1. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the implementation of the programme for Government. [34862/16]
1. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the implementation of the programme for Government. [34862/16]
2. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the implementation of the programme for Government. [36013/16]
3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the implementation of the Programme for Government. [36051/16]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.
A Programme for a Partnership Government was published on 11 May and sets out a detailed set of actions to be implemented over the lifetime of the Government. The programme has one simple objective at its core, which is to make people's lives better in every part of the country. The Government is working to build society with recovery is felt by every individual and family around Ireland.
I met Ministers and Ministers of State to agree the priorities for the first year, taking into account the actions and ambitions in the programme for Government. All Departments are finalising new three-year statements of strategy as required under the Public Services Management Act 1997, which will set out the key objectives and priorities reflecting the programme for Government commitments for which they are responsible. The implementation of A Programme for a Partnership Government requires a new relationship between the Government and Oireachtas, and this is reflected in significant new Dáil reforms which are being implemented, providing a significantly greater role for members of Dáil Éireann.
Ireland is facing many challenges ahead internationally and domestically. It is important that the Government maintains a focus on managing the challenges of Brexit and ensures our continuing economic recovery is not compromised. Equally, at home much work remains to be done in areas such as housing, homelessness, education, health and rural development, and reference was made to mental health today. We are committed to tackling these challenges in order to build a society where the recovery is felt by every individual.
We have made good headway in the first six months. Some of the key issues progressed include: a new action plan for housing and homelessness; the establishment of a €200 million local infrastructure housing activation fund; an increase in rent limits under the rent supplement and housing assistant payment; the establishment of a task force on the implementation of personalised budgets for persons with disabilities; the establishment of the Citizen's Assembly; a new dedicated Cabinet committee working on a new rural action plan; the establishment of a mobile phone and broadband task force; the introduction of two weeks' paternity leave in September 2016; and the implementation of reforms to give the Oireachtas a stronger role in planning and budgets.
As well as publishing an annual report, the Government will shortly publish one of the many regular short updates on the implementation of A Programme for a Partnership Government which will be laid before the Oireachtas. As set out in the programme for Government, only a strong economy supporting people at work can pay for the services needed to create a fair society. On that note, I welcome yesterday's announcement from the CSO that unemployment has dropped to 7.5%. Continuing to focus on job creation and getting people back to work remains a top priority within the programme for Government.
The executive summary of the programme for Government states: "Our approach to governing will be clearly seen in how we address the issues of housing and homelessness". On that basis, would the Taoiseach agree that the approach of the Government to governing has been a disaster? One can compare the circumstances facing people dealing with the housing and homelessness crisis now with the situation in May. There are now 249 more homeless children than in May, and the total is now almost 2,500. In total, there 539 more homeless people and 119 more homeless families living in emergency accommodation now than when the Government promised to end homelessness. The 6,700 homeless adults and children in emergency accommodation at the end of September is the equivalent of the population of a medium-sized town, slightly bigger than Ballinasloe or Bandon.
It has become normal during the term of office of the Government for families in Dublin city to spend up to two years in emergency accommodation and 12 to 15 months in South Dublin County Council. My constituency is included in South Dublin County Council, and in January 274 people were registered as homeless with the council compared to a figure of 439 in October, a 60% increase.
Would the Taoiseach agree that by that standard, the approach to governing of the Government is a disaster? The stock response from the Government over the past couple of weeks to questions like this is to herald the record levels of exits from homelessness, as the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney, did in a reply to a question from me last week. The only reason there is a record number of exits from homelessness is because of the record number of entries, and the number of homeless people continues to increase. It seems that the reason no progress is being made on this issue is that the Government refuses to deal with what it knows are the two main causes of homelessness, namely, rising rents and the eviction of tenants because landlords want to sell.
It is clear that the Government is not going to introduce rent controls. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, was reported as saying he will not introduce them because they would discourage developers from building new homes and that he does not want to put the dead hand of regulation on the construction sector and therefore stop any momentum that is starting in the building of more rental accommodation. If we do not break with that free-market mantra, the housing crisis will continue to deteriorate. We need State action to resolve the housing crisis, otherwise the programme for Government will be a complete failure.
In fairness to the Taoiseach, this is a Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael programme for Government. The responsibility for all of the lack of delivery rests in the confidence and supply agreement. It is revealing to watch the play-acting that is going on day in and day out. The fact is that the Taoiseach is in Government as a gift from Fianna Fáil, and the electorate who are dependent on the Government doing the right thing is being failed. That is most obvious in the lack of capacity in the health system.
Can the Taoiseach confirm that the Government plans to use prefabs, as reported in the media, to relieve the pressure on our emergency services? Is the HSE about to evaluate a series of bids it received? The Taoiseach is very conscience of his constituency and as a result of his long career here of the number of schools which were given prefabs as temporary accommodation. Decades later, children are still being taught in unsuitable classrooms. Is this the future for our emergency services?
It has been reported that 34 patients over the age of 75 were left on hospital trolleys for more than 24 hours on every day of every week in the first seven months of this year. A total of 7,161 patients were left on trolleys for more than 24 hours. The Taoiseach said the figures were down today. There are 464 people on trolleys today, but what were the figures for yesterday? They were 493 yesterday and on Monday they were 400. The crisis is ongoing and the figures for trolley and overcrowding are deteriorating. There is chaos as the winter kicks in.
The programme for Government also commits that persons with disabilities shall be supported to maximise their potential by removing barriers which impact on access to services, education, work and health care. The budget announced funding of €2 million for projects that provide pre-activation supports for people with disabilities in 2017. I have been in contact with the Minister responsible every week, but so far there has been no announcement on where the €2 million is going.
I refer in particular to WALK PEER, an organisation in my constituency. Its funding will run out at Christmas. Could we get some clarification from the Taoiseach on how the €2 million will be spent and whether projects like WALK PEER will be given the appropriate level of funding to which they are entitled?
The Taoiseach said he would contact the Egyptian President following the postponement of the trial of Ibrahim Halawa for the 16th time.
We now know that 859 prisoners have been pardoned by the Egyptian Government under Article 155 of the Egyptian constitution. Will the Taoiseach tell us if he spoke to the Egyptian President? If he has not done so, will he raise the possibility of Ibrahim being released under this article?
I am also conscious of the fact that we need to leave time for the Taoiseach to reply.
The programme for Government, under the heading of "Health", states, "Efforts to increase access to safe, timely care, as close to patients’ homes as possible will be a priority". Among other things, I assume this refers to the importance of home care and the need to address its provision because the service has been savaged since 2008. There was an increase in funding in the recent budget, but I put it to the Taoiseach that it is not even close to what is required to deliver on what is claimed in the programme for Government to be a priority.
I will give the House an example. Mark O'Brien is 48 years of age and has a rare disease, CADASIL, which causes him to have multiple strokes. He is almost totally non-verbal, has severe problems walking and cannot do basic manual tasks. He is categorised as disabled, in receipt of disability allowance and lives in an adapted home. He cannot cook, clean or wash himself because of his condition. His father who is 72 years of age has the same disease. He lives in Shankill and has to travel to Dún Laoghaire on the DART every day, for which he is not really able, to look after his son because Mark has no one to look after him. I have inquired on three occasions since the summer about a home care package for Mark. The HSE has acknowledged that he needs such a package but states the budget for home care hours is "at capacity" and that Mark's home care hours will be reviewed on receipt of additional funding. This is the Taoiseach's health policy. Our most recent response to our inquiry was received on 11 October. Mark is not being given by the Government the home care pacakge that he so desperately needs. How many Mark O'Briens are there? Even with the additional funding for home care packages, there are still approximately 1.5 million fewer hours than in 2008, while the elderly population has increased by 17%. We are, therefore, well short of delivering what was called "safe, timely care, as close to patients' homes as possible". That is the priority that has been given to the issue. When will Mark be given the home care package he needs? When will others like him get the packages they need?
I disagree entirely with Deputy Paul Murphy on the housing and homelessness crisis. For the first time ever, we have a comprehensive programme, comprising five strategies, backed up by €5 billion in funding. The Deputy states rising rents and evictions by landlords are the cause, but the problem has been one of supply because of the collapse of the economy a number of years ago which brought ruin for so many.
The action plan on housing was published. Eight sites were located in Cork, Galway, Waterford, Clare, Kildare and Roscommon for the development of social housing, for which there was an allocation of €100 million. Tax relief for landlords who provide accommodation for tenants in receipt of social housing support has been maintained. From 1 July, the rent limits under the rent supplement and the housing assistance payment schemes were increased in both urban and rural areas to reflect local rent levels. The capacity to make discretionary enhanced payments was extended to all local authorities operating the housing assistance payment scheme. An allocation of €1.2 billion was announced in the budget for social housing programmes, a 50% increase on the figure for 2016. This funding will meet the needs of 21,000 families in 2017. Measures include the delivery of 4,450 units and supporting an additional 15,000 households through the housing assistance payment. In September details of the progress made in the homelessness pillar of the Rebuilding Ireland action plan were published. It included acceleration of the rapid build programme, expansion of the housing assistance payment to tenancies for those who were homeless and measures to increase social housing. In the budget an extra €28 million was announced for homeless services, a 40% increase on the figure for 2016. It included provision for 3,000 exits from emergency accommodation through a range of funding mechanisms.
Other things have also been happening; therefore, it has not been a disaster.
I need to stop the Taoiseach.
Deputy Gerry Adams stated there were 464 patients waiting on trolleys this morning. For his information, at 8 a.m. the figure was actually 387, according to my score from the special delivery unit.
I have written to the President of Egypt, to whom we have made a number of calls. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, has spoken to the ambassador and I intend to follow up on the matter. We are supportive of the use of Egyptian Law 140 for the deportation of Ibrahim Halawa. We will pursue both lines - we will pursue the matter with the President by letter and support the use of Law 140.
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett raised an interesting question. Some €14.5 billion is being put into the health service. More more money is also available for home care packages than ever before. I do not make the decisions, but there is a simplified process in place to devise an appropriate programme to deal with the complexities of an illness such as Mark's. I will ask the Minister for Health to look into the matter and advise the Deputy.
4. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he still chairs the Cabinet Committee on Health. [34869/16]
5. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the next meeting of the Cabinet Committee on Health is expected to take place. [36005/16]
6. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Health last met; and the number of meetings it has held since the beginning of 2016. [36014/16]
7. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach the number of times the Cabinet Committee on Health has met. [36232/16]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 7, inclusive, together.
As Taoiseach, I chair all Cabinet committees, including the Cabinet Committee on Health. The committee has met on five occasions, namely, on 12 May, 16 June, 21 July, 22 September and 7 November. The next meeting will be held on 13 December.
The reason I have asked the Taoiseach if he chairs the Cabinet Committee on Health is straightforward. It is increasingly clear that one area of Government policy that is in a shambles is health. After holding the health portfolio for six straight years, Fine Gael has no discernible health policy. The compulsory health insurance model of the James Reilly era was abandoned prior to the last general election, having been told for five years that it would happen and there were all sorts of report on the issue. Furthermore, the last Government significantly disrupted the health service through initiating the compulsory health insurance model by creating a structural and organisational crisis, but then nothing happened and the policy was abandoned. The then Minister for Health, Deputy Leo Varadkar, spoke about privatising some elements of the service, but he got out of the Department as fast as he had got into it. Now we have a new set of circumstances. The programme for Government states health is a priority, but waiting times are going through the roof. Elective operations are being cancelled and outpatient and inpatient waiting lists and times are at record levels. That is how they are being described. Emergency departments are at a critical point. Yesterday on the "Six One News" hospital spokespeople stated the figures had reached an all time record. Cork University Hospital had a record number of patients on trolleys. Some 80 patients had been admitted in one day to its emergency department, which the chief executive officer equated to the numbers that would attend a small hospital. The programme for Government states health is a priority, that emergency department waiting times will be dramatically reduced and that change will be driven forward, but none of this is happening. I genuinely thought the Taoiseach was no longer chairing the committee because things were getting worse.
The Cabinet committee is clearly not playing the central role we expected of it. If it is playing that role, where is the evidence to support that contention?
We do not have any sense of long-term funding structures. Is the Government committed to a public health service model in terms of funding?
In the past, particularly last year and the year before that, the Health Service Executive's national service plan was amended by Ministers in Cabinet to cover up the funding gap for promised services. Will the Taoiseach give a commitment that the service plan for next year will be published without any ministerial interference or interventions? Will he commit to having a debate in the House on the health service plan when it is published and to full transparency in committee and plenary session in terms of the plan?
Rome is burning, with issues appearing across the full spectrum of the health service, from recruitment to service provision and delivery. This morning we discussed mental health. I ask the Taoiseach to change tack on this year's allocation for mental health. Reasonable and quick interventions could be made on the counselling front by providing more resources to those who offer counselling, particularly in the non-governmental organisations. The Government should consider using the private sector to provide mental health services. Could some hospitals contract in professionals in the interim given that the public service states it cannot recruit staff and fill vacancies? Community intervention teams could be improved and the primary care counselling service extended. To follow up on this morning's discussion, I ask the Taoiseach to think about these suggestions, on which an immediate response is not required.
In the context of an overall health budget of €50 billion, surely it is possible to provide more than €15 million in additional mental health funding. This would send a positive signal that we are serious about mental health. As the chair of the Cabinet committee on health, it is within the Taoiseach's capacity to ask his Ministers to do something concrete on mental health in 2017 to show the Government is with the people on this issue, particularly the younger generation who are very concerned about it.
The Irish Times reports that 535,000 people were on public hospital waiting lists last month. In one hospital alone in Cork city, Cork University Hospital, 26,000 people are on waiting lists. Incredibly, the number of people on hospital waiting lists has increased by 27,000 since the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, took the reins in the Department six months ago.
The Irish Examiner reports this morning that 16 people have died from suspected suicides in the Cork region in the past two weeks. Conor Cusack has called for the establishment of well-being centres operating on a 24-7 basis. As the previous speaker noted, we are falling well short of meeting the targets set in A Vision for Change, the ten-year strategy for mental health which runs until the end of 2016. An additional allocation of a mere €15 million has been provided for mental health this year when much more is needed.
According to trolley watch, which is operated by the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, 25 people are on trolleys in Cork University Hospital today and the number of people on trolleys at the hospital earlier this week was the highest in the country. Contrary to the figures provided by the Taoiseach, trolley watch's figures show there are 464 persons on trolleys or in overflow wards in hospitals today. This is caused in significant measure by the understaffing crisis in the health service, which is unable to retain nurses.
All this points towards the need for a national health service which would provide health care free at the point of use in a single tier, universal system. What proposal does the Cabinet committee have for dealing with the multiple crises in the health service?
Figures provided to me by the INMO also indicate that there are 464 people on hospital trolleys today, so perhaps the Taoiseach needs to revise his figure.
It is a matter of wonderment as to what the various Cabinet committees do. The Taoiseach is limited in terms of what he can divulge to the House for some reason beyond my comprehension. The health service is in a worsening crisis, despite the great zeal, care and compassion that health service workers bring to their vocation. We dealt in some detail earlier with mental health issues. I remind the Taoiseach that there are no 24-7 crisis care services in the State. Deputy Micheál Martin made a passionate plea for all this to be dealt with in an appropriate manner. However, when Sinn Féin proposed a Private Members' motion seeking a timeline for 24-7 crisis intervention services in mental health, the Fianna Fáil Party amended the motion to remove the timeline.
We had our own motion. The Deputy is playing politics with the issue.
I raise this not to score political points but to demonstrate the need to focus on the crisis in mental health in the same way as we need to focus on other crises. One such crisis that springs to mind is the report that up to 30 patients have died in University Hospital Limerick after being infected with so-called superbugs. Can the Taoiseach provide any information on the number of confirmed deaths as a result of infection by drug-resistant superbugs? Will he also state how many such cases have been identified in the past six months? Furthermore, will he ask the Minister for Health to release any information he has on this matter and indicate what action he will take to address it?
On the terms of reference for the commission of investigation into the case of Grace, a young intellectually disabled woman who remained in a foster home at the centre of abuse allegations, the report by Mr. Conor Dignam, SC, makes very disturbing reading. Will the Taoiseach give a clear commitment that the many specific issues raised by the Dignam report will be addressed? Will he also indicate what is the current status of the two HSE reports into allegations of serious sexual and physical abuse at a partially State funded foster home? Will he outline when the two reports will be published and what is the current status of the terms of reference of the commission of investigation?
We were given a copy of the Supplementary Estimates for the end of the year today. Will the Taoiseach explain the astonishing decision not to provide additional funding for health? Will a further Supplementary Estimate be introduced for health? If not, how will the €35 million promised for mental health be provided? In the context of our earlier discussion of mental health services, how will it be possible to address the suicide crisis in Cork disclosed in the Irish Examiner this morning without additional funding?
We have a ridiculous situation in the Department of Health with one senior Minister and four Ministers of State.
They are needed.
Anybody with any experience of government knows that four Ministers of State in any one Department is a recipe for confusion overlap and mixed messages as to who is really in charge. I say that with no disrespect to the individuals involved who I am aware are trying.
In the previous Government, the Taoiseach took the role of chairing each Cabinet committee. He told us recently his mojo was found somewhere and he had it back in his pocket or wherever. However, the problems in the health services are getting worse. The crisis for those who work hard in the health services is that the lack of leadership in those services is making a difficult and challenging situation much worse because, basically, morale is hitting the decks. The worse thing that can happen in a public service organisation is that those working in it feel morale is seeping away.
A second issue which I want to raise, one on which I have had conversations with the Taoiseach on previous occasions, is the situation in Crumlin hospital for children with scoliosis. I have encountered a case of a nine year old girl with severe scoliosis, who is wheelchair bound and has intellectual and other serious physical disabilities. She is waiting three years to begin treatment for scoliosis. While we have been debating this question, I got a text message from the child's mom stating they have been told the beginning of the treatment and operation will not be before Christmas. The Taoiseach is a person of compassion. I have been on personally to the Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, who has equally reacted with compassion to the case. What is the problem? Last year and the year before, much extra money was put into scoliosis treatment services in Crumlin hospital. Will the Taoiseach tell us what is going on? Has he a clue himself? Will he have the Cabinet sub-committee responsible meet at 8.30 a.m. next Monday or Tuesday and ask the five Ministers, who have advisers and assistants, to deal with this? Morale is being destroyed in the health services due to the lack of answers.
Where is health in the list of Supplementary Estimates? Will we have an Estimate for it by the end of the year?
Time is up for this series of questions. We can agree to proceed without an answer from the Taoiseach and regard what we heard as a series of statements to the Taoiseach. Alternatively, we can ask the Taoiseach to respond by taking time from the third series of questions.
How much time is left in the total allocation for Question Time?
There are thirteen and a half minutes remaining at this stage.
Could I propose we take the time?
Is it agreed we take the time from the third set of questions?
Can we limit it?
Will we take five minutes for a response to the third group of questions?
Three minutes would be better.
Three minutes is agreed. Can you do it, Taoiseach?
Deputy Micheál Martin raised valid questions. We will have a debate on the health plan. The budget comes to €14.6 billion. Obviously, the Minister of State, Deputy Helen McEntee, wants to put in place the strategy by which moneys can be ring-fenced and spent in health in 2017. It will not be €35 million in 2016, obviously. She is spending what she can this year and then put in place the strategy by which it can be ring-fenced and spent in 2017.
We can spend more. The Taoiseach gave the impression it is only €35 million. That is the problem. It sends out the wrong signal.
That is the story. There will not be a Supplementary Estimate in health between now and the end of the year.
The ceilings have been set for 2017 and will not be breached. Despite Ministers may be considering putting in claims looking for money because of Brexit and every other challenge we have, it will simply will not be there because we will breach all of the European regulations to which we signed up. We do not want to go back to where we were.
As regards Deputy Micheál Martin's point about the private sector assisting in the mental health sector, I will have the Minister reflect on that.
Deputy Mick Barry raised the issue of hospital beds. The list from the special delivery unit is there were 387 cases of patients on trolleys at 8 o'clock this morning, not 464. Obviously, the Deputy may have a different method of counting. Cork University Hospital had 25 cases this morning on this list. There is an increasing ageing population with growing demographic pressures.
Deputy Gerry Adams asked about the Dignam report. The Minister of State, Deputy Finian McGrath, is working on it. We have committed to a commission in respect of that particularly situation in the south east. I will have the Minister of State report to the House on that, as well as the reports to be published on this.
I do not have the details of the case concerning Crumlin hospital raised by Deputy Joan Burton. Obviously, these are all difficult cases. I have one case from Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett in respect of a home care package. I will have the Minister contact the Deputy's office about the case.
The Ministers of State dealing with health, as Deputy Joan Burton will be aware from experience, Deputies Helen McEntee, Marcella Corcoran Kennedy, Catherine Byrne and Finian McGrath, are all doing specific jobs-----
-----from drugs to healthy Ireland, from mental health to disability, which all carry significant budgets. They are all working hard to implement their particular strategies.
The Minister for Health, Deputy Simon Harris, set out to have an all-party committee on health care, which is functioning, to remove elements of politics from the health area and have a ten-year strategy for it. Two new initiatives were launched, namely the winter initiative and the endoscopy waiting list. He has introduced medical cards for domiciliary care allowances which will benefit 10,000 children. Additional funding has been put in for disability services, including supports and services for all 18 year old school leavers. This was always a problem every year which the Minister has dealt with.
We need to proceed to the next block of questions.
8. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the specific Brexit-related meetings which he will be attending in Dublin, London and other European capitals before Christmas 2016. [35216/16]
9. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach his plans to engage in bilateral meetings with EU leaders to discuss the impact of Brexit here. [36042/16]
10. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the foreign leaders he is planning to meet between now and Christmas 2016. [36049/16]
11. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach the foreign leaders he plans to meet over the next period; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [36054/16]
12. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if his Department has hired, or anticipates hiring, additional staff attached to the international, European Union and Northern division in view of the upcoming Brexit negotiations. [36337/16]
13. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach the number of meetings of the Cabinet committee on Brexit which have been held since 8 September 2016 when it first met. [36338/16]
I propose to take Questions No. 8 to 13, inclusive, together.
I will be meeting the Maltese Prime Minister shortly, primarily to discuss Malta's upcoming EU Presidency. Brexit will undoubtedly be a significant element of those discussions. I will attend the next meeting of the European Council on 15 December and 16 December. While I do not have any formal bilateral meetings scheduled in the margins of that meeting, I expect there will be a discussion among the 27 remaining member states on that occasion. I will also take the opportunity to discuss the situation informally with colleagues. I do not have other firm plans to meet foreign leaders before Christmas 2016.
An assistant secretary has recently been assigned to the international, EU and Northern Ireland division of my Department. It has responsibility for Brexit matters and the resources of the division are being kept under review. The Cabinet committee on Brexit has met three times to date, on 8 September, on 19 October and on 7 November, for in-depth discussion of the issues arising from the UK decision to leave the European Union. The Cabinet committee is scheduled to meet again on 24 November.
The committee will oversee the overall Government response, including both the economic impact and the negotiations at EU level, and with the Administrations in London and Belfast. The Cabinet committee will continue to meet on a regular basis to deal with Brexit-related issues. Brexit has also been a matter of regular and detailed consideration by the Government at Cabinet level for some time, both in advance of the UK EU referendum and since.
It is clear the British Government does not appear to have a real overall plan for Brexit, a point acknowledged by the Taoiseach. From all the reports coming out of Westminster, the British Government is struggling to manage the scale of work generated by the Brexit process. There is also a huge amount of work to be undertaken by the Irish Government.
This includes engaging with other EU governments and the Executive and people in the North on the dialogue that is required. Very specifically, does the Government anticipate putting together a strategy and hiring additional staff to deal with these responsibilities? There is a very important element to this. Does the Government accept that the priority has to be actively promoting and defending the rights of those citizens in the North who voted to remain? This cannot just be set to one side. I acknowledge there are diplomatic issues. The North remains part of the British State but our responsibility is to the people of our own island . As I have said many times, we need to have an all-island vision and view
Why do I raise this? I raise it to ask what the arrangement is for based on the Government's outreach initiatives and any diplomatic offensives. Is it to be specific to the Twenty-six Counties? Alternatively, is the objective to obtain some special status for the North outside the European Union? That is a totally different animal than looking for specific, designated special status for the North inside the European Union. Has the Government examined other models that have accommodated this kind of thinking? All of us have said Brexit is the greatest challenge facing the island of Ireland for many decades.
Let me come back to the point that the people of the North voted to remain. That is their position and it should be ours, notwithstanding the diplomatic niceties in this regard.
We will give the Government a paper. I have just signed off on a paper. Our national officer board dealt with it. It outlines some strategic objectives regarding where we engage on this issue. It also points a way towards getting special designated status for the North within the European Union. I will send the document in due course to Teachtaí Dála and Seanadóirí.
That is the import of my question. As we face this big challenge, do we have the proper resources? Has the Government clearly made up its mind on whether we are seeking special status outside or inside the Union as part of our all-island vision?
My question is about the talks with foreign leaders. I was very surprised to read the Taoiseach's tweet at the weekend in which he said he had a really great conversation on the night in question with US Vice President-elect Mike Pence. He stated Mr. Pence certainly knows Ireland and the issues that matter to our people. To be honest, that is a pretty shocking statement. Does the Taoiseach know what Mr. Mike Pence thinks of LGBT people? Has he any idea? He knows what the Irish people think about LGBT rights. They believe in those rights and in equality.
Let me give the Taoiseach a flavour of what Mr. Mike Pence said:
Homosexuals are not as a group able bodied. They are known to carry extremely high rates of disease brought on because of the nature of their sexual practices and the promiscuity which is a hallmark of their lifestyle.
That is disgusting bigotry. He said gay journalists cannot remain unbiased because of the pathological nature of their "gaydom". This is unbelievable stuff. In 2006, he supported a constitutional amendment to ban same-sex weddings and suggested that if same-sex weddings were allowed, societal collapse would occur. In 2013, as Governor of Indiana, he signed a Bill that would jail same-sex couples who applied for a marriage license. The Bill also suggested that clerks or clergy who supplied a licence or performed a wedding for LGBT couples should be jailed. I have not got time to list the remaining instances of disgusting bigotry on the part of this man. I would like to know what the Taoiseach thinks we have in common with an outright bigot and anti-gay, anti-lesbian and anti-trans person such as Mr. Mike Pence. It seems we have nothing in common with him and that he knows nothing about the values of people in this country.
I ask Deputy Bríd Smith to be brief because the Taoiseach deserves an opportunity to respond.
My question is about Ibrahim Halawa. Deputy Gerry Adams already referred to this. By now, all things being equal in a Dáil that functions as a democracy, we should have had a cross-party delegation visiting Cairo, of which the Taoiseach would probably have been part. We passed a motion in July to have a cross-party delegation to visit Cairo and to have the Egyptian ambassador to Ireland, Mr. Gendi, visit our Parliament to talk to the foreign affairs committee.
I am delighted to see the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, present because I believe he owes me 50 bucks. The last time I spoke on the floor here, Ibrahim Halawa was facing his 16th trial. That has now been postponed. He will face his 17th trial on 13 December unless we intervene. Intervention means direct intervention from the Taoiseach, not just support for the Rule 140 position, as indicated to Deputy Gerry Adams. What he needs to do is apply in his own name for Rule 140 to apply to Ibrahim Halawa. There is a window of opportunity over the next two days. The Egyptian Government has set up a special commission to which the Taoiseach can apply to have Ibrahim Halawa released on the basis that he is a young person who has not been convicted. He has been in Egyptian prisons for over three years and this is affecting his university education. That is the basis on which the Taoiseach can apply for his release. He has got two days to do so. The expiry date is 25 November. I plead with the Taoiseach, on behalf of the Halawa family, to make the application and see Mr. Halawa released shortly. As Deputy Adams stated, hundreds of prisoners have been released. In the past few days, over 80 have been released. The Egyptian Government has set up a commission and is inviting the Irish Government to call for the release of prisoners on the basis that they are young and that their continuing internment without trial would affect their university education. Can the Taoiseach please submit the application in his own name?
Could we let the Taoiseach respond?
If el-Sisi's government sees an application that does not state "the Irish Government" but something else, it will not be taken as seriously as it should be. My question is a direct one. It requires only a "Yes" or "No" answer but I hope the answer is "Yes".
I advise the House that I received yesterday an invitation from the Speaker of the Egyptian Parliament requesting a visit by a delegation from these Houses.
We will support an all-party delegation if it wishes to travel to Cairo to discuss this matter. The Government backs the Rule 140 arrangement; it is not just an individual. I am privileged to lead the Government and I support that very strongly and will continue to do so. The Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, has had more extensive discussions about the release of Ibrahim Halawa than about any other Irish national. He will continue to do so until we secure Ibrahim's release.
In the past two days, I wrote again to the Egyptian President and we will pursue this matter further through the ambassadors.
Will the Taoiseach apply to the commission for Mr. Halawa's release before 25 November?
Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett should note that I did not speak about the personal views of the US Vice President-elect. I spoke to him about his position as the elected Vice President and I spoke to him about Ireland and our relationship with the United States. In that context, I mentioned the undocumented Irish and the scale of the employment of US citizens by Irish companies. I explained and spoke to him about the traditional relationships we have had with the United States over many years. Vice President-elect Pence fully understands the issues of Ireland, its economy, its people, our traditions and our values. That has nothing to do with his personal opinions. I said before in this House that the decision that has been made here was made by the US electorate, the people of the United States. They have elected Mr. Donald Trump to be the President and Mr. Mike Pence to be the Vice President.
We will work with that government, as all other governments will do. We do not have to dismiss or diminish in any way our own values or what we stand for in working politically with a government.
The Government has to speak out against the use of that kind of language.
In respect of Northern Ireland, we have discussed the issue with Deputy Gerry Adams before. People in Northern Ireland did vote to remain. We have a peace process, a land border, PEACE and INTERREG funds. There are very particular circumstances. Following the meeting during the course of the week in Armagh, we will work with the Executive, the First Minister and the deputy First Minister to secure the best deal for the people of Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland.