subject. It is going out to young people and to different groups with particular interests in different subjects and involving them in putting forward suggestions for how they want to see our island develop on all-island, cross-border basis. I very much welcome the Taoiseach's presentation.

There are four minutes left in the slot. I know there were many questions there and the Taoiseach may reply as he wants.

I appreciate the kind comments that have been articulated on this. Senator Blaney spoke about the shared island creating a space that is not a threatening. It is important that it is creating a space where people, respecting each other's views on the constitutional question, can participate without fear or favour. It is not a Trojan horse; it is designed to pragmatically create opportunities to solve problems on the island and enhance working together on the island.

The research is very significant because this is the first time that we have had a systematic research programme on different services and systems in the two jurisdictions on the island. For example, the analysis this morning is of the education systems from primary to tertiary, and the outcomes. It particularly focuses on school completion and educational disadvantage. There are clear conclusions that on school completion there is a greater degree of early school leaving in the Northern system than there is in the Republic and that the Delivering Equality of Opportunity in Schools, DEIS, programme and school completion programmes from the 1990s onwards and throughout the early 2000s have had a clear impact on improving school attainment and school completion in the Republic.

We would like to work with the new Executive and the UK Government in taking that forward. Senator McGreehan asked how we can take it forward. We also have lessons to learn from the North. The Executive has taken an initiative on this and had an expert panel to examine this. We would like to share ideas. At one level of the education ecosystem is teacher research. I would like to see the Drumcondra research centre with its counterpart in the North getting together and having an exchange in the first instance to look at the metrics to identify schools that would be eligible for a certain level of support, as we did in the Republic.

Educational disadvantage is a very long haul. We cannot do stop-start initiatives. It cannot be just a project-based initiative. What came across from the stakeholder forum, which formed part of the ESRI research was that the educational communities, North and South, are ready to move beyond the project-based or ad hoc approach to educational projects. They really want a more systemic programme-based long-term approach.

We stand ready to support any initiative in the North through funding and so on. Obviously, we need to work with the educational interests in the North, the Executive and the UK Government. We are very determined because it has been a long-term view of mine that this is one area that has not been progressed sufficiently in terms of early school leaving. As Minister for Education and Science, I was involved in educational development projects in the Republic. It is a long-held passion of mine that every child should be entitled to get an opportunity to complete school, irrespective of background, tradition or whatever. We should do whatever we can on the island. As co-guarantors of the agreement, that is an interest of ours.

Health is very important. I will cover the three contributions together. I was in Altnagelvin Hospital last week. The Republic had allocated approximately €20 million to the cancer centre there. Patients on both sides of the Border benefit from that collaboration. In the cath labs, I met patients from County Donegal who had just had stents inserted. Instead of travelling to Galway city, it was a 20-minute journey to Altnagelvin Hospital. I know that Deputy Smith is interested in Daisy Hill Hospital. We should look at the health area and use the research base to see if we can add capacity to the health services in the Border area and look at it from a more regional perspective. We need to see if we can win further support from both jurisdictions to add to that capacity and provide accessible services regionally. That would also apply to Enniskillen and so forth. The research will help us to do that.

The NESC research was particularly important because it is very strong on the climate issue. Already out of the dialogues, an all-island climate biodiversity network has been established. An all-island women's network has also been established arising from the dialogues. The NESC report is particularly valuable.

People know my position on legacy. I am very clear. We have to listen to victims. There cannot be any attempt at changing what both governments have agreed to. There cannot be unilateralism on this front or any amnesties or anything like that. I have been very clear. I have met many victims groups in the past while. We need to continue to listen to the victims and put them centre stage.

My view, which applies to what Senator McGreehan said, is that the three sets of relationships that underpin the Good Friday Agreement are the key to this island. Those are the North-South and British-Irish relationships and the traditions within the North. They still remain the cornerstone of this island and will remain so far into the future.

I could not agree more with Deputy Smith on further education. We have to link further education to the idea of progression pathways, greater student mobility on the island and we have to try to harmonise qualifications frameworks as best we can to facilitate student mobility. We were up at the postgraduate medicine course on the University of Ulster's Magee campus. Some students who are studying medicine there cannot get placements in the Republic which is not satisfactory. We just have to create greater mobility and be flexible. Our institutions and agencies in the Republic have to be far more flexible in facilitating this mobility of people such as workers and students across the board. I do not know where I am on time. I apologise.

The Taoiseach is always within time.

We look forward to cementing the Derry-Donegal initiative with city deals where we would develop complementary enterprise parks. There will be funding from the shared island fund for that. However, enterprise has been ahead more so on the indigenous base than the foreign direct investment, FDI, base. There is a kind of guarding-of-the-domain approach from the FDI agencies. I pay tribute to Enterprise Ireland and Invest Northern Ireland which have worked very well together in terms of trade missions and so on.

I got an email in my capacity as Chairman last night from Professor William Gallagher. He presented to us here in October on an all-island cancer research industry strategy. Significant progress has been made on that as a result of the contacts that have been made. The Taoiseach is absolutely right. Considerable progress is being made on the health front. There is also Mr. Brian Rowntree who has been a very senior executive in many capacities in the North. I am working with him to deal with some of the issues that were raised. Daisy Hill Hospital is one of them. The Taoiseach pointed out increasing capacity in Border counties such as Louth and in south Down and so on. We can all serve our public better by better organisation and cross-Border relationships which improve health services for everybody. There is nothing political in that. It makes common sense for people there.

I thank the Taoiseach for coming to the committee and for his presentation. I compliment the initiative as well as the staff in the Department of the Taoiseach who are working on it, Ms O’Donoghue and Mr. Duffy. They have led a phenomenal programme of engagement. I have had the opportunity to participate in some of it and I know it is very strong, constructive and creative.

The work of this committee has been very interesting. We have engaged in a range of constitutional questions and questions around reconciliation, education and the development of the island. What stands out most from the Taoiseach's presentation is the political context he set out at the beginning and the end. The agreement is driven by a desire for reconciliation, mutual trust, understanding and a basis on which the island can move forward together based on those concepts, ideas and ideals. The value of the shared island dialogue is that it goes through so much of this in practical terms and identifies practical ways of building relationships and simply meeting more people from different communities on the island. That is very constructive work.

I very much respect the Taoiseach's background and position on this and the language he uses in describing it. I see it as very constructive and as building a genuine interest in reconciliation with the unionist community, in particular, with which we need to build better relationships all the time. I very much respect that historically and respect the work the Taoiseach does today.

Irrespective of the practical work of the shared island unit, what can this committee do? What can the Government do? What can we do as a people to reach out and do more in terms of reconciliation? What more can we do in terms of understanding and respecting difference and getting to a genuinely personal appreciation of different perspectives before we can build any different constitutional future? What is the Taoiseach's more broad political reflection on what we can do?

Mr. Fergal Mythen who has been a very senior civil servant for the Department of Foreign Affairs and now is an ambassador designate to the United Nations has been extremely helpful to this committee. We find that there is considerable help from and co-operation with both the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Foreign Affairs which we want to continue. The committee has visited Belfast, Ballymurphy, community groups, survivors groups and political people as best it could.

We are travelling at the behest of Deputy Smith and Ms Michelle Gildernew, in particular. We are going to Fermanagh and mid-Ulster in approximately a month's time. I see the smiles from Sinn Féin. We are travelling at the behest of Deputy Tully as well. I apologise. I should have mentioned her. We also hope to go to Derry. We would be happy to work with the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Foreign Affairs. The key message we are getting from the Secretary General at the Department of Foreign Affairs is visit, meet, communicate and listen. That is what the shared island unit is doing and what we are doing as a committee. The more we can build on that, the more sense it makes.

Some of us met with the Ancient Order of Hibernians yesterday which visited the Oireachtas. It was talking about British policy and so on. My point to the order was that if we can agree a shared future on this island, whatever that may be, and if all communities and political parties can sign up to that, there is no reason it cannot proceed. I could not see the British Government opposing any consensus that arose on this island for all political groups. That is why working together and meeting each other is critical and important. I have had a few meetings with Mr. Brian Rowntree who the Taoiseach knows. He has considerable experience. We can be given a wealth of information on our housing issues down here in terms of how the housing emergency has been dealt with and how health issues are being dealt with up there. There are considerable opportunities for us.

The only problem we have here is engaging with the unionist community in the political sense. We have Sinn Féin, Mr. Stephen Farry of Alliance is on the line, we have the SDLP and so on. We would love to meet unionists who are happy to do so politically without feeling it is any threat to their uniqueness and their remaining British, as guaranteed under the Good Friday Agreement, as it is guaranteed for people to be nationalist or republican or to follow whatever beliefs they want. What the shared island unit is doing is progressive and it is the way forward. It is putting money behind what it believes in and it is working.

I thank the Chairman for his comments. Reconciliation is key but trust is important. What we find is that people from civic society are participating in the dialogues and are engaging. I am conscious there is an election on and so on.

No one is putting up barriers to the shared island programme. It is important that people feel free to participate irrespective of what community they come from or what political views they have. It is important we maintain that. If someone is interested in education, health or climate change, irrespective of their politics, they should feel free to participate and contribute. As the Chair said, we all benefit from that participation.

This morning, I had some dialogue on the education front, working with Atlantic Technological University and the Ulster universities. We told them to come back to us with proposals and we will provide some funding towards them. They are looking at both the Letterkenny and Sligo campuses for potential developments.

Fundamentally, on Deputy Carroll MacNeill's point, it is about listening, meeting and talking but we have to expand it a bit more than we are doing right now. We should be encouraging greater engagement with younger and newer Members of the Oireachtas. We should be creating secure fora with Chatham House rules where people can engage over weekends to discuss these issues without fear or favour. We are all politicians and people are often very conscious of their base. That was always the issue historically. If someone participated with Deputies or Senators from the Republic and that got found out, it was thought that would damage the person back in their own political base. I will not bore the committee with my own experiences but I always remember what happened in 1992 with Ian Paisley. The DUP was going to participate in an engagement between 12 Members of this House and 12 unionists. At the eleventh hour the DUP pulled out and the late Ian Paisley went on RTÉ attacking left, right and centre the notion that we were going to go up into his constituency. Official unionists and loyalists were then with us so maybe that was the objective. It was fine and it was no big deal in the end but we learned an enormous amount from it.

I am always conscious that we have to respect where people are coming from. We have to respect their challenges. That is the great art of politics. Equally, others have to respect our challenges and where we are coming from. We have moved on a lot and many political representatives here have very open engagement with unionism but we have to make sure we create greater opportunities. The councils are important and we have provided them with seed funding. It is not Border councils alone but all councils on the island. We would encourage councils at a greater distance from the Border to think imaginatively about projects they could share with a council in the North on an ongoing basis. As we have these dialogues, I am conscious that there needs to be a regional focus in the Republic as well. The Good Friday Agreement is not just about the North at the Border level. What do young people in Galway, Waterford or Cork feel?

A very good point was put to me when I spoke to the TASC think tank last week. One woman made the very good point that we all have some view and look at things through a certain political, societal or generational prism, but there are whole new sets of communities emerging on the island that might have a completely different approach to this. They may not be looking at it through the same lens we have historically looked through. That is particularly true of the younger generations. The question is how we engage younger generations on the issue. That is what the dialogue is endeavouring to do because it requires active engagement. We have to work hard to work out how we get more active engagement between different groups. Some of it happens naturally. Deputy Brendan Smith mentioned enterprise. Sport happens naturally and there is lots of interaction North and South in that regard. An article from the Evening Echo was just sent to me by a family member about the time 7,000 Derry fans went down to Flower Lodge, as it was then known, which is now Páirc Uí Rinn. It was Derry City's first game in the League of Ireland against Cork City, I think in 1986.

It would have been 1986-87.

Yes. More than 7,000 supporters came down and it was a big occasion. We forget those moments. That shows the progress that has been made. The sport aspect happens naturally but in short, reconciliation and trust is about continuing to meet and people learning over time that we can do X, Y and Z with others.

The former editor of the Drogheda Independent, Hubert Murphy, now works at Drogheda United and he is trying to organise a North-South competition at the Battle of the Boyne site for children under a certain age. It would be where the Battle of the Boyne actually happened and it would be a social and sporting event. We are working on that. I do not know how it will go but we will be shouting for Drogheda anyway.

You will want to take them away for the day.

It is the way forward. I mention Hubert Murphy because he writes good articles as well. Is there any other point the Taoiseach or Deputy Carroll MacNeill would like to make?

I have one point, although I have made it already. Politicians need a bit of advanced leadership and to go beyond our comfort zones. That is what I meant to say. The people are ahead of the politicians. That can happen from time to time. That applies in the Republic as well as the North.

We now move on to Sinn Féin. I ask the members to nominate the speakers between themselves.

Ms Michelle Gildernew

An Taoiseach, Ms O'Donoghue and Mr. Duffy are very welcome to the meeting. Tá fáilte rompu. On my behalf and that of the Sinn Féin MPs, I would like to welcome them to the committee. The Good Friday Agreement and this committee are unique for two reasons. They are very practical but they are also visionary. They provide an opportunity for all the representatives of the people of this island to meet together and deal with issues of common concern, issues that will help improve the quality of people's lives wherever they live in Ireland. They provide a visionary platform for us to look forward and imagine how to move peacefully from where we are now to a new and reunited Ireland. Unfortunately, the unionist MPs do not engage with this committee, although they are very welcome to and we would love to see them. The Taoiseach is right that civic unionism is engaging on these issues. It would engage in a citizens' assembly and would look forward to that opportunity.

I commend the Taoiseach for the shared island unit initiative, which is also making an immediate, valuable and very positive contribution across a wide spectrum of all-Ireland issues that affect people's lives. The unit's all-Ireland framework complements the Good Friday Agreement in so many ways. It has identified key issues and my colleagues will raise questions with the Taoiseach about those issues. I would like to raise a few additional areas of concern, which I think the unit has the capacity, as it evolves, to explore and provide leadership on. I mentioned a citizens' assembly. I would also raise the setting of a date to hold a constitutional referendum on this country's independence. We would also like to look at representation in the Dáil for MPs. We have seen how practical and helpful that is. On a constituency level, I was delighted to hear the Taoiseach talking about an ambitious and practical agenda. I would like to think Tyrone, Fermanagh and the rest of Armagh would be included in that rail network. Obviously, the A5 is a big issue for those of us who live in that community and for any of our Donegal comrades coming through Aughnacloy. The road is certainly not fit for purpose.

An Taoiseach talked about accessible services regionally for cross-Border health and ensuring our constituents across the Border community have better access to health services. As somebody who represents the area the Enniskillen hospital is in, I would love to talk to An Taoiseach about that. I will write to ask for a meeting as I would love to discuss that matter further. That is the future for sustainability in rural communities. There has been a move towards centralisation and we need to ensure people have access to services. There is a lot in there. When discussing health, I would like to think we are also talking about mental health and accessibility for mental health services.

I have worked with Fergal Mythen but I did not know that news about him. I have worked with him for 25 years or more and I would like to take this opportunity to wish him well. He has been a huge help to us in the past and over the decades. I wish him well in the future and in his new role. Gabhaim buíochas leo go léir.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Taoiseach, Aingeal agus Eoghan. Tá fáilte rompu. Tréaslaím le hobair dhearfach an aonaid um oileán comhroinnte agus guím gach rath air ag dul ar aghaidh. Leag an Taoiseach amach go hiontach cuimsitheach an réimse oibre atá ar bun ag an aonad sin ar fud an oileáin agus is rud maith é sin.

The Taoiseach knows one of the key components in positively sharing this island is our ability to move freely throughout the entirety of the island. He referenced heavily in his contribution the experience of young people. It is the exclusive and positive experience of an entire generation of young people as it should be; they can move freely across all the country without being hindered or obstructed. The Taoiseach knows with the recent passage of the United Kingdom's Nationality and Borders Bill 2022 through Westminster there could be a very direct impact on our shared society and on many people within it being able to move freely from the South into the North.

The Taoiseach outlined the core and component parts of the work of the shared island unit around community development and reconciliation, education, healthcare and greenways. Looking at all those from above, we can see many people within education and the healthcare sector are outside Ireland or Britain and are not Irish or British citizens. They will be directly affected in their daily life. The shared island unit and what it is trying to achieve will also be affected. I will not lean too heavily into this but as a member of this committee looking at the implementation of the Good Friday Agreement, the passage of that legislation by Westminster demonstrates a further disregard for the Good Friday Agreement by the British Government. That is because it has sought to put in place a law that directly affects so many people here and has an impact on the Good Friday Agreement; it runs contrary to it, in fact.

The Taoiseach touched briefly on the matter of legacy and I agree that victims must be central. We must also get back to and see implemented what was in the Stormont House Agreement, which is what we all signed up to.

Where does the Taoiseach see Article 2 of the Constitution featuring in the work of the shared island unit? The Taoiseach is absolutely correct about reconciliation and I endorse that work absolutely. Article 2 states it is a birthright and entitlement of everyone born on the island to be part of the Irish nation. It is an obligation on all of us in government and the Parliament. The Taoiseach mentioned the experience of the Derry fans going down to Cork. When important sporting events organised on an all-Ireland basis cannot be watched by audiences in the North, that is not being part of the Irish nation but rather being excluded from it. Where does the Taoiseach see Article 2 in particular resting?

Does the Taoiseach share the concerns of this committee about the Nationality and Borders Bill 2022? Has he raised it with the British Prime Minister and, if not, would he be minded to raise concerns with him given its potential impact?

To respond to Ms Gildernew, there are different forms of participatory democracy, if we can call it that. To refer to my earlier remarks, citizens' assemblies tend to be a set group of people meeting on a specific topic with specific terms of reference. As we discussed earlier, for me the building of reconciliation and trust between North and South and different traditions is an entirely different sphere of activity that must be ongoing, sustained and not timebound. In many respects the shared island programme has a civic dialogue dimension to it.

More than 1,300 people have now participated in that from different backgrounds and not just those selected randomly from a group, as would be the case with a citizens' assembly. That has value but these 1,300 people are from all sorts of backgrounds. Some have an interest in climate, some are interested in sport and some are interested in tourism. They have come together in different sectoral formats to discuss areas of concern to them and how matters can be advanced. As I said, one of those led to an all-island women's forum and an all-island climate and biodiversity forum and network being established. There are significant people in research in University College Cork who are working with Northern counterparts to come back to us with biodiversity projects.

This is not something a citizens' assembly on its own would be able to achieve. We want to get people working together proactively on the island, irrespective of background. We want them to bring their expertise to the table and achieve progress and greater connectivity. The Narrow Water Bridge, for example, is about connectivity and tourism. The Ulster Canal is about tourism, recreation, jobs and connectivity as well.

The shared island unit is not getting involved on the constitutional side in terms of setting dates or anything like that. There is a broader Good Friday Agreement framework to governance and there are political parties with different perspectives on that. We have made the point. That gives us capacity to open it to all communities, and the challenge is to build trust so people can participate in a shared island without the sense it is a Trojan horse for something else. That is a concern of unionism, to be frank. So far no barriers have been put up to it.

It is interesting and heartening to see the enthusiasm in the third level sector and 62 projects have now been sanctioned. There was mention of mental health and one of those projects relates to the championing of mental health in Northern Ireland. The woman's name escapes me but it is a fascinating project. I met those involved, and they are teaming up with computational experts and people in computer science to develop apps for young people for early interventions on mental health. These are the kinds of activities we are promoting and it is where we want to keep the focus. There is also work on liquid biopsies to detect cancers and monitor tumours. It involves a consortium of third level institutions, including Queen's University and universities in the Republic of Ireland. That could be revolutionary in the diagnosis of various cancers and types of emerging tumours.

If we layer constitutional issues over this and set dates, we would kill this work. People will retreat to their trenches and there would be all sorts of issues. We do not need to go there. That is my view, although without prejudice to my opinions on how I would like to see the situation evolving and so on. That is the rationale behind where we are going.

I do not know if a submission was made by Senator Ó Donnghaile as the north west made the highest number of submissions on the rail network issue.

A massive number came from the north-west development area. We were up there recently and that emerged in the work. The Senator is right in saying it is no wonder because there are major issues with connectivity there. Funding is there for the A5. Everyone I speak to seems to say there are planning processes and public inquiries. We are ready to go and the money is there to progress the A5. We are very interested in hearing what we can do with Enniskillen hospital and how we could be of assistance.

Mobility is very important and we must do some work in the Republic of Ireland around migrants, for example. I met representatives from the North West Migrants Forum briefly at the John and Pat Hume Foundation event. We are doing further examination of that and people should not have any fear that if they come into the Republic of Ireland from the North, there would somehow be a challenge to them because of status or whatever.

The Nationality and Borders Bill 2022 is completely different and it involves people from all states. It has not been finalised and the debate is continuing within Westminster. It has not yet been passed. We are engaging with the British Government to try to change this with a view to ensuring it does not interfere with mobility on the island.

It could be very damaging to Northern Ireland, to tourism there and to a whole range of issues that have clearly not been foreseen, such as educationalists coming in. Aspects of life could be hindered.

One example is that of a healthcare professional living in Donegal, who is not from Britain or Ireland, working in Altnagelvin Area Hospital to service the community. This is crazy stuff. It is off the wall.

I know the Taoiseach agrees. I am just making the point.

We will engage with this matter. From our perspective, it is hard to comprehend how this could get to the table. It runs contrary to the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement. It is clearly an issue in respect of which we are very much on the case. I also agree the Stormont House Agreement is the template for dealing with legacy issues. All of us have a role to play. The Government stands ready. We have also made it very clear to unionist politicians if they have cases or issues they want to raise with us, and they think the Irish Government needs to do more regarding its archives, by which I mean its documentation or whatever, we are willing to respond. That has not been firmed up on in terms of people actually coming to us. There is a meeting coming up that we are organising with one particular victims' group. I have met victims' groups from the North of Ireland. Some cases have been raised publicly but we said to come and meet us and to bring the documentation or presentation. We did it with the Smithwick inquiry. The Government did not hold back. We fulfilled our obligations in respect of that inquiry.

We see the shared island unit as a practical way of dealing with Article 2. We are all living on the one island. We need practically to share that island. We can make improvements to broadcasting and so on. We work with the agencies and all the various bodies to fulfil that. I said earlier that some of our agencies have to look differently at issues. Sometimes they look inward but they need to look at the island context in terms of all the citizens on the island to make sure services are available. We see the shared island unit as a very pragmatic working out of that constitutional provision.

We are under a little pressure. The clerk has just informed me, and I should have been aware of this, that we have to be out of here by 4.30 p.m. It is not because of the Taoiseach but another booking of the room. Ms Claire Hanna is next, followed by Mr. Stephen Farry. We then have a speaker from Sinn Féin and Senator Black, who are online. Ms Órfhlaith Begley is also online and I understand Senator Emer Currie has joined us. Ms Hanna is very welcome. I will tell her when the time is up.

Ms Claire Hanna

I thank the Chair. I also thank the Taoiseach for his attendance, participation and the overview of the shared island unit. Everybody agrees it is a really positive development in many ways for the evolving constitutional conversation and for people's basic and immediate needs and well-being, which can sometimes get a bit lost in the conversation when we are focusing exactly on the when and how of change rather than the why. We want to organise on an all-island basis and focus on what we can actually do with those powers. The way the unit is approaching those practical and infrastructural challenges, and joining up services, will do a lot more to move hearts and minds as well as doing a lot of that engagement. Even with the challenge of the Covid pandemic, that has been very impressive to watch. The focus on newer communities and younger generations is really welcome, as is bringing people into the conversation. An NGO I used to work with was working on trying to find a solution to malaria and used to say imagine if the answer is trapped in the mind of a nurse down the country somewhere. It is about pulling out all the ideas from across the island, including from people who are not necessarily engaged in political parties and some of the other networks and structures.

I do not want to go over what colleagues have already spoken about. I know transport, infrastructure and future-proofing, as in getting us ready for a transition to a low-carbon economy and life, has been discussed. I will touch briefly on skills and their regenerative potential. John Hume said many times that the best peace process is a job. Areas around the Border in particular may need more regeneration and some investment and opportunity to take advantage of some of the new jobs and new industries that will be available in the economy of the future. Skills and higher and further education will be a very important part of that. I have maybe been spending too much time with my colleague from Foyle, but I know Colum Eastwood has always talked a lot about the north west and the university. I am aware of the all-island task force on higher education and the Royal Irish Academy document on all-island higher education. Are there any plans around that issue?

I also have a more technical question. Yesterday, the Northern Ireland affairs committee met with the UK Government's Department for Levelling Up, Housing and Communities. We discussed some of the new funds, such as the shared prosperity fund and some of the other funds that will replace much of the transformative European money. What level of engagement are the officials able to have with some of those funds that may be purporting to try to achieve some of the things the shared island unit is doing? It would be good if we could make all these investments more than the sum of their parts and make sure that, at a planning level, we are able to tie up and bring together all the opportunities.

Will I come back in on that?

Of course.

I thank Ms Hanna for her commentary and the best of luck in her endeavours. She is probably in transit. The commitment is to infrastructure and to how we can advance services. Her point about Covid is very well made. I did not say so earlier, but there is huge potential for public health collaboration on outcomes in health and public health, such as Covid, infectious diseases and a whole range of other areas in the public health domain. I was struck yesterday by a report that flashed up online, which stated the Republic of Ireland had the highest level of life expectancy in the European Union. I did a double take because it always bugged me that we did not have the same level of life expectancy as other countries. We were sixteenth in 2000. A message is there somewhere in how we went from sixteenth to number one. I remember, when I was Minister for Health, we used to do an all-island mortality study so there are lessons all round.

On the skills front, we are committed to a cross-Border apprenticeship programme. Over the next while, we want to put flesh on the bones of that initiative. Apprenticeships are very important. They are enjoying somewhat of a renaissance in the Republic after experiencing a lull for quite some time, especially in construction trades and so on. To go back to Deputy Smith's point about further education, apprenticeships can have a role in that.

On the north west, we have met with Ulster University. Colum Eastwood was at that meeting in respect of all-island third level development and collaboration between Ulster University and the Atlantic Technological University. We have said we are willing to respond too, but the university has to develop the initiative. All colleges have to develop such initiatives in collaboration and then come back to us to say what they think will work. We will then be in a position to support and fund that. We will be funding an initiative emanating from Ulster University on that front.

We are engaging with the UK Government on the levelling up fund. We want it to be involved in this because the east-west dimension is important and speaks to the broader range of traditions and perspectives.

We are working with the British Government to see can we get matching funding and other funding in respect of some of the initiatives we are undertaking under the shared island fund. We think there is potential there also. To be fair, the UK Government put significant funding behind the PEACE PLUS programme with the EU, ourselves and the Executive, which has given a healthy fund also, so we think there is real potential on that east-west levelling up front.

Ms Claire Hanna

I thank the Chairman.

Okay. I think Dr. Farry is there. He is very welcome again.

Dr. Stephen Farry

I thank the Chairman. I welcome the Taoiseach and thank him for joining us. Like Ms Hanna I am taking a short break from the election campaign in Northern Ireland. I stress at the outset I very much value the work of the shared island unit. Notwithstanding wider political and constitutional discussions people wish to have and engage with, on a practical level there remain significant opportunities and stark deficits with the practical, socioeconomic and environmental co-operation on the island. Regardless of whatever else happens there is an ongoing piece of work there to fully capitalise in that regard. I highlight the environmental skills piece in particular and ask for a comment on the potential for the island rail network, especially the Belfast-Dublin corridor, but beyond that as well.

I also ask the Taoiseach to comment on a couple of wider issues. The first one expands from the shared island unit's day-to-day work and ties in with Brexit and the protocol. Much of the focus has been on issues around the Irish Sea interface and the movement of goods between Great Britain and Northern Ireland but I am also conscious Brexit imposes a border on the island with the delivery of services and also freedom of movement. I would be interested in the Taoiseach's thoughts on what could be done bilaterally by the jurisdictions to try to compensate for the, shall we say, very low level of engagement in the Trade and Co-operation Agreement, given both are key elements of our mutual economies. Indeed, we have talked previously of an all-island economy in services that has been somewhat disrupted. There are issues around mutual recognition of qualifications that are critical in that regard.

On the wider Brexit piece, there is increasing speculation and fear the UK Government may be on the brink of doing something reckless on a unilateral basis on the protocol. Perhaps the Taoiseach can comment on how the Government is going to respond, if that proves to be the case in the next few weeks, to try to ensure the focus is on mutually-agreed outcomes rather than unilateral action. As a final point, returning to the election campaign in Northern Ireland, we are very conscious that while we hope there will be a swift return of the government in Northern Ireland we recognise there may be delays. To what extent can the UK and Irish Governments work once again in partnership as they did on New Decade, New Approach, if their good offices are required to try to bring the parties together after the election?

I thank Dr. Farry. I agree there are significant opportunities through the shared island initiative for co-operation and getting projects off the ground. The all-island rail feasibility study is a particularly important one. It is comprehensive by nature but we would be anxious to get going on the more practical initial jobs that could be done fairly quickly after publication. The Belfast-Dublin corridor is one that would make itself readily available to allocation, upgrading, increasing speeds and so on to make it more efficient. We got very significant representations in the north west. I see Senator Blaney's face as I mention Belfast-Dublin. Coming from Cork I understand where he is coming from - it is kind of instinctive. However, we must look at that which is readily doable. That is one area.

Dr. Farry made a good point about the service economy. At the moment we are working on mutual recognition and making progress on it. It is very important we do so. There is perhaps a longer-term issue around potential divergence of regulatory standards, especially in the services area with procurement, tendering and all that. We need to keep a weather eye on that to see how we can ensure we harmonise services on the island so companies are not disadvantaged in bidding for public service projects and so forth and that there are not changes in standards around food or environmental issues. On balance, the UK has, to be fair, a strong record on the climate change agenda. Successive UK Governments have been very positive on that front and long may it continue.

I am conscious there is an election on and that statements or words from me could impact or create a stir that may not be necessary between now and election day, but we will engage on a number of these issues. I am conscious too that over the lifetime of Brexit various things have been floated. Some sink and some are refloated. I do not react immediately when I begin to see articulation of certain ideas from time to time. Overall, unilateralism does not work in the context of the Good Friday Agreement. Having been involved in the Government that signed the agreement and the early days of education partnerships and so on, behind all the peace process throughout the late 1980s and 1990s were the two governments working together, hand in glove, no surprises, heads up, good clarity on the communications between them, working together as the anchor of the agreement. That remains the case today. Both governments are there as co-guarantors to even-handedly, fairly and objectively support the process.

We will play our part in the aftermath of the election, though there is a responsibility on the part of all parties going before the people to respond to the people's mandate. The people are not electing members of parties to not take their seats in the Assembly or to not form an Executive. The people want the parties they vote for to take their seats and form an Executive. I am very passionate about the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement because one of the challenges over the lifetime of it has been the degree to which the institutions were not up and running. They were pulled down for various reasons, and so on, and we did not have and Executive or an Assembly. That damaged the standing of the Assembly and Executive in the minds of the public and probably damaged politics as well, if one contrasts it with public esteem for the Scottish Parliament over time. There is therefore an urgency that those who are elected fulfil their mandates to have the Assembly and form an Executive, irrespective of what way the votes fall. That is the democratic way and what I am passionate about.

Those are my general comments on some of the issues Dr. Farry raised.

Dr. Stephen Farry


My view is the UK Government and the European Union have within themselves and within what has already been discussed the landing zones to reach a resolution of all those issues. I am convinced of that. We have been helpful in that regard. People have raised legitimate questions about the protocol. I do not dispute that at all. We have actually sensitised the EU to work on those issues and it has done, as Dr. Farry knows, and it has engaged with the UK Government. After the election we hope we can pick up the baton again and get going on that and bring this to a resolution.

Dr. Stephen Farry

I thank the Taoiseach and the Chairman.

The clerk to the committee has informed me further to my announcement we would adjourn at 1.30 p.m. that we have had to change the time to 1.15 p.m. because the people who set up for the next group coming in-----

That is a very subtle way of asking me to shorten the answers.

No, not at all. It leaves us perfectly in time for the last group. That is the Sinn Féin speakers, who have 15 minutes.

Whey they are finished we are finished. Everyone will have been in.

I very much welcome this opportunity to discuss these issues with the Taoiseach. This is one of the most positive engagements I have had since I entered the Dáil in the sense of the possibilities and opportunities that have opened up and been presented to us. It is very clear that we are all on the same page in respect of where we need to go and what we need to do. I acknowledge all of the research reports that have been done, including the NESC report, that the Taoiseach mentioned. There are very good recommendations, evidence and solid work in there. I tuned into of the launch of the one on education this morning in which there was very good stuff. These will only be as valuable as their implementation but I hear what the Taoiseach is saying in terms of the resources being put into them. I accept his sincerity in trying to bring this forward. He quoted Mr. Donogh O'Malley who stated: "We will be judged by future generations on what we did for the ... [education of our children]". It hit home for me. Too often party politics is played with. We just need to get over it.

I hear what the Taoiseach is saying about people stretching themselves. It is only out of our comfort zones that we will really achieve the success we need to achieve and to achieve what Mr. Donogh O'Malley achieved through education. That is being borne out now in terms of where we are at. That is not to say we have achieved everything but in terms of the knock-on impact on wages and productivity, especially with inflation and all the other challenges that we have, the work being done forms a very solid foundation for all of that.

It will be no surprise to the Taoiseach or to Senator Blaney that the Belfast-Dublin corridor is obviously important but the Atlantic innovation corridor is very important. We know the figures and evidence of the regional gaps that need to be addressed. The western rail corridor and the Atlantic Technological University fit into all of that. We almost have a perfect storm in the opportunities we have. Maybe I should not call it a storm. However, if the technological university, the Atlantic innovation corridor and all the other initiatives are resourced properly - they have to be more than names - we can achieve an awful lot collectively on this island. I am certainly excited about that.

I will ask the Taoiseach about student mobility on the island. He may know I am a rapporteur for a report by the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Education, Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. The work this morning was very useful and we will use parts of that report. We can achieve a lot that way. We only had 1,624 students from the North attend higher education institutions in the South and only 2,085 students from the South attend higher education institutions in the North. That is 1% and 3.5%, respectively. Good things are being done by individual institutions but, as the Taoiseach said, we need to get beyond that to something more systematic. Is he committed to increasing those numbers? Does he see a role for the shared island unit in this regard, maybe in leading the way on bursaries or scholarships? I acknowledge some are being provided for post-doctoral and doctoral students engaged in cancer research, which I welcome. However, we could lead the way at undergraduate level if some funding from the shared island unit 2 was put into that, if we there is room to manoeuvre.

I have to ask the Taoiseach about engaging with the diaspora and the issue of giving the vote to the diaspora, and to the people in the North in the presidential election. Where is that at? I apologise to Deputy Tully. I have taken up considerable time. I am fairly enthusiastic about this.

I will reference projects that the Taoiseach mentioned in his presentation. The first is the reopening of the Ulster Canal and phase 3, in particular, which is the restoration from Clonfad to Castle Saunderson. Waterways Ireland has put a rough estimate of €90 million to €100 million on this restoration. Some €1 million has been given to Waterways Ireland so far to carry out preparatory work, which will done by the end of next year. Would it be prudent to commit the funding needed for phase 3 now in order that Waterways Ireland can start preparations to continue this work and take the project forward? As the Taoiseach said, the potential to vastly enhance the lives of people and communities along the Border through the Ulster Canal is very important.

The second project is the A5 upgrade. It has been mentioned by my colleagues but I will mention, in particular, the section of road on the N2 from the Border to Clontibret, which was part of the NDP but suddenly does not seem to be a priority. Can that section-----

Will Deputy Tully repeat that?

It is the section from the Border to Clontibret, County Monaghan. I ask that the section be prioritised as part of that project.

I welcome the all-island strategic rail review. It is very important. We know how adversely affected the region has been by the Border. Counties Cavan, Monaghan, Tyrone, Fermanagh and Donegal have no rail infrastructure at all. County Derry's rail infrastructure only goes eastwards to Belfast. It is badly needed. Six years ago we had a rail infrastructure there which, unfortunately, was not maintained. The line was not kept free or open. Investment in both road and rail infrastructure in that area would greatly enhance and attract investment.

Mr. Mickey Brady

I thank the Taoiseach for the presentation. One of my questions is on a very practical issue that we come across daily, which is the provision of passports. Some people are coming into the office who have been waiting six months, which is simply not acceptable. This is a considerable issue. It may need a separate meeting with the Passport Office or the Department of Foreign Affairs.

Part of the all-island initiative relates to greenways. We have had one from Newry to Carlingford and I ask for that to be enhanced. The Taoiseach also mentioned cross-Border health.

There is the opportunity for Daisy Hill Hospital to be expanded and become the only acute hospital on the east coast between Dublin and Belfast.

There is Our Lady of Lourdes Hospital in Drogheda. I ask Mr. Brady not to forget about that.

Mr. Mickey Brady

I will rephrase that.

We will look after Mr. Brady.

Mr. Mickey Brady

Daisy Hill could become the only acute hospital between Drogheda and Belfast.

I thank Mr. Brady for the correction.

Mr. Mickey Brady

All politics is parochial and I accept that.

Dundalk is there for Senator McGreehan.

Someone used to refer to the midlands as the Balkans with the different hospitals competing with each other. The north east is no different as Mr. Brady knows.

I thank Deputy Conway-Walsh for her positive comments. As she said, education is key to jobs, quality of life, future engagement and that whole idea of the Atlantic innovation corridor. We are funding interesting research through the shared island unit, which was submitted by the Atlantic Technological University in Galway, on how peripheral or regional areas and be developed socially and economically. We can give the Deputy the contact details for the researchers in terms of what they are proposing to identify and what the ingredients are from a human capital perspective in the Border region to enable economic development. That was one of the projects that came through the application process and was awarded funding through an independent peer review. We do not get involved in deciding on the merits of research projects. They are independently reviewed but that struck me when the Deputy mentioned it.

We have commissioned the Higher Education Authority to conduct research this year to examine patterns and barriers to student mobility on the island and between Ireland and the UK more broadly. The Deputy's figures were more or less correct but what is interesting is that when we were with Queens University staff recently, they made a point to us that there had been a considerable jump in the number of applications from the Republic to the university.

That could be related to the Scottish fee aspect as well, we do not know. It could be a factor stemming from Brexit, because it will impact on this context as well. Potential problems were also indicated regarding student caps in the North. I do not understand that. Neither the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, nor the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, are here, but we do not have caps in the Republic. We do have caps on some of the professions. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, is engaging in this regard. We need more people in areas such as therapies and medicine, for example, as well as others. We can ask the authorities in the North if we can get additional places for students from the Republic. That would help them and us in respect of extra placements. It is what we need to do in the short term. There is also a requirement for the study I mentioned that is examining this context.

I might have said this already, but I was struck by the postgraduate medicine programme on the Magee Campus of Ulster University. The students there apparently cannot get clinical placements in the Republic. We work to remove barriers such as these. Students on that programme will get placements in the North, potentially. There is no reason they should not, but clinical placements should be an all-island undertaking because there are different levels of hospitals, including tertiary, and specialisations, from paediatric to cancer to heart. All students, North and South, would benefit if there was a full range of access, especially in an area like medicine, to proper clinical placements and a wide range of them.

Moving from student mobility to the diaspora, this aspect is progressing. My understanding is that the legislation for that referendum is advancing, but I can get a note on it. I did not check it before I came in. Regarding the Ulster Canal, Deputy Tully has obviously been talking to representatives of Waterways Ireland, or perhaps not. The chief executive has an ambition for the higher things in life, as in a desire for €100 million straight up. I am jesting with the Deputy because I had an engagement in the context of the North-South bodies, and the chief executive, whose name I cannot remember, came in with all guns blazing. We will give him €14 million and that is not a bad start and no harm for engaging. We have given €12 million for phase 1 and €1 million for phase 2, and we are engaging with Waterways Ireland regarding phase 3. The €1 million for phase 2 is to allow preparatory work to be done and the representatives of Waterways Ireland are to come back to us in that respect. There is funding of €1 billion overall and we are trying to spread it out and get different areas covered. Those projects that make progress will gain more as well. To be fair to Waterways Ireland, it has a good record. The Ulster Canal is a fantastic amenity and has great tourism potential as well. We will be working with the organisation in this regard.

On the A5 project, the funding is there from our perspective. We will fund it more generally as well. Is the road from the Border to Clontibret a part of that?

The N2 section is-----

The southern part of it is.

Has it cleared all the required processes? We can talk to the Department of Transport about this.

The rail review, then, covers all areas. I note that Deputy Conway-Walsh got in the subject of the western rail corridor. Along with all her colleagues from the west, she has made the importance of this project clear to us as well and it is covered by the rail review. The main issue with all of this will be delivery. There must be realism at some stage. I will not repeat what I said earlier, but there is one corridor that could readily be done quickly, potentially. The Minister tells me that many rail projects, because of all the sorts of inquiries and planning processes needed, take much longer than non-public transport. That is the only inhibitor.

Turning to passports, the six months referred to seems a bit long. It is down to 30 weeks now from 35 weeks. The problem is applications have mushroomed. The numbers have gone through the roof. The Passport Office will process approximately 1.7 million passports this year. I think I heard the Minister refer to 1 million-----

Passport renewals are done very quickly, in a matter of days.

We are very conscious of the passports issue.

Our time is more or less up now.

I will finish by saying, because the greenway was mentioned, that if any of the members have projects or ideas, they should let us know-----

We will, of course.

-----so we can progress them in a programmatic way. We are anxious to undertake greenways. A map of all-island greenways will shortly be produced by the Department of Transport. The next question then will be how we can connect all these greenways over time. It will involve a ten-year plan. Existing greenways are everywhere. The question, on an all-island basis, is how we connect all of them. There are some fabulous walks. I will have everyone walking for Ireland.

I thank the Taoiseach for his presentation. I also thank his officials, Ms Aingeal O'Donoghue and Mr. Eoghan Duffy, who have been extremely helpful. The Taoiseach got a sample of the way our committee works together and the consensus and the agreement we have.

For the information of the members of the committee, we must adjourn now. We have no meeting next week, but the following week we will be visiting Fermanagh, Monaghan and Cavan at the invitation of all the members from the appropriate counties. We are on the ground and we are working. I again thank the Taoiseach.

The committee is very welcome. I thank all the people in the Department as well, including Aingeal, Eoghan and all the team, for the work they do in this unit. This initiative is genuinely gaining critical mass and many people in the research community are involved at different levels. Therefore, this is progressing in an orderly way. I thank the committee.

I thank the Taoiseach.

The joint committee adjourned at 1.16 p.m. sine die