I listened to the British Prime Minister’s Brexit speech and noted a glaring lack of concern for Northern Ireland. It hardly featured in her speech at all. I was doubtful before I heard her speech as to where Northern Ireland would be on the British agenda regarding Brexit, but now we know exactly what the position is.
The cash for ash has proven to be very costly not only in terms of the particular funds but in the ensuing fallout which sees Northern Ireland without a government or a parliament at a very critical time. We all live on this small island and there is significant movement of people and business back and forth across the Border. There are also institutions, projects and considerable co-operation between North and South. Brexit is a major challenge and Northern Ireland and the Republic must be seen as special cases.
An all-Ireland civic dialogue on Brexit took place on 2 November 2016. While a broad range of groups and individuals participated including NGOs, business organisations, trade unions, civil society representatives and politicians, one could not but note the glaring absence of Unionist representatives from the UUP and the DUP. What sort of message did that send out?
On a positive note, recently a report was prepared and published by the House of Lords EU committee on the impact of Brexit on British-Irish relations. The report agreed that the unique nature of those relations requires a “unique structure”. The committee called on the UK and Irish Governments to negotiate a draft bilateral agreement which would incorporate the views and the interests of the Northern Ireland Executive and to put this to the EU as part of the final Brexit negotiations. However, there will be no Northern Ireland Executive in the near or foreseeable future! I believe that those who are pro-Brexit gambled with the stability and future of Northern Ireland and recent events are a similar gamble.
The situation has become petty. This pettiness is particularly evident in the withdrawal of funding for an Irish language scheme. Even though that funding has now been reinstated, the damage has been done. This was a childish move that was insulting to all Irish speakers, not just those in the North, and to those who want to learn Irish. The current situation, with an election on the horizon, represents a failure on the part of the main parties and politicians in the North. If sense had prevailed, if there had been an atmosphere of mutual respect and if there had been an acceptance that the cash for ash scheme needed investigation in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland, they would not be facing into an election now. This is particularly serious in the context of the uncertainty surrounding Brexit. The election is to be held on 2 March which leaves a very short timeframe before Brexit is triggered. In the meantime, it will be the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. James Brokenshire, who will be looking after Northern Ireland’s interests instead of those who were directly elected by the people of the North. This is a real cause for concern because the majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU although the majority in Britain voted to leave. It is very concerning that it is not the elected members of the Northern Ireland Assembly who will deal with these issues. Furthermore, there is no guarantee that after the elections there will be a functioning government in Northern Ireland. The comments of some Northern politicians speak in the media last night do not augur well for the formation, by mid-March, of a fully functioning government that can work in the best interests of the people of Northern Ireland.
Is maith liom an seanfhocal “ní neart go cur le chéile”. Tá sé soiléir nach raibh an seanfhocal sin i gceist ag na daoine sa Tuaisceart, go háirithe na polaiteoirí, nach raibh ag “cur le chéile”.
It is obvious that there has not been the level of working together that is vital for Northern Ireland and especially for the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. This can be seen from the number of issues that have been outstanding for many years since the signing of that Agreement. Regardless of whether one agrees with the terms of the Agreement, it is a binding accord, signed in April 1998 and approved in referenda in Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, by 71% and 94% respectively. There was a record turnout in the North for the referendum.
It is rather ironic that the North is facing into an election because of an issue that is not obviously or glaringly sectarian as was the case in the past. The election has been caused by an economic issue, the cash for ash scheme, that said, there is a sectarian aspect to the issue which is really astonishing because one would have thought that everybody would be on the same page with regard to public funds and the importance of transparency and value for money. One would have thought that all individuals and parties would agree on such criteria, regardless of whether they are Unionist, nationalist, capitalist or socialist. The scandal led to the deputy First Minister’s resignation and the calling of an election, both of which were avoidable if the parties and individuals had been working together for the common good and were focused on the principle of the best use of public funds.
The renewable heat incentive, RHI, scheme was positive in the sense that its aim was to encourage businesses and farmers to switch from fossil fuel to biomass heating systems. However, the subsidies provided under the scheme were extremely generous and had no limits. The scheme has been dubbed “cash for ash” because the more fuel that scheme participants burn, the more they earn. We know, thanks to information provided by a whistleblower, that the scheme has been and is being abused. The latest information in that regard has been provided by the Northern Ireland Audit Office which estimates that over the next 20 years there will be an overspend of £400 million or more on the scheme. Who is paying for this? The answer is the Northern Ireland Executive and the taxpayers. The turmoil has resulted from the fact that the former First Minister, Ms Arlene Foster, was the responsible Minister when the scheme was introduced. While there are departmental officials who must be held to account, ultimately responsibility lies with the Minister. There are questions arising with regard to the whistleblower, why it took the Department so long to realise the seriousness of the issue and the legal implications of the scheme. All of these questions could have been answered by an investigation. Such an investigation was needed and the former First Minister should have stood aside while it took place. It is quite incredible that Ms Foster could not have done that and spared the North a second election in the space of a year. More importantly, such an investigation could have gotten to the crux of the scheme, determined what could be done to address the problems with it and ensured that the cost to the taxpayer would be limited.
I am a member of the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. That committee has had quite a number of meetings since the Brexit vote with various groups, all of whom have expressed concern, if not consternation, at the difficulties they are facing because of the outcome of the referendum.
– Last week, the committee discussed some of the very practical concerns of farmers in the North. The committee was told that farms in the Republic will be €20,000 better off than their similar-sized counterparts in the North.
– There is concern about the possible adverse effects of a hard Brexit, including an increase in smuggling.
– The committee also heard about the Geopark cross-Border project in south Fermanagh which is dependent on EU funding.
– There are many more examples of such projects and participants are very concerned about the future.
Another concern discussed by the committee last week was that at different stages Prime Minister May and others in her Government called for the UK’s withdrawal from the European Convention on Human Rights. This convention is so important for peace and stability. The Children’s Rights Alliance was very clear when it met us last week that this should be non-negotiable and that the convention and human rights instruments in the Good Friday Agreement would not be a casualty of Brexit. It also has concerns about child protection, children’s rights and the issue of child abduction and the implications regarding the common travel area. I know the Minister for Children and Youth Affairs, Deputy Zappone, has a conference coming up at the end of the month on these issues.
We also have legacy issues. We have had the third all-party Dáil motion on the Dublin and Monaghan bombings but there are still outstanding issues and families are still waiting, more than 40 years on. There is constant stalling on this! The Lord Chief Justice of Northern Ireland’s proposal to establish a legacy unit to process 56 outstanding legacy inquests relating to the Troubles received support from victims and survivors, but there was a delay with the funding, and this was before the events yesterday. The report to the UN of its special rapporteur on the promotion of truth, justice, reparation and guarantees of non-recurrence included a series of recommendations on the implementation of the Stormont House Agreement and on the bill of rights for Northern Ireland but we see more delays now. There are continuing and continuous issues regarding prisoners and the revocation of licences, and a significant lack of progress in ensuring justice and due process.