Leaders' Questions

I am aware the Taoiseach briefed party leaders last evening about the Government’s plans on how to deal with Brexit. There is no doubt it is the single biggest challenge that all of us on the island of Ireland face. What we need is a coherent and multilayered response to deal with this issue. In the Taoiseach’s announcement yesterday, there were plans for forums and lots of dialogue, all of which are important. We also need, however, practical measures in the short term to assist businesses dealing with the fallout from Brexit.

This morning, the euro is trading at 88.2p sterling. Before the referendum in June, it was trading at 77p sterling. That means for Irish businesses exporting to the UK, their goods and services have, in relative terms, become 14% more expensive. That makes us 14% less competitive in our trade with the UK. Many analysts predict that sterling will fall further, with some even predicting it will reach parity with the euro in the next year or so. This already has cost jobs and will cost many more in the period ahead if this trend continues. On top of that, inbound tourism from the UK is inevitably going to be affected because it is more expensive. We are all well aware of the impact on Border communities of the fall in sterling and the deep uncertainty that now prevails about the Border post-Brexit. In addition, the very terms on which we will be able to trade with the UK post-Brexit are unclear and mired in uncertainty.

We must accept and prepare for the fact that Brexit is going to happen, possibly within a two and a half year period. We must also prepare for the fact and the possibility that it may not happen in an orderly way. Certainly, the UK Prime Minister's comments over the weekend have heightened the risk of a so-called “hard Brexit”. Next week’s budget presents an ideal opportunity to help businesses address the major challenge posed by Brexit. Fianna Fáil would like to see the 9% VAT rate on tourism and hospitality fully retained, unlike our colleagues, Sinn Féin.

We would like to see an improved capital gains tax regime for entrepreneurs and a real focus by Enterprise Ireland and other agencies on supporting exporting firms, which are very dependent on the UK market, to achieve greater market diversification. We want to see investment in infrastructure in the Border region to make us more competitive in that part of the island. The Government should establish a national hedging strategy, as recommended by the Irish Exporters Association. I ask the Taoiseach to read the association's budget submission because it addresses the very specific issue that has now come to the fore in terms of SMEs. It wants a strategy managed by the NTMA offering a discounted exchange rate to qualifying businesses. There must be a renewed focus on reducing costs - costs that the State can influence, be they insurance, transport or energy costs - to make us more competitive and to deal with the inevitable headwinds that Brexit will produce. There is an opportunity within a week to set out our stall and to help up to 800,000 employees who work in SMEs to deal with these major challenges.

I thank Deputy Michael McGrath for his comments. We had a very good meeting with the leaders of the different parties yesterday in respect of Brexit and a number of other matters. The Deputy will have been briefed by the Minister for Finance in respect of the general situation as we approach this budget. The issues raised by the Deputy are real, important and very urgent. Clearly, the question of Brexit will not become the central focus from a European point of view until the British Prime Minister triggers Article 50 at the end of March. At least, we have clarity on that now.

In the meantime, the Government outlined at some length yesterday a series of agendas to deal with the issues arising. The Deputy mentioned a number of them. Obviously, the VAT rate was reduced from 13.5% to 9% a number of years ago to stabilise an industry that was in seriously bad shape. That industry has recovered and has been a catalyst in creating thousands of jobs. That decision was followed by the decision to remove the travel tax which had a further impact in terms of the numbers of people being brought to Ireland by the different air carriers. That is an issue the Government will consider in the context of the budget. The Minister referred to the question of capital gains tax for entrepreneurs. He introduced the first initiative relating to that from an Irish point of view last year. We did not have the resources to match what was done in Great Britain but the Minister is conscious of that.

This morning, I opened the Irish Exporters Association conference in the RDS to which Enterprise Ireland has brought back all its overseas staff to talk to hundreds of entrepreneurs and SMEs in Ireland about diversification into new markets in the US, Canada, the EU and so on. The Credit Guarantee (Amendment) Act was introduced in February 2016. I can confirm to the Deputy that the Department of Finance, the Department of Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation and the Strategic Banking Corporation of Ireland are looking at the options that might be open in terms of financial supports or access to credit for businesses that are suffering because of the decline in the strength of sterling. I will read the report mentioned by the Deputy. All these matters are very important in the context of employment growing, unemployment dropping, a steady growth rate here and a very bright opportunity for many Irish firms to continue to expand. This is a matter of urgency and I hope the budget will have a number of what we might call "Brexit-proofing" measures in respect of the issues raised by the Deputy.

I thank the Taoiseach for his response. The reality is that thousands of businesses operating in Ireland today are very dependent on the UK market. Many mortgages and salaries are dependent on having access to the UK market on reasonable terms. The fall in sterling and the possibility of tariffs and customs being reinstated is a doomsday scenario for many businesses. The message they want to hear next week is that the Government is prepared to provide tangible supports to help them work through these difficulties.

We all know of the dependence of the agrifood sector on the UK market. For example, Deputy Brendan Smith has recently been raising issues around the mushroom industry. They must be practical measures that will make a difference. This will involve providing extra supports through the taxation system and through funding for Enterprise Ireland.

The challenges are acute. While there are opportunities for Ireland regarding Brexit, particularly in inward investment, from an exporting perspective it is about damage limitation and assisting firms to work their way through a very uncertain time. Many of them will be going to banks seeking working capital and support at a time when banks cannot be sure those firms will have access to the UK market in two and a half years' time without tariffs and customs charges. We must provide support, and next week will be a very important first step.

Some 200,000 jobs are dependent on exports to the UK. The figure of over €7 billion in exports, much of it in the agrifood sector, speaks for itself. The Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy Michael Creed, has commented on it and has met with different groups. We have already had evidence of jobs in the agrifood sector being lost due to the situation regarding exports to Britain and currency fluctuations. It is important we reflect on the capacity of Enterprise Ireland in terms of companies exporting and IDA Ireland in terms of attracting foreign direct investment, in the context of the personnel numbers they have. The Minister will reflect on it very carefully before next week's budget.

This is a matter of the greatest urgency. As the Deputy pointed out, so many jobs are dependent on it for repayments of mortgages, building houses and maintaining family life in Ireland. It was brought very much to the fore this morning. It was a very opportune time for Enterprise Ireland to say innovation means business. It is very optimistic and is looking to the future where real opportunities exist and talking to people who, despite all the difficulties, are making significant progress. While the Government cannot do everything here, given the scale of what we have to contend with, we intend to put in a number of measures in so far as we can to Brexit-proof and support in a tangible way Irish firms exporting to the UK.

Here we go again - another week and another controversy surrounding the Garda Commissioner and the treatment of Garda whistleblowers. The protected disclosures made by two senior gardaí to the Department of Justice and Equality during the past week outline an orchestrated campaign by some in senior Garda management positions to undermine whistleblowers. They include the distribution of text messages to attack the reputations of whistleblowers, the opening of intelligence files on whistleblowers, the monitoring of the activity of whistleblowers and the briefing of elements of the media and selected politicians about the characters of whistleblowers. These are incredibly serious issues which go to the very core of our policing and justice systems.

We all have a duty to build public confidence in those systems. However, revelations such as those made in recent days do the very opposite, and contribute to declining morale in the Garda Síochána. No doubt, they make other potential whistleblowers think twice about coming forward. It seems that this is the very motive for such smears and attacks. The Government has failed to protect whistleblowers. A series of allegations has been made about how Sergeant Maurice McCabe was treated after he raised concerns about the investigation of serious crime in the Cavan-Monaghan division. Sergeant McCabe and John Wilson were smeared and bullied. The O'Higgins report said such actions contributed to what it called a continued "closing of ranks". Following the publication of the Guerin report, the Taoiseach told the Dáil there was a need for a root and branch analysis of the administration of justice, but here we are back to square one. Nothing has changed.

The mentality of some in senior Garda management is perhaps best summed up by the admission of the former Garda Commissioner, Mr. Martin Callinan, to me at the Committee of Public Accounts when he stated that the actions of whistleblowers are "disgusting". His word, not mine. The current Garda Commissioner, Ms Nóirín O'Sullivan, has again run for cover in respect of these allegations. She has talked the talk about disclosure, transparency and openness. When it comes to walking the walk, however, it is business as usual.

It has gone beyond the point of pushing these matters under the table. What is the Taoiseach going to do about these latest allegations of whistleblowers being hounded and discredited at the behest of some in senior Garda management? What of the suggestions that the Tánaiste has received other complaints to which, it appears, she has failed to respond for months? Is the Taoiseach aware of these complaints? Are the Tánaiste and the Garda Commissioner running for cover?

In the first instance, this is a very serious matter. I referred to it yesterday and confirmed that the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality has received correspondence from members of An Garda Síochána under the Protected Disclosures Act. Deputy McDonald is aware that, under section 16(1) of that Act, a person to whom a protected disclosure is made "shall not disclose to another person any information that might identify the person by whom the protected disclosure was made." Obviously, I have not seen the correspondence or whatever. I assume that the Tánaiste has now to look at this documentation sent to her in a sensitive manner and do so quickly. I would assume - I do not know the extent of the correspondence - that the Tánaiste herself is not going to be in a position to verify the allegations that have been made one way or the other. Therefore, this will have to be dealt with by a competent person. In that context, we must look at what is the structure that can best deal with this conclusively once a protected disclosure document has been received by the Minister of the day. Yesterday, Deputy Micheál Martin raised the question of GSOC. This documentation was sent to the Tánaiste directly under the Act. Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring has spoken about different powers or increased powers for GSOC. The Tánaiste is looking at that.

I would expect that, in the next couple of days, the Tánaiste will make a decision, having looked at the information that she has been sent under this Act, as to what is the best option. I would say to Deputy McDonald, as I have said before, that it is utterly unacceptable that somebody, often described as a whistleblower, who reports wrong-doing is not treated properly and to the very highest standards. We cannot and we will not shirk responsibility in that regard. It is, however, for the Tánaiste to examine the documentation that she received and decide what is the best option to deal with it conclusively. That may well be the appointment of a sitting judge to look at the documentation to verify the contents and whatever action follows from that. Obviously, following the O'Higgins report, the Tánaiste wrote to the Policing Authority in June asking that it submit its views on a policy and procedures to be followed that would be put in place in An Garda Síochána where whistleblowers or people within the force decided to say that what is happening there is wrong or incorrect. So, I would expect in the next short time that the Tánaiste will make her view known about the documentation she has received.

The difficulty is that this line has been well rehearsed in the Chamber and beyond for a long time. I suggest that the position, as the Taoiseach has outlined it, has run out of any credibility, not least for serving members of An Garda Síochána and, most particularly, for whistleblowers who have come forward only to be targeted and smeared.

The Taoiseach stated that the Minister will reflect on these matters and decide what to do. I understand the Minister has been in possession of correspondence for some months. I understand the Minister failed to respond to a number of Garda whistleblowers. Who is in charge? Is the Minister or the Garda Commissioner in charge? Who is accountable for these practices and the smearing and targeting of Garda whistleblowers? Does the Taoiseach have confidence in the Garda Commissioner that she is discharging her duties fully and faithfully? Does he have confidence in her capacity to protect whistleblowers? I ask the same question of his Minister, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald.

The Deputy made the point earlier that nothing has changed but it has. There is the independent Policing Authority, which has received a formal request from the Minister for Justice and Equality to set out its view on how members of the Garda Síochána should be treated with regard to whistleblowers providing information. This is about the law of the land, which is the Protected Disclosures Act. I have quoted the relevant section for the Deputy.

I have not seen the correspondence received by the Minister, and nor should I, as it was sent to her under that Act. I assume the information contained therein must be examined and reflected upon very carefully as it is very serious. Otherwise it would not be received under that section of the Act. Somebody must do that and I expect it will be, or certainly could be, a member of the Judiciary who would examine the contents of the received document and see if they stand up or not.

Does the Taoiseach have confidence in the Minister and the Garda Commissioner?

Out of that comes a decision as to what action might or might not be taken. I have already stated I have absolute confidence in the Minister for Justice and Equality and the Garda Commissioner. I do not have any reason not to.

The Taoiseach might have gotten away with that response to Deputy McDonald - if one could call it a response - if this was an isolated incidence of mistreatment of whistleblowers. I note the Taoiseach's confidence in the Minister and the Garda Commissioner is a bit like when he had 100% confidence to the last two occupants of those offices before it went to zero overnight.

Exactly two years ago this week, I put it to the Taoiseach that a Garda whistleblower in the midlands region had come forward with serious information regarding Garda involvement in the drugs trade. The information was indisputable. That individual, Nick Keogh, has subsequently been vindicated by an internal Garda inquiry supporting his allegations in that regard. Nevertheless, two and a half years on, this whistleblower has been out sick for almost a year and is surviving on just over €200 per week. He has had five internal investigations drummed up against him. Medical certificates submitted that stated he was out with work-related stress were changed to indicating absence from flu. Meanwhile, the superintendent who stood over all that is on the promotions list.

The Taoiseach was twice approached by a garda in that division and warned about a senior officer who failed to deal with complaints in that area. Twice since he was approached, that senior officer was promoted, including being hand-picked by the Garda Commissioner for a high-profile job in the Phoenix Park, despite three complaints from Garda whistleblowers against him. Four times one of the Garda whistleblowers wrote directly to the Minister for Justice and Equality and told her of the treatment he was experiencing. He made the point that as his colleague in a different region was getting exactly the same treatment, it could not be a coincidence and it was inconceivable that senior management and the Garda Commissioner would not be aware of it. Deputy Wallace and I have raised what has been happening to whistleblowers Nick Keogh and Keith Harrison - who is out for two years, surviving on a pittance with a young family - 19 times. His post has been opened and Garda patrol cars have cruised down a lane on which he lived, 25 km from the nearest Garda station. The HSE has called to his children. This has all happened on Garda Commissioner O'Sullivan's watch.

How many examples does the Taoiseach need presented to him of the gulf between the public statements of the Garda Commissioner and her private actions in terms of dealing with whistleblowers before he will act? The Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality has had evidence from the O'Higgins commission of investigation, a section 41 complaint from the civilian head of An Garda Síochána and, most shockingly, she has had the protected disclosures of two senior gardaí outlining systematic, organised, orchestrated campaigns not just to discredit a whistleblower but to annihilate him, with the full involvement of the current and former Garda Commissioners.

What in God's name does the Taoiseach need another investigation for? Is it not patently obvious that it is beyond time-----

I thank the Deputy.

-----for the Commissioner to go?

The question here is in respect of the information received under the Protected Disclosures Act. That has been received by the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality. She has to assess it and appoint a person of competence to deal with it. As I said, whatever is in that documentation either stands up or it does not. In that regard, this is a very serious matter.

The powers of GSOC are there for all to see but the Chair, Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring, has requested that those powers be extended and the Minister is considering that. The independent Policing Authority has been asked for its views on the treatment of whistleblowers or those within An Garda Síochána who make disclosures about wrong doing or alleged wrong doing. From that point of view, as I said, whistleblowers should not be in a position like that outlined by Deputy Clare Daly in respect of two members of An Garda Síochána. Obviously, if these investigations have been pursued - whether by GSOC or internally - the matter must be concluded. Whistleblowers have always provided a valuable service in the public interest and I respect that completely and will defend it. In the case of the most recent documentation received by the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality, we must proceed by appointing a person of ability to go through that documentation and assess whether the contents stand up. I expect that the Tánaiste will make an announcement about that very soon.

The problem with the Taoiseach's response is that he tells us that whistleblowers should not be treated poorly and that he respects and defends that. However, our interpretations of what constitutes respect and defence must be different because the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality has been presented with evidence over a period of two and half years which shows that has not been the case. The Taoiseach tells us that GSOC has the powers and that its powers are there for all to see but its powers are not there for all to see. Even GSOC has said that it does not have the powers to deal with this situation. Did the Garda Commissioner's comments this morning to the effect that she wants to encourage whistleblowers within An Garda Síochána to come forward - despite all of the evidence that these people have been mistreated - not strike the Taoiseach as odd?

If the Garda Commissioner is not directly involved in the harassment, does the Taoiseach not have a problem with the fact that her authority has been so discredited that instructions she has allegedly given for whistleblowers to be protected are being completely ignored across the ranks of An Garda Síochána? That is the evidence that has been presented to the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality over a long period.

I thank the Deputy.

If the Taoiseach means what he says and if he really does respect and defend whistleblowers, then he would be answering very differently and he would actually be doing something rather than just talking about it.

In respect of GSOC, obviously I have absolute confidence in the Chair, Ms Justice Mary Ellen Ring. She has said that GSOC needs extra powers and the Tánaiste and Minister for Justice and Equality is considering her request. In respect of the documents received under the Protected Disclosures Act by the Tánaiste, I have already said that she has a duty to examine that and to appoint a person of standing to deal with it. In that sense, I expect the Tánaiste will make her decision known very shortly.

I now call Deputy Michael Harty on behalf of the rural Independent group.

I ask the Taoiseach to address the Government's failure to support our post office network. This is a national issue which is of fundamental importance to all small communities across Ireland, both rural and urban, in our small towns and villages. Under the programme for Government, this Administration committed to doing three things to support the local post office network.

First, it committed to the development of a suite of services by the post office network through a hub, whereby Government services would be available to the community at local post offices, meaning that people would not have to log onto websites or wait endlessly on telephones while they try to get answers. Many people have great difficulty doing that. The provision of passports through post offices is a case in point. This is a wonderful opportunity for people to get fundamental services through their post offices. Many other services could be delivered through post offices. All Government applications, including applications for motor tax and driving licences, could be processed through post offices. Foreign exchange is another of the many services that could be decentralised and devolved to enable them to be provided through post offices.

The Government also committed to advancing a community-based banking system through our post offices. We do not have to invent the wheel in this regard. Examples of very successful community-based post offices include Kiwibank in New Zealand and Sparkasse in Germany. Post offices in Japan supply banking services locally.

The third commitment in this area within the programme for Government involves supporting the current contract for social welfare payments. This is absolutely vital for the survival of our post office network. I ask the Taoiseach to tell us what proposals have been advanced in this regard. By failing to support the maintenance and development of our post office network, we are allowing another national asset to disappear. Commercial banks have abandoned our towns and villages. Does the Government intend to abandon our post offices as well? Post offices can flourish and contribute to the social fabric of urban and rural communities if they are allowed to do so. The loss of the sole post office in a local community leads to the ultimate unravelling of the social fabric of such communities. There are villages without a post office, a doctor, a shop, a pub, a school or any commercial or social activity. Such communities are shells of their former selves. Is this the legacy the Government wishes to leave? Rural Ireland wants to move in modern times. It must adapt to modern technology, but that does not mean it should be killed off by new technology. Rural Ireland is looking for innovative support that allows it to contribute to Irish society in an imaginative and cost-effective way. Will the Taoiseach instruct Departments to decentralise services to post office networks and develop a community-based post office bank system to meet the needs of local communities?

Deputy Harty has raised an issue that has gone on for many years. While the post office network has been extensively reduced in the past ten or 15 years, it is still an important entity. An Post is conscious of the impact and the potential loss to many places in rural Ireland of the closure of post offices. Clearly, many of the post office systems in large cities and smaller towns in rural areas have suffered because of changes in communications and the way business is conducted. The previous Government conducted and supervised Bobby Kerr's investigation into the remit, range and potential of post offices. The Government accepted the Kerr report and decided to implement a basic bank account system for post offices. While this would not save post offices or protect their futures, it would be of assistance in that regard. I have to say the Government has always been in favour of the post office system and of attempts to provide new business for post offices, postmasters and postmistresses. It is not that easy in some cases where, for one reason or another, the ability to avail of all the modern methods of communication and technology does not exist.

The Minister of State, Deputy Ring, who is dealing with this matter, has set up a group to look at options that might be available to post offices in the future. This group, which involves postmasters and postmistresses, has met twice and quite a number of extra suggestions beyond the Kerr report have been produced at its meetings. The Minister of State will report its findings as soon as possible. Clearly, the post office network has been an integral part of rural Ireland for many years. I notice that, with the advantage and use of the Internet, post office depots have become receiving places for huge quantities of goods coming in from abroad after being bought online. Many of them no longer deal with the traditional way of business in post offices.

Government is intent on maintaining the post office network, where at all possible. Having said that, I recall one case in the west recently where a post office closed that had been there for 70 years. When An Post inquired in the local area whether anyone else was interested in taking on the facility, there was no positive response from anyone. The situation is changing. We would like to protect, in whatever way we can, the system as it currently stands.

We have had enough reports in this regard. What we really want now is action. If the Government is going to stand aside passively, post offices are going to disappear. We need decisive action and we need the Government to support post offices actively.

The Irish Postmasters' Union projects that in the next five years the income for the average post office will drop by 50%. That will lead to the demise of these post offices. Up to 500 communities are going to lose their post office structure. If the Government does not act, it will passively strangle post offices. Many Deputies on both sides of the House have no wish to see that happen, especially when solutions are available and can be implemented readily. If there is will and imagination, post offices can survive, giving an extraordinary social dividend. The Government must act decisively. Waiting on reports is not going to save our post offices. We need decisive action.

I put it to Deputy Harty that we are not waiting on the report. The report has been done, conducted, published and is being acted upon. One element is the basic bank account, which postmasters and postmistresses have sought for quite some time. Government has also tried to put business the way of post offices. For example, there was the question of driving licences and the question of whether the contributions that were coming in for water could be paid through post offices.

It is not a case of not wanting to help. If we were to define the post office in a rural village in Clare in five years' time, what would it be? Would it be the same size as it is now? What services would it offer? What would be the increased capacity of the postmaster or postmistress to do business? Many maintain we need to surround that country house with other services provided by the State. That is not feasible in many circumstances either. As Deputy Harty is aware, with the change in the way business operates, people can conduct business traditionally done in the post office in other outlets. While we have 1,100 or 1,000 post offices throughout the country, Government is favourably disposed towards keeping business alive. It is a question of what we can do to help them in terms of technology, training, upskilling and new services that can be provided. As Deputy Harty is aware, many of these services have changed radically.

It is not a question of waiting for reports. It is a question of acting on the report we have. I can confirm for Deputy Harty that the Minister of State, Deputy Ring, is very active in this regard.