Leaders' Questions

I am sure the Tánaiste will agree with me that people need to know what they are eating. He will also agree with me that the same standards should apply in terms of quality, the ingredients used and the make-up of meat products, no matter what is the price. People's right to food safety should not depend on how much they are able to spend on food.

I was concerned, when listening to or reading reported comments by Professor Alan O'Reilly about yesterday's revelations, that we need to look more closely at ingredients and what goes into this type of product. He was referring to what he termed food products at the lower end of the chain. This implies that we are not looking as closely as we should at such food products.

Yesterday's revelations about the presence of horse and pig DNA in a variety of meat products are truly shocking. Such revelations undermine the consumer's trust and confidence in products. As a result the authenticity of food products is called into question. The veracity of food labelling is now in doubt. The president of the IFA put it well this morning when he made the pertinent observation that the extraordinary rigour that now applies in the food supply chain to the primary producer does not appear to be applied at the processing end. He suggests that there is a weak link in the food supply chain.

I ask the Tánaiste to tell the House when the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine was first informed about the outcome of the tests undertaken by the Food Safety Authority. When was the Minister informed? Why did it take until yesterday for the public to be informed, given that the tests were carried out last November? Will the Tánaiste undertake to ensure the Minister takes private notice questions in the House today so that Deputies can hear a transparent presentation on this issue? Will the Tánaiste undertake to publish a full chronology of all the events that led up to yesterday from the outset and to publish all documentation exchanged among the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Food Safety Authority and the companies concerned? We need nothing less than 100% transparency on this issue.

I agree with Deputy Martin that people should know, and have a right to know, what they are eating and the content of processed food in particular. There should be no differentiation in that knowledge between people who purchase expensive cuts of meat and those who purchase less expensive processed meat. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine briefed the Government on this matter yesterday. I spoke with him about it this morning and I am happy to make available to the Deputy the information that his Department supplied. The Minister himself will be willing to make whatever information he can available and will, I am sure, make himself available to answer Members' questions at the appropriate time.

The Food Safety Authority has made clear that the results of the survey do not show a public health risk and that this is not a food safety issue. It is important to clarify that for consumers and the industry. The Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Food Safety Authority are working closely to identify exactly how this situation occurred. On receipt of the laboratory results from the Food Safety Authority, the Department commenced a full-scale investigation. The priority is to ensure that the source of this problem is uncovered and appropriate action is taken to ensure there is no question mark over the quality of beef products from Ireland. The investigation is focusing on the individual ingredients used in the manufacture of the affected batch. A number of these individual ingredients were imported into the State. The Food Safety Authority sampled 19 salami products, 31 beef meal products and 27 frozen burger products in a targeted survey of the authenticity of such products available from retail outlets in Ireland. The findings of the laboratory tests provided by the Food Safety Authority to the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine on 14 January revealed the presence of equine DNA in some beefburger products as well as trace or minute amounts of porcine DNA.

The survey results showed the presence of equine DNA at a high level - 29% of the meat content of one particular sample of frozen burger.

On receipt of the laboratory results, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine immediately initiated an investigation at the plant which had produced the burger and showing the higher level in order to determine the source of the equine DNA. The investigation is focusing on the individual ingredients used in the manufacture of the affected batch, a number of the ingredients of which were imported into the State. The Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI, published the findings of the survey on 15 January and emphasised that there was no food safety risk. It also stated the retailers which sold the products, Tesco, Dunnes, Lidl, Aldi and Iceland, were removing all of the implicated batches from sale.

The detailed results are: 31 beefmeal products were tested, of which 21 showed trace or very low levels of porcine DNA and all of which were negative for equine DNA. Some 19 salami products were tested, all of which were negative for equine DNA. A total of 27 beefburger products were tested. With the one exception mentioned that showed a very high level, there were ten with trace or very low levels of equine DNA and 23 with trace or very low levels of porcine DNA. I can supply the Deputy with the details and the timeline in which the tests were carried out, if he so wishes.

The timeline is very important. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Simon Coveney, has just stated on radio that the Department was first informed on 21 December about the outcome of the tests and then asked by the Food Safety Authority of Ireland, FSAI, to assist it in getting more samples. What interests me is that in December it was clear that there were disturbing outcomes from the tests started in November and that it was considered further tests were required. What informed the decision not to make the results publicly available, if I am correct in my interpretation of what the Minister stated on national radio some minutes ago? Will the Tánaiste explain what informed the decision-making process that resulted in the issue being published only yesterday? If tests were indicating worrying results in terms of the presence of such material in meat, surely the public should have been alerted much earlier. I appreciate that the Tánaiste has stated he will publish the chronology involved, but will he also undertake to ensure all documentation between the FSAI and the Department from the outset will be published and that we will not have to, as we have had to do in other cases, go through the laborious method of using freedom of information requests to ascertain what is vital information in terms of the public interest?

As I stated, I spoke to the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine this morning. He is very clear that he will be very open in providing information both for the public and the House on everything that has happened in this case. I can provide the Deputy with the information I was given this morning by the Minister's Department on the timeline. The FSAI first took samples in mid-November which were tested in a laboratory called IdentiGEN. At the end of November the FSAI took further samples which were sent to a laboratory abroad in December. On 21 December, at the request of the FSAI, the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine assisted the authority in taking samples of ingredients at some processing plants. The results of these tests were received by the FSAI last Friday, 11 January and the Department was informed of them by the FSAI on Monday, 14 January. The FSAI provided the Department with details of the sampling results at a lunchtime meeting on Monday, at which the implications were discussed and evaluated.

Once the Food Safety Authority of Ireland had advised the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine of the details of those sampling results, the Department immediately commenced a full-scale investigation. As stated earlier, the Department is continuing to carry out that investigation.

When was the Minister informed?

The Minister was informed on Monday last, after the meeting to which I refer, and-----

He was not informed in December.

-----he informed the Cabinet of the position on Tuesday.

Ba mhaith liom beannachtaí na bliana úra a bhronnadh ar an Tánaiste agus ar bhaill an Rialtais go léir. Tá súil agam go raibh sos maith acu. Mar is eol dóibh, ní bhfuair pobal an Trá Ghearr i mBéal Feirste sos ar bith le linn na seachtaine seo chaite.

I am sure the Tánaiste is concerned about events that occurred in recent weeks in the North. While these events should not be exaggerated, they show the need for constant and consistent support for both the political and peace processes and - despite all its other obligations - for the Government to focus on matters of this nature. The Tánaiste will be aware that the Good Friday Agreement states that symbols and emblems should be used in a manner which promotes mutual respect rather than division. This recognises the reality that there are two flags to which the vast majority of people in the Six Counties give their allegiance, namely, the Union flag and the Irish tricolour. For this reason, some councils fly no flags while at Stormont and at other councils' buildings the Union flag flies on designated days only.

Belfast City Council took legal advice on this issue. In addition, it received advice from the Equality Commission and an equality impact assessment was carried out. The decision made in December was in keeping with the advice, etc., received and, ironically enough, with the protocols which obtain in Britain. It was a democratic decision and was entirely proper and appropriate. Democratic and peaceful opposition to it would also be proper. I am sure the Tánaiste will agree, however, that the violent sectarian reaction is entirely wrong, that the illegal protests must be brought to an end before someone is killed and that the attacks on the Short Strand community need to stop. I visited Short Strand on Sunday and the Deputy First Minister is there today. Short Strand is a community under siege. There have been 16 illegal loyalist marches in recent weeks and also countless sectarian interface protests.

Since the recent violence began, the Deputy First Minister has - as the Tánaiste, in light of the fact that his Department has been in contact with the Executive in the North, will be aware - has been endeavouring to bring about all-party opposition to the violence and the protests and continues to do so. The Tánaiste will recall that when two British soldiers were killed in 2009 and when two PSNI officers were killed sometime later, Martin McGuinness stood shoulder to shoulder with Peter Robinson and, in an extremely robust way, set out opposition to those dreadful events. He also led a robust all-party and cross-community response. There was no equivocation. A similar all-party approach is again required.

I ask the Tánaiste to join in calling for an all-party, cross-community response in order to bring these illegal and violent protests to an end. I also ask him to visit east Belfast tomorrow - I presume he will do so - and meet the people there, particularly those who live in the Short Strand area and in the loyalist areas adjacent to it.

Ar dtús, ba mhaith liom beannachtaí na hathbhliana a bhronnadh ar an Teachta Adams agus ar gach Ball den Teach. I am aware that the Deputy had surgery recently and I wish him a good recovery.

The Government and I are extremely concerned with regard to what has been taking place in Belfast and elsewhere in recent weeks. I refer to the widespread street violence that has occurred, to the attacks on members of the Police Service of Northern Ireland, including the attempted murder of police officers, and to the many attempts that have been made to intimidate public representatives and their families. I have condemned these events unreservedly.

As the Deputy is aware I have remained in contact with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Theresa Villiers, and with all the party leaders in Northern Ireland, throughout that period. Over the past week, I have spoken with Peter Robinson, Martin McGuinness, David Ford, Mike Nesbitt and Alasdair McDonnell. I will be travelling to Belfast tomorrow morning to meet with the Secretary of State and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister. Officials from my Department continue to work closely with the British Government and with political representatives in Northern Ireland to identify ways to address not just the current crisis but also its underlying problems. My officials have been keeping in close contact with the situation on the ground. They visited St. Matthew's church and the Short Strand community yesterday and they reported to me extensively on the local situation. I am concerned by reports that the attacks on houses in the Short Strand were premeditated and I condemn them. I will be discussing that matter with the Secretary of State and the First Minister and Deputy First Minister when I meet them tomorrow. I hope to visit the Short Strand area and other community interfaces in the near future.

The economic cost of recent events is becoming apparent. Apart from the cost of the policing operation which is estimated at €7 million, foreign direct investment, the retail trade and tourism are all at risk. The Confederation of British Industry director in Northern Ireland has warned of the economic damage being inflicted on local businesses, tourism and investment.

It is my hope that out of this setback we will see a redoubling of efforts to achieve a genuinely reconciled society in Northern Ireland. It is a reminder to all of us that the peace process is exactly that: a process which still has some way to go. Both political co-operation and security co-operation on this island have never been better and we can rely on those relationships of trust and on the resilience of the Good Friday Agreement to create space for progress beyond the current difficulties.

The Irish Government has no closer political relationship than with the Northern Ireland Executive. Over the past year alone, the Taoiseach, other Ministers and I have met with members of the Northern Ireland Executive on more than 50 occasions. The persistence of sectarianism in Northern Ireland and the absence of agreement on the shared future agenda contribute to the likelihood of incidents such as those we have witnessed in recent weeks. Building relationships between divided communities takes time and a sustained effort and investment. I wish to assure the Deputy and the House that this Government is committed to doing just that.

I thank the Tánaiste for his best wishes. I thank him also for his response. I am pleased he will travel to meet with the First Minister and the Deputy First Minister tomorrow. I have been in contact, as have other Belfast representatives, with the Tánaiste's Department. I suggest he should try to carve out time tomorrow to meet with people in those communities. I appreciate the ongoing work. I also understand very much the many responsibilities which the Government has, not least on the economic front. However, as the Tánaiste says, the peace process cannot be taken for granted. What is needed is an ongoing, steady, almost invisible engagement by Ministers right across all sectors in the North.

We also need to explore some of the people who are behind these protests. The British National Party is engaged in whipping up these tensions and fears. The Ulster Volunteer Force is also heavily involved. Those attacks were premeditated over recent evenings. An issue which this Dáil has to address and which everyone who lives on this island has to address is sectarianism. It has to be tackled. I am from Belfast. These protesters do not represent the vast majority of people in Belfast. The vast majority of people in Belfast are living in a modern city which has many proud traditions and which they want to see shared on the basis of equality. That is the view; that is what we have come through in the past 40 years and that is what the vast majority of people have settled for. The Government needs to continue to underpin both in this State as well as in the Northern State, principles of equality, parity of esteem and mutual respect.

I am not lecturing but just making the point that this issue needs constant attention and must not be taken for granted. It is only by the grace of God that someone has not been killed. All representatives of civic society, the community and the political and business classes must stand shoulder to shoulder against what is a very small minority.

It does have to be said that it is a very small minority. People have a right to protest. Someone who is unhappy with a democratic decision made by the elected members of Belfast City Council is entitled to protest against that decision, and we defend that right. However, people are not entitled to fire petrol bombs at the police and intimidate and threaten elected public representatives, including some of those who were involved in making the decision in question. They do not have the right to disrupt the normal business life of Belfast and other areas in the way they have done. It must stop.

The Deputy is correct that it is required that the political leaders in Northern Ireland stand shoulder to shoulder. He will have heard from the Deputy First Minister that I have been very much in touch with the latter and other political leaders since this problem arose before Christmas. We had hoped it would die down over Christmas and the new year period but it has continued.

The original plan was that tomorrow's meeting would be held on Friday but there were problems at the Belfast end over people being available. I was anxious that the meeting would not be postponed. There is a Cabinet meeting tomorrow afternoon on the jobs crisis, which is very important. I decided that, rather than coming here for Leaders' Questions tomorrow and instead of postponing the meeting until next week, it would be appropriate for me to have it tomorrow. I do not want to see this matter long-fingered. We want to deal with it now and work with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland. I have been in touch with the latter regularly about what has been taking place with a view to having both Governments provide support to the political leadership and the Northern Ireland Executive in order to get on top of the situation and put an end to the street violence that has been taking place. It is also a matter of addressing the issues at the root of the problem. They relate to shared society, people's concerns and dealing with the problem of sectarianism in Northern Ireland, which the Deputy has rightly identified.

I call Deputy McGrath, who is to speak on behalf of the Technical Group.

I wish the Ceann Comhairle a happy new year. I hope we will have good interaction while I am in this position.

I look forward to that.

I want to raise an issue of great importance to the public, both rural and urban. I sympathise with all the victims of crime in recent times. We are dealing with gangland crime in the cities and it featured in my town quite recently. In recent weeks, especially, there have been attacks on elderly people and families in rural and urban areas. I do not blame the Tánaiste for the criminals but the crimes are a direct result of the Government's policies. I am delighted the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter, is here because his policies, as pursued by the Government over almost two years, are aiding and abetting criminals. The policies have denuded rural areas of Garda stations. I now see that stations in urban areas, such as Stepaside and Whitehall, are being closed. Gardaí do not have squad cars. Only yesterday evening it was reported to me that, on the preceding night, a member of the community alerted gardaí when he saw some strange activity. When the gardaí arrived, they did not have flashlights and were using their telephones. That is a sad state of affairs. On another occasion, a garda from a station outside Tipperary rang me to state there was no light in the bathroom when he wanted to use it and he did not have a light bulb to put in it.

These are the facts and the Ministers and the Tánaiste know that.
(Interruptions).

I ask the Minister-----

Will the Deputy put his question to the Tánaiste, please?

I will put it to the Tánaiste.

On a point of order, the light was fixed last week.

(Interruptions).

I did not hear what the Deputy said.

Will Members allow the Deputy to put his question to the Tánaiste without interruption?

I express sympathy to the victims of all these crimes and wonder if these crimes would have occurred if the victims' savings had been safe in the banks or credit unions. People's money, however, is not safe anywhere with the Tánaiste's policies. I ask the Tánaiste and the Government to consider launching a public information and awareness campaign on security and on the matter, as was done in the past, of keeping cash in their homes because they are afraid to keep it in any of the institutions, the guaranteed ones or otherwise. By doing that they would support Muintir Na Tíre and all the other groups that are helping to fit safety alarms and equipment.

I would like to thank the my friend, Big Phil, the Minister, Deputy Hogan, for doing a U-turn recently on the cut in respect of alarms. I ask for further money to be put into this area because people must be safe in their homes. If they cannot sleep in their beds at night it leads to ill health and to them moving out of their homes and being afraid to return to them.

I ask the Tánaiste and the Minister for Justice and Equality to visit, with gardaí, some of the homes of the people who have been savagely attacked not once but in some cases twice or three times. No place is safe from attack any more, not even church sacristies. I ask the Tánaiste to deal with this issue in a serious manner.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

The issue Deputy Mattie McGrath raised is a very serious one. I share with him, as I am sure do other Members, the widespread outrage at the recent incidence of aggravated burglary and condemn, in the strongest possible terms, those who prey on vulnerable and isolated members of our community. The members of the Garda are determined to do everything they can to bring the perpetrators to justice. I call on anyone who might be able to help them in any way to get in touch with them.

The Minister for Justice and Equality is also acutely conscious of the broader concerns which exist concerning burglary and is in regular contact with the Garda Commissioner on measures to counter it. In particular, last year the Garda Commissioner introduced Operation Fiacla to tackle mobile gangs involved in burglary around the country. Between April and December 2012 3,538 persons have been arrested and 1,924 persons charged as part of that operation. In addition to these enforcement measures, An Garda Síochána works closely with communities through Community Alert, Neighbourhood Watch and other organisations to provide expert crime prevention advice and support to communities.

I am particularly aware of the position in Donegal recently, for example, and in the Border counties. It is important to note that there is excellent co-operation between the Garda Síochána and the PSNI in disrupting and investigating attempts by criminals who try to take advantage of the Border.

While the recent incidents are very disturbing, the latest recorded crime figures, published at the end of the last year, suggest that Garda operations are having an impact - in particular, the quarterly figures on burglary are down from the levels experienced earlier in 2012 prior to the introduction of Operation Fiacla.

I acknowledge Deputy Mattie McGrath's praise for the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government who met Muintir Na Tíre recently. I also want to say that Muintir Na Tíre is doing excellent work and the Minister for the Environment, Community and Local Government, the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Government as a whole will be willing to work with it and other community organisations to provide the best possible advice, particularly to elderly people and to those living in isolated areas.

Deputy Mattie McGrath has a minute to put a supplementary question.

I acknowledge the Tánaiste's praise for Muintir Na Tíre. As a former member of its board, I am aware it has 1,300 Community Alert groups throughout the country.

I have been a member since 1986. I support An Garda Síochána, but it cannot work without the tools of the trade. The Tánaiste referred to Operation Fiacla. The Garda must have gone to the dentist and lost all its teeth because it has no equipment or squad cars. Stations that had up to eight patrol cars are now down to two. There is some silly rule that they must be put off the road once they reach 300,000 km. Surely in these times, if they are MOT-tested and shown to be working perfectly, they can be kept longer than this.

I acknowledge the role of the IFA and other farming organisations, as well as the Community Alert groups and ordinary people, because policing cannot be undertaken without the support of the community. By removing Garda stations and gardaí on the beat who know the people, the Government is creating a significant impediment in policing. Having a Garda squad car flying in several hours after being called out is not the same as having the local garda on the beat. I commend the service given during the years by gardaí, especially those on the beat. If one is to have confidence in the force, its members must be visible at, say, local matches, involved in sports organisations, living and actively engaged in their communities.

Will the Deputy put his question, please?

Morale is seriously low in An Garda Síochána. Will the Tánaiste speak to the Garda Commissioner about this because the real story is not getting to the top echelons or across to the Minister for Justice and Equality?

The Garda Síochána is doing an excellent job. What we need and what the Minister for Justice and Equality is determined we will have is a modern, effective and efficient police service.

Without Garda stations.

The current Garda strength is 13,400. The total number of Garda stations, even after their rationalisation, will stand at 564. This is far more compared to the number in Northern Ireland or Scotland.

There are more police officers per head of population in Scotland.

The rationale behind this is to put gardaí on the beat and where they are needed. They are not needed behind the desk in a police station but out in a patrol car, on the beat, working with the community to prevent and detect crime.

According to figures published by the Central Statistics Office, the level of crime in 12 out of the 14 categories measured was down in 2012 compared to the figure for 2011. Additional moneys will be provided in 2013 for the purchase of Garda vehicles. The emphasis is on equipping the Garda Síochána with the resources it needs to deal with crime. The evidence is that these reforms are succeeding. Of course, any crime against an individual is one crime too many. The Minister for Justice and Equality, the Garda Commissioner and the Garda Síochána are determined to deal with all crimes as effectively as possible and encourage the public and community organisations to work closely with gardaí in fighting crime.