British-Irish Council Summit

Ministerial Statements – in the Northern Ireland Assembly at 10:30 am on 6th July 2021.

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Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP 10:30 am, 6th July 2021

The Speaker has received notice from the First Minister and deputy First Minister that they wish to make a statement. Before I call the deputy First Minister, I remind Members in the Chamber 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 who are participating remotely must make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called. Members present in the Chamber can do that by rising in their place or by notifying the Speaker's Table directly.

I remind Members to be concise in asking their question. A statement is not an opportunity for debate, and long introductions will not be allowed. I also remind Members that, in accordance with long-established procedure, points of order are not normally taken during a statement or the period for questions afterwards.

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

I wish to make the following statement on the thirty-fifth summit meeting of the British-Irish Council (BIC), which took place on Friday 11 June 2021. I hope that the Assembly will understand that recent events regarding the position of the First Minister meant that it was not possible to make this statement as promptly as is customary following a summit.

The summit was hosted by the Executive and attended by the then First Minister, Arlene Foster MLA, and by me as deputy First Minister, as well as by Minister Poots, Minister Swann, Minister Mallon, Minister Long, Minister Murphy, Minister Hargey, junior Minister Kearney and former junior Minister Lyons. They have agreed that I will make this statement on their behalf.

The Scottish Government delegation was led by Nicola Sturgeon. The Welsh Government delegation was led by Mark Drakeford, the First Minister, who attended virtually.

The British Government were led by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, Michael Gove. The Government of Guernsey were led by the Chief Minister, Peter Ferbrache, who also attended virtually. The Government of Jersey were led by the Chief Minister, Senator John Le Fondré. The Irish Government were led by an Taoiseach, Micheál Martin. The Isle of Man Government delegation was led by the Chief Minister, Howard Quayle. The full list of delegates who attended the summit is attached to the copy of the statement provided to Members.

This was the first summit to be hosted by the Executive since 2013, and we were delighted to host the meeting in Fermanagh. We welcomed the attendance in person by representatives of other Administrations despite the difficulties imposed by travel restrictions. The focus of the summit was on recovery from COVID. It is important that, as we move through recovery, we do so both informed of and learning from the approaches being taken across member Administrations. Our engagement in the British-Irish Council enables that to happen.

Ministers discussed the impact of COVID-19 across member Administrations and reflected on the need for approaches to recovery that are sustainable and that address the potentially long-lasting impacts. The Council also discussed areas of coherence across member Administrations for recovery, as well as planning for potential future impacts of COVID-19.

The COVID-19 pandemic has presented unprecedented challenges to all the BIC Administrations, as it has done globally. Other Administrations are, like us, operating and planning for recovery in a still-evolving situation, as the vaccination programme progresses but new variants emerge. All recognised the need to remain alert, flexible and responsive as external factors change around us.

A common theme of the members' reports was the way in which the crisis has acted as a driver for change to ways of working, and that has created changes in approach that are irreversible. Societies have had to innovate rapidly, and positive developments have taken place that may not have occurred without the challenge of combating the impact of the pandemic. To cite a few examples, digital transformation has been essential to the delivery of our public services and is becoming the norm; sustainability efforts have been enabled through new ways of working; and a greater and very important focus is being placed on the mental health of the population.

Administrations at the summit also discussed the latest political developments across their jurisdictions and noted the recent elections held in a number of the jurisdictions. Ministers provided an update and engaged on a number of topics of mutual interest, including the EU-UK relationship.

Ministers took the opportunity to reflect on the period since the establishment of the British-Irish Council and on how the Council had evolved to adapt to a changed context. They welcomed the fact that, despite the pandemic, the British-Irish Council had continued to meet by virtual means. Ministers considered a number of potential developments that would further develop the role of the Council in responding to new and emerging trends and challenges and in promoting its objective of positively strengthening links and relationships among the people of these islands. The latest BIC annual report has now been published on the Council's website.

Finally, the Council noted the secretariat's 2020-21 end-of-year report and welcomed the publication of the Council's annual report for 2020-21. The next summit will be hosted by the Welsh Government later this year. I commend the statement to the Assembly.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the joint First Minister for her statement, and I welcome the fact that the British-Irish Council meeting took place, albeit in difficult circumstances. It is really important that everyone working for people and in communities right across these islands be given the opportunity to come together to discuss matters of common interest and to share ideas and practice that will help develop the work that we do. COVID recovery was high on the agenda, but COVID is still very much on people's minds. People are still worried about the virus, and the numbers that we are hearing over the past week are very worrying. There is some comfort to be taken from the fact that hospital admissions and serious illness from the virus are not translating into intensive care admissions yet, but the key word is "yet".

Bonkers Boris announced yesterday that he intends to relax many of the key regulations that are in place in England, and that is being done in the face of many of the scientific facts. Even his most senior advisers suggest that they will continue to wear masks in crowded environments whilst telling everyone else that they do not have to and that it is a choice.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I remind the Member that this is an opportunity to ask questions.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

Thank you, Mr Deputy Speaker. Chairs of Committees are also afforded the opportunity to make a few introductory remarks.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

As I have allowed you to.

Photo of Colin McGrath Colin McGrath Social Democratic and Labour Party

What does that therefore mean? That the Chief Medical Officer and the Chief Scientific Adviser will still wear masks but that everyone else is OK? That type of mixed messaging is ludicrous. Will the Minister tell us in detail what discussions there were, at the summit meeting and since, about the different paces of relaxation to COVID and whether the different pace in GB and the island of Ireland will have any impact upon people here?

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

I thank the Chair of the Committee for his question. He is right to reflect that people are still worried about the pandemic and about the fact that, with the new delta variant becoming our dominant strain, people are right to be cautious and anxious. However, I always point to the positive, and the positive is that the vaccination programme is rolling out very well, and we need to continue to see uptake. I encourage all Members to use their good office to try to promote the uptake of the vaccine because that is our best defence.

Boris Johnson made announcements yesterday, and, as I noted in the statement, throughout the pandemic, all member Administrations of BIC have, at different times, been in different positions and taken different paths. We have prided ourselves on taking our own path, based on our own information and advised by our own Chief Medical Officer and Chief Scientific Adviser, and that remains the case.

With regard to the announcement yesterday, personally, my view is that it is far too much far too soon, albeit we want to keep making progress, and we want to keep lifting the restrictions where we can. Our Executive will met this Thursday, and our Executive will decide collectively on our next step.

With regard to the issue of masks that the Member referred to, the Health Minister and the Chief Medical Officer have been very clear in saying that we are not there yet. That will be up for discussion on Thursday, but I will be supportive of that view.

We want to keep making progress, but the best way that we can do that is by going steadily, continually making progress and getting the maximum number of people vaccinated. I will keep repeating this message: please encourage people to come forward and take up the vaccination.

Photo of George Robinson George Robinson DUP

Will the Minister provide an update on the ongoing work of the Council?

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

It was useful that we were able to meet in person at this time. We were able to have a very frank conversation around where we all are with the COVID crisis, but we are very much looking towards the future and other ways that we can work together.

There have been four virtual ministerial meetings, including a joint housing and collaborative spatial planning meeting held recently. The housing and collaborative spatial planning work sectors are chaired by our Executive colleagues, so there is a lot of work going on there. There is also a lot of work going on around the misuse of substances. That work sector will be renamed drugs and alcohol, and there is a lot of work going on there.

There is a lot of conversation and work being done around a review of how we work. It will take a very different approach like a task-and-finish approach, so it should allow us to be able to look at areas where we can collectively work and be able to find ways to do things better and more speedily.

We have 11 live work sectors across a whole range of things. Those are: creative industries; digital inclusion; drugs and alcohol; early years; energy; environment; housing; social inclusion; indigenous, minority and lesser-used languages; and transport. There is a lot of work being done around the future of the Council and how we can work more collaboratively and share information. That is advantageous to us all.

Photo of Pat Sheehan Pat Sheehan Sinn Féin

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a ráitis ar maidin. I thank the joint First Minister for her statement this morning. Does she have any concerns about the delivery arrangements for the Levelling Up Fund and the Shared Prosperity Fund?

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

I do indeed. The delivery arrangements for the Levelling Up Fund and the Shared Prosperity Fund pilot programme cut across the responsibilities of a number of Executive Departments. The Executive continue to consider the impact of the loss of EU funding and the approach to replacements in Whitehall Departments.

It is very clear that the British Government intend to use the financial assistance powers in the Internal Market Act to deliver those funds intended as EU replacements and funding streams where we would have expected to receive Barnett allocations. That approach directly bypasses the devolved structures, so it is a matter of concern that the Westminster Government approach clearly does not build on existing and well-established structures that we have in line with the Executive's agreed position, nor does it give the Executive or our Ministers the normal role that they would have had in devolved functions.

The way that they are to be financed is a matter of concern. The Levelling Up Fund, which you referred to, is to be financed using spending power that was promised to us in the spending review, and the Shared Prosperity Fund is to be a replacement for our income from EU programmes. Urgent clarification is required to ensure the effective delivery of this funding locally. It is essential that the Executive's reviews and spending priorities are taken into consideration in the delivery of these funds to ensure that there is maximum benefit and delivery from the support that is provided.

Photo of John Stewart John Stewart UUP 10:45 am, 6th July 2021

I thank the deputy First Minister for her statement and answers. You referred to attendees' difficulties with travel. Was there any discussion about when we will see an end to the inconsistencies and inequality within the common travel area, particularly from GB to the Republic of Ireland? Does she agree that the current travel rules are surprising and potentially outdated given that, over the past six months, the Republic of Ireland has consistently had a much higher infection rate than Northern Ireland?

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

The issue of travel was touched upon and continues to be touched upon because we are at different places in the virus spread. That has been the case the whole way through the pandemic. The Member should not get too excited if the South of Ireland's cases are higher than ours at the moment or vice versa because, at times, we were the best in Europe and there were times when we were the worst. It is important that we work together and finally see a resolution to the travel issue, particularly the travel locator forms, which has been ongoing for some time. We have encouraged a resolution to that, and progress has been made.

As travel starts to open up — and that seems to be the direction of travel across the board; excuse the pun — it is important that we are as aligned as we can be across these islands. I have always advocated that two-island approach. That is the best way. It is simpler for people to understand if there is no conflict in messaging, for example. I would like us to be as aligned as we can on travel, whether that is within the common travel area or as we start to see international travel open up.

Photo of Stewart Dickson Stewart Dickson Alliance

Thank you, deputy First Minister. Given the Member of Parliament for East Antrim's, quite frankly, offensive and unnecessary remark about our Health Minister yesterday, what work was done in your Council meeting on harmonising restrictions across all the jurisdictions? What actions are you taking to expand the green list for travellers?

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

As I said, travel was discussed. Each Administration is coming at this with their own data and information, and taking decisions based on what they think is in the best interests of their people at that time. The better aligned that we can be, the easier that it will be for all of us, and the public at large, to understand.

On the comments about the Health Minister, the Health Minister has a very difficult job at a very difficult time. He deserves the support of the Executive and other MLAs. Quite frankly, unless you have been in his shoes, you will not understand the level of the decisions that have had to be taken. People should be very focused on recovery, which is what the public want. We should focus on taking decisions to remove the restrictions as quickly as we can and getting people back to some sense of normality as quickly as we can. So many people have lost their jobs. The economic consequences of the pandemic are dire. We have a big job of work to do. We should be focused on working together to do that as opposed to taking pop shots at the Health Minister, or anybody else for that matter.

Photo of Christopher Stalford Christopher Stalford DUP

I am looking at the list of ministerial delegates at this event. It includes the Taoiseach, Micheál Martin, his deputy, Mr Leo Varadkar, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Mr Simon Coveney. The event was held in Fermanagh, and presumably they were able to cross our border to attend it. If the Minister was listening to Radio Ulster this morning, she will have heard the story of a Northern Ireland family that has been effectively placed under house arrest in the Republic of Ireland. Has the issue of the Irish Government providing the necessary information to those arriving in Dublin and travelling on to Northern Ireland been satisfactorily resolved? It is ridiculous that Irish Government Ministers are able to cross our border but Northern Ireland citizens are not.

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

That family's situation was brought to my attention just before I came into the Chamber; I did not hear about it on the radio. Obviously, we will work to try to get a resolution for that family, which, I believe, has issues with young children at home, and perhaps sickness in the case of one of the individuals. I hope that there is a speedy resolution to that.

Again, it is back to what I have said previously: it is important that we share information and data so that people are very clear about the travel limitations or otherwise, the testing policy and the information. It falls to the two Health Ministers and the two Chief Medical Officers to make that as simple as possible. I welcome the fact that there was a meeting last week, I believe, between the two Chief Medical Officers. I hope to continue to see progress around the sharing of data and making sure that we are as joined up as we can be in this period. That is in the interests of all the people who live on this island and the people who travel right across the common travel area.

Photo of Emma Sheerin Emma Sheerin Sinn Féin

I thank the joint First Minister for her statement. The BIC was COVID-focused, which created opportunities for discussion about its impact and the recovery, and a good platform for sharing information. Given the scale of the challenges facing our health and social care services, including the crisis with waiting lists, the problems facing families when they try to access packages of domiciliary care and the ongoing fight against COVID-19, does the joint First Minister agree that those issues transcend party politics and that a health summit involving all Executive parties should now be called to agree an urgent and joint response?

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

Thanks. I absolutely agree. As a former Health Minister, I am very aware of the challenges facing the health and social care system, which was already stretched due to Tory austerity over many years. The pandemic has very much heightened those challenges. Addressing all that in ordinary times would be difficult enough. We have faced the growing waiting list situation in a pandemic. It is clear that we need an urgent and unified approach to tackle waiting lists and to make sure that people get access to healthcare as and when they need it. I welcome the recent initiative by the Health Minister, who has brought forward mechanisms to deal with the waiting list situation, including using all-island healthcare. That is practical and makes sense. It is evidence that positive outcomes can be achieved when you work together. Hosting our own Executive health summit would certainly be a very positive step forward. I certainly look forward to that discussion. It will take heavy lifting from all of us to turn that situation around. The waiting list situation at the moment is atrocious. We have to fix it collectively.

Photo of Diane Dodds Diane Dodds DUP

I thank the Minister for her statement. During the BIC meeting, the Foreign Minister of the Irish Republic took the opportunity to state his views on the protocol. Will the Minister, who, quite rightfully, did not respond to him in that forum, indicate whether she thinks that that was an appropriate use of that forum? He would be better keeping his views to himself in places where they are not appropriate.

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

The Member is right: Minister Simon Coveney, and maybe the Taoiseach as well, raised the issue of the protocol, and rightly so; they were speaking about current political developments. It would have been to ignore the elephant in the room for it not to be mentioned at a summit of that nature, given the implications that Brexit has on our people, our economy and wider society. It was appropriate that it was discussed there. The Member may shake her head, but we would not have a protocol today if we did not have Brexit, which you and your party ably championed.

Photo of Martina Anderson Martina Anderson Sinn Féin

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Aire as ucht a ráitis. I thank the Minister for her statement. Minister, even Minister Michael Gove has said that the challenges that are in front of us because of the protocol can be resolved. Do you agree that the focus now needs to shift to maximise the opportunities and minimise the challenges for our businesses so that they can enjoy the access that we now have to numerous markets, such as the British market, the EU market and the rest of the world, and that having such access really enables us to mitigate some of the worst impacts and effects of Brexit?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Again, that question goes beyond the statement, but the Minister may wish to respond.

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

It was referred to, insofar as it came up under current political issues. I will address it, given that I answered Mrs Dodds's question.

It will come as no surprise to the Member who asked the question that the disruption and difficulty that we are experiencing is a direct result of Brexit — the hardest possible Brexit and one that was rejected by the majority of people in the Assembly.

To go back to my previous answer, those who championed Brexit need to own some of the economic consequences and uncertainty that have flowed from it. However, our collective effort and focus now needs to be on protecting jobs and livelihoods. As the Member knows, the protocol is our only protection against the hardest possible Brexit and its worst excesses. Businesses want the protocol to work, and they want solutions to the challenges that we face. In my view, there are solutions to be found via the Joint Committee. The CBI recently acknowledged that the protocol is already working for many businesses and presents many exciting opportunities.

All of our collective effort, as the Member said, needs to be to minimise the challenges and maximise the opportunities. Let us make the protocol work smoothly and give our manufacturing and agri-food industries, our food processors and all other businesses the certainty and stability that they require to take advantage of the dual market access now available to them.

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

Brexit has damaged relationships on this island and between Britain and the island of Ireland. Given that many in the Chamber have focused on what they see as the damage done to east-west relationships, is it not the case that, given that the British-Irish Council is literally the first item in strand 3 of the Good Friday Agreement, it is precisely the forum for these issues to be raised and discussed? Was a specific work stream agreed to mitigate some of the outworkings of Brexit and, yes, maximising the opportunities for all the people of these islands?

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

I thank the Member. The summit focused on COVID, so that was the main topic of conversation, but, of course, it is the natural forum in which to have those conversations. When we talk about the Good Friday Agreement, we talk about the totality of relationships. It is about relationships and about having honest conversations, and the British-Irish Council, the North/South Ministerial Council and this Chamber are the places where we should have those discussions. It should come as no surprise to anybody that the summit took the time to have a conversation, albeit a brief one, on that issue. I have no doubt that we will have to come back to a lot more conversation in the next format later this year in Wales. There will be an opportunity again for us to speak about the current political situation, and I am sure that Brexit will still be on the agenda.

Photo of Áine Murphy Áine Murphy Sinn Féin

The pandemic has had a disproportionate impact on many sectors of our society that were already disadvantaged, including children, young people, women and those on low incomes or with disabilities. Will the joint First Minister confirm that building a better and fairer society will be core to recovery?

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

I welcome Áine, the new MLA for Fermanagh and South Tyrone, to our team on her second day in the role and wish her the very best. I have no doubt that she will be a champion for the people of Fermanagh and South Tyrone. I stand to be corrected, but I believe that she may be our youngest MLA. It is important that the interests of young people are reflected in the Chamber, so congratulations and good luck.

I agree with you about the need to tackle the high levels of poverty, inequality and disadvantage that exist across our communities; that has to be at the core of our approach to recovery. I am also particularly aware that the social and economic impact of the pandemic has fallen hard on women, and we have talked about that on a number of occasions in the Chamber. Many of those women are in low-paid, precarious employment while many others have lost their jobs. As we step out of the restrictions, we must develop more sustainable and strategic responses that, at their core, break those endless cycles of poverty, exclusion and inequality. Looking after the most vulnerable, the lonely, those in housing need, those in poverty, families with disabled members, those with a disability and workers on low incomes must be core to the recovery strategy. That will mean doing things differently and, often, doing things more effectively.

Work has been ongoing to develop the draft integrated recovery plan, which is focused on delivery over the next 24 months.

The four main areas are economic growth; tackling inequalities; the health of the population; and green growth and sustainability. That will be a longer-term, strategic approach, and it will be incorporated in the Programme for Government and the work that we are doing there. There is a lot to be done, but the recovery plan will identify ambitious opportunities to break, as I say, those longer-term cycles of poverty and exclusion.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice 11:00 am, 6th July 2021

It turns out that the protocol was discussed and raised by the Dublin Government. Why was that concealed from the House in the statement, given that there is a statutory duty to report the goings-on at the Councils to the House? If it was raised, did no unionist Minister raise the economic dislocation that is being caused by the protocol? If they did, why have we not heard about that? If they did not —.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

There are a number of questions there.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

Well, Mr Deputy Speaker, we are in a strange circumstance —.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Order. I have allowed the Member to ask a number of questions.

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

Towards the end of the statement, it says:

"The Summit also discussed the latest political developments across their jurisdictions".

Obviously, that includes political developments around Brexit and the protocol.

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

Absolutely, it is "obviously", because it is a recent political development.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

Order. Allow the Minister to speak, please.

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

I encourage the Member to read the statement.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

It does not mention the protocol.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

That is the end of questions —.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

On a point of order, Mr Deputy Speaker. Section 52C of the Northern Ireland Act 1998 is clear that, following meetings such as this, there shall be a report to the House on the goings-on at those meetings. We had a circumstance this morning where a statement was produced that concealed the fact that the protocol was even discussed. The word "protocol" is not mentioned. Is it in order and is it compliant with section 52C for a Minister to come to the House and conceal from it a relevant aspect of the proceedings on which she is allegedly reporting? Is that in order?

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

It is clear from the answers that there was discussion on the issue. I will pass the matter to the Speaker's Office to make a declaration on it and to determine whether anything needs to go forward. The Member has rightly raised the matter and put it on the record.

I ask Members to take their ease for a few moments until the next item of business.

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