North/South Ministerial Council: Plenary Meeting

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 9th December 2014.

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Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin 10:30 am, 9th December 2014

In compliance with section 52C(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, we wish to make the following statement on the nineteenth meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in plenary format, which was held in Armagh on Friday 5 December 2014. The Executive Ministers who attended the meeting have agreed that we can make this report on their behalf.

Our delegation was led by the First Minister, Peter Robinson MLA, and me. In addition, the following Executive Ministers were in attendance: Minister Durkan; Minister Farry; Minister Ford; Minister Hamilton; Minister Kennedy; Minister Ní Chuilín; Minister O’Dowd; Minister O’Neill; Minister Storey; Minister Wells; junior Minister Bell; and junior Minister McCann

The Irish Government delegation was led by the Taoiseach, Enda Kenny TD. The following Irish Government Ministers were also in attendance: Tánaiste and Minister for Social Protection, Joan Burton; Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Charles Flanagan; Minister Howlin; Minister Bruton; Minister Fitzgerald; Minister Reilly; Minister Varadkar; Minister O’Sullivan; Minister White; Minister Donohoe; Minister Humphreys; Minister of State Nash; Minister of State Sherlock; and Minister of State Harris.

At the start of the meeting, we had a good discussion on a very important event that had taken place earlier that morning at the Royal School Armagh — the announcement that the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) had decided to proceed with a bid to host the 2023 Rugby World Cup. The Council noted that, following ministerial consideration of a report on the feasibility of submitting a joint bid to host the Rugby World Cup in 2023, it had been agreed to support the IRFU’s bid. We discussed the potential benefits that hosting such an event would bring to both jurisdictions and agreed that the relevant Ministers should work closely together to ensure that the strongest possible bid is submitted. I can safely say that all Ministers at the meeting were delighted at the prospect of such a prestigious event being hosted here.

Following on from the discussion on the Rugby World Cup, the Council noted the position on sectoral priorities and the north-west gateway initiative and agreed to keep those matters on its agenda.

As is normal at these meetings, we had an in-depth discussion on economic and budgetary issues in both jurisdictions. The Council welcomed the fact that, in general, signs are positive, while recognising that challenges remain. The recent announcement by the British Chancellor of the Exchequer on corporation tax was also discussed. Both Governments reflected on their respective successes in attracting external investment, while recognising that there is a key role to be played by indigenous companies in economic development. The opportunities to work together on joint trade missions and on developing new markets were recognised.

Ministers had a useful discussion on EU funding opportunities. The new draft Peace and INTERREG programmes are with the European Commission for consideration, and it is hoped that the final programmes will be launched in spring 2015. Following our consideration of EU funding at our last meeting, the Council welcomed the ongoing discussions between Ministers at NSMC meetings on the potential for collaboration to draw down EU funds. There is engagement between the jurisdictions on the opportunities available, and the Council looked forward to a further progress report at its next meeting.

The next item on the agenda was child protection and e-safety. The Council had an in-depth discussion on child protection issues, with a particular focus on e-safety, and noted that good collaborative work is already taking place on child protection within the NSMC structures and elsewhere. There was very good discussion on this item, with several Ministers from each jurisdiction contributing. Ministers recognised that such issues are cross-cutting and cross-jurisdictional and will require collaborative working to address. We agreed that Ministers who have a remit in child protection and e-safety-related activities should engage with their counterparts in the opposite jurisdiction to explore whether there is potential for further collaboration. It was also agreed that the topic should be revisited at a future meeting.

The Council then noted the progress report prepared by the NSMC joint secretaries on the work of the North/South bodies and other NSMC areas of cooperation since our last meeting in October. They welcomed the following key developments: in the area of transport, cooperation is continuing on identifying strategic transport priorities, including developing the strategic road and sustainable transport networks, and opportunities are being explored to pursue EU funding in a mutually beneficial manner to include support for the development of cross-border greenways.

Health is also an important area for cooperation, and progress continues on developing the two new suicide prevention strategies to follow on from the Reach Out and Protect Life strategies. Both jurisdictions have committed to share knowledge arising from media and public information campaigns on mental health. The All Ireland Institute of Hospice and Palliative Care launched its children and young people website. The first ever all-island Palliative Care Week took place from 6 to11 October and was aimed at encouraging a deeper public understanding of palliative care.

Funding for rural communities is important, and both Administrations are in the process of seeking approval from the European Commission for their respective rural development programmes for 2014-2020.

Education also remains an important priority for both jurisdictions. Education Ministers, at their meeting on 22 October 2014, received a joint presentation on cross-border cooperation between the Departments on educational underachievement. The focus of the presentation was the joint workshop in Dublin on 8 October 2014. Work will now be taken forward to establish a means of sharing the experience of schools to address educational disadvantage.

In the environment sector, Ministers, at their meeting in November, noted that the contract for the all-island air quality research study of airborne pollution from the combustion of residential solid fuels — in particular, smoky coal — was awarded in February 2014. They noted that an interim report is being considered by officials and will be presented to Ministers in the near future. The second and final phase of the study is due to commence before the end of the year.

I turn now to the work of the North/South bodies. Research and development is important for both jurisdictions. Both Enterprise Departments and InterTradeIreland continue to encourage North/South collaboration in research and innovation to increase the drawdown of funding. Significant actions have included the publication of InterTradeIreland’s Horizon 2020 guide, the recently held Collaborate to Innovate conference in Dublin Castle, and the launch of the jointly agreed strategic action plan prepared by the Horizon 2020 all-island steering group.

The Special EU Programmes Body (SEUPB) has an important role in the development of the draft Peace IV and INTERREG Va programmes 2014-2020, which were submitted to the European Commission on 22 September 2014 in line with the regulatory deadline. The programmes are now in the negotiation phase with the Commission, and it is hoped that the final programmes will be launched in spring 2015.

Safefood continues to develop community food initiatives, and the evaluation of the first year of the current 10 projects has concluded that all are progressing very well. A range of research reports and surveys have also been completed by Safefood in recent months.

The Loughs Agency continues to work on the marketing and promotion of the Foyle and Carlingford areas through the development of marine tourism, angling and education and outreach programmes.

Foras na Gaeilge continues to assist with the implementation of the new funding arrangements, including the agreement of an overall high-level strategic plan in addition to three-year plans for each of the six strategic areas.

A new Discover Ulster Scots Centre was opened on 27 November at the Corn Exchange Ulster-Scots hub in Belfast. The centre works with a number of partners to maximise the opportunity for collaboration in the Ulster-Scots sector to provide a modern showcase of Ulster-Scots culture for the general public.

Waterways Ireland has developed the Shannon blueway, Ireland's first blueway. This is a multi-activity trail running alongside water between Drumshanbo and Carrick-on-Shannon in County Leitrim, which it has developed in conjunction with the National Trails Office, Canoeing Ireland, Leitrim County Council and Leitrim Tourism. The body continues to engage with relevant organisations interested in the further development of blueways or greenways in both jurisdictions, including by exploring opportunities for EU funding.

Finally, the Council noted that the British-Irish visa scheme was officially announced by the British and Irish Governments on 6 October 2014. Under the first phase of the scheme, Indian and Chinese nationals will be able to visit Britain and Ireland using just one visa, removing the need for those visiting here to apply for a separate visa to travel across the border and vice versa. It is anticipated that the scheme will significantly boost business and holidaymaker visitors.

Ministers noted the current position on a North/South consultative forum.

At the end of the meeting, the Council approved a schedule of NSMC meetings proposed by the joint secretariat, including an NSMC institutional meeting in early 2015 and the next NSMC plenary meeting in early summer 2015.

Photo of Jimmy Spratt Jimmy Spratt DUP

I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement. Child protection and e-safety are serious issues for all of us. Will the deputy First Minister elaborate on what the Executive are doing in the area of child protection and e-safety?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

Safeguarding and protecting children from abuse of any kind is the responsibility of all of us. It is important to ensure that there is continued cooperation across Departments, agencies and organisations. I am pleased to advise that the work programme agreed at the NSMC health and food safety meeting on 18 July 2012 is continuing to improve safeguarding and child protection practice across both jurisdictions. A North/South childcare in practice conference was held in October 2014 in Dundalk, and it explored the background to early intervention approaches to child and family problems and the similarities and differences in solutions in both jurisdictions. The conference was attended by over 200 people and brought together prominent academics, policymakers and managers of statutory and not-for-profit organisations as well as practitioners from all over Ireland to showcase examples of good practice and making positive changes for children and families. The Department of Justice continues to work to ensure that, when sexual-exploitation-related crimes occur, we work together to protect and support victims and bring perpetrators to justice.

Child internet safety continues to be a concern, especially in relation to the online dangers that children and young people face, such as pornography, online grooming and bullying. While we recognise that the Department of Health, Social Services and Public Safety has the lead role in child protection, we have taken advantage of OFMDFM's central role in the Executive to help inform how we can best protect children from abuse through the Internet, and there are quite a number of actions, including commissioning research, the UK Safer Internet Centre and an ongoing review of activity.

Photo of Cathal Ó hOisín Cathal Ó hOisín Sinn Féin 10:45 am, 9th December 2014

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an LeasChéad-Aire as an ráiteas. Will the deputy First Minister give an update on the current position of the EU funding programmes?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

The 2007-2013 Peace III programme has a total budget of €333 million. The programme is fully committed and has achieved all its spending targets to date. The 2014 target was met during September 2014, with a cumulative expenditure of almost £257 million recorded by the end of October, against an EU target of £250 million. The 2015 target will represent the full programme budget. It is vital that the EU income is maximised, and SEUPB must now manage the portfolio of projects to successful conclusion within the eligible programme time frame.

INTERREG IVa has a budget of €256 million, 88 projects have been issued with a letter of offer and the programme is now fully committed. INTERREG IVa has exceeded all its annual expenditure targets to date, and SEUPB advise that it will meet the spending target for 2014. The target for 2015 will, of course, be challenging. DFP is monitoring the situation closely and is working with the SEUPB to manage the risk and ensure that no EU income is lost.

We noted that the draft Peace IV and INTERREG Va programmes were submitted to the European Commission on 22 September in line with the regulatory deadline, and that will be followed by further negotiations between DFP and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and the Commission to agree a final programme.

Photo of Alban Maginness Alban Maginness Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the deputy First Minister for his very detailed report to the Assembly. He referred to indigenous companies and economic development. Will the deputy First Minister expand on the opportunities to work together on joint trade missions and on developing new markets? I think that it is crucial that that cooperation continues.

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

I totally agree with the Member. It is vital that, where we can gain benefit for both Administrations North and South, we work together. During the NSMC meeting that was held in Armagh, I made the point — given that we are opening a new office in China — that we very much appreciated the support of the Irish Government's diplomatic services, particularly the ambassador, in opening that office and paving the way for our representative to get to know people in the Chinese Administration and, just as importantly, in the business community.

There have been a number of joint missions. Our Enterprise, Trade and Investment Minister has been involved in joint missions with representatives of the Irish Government. In the context of going out from this island, we all accept that places like India, China and many other places do not differentiate between North and South; they look for a business proposition. In circumstances where it makes sense for us to work together, it improves our ability to gain more exports for our businesses, including our indigenous businesses.

It also makes it clear to the Administrations that we are open for business on the island. Many of those people will also be looking at the opportunities that the prospect of our having the ability to set our own rate of corporation tax could have in terms of impact on foreign direct investment, which, as we all know, mainly comes from North America at this time.

Photo of Chris Lyttle Chris Lyttle Alliance

I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement. I welcome the work of the Northern Ireland Executive to support the Irish Rugby Football Union (IRFU) bid to host the Rugby World Cup in 2023. I add the Alliance Party's full support to that work. Does the deputy First Minister agree that the unique partnership approach to this bid North/South and between the IRFU and the GAA, and indeed Ireland's rich rugby heritage, makes for a very persuasive bid? In what practical way will the Executive be able to support that bid?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

I think that all of us in the House know that this is a fantastic opportunity for all of us on the island to host one of the largest sporting events in the world. Of course, we have a tremendous rugby tradition. This also puts us in the international spotlight with a great opportunity to raise our profile. There is our historic role in developing the world game and, in recent times, driving the growth of the European cup; rugby's role in bringing people together; and of course our popularity as a destination due to the beauty of our landscape, rich heritage, diverse culture and warmth of welcome. I have no doubt that everybody will get behind this bid. I think that we do so with a considerable degree of confidence that it can be a winnable bid. All that has happened on this island over the last 20 years will not be lost on those who will make a final decision.

Ireland is one of the great rugby nations of the world. If you want a very clear indicator of our prominence, you just have to look at the two victories over South Africa and Australia; the first time there were two in a row over southern hemisphere teams. We have a very proud rugby tradition. We have also been blessed by the fact that the powers that be in soccer, the GAA and rugby have all come together very powerfully over recent years to exploit the real opportunity that sport has to bring people together right across the country. People like me have no problem standing up for the Ulstermen when they are playing. I presume that people on all Benches here have no problem standing up for Ireland when they are playing. It is great to see that quite a number of the Ulstermen feature on that team. I was very pleased to have Andrew Trimble with us in Armagh on Friday. He was recently voted Irish rugby player of the year. That is a fantastic accolade for all of us.

This is a fantastic opportunity with hundreds of thousands of people coming to our shores and a worldwide television audience in the region of 4·2 billion people.

Photo of Gregory Campbell Gregory Campbell DUP

The deputy First Minister mentioned that child protection was discussed in Armagh. Can he indicate whether there was any discussion regarding sexual abuse of children in the past and the relocation of those who were responsible for that abuse from Northern Ireland to the Republic courtesy of the paramilitary organisation that he used to belong to?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

In the course of the public promulgation of all of this, I have made it clear that I have written to both the Taoiseach and the First Minister on my proposal that we need to be very proactive in this regard. I know that there are ongoing discussions between Minister Fitzgerald, Minister for Justice and Equality, and Minister Ford, from our perspective, on the matter. We await the outcome of those deliberations. If those deliberations take some time, as they may well do, there is a huge responsibility on all of us to consider how, in the interim, we can continue to support those who have been victims of sexual abuse.

From my perspective, I want to see as much support as we can possibly give, North and South, through our working together to support people with counselling, helplines and, very importantly, how they can access justice. There should be no hiding place on this island anywhere for anybody guilty of the sexual abuse of anyone. I think that there is a total commitment on the part of everybody at the North/South Ministerial Council that we all have to do whatever we can to ensure that we support victims.

Photo of Barry McElduff Barry McElduff Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. I seek assurance from the deputy First Minister that the Executive are exerting maximum pressure at this time on the Irish Government to play their full part in meeting their financial obligations in respect of the crucial A5 road project.

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

I think that all Members will be aware that, as a result of a legal challenge on behalf of the Alternative A5 Alliance, the orders relating to the A5 scheme were quashed in April 2013. The judge dismissed 11 of the 12 grounds of challenge but held that there was a need to carry out an appropriate assessment under the habitats directive in relation to special areas of conservation.

Public consultation on three reports informing the appropriate assessment process concluded in June 2014. Consultation on the fourth and final report concluded in late November 2014. Work is well advanced on the new draft statutory orders and a new environmental statement. When the new environmental statement is published, it will be subject to public consultation, which may lead to a further public inquiry in 2015.

Subject to the successful conclusion of statutory procedures, the Executive, taking account of their other priorities and the funding commitments of the Irish Government, which the Member referred to, will decide when funding can be made available to build the scheme. We had a very useful discussion with the Taoiseach about the A5 funding. It was a very positive development that he specifically mentioned the A5 at the press conference following the meeting; he again reaffirmed his Government's commitment to the scheme.

All in all, this is obviously a huge priority for not just the North/South Ministerial Council but our Executive. In terms of the construction industry, the sooner we can get diggers back on the road again to build that important road to not just Belfast but Dublin, the better. The conversation with the Taoiseach in relation to the prospect of the Irish Government restoring the full funding that they committed themselves to was very encouraging indeed.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

Before calling the next Member, I ask Members to check or recheck their mobile phones. A very active one is creating problems for Hansard.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as an ráiteas seo ar maidin. I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement this morning. Will he confirm whether we are on target to make the tourism industry here a £1 billion market by 2020?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

Our visitor numbers continue to rise year on year. More importantly, revenue from tourism has shown healthy increases in the last few years; in 2013, tourism spend was worth some £723 million to the local economy. Of that, £531 million came into the economy from out-of-state tourism spend. The total visitor numbers for 2013 were 4·1 million. Figures for the first six months of 2014 show a 5% and 10% increase in visitor numbers and visitor spend respectively compared with January to June 2013.

Progress is on track to achieve the long-term goal to make tourism here a £1 billion industry by 2020. Our significant investment in developing a world-class tourism product is bearing fruit. For example, Titanic Belfast has seen over 1·84 million visitors since opening, which well exceeds the target for the first two years. The Giant's Causeway has seen over 1·96 million visitors, and over 1·37 million people from 178 countries have visited the visitor centre since it opened. We are making exceptional progress in tourism. Tourism figures are up. We are very confident that we will reach the £1 billion mark by 2020. It is very encouraging.

Photo of Dominic Bradley Dominic Bradley Social Democratic and Labour Party 11:00 am, 9th December 2014

Go raibh maith agat, a LeasCheann Comhairle. An dtig liom fiafraí den LeasChéad-Aire an raibh aon phlé ag an chruinniú faoi na heagraíochta Gaeilge anseo i mBéal Feirste a mbeidh deireadh leo de bharr na samhla nua maoinithe, mar shampla an tIontaobhas Ultach, atá imithe cheana féin, agus Pobal, atá i mbaol a bháis? Caidé an tionchar a bhéas aige sin? Could I ask the deputy First Minister whether there was any discussion at the meeting about those Irish language organisations here in Belfast that will disappear as a result of the new funding model being operated by Foras na Gaelige and if the influence of the disappearance of those organisations was also discussed?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

There was no specific discussion, but the NSMC approved the implementation of the new funding model in July 2013. That represented a significant shift in the strategic coordination and delivery of services to language communities. The new model seeks to ensure improved collaboration and a more flexible and adaptable approach that can respond quickly to the current and future needs of the language. The six lead organisations are in place and have met in the partnership forum with Foras na Gaeilge to develop its plans for delivering its allocated strategic priorities in relation to its specific theme in both jurisdictions. Work to finalise the arrangements is ongoing.

A language development forum was established at the end of June to provide feedback and advice about the delivery of service by the lead organisations and to give voice to the Irish language community in the development of future plans and the emerging needs of the language. Foras na Gaeilge has appointed a chair to lead the forum. I know that the Culture, Arts and Leisure Minister, Minister Ní Chuilín, has been involved with the Irish language organisations in Belfast and meets them regularly. In fact, she attended a meeting that I was involved in last week, when Pobal came to Parliament Buildings and we had a bilateral meeting. It was great to see that Pobal was accompanied on that visit by Linda Ervine from east Belfast, who, herself and through her organisation, has been very much involved in the teaching of the Irish language in east Belfast to what appears to be a very receptive audience.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Can we expect any reduction in the number of wasteful North/South bodies and the extravagance of the cross-border machinery as a result of the upcoming talks, or are they to continue as profligate sacred cows in the political arrangements?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

The North/South bodies make a very significant contribution to both jurisdictions and carry out a range of valuable functions.

For example, InterTradeIreland does excellent work on promoting cross-border trade and helps SMEs and others to grow their capability in exporting. It plays a key role in helping companies to access research and development funding through EU programmes such as FP7 and Horizon 2020. It has carried out good work to help the companies gain greater access to the public procurement market. Of course, the SEUPB also plays a key role in the management of EU funds such as Peace and INTERREG. I am sure that all Members will be aware of the important role that those funds have played across all constituencies.

Waterways Ireland plays an important role in the management of inland waterways, which is a resource that is very important for our tourist industry. The Loughs Agency plays an important role in the management of Foyle and Carlingford loughs and is also heavily involved in promoting the loughs as destinations for marine tourism. There are many other examples of good work taken forward by the bodies. It is clear to see that the work of the bodies is important and it will continue.

Photo of Leslie Cree Leslie Cree UUP

I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement. It was interesting to read that Waterways Ireland has developed this first blueway in the Carrick-on-Shannon area. Can he share with us if, in fact, Waterways Ireland has developed any projects for the Erne waterway itself?

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

These projects are under ongoing consideration by Waterways Ireland, as the development of blueways and greenways could add to our tourist potential. It is clear from how greenways have been used, particularly in the west of Ireland, that they have huge health benefits for those now walking and cycling and involved in physical activity.

There is a proposal for another greenway from Derry city to County Donegal. Blueways and greenways offer important tourist potential, and it is exciting to see that Waterways Ireland is considering the linkage in the Leitrim area and how it can be extended to Lough Erne.

Photo of Sandra Overend Sandra Overend UUP

It was interesting to see that e-safety was raised at North/South level, especially since there does not yet seem to be any agreement here as to who will take responsibility for a cross-departmental Internet strategy in Northern Ireland. What did they learn about forming an Internet safety strategy from the Republic of Ireland Government? It is important to see action on this issue as soon as possible.

Photo of Martin McGuinness Martin McGuinness Sinn Féin

The Member raises a serious issue. It is serious not just because of the need for us to continue to explore with the Irish Government how, on this island, we can protect our children but also since, with advances in technology and the extensive use of the Internet, this is now a global problem.

It is not a problem affecting just us here on the island of Ireland; it affects every nation in terms of the protection of children, so there needs to be a global response. In considering what we can do on the island of Ireland to continually improve our ability to protect children, we also have to look at what is happening in the big world out there.

I am sure that many nations have similar concerns to ours about the safety of their children. This requires global cooperation. In the context of what we are doing on this island, there is a duty and responsibility, particularly on the Justice Departments, to continually review, and I know that those reviews are ongoing.

Of course, the health service is involved. Also, given the contribution that education can make, it is definitely a cross-cutting issue that needs to be accelerated as we continually see, hear and read horror stories in newspapers and on the news.

There is also a big problem with bullying on the Internet; that has had its own impact, as young people have taken their lives as a result of being bullied. The Internet has been a tremendous advance and resource for educationalists and for ending the isolation of older people in their homes. However, there are dangers, and they will have to be met by a global response.

Photo of John Dallat John Dallat Social Democratic and Labour Party

Order. That concludes questions on the statement.