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Northern Ireland Issues

Dáil Éireann Debate, Tuesday - 19 June 2012

Tuesday, 19 June 2012

Ceisteanna (15, 16, 17, 18, 19, 20, 21, 22, 23, 24, 25)

Micheál Martin


1Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the contacts he has made with the political parties in Northern Ireland in the past year; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [16219/12]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin


2Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach when the next British Council meeting will take place; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19796/12]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin


3Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach when the next North South Ministerial Council meeting will take place; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [19797/12]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin


4Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach his plans to visit Northern Ireland; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [21312/12]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Gerry Adams


5Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the contact he has had with political leaders in the North since the Easter recess. [23757/12]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Gerry Adams


6Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the issues he will prioritise at the next meeting of the North South Ministerial Council. [23758/12]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Gerry Adams


7Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his plans to visit the North in June. [23900/12]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Gerry Adams


8Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he plans to meet political leaders in the North in June. [23901/12]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin


9Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the number of meetings he has attended in relation to north south cooperation recently; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24823/12]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Micheál Martin


10Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the issues that will be discussed at the forthcoming North South Ministerial Council meeting; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [24826/12]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Joe Higgins


11Deputy Joe Higgins asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his plans to visit Northern Ireland in June; and the issues that he intends to raise. [25362/12]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (24 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 11, inclusive, together.

Since I have taken office I have visited Northern Ireland on four separate occasions. The first, sadly, was to attend the funeral of PSNI Officer Ronan Kerr who was killed just over one year ago. I attended the opening of the new Peace Bridge in Derry last June which was a highly symbolic visit. In November I visited Belfast for a number of engagements, following which I attended the plenary meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council, NSMC, in Armagh. I returned to Belfast on 19 April when I gave the annual Chancellor's lecture at the University of Ulster.

The Government strongly supports the efforts of the Northern Ireland Executive and as co-guarantor of the peace process with the British Government, we wish to see the stable political and security situation continue in Northern Ireland. I have met the First and Deputy First Ministers on several occasions, both in Northern Ireland and in this jurisdiction, including at events such as the presidential inauguration and during the visit of Chinese Vice President Xi Jinping. My discussions with them have always been constructive as we seek to engage on a range of issues affecting both jurisdictions. I have met with a variety of other Northern Ireland politicians both during my visits to Northern Ireland and in Dublin, including most recently Mr. Mike Nesbitt, leader of the Ulster Unionist Party and his deputy leader, Mr. John McCallister.

Contact at ministerial level North and South continues throughout the year through a programme of meetings that are held between plenary sessions of the North-South Ministerial Council. The NSMC institutional meeting took place on 27 April and was chaired by my colleague, the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade.

I hosted the 14th NSMC plenary meeting in Dublin on Friday, 15 June. There was a very good discussion between members of the Cabinet and the Northern Ireland Executive including on the economic situation both at home and across the European Union. Jobs and growth are absolute priorities for us all. I indicated that the Government will work closely with the Northern Ireland Executive in the lead up to and during Ireland's Presidency of the European Union to be held from 1 January 2013. We also discussed a range of important issues of common interest including bank restructuring and NAMA and other areas where the NSMC has seen good progress such as in education, health, research and innovation, transport and tourism. Both you, a Cheann Comhairle, and Speaker Hay are to be commended for the efforts they have made and are making in respect of the North-South parliamentary forum. We recognise the importance to our economies and tourism sectors of major events such as the forthcoming Irish Open in Portrush; the success this year of theTitanic experience in Belfast, which has and is attracting record crowds; and next year The Gathering; the Derry City of Culture; and the Fleadh Cheoil.

We reviewed progress on the A5-A8 roads projects. The A5 is of particular importance to the north west as it will greatly improve connections between the region and Dublin and Belfast. Despite the very difficult economic situation we face, the Government remains committed to this project. At the plenary meeting last Friday, I again reaffirmed our commitment to contribute £22 million sterling in each year 2015 and 2016 which will enable two major sections of the roads project to proceed. I also made it clear that we will examine the prospect of an additional funding contribution after 2016, in the context of our next capital expenditure review framework, which is likely to be in 2015.

We noted the good progress that has been made in other areas of North-South co-operation, such as the north-west gateway initiative. We also discussed some of the institutional aspects of the Good Friday and St. Andrews agreements, including on the North-South parliamentary forum. A programme of North-South Ministerial Council meetings, up to the next plenary meeting to take place in November, was agreed. In summary, North-South co-operation is progressing steadily. I recognise that there is room for greater levels of co-operation to the mutual benefit of everyone on the island. Through the framework of the NSMC I look forward to seeing further progress being made in this regard over the coming period.

The next British-Irish Council Summit will take place in Stirling, Scotland this Friday, 22 June. Its main theme will be marine energy and there will also be a focus on youth unemployment, a topic we discussed at the previous British-Irish Council Summit which I hosted in Dublin in January.

As I said recently in a reply in this House I hope to be in a position to visit Belfast again shortly. Arrangements will be made in due course for that visit.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. I have tabled five of the 11 questions being taken together. The reply illustrates a certain sense of drift in North-South relations. I get no sense of urgency or active engagement between the Governments on the North-South agenda. In concrete terms there is no real urgency in pushing co-operation forward or in fulfilling the potential of the institutions established under the Good Friday Agreement. We should remember that the Good Friday Agreement is about a process, not an end in itself. I have no sense that the Government, with the British Government, are committed with the parties in Northern Ireland and the Executive in having a far more effective and productive North-South delivery and engagement into the future. It seems that little substantive time has been given by the Irish and British Governments to North-South issues during the past 12 months. There is a sense of drift and a lack of anything new. Will the Taoiseach indicate to me in concrete terms what advances have been made in the North-South agenda in the past year? Has anything concrete emerged in terms of the timetable for the establishment of the North-South parliamentary forum? Regarding the review of North-South bodies, has the creation of additional bodies, in particular one to replace the Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission, been discussed? When are we likely to see progress in the review of North-South bodies?

I suppose that one of the things that causes Deputy Martin's perception of this is the actual normality that has been restored between the Assembly and the activities of the Oireachtas. I have outlined much of what has happened since the last meeting. Clearly, the impact of, for instance, the Titanic Experience has been enormous in the sense of the number of visitors flocking to Belfast. Clearly, with the performance of Graham McDowell and others, the Irish Open in Portrush will be of pretty significant importance in terms of numbers going to it.

When one looks at it, dealing with the reduction in corporation tax, for instance, is an issue that is a matter for the British Government and the Assembly. There was a discussion about that at the North-South Ministerial Council. A great deal of work has been carried out on that. There were quite a deal of discussions on health, for instance, with the opening of the new South West Acute Hospital in Enniskillen, which the Minister made perfectly clear was also open to patients from Cavan, Monaghan, Leitrim and Sligo, if necessary. As to the question of the sharing of services in Altnagelvin Area Hospital for radiotherapy, to which the State contributed, it is open to people from County Donegal and so on. The same applies in the issues that are now being discussed with the Ministers for education. There was agreement on Friday that third level education and its capacity and potential should be issues for discussion at the next meeting. Work is ongoing there between both of those Ministers.

I do not want to interfere in the work that is going on between the Ceann Comhairle and Speaker Hay in respect of the North-South parliamentary forum except to say that the Ceann Comhairle informed me formally by letter of having received a number of papers that were quite constructive in the sense of being able to set this up. I commend Speaker Hay and the Ceann Comhairle on their efforts in this. I think that will be an important element of the process, as Deputy Martin rightly pointed out, that began way back with the Good Friday Agreement.

I do not accept that there is any sense of drift. What is becoming perfectly evident is the normality of relations between the peoples of Northern Ireland and the Republic and the normal relations that are evident in the work going on between the Oireachtas, its agencies and bodies and the Northern Ireland Assembly. I have had a number of meetings with the First and Deputy First Ministers, for instance, at last Friday's meeting. Both the First and Deputy First Ministers want to go to China later on in the year. I think it will be in November. We have agreed to make available to them all of the contacts that were established following Vice President Xi Jinping's visit here and my own visit to China along with the Ministers, Deputies Bruton and Coveney. It just shows the impact of how quickly things can happen. Protocols were signed in respect of China importing pork, beef and seafood, including fresh fish, from Ireland. We want to make these connections available to the First and Deputy First Ministers and their delegation.

It is normal and working well. If there is a particular issue that Deputy Martin thinks is not receiving sufficient attention, I would be happy to follow up on it. The close relationship between the Ministers for justice, Mr. Ford and Deputy Shatter, was perfectly evident at the North-South Ministerial Council meeting last Friday. It is not usual for two Ministers for justice to attend like that, but there is a great deal of co-operation, for example, in intelligence sharing and services sharing, in respect of the issues with which they are dealing.

From that perspective, I found the meeting to be very constructive. As the Deputy First Minister said, a great deal of the issues that were set out were, in Civil Service language, dispensed with. Any difficulty that we had in respect of, for example, the A5 and A8, was very clear. We have committed to the £22 million sterling in 2015 and 2016. We are also committed to reviewing the possibility of any further financial contribution beyond that when we look at the review framework in due course.

I remain unconvinced by that answer. The entire North-South agenda needs a fresh initiative, fresh engagement and an injection of additionality to what we have experienced to date. The former Taoiseach and Minister for Finance, Brian Cowen, made clear commitments to the A5 and A8 projects some years ago, but they have been somewhat diluted since. This is a great pity.

Regarding the review of North-South bodies, I get no sense of moving the agenda on in terms of what additional bodies could be established to the island's benefit. Discussions on co-operation as regards Altnagelvin Area Hospital and oncology services have been ongoing for three or four years. I am seeing nothing new in terms of hard, concrete, practical steps that can be taken on a North-South basis. Nothing I have heard today suggests otherwise. I am not mistaking this for normality. We have had good relations since the Good Friday Agreement and there have been good initiatives under the various North-South bodies and agencies that were subsequently established, from InterTradeIreland to the Food Safety Promotion Board and from Tourism Ireland to Waterways Ireland. In the early days, these had concrete, substantive, project-based achievements that delivered considerable momentum. Nothing of that calibre is in evidence currently.

With the British Government and the Northern Executive, will the Taoiseach commit to examining the North-South agenda seriously, in particular the review of North-South bodies, which has been waiting for some time to be signed off on? What are the conclusions of the review and what is the Government's response to an additional North-South agency?

There was no conclusion at the meeting on Friday about additional bodies. Clearly, there were a number of issues outstanding in regard to some of the existing bodies. For instance, the Minister, Deputy Deenihan, committed to working with his counterpart in respect of the continued planning of the Erne Canal, which has been an issue for a very long time. There is no funding for it now, but there is no reason to believe one cannot put in place a strategy and a plan to open it. It would have enormous implications for tourism.

A number of groups have been seeking to see me. I have committed to meeting relatives of those who were killed at Ballymurphy. I also said the same thing on Friday to the Minister, Mr. Kennedy, in respect of Kings Mill.

When Deputy Martin says "fresh impetus", "new initiative" and "new ideas", I am only too interested in hearing what these might be. The North-South jobs and employment situation is one of great interest. We discussed the scale of the public sector in Northern Ireland. As Deputy Martin knows, it is exceptionally large in terms of numbers. The issues that affect the construction and building sector and the creation of jobs and employment are not new, but it is important that new initiatives be taken to stimulate these areas.

It is more than just Altnagelvin. We did not have any discussion before about the South West Acute Hospital. The point was that it was open for patient care for people from Cavan, Monaghan, Leitrim and Sligo.

There are exciting opportunities in the whole area of third level education, as well as second level where appropriate. Both Ministers are working on an exciting programme there. It is not a case of saying this has ground to a halt just because matters are normal. We have had questions on PEACE III projects and some delays involved between the Department of the Environment, Community and Local Government and its counterpart. This is being ironed out by the Minister, Deputy Hogan, and his officials. These are all issues and events to be completed.

Of concern to the Deputy, and everyone else, is the question of community involvement. Unemployment is a big issue particularly for young men. We do not want the rise of dissident activity encouraging young men in particular to go the wrong way. That is why community facilities and interaction are important. When I was in London in March, I signed the strategic partnership agreement in Downing Street with the British Prime Minister. Both he and I agreed to visit Northern Ireland on as regular a basis as is possible - not at the same time - to involve different communities and projects. This would keep it at a high level of interest and demonstrate political support for the work communities are doing there. That is fundamental to what we should be at.

If Deputy Martin has particular or fresh initiatives in mind, I would be happy to hear from him. The working groups, with some changes that have been made, will keep this at a high level. Perhaps we might discuss this before I go up there in the next several weeks. If there are issues which require our attention, we would be happy to involve ourselves in them.

I call Deputy McDonald on behalf of Deputy Adams.

It is Deputy McDonald. I thought the Ceann Comhairle said, "or is it Deputy Adams?" I lack the beard.

No, I said on behalf of Deputy Adams.

I am glad to hear the Taoiseach sound a positive note in respect of the potential afforded by North-South co-operation. I note from the communique from the North-South Ministerial Council meeting that issues around the economy, the eurozone crisis and fiscal developments were discussed. In these challenging times when money is tight with the ongoing air of uncertainty internationally, it is a no-brainer and makes perfect sense for us, North and South, to maximise areas of co-operation including the potential for inward investment. It is welcome the contacts the Government has made in China will be made available to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. We need, however, at some stage to be talking about joint delegations and missions as we are looking for investment into a small country and a small island. We have yet to reap the benefits of deep co-operation on issues such as that.

The Taoiseach referred to corporation tax in his response to Deputy Martin. What is the Government's position in respect of the devolution of fiscal powers for the Northern Executive and Assembly? I note the Taoiseach's comments on the north-west gateway initiative which, when up and running, will be a win-win on both sides of the Border. As he outlined a commitment to the N2-A5 road project, albeit a diminished one, when does he envisage it to be completed?

I too have a sense of treading water on the matter of the North-South implementation bodies. It has been signalled and discussed for a long time but we have yet to see any result in respect of those deliberations. How does the Taoiseach see these expanded upon or rebooted? Which new bodies should be appropriately established?

We welcome any progress made in respect of the North-South parliamentary forum. I am aware the Ceann Comhairle and the Speaker of the Assembly are in contact on this matter. However, this has been a long time in the making. At some stage we need to see it established. Whereas no one would expect the Taoiseach to interfere, he is the Head of Government. Will he reassure us he is giving impetus and direction to the matter? We should not forget the North-South consultative forum. Will the Taoiseach comment on that too?

The Taoiseach was due to travel to the Six Counties in June. Is that still the case? If so, will he confirm that he will meet with the Ballymurphy families? We have raised this matter with the Taoiseach several times and they are anxious to meet him. They were themselves to travel to Dublin to facilitate such a meeting but I understand he was not keen on a Dublin meeting. Is he heading to the North in June and will he give a commitment to meet the Ballymurphy families?

I did not have any particular difficulty in meeting the Ballymurphy families in Dublin. I wanted to save them the trouble of having to come down but I am quite happy to meet them in Belfast when I travel there. I cannot confirm I will be travelling there this month but it will be in the next matter of weeks. As soon as I get a fix on that, I will certainly advise the House.

No progress was made on the North-South consultative forum on Friday which I regret. I was a member of the body which was involved in the creation of the first British-Irish Parliamentary Association way back in the 1980s. There was the same sort of talk about this being set up going on for ages. When it happened, it began to move very quickly, however. The Ceann Comhairle and the Speaker, Mr. Hay, have my full support in the work they are doing in this regard. Deputy McDonald can take it that we are anxious that it would be set up as quickly as possible. This could bring a new initiative and new impetus to what herself and Deputy Martin spoke about. Politicians certainly have a habit of that.

The structures of the North-South ministerial meetings are such that one does not have the opportunity to have in-depth discussions about making decisions in some of these matters. Much of that has to do with the quality of the interaction between Ministers in between meetings. That has to be driven by Ministers themselves in respect of the issues they wish to see pursued.

Deputy McDonald made an interesting point about fiscal powers. It remains to be seen what will happen in this area. We would be generally supportive of a decision to reduce the level of corporation tax rate in the North. That would make the issues of the island economy stronger and clearer. The intention here is to devolve responsibility down to local authorities. It is a matter for the Executive as to what it wants to do in Northern Ireland.

The timescale for the A5-N8 road upgrade have been set out by the planners and the Executive. The centre section is in question - they have decided which sections they want to start. From memory, I cannot tell the proposed completion date. We are supportive of this project. If economic circumstances were better here, we would have a different perspective. I explained to the First Minister and Deputy First Minister that due to constraints here, we deferred many major infrastructure projects in the Republic but that we wished to make a valid contribution to the A5-A8 project which was accepted.

Deputy McDonald's point about the joint delegations is interesting.

For many years Northern Ireland did not have much of an input in holding the Presidency of the European Union, but we have appointed somebody from there to the permanent representation in Brussels to inform our own people of views in the North and keep members there fully informed about issues, the logistics and the scale and range of matters to be discussed during Ireland's Presidency.

The Deputy will be aware that Ireland is following Cyprus and preceding Lithuania and Greece. Some serious issues may fall to be decided during the Irish Presidency, including the multi-annual financial framework, in other words, the budget of the European Union for the period 2014-20; the single patent regime, depending on whether the Danish or Cypriot Presidency is able to complete the process in that regard; and copyright, the digital market and the expansion of the Single Market. These issues are tied with decisions which will be taken in the coming period and arise from the issues raised by Deputy Martin.

In respect of the Presidency which we will hold from 1 January 2013, we will involve the Executive and the Assembly through the appointment of a person to the permanent representation in order that they will understand the issues and the scale of what will be involved. That is a constructive and progressive approach which I think is accepted by everybody and certainly welcomed by the members of the North-South Ministerial Council.

I accept that the council meetings afford a limited opportunity to engage in detailed discussions. I assume the Taoiseach's direction to Ministers is to engage proactively with their Northern counterparts.

Yes. Each has an agenda that can be worked on between meetings. The next meeting is due to be held in November and a range of issues will be negotiated and, I hope, agreed between now and then.

That is good. Perhaps it does not need to be said that in areas such as education and health, where budgets are under stress and we want to protect the quality of service delivered, there is enormous scope for positive initiatives that would offer a win-win outcome on both sides of the Border. However, I would like the Taoiseach to go further than simply saying that while devolution of fiscal powers may be a good idea, it is for the British Government and the Executive to sort it out. He has correctly recalled that he is co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and, by extension, the process of peace building, reconciliation and reunification across the island. This is a matter on which the Government could legitimately take a position. God knows, in exchanges in this Chamber the fiscal circumstances of the North are referred to repeatedly. That is fine in the cut and thrust of political debate, but there is an onus on the Government to take a view on enhanced powers for the Assembly, with particular emphasis on fiscal powers. Bear in mind that the devolution of these powers is the very step that will make stronger and deeper North-South co-operation possible.

The Taoiseach will travel to the North in the coming weeks. It was our understanding he would go there in June. He has indicated that he will meet the Ballymurphy families and he knows what they are seeking. They want an investigation, an apology from the British Government and a recognition of the innocence of their loved ones. I am conscious that the issue has been ongoing for some time and if his visit to the North is delayed, I ask him whether he is prepared to meet the families in Dublin.

I am not sure what the repeated request to meet them in Dublin means.

I simply want the Taoiseach to meet them.

There is a serious legacy for the people concerned and I am happy to meet them in Belfast. However, if my trip is put back unduly, I do not object to that.

I disagree with the Deputy on lots of things, but I agree that perhaps we should have a discussion on the devolution of fiscal powers and what is actually happening. I have seen reports on schools being closed in Armagh and the difference in the taxes applied to property in Northern Ireland and here.

There are very different views on these matters. We have started a process of restructuring and reorganising local authorities. That process commenced in Limerick and Tipperary. There have been changes to the county enterprise boards and the functions of local authorities, as well as in the efficiency and value for money achieved for what taxpayers pay here. In due course perhaps it might be appropriate to discuss the way fiscal powers apply in Northern Ireland, how the citizens are confronted with that issue and how they pay. A very different prospect is being described here from some quarters in this House. Perhaps the Deputy and I might agree that a debate should be held on these issues at the appropriate time, as distinct from the normal cut and thrust of business in this House.

I do not raise the issue to start a slagging match about what is happening in the North versus what is happening in the South. The system is very different. For example, the Taoiseach has referred to the rates system that applies in the North. It is legitimate to discuss these issues, but the net point concerns whether Dublin takes a position on the powers that need to be devolved to the Assembly. As Deputy Martin correctly pointed out, this is not a static matter. The process is live and we have to ensure it is given fresh impetus and is seen to deliver for the citizens to which the Taoiseach referred.

I am not precious about where the Taoiseach meets the Ballymurphy families. I just want him to meet them. They offered to come to Dublin to facilitate a meeting and I appreciate that he has made it clear that he will meet them here in the event that his visit to Belfast is delayed. It is not a question of location; we just want the meeting to proceed.

I have no difficulty with that. When the Deputy speaks about taking a view on the structure of fiscal arrangements in Northern Ireland-----

On the devolution of fiscal powers.

----- it is like the financial transaction tax. Some countries in Europe have declared their support for it, but others are opposed. We have a clear view on the matter, but we cannot influence other countries in terms of the way they structure their tax systems. We would not want to be disadvantaged by any decision made on a financial transactions tax that might apply in Paris, Amsterdam or Frankfurt but put us at a competitive disadvantage against London. The British Prime Minister was equally vociferous on the matter.

I would be happy to meet the Ballymurphy relatives. I was asked a similar question at the meeting on Friday about meeting the Kingsmill relatives. I told the Minister for Regional Development, Danny Kennedy, MLA, that I would be happy to do so when I had the opportunity.

On the Taoiseach's response on the fiscal question, does he agree that the constitutional relationship between Ireland and Great Britain lies at the heart of the matter? Ultimately, the fiscal framework that governs Northern Ireland stems from the constitutional framework. The Good Friday Agreement was an advance in terms of sharing, the North-South bodies and the totality of relationships between Ireland and Great Britain and between the North and the South. What has been thrown up is interesting but the context is more fundamental than a mere discussion in this Chamber about who taxes whom and how they tax. It goes to the heart of the subvention from Britain to Northern Ireland, which is substantial, and goes to the heart of the constitutional relationship between North and South. The Good Friday Agreement has a stay on that in terms of if the majority is willing to change that status, the British and Irish Governments would facilitate that. Is that the context the Taoiseach envisages for a discussion of the fiscal framework in Northern Ireland in its constitutional context or is there another context?

Comparative studies are relevant and would help develop a greater understanding of how the system has evolved and operates in Northern Ireland as distinct from down here. Clearly there is a value in both Members of the Assembly and the Oireachtas understanding the way the financial framework operates in Northern Ireland, with the subvention from Britain, and how we do our business down here. Clearly, as has been pointed out, we have lots of rows in here about who pays what in Northern Ireland and who pays or does not pay what down here. It is of value to people to understand the different systems and how, given those responsibilities, there may be opportunities for expansion of trade or business that could benefit both communities. That is what I mean by that.