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19 July 2007 Edition

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Major progress made at All-Ireland Ministerial Council

By Mícheál MacDonncha
A vital step forward in the full implementation of the Good Friday Agreement was made on Tuesday when the All-Ireland Ministerial Council met in Armagh for the first time since 2002. This week’s meeting was only the fifth since the Good Friday Agreement in 1998 but it was the first to be held in a political climate where further progress is anticipated with Sinn Féin and the DUP sharing Executive power in the Six Counties.
Previous meetings were held under the shadow of continuing political crises within unionism in which Ian Paisley, now First Minister, played a central role. The toppling of David Trimble by forces within and outside his own party did not lead to the collapse of the Good Friday Agreement which is now being worked by the DUP. The greatest sign of the changed times was the fact that Ian Paisley as First Minister and Martin McGuinness as Deputy First Minister led the Six-County ministerial delegation to Armagh.  The 26-County delegation was led by Taoiseach Bertie Ahern.
A number of very significant decisions were announced at the meeting, formally known as the North-South Ministerial Council (NSMC). The Council  noted the Irish Government’s intention to make available a contribution of £400m/€580m to help fund major roads programmes providing dual carriageway standard on cross-border routes on the Dublin-Donegal axis – the North-West Gateway. The road project from Belfast to Larne will be taken forward by the Executive and its agencies. The route serving the North West Gateway will be taken forward jointly by the Irish Government and the Executive.
West Tyrone Sinn Féin MP Pat Doherty welcomed the North West road projects as “hugely significant”. His comments were echoed by Cavan-Monaghan TD and Dáil leader Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin who said the plan, when implemented, would be “a major boost for a previously much neglected region”.
There was as warm a welcome for the long-awaited announcement that the Ulster Canal is to be restored between Clones, County Monaghan and Upper Lough Erne in County Fermanagh. This is in light of the Irish Government’s offer to cover the full capital costs of the project. Waterways Ireland, a North/South Implementation Body, will be responsible for the restoration of this section of the Canal and, following restoration, for its management maintenance and development principally for recreational purposes. Ministers, meeting in the NSMC Inland Waterways Sector will agree plans to take forward this restoration work, including details of funding arrangements, and will report on progress to NSMC Plenary meetings.
Welcoming progress on the Ulster Canal, Caoimhghín Ó Caoláin said:
“Sinn Féin has consistently campaigned for the reopening of the Ulster Canal. It would create a tourist hub to service the increasing numbers of foreign visitors who want to avail of ours rivers and canals. We only have to look at the success of the Shannon – Erne network to realise that the Ulster Canal could help unlock the massive tourist potential for border counties. Discussions on this issue have been ongoing for a considerable period of time and it is essential that there is no further delay or foot dragging.”
 The Ministerial Council agreed to take forward the review, provided for in the St. Andrews Agreement, of the All-Ireland Implementation Bodies and Areas for Co-operation. The Review will commence in September 2007 and a final report will be presented to the first NSMC Plenary Meeting in 2008.  The Review will be undertaken by a group, including senior officials and an advisory panel of four experts/advisers, two to be nominated by the Executive and two to be nominated by the Irish Government.
“The Council made some progress on the establishment of further institutions promised under the Good Friday Agreement. It noted that the Irish Government will consult the social partners on the North-South Consultative Forum. It also noted the review of arrangements for consulting civic society in the Six Counties and agreed to consider this matter once that review is complete. The Council noted the provisions of the St. Andrews Agreement relating to the North South Parliamentary Forum. It recognised that any development of a joint parliamentary forum is a matter for the Assembly and the Oireachtas. Officials from the two administrations will make contact with the Assembly and the Houses of the Oireachtas and report back to the NSMC at the earliest opportunity on the prospects for the development of such a forum.
Sinn Féin South Down MLA Willie Clarke has welcomed the discussions about the establishment of the North-South Parliamentary Forum. He stated:
“The Good Friday Agreement created the framework for not just the All Ireland Parliamentary Forum but also the North South Consultative Forum bringing together people from across civic society on this island. There was further progress agreed at St Andrews.
“Now that both the All Ireland Parliamentary and Consultative Forums have been formally discussed we should see further progress in bringing together politicians and people from civic society from across Ireland in a structured way to look at some of the key issues that affect us; issues such as sustaining our rural community, poverty, transport infrastructure and tourism.”
The Council considered and approved a schedule of NSMC meetings to take place over the coming months and agreed that its next meeting, in Plenary format, will be held in Dundalk towards the end of the year.
While progress was made it is clear that many gaps remain. This is most notable in the area of healthcare where the potential for all-Ireland co-operation and integration is not near being met.
Sinn Féin Health spokesperson in the Six Counties, North Belfast MLA Carál Ní Chuilín said that an all-Ireland approach to the provision of healthcare should be a priority:
“In the area of healthcare there is a clear need to develop greater and deeper working relationship across the island. Whether it is in the provision and planning of services, the development of centres of excellence or the efficiencies that can be gained we need to greater co-operation and harmonisation.
“There are a number of projects such as the mainstreaming of access to out of hours GP services that can be progressed to meet the needs of people living in the border areas. There are also a number of other projects particularly around Child and Adolescent mental health services that are weak in both the South and North and would benefit from a joint approach. There is huge potential for improving health for people across the island.
“One of the key issues across this island is that people who suffer disadvantage also suffer much worse health. There are huge health inequalities across Ireland, North and South. For example in the North people living in deprived areas are 33% more likely to die prematurely; life expectancy for men and women in deprived areas is 71.9 years and 77.6 compared to the average for men and women of 74.9 and 79.9 years.
 “The situation is exactly the same in the South. Infant mortality and the risk of developing cancer (particularly lung cancer) is higher in deprived areas. We need a concerted effort to tackle such health inequalities and I believe that the resources and focus required can be best delivered if health is a priority for the North South Ministerial Council.”
A practical example was given by Pat Doherty who expressed dismay that, despite their obligation to undertake collaborative projects on an All-Ireland basis, Health Ministers Michael McGimpsey and Mary Harney held no discussions about the establishment of a satellite cancer centre in the North West:
“The disparity in access to cancer service provision is most acutely felt by people living in counties in the North West part of Ireland because the configuration of cancer care has been distorted as a result of partition. Therefore it would have been expected that discussions about the establishment of a satellite cancer centre in the North West would have been a major priority for Ministers McGimpsey and Harney as part of their obligation to undertake collaborative projects on an All-Ireland basis to the benefit of people on both sides of the border.
“The provision of a Regional Cancer for the North West is a priority issue for Sinn Féin and we will be continuing to pressurise both governments that it also must become a priority for them if they genuinely want to address the disparity in access to cancer service provision on this island.”
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