North/South Ministerial Council: Plenary and Institutional

Ministerial Statement – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 12:15 pm on 18th January 2021.

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Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 12:15 pm, 18th January 2021

I have received notice from the First Minister and deputy First Minister that they wish to make a statement. Before I call the Ministers, I remind Members that, in light of 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 still have to make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called, but they can do that by rising in their place as well as by notifying the Business Office or Speaker's Table directly. I remind Members to be concise in asking their questions. I also remind Members that, in accordance with long-established procedure, points of order are not normally taken during the statement or the question period that follows. I call the deputy First Minister.

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

Before I start my statement, may I add my words of condemnation to those spoken in a previous item of business on what happened to the Multicultural Association building at the weekend? Obviously, we all condemn it in the strongest possible terms and send a strong signal from the Executive and the Assembly that it is vital that all in society take a stand against such hatred and intolerance.

In compliance with section 52 of the 1998 Act, I wish to make the following statement on the twelfth institutional meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council (NSMC), which was held on 16 December, and on the twenty-fifth NSMC plenary meeting, which was held on 18 December. The First Minister and I have agreed that I will provide the report.

The twelfth North/South Ministerial Council institutional meeting was held at the NSMC joint secretariat offices in Armagh on 16 December 2020. The Executive were represented by the First Minister and me, and the Irish Government were represented by the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Simon Coveney TD. The First Minister and I chaired the meeting.

We discussed a number of priorities, and, given its importance at this time, we focused on the impact of and response to COVID-19. The Council noted that COVID-19 issues were discussed at all NSMC sectors, including the impact on those sectors and how to promote economic and social recovery from the impacts of the COVID-19 pandemic. Ministers welcomed the engagement and commitments to date across both jurisdictions in responding to COVID-19, particularly in health cooperation, and noted that both Administrations will continue to cooperate, whenever it is practicable to do so, to ensure the best response to the challenges posed by COVID-19.

We discussed Brexit. Ministers noted that the Council has included the implications of Brexit and areas for cooperation in each of the NSMC sectors and that Ministers agreed that they and their officials will continue to engage to ensure that cooperation is maintained following the end of the transition period. The Council noted that senior officials from the Executive Office, the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of Foreign Affairs will meet regularly to discuss issues arising from Brexit and will provide regular updates to both Administrations and the NSMC.

Our next priority was the New Decade, New Approach (NDNA) commitments. The Council noted that discussions have taken place on a number of New Decade, New Approach commitments with a cross-border dimension at the NSMC sectoral meetings and bilaterally among Ministers. A group of senior officials from both jurisdictions has been established to maintain strategic oversight and progress delivery of the projects, focusing on connectivity and infrastructure, research and innovation, and investment in the north-west and border communities. The group will meet regularly and provide updates on its work to both Administrations and the NSMC.

Ministers noted the Shared Island initiative and the associated Shared Island Fund of €500 million to be made available up to 2025. It has been established by the Irish Government to support investment in new shared initiatives, including the delivery of commitments outlined in 'New Decade, New Approach'. Updates on the various NDNA commitments with a cross-border dimension will be provided to future NSMC plenary meetings.

We discussed matters relating to North/South bodies. The Council noted that the North/South bodies continue to deliver on their remit, as outlined in the agreement of 10 March 1999, and that the NSMC maintains oversight of the work of the bodies. Ministers noted that the bodies have now been in existence for over 20 years and recognised that there have been changes to their operating environments during that time. It was agreed that officials should review the operating framework of the bodies to explore whether they remain appropriate and bring forward recommendations if required.

Ministers noted the discussions that have taken place at NSMC sectoral meetings with the aim of ensuring that the work programmes in the various NSMC areas for cooperation remain up to date and reflect the priorities of the Executive and the Irish Government. The Council will continue its consideration of work programmes at sectoral meetings in early 2021. The Council agreed that Ministers should regularly review work programmes to ensure that they reflect the priorities of both Administrations. It was noted that the NSMC had previously agreed that consideration of longer-term sectoral priorities was required and that a paper on this will be brought to a future institutional meeting. The Council then approved the appointment of a number of board members to the North/South implementation bodies.

The next section of the meeting dealt with corporate governance matters for a number of North/South bodies. The Council approved the following plans: the North/South Language Body corporate plan for 2017-19; the North/South Language Body business plans for 2018, 2019 and 2020; Waterways Ireland business plans for 2020 and 2021; InterTradeIreland’s corporate plan for 2020-22; and InterTradelreland’s business plan for 2021. All plans had been completed in accordance with agreed guidance issued by the Department of Finance and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform and had been agreed by the sponsor Departments and Finance Ministers. Ministers noted that the annual report and accounts for the North/South Language Body for 2016 and 2017 had been laid before the Assembly and both Houses of the Oireachtas. The Council was advised that the North/South Language Body accounts for 2018 had been certified and would be submitted to a future meeting and that the field audits for the 2019 accounts had commenced in both agencies.

The NSMC agreed to meet again in institutional format in May or June 2021 as required.

That concludes the report on the institutional meeting. I will now continue with the report on the plenary meeting.

The twenty-fifth plenary meeting of the North/South Ministerial Council was held by videoconference on 18 December 2020. The Executive were led by the First Minister and me, and we jointly chaired the meeting. The Irish Government were led by the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin TD.

Ministers welcomed the resumption of NSMC sectoral meetings and noted that meetings have taken place in all NSMC sectors since the last plenary meeting in July 2020.

We noted that, having regard to COVID-19 restrictions in both jurisdictions, meetings took place via videoconference and that in-person meetings would resume as soon as public health conditions permitted. The Council noted that each sector had considered a wide range of issues, including COVID-19 recovery, priorities and work programmes and the implications of Brexit, as well as various sector-specific matters.

The Council was briefed by the Chief Medical Officers (CMOs), Dr Michael McBride and Dr Tony Holohan, on the public health situation and the ongoing close cooperation in the response to the COVID-19 pandemic. Ministers discussed the measures being implemented in the two jurisdictions to protect public health and to limit the transmission of the virus. The Council expressed its sympathy to all those who have lost loved ones as a result of the pandemic and commended citizens in both jurisdictions who have complied with the restrictions imposed as a result of the pandemic and their efforts and perseverance in helping to manage the outbreak. The NSMC expressed its gratitude to all those who have contributed to the response to the COVID-19 pandemic, particularly front-line health and social care workers. It expressed its appreciation to the wider workforce of essential workers who have kept various services and facilities operational even in the most challenging of circumstances. Ministers recognised the impact of the pandemic on society and the economy in both jurisdictions and welcomed the measures put in place by both Administrations to support communities and businesses affected by the crisis and to assist economic recovery. The recent progress made in the development and roll-out of the vaccine was welcomed. The Council noted the NSMC health sector meeting on 2 October to review ongoing cooperation in responding to the pandemic. It noted that the impact of and response to COVID-19 has been considered at all NSMC meetings. Ministers agreed that future Council meetings would continue to consider how agreed collaborative approaches can contribute to the promotion of economic and social recovery in a COVID-19 context.

The Council then discussed the implications of Brexit. Ministers recalled that, at its previous plenary meeting, on 31 July 2020, the Council recognised that the jurisdictions have a common interest in minimising disruption to trade and economic activity on the island and noted that discussions have taken place across the various NSMC sectors on the implications of the UK withdrawal from the EU. We noted at that time that, in the light of the ongoing negotiations, full clarity of the impact on cooperation in a number of areas was not yet available. The Council agreed that, irrespective of the outcome of negotiations, engagement between the Administrations on the matter should continue within the structures of the Council and elsewhere, taking account of the evolving position. Ministers noted the role conferred on the NSMC to submit proposals to the Specialised Committee concerning the implementation and application of the protocol. It was agreed that officials should work to develop an appropriate mechanism for Ministers to agree for referring proposals to the Specialised Committee.

The New Decade, New Approach commitments were discussed at the plenary meeting. The Council noted that the NSMC plenary meeting held on 31 July 2020 outlined a way forward on aspects related to the commitments. It was requested that the relevant Ministers and their officials take forward discussions on the commitments, including, where appropriate, through the work of the NSMC sectors. Ministers noted that discussions on commitments had taken place at NSMC sectoral meetings and bilaterally between Ministers where the commitments are being advanced outside NSMC structures. They noted the commitment of both Administrations to the delivery of the A5 western transport corridor and that the next steps for the project would be informed by the interim report from the public inquiry. The Council noted that both Administrations continue to work together to progress the Ulster canal restoration project and the Ulster canal greenway. Phase 1 of the restoration is now complete, and phase 2 will commence in 2021. The design, engineering feasibility and pre-construction stages of phase 3 will also commence in 2021. Ministers welcomed the strategic approach that is being taken to the review of the rail network across both jurisdictions and the engagement that has taken place on the development of the terms of reference for the review, with a view to launching the tender process in the first quarter of 2021. Ministers noted that both Administrations were considering the next steps to progress the Narrow Water bridge project. They will explore further how that project might be advanced, including at the next NSMC transport meeting. Ministers noted that the Department of Transport has commenced a review of air connectivity and is engaging with stakeholders, including the Department for the Economy and the Department for Transport. The review will consider the potential impacts on regional connectivity, sustainability and climate change. The Council welcomed the work being undertaken by Leitrim County Council and Fermanagh and Omagh District Council to take forward the development of the Sligo-Enniskillen greenway as a joint project.

Ministers noted that senior officials from the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science and the Department for the Economy will meet early in the new year to discuss higher education provision in the north-west region.

Ministers invited Derry City and Strabane District Council and Donegal County Council to develop a statement of updated strategic priorities for the north-west region to inform the ongoing engagement of both Administrations with the north-west strategic growth partnership.

Ministers welcomed the recent cooperation between both Administrations in relation to supporting research through Science Foundation Ireland's COVID-19 rapid response call and noted that further discussions will take place between Ministers and officials on cooperation in the area of research and innovation.

The Council agreed that New Decade, New Approach commitments should remain on the agenda of the relevant NSMC sectors and that further updates will be provided to the Council at future NSMC plenary meetings.

Finally, the Council approved a schedule of NSMC sector meetings that was proposed by the joint secretariat. It was agreed that, at upcoming sectoral meetings, Ministers will consider priorities and work programmes in the relevant sectoral areas. The Council agreed that the next NSMC plenary meeting will be held in June or July 2021. That concludes the NSMC plenary meeting statement.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party 12:30 pm, 18th January 2021

I thank the Minister for her very detailed report on the institutional and plenary meetings. I echo the remarks that she made about the attack on the multicultural association building. We must redouble our efforts to tackle racism in our society. I know that the Committee will stand by to help in any way that it can to develop those strategies and initiatives and to do all that we can in society to try to stamp out racism.

Most people will accept that those who are best placed to tackle coronavirus are those who are on islands, given the specific measures that can be put in place. There may have been some hesitancy at the beginning by the Executive to embrace this approach. However, now that we have a requirement in the North and South for those who land on the island of Ireland to have a test completed, can I get an update from the Minister about the sharing of that information North and South? That is so that we can do all that we can to tackle the virus and its spread, and it is for those who would try to use the differences that we have on this island as a way to work around that requirement.

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

First, I concur with the Member and am happy to work with the Chair of the Committee in tackling sectarianism and racism and making sure that we send out a very clear signal that it is not something that we will tolerate in society.

On the issue of travel, it is a very pertinent question to raise, particularly given the fact that we are in a very similar place across both jurisdictions in the pressures on our health services. We know that that will be immense over the coming weeks, and we are, to say the least, very grateful to all our healthcare staff who are working on the front line for us at this moment.

My view has always been that there needed to be an all-island approach to the issue of travel. In fact, I think that there should be a two-islands approach to it. The First Minister and I have raised the issue that there has not been the sufficient sharing of data, and it is unfortunate that that has not been resolved at this stage. We have raised it with the Taoiseach, directly at NSMC meetings and at the Executive. It is unfortunate that it has still not been agreed. Last week, as you will know, the First Minister and I urged both Governments to get involved. The way to go is for there to be a two-islands approach to the issue of travel, because, unfortunately, when the two Governments — the two guarantors of our Good Friday Agreement — diverge, issues like this become orange and green ones. This is clearly not an orange and green issue: this is a public health issue. We urge the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister to have that conversation, and we are happy to play our part.

I am glad to say that we have a meeting on Wednesday of this week with Brandon Lewis and Simon Coveney, and, again, travel is a key issue that will be discussed. Hopefully, we can make some progress on the issue of travel, which is still outstanding.

Photo of Trevor Clarke Trevor Clarke DUP

Minister, you outlined that your preference would have been a two-islands approach to travel. However, given that the R number is doubling at a much higher rate in Southern Ireland, what is your message to us now about movement between the South of Ireland and here? We are 12 months in to COVID-19; unfortunately, it has been horrific for most people in terms of deaths and illness. Will you give us an indication of what COVID-19 recovery looks like?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin 12:45 pm, 18th January 2021

My message is very clear to everyone: stay at home. That is the message across both islands. That should be the message that everybody hears. There should be no unnecessary journeys. Go out only if you must. Go out only for essential reasons. No matter where you are from, people should stay at home and not travel unless it is absolutely necessary.

I do not have an awful lot more to say about COVID-19 recovery at this stage. The crisis facing our health service is immense, and the best thing that we all can do for people who work in the health service, and for people who develop COVID-19 and who may need the health service, is to stay at home.

On recovery, the Executive are focused very much on what comes next. We have put together a task force that is about the here and now but also about looking towards societal recovery, health recovery and wider economic recovery. We have a huge amount of work to do. The pandemic has disproportionately impacted those on lower incomes and women. Those are challenges that the Executive, as a whole, will have to face as we start to build to brighter days in the future, but it will be extremely challenging for everybody.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

Gabhaim buíochas leis an chomh-Chéad Aire as an ráiteas. I thank the deputy First Minister for the statement. It is clear that COVID-19 does not recognise or respect borders. That speaks to the need for enhanced collaboration and greater working together. Will the Minister explain the practical benefits of the North/South Ministerial Council in managing our response to this public health emergency?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for the question. I welcome the good collaboration across the island. Personally, I do not think that we have made enough of the fact that we live on an island; there were advantages to be had for us all in terms of the spread of the virus. However, there has been significant cooperation across the island; the Chief Medical Officers, for example, and health officials meet regularly. We have had numerous North/South Ministerial Council meetings, at which we progressed cooperation. We had the memorandum of understanding, which set out very clearly areas in which we can have collaborative working. We need to see that continuing as we come out of the other side of this wave and in to economic, societal and health recovery. We have a big job of work to do, and we will be faced with the same challenges. Therefore I look forward to working at North/South Ministerial Council level with Ministers from across the island to see what else we can do to build on the collaborative work that has happened to date.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

I thank the deputy First Minister for her comments. North/South bodies, as laid out in the Belfast Agreement, are probably the most primary method of improving relationships across this island and these islands. Bearing in mind the comments about the shared island unit, what is the relationship between the bodies laid out in the Belfast Agreement, which are the things that we all should be supporting, and what seems to be an additional layer of bureaucracy increasingly mentioned by the Irish Government?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I am not quite sure what the Member's question is. Travel, for example, has not been satisfactorily resolved; I have made that very clear. I have said to the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and to Minister Coveney directly that we need to see a sharing of information, particularly when it comes to travel locator forms. I hope to see that being improved.

The bodies of the North/South Ministerial Council infrastructure have done tremendous work throughout the year on different issues and will continue to do so. We looked at their modus operandi at the meeting and considered whether things could be done to improve their operational nature. We will certainly come back to that. More needs to be done by the Irish Government on the issue of travel locator forms.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

Thank you, Minister, for your statement. In paragraph 26 you said in respect of Brexit that the Council wants to see minimal disruption to trade and economic activity, but, as we have seen over the past few weeks, Brexit has brought us anything but that.

It has brought us friction and red tape and few of the so-called benefits, a situation that was warned about and flagged up. What discussions, if any, were there on ferry routes to Ireland, North and South, and the consequences of any delays, particularly at the port of Larne in my constituency?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

The two meetings took place before there was a Brexit deal, before the end of the transition period, so those issues were not discussed. However, you have summarised correctly the challenges that we now have. The NSMC's commitment was to make sure that disruption would be minimised, but that is clearly not happening. There have been trading adjustment shocks and delays in journeys back and forth. Our ports are under pressure. I hope that we can find solutions to many of these things. I welcome the fact that the Specialised Committee will be able to examine some of the issues that will be identified as needing resolution. I will certainly play my part in all of that.

I am glad to say that some of the commentary around food shortages, for example, is not correct. We have a very good flow of trade in food. It is restored almost to how it was prior to the end of the transition period. However, obviously, there are other issues. For example, the tariffs on steel being imported are having implications for manufacturing businesses. I hope that there will be a positive resolution to that, maybe even today. We still have to work our way through a number of other areas and work with colleagues to get resolution on them.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

Yesterday was my birthday. As you can tell by the look of me, it was a hard paper round — I am only 38

[Interruption.]

That is enough chuntering, Mr McGrath.

At this time, people need to be given hope and a sense that we are coming towards the end of this situation. Will the deputy First Minister outline what the Executive's communication strategy will be to give people a bit of encouragement?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

Maybe we will start singing to you in the Chamber

[Laughter.]

Hope is really important. As with everything in life, you always have to give people hope. It has been a hugely challenging year for everybody. It has been so difficult on so many fronts. The separation, the fact that people have not been able to get together and all those things have challenged every one of us. Now that we have the vaccine, the hope is that we can see light at the end of the tunnel. The hope is that we are rolling it out at speed. As of last week, 5% of the population had been vaccinated. Something like 97% of our care home residents have received their first dose; almost 70% have received the second dose. All those things are really positive. The hope is that, if we can continue in that vein and pull out all the stops to get the maximum number of people vaccinated as quickly as possible, all of us can get back to some semblance of normality. Whilst we are still restricted right now — we still have to keep doing this, we cannot take our foot off the pedal and we have to keep working at it — we have to keep reminding people that something brighter is mere months away.

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

With your indulgence, a Cheann Comhairle, I wish Christopher a belated "Happy birthday".

I thank the Minister for her two statements. Given the commitment in 'New Decade, New Approach' to enhance cross-border cooperation and, indeed, the £500 million Shared Island Fund that has been announced, will the Executive, in conjunction with the Irish Government, ensure the acceleration of the priority projects for the north-west strategic growth partnership? I think of the A5, the expansion of Magee, rail connectivity, the A2, tourism projects and all that is needed in Derry to address regional inequalities.

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for her question. I know that she is passionate about this — I acknowledge that on the record — and has led the way on regional equality and disparity. She has raised a number of projects that are under way and on which we are seeing some progress. She referenced the Shared Island Fund, which is an Irish Government initiative amounting to about £500 million over the next five years. That brings great potential for addressing some of the inequalities and projects that she identified. It will help to support the delivery of cross-border infrastructure initiatives. The Irish Government have indicated that there will be further engagement with us on the fund, and we will have that over the next number of weeks and months.

On the north-west strategic growth partnership, that fund is still up and running, with funding approved up until 2022. That includes a six-month extension to the funding period because we had to take into account COVID pressures on some of the projects. That will bring a total committed investment by the Executive on that initiative to £2·15 million. The Member will also know that the north-west development fund has delivered a number of successful projects, some of which are, for example, developing economic growth through trade and investment missions, developing the physical environment by contributing to the INTERREG greenways project and, through north-west sports development, strengthening community cohesion and well-being. their

Both Governments remain committed to the A5 western transport corridor scheme, and the Irish Government continue to reaffirm their £75 million commitment to the project. The next steps for the scheme, as I said in the report, will be informed by the consideration of the interim report from the public inquiry. I am aware that Minister Mallon and her officials are looking at this as we speak. As you know, the scheme has been a priority for us for a considerable time, and I really hope to see progress being made.

The Member referenced high-speed rail connectivity, and, particularly in the context of 'New Decade, New Approach', the Irish Government have noted their support for serious and detailed joint consideration through the feasibility study of the high-speed rail connection from Derry to Belfast and Dublin to Cork. I look forward to seeing that being progressed even more.

Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP

Does the deputy First Minister share the views of the elected representatives in the north-west that any investment there must impact positively on the broader north-west in small towns such as mine, Limavady, and not simply the city of Londonderry or the urban area?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I thank the Member for his question. I absolutely concur with that. It is important that we address years of regional imbalance and make sure that there is a fair distribution of investment across the north-west. That will benefit not only the city of Derry but the hinterland and will include the constituency that you represent.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for her statements. Earlier, you responded to Mr Dickson, across the Chamber, by telling him that the current problems that we are experiencing as a result of Brexit were not discussed in detail at the last NSMC meeting because it was held on 18 December, before we left the EU. Can you clarify whether the potential effects of Britain's exit from the EU were discussed at that meeting and say what those conversations were?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

The focus of the conversation was, I suppose, to have a shared objective to minimise disruption. The focus was around how we will address the issues that are identified. I welcome the fact that the NSMC will have a role with the Specialised Committee, and I welcome that we will have a chance to bring issues of concern for consideration and, hopefully, resolution through those vehicles. It is really important that the NSMC will keep the implementation and application of the protocol under review. The work of the NSMC, in light of Brexit and its implications, is more important than it has ever been.

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

Further to that last answer and specifically relating to disrupted supply chains as a result of Brexit, many of the issues facing Northern Ireland businesses will be the same as those in the South. There is an obvious and natural need for North/South joined-upness when it comes to resolving those issues, whether that is at Dublin port or finding new supply routes via Rosslare to Cherbourg. What specific actions will the North South Ministerial Council take to mandate InterTradeIreland to properly communicate to businesses across the island about new supply routes? Specifically, what will they do about forming a working party to make those representations to the Specialised Committee and engage with London where that is appropriate?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I thank the Member. As I said, the meeting was held before the end of the transition period, so a lot of the issues that we have identified will need to be addressed. There will need to be a planned roll-out of meetings across all sectors, because there are issues relevant to transport and to all the sectors.

As I said at the end of my previous answer, the NSMC's role is evermore important now as a way of raising those things. The Council now has a role. I made it very clear, even when the negotiations concluded, that we need to keep the issues under constant review and that the NSMC's role in identifying issues with the implementation of the protocol will be vital. That was discussed.

As for where we go from here, it is very clear that there will need to be very strong collaboration and communication between the Executive, the Executive North/South and then east-west. That is how we will find solutions to the problems that are identified.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 1:00 pm, 18th January 2021

I thank the Minister for her statement. The statement refers to the Shared Island Fund of some €500 million. Originally, in 2011, a commitment of £400 million was made to get a single project, the A5, approved. Given the increased inflation and design costs, what money, if any, in that original commitment will be left over in this new amount of €500 million? How are all the additional projects listed to be funded if the A5 absorbs it all?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I welcome the Irish Government's recommitment to the A5 project. That project has been in the making for so long, and we have made progress. There is no doubt that both Governments remain committed to the scheme. The Irish Government have also reaffirmed their commitment to provide €75 million, which is outside the €500 million that is in the shared island fund. The public inquiry information, which, as I said, Minister Mallon will now examine, will help to inform the next steps for the A5 project. We continue to have conversations with the Irish Government about the shared island fund and what projects can be prioritised to meet our NDNA commitments and priorities and the Irish Government's priorities.

Photo of Gerry Kelly Gerry Kelly Sinn Féin

The Minister has dealt with this to a fair extent in some of the other answers, but will she detail the NSMC's role in the withdrawal agreement?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

On its formal role, article 165 of the withdrawal agreement established the Specialised Committee to address issues that are related to the implementation of the protocol. As you know, the protocol provides a specific role for the North/South Ministerial Council in identifying issues with the implementation and the application of the protocol. Article 14 states that the Specialised Committee:

"shall ... examine proposals concerning the implementation and application of this Protocol from the North-South Ministerial Council and North-South Implementation bodies set up under the 1998 Agreement".

Therefore, it is really important that the NSMC keeps the implementation and application of the protocol under constant review. As I said in my opening remarks, officials have been asked to develop an appropriate mechanism for Ministers to refer proposals to the Specialised Committee if it were necessary to do so. We recognise that it is important that there are good communication channels between both jurisdictions, and that is especially true with Brexit.

Photo of Jemma Dolan Jemma Dolan Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for her statement. Will she provide an update on Executive nominees to the boards of the North/South implementation bodies?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

The Executive have agreed that responsibility for nominating members to the boards of the North/South bodies should be allocated between the parties on a d'Hondt-type basis, drawing nominations from all the parties in the Executive. Parties proposed nominations to the bodies in line with the agreed allocation, and the members were appointed by the NSMC at the institutional meetings. Those appointments do not fall under the remit of the Commissioner for Public Appointments, with whom the Executive have agreed targets to address gender imbalance on the boards of all public bodies.

Photo of Alan Chambers Alan Chambers UUP

The deputy First Minister alluded to what seemed to be quite robust representations from her, along with the First Minister, on the importance of sharing travel information, particularly for Dublin Airport arrivals. What was the response to those representations? What is the basis of the Irish Government's apparent reluctance to release information given that, I understand, their Attorney General has said that there are no legal barriers to sharing data from the travel locator forms? Does the Minister agree that the Republic of Ireland is not demonstrating a great appetite for a North/South, east-west approach to fighting COVID?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

As the Member recognised, we have raised this issue on every occasion that we had an opportunity to do so. It is really regrettable that there has not yet been a resolution. I hope that Wednesday's meeting will allow an opportunity for a way forward. Issues have been raised about the legal implications of data sharing. We believe that those issues have been resolved, so I do not see any barrier now to information being shared. That works both ways: it is North/South, South/North and east-west. It is really important that those things are looked at purely from a public health point of view and that no one plays politics, because it is far too serious. A conversation at the highest level of government is the way to resolve these things. There is a political solution to the travel issue, and I hope that that can be found.

Photo of Rachel Woods Rachel Woods Green

I thank the deputy First Minister for the statement and for her attendance and that of the First Minister. What consideration was given to creating an all-island strategy through the NSMC meetings and outside those discussions since 18 December?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I assume that the Member refers to an all-island COVID strategy. As I said, there has been strong cooperation across the island on many fronts. At different times, we have been at different stages with the waves of the pandemic. At times, we had similar positions on restrictions, and, at other times, we have differed. The memorandum of understanding helped to bring more cooperation and collaborative working across the island. A focused discussion is now needed on where we go next, because recovery will be vital when we try to pick up the pieces in the aftermath of the pandemic. When it comes to economic recovery, societal recovery and health, it is really important that we work together. A whole range of North/South sectoral meetings will happen over the coming months, and all Ministers will participate in those discussions. There is a lot to be discussed and planned for the future across each of the sectors, whether it be health cooperation, education cooperation, infrastructure, climate and everything else that is discussed at North/South Ministerial Council meetings.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

When it suits the deputy First Minister and her party, they like to embrace the mantra that the Belfast Agreement must be respected in all its parts. Given that the equilibrium of east-west and North/South relationships has been trashed by the iniquitous protocol, why should anyone, such as the First Minister, who values and seeks to maintain the Union of the United Kingdom continue to operate the "North/Southery" when a coach and horses has been driven through the east-west relationship?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I remind the Member that he is elected to the Assembly, which is one leg of the Good Friday Agreement. When it comes to the totality of relationships — first, in the North and in this body to which he is elected, secondly, across the island, North and South, and, thirdly, east-west — they are all fundamentally important.

Photo of Gerry Carroll Gerry Carroll People Before Profit Alliance

I thank the Minister for the statement. She will be aware of ambulance services from the South being supplied to assist the COVID effort in the North. As was mentioned, there have been problems around sharing data. My question is similar to Miss Woods's question. Was there any discussion during the meeting on long-term cooperation on health and specifically on the establishment of an all-Ireland NHS?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

The Member will know that there are individual sectoral meetings and that there is a health format at which the Health Minister and his counterpart discuss a range of cooperation issues. Health is a natural cooperation issue. As a former Health Minister, I witnessed at first hand some amazing developments across this island, particularly with children's cardiac care and cancer services, and people can see how cooperation has worked there. I look forward to collaboration across a whole range of issues. Personally, as an elected representative and as the Sinn Féin vice president, of course I want to see a national health service across the island of Ireland, free at the point of delivery for all the people who live on the island. The NSMC will continue to work on the areas of collaboration. There has been some excellent work done, and I look forward to that work being enhanced even more.

Photo of Doug Beattie Doug Beattie UUP

I thank the Minister. Apologies that I am going to ask a question that has already been asked, but I will just pop it in. It follows on from what Miss Woods and Mr Carroll said about cooperation. Given the fact that the vaccine roll-out in Northern Ireland has been exceptional and that the Irish Republic is behind, we could end up with a situation in which, because it has to follow the EU rules, the Irish Republic is well behind while we are well ahead. How are we going to balance that? Is there any way in which we in the UK can help the Irish Republic, or is it hampered completely by EU rules?

Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin

I am very glad to say that, with the vaccine roll-out, the North is, I think, number one and the South is number four on the world stage. We are therefore doing very well as an island on the vaccine front.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

That concludes questions on the statement. I ask Members to take their ease for a moment or two as we prepare for the next item in the Order Paper. Thank you.

(Mr Principal Deputy Speaker [Mr Stalford] in the Chair)