NSMC Institutional Meeting

Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 23rd June 2020.

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Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 10:30 am, 23rd June 2020

The Speaker has received notice from the Executive Office that the First Minister and deputy First Minister wish to make a statement on the North/South Ministerial Council institutional meeting of 11 March. Before I call junior Minister Kearney to make a statement on their behalf, I remind Members that, in light of the social distancing being observed by parties, the Speaker's ruling that Members must be in the Chamber to hear a statement if they wish to ask a question has been relaxed. Members do still have to make sure that their name is on the list, and they can do so by rising in their place and their name will be added to the list of those who wish to ask questions; alternatively, they can provide information to the Speaker's Table directly.

I remind Members that this is an opportunity to ask questions on the statement, and they should be concise. It is not an opportunity for Members to make statements themselves. I encourage Members to ask concise questions so that as many Members as possible will be able to follow and also ask questions.

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

In compliance with section 52C, paragraph 2, of the NI Act 1998, I want to make the following statement on the 11th North/South Ministerial Council institutional meeting that was held at the NSMC joint secretariat offices in Armagh on 11 March this year. The Irish Government was represented by Helen McEntee TD, Minister of State for European Affairs. The Executive was represented by junior Minister Gordon Lyons and me. Minister McEntee chaired the meeting. Minister Lyons has agreed that I will make this report on his behalf.

The Council approved the appointment of board members to the trade and business development body InterTradeIreland and directors to Tourism Ireland Ltd to fill a limited number of urgent and critical vacancies that were affecting the governance of both boards. The Council agreed that appointments will be made at future meetings of the NSMC to fill the remaining vacancies on those boards and the boards of other North/South ministerial and other North/South implementation bodies.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister and welcome his timely and extensive report

[Laughter.]

I welcome the appointments and appreciate that they are filling spaces on North/South bodies following the lack of an Assembly for three years and that they are essential appointments to important boards. I hope that the appointments do not follow what has happened in the Regulation and Quality Improvement Authority (RQIA). I tried checking the North/South Ministerial Council website but cannot find the names of the people who were appointed, and I was wondering whether we could get those as soon as possible, unless they are maybe posted elsewhere. Given the critical North/South nature of the bodies and the work that the Council does, will the Minister detail the obvious, urgent and additional workload that the Council and the bodies will have to undertake as a result of the rushed Brexit process that we are being subjected to?

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

I thank the Chair of the TEO Committee for that contribution. For your information, the appointments made were Florence Bayliss and Adrienne McGuinness, who were appointed as board members to InterTrade Ireland, Joan O'Shaughnessy, who was appointed as chairperson, and Nóirín Hegarty, who was appointed as a member of the board of Tourism Ireland. All members of the implementation bodies should be available online, and I will speak with officials after this morning's meeting to clarify whether that is, indeed, the case.

On the broader issues that the Member raised, clearly, in the context of Brexit this has implications for the work of the NSMC. While the British Government's withdrawal from the EU and their practical application of the withdrawal agreement will have implications under strand two, these are not solely issues that will be addressed under the auspices of the NSMC. However, as identified in the agreed protocol, it is envisaged that the NSMC and North/South implementation bodies will play a role. One instance of that will be the negotiation and operation of Peace Plus, for example. In second terms, the 'New Decade, New Approach' document also commits the Brexit subcommittee to initiate an assessment of the impact of Brexit on the institutions on a North/South and on an east-west basis.

Photo of Paula Bradley Paula Bradley DUP

I thank the junior Minister for his statement. Given that remote working has now become the new norm and, indeed, the Executive are encouraging it, do you see value in meetings North/South taking place via videoconference or other technology, going forward?

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

Yes, I do, and I see it being applicable in the context of the necessary convening of meetings of the British-Irish Council (BIC), and it would be of assistance in the convening and full operation of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference (BIIC).

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a ráiteas. Are there any plans for the North/South Ministerial Council to meet in plenary format any time soon?

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

The requirement for seeking meetings of the NSMC in plenary format rests with the Irish Government. The Irish Government are responsible for convening the next plenary meeting of the NSMC. That has not been done. It is a huge disappointment that we have not, since the restoration of our power-sharing Government in the North, seen a plenary sitting of the North/South Ministerial Council, the British-Irish Council or the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference.

In my opinion, we need to see all strands, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement, within their institutional framework, back to work and as urgently as possible. Frankly, Government formation in the South of Ireland and the onset of COVID-19, which we have all been living through, do not constitute valid reasons for not convening a plenary sitting of the NSMC. That should be done urgently, and the Taoiseach, either a caretaker or the incoming Taoiseach, should move immediately and urgently to remedy that failure.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP 10:45 am, 23rd June 2020

I thank the junior Minister for his statement. It is interesting to see that, in this New Decade, New Approach era of openness and transparency, appointments have been made to significant boards in the North/South process. Will the Minister outline the recruitment process, the remuneration package and the approach that was taken to make sure that they had the best people for the job, and will he explain, bearing in mind that the discussions on New Decade, New Approach agreed that a D'Hondt process should be brought into appointments to boards, how it is that that seems to have been completely ignored?

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

The appointments made on 11 March were Irish Government appointments. A number of vacancies are extant in relation to the full complement of the implementation bodies. There are currently 10 Executive vacancies on the boards of the North/South implementation bodies, and it will be up to the Executive to nominate the individuals to fill those allocated vacancies. Those appointments will be formally made at a subsequent NSMC. That cannot happen until the next plenary meeting, which is the responsibility of the Irish Government to convene.

Unfortunately, I do not know the remuneration for members, chairs or vice-chairs of boards, but I will ensure that that information is shared with you.

Photo of Andrew Muir Andrew Muir Alliance

11 March was a long time ago, especially in the context of the public health emergency that we have been experiencing with COVID-19 and the economic crisis. Why has the North/South Ministerial Council not met since then? COVID-19 does not stop at the border, and it is a real reason why these institutions should be working. They are there for a purpose. Why have we not been utilising them?

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his question, which overlaps with the earlier question from Pat Sheehan. I apologise, Members, that this statement was not brought to the House at an earlier stage. There have not been plenary or sectoral meetings of the NSMC in the period that you stipulated. The only meeting that has occurred under the auspices of NSMC has been the institutional meeting, on which I have provided a report.

It is simply not acceptable. We need to see all the bodies under all the institutional frameworks of the Good Friday Agreement in full operation. We have re-established our power-sharing institutions in the North. It is time that the NSMC became fully operational. The responsibility for convening the next meeting of the NSMC rests with the Irish Government, Frankly, we should dispense with the foot-dragging and the prevarication. An Taoiseach should move urgently to ensure that that plenary meeting takes place.

The Member is absolutely right. It has been too long a passage of time. I add, for the Member's information, that six meetings have taken place in a quadrilateral format since the beginning of COVID-19, to address matters pertaining to that. I emphasise that all those meetings, with the exception of the institutional meeting that I attended, took place outside strand two of the institutional framework.

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP

How will the Minister ensure that Tourism Ireland's priorities and resources are sufficiently focused on Northern Ireland for the next crucial period for our tourism sector?

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his question. He will be aware that the joint First Ministers will notify the Executive of any future NSMC meetings, including the agenda. A report will be made to the Assembly by the appropriate Minister after each such meeting.

The cross-community requirement in the legislation requires that appointed Ministers attending sectoral meetings of the NSMC be accompanied. That will ensure that, on the next occasion on which tourism matters relating to our affairs in this region are being addressed under the framework of the NSMC, we will have attendance and have two Ministers involved in the process: the lead Minister and an accompanying Minister. I am sure that the necessary preparation will be undertaken to ensure that our interests are adequately addressed so that we come through this very challenging period, in which there are huge challenges for our tourism and hospitality industry, and enter a recovery that maintains and grows the resilience of the industry in the North.

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

I acknowledge the appointment of board members to InterTradeIreland and directors to Tourism Ireland. That is welcome news for all to hear. What impact has the Government formation in the South had on the functioning of the all-Ireland Ministerial Council during the COVID-19 pandemic?

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

Again, that question overlaps with two previous questions. The fact is that there has not been a plenary meeting of —.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I remind the Minister to address the Chair so that his comments are picked up by the microphone.

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

Yes, of course, a LeasCheann Comhairle. That is very helpful advice from you.

[Laughter.]

There has not been a plenary meeting. There have been no other meetings under the auspices of the NSMC, and that situation needs to be addressed urgently. That can be done only by the Irish Government, however. As I have twice repeated, the onus is on the Irish Government to convene the next plenary meeting. It is up to the Irish Government to propose a date and bring forward a clár — an agenda — and for them then to ensure that that is passed on to the joint heads of government in order that —

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Junior Minister, if you are not facing the mic —.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Order. Order.

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

— process that work —.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Order. Please take your seat. I tried to encourage you to address the Chair. I am barely hearing you, and I am sure that Hansard will be struggling. Please address your comments through the Chair so that your microphone picks everything up and it is duly recorded for others to hear.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Points of order are not taken during statements. You may raise the point of order after the period for questions has expired, if that is OK. Junior Minister.

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

OK, a LeasCheann Comhairle. As I was trying to finish saying, the requirement is on the Irish Government to identify a date, provide an agenda and process that to the joint heads of government in order for them to agree with the agenda items to be addressed in that plenary meeting and, in turn, confirm a date. It is my hope that that process will be carried out as expeditiously as possible.

Photo of Harry Harvey Harry Harvey DUP

Junior Minister, what impact has the absence of a Government in the Irish Republic had on the effectiveness of North/South bodies?

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his question. Again, it overlaps with other Members' contributions. We have not had any sittings of the North/South Ministerial Council since we restored power-sharing here in the North. That extends to the non-operation of stand three. We have not seen a BIC meeting and we haven't seen the convening of the BIIC. If we are, in fact, to ensure that our power-sharing Administration and strand one under the Good Friday Agreement are to be fully and properly supported, then we need to see full activation of strands two and three.

A lot of issues have had an impact on political, civic and community life, not least COVID-19 over the last few months, but none of them should get in the way of the effective implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. While a Government has not yet been formed in the Twenty-six Counties, that process is still under way. Nevertheless, there is a caretaker Government in place, and it is the responsibility of the caretaker Government to fulfil their requirements under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement strand two framework.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his statement. How many meetings of Ministers, North and South, have occurred during the COVID-19 pandemic? Has the memorandum of understanding proved beneficial between both Administrations?

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

Mar a dúirt mé ní ba luaithe, bhí sé choinne ann ó bhí an phaindéim ag feidhmiú fud fad an oileáin leis na míonna seo anuas. There have been six meetings in a quadrilateral format since the beginning of COVID-19 but, as I said earlier, they have all taken place outside the strand two framework. The memorandum of understanding, as the Member rightly observes, has been signed between both Administrations and it has been of benefit. It has been a useful document; it codified effectively the work of the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser respectively across the island and the work that the two Ministers of Health were already involved in. Nevertheless, it serves as an important benchmark for ensuring that the fightback against COVID-19 is taken forward in an effective and coherent way on an all-island basis, so that we can maximise common working on the sharing of information, modelling and data and that, as we move into the process of universal community testing and contact tracing, we ensure that that can be effectively carried out on an all-island basis.

Photo of Matthew O'Toole Matthew O'Toole Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for the update. There is clearly a specific Brexit interaction in relation to the appointments to the board of InterTradeIreland and, particularly, with regard to the implementation of the protocol, in relation to the protection and development of the all-island economy. I appreciate what the Minister said about the lack of an Irish Government to convene or interact with, but has the Executive Office written to the Irish Government urging them to commission a specific strand of work under the North/South Ministerial Council to get InterTradeIreland to ramp up work on managing the implementation of the protocol and on ensuring that businesses in all parts of the island are best placed to adjust to the protocol and take advantage of continued access to the European single market?

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

The 'New Decade, New Approach' document makes provision for the establishment of the Brexit subcommittee, which has been tasked with the initiation of a full assessment of the impact of Brexit on the various institutions, as I indicated earlier — not just the institutions in and of themselves but, obviously, the sectors for which they are responsible for overseeing. Consideration of that particular issue — the assessment — has now been taken forward in the forward work programme. I am of the view that — I am sure that the Member shares my opinion — North/South Ministerial Council meetings present an opportunity for all Ministers, North and South — going back to Members' earlier questions — to discuss Brexit issues that are going to impact very directly on their respective areas of cooperation on an all-island basis.

Photo of Mike Nesbitt Mike Nesbitt UUP 11:00 am, 23rd June 2020

I will stay with 'New Decade, New Approach'. Part 2, paragraph 4, makes a commitment to:

"an ambitious package of measures to strengthen transparency and governance arrangements in the Assembly and Executive in line with international best practice."

Does the junior Minister think that the timing and content of his statement today meets that standard?

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his question and take it at face value as a genuine enquiry. Yes, I agree that we always needs to aspire to international best standards and ensure that they are maintained both in our political life — political governance — and in how we conduct civic and community business. The limitations of the statement are that it is simply restricted to the business that was carried out on that day. The meeting took place. I do not believe that it lasted much more than 12 minutes, and it was for our power-sharing Government to approve the proposals being put forward by the Irish Government for the appointments to be made. Had I had more to say, I would, of course, have shared that wisdom and those thoughts with the Member.

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

I provided the names earlier on. Perhaps you did not hear them.

Photo of Sinead McLaughlin Sinead McLaughlin Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you, Minister, for your statement. The North/South Ministerial Council is an important body, and it should be an important component of our economic recovery at this time. It is regrettable that many of its boards are so badly depleted when we most need them to be fully operational. The two, in particular, for our economic recovery are InterTradeIreland and Tourism Ireland. On Tourism Ireland, the Irish draft programme for government has in it a commitment to support the linkage of the Wild Atlantic Way and the Causeway Coast, which promises to provide a major boost to Derry city, as we are at the beginning and end of both. Can the Minister give a clear commitment that Tourism Ireland will fully engage with the project and that the Executive will this time give full support to this important vision? I say "urgently": we are going into a period now — a very short tourism opportunity — and it will be about staycations. We need the focus of Tourism Ireland to be on this island and between the two components of this island.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has asked her question. Minister.

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

Of course, the Member is right, particularly given that we are living through the associated economic and social emergency alongside our health emergency. It is essential that we proceed to reboot, warm up and reactivate our economy in all of its sectors at this point in time. The sector that faces greatest jeopardy at this time, because it is so seasonally sensitive, is our hospitality and tourism industry. Yes, the Executive are fully committed to ensuring that all aspects of our tourist industry in this region are maximised. I can give the Member an assurance that, when the next NSMC plenary meeting convenes — as I said, that needs to be done urgently; there should be no more foot-dragging or prevarication, and the Irish Government should convene that meeting — that will provide an important opportunity and forum for the issues to be discussed in detail and in a strategic sense.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

Thank you, Minister, for your statement. Given the lack of detail here, has there been any discussion or arrival at an agreed position regarding engagement with the Specialised Committee on the Northern Ireland protocol, either through quadrilateral meetings or otherwise?

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

Yes. It falls outside the context of this discussion, but I am happy to share information on that issue. The need for the Specialised Committee to meet is urgent. It has been addressed in the context of quadrilateral engagements with the British, Scottish and Welsh Governments, alongside our Administration. There has been one meeting of the Specialised Committee. In recent weeks, I have twice asked for a date to be confirmed for the second meeting of that committee. As the Member knows, it has specific operational responsibility for the implementation of the protocol. No date has yet been set, but, at the meeting of the Joint Committee that took place earlier this month, the vice president of the European Commission asked, specifically, for a date to be set. The British Government Minister, Michael Gove, gave a commitment that a date for the second meeting of the Specialised Committee would take place within four weeks. At this point, I do not have that date to share with the Member.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I want to ask about the openness and transparency or lack thereof of the North/South bodies. Take InterTradeIreland as an example. If we go to its website, we discover that no annual report or accounts have been published from 2017, no corporate plan from 2014-16 and no board of director minutes from March 2019. Why is that? When you go to the website and look at who the board of directors are, the ones that you have just announced are not even there. Three faces jump out at you — Jimmy Spratt, Timothy Cairns and Councillor Greenfield. Are the appointments to these just sinecures for political hacks who do not need to have any expertise on the subject matter?

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

Gabhaim buíochas leis an chomhalta as ucht an cheist thábhachtach sin a chur. You are absolutely right: all the affairs of government, including all institutional strands of the Good Friday Agreement, must be subject to maximum transparency. If that detail is omitted from the online records, I will raise it with officials. I expect that that should be fully provided. I see no reason why all of the information that the Member has inquired about should not be made publicly available online and through other sources.

Photo of Justin McNulty Justin McNulty Social Democratic and Labour Party

Minister, it is hilarious that you are attacking the Irish Government after 100 days after 1,000 days of prevarication and foot-dragging by the two joint Ministers' parties. This place remained down for 1,000 days, and you are attacking another institution after 100 days.

Did the Ministers have any discussions about the particular challenges that they would face? Specifically, I refer to cross-border workers, many of whom have been left behind during the pandemic?

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

The Member's comments are slightly misdirected by drawing out a suggestion of some insinuation. The reality is that we have not had any meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council since the restoration of our institutions in the North. I am sure that the Member understands. I assume that he is familiar with the detail of the Good Friday Agreement and that he has read it. It is a requirement that all strands of the Good Friday Agreement should be operable at the same time. It is a source of great regret that we have not seen the convening of the NSMC. Clearly, if the option had been available to our Administration to convene the next plenary meeting, that would have been dealt with at an earlier stage. The issue is beyond our control. I urge the Irish Government to address the omission of meetings of the North/South Ministerial Council as quickly as possible.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Are there any other Members who wish to ask a question?

Photo of John O'Dowd John O'Dowd Sinn Féin

Minister, annex B to 'New Decade, New Approach' sets out firm commitments from the Irish Government, including the establishment of a working group composed of representatives from the North/South Inter-Parliamentary Association, as well as the Clerk of the Dáil, to consider and make recommendations within six months focused on developing North/South parliamentary relationships. The six months is now up. Have there been any developments?

Photo of Declan Kearney Declan Kearney Sinn Féin

Míle buíochas leat as ucht an cheist thábhachtach sin a chur. The Member is correct in noting that detail. It is a precise explanation of the state of play. That has been placed as an objective question: the objective answer is, "No, that has not happened".

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Are there any other Members who wish to ask a question?

Mr Aiken, you wished to raise a point of order.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Yes. My point of order is that, much as enjoy hearing the junior Minister — Declan is a fellow MLA from my constituency — the degree of disrespect that he showed to you after you made your ruling is something that I would like the junior Minister to address. It is not just an issue of turning round and whatever it happens to be; for some of us of a certain age it is quite difficult to hear the junior Minister speak sometimes. I think that, on this occasion, the junior Minister might like to apologise to the Deputy Speaker. Thank you.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

The Member has his point on the record. I was trying to encourage the Minister to address the Chair to ensure that everyone is able to hear and that the acoustics are appropriate. The Member has his point on the record, and I am sure that the Speaker's Office will liaise with the Executive Office to encourage all Ministers and junior Ministers to put their remarks clearly on the record so that everyone will be able to hear what is being said.

I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments.