Statement by Minister Donohoe on Northern Ireland05 February 2014
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A Cheann Chomhairle,
I welcome the opportunity to debate Northern Ireland in this House.
Engagement on Northern Ireland is a matter of the highest priority for this Government. The Government, in common with the British government, is a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement.
However, engagement now also takes account of the fact that the devolved institutions are in the lead in ensuring that Northern Ireland becomes the peaceful and reconciled society envisioned in the Good Friday Agreement.
The Government takes a whole of government approach to Northern Ireland. This is particularly evident through the work of the North South Ministerial Council, which can play a central role in maintaining both parts of this island on the path of economic recovery and job creation.
As the Taoiseach has said, in the current economic circumstances, we are even more determined to concentrate on all areas where co-operation makes sense and brings real, tangible mutual benefits to people across the island.
The Taoiseach and the Tánaiste work closely together and with the British government in ensuring that the two Governments maximise cooperation in support of the Northern Ireland Executive.
The Taoiseach works closely with the British Prime Minister, with whom he now has an annual meeting in the St. Patrick’s Day period, as well their regular meetings in the EU context.
The Tánaiste works closely with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland on political issues, particularly in support of the political talks between the five leaders of the Executive parties in follow up to the excellent work done by Drs Richard Haass and Meghan O’Sullivan.
Minister Shatter works closely with the Secretary of State on justice and security issues. Cooperation between the Gardai and the PSNI is better than ever as they work together on countering the threat from dissident republicans, against who continued vigilance is required.
As the Taoiseach mentioned, and thanks to the efforts of the Ceann Comhairle and the Speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, Willie Hay, we are fortunate that the North South Inter Parliamentary Association, foreseen in the Good Friday Agreement, was established in 2012.
The Interparliamentary dimension of the relationship within and across these islands is also nurtured through the work of the British Irish Parliamentary Assembly, established by the 1985 Anglo Irish Agreement whose thirtieth anniversary we will mark next year.
I want to put on the record of this House my admiration for the enormous achievement by the then Taoiseach, Dr. Garret FitzGerald and his colleagues at that time.
Northern Ireland is debated regularly by the Joint Committee on the Good Friday Agreement, whose members hear from a wide range of voices and undertake visits to Northern Ireland.
It is regrettable that MPs from all NI Assembly parties do not participate in meetings of the Committee but I welcome the fact that the UUP Leader Mike Nesbitt addressed the Committee in 2012. The Government would like to see more engagement by Unionist political representatives with members of this House.
Mike Nesbitt chairs the NI Assembly Committee overseeing the Office of the First Minister and the deputy First Minister – the OFMDFM Committee. Part of the Committee’s remit extends to EU issues and I was pleased to brief the Committee last October on European Union issues.
Firstly, I briefed on the achievements of Ireland’s 2013 Presidency of the EU Council of Ministers, with particular reference to North/South issues.
In particular I briefed Committee Members on issues of direct relevance to Northern Ireland such as the strong progress made on negotiations on the Common Agricultural Policy, the Common Fisheries Policy and on the EU budget.
Secondly, I briefed MLAs on the increasing importance of the role of national parliaments and assemblies in the European Union. I also drew attention to the increasing importance of the European Parliament under the Lisbon Treaty and the need for national parliaments, assemblies, Council Presidencies and member States generally to deepen engagement with it.
Thirdly, I spoke about the debate that is developing around the UK's terms of membership of the European Union. I made it very clear that we absolutely recognised the right of any country to discuss or debate its membership or terms of membership of the European Union as a sovereign right.
I also made it very clear that we believe that the European Union is a far stronger place for having the UK within it and that we work together with the UK on a large number of areas.
I emphasised that Ireland greatly values our continued strong membership of the European Union. We want to see the United Kingdom stay within the Union.
Let me turn now to the specific benefits the EU brings to Northern Ireland. The EU’s PEACE and INTERREG Programmes continue to play a key role in supporting cross border and cross community co-operation in Northern Ireland and the Border region of Ireland.
In excess of €340 million has already been spent on PEACE and INTERREG Projects in the current Programmes. The PEACE III Programme has seen a number of very valuable cross community projects such as the teaching divided histories project, work with communities along the interface areas of Belfast and shared space projects such as the Peace Bridge in Derry, which has become an iconic reminder of how much progress Derry has made in overcoming past divisions.
A number of high profile projects were launched under the INTERREG Programme last year including the All-Island Tourism Trail, cross-border economic development projects and business support programmes aimed at Small and Medium Enterprises.
The Government was disappointed that the Narrow Water Bridge and Maze Long Kesh projects had to be withdrawn. However, our immediate focus must be to ensure full expenditure under these Programmes.
The Government remains committed to the concept of the Narrow Water Bridge and to the development of the Peace Building and Reconciliation Centre at the Maze Long Kesh site.
As we are now in the critical final implementation stages of PEACE III and INTERREG IVA, the priority will be to ensure that expenditure targets are met and EU funds are fully drawn down, so that the benefit to this island in terms of developing the peace process and the cross border economy is maximised.
I am particularly pleased that during our Presidency, the European Council decided to include a special allocation of €150 million for a new PEACE Programme in the Multiannual Financial Framework. It is also very positive that the British government has indicated that it will provide an additional €50 million of ERDF funding to the PEACE programme.
The Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB) has undertaken its initial consultation process for both the new PEACE programme and the successor INTERREG programme. I understand that preliminary drafts of the Programmes will shortly be out for consultation.
The focus of the new INTERREG programme, which covers Northern Ireland, the Border Counties and the West of Scotland, is likely to be directed towards areas such as research and innovation, social inclusion and combating poverty, the low carbon economy and the environment.
It is clear that the PEACE programme in particular has considerable potential to focus on the key issues of youth employment and tackling marginalisation.
The Government believes that the current Talks process presents an opportunity to reaffirm the fundamental principles set out in the Good Friday and St Andrew’s Agreements and to use those principles as the basis for agreement in the three areas of contention.
The Irish Government, as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and of the process as a whole, must ensure that there is no weakening of those commitments.
It is encouraging that the NI party leaders are meeting again this week and I hope their discussions will lead to further progress. We will continue to support the process in any way we can and will work closely with the British Government to do so.
The Government will continue to keep Northern Ireland at the forefront of its agenda. We will maintain our whole of Government approach focussing in particular on the central role of the North South Ministerial Council in keeping both parts of the island of Ireland on the road to economic recovery and prosperity.