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Shared Island Unit

Dáil Éireann Debate, Wednesday - 25 November 2020

Wednesday, 25 November 2020

Ceisteanna (8)

Mary Lou McDonald

Ceist:

8. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the shared island unit of his Department. [38621/20]

Amharc ar fhreagra

Freagraí ó Béal (6 píosaí cainte) (Ceist ar Taoiseach)

The programme for Government sets out the Government's commitments on a shared island and to working with all communities and traditions on the island to build consensus around a shared future underpinned by the Good Friday Agreement. On 22 October, I set out the Government's vision and priorities on a shared island in an online event at Dublin Castle. More than 800 people participated online, comprising a broad range of civil society, community, sectoral and political representatives throughout the island of Ireland and in Britain.

A shared island unit has been established in my Department and the unit is focusing its work in 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, NESC, to prepare a comprehensive report on shared island issues in 2021. This will provide valuable input from economic, social and environmental partners. 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. On 22 October, I launched the shared island dialogue series to foster constructive and inclusive civic dialogue on all aspects of a shared future on the island. The series will start on Thursday, 26 November, with a dialogue on "New generations and new voices on the Good Friday Agreement".

The dialogue series will focus on important issues for people on the island in the years ahead, such as the environment, health, education and the economy, and key civic concerns that are addressed in the Good Friday Agreement, including identity and equality. The initiative will actively seek as broad a range of perspectives and experiences from civil society on the island as possible, with a focus on the inclusion of voices that have been under-represented in the peace process, including women, young people and new communities on the island.

I have had constructive engagement with the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, on the Government's shared island objectives and commitments. I have made it clear that we are happy also to engage on an east-west basis as we take this work forward. In budget 2021, the Government announced the shared island fund, with a planned €500 million to be made available out to 2025. The 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 objective of the Good Friday Agreement.

Last Friday, I and my colleague, Deputy Doherty, launched Sinn Féin's discussion document on the economic benefits of a united Ireland. I have sent the Taoiseach a copy of our document and I hope that he and his officials within the shared island unit will consider the research and discussions contained within it. As the Taoiseach is aware from his recent engagements with various groups, academics, policymakers and opinion formers, the discussion on Irish unity is taking place right now. We published our discussion document in that spirit. It is a contribution to the exciting and hopeful debate on what a united Ireland might look like. As we approach the centenary of partition, which was imposed on this island with enormous and tragic human and social costs, we believe it is now appropriate, timely and necessary to discuss the economic and democratic deficits that partition produces. In our document, we examine and set out public finance and expenditure data which demonstrate that we can afford to unite this island and, more to the point, that we can no longer afford partition. We consider the precedent of German reunification and we explore the constructive role the EU can provide as we move towards unity.

I am regularly bemused by the Taoiseach's opposition to the particular discussion around reunification and a unity referendum. In January last year, he and the leader of the SDLP launched a partnership arrangement which was to deliver an array of policies on three key themes, one of which was Irish unity and the arrangements for a future poll on unity. The obvious next step for the Taoiseach on taking office should have been the establishment of a joint Oireachtas committee on Irish unity, the setting up an all-island Citizens' Assembly, critically, to discuss and plan for reunification, and for Government to develop and publish a White Paper on Irish unity. I ask the Taoiseach again to reconsider the exclusion of all of this work from his shared island unit and its organisational objectives.

Perhaps I can kill two birds with one stone by getting an answer to my previous question. In the context of the shared island initiative, a shared vaccine programme would be an immediate way of giving us common cause, North and South, to deal with the pandemic and get us out of the cycle of lockdowns. The Taoiseach should take that idea very seriously. As I said earlier - I would like to hear the Taoiseach's response on this point - the question of intellectual property rights surrounding vaccines is already emerging as a potential block to their roll-out. Ireland, North and South, is in quite a strong position to influence this because of our relationship with the new US President and the significant position of the pharmaceutical industry in this county. We need to be saying, as the United Nations is saying at this time, that intellectual property rights, that is, protections around making profit from new scientific technologies, should simply not apply in the face of a pandemic and the urgent need to roll out a vaccine. We should discuss this issue with our Northern counterparts and with the US President. Does the Taoiseach agree that profit and intellectual property rights should not get in the way of the roll-out of a vaccine?

I was very pleased to meet recently with the Ireland Future group. Its proposal is for an all-Ireland constitutional assembly on Ireland's future and looking at uniting the island on a different basis. It has to be a different, better Ireland and it must be about a new future, not just an amalgamation of the two existing states that were so damaged by partition. We would be making a damn good start in that regard if we worked together on delivering a solution to the pandemic by making sure big business does not get in the way of the roll-out of a vaccine.

I have not yet received the document compiled by Sinn Féin, which Deputy McDonald spoke about, regarding the benefits economically of a united Ireland. I certainly will have a look at it, as will the officials in the shared island unit. I would say to the Deputy that it is time to stop playing politics with the North. The shared island initiative is a genuine attempt to create a discussion on how everyone living on this island can share the island into the future. It is a genuine attempt and we want to being new voices into the discussion. It is not about appealing to electoral bases or to one's support base. It is about broadening the discussion out and trying to advance areas and issues that are common challenges to us, such as climate change, energy security, environmental protection and a range of other issues in terms of health, social services and transport. Where common sense is applied, there is a whole range of projects where we can work together to get them done.

The playing of politics has undermined the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement for far too long on all sides. The collapse of the Executive for three years was horrendous to me. I just could not understand it and I still do not understand it, given the impact it had on trying to advance mutual understanding. It is good that the Executive has been restored, notwithstanding the challenges it faces, because it gives us some chance of moving forward. The North-South Ministerial Council meetings are now recommenced. The sectoral meetings between Ministers North and South have recommenced. That is the working out of the Good Friday Agreement, which was a watershed moment for all of us on this island. It involved all parties applying themselves pragmatically to constitutional change, which we did, followed by an all-island referendum which voted through the Good Friday Agreement and put in stone the institutions of the agreement, which are important in terms of the advancement of North-South relations and bringing together the two traditions on the island of Ireland.

My officials and I have met and briefed Deputy McDonald and her party on the work of the shared island unit. I did not attempt to score political points during that meeting and I would ask the Deputy to desist for a time. She does not have to, every single time that a statement issues, attempt to undermine and score points. I do not really have to talk about my commitment to this issue. It is long-standing. Childish sorts of remarks are an attempt to undermine one party versus another. They do nothing to advance the substantive issues that need to be advanced.

In regard to Deputy Boyd Barrett's points, I agree that intellectual property should not be a barrier to the roll-out of the vaccines and nor should profit. A number of companies have been successful so far and the indications are that we could end up, in the shorter term, with seven companies that may, in the next while, get their vaccines through the various regulatory authorities.

Oxford–AstraZeneca is an interesting candidate, which has been well supported by the government of the United Kingdom. We, through the European Union, have entered into a pre-purchase agreement there as well. Their vaccine would be far more distributable across the world because it does not have the same temperature conditionality attached to it. It makes that a powerful potential vaccine for Africa and other continents.

The WHO has been developing, and seeking funding from world governments to fund, the provision of vaccines on a global basis and that fund could be more generously supported by governments. If one considers the trillions of euro that governments have put in to try t0 keep economies afloat all over the world, a fraction of that investment is all that is required to make sure that we can fund vaccines for populations all over the world that cannot afford to procure vaccines.

Companies could also share the technology.

Obviously, its fundamental role would be to protect populations but it would also be the fastest way to reigniting the global economy.

Companies can also play their role. My understanding is that some companies will play their role in sharing the data, etc., in relation to this.

The overarching priority has to be to get the vaccines out there. We have signed up for three - Pfizer and BioNTech, Oxford–AstraZeneca and Moderna - and will be aligned to the European Commission's pre-purchase agreements that it is engaging with various companies on to make sure that we have the maximum vaccines.

We have a national task force and, of course, we will work with the authorities in Northern Ireland. They, obviously, will liaise with the UK public health system as well on vaccines through the NHS. The idea, obviously, is that the entire island is vaccinated as quickly as possible and that people would take up the vaccines on an all-island basis because it is a very important development in our fight against Covid-19.

Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
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