Written Answers. - Northern Ireland Issues.

Thursday, 22 March 2001

Dáil Eireann Debate
Vol. 533 No. 2

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  64.  Mr. Callely  Information on Ivor Callely  Zoom on Ivor Callely   asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs  Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen   the current developments of the Assembly and Executive in the North; the success of the Assembly and Executive to date; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7830/01]

Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Cowen): Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  As the Deputy will be aware, power was devolved to the Executive and Assembly in Northern Ireland on 2 December 1999, when the British-Irish Agreement entered into force and the other institutions under the Agreement; the North-South Ministerial Council, the implementation bodies and the British-Irish Council, came into operation.

In the context of difficulties, including on the question of decommissioning, their operation was suspended by the Secretary of State from 11 February until 30 May 2000, when, as a result of the agreement reached by the parties at Hillsborough earlier that month, their powers were fully restored.

In the period since, the Assembly and Executive have been carrying out their important work in an effective manner. They have agreed the North's first programme for Government – widely acknowledged to be a far-thinking and imaginative document, and the Executive's first [445] budget was approved by the Assembly before Christmas.

The Government shares the hope of the other parties in the Executive that, in due course, the Ministers for Social and Regional Development, members of the DUP, will agree to play their full part as members of the Executive by attending its meetings.

  65.  Mr. Callely  Information on Ivor Callely  Zoom on Ivor Callely   asked the Minister for Foreign Affairs  Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen   the progress of the North/South Ministerial Council to date; the success of the agreed areas of co-operation; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [7831/01]

Minister for Foreign Affairs (Mr. Cowen): Information on Brian Cowen  Zoom on Brian Cowen  The North/South Ministerial Council was established in December 1999, under the terms of the Good Friday Agreement. The NSMC brings together those with executive responsibilities in Northern Ireland and the Irish Government to develop consultation, cooperation and action within the island of Ireland on matters of mutual interest within the competence of both administrations.

It was subsequently agreed between the two Governments and the Northern Ireland parties that the Council would focus initially on 12 subject areas in respect of which co-operation and implementation for mutual benefit would take place, with further development of these arrangements to be possible on an agreed basis. Co-operation in these 12 areas is being implemented in two ways. In the case of six of them, it is done by means of existing bodies in each jurisdiction separately, also commonly referred to as the Areas for Co-operation, and in the case of six others by means of new North-South implementation bodies, also commonly referred to as the North-South bodies operating at a cross-border or all-island level.

The 12 areas are the six areas for co-operation: aspects of agriculture; education; environment; health; transport; and tourism, in respect of which a publicly-owned limited company, Tourism Ireland limited, has been established to promote the entire island of Ireland overseas as a tourist destination.

The six North/South bodies: Waterways Ireland; the Food Safety Promotion Board; the Trade and Business Development Body, now titled IntertradeIreland; the Special EU Programmes Body; the Language Body, comprising two agencies; Foras na Gaeilge and The Ulster Scots Agency; and the Foyle Carlingford and Irish Lights Commission, also comprising two agencies; the Loughs Agency and the Lights Agency.

The NSMC has responsibility for overseeing co-operation in all 12 areas. In addition to meeting twice a year in plenary format, the Council meets regularly in sectoral format to take forward co-operation in the 12 areas. Since its establishment in December 1999, there have been 26 meetings of the Council, two in plenary format and 24 in sectoral format.

[446] Overall the Government is pleased with the level of progress that has been made by the Council in the roughly 15 months since its establishment. All of the implementation bodies are up and running, four of them involving boards of directors. In most cases, the permanent chief executives have been appointed, and in the remaining cases the work of the bodies is being taken forward by interim chief executives, pending the making of permanent appointments. Staff are being recruited and headquarters established. Active programmes of work are being undertaken by the bodies, across a broad range of areas. When fully operational, these bodies are expected to employ a total staff of roughly 900 people and they have a budget in 2001 of £64 million I believe that, as they are already demonstrating, these bodies have very great potential in terms of the benefits they can bring to all of the people of this island, North and South.

In the six areas of co-operation, significant progress has also been made. For instance, Tourism Ireland has been established and the start-up arrangements are well advanced, under the supervision of the board of directors, reporting to my colleague, Minister McDaid and his Northern counterpart, Sir Reg Empey, in the NSMC. In the other important sectors involved, solid progress is also being made, to the mutual benefit of both parts of the island.

Nobody denies that difficulties remain to be overcome. Regrettably, Sinn Féin Ministers have for some time been prevented from participating in the Council. In their statement of 8 March in Hillsborough, the two Governments recognised that it was essential that the full implementation of the North/South Ministerial Council and the British/Irish Council resume. It is the strong hope of the Government that, following these discussions at Hillsborough chaired by the Taoiseach and the British Prime Minister, the current difficulties will be overcome and the operation of the North/South Ministerial Council can be restored on a fully inclusive basis.

The Deputy will also be aware of difficulties in taking forward co-operation in the transport sector, arising from the refusal of the DUP Minister with responsibility for the matter within the Executive to participate in the North/South Ministerial Council. With the co-operation of the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister, one meeting of the Council has taken place in this sector and the Government is working in close collaboration with them to try to ensure that the work of the NSMC in this important sector can be carried out.

Notwithstanding these difficulties, solid progress has been achieved by the North/South Ministerial Council. The 26 meetings of the Council to date have all been positive and constructive occasions. In the various sectoral areas, my colleagues in the Government are working closely and harmoniously with their northern counterparts. In this regard, I should acknowledge that, notwithstanding the difficulties in regard to the [447] nomination of Sinn Féin ministers, the UUP ministers have participated fully and constructively in the many meetings of the NSMC which they have attended. Over time, and particularly once the remaining difficulties have been resolved, I am confident that the Council will play an extremely valuable role in developing practical co-operation to the benefit of North and South and in promoting mutual understanding and reconciliation between the major traditions on the island.

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