Wednesday, 21 October 2020

Ceisteanna (2, 3, 4, 5, 6)

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Ceist:

2. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Taoiseach the status of the work programme development for the shared island unit, including the expected timeframe. [30139/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Neale Richmond

Ceist:

3. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach the status of the shared island unit as committed to in the programme for Government. [30830/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Alan Kelly

Ceist:

4. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the allocations planned from the shared island fund. [31299/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Peadar Tóibín

Ceist:

5. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach the efforts that have been made through the shared island section of his Department to develop an all-Ireland management process to deal with Covid-19. [31372/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Ceist:

6. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Taoiseach the projects that will be prioritised in the initial funding allocation to the shared island unit. [31381/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (19 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 2 to 6, inclusive, together.

The programme for Government sets out the Government's commitment to working with all communities and traditions on the island to build consensus around a shared future underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement. A shared island unit has been established in my Department to support this work. The unit is led by an assistant secretary and its work is proceeding to examine the considerations for a shared future in which all traditions are mutually respected, underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement. Operationally, the unit is focusing its work on three areas, namely, commissioning research, fostering dialogue and building a shared island agenda, including delivery of the commitments in the programme for Government. The unit is developing a comprehensive research programme and will work with the Economic and Social Research Institute and other partners. North-South and east-west collaboration will be an important part of this work. My Department has also asked the National Economic and Social Council to prepare a comprehensive report on shared island issues in 2021. This will provide valuable input from economic, social and environmental partners. Tomorrow, I will launch an online shared island dialogue series, which will start next month and inform the work of the unit.

Strengthening social, economic and political links on the island and the promotion of all-island approaches to the strategic challenges facing Ireland, North and South, are key objectives for this work. I briefed the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, on the Government's shared island commitments and made it clear we are happy to develop east-west as well as North-South initiatives. In budget 2021 last week, the Government announced a shared island fund, with a planned €500 million to be made available out to 2025. The shared island fund provides significant new multi-annual capital funding for investment on a strategic basis in collaborative North-South projects that will support the commitments and objectives of the Good Friday Agreement.

The funding will foster new investment and development opportunities on a North-South basis and support the delivery of the key cross-Border infrastructure initiatives set out in the programme for Government. It opens the way for investment in new all-island initiatives in quite a number of areas, including primarily infrastructure but also research, health, education and the environment, as well as addressing the particular challenges of the north-west and Border communities. It will also support our community to achieving greater connectivity on the island and to enhancing the all-island economy and all aspects of North-South co-operation. The funding will be dispersed to Departments and agencies in line with the programme for Government priorities and on the basis of collaborative North-South projects.

With regard to Covid-19, recognising that viruses know no borders it was decided early on in advance of the establishment of the shared island unit that co-operation between administrations would be instrumental in tackling the outbreak. Processes are in place for regular engagement to take place at ministerial, official and technical levels. The shared island unit has no involvement in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic. There has been significant engagement throughout the pandemic on how each health system is implementing various public health responses. There has been long-standing close co-operation in health for many years. The memorandum of understanding to strengthen North-South co-operation in respect of the public response to the Covid-19 pandemic, as agreed to in April, copper-fastened and formalised this ongoing close co-operation.

The Taoiseach has taken Questions Nos. 2 to 6, inclusive, together. Given that four Deputies have asked questions in this grouping, I ask that they be conscious of time in order that there will be time at the end for the Taoiseach to respond.

I have asked two of the questions in this grouping.

We have talked about contingency planning and I welcome the fact there is a shared island unit. As part of contingency planning, its terms of reference might need to be changed in the future, depending on what happens in regard to Brexit, but we will leave that for another day.

The present pandemic has highlighted some of the difficulties of partition. Certain parties in the Executive in the North look towards Britain, whereas we cannot necessarily stand over what the Administration in Westminster has done in respect of either the pandemic or Brexit negotiations. There is a definite need for co-operation in every sphere possible to improve upon this. That has been noted many times in the House and whatever needs to be done, an all-Ireland response is absolutely necessary.

I would like to hear some detail on the projects. The Taoiseach referred to €500 million and I assume he is talking about cross-Border projects such as the proposed Narrow Water bridge.

If we are talking about improved rail networks or the Enterprise service between Dublin and Belfast that only operates every two hours, it is not enough to allow people to commute between those two cities. I accept there are particular difficulties at this time. What is the timeline on the comprehensive report? I would like information on this shared dialogue series. What is the timeline in relation to the plan? What exactly will the work plan look like? I request additional information on those infrastructure projects.

I thank the Taoiseach for his substantive response. I welcome the establishment of the shared island unit and the announcement last week by the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, of a budget of €500 million, which is not an insignificant sum. The role of this unit is important not just in the post-Brexit era but now that we have the Executive re-established. We face so many challenges and opportunities on this island and this unit in the Taoiseach's Department has such an important role to play.

Deputy Ó Murchú and I attended a meeting this morning with the House of Lords European Union Committee. The final section of the discussion was on how Ireland and the UK will continue to build North-South and east-west relations post Brexit. The institutions of the Good Friday Agreement provide us with the tools and the roadmap to do so. At this time, as we deal with the global pandemic, the importance of the North-South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference, the British-Irish Council and the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly is paramount. How can we use this unit to build trust across this island and engagement at every level, not just ministerial but also, crucially, co-operation? The Taoiseach went into some detail about the engagement between Ministers and officials at the moment but I ask him to elaborate on it, particularly with regard to dealing with the acute challenges we are facing with the pandemic in the Border region.

This was an important new announcement in the budget last week. Will the Taoiseach confirm that we are talking about additional and new money and not money that has already been allocated across Departments for Border or cross-Border projects?

Is there a breakdown, even in indicative terms, of how the proposed €500 million investment will be deployed? It would be useful for us to have a debate and discussion on that.

How is the fund to be administered? Is it to be entirely administered by the Taoiseach's Department or through the relevant line Departments, for example, the Departments of Transport or Environment, Climate and Communications? I have an important question because the issue is not clear in my mind. What will be the structure of the Special EU Programmes Body, SEUPB, which I had the privilege of co-chairing for five years and which was responsible for INTERREG, cohesion funding, PEACE IV expenditure, all of which amounted to considerable cross-Border expenditure? That was co-ordinated but once Britain leaves the EU, will that body, even if it has to be given a new title, continue to operate and have some functionality in relation to the moneys the Government deploys? I know EU funding is still coming. What we do not want is to have some initiatives coming from this body and the same projects applying to a separate unit in the Taoiseach's Department and then being evaluated and perhaps part funded separately. There needs to be co-ordination. Will the Taoiseach outline the oversight of this €500 million and how the SEUPB, as currently constituted, will exist into the future?

The countries that have been able to suppress Covid-19 have typically been islands and have operated as epidemiological units. Countries that have delivered consistent controls internally and controlled their borders, such as New Zealand and Australia, have kept their numbers low and saved lives. The cost of not doing this is hundreds of lives, massive ill health in the country, a wiped-out economy and tens of billions of euro of debt. Ireland is an island and, as such, should have a competitive advantage in this regard. Co-operation is no small thing and we have heard so much about co-operation on Covid-19 but there is precious little evidence of it. The Taoiseach mentioned that there are processes in place to allow for co-operation. Seven months out, we have a situation where there are processes in place to allow for co-operation. We had a Fine Gael Minister previously who, when asked on the radio why he did not give the Northern Executive information about a lockdown, stated he wanted to tell the Irish people first, ignoring the Irish people in the North of Ireland. I want to see practical, real proof of co-operation. Where is the locus of co-operation? Is it in the Taoiseach‘s Department, the Department of Foreign Affairs or the Department of Health? Is there a secretariat, staff or structure employed specifically to focus on Covid-19 cross-Border co-operation? What money is assigned to that? Are planning, funding and delivery happening fully in tandem, North and South, on Covid. If they are not, we will see continued failure and a yo-yo Covid policy in this country.

I welcome the Taoiseach's shared island webinar which is due to take place tomorrow. I look forward to that and to the process wherein all parties can actively participate in the shaping of the work and mission of the shared island unit.

My more substantive point relates to Covid-19. Following on from Deputy Tóibín, I understand the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference is due to meet on 2 November. I urge the Taoiseach to ensure the issues of travel to and from our respective islands and a harmonised system for isolation, restriction of movement and quarantine be discussed. I urge that we adopt a common two-island strategy in recognition of the common travel area. I accept we have additional connectivity and obligations in respect of other European jurisdictions and we need to take account of that but it is imperative that we avoid an ongoing lapsing and relapsing in and out of serious lockdowns, such as the one we will enter this evening. We need to get this matter right. The appropriate forum to do so is the British-Irish Intergovernmental Council. The Taoiseach has previously indicated a willingness to deal with this issue in that format and forum and I ask him to confirm that, on 2 November, there will be a substantive discussion and serious movement towards a quick and effective decision and solution on this matter.

People Before Profit was the only party in this House two weeks ago to explicitly support NPHET's call to move to level 5. We did so not because we like restrictions or lockdowns - we dislike them - but because we support a zero-Covid strategy based not on perennial lockdowns but on precisely trying to end the need for lockdowns by eliminating the virus. The excuse the Taoiseach has given for not pursuing an elimination strategy, which would present the possibility of getting out of the perennial lockdowns that the Taoiseach's strategy is essentially offering us, is the issue of the Border with the North. I do not accept that excuse. If places such as Australia can pursue a zero-Covid strategy quite effectively, I do not see why we cannot do so.

What tangible, concrete measures has the Government taken to co-ordinate the Covid-19 response on contact tracing, testing and the timing of restriction levels? Countries such as Wales are now making decisions about restriction levels independent of Boris Johnson. That raises the question as to whether there are others in Wales, Scotland and England to whom we should be talking to discuss the possibility of real co-ordination, which would open the possibility of pursuing an elimination strategy.

This should not be mischaracterised. The elimination strategy is about getting rid of community transmission, which we had almost done in June, and then having a tracing regime that can pounce like a fire brigade on an outbreak of fire. A zero-Covid strategy is like a zero-fire strategy. It does not mean there can never be a fire but the intention is never to have an uncontrolled fire and the fire brigade can jump on the odd outbreak. That is what the zero-Covid strategy is about and it would mean there is no need for lockdowns. That is a prize worth pursuing as an alternative to having lockdowns for the next year. It needs to be taken seriously on an all-Ireland basis.

The Taoiseach has a little over five minutes to respond, which is a challenging task.

I thank the Deputies for raising the issues. It was my initiative to secure €500 million additional and ring-fenced funding for the shared island agenda. Deputy Howlin, as a former Minister, will be aware that successive Governments since the signing of the Good Friday Agreement, and I am not casting aspersions on any specific Government, have only done some projects on canals and all of that. If only one Department is given responsibility for shared island projects, it will always find other projects that will come ahead of a North-South one and the idea of greater connectivity. That is unfortunate, but it seems to have been the reality. Inevitably, if design is slow or delayed, projects in this space can fall victim to that process. We are clear that this additional €500 million is ring-fenced for shared island projects.

All Deputies, including Deputy Ó Murchú, asked about projects, and I will come back to other issues. There are obvious projects that are in the Good Friday Agreement itself and the New Decade, New Approach document. We have been committing to the A5 for a long time and it is time to deliver. We will explore projects including Narrow Water Bridge, the Ulster Canal and the cross-Border greenway. We provided some initial funding for a greenway between Sligo and Enniskillen in the July stimulus package. We could make a lot of quick progress on greenways in different locations. We provided funding for the feasibility study on the Sligo to Enniskillen route.

We will look at the education area in the north west. We have not done a breakdown because, as we know, sometimes the worst thing that can be done for infrastructural projects is to hand over €50 million and then people go off designing the Taj Mahal and nothing ever happens. This has to be done in a robust way with proper design and procurement to make sure that a project can be realised and delivered on the ground and that the various local agencies and authorities are also playing their roles to accelerate a project so that we can make the contribution when it matters. We could, for example, make a contribution over three years, as the project is being designed and developed. It puts flesh on the bones of the shared island concept.

Connectivity is a key objective. For example, I can see us helping to fund feasibility work on faster rail connectivity between cities, North and South.

What about oversight?

The Departments of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Taoiseach will have oversight. We will work with individual Departments and agencies on delivery. The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform will have a key oversight role.

Reference was made to the House of Lords and that is an interesting presentation. Building relationships is key to this and I would like Deputies and Senators to build settings and approaches in that regard, including through the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. The pandemic has restricted our movements, but we need genuine engagement. The Ceann Comhairle would have an interest in this, from Parliament to the Assembly. Nothing can surpass good personal relationships and engagement, east-west and North-South. I see the shared island unit endeavouring to facilitate that. Some engagement would happen at various centres, such as that of the Corrymeela Community and others, where there can be no holds barred, off-the-record sessions with people from different backgrounds, traditions and so on to seek greater understanding. That is important.

Deputy Howlin asked about the special-----

What about the EU programme body?

We secured €120 million from the European package, which is very good news because, of course, that has to be more than matched by the British Government at a ratio of either 2:1 or 3:1; let us work from the higher number. We also have to match it, so that gets us substantial funding that will be organised separately from this, involving separate accountancy, approach and all of that. We are pleased with the Commission for doing that, and President Ursula von der Leyen in particular for being facilitative in that regard.

A number of Deputies have raised issues about the pandemic. There has been concrete engagement between the chief medical officers and a memorandum of understanding has been signed by them. The two Ministers for Health, Robin Swann, MLA, and Deputy Stephen Donnelly, have engaged. I have engaged consistently with the First Minister and deputy First Minister, and will continue to do so, as I will with other party leaders in the North. We are conscious that we are in two jurisdictions. This is not New Zealand, whether we like it or not.

Our geography is substantially different and whether we like it or not, there are two separate jurisdictions operating on the island, governed by an Executive and Assembly in the North, the Government and Oireachtas here. Those are realities. We have a long Border. It is not possible to seal the Border to pursue a zero-Covid strategy. Deputy Boyd Barrett asked about concrete stuff which is not nebulous. When we had problems and moved Donegal to level 3, I approached the First Minister, Arlene Foster, and deputy First Minister, Michelle O'Neill. They responded in their way, pragmatically, in terms of Derry and Strabane. As I instanced earlier, the chief medical officer in the North is saying that there seems to have been an impact in Derry and Strabane and numbers of infections have come down somewhat. I hope that is the case and that is sustained.

We will do everything we can to co-operate but there are limitations as well. Representatives in the North had challenges in getting to level 3 last week, even level 3-plus in some of the measures they took. Politically, within the Executive, there was robust discussion. I contacted both the First Minister and deputy First Minister again because I was conscious that we were moving to a higher level in counties Donegal, Cavan and Monaghan and would look at increasing restrictions nationally. They have to operate within their political constraints and realities.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, has been proactive with all of the Northern parties on co-operation around the pandemic, to be fair to him. He has had a number of meetings with the Minister for Health and the respective ministers.

Deputy McDonald asked about the British-Irish Council. We want to participate in that. Travel has been challenging because public health officials have been unenthusiastic about travel since the early days of the pandemic. Europe is now developing a common travel arrangement. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, has been in discussions with Michael Gove, MP, about the British-Irish situation. All of that is subject to agreement from the health authorities about what is safe and what is not.

We will move on to Question No. 7. Would Deputies prefer to spend the remaining five minutes on these questions? Question No. 7 will then remain for the next day.

There is no next day.

Okay. We will go to Question No. 7.