Leaders' Questions

The weather we are experiencing is more like Christmas than Easter. The Government rightly decided to help farmers because of the shockingly inclement weather. People are losing stock and there is a crisis in farming in the North. On behalf of Fianna Fáil I welcome the decision to support farmers in the North. Farmers in the South are also experiencing huge challenges because of the weather. We had a very wet summer and many farmers failed to make silage or saved only a small amount of fodder last winter. We had hoped for a mild spring but the opposite has happened and we have had an extremely cold spring with no growth. Farmers face dwindling supplies of fodder and are experiencing significant extra costs, which is putting pressure on their cashflow.

Given the extremely harsh weather and the combination of last summer's heavy rain, which had a particular effect on the southern half of the country, with this very cold spring, is the Government proposing to introduce emergency measures to assist farmers, particularly dairy farmers who do not have the option of selling their stock?

We welcome the Government's decision to extend the fuel allowance by one week. In view of the continuing inclement weather, is the Government willing to review that on a weekly basis and to give an undertaking to the House that the fuel allowance will be continued as long as this very cold weather continues? Our stock of turf briquettes is running out and the costs associated with this cold weather are putting serious pressure on people. Can the Tánaiste give me that assurance?

There is no doubt that the current unseasonable weather conditions are very difficult for farmers. Some concerns have been expressed over the past few days about cashflow and the availability of fodder. The harsh weather experienced in the past few weeks has been exacerbated by the problems caused by last year's wet summer, and some farmers are experiencing difficult conditions. In response to the farmers' concerns, the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, has written to the banks to highlight the extreme challenges facing farmers as a result of the weather and to urge the financial institutions to take a flexible approach to dealing with short-term credit issues. It is important that financial institutions take into consideration the fact that while the current difficulties may cause cashflow pressures for farmers, the overall outlook for the sector is favourable. Commodity prices remain high and the positive expectations for dairy, beef and lamb prices mean that farmers should see improved market returns for their produce this year.

In addition, Teagasc is providing specific weather-related advice and assistance to farmers to cope with the current adverse weather conditions. All Teagasc offices are taking telephone calls from farmers, and agricultural advisors are equipped and ready to outline the options open to farmers facing difficulties and to make a plan that best suits their situation. Teagasc has also made extensive use of national and local media to provide farmers with advice and has co-ordinated with farm organisations, marts, local authorities, co-ops and other suppliers to provide targeted advice to all who need it. Advice to farmers on coping with fodder shortages has also been published, including guidelines to dairy and dry-stock farmers for feeding this spring with little or no grass. Farm bodies have urged farmers to assess whether they have surplus fodder in stock and whether they are in a position to make some available to others in difficulty, and I echo this call to support those in need of assistance.

Our colleagues in the North are also experiencing difficulty. The Minister for Agriculture and Rural Development, Ms Michelle O'Neill, MLA, contacted the Minister for Defence, Deputy Shatter, yesterday, to request corps assistance in response to the animal welfare crisis in the North due to the severe weather in that region. Deputy Shatter agreed that the Air Corps would deploy when requested by the Northern authorities. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, and his Department will keep the situation under review and will act appropriately if there is further cause for concern.

The Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, yesterday extended the fuel allowance for a week because of the prevailing weather conditions, and she will keep that under review.

I welcome the Tánaiste's announcement that the Minister for Social Protection will keep the fuel allowance under review. This is very important for the people who depend on the allowance.

There is a seanfhocail that states: "Mair a chapaill agus gheobhair féar". The English version is "Live horse, get grass". That seems to be the policy of the Government - a lot of words and no action.

Deputy Ó Cuív has pulled his head out of the sand.

Does the Tánaiste believe that advice will feed the cattle? His only solution seems to be more debt and more borrowing. Many farmers have already borrowed to their limit because of the crisis in farming last year. Is it the Government's intention, as was done in a similar situation in 1998 by the then Minister, Joe Walsh, to introduce measures to assist farmers in this crisis to ensure they can continue to feed their livestock, vital for their livelihoods and for the welfare of the animals in question?

Maybe we could change the weather.

I acknowledge the welcome Deputy Ó Cuív has given for the initiative taken by the Minister for Social Protection, Deputy Burton, regarding the fuel allowance.

It is a pity she would not take some more initiatives.

We all agree that if these harsh weather conditions continue that there has to be an appropriate response to them.

Deputy Ó Cuív's difficulty with the issue of feed for livestock is that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Coveney, is already ahead of him and has already responded to the matter.

Nobody told the cattle.

Another broken promise to the cows.

I have suggested that if there is surplus feedstock and fodder available, then it should be released.

Are we going to feed them bones?

That is very much in line with what the IFA requested. Yesterday, it requested “co-ops, feed mills and banks to continue to support their farmer customers and do everything to ensure adequate feed and cashflow is provided.”

Are we going to feed them money now?

Did the Tánaiste sign off on that?

The IFA has also called on farmers to “take stock of what fodder they have at this stage, and if they have some surplus, they should make it available to their fellow farmers who are in short supply”, a point derided by Deputy Ó Cuív.

The point is that they have none.

That is the position the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine has taken.

No more hand-outs.

The sheds are empty just like the ballot boxes for Labour in Meath.

(Interruptions).

What is all the rumbling about? Settle down. Members are going on their holidays.

That means the little schoolboy from Offaly and his push bike.

Fianna Fáil is reduced to blaming the Government for the bad weather.

Labour is fairly reduced too.

I would say Labour has promised good weather too.

Labour even broke its promises to the lambs.

The Tánaiste will be aware that the new Croke Park agreement has been greeted with dismay by many within the public service and the Civil Service, particularly by front-line workers. Not for the first time, we saw yesterday members of an Garda Síochána protesting the shattering cuts they are experiencing outside Government Buildings. The attempt by the Government to silence dissent among rank and file gardaí by disciplining four Garda sergeants who walked out of the AGSI, Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, annual conference in protest at the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Shatter, is utterly wrong. The Minister has treated rank and file gardaí with nothing short of contempt. Last year, we had the attempt by the Garda Commissioner, no doubt on the bidding of the Government, to forbid gardaí from communicating with public representatives on cutbacks. This was rightly challenged by the GRA, Garda Representative Association, in the courts.

It was a gagging order.

The Tánaiste and I know that morale among gardaí is at an all-time low. They are deeply disillusioned at the Government's cutback agenda, dressed up with labels such as smart policing and efficiencies. Up to 140 Garda stations have been closed over the past 18 months. The number of Garda vehicles and personnel has been significantly reduced. This has had an effect in urban areas but certainly many in rural communities are left increasingly isolated.

To add to this we have Croke Park II and pay cuts which disproportionately target front-line workers like gardaí, nurses and emergency personnel. How does the Tánaiste expect a depleted force, which to a man and a woman, has been put under significant operational pressure and personal financial pressure to deliver on the Government's so-called “smart policing”?

The terms of the Croke Park II agreement are currently the subject of a ballot among those unions party to the agreement. All of us, including Opposition Members, should respect the right of individual union members to make up their own minds about this agreement. They are perfectly capable of doing so without any advice whatsoever from Sinn Féin.

The TUI has already voted against the agreement.

With regard to the issue of Garda discipline, the Government is not disciplining any member of the force. The matter of Garda discipline is a matter for the Garda Commissioner. It is not a matter for the Minister for Justice and Equality or the Government. Nor should it be a matter for political debate or interference. It is a matter for the Garda Commissioner.

What is the Minister doing only interfering?

It should be left with the Garda Commissioner.

In respect of the issue of Garda vehicles, the Deputy is wrong again. The Government has spent an additional €9 million on the purchase of Garda vehicles.

In respect of the effectiveness of the Garda Síochána, our gardaí do a superb job. The crime figures which will be made available later today will show there have been significant increases in the level of crime which is a testament to-----

Reduction is what I meant to say. This is a testament to-----

Fianna Fáil drove them out.

-----the commitment and the work of the Garda Síochána.

Finally, I welcome Sinn Féin's newfound support for the Garda Síochána.

Deputies

Hear, hear.

The Tánaiste claims he respects the rights of trade union members to make their own determination on Croke Park II. That is just code for killing off any debate or criticism of this flawed agreement in this Chamber.

You are well able to kill off.

If the Tánaiste is so anxious and so committed to respecting the views of public sector workers, as well as their right to make a determination on the agreement and its cutbacks, how is it the Minister for Justice and Equality is so hell-bent on silencing members of the Garda Síochána, be they rank and file or sergeants, if they are critical of the strategy pursued by the Government? Of course, the particularities of any disciplinary issue with the Garda are a matter for the Commissioner. No one is contesting that. However, we have a real problem that the Government, in particular the Minister for Justice and Equality, is vindictive towards an Garda Síochána.

Thank you, Deputy.

All of the honeyed words about the good work these men and women do counts for nothing-----

A question, please.

-----if the Government is intent not alone on cutting their professional resources but also their means of providing for their families. To add insult to injury, the Government does not want them to open their mouths-----

Deputy, thank you. We are over time.

-----to raise criticism. That is simply wrong. Other public servants have set out clearly their opposition to this new programme of cutbacks under Croke Park II.

Deputy, thank you.

Gardaí are also entitled to defend their professional resources, as well as themselves and their families. Will the Tánaiste have a word with the Minister for Justice and Equality to diplomatically advise him that it is in no one's interests for him to pursue a vindictive position in respect of the gardaí who should not be silenced? Yes, they need to be disciplined.

Deputy, thank you.

They should not be silenced as citizens of this State, however.

When we talk about respect, I also ask Members to respect the Chair. When Members' time is called, would they please adhere to the rules? Just show respect for whoever is in the Chair.

First, with regard to Sinn Fein's comments on the Croke Park agreement, this is nothing new because Sinn Féin representatives were already out on the plinth denouncing, attacking and condemning the agreement even before it was published and before they had read it.

We stand over that.

Sinn Féin's position on the Croke Park agreement has nothing whatsoever to do with its contents or the people to whom it applies. It has all to do with political opportunism and whatever is good for it.

(Interruptions).

Second, the Minister for Justice and Equality is not silencing anyone.

What about the gagging order?

Be quiet, please.

The Minister for Justice and Equality and the Government are perfectly willing to listen and hear the points of view and the representations made to them by the Garda representative bodies, the Garda Representative Association and the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors. That is their right. Where we have a disciplined force, there must be a channel of communication on behalf of the members of the force and this is done through the representative bodies. From time to time there will be disagreement between them and the Minister. That happens in every area of activity and it is the job of the representative bodies to represent their members and to do so effectively. The issue of discipline in the Garda Síochána is not one for the Minister or the Government, it is a matter for the Garda Commissioner.

Did the Minister sanction it?

While we are on the subject of silencing gardaí, can Deputy Mary Lou McDonald tell me how many voices of gardaí were silenced permanently by her organisation?

There he goes. It is always the last resort. It is remarkable considering from where he has come.

I call Deputy Mattie McGrath.

(Interruptions).

I have called Deputy Mattie McGrath. Please allow him to make his point.

Déanfaidh mé mo dhícheall. I call on the Tánaiste, especially given what we are hearing from the tallies in Meath East, to be the sensible voice in the Government and try to intervene in this unseemly mess that has descended into a shambles, that is, the situation regarding An Garda Síochána vis-à-vis the Commissioner and the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Alan Shatter. This is totally unacceptable and it has damaged morale to a great degree. It was very unfair to see so many gardaí yesterday outside the Taoiseach's office. This is something they do not want to do; they want to be serving their communities, but they are forced to come here. I am glad the Minister for Justice and Equality is here. He has not shown any semblance of understanding, appreciation or, I dare say, a modicum of respect for the members of An Garda Síochána, the men and women who protect us all on a daily basis. I have reliable information that the Minister has had several run-ins and disputes with the members of An Garda Síochána who are protecting his house and home.

That is untrue.

I am sorry, but I have to ask the Deputy please not to introduce personal matters into this.

I want to clear up this matter once and for all.

There are no personal matters involved.

I am speaking about the facts. The Minister has shown total disdain for An Garda Síochána. I want to kill the lie that gardaí walked out on the Croke Park agreement. Members of an Garda Síochána have no rights in any negotiations, whether on the Croke Park agreement or otherwise. They were there to listen to SIPTU, IMPACT and others who could tell them what was going on. They are like bridesmaids at a wedding.

A Deputy

This is one of the great speeches.

One could be forgiven at this stage for thinking we are living in a democracy. It is more like Russia or a military junta. Four senior officers of An Garda Síochána are being summoned today to Templemore. They have 130 years service between them. They are the only people who will be at the college in Templemore because the Minister has closed and laid waste to it, despite his promises. They will be disciplined.

That is a lie.

There is already a disciplinary procedure in An Garda Síochána, a strict one for dealing with matters such as this. They must pay monetary fines and whatever else.

A question, please.

What is their crime? They are representing their members in a desperate plea to get someone to listen. When will we have a situation where there will an independent mediator or, as happens in other countries, a board set up between the Minister, the Commissioner and the Garda Síochána to de-politicise the issues involved between Ministers of all hues? The Minister has shown no respect whatsoever. I have a serious question to ask. Has the Minister for Justice and Equality prevented members of An Garda Síochána from using the toilet facilities in his own home?

For goodness sake.

That is my question to the Tánaiste. People can laugh if they like, but it is a fact. Must gardaí bring a commode and use it outside the house?

We do not deal with personal issues here.

The Minister has taken cars from them-----

Will the Deputy, please, resume his seat?

They have to go back to the station. The Minister should respect An Garda Síochána.

(Interruptions).

Is that the issue of the day?

If we ever needed a demonstration of why the management of An Garda Síochána and matters relating to discipline in an Garda Síochána should not become matters for political debate, we have just had it.

The Minister has silenced them.

The management of An Garda Síochána, the day-to-day deployment of gardaí and discipline in An Garda Síochána are matters for the Garda Commissioner who enjoys the support of the Government in doing his job. I hope he also enjoys the support of Members. Deputy Mattie McGrath misunderstands the process by which members of An Garda Síochána, prison officers, members of the Defence Forces and members of disciplined forces in the State engage in negotiations. The Croke Park agreement negotiations or public service negotiations involve the trade unions, with the Irish Congress of Trade Unions representing the broad range of trade unions engaged in discussions with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. There is a separate set of discussions that runs parallel to these negotiations for the representative bodies of An Garda Síochána, the representatives of prison officers and members of the Defence Forces. In respect of the negotiations that have been completed, the representatives of prison officers and members of the Defence Forces continued with and participated in the negotiations. The Garda representative bodies decided to withdraw from the negotiations, as was their call. There is already a conciliation and arbitration scheme in place to deal with issues that arise in An Garda Síochána. The Government and the Minister are open to discussion. The Minister has had discussions with the Garda representative bodies and the Government is open to having discussions with them on the pay agreement. The representative bodies decided to withdraw from the talks. It was their right to make that decision. It is regrettable that they did so, but that is the call they made.

Given that he has spent a life involved in trade union activity, the Tánaiste knows, as I do, that the members of An Garda Síochána do not have full negotiating rights at the talks. They are depending on the messages they get back, perhaps two hourly, three hourly or on a half-day basis, from SIPTU, IMPACT or Mr. Liam Doran of the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation. That is a fact and there is no point in muddying the waters. Why are gardaí not allowed to be involved in the new insolvency legislation we are passing? They cannot be involved in that legislation either. We understand there are parameters. I accept that, but An Garda Síochána is being treated with disdain by the Minister on a continual basis. He stooped to a new low this morning. We all have wives and families, but to introduce his wife, as he did this morning, on the front line of defence is remarkable. Will it be his children next? What will he do next to try to damage the reputation of the members of the proud force that has served the country so well since its inception and that we all support? The Minister has not supported them in anything. He uses mealy-mouthed words in saying he is supporting them. I call on the Tánaiste to put in place an independent arbitrator for all our sakes and the sake of good relations and to try to sort out this mess. Will the Government consider setting up a management board in An Garda Síochána, such as that in place across the water and in other places, including Northern Ireland? It would be a buffer zone between politics and An Garda Síochána and preferable to vibes and making snide comments across the House at each other. There should be an independent board rather than involving the Commissioner who I believe is compromised by his continuing service beyond pension age. Others have taken court cases in that regard. Why does the Minister have such a prejudice against An Garda Síochána?

First, I ask the Deputy to reflect seriously on the personalised attack he has just made on the Garda Commissioner.

The Garda Commissioner is charged with the management and running of the Garda Síochána and he should have the support of every Member of this House. Whatever the political moment, it does not serve Dáil Éireann or Deputy Mattie McGrath well to make a personal attack, like he has just made on the Garda Commissioner. He should withdraw that.

A Deputy

One rule for all.

That is not the way this House operates.

The Government does not do personal attacks, does it not?

With regard to arbitration, there is already a conciliation and arbitration scheme in place for the Garda Síochána. On the issue of insolvency legislation, the Minister for Justice and Equality assures me there is no difficulty with gardaí being part of an insolvency arrangement. All of these issues can be discussed between the Garda representative bodies and the Minister. The way to resolve difficulties is by discussion and negotiation and where issues cannot be resolved, there is a conciliation and arbitration process.