Northern Ireland news

Platform: Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile

Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile. Picture by Brian Lawless/PA Wire

THE IMPORTANCE of all-island collaboration and dialogue have been shown time and time again in recent years. We all know that crucial issues which affect our lives simply don't stop at the border; from health, to education, to agriculture and the cost of living. This was illustrated most starkly during the pandemic, as it became clear that working together was the best way to protect all our communities across Ireland.

In my work in the Seanad, I see everyday the importance of having northern and southern voices working together on the matters that impact us all. I believe strongly that collaboration and dialogue is the best way to secure solutions for the issues we all face. It is simply common-sense.

In that spirit, I welcomed moves within the Oireachtas to include one MP and one MLA from each assembly party on the Oireachtas' special committees. These special committees consider policies on important issues including better autism services and tackling gender inequality. They do not vote on legislation, but play an important role in considering issues and making recommendations to the best way to provide solutions.

This would have been a very positive change that would have benefited people across Ireland. One committee it would have included was the Oireachtas Special Committee on Autism. The need to improve autism services and supports is an issue which affects communities across all 32 counties of Ireland. The all-Ireland Autism Centre is based in Middletown in Co Armagh and is jointly funded by the Dublin and Belfast governments in recognition of this. As a result, having MLAs and MPs on the committee would have been a sensible way of working together to collaborate on these solutions together.

Therefore, I was shocked and disappointed that these proposals which had been worked on positively for many months were suddenly blocked by government TDs in the Oireachtas last week. They voted to block MLAs and MPs from being involved in these special committees and in doing so they denied a voice to communities in the north on issues that affect them.

I was particularly disappointed to see Fianna Fáil representatives vote to block this, given the Taoiseach Micheál Martin's creation of a Shared Island Unit, which contains as a core value the need for more collaboration and dialogue across Ireland. Given the SDLP's partnership with Fianna Fáil, I hope they will challenge their Oireachtas counterparts on this and ensure that this is resolved soon.

Our arty president Mary Lou McDonald has written to An Taoiseach, An Tánaiste Leo Varadkar and Green Party leader Eamon Ryan to outline the need for the government to reconsider their stance.

The government cannot pay lip service to the idea of including northern voices, yet fail to follow through when it comes to putting in place practical steps to achieve this. We are at our best and our strongest, when we work together on the issues that affect all of our lives. Including northern representatives in these crucial committees would bring a real benefit for people living across the island and should be enacted without any more delays.

I and all my Sinn Féin colleagues in the Oireachtas will continue to stand up for communities in the north and do everything we can to ensure their voices and concerns are heard at the heart of the Dáil and the Seanad. I would urge our counterparts in other parties to take the same approach.

Sinn Féin are determined to ensure that northern representatives are not blocked from these committees and we will continue to work with all parties to ensure that this important change is secured.

;; Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile is Sinn Féin leader in the Seanad.

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