1. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Arts, Irish and the Gaeltacht last met. [5893/17]
Vol. 939 No. 3
1. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Arts, Irish and the Gaeltacht last met. [5893/17]
2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Arts, Irish and the Gaeltacht last met. [7035/17]
3. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if the Cabinet Committee on Arts, Irish and the Gaeltacht has met since October 2016; and when it is planned to meet next. [7047/17]
4. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the Cabinet Committee on Arts, Irish and the Gaelteacht. [8464/17]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together. The Cabinet Committee on Arts, Irish, the Gaeltacht and the Islands last met on 13 October 2016. The next meeting is scheduled for Monday, 27 February.
Last October the Taoiseach launched the Government's policy, polasaí don oideachas Gaeltachta. This claims to be focused on the provision of Irish medium education and to support the use of Irish as a living, indigenous language in Gaeltacht areas. Under this new strategy, schools will only be given Gaeltacht school recognition if they teach entirely through the medium of Irish. In order to improve the supply and quality of teachers, the policy includes the provision of a new Irish medium initial teacher education programme. The Department of Education and Skills, however, has yet to commence the drafting of a tender process for this. When that is done the successful provider has to turn the programme into action. This will mean that the additional teachers will not be available before September 2018. Is the Taoiseach satisfied with this timeframe? I have a real concern that the delay will undermine the ability of schools to meet the targets set by the Gaeltacht education policy. Will the Taoiseach indicate the current status of the tender process and will he update the Dáil on the overall policy?
Perhaps the Taoiseach will also update the Dáil on the ferry service to Inis Mór. Have the difficulties that arose before last Christmas been resolved? Will the Taoiseach also update the Dáil on what the Government is doing to ensure that gaeilgeoirí in the North have the protection of Acht na Gaeilge as promised in the St. Andrews Agreement in 2006?
The publication of the education policy in respect of Gaeltacht schools was the first since the foundation of the State. The policy was brought about by the realisation that there is a serious drop in the numbers of children especially who speak Irish on a full-time basis in the Gaeltacht. This was due to population trends, demographics and shifts in population and so on. For this reason the change was brought about to have a recognition, capacity and policy for Gaeltacht schools which will compete for that title. The method of teaching and full-time education through Irish is one of particular importance in building confidence and competence in the language, which in many ways is the reason why we have failure in other areas. This was welcomed by groups all over the country. It is a radical change from where were, that schools that happen to be in the Gaeltacht should be getting their own Gaeltacht policy. Obviously, there will be situations where this will cause some difficulty, but the policy has been well accepted since it was launched in An Cheathrú Rua by myself, the Minister for Education and Skills, Deputy Richard Bruton, and the Minister of State with responsibility for Gaeltacht affairs, Deputy Seán Kyne. The schools will be recognised through a set of criteria such as teaching wholly through the medium of Irish in Gaeltacht areas, the comprehension and integrated range of additional supports that will be made available to schools that gain recognition as Gaeltacht schools and so on. The Department is working through the Straitéis 20 Bliain don Ghaeilge.
I asked the Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, Deputy Humphreys, a number of questions about Creative Ireland which the Taoiseach and the Minister announced to a great deal of fanfare before Christmas. The answers were distinctly lacking in detail about what exactly Creative Ireland is going to mean and what is the long-term commitment. I understand that €5 million is allocated to Creative Ireland, which does not seem to be a very large amount. Some €1 million allocated to local authorities for community programmes and spread out among all our local authorities seems like a fairly derisory amount. The arts community has a question. Is that additional €5 million a long-term, ongoing commitment or is it a once-off €5 million? How is that money to be spent and what will it be spent on?
I also asked the Minister, and did not get clarity, about social welfare entitlements for artists.
There was a specific request that artists, who often work intermittently but who do not get paid when they are not directly employed or employed in the business of creating work, would need specific recognition in regard to jobseeker's allowance. I seek clarity on what the Government is going to do to assist our artists and not have them chased up.
I have no doubt about the Taoiseach's creative talents and his talent for storytelling and so on but I was a little surprised that Creative Ireland is going to be directed by himself and a number of senior Ministers with no advice from actual artists themselves. Will he explain why it is the Taoiseach and Ministers who will direct Creative Ireland, rather than having advice from actual artists, if we are to have a grassroots approach to developing the arts?
We brought in the artistic community to the Cabinet committee and they were very appreciative of the consideration of a programme for Creative Ireland. The fact it will be monitored from the Department of the Taoiseach means it has particular clout in terms of co-ordination, such as applied during the centenary celebratory events for 1916. It was obvious during those commemorative centenary events that communities all over the country displayed outstanding leadership and creativity in so many ways, from the children doing their little poems, plays and pictures and so on, to receiving the national flag in every school, to older children writing their proclamations and their version of the Constitution, to their elders and seniors, parents and grandparents, talking about their involvement in 1916. It is that creative force, that imaginative force, that will prevent communities from fracturing once they are allowed to participate.
The Government took away the €50 million it gave them.
The money is not a once-off and it is going to continue and the base of €18 million is there for the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs for the future. There will also be what is called Cruinniú na Cásca, whereby Easter Monday every year will be allocated for artistic and imaginative endeavour. I notice there is now public art on the major roads throughout the country, which provides opportunities for artists to be creative in particular locations and to reflect geography and history in what they produce. The programme is there for the Deputy to see.
It is lacking in detail.
We all know about the STEM subjects - science, technology, engineering and mathematics - but, as has been pointed out on many occasions, the aim is to put artistic, imaginative and creative endeavour at the centre of public policy. If we inserted that into STEM, we would get STEAM, which would show the two sides of the use of people's imaginative qualities, whether it be music or physics, mathematics or architecture, or whatever. All of these things provide a real opportunity. Cruinniú na Cásca will be an important element every year.
The Creative Ireland programme was launched in the National Gallery. Extraordinary work has been done on the presentation of the gallery and it is going to be an outstanding edifice for the next 100 years. I look forward to that. Creative Ireland is an important element which, I must say to Deputy Boyd Barrett, was welcomed unanimously by all of the artistic groups, which said it is the first time there has been a realistic attempt to centralise art, artistic work, creative work and imaginative work as part of public policy. It is being monitored by the Department of the Taoiseach so we can publish and timeline the actions that are to be undertaken.
To pick up on a point raised in the Taoiseach's previous reply, he will recall we put in significant funding on the capital side for the 1916 centenary commemorations. The argument was very strongly made by my colleague, Deputy Burton, that this should be embedded in capital funding for the arts because it is an area that has been lacking in capital funding, although we put in a rolling €5 million per annum for arts centres and so on. Is it is intended to keep that €50 million? The Taoiseach indicated it was being left in place. What specifically will it be paid out for?
With regard to the next phase of commemorations, given we are coming up to the commemoration of the War of Independence and the end of the First World War, is it planned to have specific commemorations of those events and others? Will the Taoiseach indicate exactly what is envisaged?
With regard to the Irish language and the Gaeltacht, under Acht na Gaeltachta 2012 it was envisaged we would have a different look at what constitutes a Gaeltacht and that it would not necessarily be a geographical area but a nexus of Irish speakers. While it may sound fanciful to some, my former colleague Robert Dowds had proposed, for example, that there was a sufficient number of people in Clondalkin who could have the designation of being in a Gaeltacht. Is there any out-of-the-box thinking to promote the Irish language in a new way in areas, including urban areas, where there is a high regard for the spoken language?
It is an interesting concept. In 2016, a once-off €49 million was made available for the centenary programme under the Department of Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs, which included €18 million in current funding and €31 million in capital funding. As the Deputy is aware, some of the once-off projects that were finished included the visitor centre at the GPO, Richmond Barracks, the Kevin Barry rooms at the National Concert Hall, the Athenaeum in Wexford and others in Dublin that will stand the test of time. The Department retained the majority of the €18 million in current funding for 2017 and it is now part of the base for the arts division of the Department, meaning this will be available in future years. As Deputy Howlin is aware, 2016 was a particular year given it was the centenary year.
We do not have the details worked out for each of the years up to 2022 and 2023. I have made the point before that, as was reflected in the 1916 centenary year, we now have time to plan what we are going to have to do as a nation, and as a people, for 2020, 2021 and 2022, and for the War of Independence and the Civil War. As a mature country, given people went to extraordinary lengths to show a different mentality and a different Ireland during the centenary year, it is a question of how we can bridge the gap across the sensitivities of the Civil War. We have the time and the opportunity to plan imaginatively as to how that might be reflected in a centenary commemoration.
Who is working on that?
We do not have the details worked out but, obviously, it is a matter for communities all over the country to put forward suggestions as to how this might be commemorated. As Deputy Howlin is aware, many of those events are much more sensitive and raw than those of 1916. I would think that, given how we have reflected a maturity about the centenary commemorative year, we can do the same for 2018 and 2021.
I acknowledge there are locations here in Dublin where there is more Irish spoken than in many Gaeltacht areas. This is an issue that is being looked at in the context of what constitutes the spoken language and where it is spoken, as distinct from just having a geographical boundary. The former Minister, Patrick Lindsay, when he was asked at the Cabinet table why he had not put Bangor Erris into the Gaeltacht, given he had responsibility for the breac-Ghaeltacht, said, "Surely, you are not telling me that Bangor Erris is an Irish-speaking area", and he only lived three or four miles from there himself.
I believe the arts portfolio is in the wrong Department. It was a makey-up type of creation at the formation of the Government and the artistic community rightly rebelled against it. The one good dividend from it was that it led to a reconsideration by the Government as a whole on the arts front. While the Creative Ireland document is positive in itself, there is a lack of beef, a lack of capacity, in terms of the funding behind it. Overall, there has been a lack of vision regarding the arts and a lack of a national policy towards the arts in the last five or six years that fully embraces and utilises the energies of local authorities and the Department of Education and Skills, along with the Arts Council and others, to support artists and to develop strong support of arts and culture throughout the country.
When the Taoiseach says a majority of the €18 million in current funding was used in the 1916 spending programme, how much was retained for current arts funding in 2017? How much of the capital funding of €31 million was retained, or has it been classed as once-off and, hence, dramatically reduced?
Around the country there are a lot of art centre schemes that could be upgraded and that need development.
Maidir leis na Gaeltachtaí agus leis an nGaeilge, is léir go bhfuil feabhas mór tagtha ar labhairt agus ar chruinneas na Gaeilge ar fud na tíre de bharr an réablóid sa Ghaelscolaíocht. Tá i bhfad níos mó daoine óga anois in ann an teanga a labhairt go líofa agus go nádúrtha de bharr na Gaelscoileanna. Ach ní hé sin fáth nó réasún chun tacaíocht a tharraingt siar ós na Gaeltachtaí. Tá níos mó ná an Ghaeilge amháin ag baint leis na Gaeltachtaí. Tá cultúr ann agus, de ghnáth, is áiteanna iargúlta iad. Ba chóir an infheistíocht atá ann a choiméad sna Gaeltachtaí.
Tá an t-am istigh.
Tá deacracht agam faoi cad tá faoi chaibidil ag an Rialtas mar léiríonn sé, b'fhéidir, go mbainfear tacaíocht ós na Gaeltachtaí diaidh ar ndiaidh. Caithfimid níos mó cabhair a thabhairt dóibh. Go háirithe, ba chóir ionad a chur ar fáil chun níos mó cabhair agus tacaíocht a thabhairt do dhaoine chun an Ghaeilge a mhúineadh go héifeachtúil ar fud na tíre.
As the document points out, one is dealing here with the issue of the five pillars enabling the creative potential of every child, enabling creativity in every community, investing in our creative and cultural infrastructure, Ireland as a centre of excellence in media production, and unifying our global reputation. When one goes through all of those, the different headings point out that there is scope here for every person, who has got a proposition that is in any way creative or imaginative, to participate in this. The education centres around the country, the little artistic centres around the country, the arts officers in the local authorities and the schools themselves, in arts and crafts, creativity and play have played an extraordinary part in boosting the understanding and the importance of the arts. We hope that Cruinniú na Cásca, which will be on Easter Monday of each year, will bring about something like what happened in September where 1,400 events took place around the country involving children and young people in some artistic endeavour. That is what this is about.
Clearly, the following funding was provided: €2 million for the opening of the newly restored historic wings of the National Gallery, the opening of Killarney House on foot of significant investment by the State, an increase of €2 million for the Irish Film Board and €1 million for Culture Ireland; and funding of €5 million for the implementation of Creative Ireland. Obviously, we would love to have had funding for so many other events but we did not have it. We are building on that, as the economy improves.
Ó thaobh chúrsaí mhúineadh na Gaeilge de, ba chóir go mbeadh athbhreithniú ar na modhanna múinteoireachta Gaeilge. Ó thaobh na Gaeltachta féin de, cuireadh fáilte mhór roimh an straitéis nua agus tá súil agam go láidreoidh sé sin as seo amach. Nuair a bheidh na teidil agus na freagraí tugtha, ag éirí as na coinníollacha a bheith comhlínte, tá súil agam go mbeidh tacaíocht le fáil taobh istigh de na Gaeltachtaí agus do na Gaeltachtaí agus ní hamháin ó Údarás na Gaeltachta agus nithe eile ach ó thaobh cúrsaí oideachais freisin agus go mbeidh an togha den líofacht agus taithí sin le fáil ag gasúir, cibé as a dtagann siad, a bheidh ag freastal ar scoileanna Gaeltachta sna Gaeltachtaí.
Bogfaimid ar aghaidh anois go dtí an chéad grúpa eile.
Tá ceist agam agus tá mé sa ghrúpa seo.
An raibh ceist ag an Teachta roimhe seo?
Táimid thar am.
Ceist ghearr atá agam don Taoiseach faoi Log an Lá i gContae Chill Mhantáin.
Táimid thar am.
Luggala, in County Wicklow, an estate of 5,000 acres which is currently open to the public, is owned by the Guinness family trust and has been in the care and guardianship of Garech Browne, whom the Taoiseach possibly knows and who has been very involved in the promotion of Irish music and the arts over a long period of time.
Tá sé thar am.
I would like to know whether the Cabinet Committee on Arts, Irish and the Gaeltacht has had an opportunity to discuss this. The estate may be bought by a private buyer and access to the public is a vital part of the facilities for walking which are available to the public.
Denis O'Brien, God forbid.
It is one of the most iconic beautiful spots in Ireland.
Has this been discussed, either by the Cabinet or by the Cabinet committee?
Deputy Burton normally observes the time.
It has not been discussed by the Cabinet and it is not been discussed by the Cabinet committee.
The Taoiseach would want to get on with that.
I heard reports of the Minister of State with responsibility for regional economic development, Deputy Ring, saying he would be quite prepared to negotiate or discuss with the owners of Luggala. I point out to Deputy Burton that Westport House, a magnificent building there for so many years, was bought by a local family and will be kept open to the public. It is wonderful to see a situation where, after so many years, a local family is in a position to buy something like Westport House and keep it for the people of Westport in public view and for those who will travel there. Obviously, the Minister is looking at the question of Luggala but it has not been discussed by Cabinet and it has not been raised or discussed at the Cabinet Committee because the Minister of State is looking at it at present.
5. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Taoiseach if the Cabinet Committee on Housing has met recently. [7028/17]
6. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Housing last met and when it is scheduled to meet again. [8366/17]
7. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Housing last met; and when it will meet again. [8421/17]
8. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if the Cabinet Committee on Housing has met recently. [8467/17]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 8, inclusive, together. The Cabinet committee on housing last met on 6 February 2017. It is scheduled to meet again on 27 February 2017.
It will continue to meet regularly and consider progress in implementing Rebuilding Ireland: Action Plan for Housing and Homelessness, which is a priority issue for the Government.
I wonder would the Taoiseach go to the Cabinet with a proposal to change the name of Rebuilding Ireland because it is not rebuilding Ireland. The lowest figures for public sector house building were released last week. They were buried under the other problems the Government had last week but I wish to bring them to the Taoiseach's attention in case he missed them.
We thought we were doing badly under the former Minister, Deputy Kelly, with 476 public sector houses built in 2015 but, lo and behold, under the Minister, Deputy Coveney, we got 448 public sector houses in 2016. The rate actually slowed in the last quarter and I wonder whether the Taoiseach has any room for worry there.
Obviously, there were record numbers of homeless people at Christmas and the new year. Yesterday, according to The Irish Times, 700 patients were discharged from hospitals last year into homelessness. Some 8% of those who attended the Mater accident and emergency department were of homeless families. Does the Taoiseach feel a bit of a failure? The Taoiseach's legacy surely matters to him as he draws towards the end. On the issue of housing, one of the most fundamental issues in anybody's life, clearly the Government is not working.
Rents also were shown to be the highest on record since daft.ie began recording figures. Focus Ireland has stated one-in-three tenants struggle to pay their rent, one-in-nine fears losing their home and 88% want the Government to regulate rents. On the limited measures the Government took in relation to the rent pressure zones, I have a serious question. How will they be enforced? If a tenant who wants to rent out a property walks up to a landlord, he or she has no way of proving whether or not that landlord has abided by the measure.
Cuir do ceist.
My ceist is this. The single issue that is the problem here is the Government is wedded to private housing. The Government has a distaste for public sector housing, as evidenced by the fact it will not build any. That is the real problem we have in this country.
Those reliant on social and affordable housing have no prospect, based on the figures I have seen.
The January homeless figures, published by the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government yesterday, reveal an increase in the number of people in emergency accommodation. There is an all-time high of 7,167 citizens who are homeless and the number of households in emergency accommodation has increased by 84. In January, 4,760 adults were in emergency accommodation, which is an increase of 117 persons.
The number of families in emergency accommodation has dropped by 33 and the number of children has dropped by 98. However, a total of 2,407 children are still homeless. The Minister has claimed these figures show the success of his policy. On the contrary, they are evidence of a policy that does not have ambition and that is not working. How can a 91% increase in homelessness in two years be labelled a success? One child becomes homeless every five hours in Dublin. This is evidence of a crisis that is deepening.
Once again, the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Coveney, released the figures late. We need an aggressive purchase programme for vacant homes. It needs to include 1,000 new housing first tenancies this year. The Taoiseach is always claiming that the only way to tackle the housing crisis is to increase supply, in other words, to build houses. When does he expect that to happen?
I listened with some care to the Taoiseach's replies to Deputy Micheál Martin during Leaders' Questions. I had thought we had an all-party approach to dealing with this issue, because it is the compelling social issue right now.
It is a fact that the last Government allocated €3 billion, an unprecedented sum. However, that was almost three years ago and, for some reason, the social housing that we expected is not being delivered. I know some of the reasons. We had to reconstitute local authority housing departments and so on. Some 430 individuals had to be employed because sufficient staff were not available in local authorities. Is it time now to look at a different delivery system? Patently, money is available and political will seems to be present across the House, but the delivery is not happening.
Let us consider the shocking delay in delivering modular housing. Under the plan 200 homes were meant to have been built by the end of last year with a further 800 by the end of this year. Thus far, 22 have been built and they were all under projects started by the then Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly. It seems to me that some impediment exists in translating the clear policy directions from the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government to concrete solutions.
The soap opera of the leadership struggle within Fine Gael seems to be preoccupying media debate during the past week. Frankly, it is lost on me and I imagine it is lost on large numbers of people who are concerned about having a roof, or not having a roof, over their heads. It is part of the long litany of people coming in to my clinic in dire circumstances day in, day out and week in, week out. I want an answer from the Taoiseach about what I should say to these people. I am fed up talking about this for the past five years.
This week a mother of two children came to me. She is trying to overcome addiction issues and she is clean. Yet the emergency services tried to shove her back into emergency accommodation in town where there are active drug users. Instead of going in to that environment, she is now elsewhere. We mentioned Luggala earlier. I will not say exactly where the woman is, but she is camping in a national park in the Wicklow Mountains rather than going into the hostels in town provided by the emergency services and the local authorities. That is the position. This mother is separated from her children because she has nowhere to go and she is up in the Wicklow Mountains rather than going to hostels.
I do not have time to enumerate some of the other abominable cases that come to me. What do I say to that woman? I appeal to the Taoiseach to tell me. Nothing has changed and I am running out of any hope that there is light at the end of the tunnel for these people.
There are 4,000 vacant units in Dublin city alone and approximately 15% of housing stock is classified as vacant. That is nearly three times the level that is considered natural. This is one emergency issue that could be dealt with. We are in an emergency but one does not get the sense that it is being treated as an emergency. I agree with the comments of Deputy Howlin to the effect that there is a problem with execution and delivery. Only 22 modular homes have been built. It is a scandal. They were heralded as the great white hope two years ago and it was going to be a great thing. However, we have seen no delivery on the ground.
Earlier, the Taoiseach referred to the European Fund for Strategic Investments, known as the Juncker plan. The Department of Finance has a policy not to avail of that facility.
The Stability and Growth Pact prohibits it.
It does not.
No, it does not. It is a public private partnership facility. Andrew McDowell, who advised the Government, has now gone over.
Deputy Howlin is no longer-----
I am looking for solutions.
I am too. We use it for health centres but not for housing. We have a strategic investment fund but we are not building council houses at the level we should be.
The credit unions are offering €5 billion.
The credit unions are offering money. We have gone to the Government with the issue of credit unions.
What about NAMA?
Instead of getting a loan at a lousy rate from the main banks, into which they must make all their deposits, the credit unions are willing to invest that money in the provision of housing. However, those in government simply do not want to get up and get it sorted. Meanwhile, we have this thing going on about leadership. Those Ministers ought to show some leadership in their portfolios given the crisis at hand.
We are eating into the next slot.
I am unsure whether people actually hear me. Reference was made to social housing. It is not true to say that the Government is opposed to social housing. I have before me a figure of 8,430 homes currently being built. If Deputy Coppinger wants to know where they are, the Minister will send her the exact details of the sites, locations and so on.
I know where they are.
Some 1,829 homes are already on-site with a further 91 projects throughout the country. These figures are available to Deputies.
Only 440 were built last year.
Some 61 projects are at practical completion stage. They were begun in 2016. The Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government as well as the Minister and a Minister of State are dealing with this. They are working hard. There is a housing delivery unit in the Department. They have changed all the processes and expedited the opportunity for local authorities not only to get money but to get back building houses. There is evidence of this in the various stages, including capital appraisal, pre-planning, pre-tender and tender reports. Some 2,687 social homes are at stage one, 1,279 are at stage two, 490 are at stage three and 1,493 are at stage four. This is real progress, given that we started from a position where nothing was happening. It is not a question of provision of money. It is a question of having the processes and the mechanics actually working.
Deputy Howlin raised a point about rapid build and suggested only 22 had been built. By the end of this year, a total of 1,000 rapid-build houses will be finished.
Is the Taoiseach referring to modular houses?
The housing assistance payment scheme dealt with 18,000 solutions last year.
That is simply re-categorising rent allowance.
A total of 2,800 people left homelessness completely.
Deputy Martin raised a question about the credit unions and the money they have. The Minister of State met representatives from the credit unions yesterday and today. We are waiting for a decision from the Central Bank, which is the regulator of the credit unions, as Deputies are aware. The Government is happy to take and use the money from the credit unions, but it requires the imprimatur or approval of the Central Bank. We are keen for this to happen. Of course, as Deputies are aware, we cannot magic these houses into existence. We must have a process that works. That is why €200 million was put up for access to sites that were inaccessible. This is to be used to cross a river, provide a bridge, open a thoroughfare or whatever else. We are catching up from a base where nothing was happening.
9. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Prime Minister Beata Szydło in Warsaw, Poland. [7046/17]
10. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to Poland, his meeting with Prime Minister Beata Szydło and any other engagements he had while there. [8365/17]
11. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Poland and his meeting with the Polish Prime Minister. [8459/17]
12. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with Prime Minister Beata Szydło of Poland. [8524/17]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 to 12, inclusive, together.
I had a very fruitful meeting with Prime Minister Szydo in Warsaw on Thursday, 9 February, which covered a range of European, global and bilateral issues, with Brexit top of the agenda.
I outlined to the Prime Minister Ireland’s concerns about the impact of Brexit on our economy, Northern Ireland, the common travel area and the future of the EU.
Poland shares many of our concerns on Brexit. The UK is its second largest export market after Germany. We agreed that the EU 27 should speak strongly with one voice and we share the hope that the future EU-UK relationship will be as close and as positive as possible post-Brexit. The issue of rights of EU citizens, including Poles, living in the UK is a very important one.
We agreed on the need for the reciprocal rights issue to be addressed early in Brexit negotiations while also defending the indivisibility of the four freedoms, that is, free movement of people, goods, capital and services.
Mrs. Szydo and I exchanged views on key issues on the European agenda. In particular we discussed the future of Europe and the preparations for the forthcoming summit meeting in Rome. We agreed that the EU will remain an indispensable source of stability and core democratic values in the world. Our focus should be on delivering concrete results of importance to the lives of our citizens, including jobs, growth, and investment. We discussed the importance of completing the Single Market and the digital single market, of which both countries are strong advocates, and which bring huge benefits in terms of jobs and growth to our citizens. We also discussed the external challenges facing the EU in a changed global landscape, in particular Russia-EU relations and the escalating conflict in Ukraine. We agreed on the need to maintain sanctions against Russia until the Minsk agreements are fully implemented.
We discussed the excellent bilateral relations between our countries. Since Poland joined the EU in 2004, ties between our two countries have grown very strong, thanks to the Polish community of approximately 150,000 people living in Ireland and the resulting deep personal, cultural, and economic ties that connect us. Trade between our two countries is growing at a rate of over 15% a year. I thanked the Prime Minister for the very positive contribution of Polish people living here to Irish society.
Prime Minister Szydo raised the teaching of Polish in Irish schools and the good work under way by the Minister, Deputy Bruton, in this regard. The forthcoming foreign languages in education strategy from the Department of Education and Skills will contain a number of projects to support children who speak Polish in the home. We agreed that our Ministers with responsibility for education would engage on this matter, and I invited the Prime Minister to send her Minister for Education to Ireland to discuss it with the Minister, Deputy Bruton.
I invited PM Szydo to visit Ireland next year and she accepted my invitation.
During my visit to Warsaw I had the opportunity to observe the great work under way by our agencies, Enterprise Ireland and Bord Bia, and by our embassy in supporting trade and promoting Ireland. I officially opened the new Polish office of Bord Bia, which will serve the central and eastern European market and which demonstrates ongoing efforts to diversify Irish food exports, especially in the context of Brexit. I spoke at the Irish-Polish Innovation Forum organised by Enterprise Ireland, at which it was clear that there is excellent collaboration between Irish and Polish start-ups. Finally, I had the opportunity to meet with business people and the Irish community at an embassy event.
I thank the Taoiseach for his comprehensive reply. The Taoiseach will be aware that the so-called Visegrád Group of countries - Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia - have announced that they will veto any Brexit deal that does not accommodate their citizens currently living in the United Kingdom. Did the Taoiseach have any discussion with the Polish Prime Minister about that assertion? Did he make any commitments relating to that demand? What is the Taoiseach's view of the Polish Prime Minister's understanding of the unique Irish position? Is there a comprehension of how uniquely the exit of the United Kingdom from the European Union will impact on us? Finally, with regard to the potential of Polish citizens finding it more comfortable to live in a European Union country after Brexit, was there any discussion about the possible migration of Polish citizens currently in the United Kingdom to Ireland post-Brexit?
I wish to raise three matters. The Taoiseach quite correctly stresses the importance of the peace process when he is discussing the implications of Brexit with our European partners. In the context of the peace process, the High Court in Belfast dismissed the appeal of Geraldine Finucane earlier today. That was done on the basis that Ministers are entitled to depart from the policies of previous governments. I bring this to the Taoiseach's attention because the decision has serious implications far beyond the case of Pat Finucane. It is one to which he should give his attention.
The second matter is the Taoiseach's refusal - and he only became clear about this in recent times - to support the proposition that the North be afforded a special designated status in the European Union. The decision by Fine Gael to vote against the Sinn Féin-Fianna Fáil motion on Brexit last week was a grave mistake and exposes the deep flaw at the heart of the Government's approach. Will the Taoiseach explain the rationale for that?
Third, when I asked the Taoiseach recently whether there was contingency planning for customs posts along the Border, he said he hoped nobody was looking for sites along the Border and that he did not know anything about it. However, when Deputy Pearse Doherty asked the Minister for Finance about this, the Minister said there was such contingency planning. There is much talk about it being a friction-free soft Border yet, at the same time, there is contingency planning and officials are looking at where customs posts will be erected. That is causing huge concern from Louth to Donegal and Derry. Will the Taoiseach clarify that? In addition, and I have asked this question a number of times but the Taoiseach has not given an answer, will he publish a White Paper on Brexit? If not, he should tell the House he does not intend to do it. The Taoiseach should not ignore the question.
The Taoiseach mentioned the wide range of issues he discussed with the Polish Prime Minister. Did he have time to discuss an issue that is common to both of their hearts, namely, the fact that Poland and Ireland have the most restrictive abortion laws in Europe? Both the Taoiseach and the Polish Prime Minister are faced with a growing demand for change on this issue. Did they have any tips to give each other? For example, there was a strike by women and men in Poland due to an attack that was taking place on the very limited abortion rights in Poland. The Polish Government wanted to introduce an eighth amendment, like the Taoiseach's beloved amendment, but it was forced back by a massive movement. International Women's Day is on 8 March, two weeks hence. There have been calls for a global women's strike on that day. We saw the marches that took place following the election of President Trump, in which 4 million people around the world took part. The Strike 4 Repeal will be held in Dublin and the march for repeal, organised by the Coalition to Repeal the Eighth Amendment, will take place at 5.30 p.m. on International Women's Day. The Bus 4 Repeal, organised by Reproductive rights against Oppression, Sexism & Austerity, ROSA, will be travelling the country to organise for those events and to bring news and information for women who are barred from leaving this country, as they do not have the means and the wherewithal to access abortion, about abortion pills which are perfectly safe.
This is one issue the Taoiseach did not mention. This might be his last month in office, although I do not know what is happening in Fine Gael-----
Nor should the Deputy.
Unless she is on the WhatsApp.
No, I am not on the WhatsApp. Will the Taoiseach see fit to recognise that this is a serious issue, not a joke? Thousands of young people in particular will not tolerate delays on this any longer. Were there any tips from Poland about listening to the popular movement for change?
Was there any discussion about the matter of child benefit being paid in respect of children of Polish workers who are here in Ireland but whose children are living in Poland? This is an area that the Commission has not wished to change, but it was offered as a reform to David Cameron before the Brexit referendum. Mrs. Merkel has now indicated that she wishes to proceed with a German reform.
In the context of Poland being part of the so-called Visegrád Group, did the Taoiseach discuss the idea of there being different clubs in the European Union post Brexit, for example, the original core founding countries in a high-speed club or inner circle and then other countries like the Visegrad countries which are vehemently not federalist and which are opposed to any further extensive integration? Were either of those two issues discussed with the Polish Prime Minister?
The Polish Government has taken an aggressive attitude towards the reappointment of Donald Tusk as President of the European Council. He has been a very good President so far. He has shown important moral leadership, helped smaller and medium-sized countries to have a reasonable voice and ensured they are heard. Did the Taoiseach discuss that matter in Warsaw when he was there? Will he confirm that Ireland is supporting the reappointment of Donald Tusk in this critical position?
Reports from the meeting suggest that Poland was not particularly supportive of the Irish position on the common travel area which was outlined to the Polish Prime Minister. They are concerned about the implications of restricted movement on Polish citizens. Will the Taoiseach confirm that he stated Ireland's absolute commitment to maintaining freedom of movement post Brexit and that we would not allow the common travel area to cause new restrictions on travel between here and other EU member states? We could become trapped between the UK and others in terms of this issue which both might try to exploit to maintain pressure. Has the Taoiseach discussed that issue with the negotiating team?
There are many issues to deal with in a short time. The Polish Prime Minister did raise the question of the rights of Polish citizens who have acquired benefits in Britain since Poland joined. I pointed out that in our case, with a common travel area since 1922, our citizens have acquired rights over all of those years which are far more traditional and extensive than what applied in the case of other countries where people have come to Britain since they joined the European Union. I did say that we would maintain our common travel area with Britain and we would maintain the opportunity of freedom of travel as one of the four freedoms in the Single Market.
I did not discuss abortion with the Polish Prime Minister, nor did we share any tips, nor indeed should any amendment be called one's beloved amendment. All amendments to the Constitution belong to the people, as well the Deputy is aware.
The question that Deputy Burton raised about the children of Polish workers who work here and who live in Poland was not discussed, but we did discuss the part played by Polish citizens here in integrating with Irish people and the fact that Polish is now the second most common language spoken in the country. For that reason I invited the Prime Minister herself to come to Ireland. I also extended an invitation to her Minister for Education to come and talk to the Minister, Deputy Bruton, who is drafting changes for the curriculum in respect of languages and a number of issues that can be raised about Polish being part of our curriculum here where Polish is spoken in homes in Ireland.
We will publish a paper in respect of Brexit. I waited until the forum in Dublin Castle last weekend was completed. I think it was valuable, and while Deputy Adams made a particular type of contribution, I was glad to see him there with the leader of the Sinn Fein Party in Northern Ireland. I take the Deputy's point about the Finucane case. I have asked for a report of the judgment of that. If the Fresh Start agreement is anything to go by, that holds the potential of dealing with this, but the testing is the proof, and I will study the judgment.
With respect to the special status, we have special circumstances, we have a special arrangement, a special peace process, special PEACE funds and special INTERREG funds. These all equate to special status for Northern Ireland. As I said in the Mansion House, across the spectrum there is an opportunity to have all-island solutions in a number of areas. I do not want to single out any one issue, but the issues of water, electricity and animal health all cross borders without physical restriction. There is an opportunity to look at a number of those areas where an all-island solution can be achieved. The real issue here is what the issue is going to be like between the United Kingdom and the European Union, and if Britain wants to have as close a relationship with the EU as possible, that will benefit us and we support that. I made the point to Commissioner Timmermans this morning that I do not think that it is feasible to proceed on the basis of the divorce discussions without having parallel discussions about the reality of the future framework and the future relationship between the United Kingdom and Europe.