North/South Ministerial Council: Plenary and Institutional

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

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Photo of Michelle O'Neill Michelle O'Neill Sinn Féin 12:15 pm, 18th January 2021

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.