Leaders' Questions

Today, the people of Aleppo in Syria are being subjected to what, by any fair definition, must be described as a war crime. Civilians are not being killed accidentally because of a conflict - they are being deliberately and repeatedly targeted. This death and destruction is no accident. It is the primary strategy of the Syrian Government and the Russian military. Women and children hiding in the basements of buildings in which there are no combatants are being repeatedly hit with specialist bunker-busting missiles. Hospitals are being hit with barrel bombs over a series of days until they are forced to close. Civilians, particularly children, have no access to basic medical care, food or even water. What we are witnessing is a systematic policy of trying to kill or drive out of the country every person who does not support the murderous Assad regime. This is a potential genocide and it is escalating by the day. We have already seen millions displaced by Assad's determination to maintain his murderous regime and retain the support of Russia, which has been critical to saving him. Areas supporting moderate and democratic forces have repeatedly been their focus. The reason that there is an international emergency concerning Syrian refugees is directly and unequivocally due to the actions of these governments.

The question for Ireland is whether we will stand up for the people of Aleppo and the rest of Syria in the face of these war crimes. Will we say to Russia in particular that the barbarism that it is directly facilitating is unacceptable? Unfortunately, the overwhelming bulk of the groups here that describe themselves as anti-war are silent on Aleppo. As they cannot attack the United States or the West for these actions, they prefer to say nothing. In the case of Sinn Féin, it has engaged in incredible contortions to avoid any direct criticism of Russia and its President. Has the Taoiseach or the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade summoned the Russian ambassador or discussed the summoning of same to convey our views and raised the matter at European Union level with a request for common action? What is the EU doing in response to this barbarous, murderous activity sponsored by the Syrian and Russian Governments? Is it going to stand by or will there be action in terms of our relationship with Russia?

The Dáil should be unequivocal, as part of our Parliament, in condemning the genocidal attack on Aleppo. We should arrange for a common agreed statement to do so. More important, has the Taoiseach considered the need to significantly increase humanitarian aid in Syria? I know there have been increases to date but this would help those who are in refugee camps filled with people fleeing the Syrian government and Russian bombing. This winter could see an escalating catastrophe unless the international community dramatically increases its aid and support.

The answer to the first question is "Yes". The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade called in the Russian ambassador last Tuesday and told him in no uncertain terms as to how this country feels about the human catastrophe that is unfolding and has unfolded in Syria and particularly Aleppo. The Minister made perfectly clear our absolute disgust at and abhorrence of the bombing of a United Nations humanitarian convoy going into Aleppo to relieve people who have had neither food nor water for quite some time. There have been catastrophic deaths of men, women and children in particular, with the bombing of hospitals and the resulting break off of discussions between the United States and Russia on the matter. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade also spoke to UN High Representative Mogherini last Friday.

The matter has been discussed at every European Council I have attended and the question is what kind of support can be given. President Putin invaded Crimea and took it over a couple of years ago. There has been destabilisation in a number of eastern Balkans states. In this case, Russia and Iran have supported Assad and the United States and Europe have supported the opposition. This is a human catastrophe and perhaps within the European Union we have always seemed to take peace too much for granted. A few hours across the shores unfolds a misery from the deliberate destruction of human life across a range of fronts.

There are sanctions against Russia and, separately from that, this country has increased its humanitarian aid on a number of occasions. It is a sad fact that Syria has now been at war for the past five years and Aleppo is now becoming a symbol from a Russian perspective; with the success of the support given by the Russian forces to Assad, the intent is to obliterate Aleppo. From the European Union perspective, Ministers have spoken directly to UN High Representative Mogherini. I repeat that our Minister last Tuesday called in the Russian ambassador, leaving him in no uncertain position as to the way this country feels about the humanitarian catastrophe that has afflicted Syria for some time and Aleppo in particular.

I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. It is accepted that we all have enormous sympathy for the civilians in Syria and we all condemn the war. Unfortunately, at this stage, that is not enough. Has it been made clear to the Russian ambassador that normal diplomatic relations, as we know them, with Russia must come under the closest scrutiny if this genocide continues? I do not say that lightly. I am speaking about the country's diplomatic representation here and our bilateral relationship. Something similar must happen with the European Union, as it has gone down the line of appeasement. We can consider the violation of Ukraine sovereignty and the creeping aggression of Russia over the past while. Likewise, the strategy in Syria has been to render Europe and the United States essentially helpless bystanders as thousands of children, women and other innocent civilians are being murdered by all sorts of highly destructive weaponry such as bombs. The pictures of young children being dragged from rubble represents an appalling indictment of the modern world.

It is appalling that a so-called major power can engage, without any sanctions, in Syria and essentially, in a genocidal way, obliterate the population. Some of the choices facing Europe in the coming weeks and months may be unpalatable in terms of how we deal with this but deal with it we must if we are to have any moral compass in the context of how we conduct international relationships into the future. Russia has gone too far on this occasion, by any yardstick, in terms of international geopolitics. It is completely unacceptable and the Dáil should unite in condemnation of what is going on in Aleppo today - not last month, two months ago or six months ago but today. I appreciate the work of the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan, in this area.

What one has to take into account here is the intention, objective and mentality of President Putin. He invaded Crimea and took it over, although there has not been a word about that since. There has been destabilisation in eastern Ukraine and pressure on a number of other states in that region. In fact, at the European Union meeting in Bratislava two weeks ago, concern was expressed about the lack of a European Union policy on the eastern Balkan states in the context of the pressure and influence they are coming under from Russia. Clearly, Russia is looking for ports on the Syrian coast. There are many indicators to suggest that President Putin intends to restore, for want of a better word, the reputation and influence of Russia in the Middle East. Syria was its last hold. Russia's support, along with that of Iran, for the Assad regime has resulted in this humanitarian catastrophe.

The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade spoke to Mr. Ban Ki-moon in New York recently at the UN. The latter has condemned unreservedly the recent attack on the humanitarian convoy and the death of aid workers. I also spoke to the US Secretary of State, Mr. John Kerry, last weekend. As Deputy Martin knows, the United States has broken off discussions with Russia because the latter has not lived up to the agreement the two countries had. Maybe that is what Russia wants in order that Aleppo comes more into focus to be completely obliterated. The Deputy is right about the cluster bombs and bunker bombs that are now being used.

This matter was discussed at the European Council but we are not going to have a European army. Some countries want to send in more assistance. Other countries, like ourselves, are neutral and will remain so but are clearly concerned about the humanitarian issues for the women, men and children of Syria. It is a very complicated geopolitical process but I assure the House that the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan, made it perfectly clear to the Russian ambassador just how strongly this country feels about what is happening before our eyes in Aleppo.

Last weekend the British Prime Minister, Ms Theresa May, confirmed that she would trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty before the end of March 2017, thus triggering Brexit. By insisting that Britain pursues a hard Brexit and leaves the Single Market, she has set the British Government on a collision course with the EU in which Ireland, North and South, is regarded as collateral damage. It is very clear that the Tories do not regard Ireland as important in their shenanigans, or Scotland for that matter. This means that the common travel area, the nature of the Border, movement of people, the nature of cross-border and bilateral trade, not to mention the Good Friday Agreement, are now up in the air.

The Taoiseach has been very flat-footed on all of these issues. The referendum result has been known for months but we have yet to see any meaningful propositions coming from the Taoiseach or his Ministers in the intervening period on the key issues and significant consequences for the island, North and South.

I understand the Taoiseach finally brought a memorandum to the Cabinet today. Perhaps he might enlighten us regarding his plans.

I am glad the Taoiseach acknowledged last week that citizens in the North of this island voted to remain within the EU. We need him to advocate for their will to remain. That includes looking at mechanisms that would allow the North to remain within the EU. This task could be undertaken as part of the all-Ireland dialogue he has proposed, particularly in the absence of any formal negotiations until next year. That means much more than a one-day event on 2 November next. There is a chance here to set the agenda, domestically and internationally, before any negotiations between Britain and the EU take place. The sooner representatives of all the key interest groups get around a table to inform and devise a negotiation strategy, the better. Does the Taoiseach agree with yesterday's statement on the issue of Brexit by the Deputy First Minister, Martin McGuinness, that none of this is a done deal? It is vital that the Taoiseach leads from the front. Will he inform us of the contents of the memorandum he brought to the Cabinet? The details of that memorandum should have been given to the Dáil rather than being selectively leaked to a newspaper, as seems to have happened.

I do not accept the assertions made by Deputy McDonald at all. She does not seem to have been speaking to her leader. I made a point of briefing the leaders of the Opposition parties, including the leader of the Deputy's party, who complimented the suggestion that there is a need to have a broader conversation rather than confining the conversation to the political parties. For that reason, the first all-island conversation on this matter will be held in Dublin on 2 November next. That will be the first of a number of meetings. All political parties that wish to attend will be invited. We need to deal with representatives of sectoral areas, such as business groups, employers, trade unions, voluntary non-governmental organisations North and South, organisations like the British Irish Chamber of Commerce that participate in the current EU-UK stakeholder group, the Institute of International and European Affairs, European Movement Ireland, local authorities in Border regions, key Government agencies with a North-South dimension to their work, academic institutions North and South like the Centre for Cross-Border Studies, the Royal Irish Academy and the universities and higher education institutions.

I do not accept Deputy McDonald's suggestion that the Government has been flat-footed, as she called it, in this regard. It was the one institution that actually had a contingency plan in place before 23 June, when the British people made their decision. It is appropriate and important for Deputy McDonald to know that I happened to be in a position to visit the newly-appointed Prime Minister very shortly after her accession to that office. I congratulated her on her election. Prime Minister May made it perfectly and publicly clear that she did not want to see and did not envisage a return to a hard Border. Like us, the British Government intends to retain the common travel area, which is so important for us. Like us, the British Government will take clear account of the general trade links between our two countries. These are issues of great importance to us, including in the context of our membership of the EU.

Deputy McDonald was wrong when she referred to this as a one-day conference. It will be the first in a series of meetings that will deal with all these issues and all the areas I have read out. The Deputy was also wrong when she suggested there was no plan here. There was and is a plan. It is very well advanced. I intend to meet the leaders of the Opposition parties again this evening to give them details of the chronology of everything we did in preparation for the vote on 23 June last and everything we have done since then. I ask Deputy McDonald to believe me when I say that much more work is going on in this regard than she realises. Her views will be taken into account as part of the discussions we will have in the time ahead.

I hope Deputy McDonald will speak to her party leader in order that she will know what he is being informed of by Government before she comes into the House and makes allegations such as those she has made today.

If it is a thing that Theresa May assured the Taoiseach that there would be no hard Brexit and no hard border, she has clearly changed her mind. From the statements she made at her party's conference and in subsequent interviews, it is clear that this is what she is minded to do. Finally, we get an inkling into Tory thinking. Brexit is Brexit and Brexit means a hard Brexit.

I say this with the deepest of respect to the Taoiseach - there is no evidence of a comprehensive contingency plan. More worryingly, there is no evidence of any plan whatsoever. The Taoiseach accepts that the people in the North voted to remain. That is the first reality to which we need to anchor all of this. The Taoiseach accepts that the North has a special place and status for many reasons, not least among which is the peace process. That is the second anchor. The Taoiseach accepts, I presume, that for workers, business, agriculture, students and people wishing to access public services, Brexit has the potential to turn everything topsy-turvy. What we need to see now - if he accepts those points - is for the Taoiseach to advocate and plan on that basis. What we do not want is a talking shop. We need dialogue that informs and produces a plan. We have yet to see such a plan.

As Deputy McDonald will recall, on 4 July last the North-South Ministerial Council plenary summit was held here in Dublin. At the meeting, both Governments - because it is the North-South Ministerial Council - signed off on a series of ten particular actions and strategies that we would follow arising from the outcome of the Brexit vote. That matter will be the subject of the next North-South Ministerial Council, which is to be held in Armagh in November.

Deputy McDonald inquired as to whether the Prime Minister said that she has changed her mind. Her colleague, the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Brokenshire, repeated today at the Tory party conference that there will be no return to a hard border. He was speaking on behalf of the Prime Minister and the British Government and reiterating what she has said.

Theresa May said the North is coming out. That is the point.

I respect, of course, the vote of the people of Northern Ireland. I respect the vote of the people of Scotland and of Wales. While I did not like the overall result, I have to deal with its consequences.

I want Deputy McDonald to understand that the all-island civic dialogue that will take place will involve a series of meetings to discuss all of the areas I have mentioned. It will allow for a full-scale, detailed consideration of Brexit in so far as it affects people in the North and in the South, our trade with Great Britain, etc. These matters are going to have to be decided politically. We will need to make an ask of Europe in light of the difficulties with which some companies in Ireland are going to have to contend. We will speak to Michel Barnier, the newly-appointed European Union representative in the negotiations, who will visit Ireland shortly.

The Government made it clear today that there will be continued engagement with parliamentarians throughout the island, the North-South Interparliamentary Association, the British-Irish Parliamentary Assembly and the Oireachtas Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement. I invite Deputy McDonald and her party to participate in these discussions because they will lead to decisions being made and they are in our interests.

In recent weeks, industrial unrest has begun to increase. What started with the Luas workers spread to Dublin Bus drivers. Now, gardaí are the latest group to announce industrial action. As the economy continues to grow and recover, it is clear that the demand for income recovery will continue to increase.

It is the view of my party that solutions must be found to properly address these justified expectations, solutions that are more nuanced than either stonewalling all the requests and demands made by every trade union or, as the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport would have it, simply writing a cheque.

Outside the public sector, it is clear we need additional mechanisms to cope with quite complex disputes. Last week, Seanad Éireann passed a motion tabled my party colleagues there calling for the establishment of an employer labour conference that used to exist and was very successful for a very long time, to assist in such complicated situations. We are facing now into a winter of discontent on the industrial relations front. This Government could do with all the advice and help it can get in this area. The old employer labour conference predates social partnership. It is not designed to supplant but to complement the work of the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, and the Labour Court. How does the Taoiseach intend to respond to, and enact, the motion passed by Seanad Éireann last week?

Industrial unrest is not limited to Dublin Bus, the latest example being An Garda Síochána. There are reports this morning that the public sector pay commission might be established by the end of this year to report by the middle of next year. This is hardly a timeline designed to address the immediate challenges faced by Government in respect of An Garda Síochána. Public servants care about their pay but they also care about their investment in the public services they deliver. I and my party believe that they should be involved in conversations about both. The need for a social dialogue process is pretty clear and urgent. Will the Taoiseach confirm to the House that the Government is now willing to enter a negotiation with all public sector unions with a view to producing a roadmap to full pay restoration? Will he say whether he is willing to begin a broader dialogue with trade union representatives about investment in public services and restoration of pay?

Deputy Howlin is well aware of the implications of what he is talking about and had a very long and successful engagement with many unions over recent years. In so far as the Garda Síochána issue is concerned, the Minister for Justice and Equality will meet with the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, AGSI, today. The Garda Representative Association, GRA, has agreed to come to talk to the Minister. I hope these talks will lead to a situation where these matters can be resolved. We are not going back to the old form of social partnership. I have given consideration to an opportunity to discuss with employers, employees and unions issues that arise from time to time. The facilities of the State are always available where industrial unrest is threatened or happens. I thank the AGSI and GRA for choosing the opportunity to come to talk to the Minister. Let us see how they get on.

Does the Taoiseach accept that having individual talks with individual unions is an invitation for further unions to be more confrontational and would be very destabilising for the industrial relations backdrop, which is so essential given that we have had industrial peace in the public services for the past five years? I have not tabled any suggestion for the old social dialogue that existed in time of the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, but there is a requirement that all public servants who have contributed so hugely to the recovery of our State are treated in like fashion and that it is not simply some who have the sharpest elbows who get the first go at it.

Everybody has contributed to the recovery and everybody must be treated in like fashion, with a real and clear path to full income recovery, because they have contributed so much. I have two brief questions. First, will the Taoiseach engage across the public services rather than with individual unions to have a roadmap to income recovery? Second, will he consider, on the broader industrial front, some mechanism such as the employer-labour conference so that the complicated disputes now presenting themselves can be solved harmoniously without having to resort to strikes?

I am very anxious that we find a way forward here. Clearly, with over 2 million people working and unemployment numbers continuing to fall, we are in a somewhat better position than we were previously. I would point out to the Deputy, however, that the majority of trade unions signed up to the Haddington Road and Lansdowne Road agreements.

The Government is conscious that we have to proceed in a prudent fashion in respect of pay restoration. That is why it is anxious to encourage trade unions to talk in respect of the issues that remain unresolved, and that hopefully can be resolved, leading to a return of industrial peace. The Government must take a sustainable and prudent approach to this issue, as the Deputy did, and it is fully committed to the Lansdowne Road agreement as the framework for industrial relations and pay determination within the public service.

The Deputy also mentioned the public service pay commission. During the summer, the Government invited interested parties to make submissions on the role and methodology of the proposed public service pay commission. The date for that closed recently, and the submissions received are now being examined by the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I expect the Minister will make an announcement about that in due course.

In a similar vein, I put it to the Taoiseach that the Government's strategy on pay is beginning to unravel. Originally, his strategy was to isolate the teachers in the ASTI who did not agree to the Lansdowne Road agreement; they overwhelmingly rejected the conditions attached to the agreement. He then went and did separate deals with the other teachers' unions where there was discontent and with gardaí who, by a huge majority, rejected the outcome of that process. The Taoiseach's strategy to isolate the ASTI is unravelling. Importantly, his strategy seemed aimed at putting manners on all workers to try to stop the contagion spreading not just through the public sector, but also through the private sector, particularly when we consider the lousy 10 cent on the hour recommendation from the Low Pay Commission towards the minimum wage. How, in the name of God, could an economy that is in recovery make that kind of offer to 20% of our population who work for that sort of pay? This Government is worried about the spread of contagion that has gone from Luas to Dublin Bus, where pay rises that went beyond what were being offered were successful. I welcome the fact that gardaí and teachers are standing outside that process and demanding justice.

It is worth reminding the House that the financial emergency measures in the public interest legislation, which was brought in by the previous speaker, has reduced-----

(Interruptions).

-----the pay of public sector workers by a huge amount. Year on year for five years, over 230,000 public sector workers who earn less than €60,000 a year, with the vast majority earning less than €40,000 a year, have lost €27,000. That is a huge cut and a huge loss to those public sector workers in order to bail out the banks. When those of us in this House are discussing pay and pay increases, we should remind ourselves of the money we, the Taoiseach and other Ministers earn. We should think about how we compare, and how we look to others.

I want to make special mention of nurses because in any hospital today, three nurses working alongside each other doing the same job could be on three different rates of pay.

Imagine how they feel and how demoralised, annoyed and seriously angry they are with this State. They must then deal with a creaking health service that cannot even deliver sufficient beds to the population. Moreover, the Government cannot even get the nurses who qualify here to stay in Ireland, as 5,500 out of 7,000 of them have emigrated in recent years. In addition, the Government had a failed campaign to bring them back home that did nothing to alleviate that problem. They will continue to emigrate for logical reasons because they cannot afford to rent or to buy in any of the cities and find it extremely difficult to rear their families. How does the Taoiseach perceive the Government's policy on public sector pay can continue in this vein without serious consideration being given to repealing the FEMPI legislation, which goes to the heart of all these issues?

As pointed out in response to a question from Deputy Howlin, the Government obviously is anxious that the mechanisms of the State are used well to encourage people to engage in this regard and to deal with matters where industrial action has taken place, is threatened or is a cause for concern. That is what such mechanisms are for. The Lansdowne Road agreement on public service pay is the mechanism the Government believes can deal with the vast majority of these. As the Deputy is aware, two teacher unions have accepted; the Association of Secondary Teachers in Ireland, ASTI, is outside that fold at present. I am glad and happy that the Association of Garda Sergeants and Inspectors, AGSI, and the Garda Representative Association, GRA, have agreed to meet the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality. They will find the Minister attentive to their particular problems and I hope that matter can proceed arising from those discussions.

For the Deputy's information, the Low Pay Commission was set up with a particular purpose in mind: to be objective, to be independent and to declare to the Government what in its view would be an appropriate increase for low-paid employees in respect of the minimum wage. That is the reason it was set up, and after its establishment, the Government followed suit in implementing the recommendation of the commission. The people concerned are not under the diktat of the Government, as the Deputy seems to point out. In so far as the position in health is concerned, with a budget that now is greater than €14.5 billion, the Health Service Executive, HSE, offers permanent contracts to young nurses coming out of college and permanent employment to nurses who have been in temporary employment. Moreover, discussions are ongoing in respect of the incremental rights of those nurses who have been graduates for a number of years and who did not receive those rights. The Minister for Health already has spoken to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and I hope this matter also can be resolved.

To take up the Taoiseach's second point in respect of the Low Pay Commission, to the effect that a group of people who were objective and independent came up with an increase of 10 cent per hour, it would be interesting to ascertain for a start how much the members of that commission are getting paid hourly. It does not make them objective or independent if they are getting a hell of a lot more money, which I suspect they are. Second, the Government simply will not be able to recruit the nurses. For as long as the FEMPI legislation remains in place and the Government does not deal with nurses' pay, beds that are needed in hospitals will not be opened up.

Measures could be taken which could repeal the FEMPI legislation at a cost of €2.1 billion to the State. First, the tax loopholes to entities such as real estate investment trusts, REITs, vulture funds and other financial institutions could be closed off. The sort of tax breaks and loopholes they are allowed could be taken away. Second, when one thinks about it, were workers to regain that pay, they probably would be paying back more than half of it in tax and PRSI to the State and would spend the other half. It would not be hived off into tax havens and offshore accounts. Workers actually spend in the economy and, consequently, there would be a net gain to all in terms of morale, recruitment, fulfilling the services of this State and returning the money to where it belongs. The Taoiseach should stop protecting the very wealthy and give it back to workers who deserve it in abundance.

I repeat for the Deputy that the Low Pay Commission is comprised of people who are not being dictated to by the Government stating what they must do. They have terms of reference to look at what might be an appropriate increase in the minimum wage for low-paid workers and they proceed in doing that completely independently and objectively.

Deputy Bríd Smith does not seem to want to accept that but it is a fact. The people in question are not dictated to by Government, nor should they be. The commission would not be operating as an independent entity if they were being dictated to.

It is like Marie Antoinette saying, "Let them eat cake".

There was an increase of 1,063 in the number of nurses employed in the public health service - there are now 35,712 - from August 2014 to August 2016. The numbers had fallen by 4,000 from 2007 to 2014. I pointed out to Deputy Bríd Smith that the matter of the incremental credit for the 36-week clinical placement undertaken by fourth year student nurses was abolished by the Government in office in December 2010 as part of a number of measures to reduce public service pay bills. Previously, on taking up employment with the HSE following graduation, nurses would go onto the second point of the scale after 16 weeks. A recommendation has been made that that should be paid and the two Ministers are speaking about the matter.