Wednesday, 5 March 2008
Dáil Eireann Debate
7. Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin asked the Taoiseach the discussions he has had with regard to the peace process, including discussions with the British Prime Minister since the adjournment of Dáil Éireann on 19 December 2007; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [1325/08]
9. Deputy Eamon Gilmore asked the Taoiseach if the date and agenda for the next meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council has been finalised; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [4115/08]
14. Deputy Enda Kenny asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the British Prime Minister, Mr. Gordon Brown, in Manchester; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [6008/08]
Before dealing with the detailed questions that Deputies have put down on Northern Ireland, I would like to take this opportunity to pay tribute to the First Minister of Northern Ireland, Dr. Ian Paisley, following his announcement that he will step down from his post in May. I said yesterday that he was a giant in the history of these islands and I do not think anyone in the House would dispute that. While history must be the judge of what was a very long and sometimes controversial career, today we should reflect on the huge courage and leadership he showed in recent years and the legacy of peace and hope that he will leave for future generations.
I met with Prime Minister Gordon Brown in Manchester on Sunday, 10 February, where we discussed recent developments in Northern Ireland and future challenges. We later attended events marking the 50th anniversary of the Munich air disaster. At the meeting, we reiterated our commitment to completing the process of devolution through the devolution of policing and justice powers to the Northern Ireland Executive as we continue to implement the St. Andrews Agreement in full. This issue will be the main focus of our efforts in the coming months.
Prime Minister Brown and I are united in working closely together in partnership to build on the huge and historic transformation in relationships that we are now seeing in these islands. We will keep in touch and I expect we will meet again at the European Council on 13 March.
On 1 February, I met with the First Minister, Dr. Paisley, in Ballymena when we also discussed recent developments, including the recent budget agreed by the Executive, as well as arrangements for meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council and the British-Irish Council.
I chaired a successful meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council in Dundalk on 7 February, which was attended by the First Minister, Dr. Ian Paisley, and Deputy First Minister, Mr. Martin McGuinness, as well as a range of Government Ministers and Ministers from the Executive. At the meeting, we had a broad discussion on issues aimed at delivering practical benefits for all the people on this island.
In particular, we had constructive discussions on co-operation on economic and social issues, transport and road safety, and child protection. The next meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council is due to take place in October in Northern Ireland.
On the evening of 7 February, I was also delighted to be guest of honour with Dr. Paisley at the annual dinner of the Dublin Chamber of Commerce. On 14 February, I chaired the tenth summit meeting of the British-Irish Council at the Royal Hospital Kilmainham. I was delighted to welcome heads of delegation from the eight participating administrations, which included Paul Murphy, who has responsibility for the British-Irish Council in the British Government, Alex Salmond, First Minister of Scotland, and Rhodri Morgan, First Minister of Wales.
We had a useful and informative summit meeting at which we discussed the importance of supporting families to overcome the problems of drug misuse and the role families can play in the rehabilitation process. The council agreed to include a renewed focus on the families of problem drug users in any future drugs strategies prepared. There was also a discussion on the problems we face with alcohol abuse.
We also discussed and welcomed progress on the strategic review of the British-Irish Council and tasked the secretariat, in liaison with member administrations, to report back with the final recommendations at the next summit in Scotland next September.
The tenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement will provide a useful opportunity to reflect on how far we have come and the progress we have made in implementing the agreement. On 3 April, I will be delivering the keynote address at a conference organised by the Institute of British Irish Studies in UCD to commemorate the tenth anniversary of the Good Friday Agreement. I will also attend the US Ireland Alliance event taking place in Belfast on 10 April to mark the anniversary of the agreement, which Bill Clinton will be attending. I will attend a conference and degree-conferring ceremony in Queen’s University Belfast on 22 May that will also mark the tenth anniversary of the agreement.
Deputy Enda Kenny: I have already wished Dr. Ian Paisley well on his impending retirement. As I pointed out, he was a colourful, controversial and dominating figure in Northern politics for almost 50 years. At the end of his political career he deserves credit for the conviction he showed in coming full circle to make the restoration of the assembly in Stormont a reality. We hope that all parties and communities in Northern Ireland will benefit as a consequence.
I am concerned about the emerging problem with the Real IRA. I understand that last week a report indicated that members of the dissident group met with reporters from a Sunday newspaper close to the Border. They outlined their position on targets and a renewed bombing campaign. There is evidence that they are heavily armed. Is the Taoiseach concerned about this? Do we have reports from the Department of Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Army of evidence of activity by this small dissident group? The Taoiseach will recall that back in 1998, following the Omagh bombing, he sent Deputy Mansergh to speak to the Real IRA, which I regarded then as a regrettable decision. Be that as it may, however, is the Taoiseach concerned about that matter? What evidence do we have from the Minister for Justice, Equality and Law Reform and the Minister for Defence concerning the level of activity of these persons? Is the situation being monitored? The Real IRA has made references to renewed bombing campaigns and attempted murders. Even members of the Northern Ireland Executive are within the range of what the Real IRA calls legitimate targets. Will the Taoiseach comment on that situation?
The Taoiseach: I assure the House that there is an ongoing assessment of the activities of all paramilitary groupings. There is a number of fringe groupings, most of which are quite small, but an ongoing security assessment is undertaken by the Garda Síochána. Obviously, there is very close co-operation with the PSNI on these matters. Over the last six months or so there have been ongoing reports of their activities and what they have been engaged in. The situation has not changed greatly over the last few years. There is a hard core of people who never accepted the changed position back in the mid to late 1990s. While there has been a great deal of success by the Garda and a large number of these people have received sentences, many of them long sentences, there are related contacts who continue to engage in these activities. A lot of effort has been made by many people over the past decade to get most of these groups to cease and desist from such activities. That has been successful with a lot of the groups and units moving away. Some of the families associated with these dissident republican activities have also moved away, but a hard core remains.
We know, without giving any credibility to the organisations of the past — many of the small ones would have been around even before the Troubles significantly started — that it does not take a lot to create acts of terrorism. It is an ongoing concern and the Garda, through its specialist units, keeps on top of this as best it can. Whenever these organisations have any success in their activities, one is always worried because these people are ultimately spoilers who do not want to see progress. They want to pull us back. There is ongoing work and contact in this area. We are all, including the Northern authorities, pleased that we are engaged in this way.
The Deputy is correct that there have been threats against the First Minister, Dr. Paisley, and the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness. In fairness to both — and I have discussed it with them both — this only gives them further determination to press on with the agenda on which they have been working so well since 8 May last. I hope whoever replaces Dr. Paisley will continue to do that.
Deputy Enda Kenny: In the course of the statements in the House on the murder of Paul Quinn, I made the point that if the peace process is to work and the Good Friday Agreement is to be implemented for the benefit of all communities, we do not need a structure like the army council of the Provisional IRA. I made that point based on evidence given to me by people living across a broad swathe of the south Armagh Border region where, on a continual basis, punishment beatings are being carried out in apparent accordance with that particular structure. Does the Taoiseach agree this is something that should be abandoned? I would love to get a letter from P. O’Neill indicating that such a decision was taken in the light of being serious about the development of the country from here on.
Second, in respect of the economic conference in May, what will be the input of the Government? Will the Taoiseach attend? Will the Tánaiste and Minister for Finance or Enterprise, Trade and Employment speak at the conference? What is the input from the Twenty-six Counties? In this context, have there been any further discussions with the British Prime Minister and the Chancellor of the Exchequer about the possibility of a reduction in the corporate tax rate in Northern Ireland, which is a disincentive in comparison with our rate? If we are talking about an island economic entity, this is a critical issue for the economic conference. I am aware that the former President of the United States, Mr. Bill Clinton, is due to attend. Without prejudicing the result of events to take place in the United States, will the real President Clinton also be attending this conference? This would be of interest to many of those who are undocumented in the United States in view of her statement that she will introduce immigration reform within the first 100 days of the new presidency.
Third, in the context of efficiency, good health and professionalism, the cancer strategy in the Republic is to establish a new satellite centre in Letterkenny for the treatment of breast cancer. This decision was taken as a result of Government policy. However, if we are talking about co-operation between the Twenty-six Counties and the Six Counties, surely this is one issue upon which there should be no disagreement. Will it be a factor in the discussions between the Government, British Government and Northern Ireland Assembly that centres be developed in Derry, Letterkenny, Sligo or Enniskillen to cater for patients requiring specialist treatment, whether cardiac, cancer or whatever, rather than have a situation where there is a parallel in services on either side of the Border for the same specialist area?
The Taoiseach: On the Quinn murder, investigations are ongoing into this serious crime. It undoubtedly has the trappings of paramilitary involvement, although republicans have condemned it and denied any involvement. The reports will be out shortly and we will deal with the views and assessments. Ultimately, any type of organisation or structure that engages in such activity or any groupings that might have been affiliated with the past are always a worry and concern. Such activity is a worry also for the organisations who try to move away from that.
I have no direct knowledge, information or intelligence that this was the work of the Provisional IRA, but it has been stated that the large number of people involved, the fact that the forensics were cleaned up to such a professional degree and so on gives the impression that people who were affiliated with the past or knew how to deal with these issues might have had some involvement. We have no intelligence in this regard, however, and from our own point of view, it is a case of co-operating with the Garda which is putting in a big effort to assist the victim’s family. I have met the family and they want to see justice prevail. In the south Armagh area or any other Border area, we must do all we can to restore normal policing.
As I said yesterday, the building blocks of bringing devolution of policing and justice to Northern Ireland is local involvement and participation by communities. That is the best way of bringing an end to such activity for ever more and of getting away from having any types of paramilitary groups, power groups, heavy gangs or whatever new umbrella they devise. I get reports from time to time of groupings that are still operating on that type of heavy gangs basis. Whether they are doing so with any authorisation — which I am told by intelligence they are not — or doing it off their own bat, it is not a good thing and we must see the end of it. It is not unreasonable, ten years on, that we should see the end of this once and for all. The best way of achieving this is through proper local policing in these areas, so that we bring back a level of normality. If we do not do that, we will continue to have these sporadic events by either side, whether in loyalist areas or republican strongholds. We must try to get away from that and anything that helps in this regard is welcome. I do not want to dictate to any organisation how it should move into the future other than that I want to see it moving into the future.
On the cancer strategy, there is close co-operation. The cancer service in Northern Ireland, particularly in Belfast, is considered to be well advanced. It is a good and authoritative unit and has been working closely with us for a number of years. In the discussions that took place on Letterkenny and the connections it will have with Galway, there was close engagement with the Department of Health in Belfast. A number of meetings have taken place between the Minister for Health and Children, Deputy Harney, and her officials and the Belfast groups. We encourage that because where we can exchange specialties we should do so. Health is a good area for co-operation.
On the investment conference, we have from the start helped the Northern Ireland authorities to the greatest extent possible. They have “utilised” us — I will leave that word in inverted commas. We have offered and I hope that we have tried. When Dr. Paisley and Mr. McGuinness were in Washington in December, they met our ambassador. At that stage, we said that any help we could give through the IDA, Enterprise Ireland and our contacts with multinationals or others, including finance houses, we would give. I have talked to some CEOs of companies and asked them to attend to try to get high-level representation. We hope that can happen. Perhaps it is not the best time in the world because of the difficulties in the American economy but, at the same time, it is important that we put in a full effort. We are there to help and I have urged the British Prime Minister to help where possible. It is not easy to get CEOs at the top levels of these companies and I think the Executive should use the contacts in the UK and here to the greatest extent possible to make it a success.
The second Varney report will be out shortly. I think it is clear from my discussions with Gordon Brown and from his long years as Chancellor that the idea of harmonising the tax rate in Northern Ireland to an equivalent level with the Republic of Ireland has two chances. I will not go into the rest. The possibility of him looking at other alternatives is more hopeful. There are a number of alternatives and the British Government could be helpful. In the context of Northern Ireland, it should not be a tax issue. Most of these companies, for some years, might not have been paying too much tax anyway. If there was a capital allowance or accelerated allowances that would entice them to develop in Northern Ireland and to set up and expand, in my estimation it would be more valuable in the short term because the set-up costs of the companies would probably roll over five years, seven years or ten years anyway. Hopefully, some new suggestions like this will be put.
For my own part, I will say what I have said elsewhere — I do not think it an unreasonable position and I totally support the Northern Ireland Executive and others in Northern Ireland who have lobbied for this, such as Northern Ireland business groups. If one saves an enormous bill on security over a progressive number of years, it is not an unreasonable argument to say that one should get some of it back in investment as a peace dividend. This does not seem to me to be an unreasonable request. It is what the leadership of the Executive has been saying and it is united in this, which should be taken into account.
On the immigration issue, the big issue for us is to keep it live in the campaign and to try to avoid some of the closed mentality of some people. We are down to three since we last discussed this matter. We should keep our lobbying efforts focused on Senator Obama, Senator Clinton and Senator John McCain to try to get a successful deal afterwards. The other issue that worried me is what they have been saying about multinational companies and the repatriation of profits and investments, which was a John Kerry proposal of four years ago. This is also in the campaign. They are the two issues we must follow closely as the campaign in the United States goes on.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: I join with the Taoiseach and Deputy Kenny in marking the retirement of Dr. Paisley as leader of his party and First Minister. I wish him well in his retirement and pay tribute to the role he played at the end of his career in restoring political institutions to Northern Ireland and in bringing political stability to the North. However, I cannot help reflecting on the fact that many of those involved in resolving the conflict at the end, including Dr. Paisley, played no small part in fomenting the conflict over the years. This is something historians will need to examine — our job is to look forward.
In this regard and in terms of the operation of the institutions, their continuation and the continuation of progress in Northern Ireland, what are the implications of the change of leadership in the DUP and the inevitable change of First Minister? Does the Taoiseach envisage difficulties in respect of the devolution of policing and justice functions to the Northern Ireland institutions? Last weekend, the DUP stated that one of the conditions for devolution would be the winding up and dissolution of the IRA army council. Has the Taoiseach discussed this matter with Prime Minister Brown or Sinn Féin and where does he see it going?
I share Deputy Kenny’s concern regarding reports of the increasing assembly of weaponry by and the increasing activity of dissident republican groups, including the Real IRA. I pay tribute to the Garda for its work in seizing weaponry from the Real IRA and those with whom it is associated. What is the Taoiseach’s assessment of the shift in people from the Provisional IRA to the Real IRA and what is his assessment of the strength of the latter? I appreciate that he is constrained in responding for security reasons, but there is a concern about the organisation and the threat it may pose. There should be a response to it.
The Taoiseach: On the security position — not to go back over it again — I should have said something when replying to Deputy Kenny and will say it in reply to Deputies Kenny and Gilmore now. Deputy Gilmore mentioned the Garda and its activity. As one would expect in these cases, there is always the attempt by dissidents to bring in arms. I want to record my acknowledgment of the good work done by one of the Baltic states — I would rather not say which one — in thwarting a significant consignment of arms to the Real IRA. It did us all a good service and I thank it for its efforts because it would have been part of the old pass game and there would have been difficulties for us. We thank it for its efforts and the Garda, particularly its special units, the heads of those units and the Commissioner, for its vigilance and co-operation.
On the question of the change of leadership and whether this issue will move on peacefully and successfully, I will just have to wait to see how it will operate. While we have held a lot of meetings with all of the DUP Ministers, the Deputy appreciates that during most of our efforts, involvement and activity in the last number of years in developing the position before the second-last election in Northern Ireland, working on what the DUP stated in its manifesto, moving that into the review of the Good Friday Agreement, which was a clause of the Good Friday Agreement, bringing that successfully through St. Andrews and then building on the various agreements of St. Andrews, the person we dealt with almost exclusively in those negotiations was very much Dr. Paisley. To his credit and although it was not easy, Dr. Paisley moved to establish the North-South bodies and east-west bodies. He had a few conditions on how we related those but he put them in a very forward way. It was very courageous and dynamic in that there was an agreement and institutions of that agreement.
I hope this will continue and I will report later. I will say it during Question Time as I know people in Northern Ireland examine our questions on Northern Ireland very closely. They have done so over the years. We will watch very carefully how that evolves as it is very important and significant for us. It is the reason so much has been done over the years and the changes we have made to make North-South bodies work. Dr. Paisley has done that and I hope whoever replaces him will follow that. It will be a crucial issue with us.
I did not raise the matter of Sellafield at the last meeting but there is ongoing dialogue with the British Government. There have been files, reports, debates and arguments with them. They have moved on the issue a lot and it has been with the line Ministers in recent times. They have been very helpful in opening up inspections and giving us reports and data, which they used not do. That has improved substantially. Former Prime Minister Blair achieved this and Prime Minister Gordon Brown is continuing with it.
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: I am a little surprised the Taoiseach did not raise Sellafield directly with Prime Minister Brown. There has been a practice going back over a very long period that when the Taoiseach meets the Prime Minister of the United Kingdom, the issue is raised. I am surprised a Government in which the Green Party is participating would not raise the matter.
I am also surprised at the extent to which the Sellafield issue appears to be disappearing down the order of priorities of this Government in terms of east-west relations. The matter has not gone away and it is very real. Concerns on this side of the Irish Sea are still quite strong about the danger of accidents and so on. I am a little surprised about it.
I appreciate what the Taoiseach has said about waiting to see how the issues pan out in the change of leadership and personnel that will inevitably occur north of the Border. I share with the Taoiseach the hope that the change of leadership in the DUP and at First Minister level will not in any way detract from the progress being made. We all want to see that progress continue, particularly with regard to the economies of both Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland. There is also the progress made on political institutions, which is facilitating that economic progress.
On the issue of Garda activity relating to arms finds etc., I was struck at the weekend by the find of arms or bomb-making equipment in an apartment in Tralee. I understand three Afghans were arrested in connection with the find. Has the Taoiseach any information to share with the House about that? It seemed a rather strange discovery and as I understand from the news reports, the amount of bomb-making equipment was quite significant.
The Taoiseach: The Garda has completed its investigation and I do not think it was bomb making. I do not think it was perhaps as sinister as it looked. There are reasons surrounding it, and the Garda must come to a final conclusion but it does not seem to be as sinister as it seemed initially.
I assure the Deputy the issue of Sellafield is regularly on the agenda but there is also direct contact. We have moved a long way from a position where we could get no information or assistance and our Ministers regularly meet on these issues directly with counterparts in the UK. It is not like before when they would give us no information, access or visits and that position has changed, effectively.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: I join the Taoiseach in wishing First Minister Ian Paisley well following his announced retirement. As has been stated, he deserves credit for having led unionism along a very difficult road in recent times. That should be acknowledged and it should be recognised that this took a certain amount of courage on his part and that of his colleagues. The process did not just involve Ian Paisley.
In that must rest confidence in a seamless transition of leadership of the DUP and into the role of First Minister in the Assembly and Executive and going forward on the basis of partnership with Sinn Féin and all other opinion represented within the Assembly. It is recognised by the collective leadership in the DUP that the only way forward is in partnership with Nationalists and republicans, not only in terms of the Six Counties area of our country but across the whole island of Ireland.
It should be said that Ian Paisley, for the greater part of his political career, for want of any other word, was central to the conflict that waged in the North of our island for upwards of 30 years.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: No less than any other speakers, I am sure. Unquestionably, he stoked the embers of that conflict repeatedly. In his latter years he demonstrated the necessary skills and I sincerely hope we will see the spirit of co-operation that has infused the Executive and Assembly continuing after Ian Paisley.
Does the Taoiseach agree there is a certain irony in the position adopted by Deputy Kenny earlier in his questioning? In his opening line of questioning he urged action against dissident republicans but was later able to cite engagement with dissident republican voices in south Armagh. Perhaps unwittingly and unknownst to himself, the Deputy is feeding their agenda in fuelling the notion that the panacea for all the difficulties on the island of Ireland would be the ending of the IRA army council or whatever structures of the IRA may yet remain.
Will the Taoiseach, Deputy Kenny and others not consider for a moment that this is exactly what dissident republicanism want them to do? Will they ponder the possibility that the IRA, in whatever way it exists today, represents a bulwark against dissident advance in many areas on this island, not least of all in the Border counties in the North?
My next issue has been lost in some measure in this morning’s line of questioning. Does the Taoiseach agree the most pressing and important advance which must now be delivered is the transfer of responsibility over policing and justice from Westminster to the Assembly and Executive at Belfast? Does he recall that this is a central element of the negotiated St. Andrews Agreement which he and the British Government are committed to seeing implemented? Will the Taoiseach indicate that it is his expectation that powers over policing and justice will be transferred over the coming period, as laid down in the St. Andrews Agreement? In his contacts with the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, has he confirmed that it is the new British Prime Minister’s intention to see that transfer of powers proceed as scheduled and, I emphasise, as clearly expected by the overwhelming body of opinion in the North of Ireland across unionism, nationalism and republicanism? Is he confident those powers will be transferred as scheduled?
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: I hope the Ceann Comhairle will allow me the right of response. Deputy Kenny implied that there is a series of so-called punishment beatings taking place in that area. I would like him to share the detail with the other Members of the House and this Deputy. The implication is that this is happening with regularity. I understand no such thing is happening. Indeed, if he knew the reality on the ground perhaps he might find that some of the people to whom he spoke were dissident voices who are absolutely and vehemently opposed to the position the party I represent has taken in encouraging an acceptance of policing structures North and South of the Border. It is important a little bit of realism is injected into the situation.
The Taoiseach: I will return to what I said earlier because I think Deputy Ó Caoláin will accept that in reply to Deputy Kenny, I said the only important building block which is outstanding is the devolution of policing and justice. I hope we will be able to conclude that with Dr. Paisley and we will continue to work for that over the next two months or so.
What stands in the way of avoiding contact — the Deputy spoke of the IRA as a bulwark — between those who have engaged with and have stuck fully to the peace process and those from the dissident side is the absence of that policing. The way for us all to move forward is to try to ensure we get district policing and devolution of policing. I am fully committed to trying to do that. I have raised this with the British Prime Minister and Dr. Paisley and have discussed it with Deputy Ó Caoláin’s colleagues. We will do everything we can to achieve that as soon as possible. It might drift for a few months but, hopefully, we will be able to make progress on it. The British Prime Minister has assured me it is also his agenda. We will not procrastinate on this issue and we will try to bring it to a conclusion.
I have tried not to get involved in the preconditions element of any of the negotiations because it is entirely unhelpful for those on either side to get involved in that. Ultimately, bringing successful, normal and sustainable policing to the areas along the Border will require the devolution of policing and justice, complete local acceptance of the PSNI and close co-operation between the PSNI and the Garda in Border areas. Over a period, that will isolate those who want to take a contrary view to what we all have tried to do collectively over a long period.
Deputy Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin: I welcome the Taoiseach’s assurance that it is his intention and that of the British Prime Minister, Gordon Brown, to continue to press for the transfer of powers by a date in May, which is the expectation. I hope the Taoiseach will be able to confirm that the scheduled expectation of the delivery of that continues to be his personal expectation.
As we are about to enter the period marking the tenth anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement with Easter almost upon us, what about the other outstanding aspects of that agreement? What progress is being made to deliver on the promised all-Ireland charter of rights, the consultative civic forum and the all-Ireland interparliamentary forum? Will the Taoiseach give us some indication of what progress has been made in terms of moving forward on each of those important elements of the Good Friday Agreement now that a decade has passed? Will he indicate his expectation of the role the Good Friday Agreement implementation committee established by the Houses of the Oireachtas and whose second meeting will take place tomorrow in this institution?
Deputy Eamon Gilmore: I have a brief question for the Taoiseach since the Ceann Comhairle told us Opposition leaders cannot ask questions of each other. What does the Taoiseach understand Deputy Ó Caoláin to mean what he says the Provisional IRA is acting as a bulwark against dissident republicans? Does he know what that means and does he agree with that assessment?
The Taoiseach: I think what Deputy Ó Caoláin meant to say was that the peaceful role the IRA now plays, as supportive of the peace process, is to try to discourage those who might get involved in paramilitary activities from doing so.
On the North-South parliamentary forum, I understand discussions are ongoing between the Houses of the Oireachtas, the Northern Ireland Assembly and the North-South parliamentary forum. These are being led by the Ceann Comhairle and the speaker of the Northern Ireland Assembly, William Hay. The matter will be kept under review. The meetings the Ceann Comhairle had and the meetings we had politically with William Hay indicate that there is a great interest in working towards this. It might take some time but there is certainly a wish to move that way.
We have had further consultation with the social partners in the South on the establishment of the North-South consultative forum and following that I expect we will be in a position to send a formal proposal to the Executive in the next few weeks. I understand arrangements are being made for a review of the civic forum in the North. We will continue to engage on the matter with our Northern colleagues.
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