Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. In compliance with section 52C(2) of the Northern Ireland Act 1998, we wish to make the following statement on the twenty-first meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC) in plenary format, which was held in Armagh on Friday 11 December 2015.
The Executive Ministers who attended the meeting have agreed that we can make this report on their behalf. Our delegation was led by the then First Minister and me. In addition, the following Executive Ministers were in attendance: Minister Bell, Minister Farry, Minister Ford, Minister Foster, Minister Hamilton, Minister McIlveen, Minister Ní Chuilín, Minister O'Dowd, Minister O'Neill 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 Bruton; Minister Fitzgerald; Minister Reilly; Minister Donohoe; Minister Humphreys; Minister of State Hayes; and Minister of State McHugh.
At the start of the meeting, the Council discussed the tremendous achievement of Professor William Campbell, who had been awarded the Nobel Prize in Medicine the previous day, and it extended its congratulations to him.
Ministers then went on to discuss the recent Fresh Start Agreement and the work to be undertaken by officials to review North/South infrastructure projects. In addition, the Council welcomed the commitment in Fresh Start to tackle paramilitarism, criminality and organised crime and to bring to justice those involved.
We then moved on to the main agenda, which opened with a discussion on the financial and economic challenges faced within each jurisdiction and the work being taken forward in each jurisdiction to promote economic growth and employment. The importance of tourism, trade and investment and of supporting companies accessing overseas markets was recognised. We are all pleased to see that economic recovery is under way, but we must not be complacent and we must ensure that the conditions are right to support growth.
We then moved on to talk about EU matters, in particular how we can work together to maximise the drawdown of EU funds. Discussions are continuing at the North/South Ministerial Council sectoral meetings on identifying opportunities for collaboration to draw down EU funding. Those discussions will continue throughout the next round of meetings.
The Council noted that, under the EU's Horizon 2020 programme, €19·36 million was secured in the first year for specific joint projects involving both jurisdictions. Horizon 2020 provides a huge opportunity for both jurisdictions to work together to draw down funding, and it is good to see the work being done by InterTradelreland and others paying dividends.
The INTERREG and Peace programmes have been very important to us over the years, and the new programmes will be no exception. The Council welcomed that INTERREG VA has now opened for funding calls, and it noted that the Peace IV programme was recently adopted by the European Commission. The Council agreed that it will consider a further update on EU matters and funding opportunities at a future meeting.
The Council then approved the appointment of chairpersons, vice-chairpersons and members of the boards of the North/South implementation bodies and directors of Tourism Ireland Limited. Ministers expressed their appreciation for the work of outgoing board members.
The Council then received an update on the work that is ongoing across the various NSMC sectors. Ministers noted that meetings had taken place in the language, inland waterways, aquaculture and marine, tourism, trade and business development and the Special EU Programmes Body sectors since they last met. The Council was advised that the process of finalising 2016 business plans and budgets for the North/South bodies is under way and that they would be presented to the North/South Ministerial Council at the earliest opportunity.
The next item on the agenda was sectoral priorities, and the Council noted the position on those and the ongoing review of work programmes at sectoral meetings. An update was then provided on the north-west gateway initiative. The Council noted the continued engagement between officials from the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade and the Office of the First Minister and deputy First Minister with regional stakeholders regarding the direction and priorities for the north-west. Ministers also noted the work done by Donegal County Council and Derry City and Strabane District Council to produce a collaborative framework aimed at placing cross-border cooperation on a more formal basis within local government structures. The Council was advised that that framework allows for the development of priorities for the north-west in cooperation with central government, consistent with the aims of the north-west gateway initiative.
The Council then welcomed the commitment of the Irish Government to provide €2·5million to the north-west development fund to support the north-west gateway initiative. That will be complemented by matching funding from our Executive. The Council was advised that, despite the recent postponement, both Governments are committed to a meeting of Ministers from both jurisdictions to take place in the north-west. Ministers then noted the current position on a North/South consultative forum.
The meeting ended with the Council approving a schedule of NSMC meetings proposed by the joint secretariat, including the next plenary meeting in June 2016.
Thank you very much, Mr Speaker, and good morning to you.
I thank the Minister for his statement. Paragraph 14 refers to:
"appreciation for the work of outgoing Board members."
The Minister will be aware that there was something of a cull of Ulster Unionist nominees. That is an observation, not a complaint, from me. Is he aware that one outgoing board member became aware of their fate only when an erstwhile colleague telephoned to sympathise? Is that how we do business as a devolved institution?
I am totally unaware of telephone conversations that took place between colleagues. The position is that the Executive provide nominations for half the board members of the North/South bodies. The Ulster Unionist Party is no longer a part of the Executive and was not involved in the nomination process. The Executive, at their meeting on 10 December, agreed the process for allocation of appointments to maintain the nationalist/unionist balance on the boards of the North/South bodies.
Paragraph 7 states:
"the Council welcomed the commitment in 'Fresh Start' to tackle paramilitarism, criminality and organised crime and to bring to justice those involved in it."
Will the deputy First Minister make a fresh start today and welcome the trial and conviction of Mr Murphy, or does he believe, like his leader, that Mr Murphy is a good republican?
As the Member knows, we were involved in extensive discussions prior to Christmas to conclude the Fresh Start Agreement. We did that, and I noted that, yesterday in the Assembly, the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party seemed to take great pride in the fact that not only had it and the SDLP not signed up for the Fresh Start approach but that they had rejected the Budget. Fortunately for us as a society, the DUP and Sinn Féin engaged in a very serious negotiation that was about tackling criminality and armed groups and those involved in them. We absolutely support the institutions that are charged with taking forward the work of tackling organised crime: the gardaí and the PSNI.
How that is done in individual matters is the responsibility of the courts and the police services, North and South. The issue that the Member mentioned was not discussed at the North/South Ministerial Council. Our responsibility was to deal with a combined approach. Fortunately for us, in tackling the issue of criminality, whilst we do not have the support of the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP, the DUP and Sinn Féin, with the support of the Irish and the British Governments — it appears that we also have the support of the United States Administration and the European Union — still have a very strong hand to play in how we bear down on those who would try to use the current situation to feather their own nests.
My party, the DUP and, I presume, parties that did not sign up to the agreement are opposed to organised crime, and I think that the best way for all of us to proceed in how we deal with that is to take a united approach. I hope that, at some stage in the future, the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP will see the wisdom of working with the rest of us to ensure that we are successful in what we are trying to do.
Go raibh maith agat, a Cheann Comhairle. I thank the Minister for his statement. Is the Council aware of the stark financial difficulties facing Waterways Ireland as a result of not only sustained budget cuts but the currency fluctuation because of the weakened euro? Let me point out some of the figures: compared with 2013, the 2014 budget was down by €290,000; and, in 2015, it was down by €875,000, solely because of the weak euro. Was that matter discussed? What potential solutions may ensure that Waterways Ireland is returned to a sustainable financial footing?
The fluctuation of the euro was not discussed at the meeting.
Obviously, it does represent a serious challenge, given the fact that the euro has been very weak over recent times. I note that it has strengthened over recent days. Certainly, on foot of the Member highlighting this, we can give it further consideration.
It is important to point out that the work of Waterways Ireland is nearing completion, including the dredging of the River Finn between Upper Lough Erne — that will be of interest to the Member — and Castle Saunderson as part of phase 1 of the restoration of the Ulster canal. Design plans for the new bridge at Derrykerrib are also at an advanced stage. I understand that there are some contractual issues with the site that, combined with high water levels, have led to delays. However, Waterways Ireland is working with local councils and other interested parties to secure EU funding under the INTERREG sustainable transport programme. The proposed greenway would run from Smithborough village to the Monaghan town greenway and on to Armagh. The point that the Member raised is important and will be considered by the Council.
I thank the deputy First Minister for his detailed statement to the Assembly on the meeting.
First, the institution is very important: it is vital to the development of relationships between North and South. We must all work very hard. There is good work here, and everybody involved, and who was at the meeting, is to be congratulated for the work that they did.
The SDLP is fully committed to tackling North/South crime. It is a little bit disingenuous of the deputy First Minister to single out the SDLP and suggest that we may not approve of that. In relation to North/South crime, what practical steps does the deputy First Minister see arising out of the cooperation that is clearly envisaged between North and South, and was there any discussion in the Council meeting of what practical steps could be taken by the gardaí and the PSNI?
In my earlier remarks, I made it clear that I recognised that all parties in the Assembly were opposed to organised crime; but the reality is that the Ulster Unionist Party and the SDLP came out against the Fresh Start process. I see the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party shaking his head, but he made the point yesterday in his contribution to the Assembly. I am quoting him, I hope, accurately. If I am wrong, no doubt it will be pointed out to me at a later stage. That was my interpretation of what was said yesterday.
I agree with the Member for North Belfast that the North/South Ministerial Council is a very important element of the Good Friday Agreement and, indeed, the St Andrew's Agreement. I want to pay tribute to him as an outgoing Member of the Assembly. When questions are being asked and reports are being given about the North/South Ministerial Council meetings, he has consistently been here, consistently recognised the importance of the institution and asked important questions.
His question today relates to the practical issue of what we are doing to tackle criminality. The Fresh Start Agreement and implementation plan announced the establishment of a joint agency cross-border task force to be led by senior law enforcement officers from North and South. The task force will target cross-border organised crime, including by armed groups. It consists of a strategic oversight group and an operations coordination group and will be jointly chaired by the PSNI and An Garda Síochána. High-level targets have already been set in the terms of reference, and more detailed targets will set by the law enforcement groups.
A trilateral meeting at which the setting up of the task force was agreed took place on 21 December at Farmleigh in Dublin. The First Minister and I, along with the Justice Minister, attended that meeting. That clearly shows that there is high-level interest in tackling a serious problem for our society on an all-Ireland basis. We intend to continue to focus on ensuring that the PSNI and the gardaí have all the support that they need, including financial support. We are committed to tackling organised crime and have set aside £50 million to do so over the next five years.
I thank the deputy First Minister for his statement to the House. Deputy First Minister, I refer you to paragraphs 9 to 12, which deal with EU funding opportunities. The Prime Minister announced that there will be a referendum on whether this part of the United Kingdom, as well as the rest of it, should withdraw from the European Union. I am an avowed supporter of the EU and think that the United Kingdom is best in the EU. What action will the North/South Ministerial Council take to ensure that that message gets across and that the benefits of EU membership continue, North and South?
I wholeheartedly agree with the Member. My party is very strongly in favour of the continuation of the European Union and of our involvement in it. The consequences of withdrawal for the island of Ireland, North and South, would be very dramatic and damaging.
How this is taken forward is very much in the hands of the Conservative Government and David Cameron. David Cameron's latest remarks last Sunday on 'The Andrew Marr Show' indicated that he was seeking changes and that, if he got them, he would argue very forcibly to stay in Europe. The issue is fraught with all sorts of dangers and difficulties. I have said before that the danger is that the Conservative Administration are sleepwalking into a referendum that could lead to an exit from the European Union. That would be unacceptable to the Scottish and Welsh Administrations, and the vast majority of people in the North of Ireland would be opposed to it. The new leader of the Democratic Unionist Party said yesterday that the party will consider all this in the time ahead and state its position as things become clear. We await the outcome of that. All parties are entitled to have their own positions on these matters, but we have benefited tremendously from the connection with Europe and do not want to miss out on future funding opportunities.
Most people understand the importance of North/South cooperation and the opportunities that can come from collaboration in areas of mutual interest. However, in light of the reform that has taken place here, does the deputy First Minister believe that it is time to review how we conduct North/South business? Is this the most effective way to have cross-border cooperation? Is it best for our citizens? Is he prepared to consider that there might be a way to improve how we do business, or does he think that that is unreasonable?
It is not unreasonable at all. We continually need to look at how we can improve our performance because, as the Member correctly said, it makes sense for all of us, North and South, to work for our mutual benefit. Our ability to do so without infringing on anybody's political allegiances is very important. Given that we are such a small island and that our fortunes are so inextricably linked, it is important that we continue to develop all-island approaches to get economic prosperity for all our people.
The Member is absolutely right: we need to look at performance consistently to see how we can improve it and empower different Ministers. Our economic Ministers, Health Ministers, infrastructure Ministers and Agriculture Ministers are working closely to ensure that we get the best advantage from our connection with Europe and do so by continually improving relationships between Departments and people, North and South.
I return to paragraph 7 and its reference to paramilitarism. Can the deputy First Minister, without his usual recourse to obfuscation, tell us if he now accepts that the IRA still exists, still has access to arms and is still involved in criminality, as the government panel found? Does he now accept that, or is he still in denial?
I know that there is always a temptation for the Member who has spoken to continually try to drag up the IRA as some sort of threat to the work that we are doing in the peace process: of course, the reality is that the IRA has left the stage. I think that the role that I have played and that my party leader Gerry Adams has played have been very important in ensuring not alone that we empower politicians to take decisions about the way forward but that we make it absolutely clear that we are totally opposed to the existence of any armed groups whatsoever and the activities that those armed groups may be involved in.
The work that we have committed ourselves to through the Fresh Start Agreement commits us to tackling armed groups, tackling those who would attempt to plunge us back to the past and tackling those who are trying to feather their own nest. It also commits us to working in very strong cooperation with other parties in the Assembly, with the political parties in the South and with the Ministers charged with responsibility for security, as well as the PSNI and the gardaí. My determination to be part of that cannot be challenged by anyone and certainly not by the Member for North Antrim.
On a point of order, Mr Speaker. The deputy First Minister appears confused in his understanding of my remarks yesterday. For the record, what I said was that two of the four parties of the Executive had rejected the Fresh Start Agreement. The deputy First Minister will be aware that the Ulster Unionists are no longer in the Executive, so, when he mentioned the SDLP and the Ulster Unionists, he should have referred to the SDLP and the Alliance Party.