British-Irish Council: Summit

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

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Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin 10:30, 30 November 2021

I have received notice from the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs that he wishes to make a statement. Before I call the Minister, I remind Members in the Chamber that, in light of social distancing being observed by the 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 participating remotely must make sure that their name is on the speaking list if they wish to be called. Members present in the Chamber must also do that by rising in their place, as well as notifying the Business Office or the 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, no points of order will be taken during the statement or the question period immediately afterwards. I call the Minister of Agriculture, Environment and Rural Affairs.

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Thank you, Mr Speaker. I wish to make the following statement on the thirty-sixth summit of the British-Irish Council (BIC), which took place on Friday 19 November 2021. The summit was hosted by the Welsh Government. The heads of the delegation were welcomed by the First Minister of Wales, the Rt Hon Mark Drakeford MS, who provided the opportunity to use indigenous, minority and lesser-used (IML) languages in the summit meeting. I attended the meeting to represent the First Minister. Minister Hargey represented the deputy First Minister, and junior Minister Middleton also attended. They have agreed that I make the statement on their behalf. The Scottish Government delegation was led by the Rt Hon Nicola Sturgeon MSP. The UK Government were led by the Chancellor of the Duchy of Lancaster, the Rt Hon Michael Gove MP. The Government of Guernsey were represented by the Chief Minister, Deputy Peter Ferbrache. 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 Deputy Chief Minister, Jane Poole-Wilson MHK.

A full list of the delegates who attended the summit is attached to the copy of the statement provided to Members.

The Council reflected on the latest political developments across the jurisdictions and took the opportunity to engage on a number of topics of mutual interest, including the economy, trade, ongoing relations with the EU and the twenty-sixth UN Climate Change Conference of the Parties (COP26). Ministers discussed the continued impact of the COVID-19 pandemic and the progress of post-pandemic recovery programmes.

In advance of the summit meeting, Ministers with particular responsibility for IML languages met to discuss IML language acquisition in the early years. Following a verbal report on that meeting, the Council held a further discussion on IML languages and early years policy during the summit meeting in order to reflect on challenges and opportunities for policy approaches in that area. The Council also took the opportunity to discuss the recent work of the Council across all its sectors and to take note of the ongoing collaborative work being carried out by officials.

The Ministers took note of the progress made in the implementation of proposals agreed at the thirty-fifth BIC summit in Northern Ireland in June 2021, including the formation of a senior officials group and adoption of a protocol for holding extraordinary summit meetings where they are needed. Finally, the Council noted that the next BIC summit will be hosted by the Government of Guernsey. I commend the statement to the Assembly.

Photo of Philip McGuigan Philip McGuigan Sinn Féin

Minister, I note in your comments that there were discussions on climate change that stemmed from COP26. Did they include discussions on the delivery of robust climate change legislation across these islands?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Yes, there was extensive discussion on that, and I recommend that the next British-Irish Council meeting focus on it, be it at the meeting or on the periphery of the meeting. It was a very significant topic of conversation, and a lot of the conversation was on renewable energy, the opportunities that exist for renewable energy on these islands and the ability of these islands to capture that energy from offshore and, indeed, onshore sources, but particularly the offshore opportunities. We discussed issues around hydrogen and the opportunity to utilise it better, and we discussed issues around biofuel and biomethane. All those things will be significant contributors to thriving economies across all these jurisdictions and will ensure that the economies can continue to deliver for people and to deliver investment in the whole climate change agenda. They will be enabled to do that by making good utilisation of the rich resources that we have on our doorsteps and, indeed, in our seas.

Photo of William Irwin William Irwin DUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. What discussions were held about the Northern Ireland protocol, particularly the unacceptable impact that it is having on trade between Great Britain and Northern Ireland?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I raised the protocol during the meeting, and I also raised it extensively outside the meeting with Minister Gove and other Ministers. It is important that the message continues to be put that the protocol as it currently exists is damaging to Northern Ireland and that we need to find a way through that not only safeguards the European Union's single market but protects the integrity of the internal UK market. Many of us believe that both can be achieved, and we are working towards that goal. I encourage others to work towards that goal because that will deliver the best economic outcomes for everyone in Northern Ireland.

Photo of Patsy McGlone Patsy McGlone Social Democratic and Labour Party

I thank the Minister for his statement. Can he give any further details on the indigenous, minority and lesser-used languages and the early years policy?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Minister Hargey led on IML, and she engaged in the meeting as the Minister who deals with that issue. Extensive discussions took place on indigenous, minority and lesser-used languages.

Minority languages were used extensively throughout the meeting. Of course, a minority language is used extensively in Wales. Therefore, that got a fair bit of attention during the meeting. There was a lot of interest from all the regions in how they can maintain and keep those languages alive, including from the UK Government in relation to the Cornish language.

Photo of Rosemary Barton Rosemary Barton UUP

Minister, you referred to your discussions about climate change. Can you update the House on the position of climate change policy in the United Kingdom compared with the Republic of Ireland?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Both have set a net zero target in accordance with the Paris agreement. The United Kingdom is considerably further down the road towards achieving net zero than the Republic of Ireland, which has a much greater challenge. As part of the United Kingdom, Northern Ireland is cooperating with achieving that target. We have therefore taken advice from the Climate Change Committee (CCC). It is a specialist committee that is renowned worldwide and is made up of scientists who are held in high regard in that field and bring a lot of quality to the argument. We should take major cognisance of what they have to say about climate change.

Photo of John Blair John Blair Alliance

I thank the Minister for his statement. What preliminary steps were discussed among the respective Governments and Departments of these islands to plan to work together on the delivery of COP26 commitments? Was funding discussed as a vital component of that?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

That was not the key focus of this summit. There is certainly significant potential for it to be the key focus of the next summit. The issue took over a lot of the conversation and discussion at the summit, however. The Governments who were at the summit are totally committed to reforestation and to moving away from the use of coal, particularly in power stations. They are committed to reaching net zero and taking the actions that will help us to achieve that.

Unfortunately, the biggest emitters in the world were not at the summit. In fact, the biggest emitters in the world were not at COP26 either. Therein lies part of the problem. If you want to deal with a problem, those who make the biggest contribution to that problem need to come to the table and step up to the plate. Northern Ireland's contributions account for 0·04% of greenhouse gases, whereas China has 53% of the coal-fired power stations in the world. Therein lies the problem. If the big players do not step up to the plate, that undermines the work of everybody else. I am not saying that we should not do that work, but that considerably undermines it.

Photo of Aisling Reilly Aisling Reilly Sinn Féin

You touched on this issue already. It concerns the importance of early years provision in relation to the acquisition of indigenous, minority and lesser-used languages. Can you confirm whether the summit included any consideration of the success of the legislative protections that already exist on these islands for indigenous languages?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Languages thrive when people want to use them. We have found that in other places. Indeed, the legislation that was brought in in the Republic of Ireland did not assist the language. Many people would argue that it was to the detriment of the language. I know that a lot of Members in the House have a strong desire for legislation, and that desire is reflected in a section of our community. I suggest that the focus should be on how they encourage people to participate.

Encouragement does not involve trying to impose something on people who do not want it to be imposed on them. Irish dancing, for example, is enjoyed across the community. If there were a bit less politics around the Irish language, perhaps it would be utilised more broadly across the community as well. There is too much politics in it. Perhaps some Members should reflect on that.

Photo of Harry Harvey Harry Harvey DUP 10:45, 30 November 2021

Minister, was learning shared by individual Administrations on their specific approaches to tackling the COVID pandemic?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Yes, it was. Obviously, COVID is a topic of conversation that is always present, and it was present in the discussions as well. It has been interesting to see how some regions and countries have done better at various times but then seem to fall back again. Wales, for example, did very well in the early part of the year, but, in the later part of the year, things have not gone so well. At one point, we were behind Scotland in the number of cases; we are now ahead of Scotland again. It seems to ebb and flow because of how the different regions have conducted themselves. Interestingly, Scotland, which has had pretty tough legislation on COVID throughout, chose not to go down the route of having COVID vaccine passports for cafes and cinemas. Perhaps the passport parties should reflect on that.

Photo of Cathal Boylan Cathal Boylan Sinn Féin

I thank the Minister for his answers. Will he expand on the protocol for holding extraordinary summit meetings and the criteria that are now in place for calling such a meeting?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Yes. We are supportive of that. Big ticket issues, such as COVID and how we address the issues arising out of COP26, could and should be dealt with more expeditiously. Having six-monthly standing meetings, where the agenda can be agreed quite a long time beforehand, is not necessarily the best way forward. That is why the proposals were put forward and accepted by the members present.

Photo of Thomas Buchanan Thomas Buchanan DUP

Thank you for your statement this morning, Minister. A topic that is on a lot of people's minds nowadays is climate change. Issues to do with COP26 were discussed at the meeting. Was there any discussion around how members plan to work together to deliver the reduction of carbon emissions?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

There was considerable discussion on that subject. A lot of people look at climate change and see the actions that need to be taken as a threat. Many of us look at it as an opportunity. Our nation is not rich in coal, oil and gas — fossil fuels — so I am not too excited about not being able to utilise those fuels. We are rich in wind energy, and in tidal and wave energy, if that can be harnessed. We are also rich in animal nutrients, which can be converted into renewable energy. We have a whole series of opportunities that we need to grasp as we move away from fossil fuels. Any policy that is reliant on oil coming from the Middle East and gas coming from Russia for sustainable energy is flawed. Those places tend to be somewhat unstable at various times. Instability leads to instability in prices, which leads to significant hikes in prices, such as those that we are experiencing. Were we producing our own renewable energy, we would have price stability.

To have all our energy and most of our food produced here is something that many parts of the world would envy, if the other parties allowed us to produce our own food, that is, instead of having it and the associated carbon produced somewhere else, perhaps in the southern hemisphere.

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

Minister, you said that the protocol formed part of the discussion on EU relations. While negotiations on mitigations for east-west trade continue, and we hope that they are resolved quickly, evidence is mounting that our unique position under the protocol, with its dual market access, is doing our economy good. Yesterday, the Office for National Statistics (ONS) said that Northern Ireland has performed better than any other UK region over the past two years, which includes the time in which the protocol has been operational. National Institute of Economic and Social Research (NIESR) inflation estimates suggest that we have the lowest inflation in the UK. Almac, Ardagh Metal Packaging, Clandeboye Estate Yoghurt and Deli Lites: the list of companies that are either generating investment or creating jobs because of the protocol's dual market access is increasing. Minister, you were at the British-Irish Council meeting. We can get real economic benefit, not just from our crossroads at the British and Irish markets —

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

Question, please.

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

— but from our crossroads at the British and single European markets. Will you use the British-Irish Council structures next time to maximise the benefits of that dual market access?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I thank the Member for the eloquent speech, although I am not sure where the question was. Nonetheless, on the protocol issues, a very significant element of why Northern Ireland is doing well is our very prosperous food industry. Over the pandemic, people have voted with their feet on from where they acquire their food, saying, "We want local food". That is why beef prices have risen from around £3·30 a kilo to £4 a kilo over the period. People recognise the quality and the provenance of locally produced goods, so the same applies to milk and many other products. Having a strong and very sophisticated agri-food economy therefore put us in a better place when it came to recovering from COVID.

I have always indicated that there was an advantage from the protocol but that that advantage was outweighed by the disadvantages. I said that it was like scoring a super goal in a football match but then letting in six goals. We need to ensure that we can remove the six goals against us so that we can import our trees, our plants, our seed potatoes and the beef that goes on for further processing: I could go on. We need to address so many aspects of the protocol that are damaging to the economy.

Photo of Steve Aiken Steve Aiken UUP

Minister, did you have the opportunity to talk to the Chief Ministers of Jersey and Guernsey respectively on concerns about fishing, particularly the disgraceful act of the French in preventing fishing vessels from across our nation, including those from Kilkeel and Scotland, from using their waters? Did you have an opportunity to talk about the threat from the French to cut off the power supply to Jersey? Has there been any attempt by the British-Irish Council to send a very strong message to France and the EU to stop that, frankly, predatory activity in our waters?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Interestingly enough, the Chief Minister of Jersey indicated that cutting the power supply would not be a big issue for the people of Jersey, because they could just reactivate their coal-fired power station, which they were preparing to do. Of course, that would not be very good for the climate, because Jersey uses nuclear power that comes from France, but that would have been a decision imposed on Jersey by the futility and stupidity of the French Government, their aggressive attitude to Jersey and to fishermen, and their demand to have their fishers come into waters that they had not previously used. The Chief Minister of Jersey had documentation that went back years that showed specifically the boats that had used Jersey's waters. He was therefore able to expose the falsehoods that certain people were expressing on behalf of French fishers. Jersey is very keen to engage in jaw-jaw as opposed to war-war, and France would be better engaging in jaw-jaw as well.

Photo of Roy Beggs Roy Beggs UUP

I thank the Minister for his statement. He mentioned that there were discussions on the COVID pandemic. The different regions use a variety of methods to limit the spread of the disease, yet, a few days before the meeting, there was a mass outbreak of COVID in Northern Ireland, in which almost 200 young people contracted it. At the meeting, was there any discussion on what methods can be used to protect our young people so that they can continue to go out, meet and socialise safely?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Thus far, young people have had limited effects from COVID-19. They have clearly been transmitters of it, however, and they can transmit it to people who are much more vulnerable. Therein lies a substantial part of the problem. The significance of the booster vaccination — the fact that our immunity can go from somewhere around 40% to well over 90% — was mentioned. I am glad that Northern Ireland is now beginning to pick up on getting the booster programme rolled out. It seemed to be a bit slow: 10 days ago, 300,000 people who were eligible for it still had not received it. Of course, many people are coming under the eligibility criteria now. We need to push ahead and get the booster vaccination to as many people as possible before Christmas and particularly to people with vulnerabilities. I encourage people to do that.

Photo of Clare Bailey Clare Bailey Green

I thank the Minister for the statement. I noticed that, when he was asked about robust legislation, he discussed opportunities in the energy sector, of which there are, of course, many. The UK Government have set robust legislation, and we are, of course, part of the UK political union, but we are also a separate land mass, and that is key when we are tackling emissions and climate change. The Irish Government have also set ambitious legislation. Has the Minister had specific discussions with them on the potential impact if Northern Ireland were to be less ambitious?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

Northern Ireland is not less ambitious. We have taken scientific advice. If the Member wishes to reject that advice, that is a matter for the Member and whoever she can persuade. I tend to take the scientific advice. I also tend to take the advice of the Office of Legislative Counsel (OLC), which advises Members on legislation and legislative processes, and it has described the Member's Bill as "unworkable" and "unaffordable". If the Member wants to ignore the scientific and, indeed, legislative expertise and charge ahead with something that she believes to be a crowd-pleaser, it is a matter for individuals to choose. What we can do is highlight the issues that have been raised with us and with the Executive by members of the CCC and the OLC: they are people with real expertise and knowledge on the issue.

Photo of Jim Allister Jim Allister Traditional Unionist Voice

I note the passing reference to strengthening the secretariat of the British-Irish Council. After more than 20 years of its existence, we will now have a senior officials group. What is the full-time complement of the secretariat of the British-Irish Council, and how does it compare with the full-time complement of the North/South Ministerial Council?

Photo of Edwin Poots Edwin Poots DUP

I do not know the exact details of the full-time complement of the secretariat, but I will be happy to get that information and provide it to the Member. I am sure that the Member will do his own work to identify the complement of the North/South secretariat.

Photo of Alex Maskey Alex Maskey Sinn Féin

That concludes questions on the statement. Members should take their ease for a moment.