Ceisteanna - Questions

Cabinet Committee Meetings

Gerry Adams

Question:

1. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [20717/17]

Brendan Howlin

Question:

2. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on housing last met; and when future meetings are planned. [21872/17]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.

The Cabinet committee last met on 10 April 2017. It is scheduled to meet again next Monday, 15 May.

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.

When did it last met?

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. It last met on Monday, 10 April 2017, and it is scheduled to meet again next Monday, 15 May.

The Taoiseach will be aware that this morning, daft.ie published its latest rent price report and the details are alarming. Average rents have soared to a new record high. Rents across the State increased by 13% in the past 12 months. Supply remains at an all-time low. There are only 3,084 properties available to rent across the entire Twenty-six Counties. The introduction of rent pressure zones last December was supposed to restrain rents and limit annual increases but that is not working. In fact, there is now a two-tier rental sector and the struggling renters are caught in the middle. In the meantime, 91,000 families are on local authority housing lists, 4,875 adults and 2,546 children are in emergency accommodation and five families a day are losing their homes. Currently, I am trying to help a pregnant mother. Her current accommodation will not be suitable after her baby is born and she is desperately seeking more suitable accommodation as she has two other children. She has been on the housing list for seven years. Another citizen with two children is living at home with her parents and her sister in a three-bedroom house. She is sharing a small bedroom with two children and has been on the housing list since 2013. Every Deputy here could tell such stories. My questions are simple. When will the Government release the funds to allow local authorities to deliver 10,000 real social housing units a year? When will the Government introduce real rent certainty to stop spiralling rents? When will the Taoiseach instruct the housing Minister to introduce the Focus Ireland amendment to stop the flow of rental properties from the market and stop renting families being pushed into homelessness? Have these issues been discussed by the Cabinet housing committee?

I have already dealt with the Government's response to the latest daft.ie data on rents. They show that asking rents rose by 13.9% in Dublin over the year to the first quarter of 2017. I pointed out to Deputy Adams and others that the rate of increase in Dublin rent prices between quarter four 2016 and quarter one 2017 was significantly lower than the rate of increase over the year.

Supply is the central problem. We cannot ignore the high and rising level of rent in certain areas of the country. That is why the Government has introduced the rent predictability measure and established the system of rent pressure zones. Money is available to local authorities like never before and incentives have been introduced like never before in terms of dealing with many of those issues. There are 504 housing construction projects around the country. They include Rath na Gloine in Louth; eight houses in Aston Village; ten houses in Clos na Manach, Carlingford; 15 houses in Scarlet Street, Drogheda; 14 houses in Castlecourt, Castlebellingham; 41 houses in Liscorrie, Bog Lane, Drogheda; 22 houses in Coulter Place, Dundalk; 35 houses in Rathmullen Road; 35 houses in another project on Rathmullen Road, Drogheda; 14 houses in Cox's Demesne phase 2a; seven houses in Cox's Demesne phase 2b; seven houses in Tierney Street, Ardee; ten houses in Barrack Street, Dundalk; 11 houses in Clontygora, Dundalk; one house in McArdle Green; 23 houses in phase 2 Boice Court, 20 houses in Boice Court phase 3; 20 houses in Fr. Finn Park phase 2 and so on.

Deputy Adams will know whether the houses are at an advanced stage of construction. The real problem is supply and every effort is being made to deal with it. That is why local authorities have been given money, incentives and opportunity to buy houses, restore vacant units and boarded up houses and there are other incentives to encourage people to bring houses back into habitable use that can be rented for a period, together with opportunities to build social housing directly by local authorities. In a number of cases private enterprise is allowed to build on local authority property. In addition, direct moneys have been put into opening up sites that were heretofore off limits.

I entirely agree with the Taoiseach. It is a matter of supply because much of what the Government is trying to do, and we tried to do in our time, is tinkering with the fundamental issue, namely, that we need to have more houses. One of the early wins we thought we could have is to get the voids back into play. The Taoiseach will recall that in our time in government we put in place a vacant properties programme to turn around council voids. On Friday last, several years after we identified getting voids back into play, as a first priority, we were told €24 million is now being allocated to refurbish 1,400 council voids, including 112 in Cork and 539 in Dublin. How can that still be the case if the whole issue of getting houses back into serviceable use is the No. 1 priority? How is it that such a scale of empty houses is still there to be addressed?

It is suggested by the National Oversight & Audit Commission that some local authorities are leaving units vacant until they assess what central Government will do and they will not use their own resources for that purpose. Those involved in that forum seem to think that local authorities may be purposely delaying the refurbishment of vacant homes to avoid using their own resources. There needs to be a very clear directive from Government, with a clear timeline that the normal turnaround period should be a matter of weeks unless there is very serious refurbishment to be made, and each of those should be individually notified to the Department of Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government. I ask the Taoiseach to deal with the issue as a matter of urgency.

My second question relates to the proposal to allow developers to build on State lands. Perhaps that has great merits but we need to know exactly what lands are going to be used and for what purpose. We need to know what developments are planned and what social good will accrue because developers have been invited to build homes under a licence agreement and there is a variety of other mechanisms to be deployed. We would like to see specific site-by-site programmes to ensure we are getting the best social value because such land needs to be developed in the public interest, hopefully, by local authorities.

Deputy Howlin raised a number of important points. The Rebuilding Ireland housing land map was launched by the Minister, Deputy Coveney, on 27 April. It is the first national map of its kind. By far the best way to track progress under Rebuilding Ireland is through such a map. It represents both the opportunity to deliver housing and also the individual data on active delivery from sites around the country. In other words, one knows what is going on. The mapping exercise is a vital, initial strategic step in the new State housing land management strategy being developed under Ireland 2040, the national planning framework. No doubt the map will evolve as we interface with key developers and stakeholders in the public and private sectors who are actively delivering housing. Some 2,000 ha of land were identified and there are approximately 800 sites between local authorities, the Housing Agency and other State and semi-State bodies. Taking a conservative estimate of 25 units per hectare, that is potentially 50,000 homes. In terms of Rebuilding Ireland it is fundamental that the State and in particular housing authorities do everything in their power to deliver quality social and affordable mixed tenure housing from those sites.

There are four key sites that can deliver 3,000 badly needed homes. South Dublin County Council intends to deliver approximately 900 social and affordable homes at Kilcarberry, Clondalkin. A Dublin City Council housing land initiative has sites at Infirmary Road, also known as O'Devaney Gardens, St. Michael's Estate on Emmet Road, and Oscar Traynor Road which will deliver approximately 2,000 social and affordable houses. The State will also fund 30% of social housing on those four sites, which is approximately 900 newly built social houses. They will be fully integrated into brand new housing schemes in various locations in Dublin. A total of 30 sites have been identified on State and semi-State lands amounting to 200 ha in prime locations such as Galway Port, and 18 acres at the CIE-Ceannt Station site right in the centre of Galway city which is being master planned. All of those details are available for Deputy Howlin to examine.

I met the chief executive of Deputy Howlin's local authority the other day. I understand that in Enniscorthy where planning permission has been granted and everything else is ready to go the local authority has been able to provide three-bedroom social housing in approximately 13 weeks. If that is true, which I hope it is, that is an incredible operation. That suggests we might be falling foul of public procurement issues, objections and other issues causing delay in other places. When rapid build was first introduced for housing it seemed to take an inordinately long time. However, if in some local authorities, one of which I came across myself by chance, it is possible to do that if all systems are go and one can build house X and house Y in such a period the question is why we cannot do it elsewhere. The Ministers are looking at the issue with the housing unit to examine whether there are delays that could be avoided. That was the case when Deputy Howlin was in government. For one reason or another when we started to use rapid build housing it took a long time.

Deputy Howlin also inquired about Government measures and funding being made available. One would get lost in the figures sometimes.

Could the Taoiseach respond about the voids and putting on pressure to bring them back into use?

A total of €98 million was allocated in 2017 for the Rebuilding Ireland initiative. There is a target that by mid-2017 the use of hotels for emergency accommodation would be eliminated. I am assured by the Minister that the target can be met. I agree it will be a very tight timeframe.

What about refurbishing hotels and calling them something else?

I thank the Taoiseach. We are over time.

I am sorry, a Cheann Comhairle.

I just heard the Taoiseach say that he came across a local authority "by chance" and that one would get lost in the figures. That is exactly the problem. A major lesson the Government should have learned in the past six years is that a policy of over-hyping and under-achieving will catch up with one. That is what has happened in relation to housing.

The Taoiseach will recall that various Ministers for the Environment in recent years have all had different strategies and have announced a long series of actions. In concrete terms, however, it has meant very little on the ground - about 8,000 new builds over the last four to five years. The CSO's figures have blown a hole in all of the announcements and various claims made for new house builds.

I can remember the former Minister, Deputy Alan Kelly, saying everything was in hand; that they were on top of it and were going to have great results. It goes on. Self praise and exaggerated claims pale in comparison with the reality on the ground, including what has happened over the last 12 months. Social housing lists continue to grow and housing supply is at historically low levels, while house prices are increasing well ahead of most people's ability to afford them.

It has been revealed today that rents have climbed dramatically, while supply is only a fraction of demand. It is feeding into a sense of helplessness regarding the homelessness crisis. The Taoiseach and the Government need to admit that they are not getting on top of this matter. Government policies are not penetrating with the required degree of urgency. The Cabinet sub-committee on housing must acknowledge that it has not delivered. Some alternative proposals should now be considered, particularly in terms of reducing the cost of building, including VAT and other costs.

The help-to-buy scheme has inflated house prices, which is its fundamental contribution to the situation. It has increased the price of housing generally and has not added to supply in any shape or form. The Government's execution and delivery proposals are failing abysmally. We do not need any more plans or strategies. We need to start building and getting some action on the ground.

I have here a list of 504 housing construction projects all over the country. This makes real sense because it puts figures and details on locations. The list is available for everyone to see on the Department's website. Instead of talking about €98 million being available for rebuilding in Ireland in 2017, one can go through the individual units that are being constructed in groups of 20 to 50. That makes real sense for people who are going to live in these houses and know that the houses will be allocated to them. Therefore I do not accept what the Deputy has said.

Some 3,000 households came out of homelessness in 2016, which is a substantial increase on what was there before. The moneys that have been allocated include Dublin City Council's winter initiative which delivered 200 extra beds for rough sleepers on the streets due to high rents, and others in hotels and hostels. All of these initiatives are part of the action plan.

I do not want to read out the figures for the millions being allocated, but previous measures taken by government to tackle the costs associated with the provision of housing included reduced development contributions, a development contribution rebate scheme, changes to the Part 5 regime and new apartment guidelines. They were all brought in to reduce costs because we met with the Construction Industry Federation and so many others.

The Deputy knows that this city is creeping northwards, north-westwards and westwards. In another 15 years, if it continues like that, it will be out near Mullingar with single houses. Dublin City Council has its views on this. Every city in the world has buildings which exceed the maximum height allowed in Dublin. It is not for me to set a fix on this. If developers and others involved in construction say they cannot make a profit given the guidelines and height restrictions, then we should give serious consideration to building somewhat higher in order to reduce the cost of development. Profit is not a dirty word in this context because it is about providing housing accommodation for people. One cannot sell a single apartment until the block is ready for sale, however.

The Deputy asked about the reduction of costs but that was dealt with in reduced development contributions, the rebate scheme, changes to part 5 and new apartment guidelines. It is all about supply and more money than ever before has been allocated in a variety of ways to make an impact on this. It is working but obviously we are catching up on a big curve here.

Cabinet Committee Meetings

Gerry Adams

Question:

3. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Regional and Rural Affairs last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [18226/17]

Joan Burton

Question:

4. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Regional and Rural Affairs last met. [20443/17]

Mattie McGrath

Question:

5. Deputy Mattie McGrath asked the Taoiseach the number of times the Cabinet Committee on Regional and Rural Affairs has met since the formation of the current Government. [21839/17]

Micheál Martin

Question:

6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the number of times the Cabinet Committee on Regional and Rural Affairs has met; and when it next plans to meet. [21846/17]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 to 6, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet Committee on Regional and Rural Affairs provides a whole of government approach to growth in the rural economy as well as supporting quality of life and local service delivery in the regions. In particular, the committee is responsible for overseeing the development and implementation of the Action Plan for Rural Development.

The committee has met four times to date. It last met on the 12 December 2016 and is due to meet again later today. A monitoring group for the Action Plan for Rural Development, chaired by the Minister, Deputy Humphreys, met on 23 March and will meet again on 20 July.

The committee will continue to oversee implementation of the plan, as well as considering specific policy issues of concern to rural Ireland

It is quite a long time ago, 12 December 2016.

Brexit took up my time.

The Taoiseach will know that the lack of quality infrastructure, including roads and broadband, is the biggest impediment facing people in rural Ireland. It is hampering growth and economic prosperity. If people are unable to access links or communications easily they cannot live and do business in rural Ireland and rural areas cannot grow.

The Taoiseach has described the urbanisation process, particularly of the greater Dublin region, with a consequent rise in rent, house prices, traffic gridlock and public order issues. No moves are being made to counter this, however. This view was echoed by the former chairperson of the Western Development Commission, Mr. Paddy McGuinness. He asked not to be considered for reappointment, stating: "I believe strongly that there is absolutely no commitment at either political or administrative level to balance regional development, nor is there any worthwhile plan to redress rural decline."

That is matched by a chronic lack of capital investment in infrastructure. The increase of €300 million in last year's budget was one tenth of what was recommended to the Department of Transport, Tourism and Sport just to repair the secondary road network. According to the Fiscal Advisory Council our infrastructure spend is the lowest in the EU.

The loss of rural post offices is causing significant concern. The programme for Government states that the Government will act swiftly on the recommendation of the post office business development group in advancing a new model of community banking. Can the Taoiseach tell us when this will happen?

This is an important question. The document, Realising Our Potential in Rural Ireland, is a comprehensive statement on all the Departments and agencies covering the country outside the major urban centres. It does not just include isolated parts of rural Ireland but also covers the Irish language and investment in capital infrastructure.

The Deputy will be aware that there is a €42 billion capital programme to 2025, which is currently being reviewed. A number of major roads have to be finished, such as one to the northwest, including Sligo, and also to Limerick, Cork and a number of other areas. We also need to cater for future developments with the metro and the possibility of other light-rail systems in various parts of the country.

That is why in addition to all of that capital money, a European Investment Bank office has been opened in Dublin. They are now examining the feasibility of quite a number of major projects as to whether or not they can go ahead, on the basis that there will be an income stream to deal with the loan repayment requirements. That would remove a major section from normal Exchequer funds which would allow for that kind of development to take place.

The Minister of State, Deputy Ring, brought forward the final report of the post office hub working group to the Government. That recommended four pilot projects based on the share value and co-location model of post offices, the approval of which has been granted by the Government. While those projects have not yet been initiated, I expect they are now in the process of being considered.

As Deputy Adams is aware, everybody understands the importance of the national broadband plan. The Minister, Deputy Naughten's Department is very actively engaged in the procurement process for the provision of high-speed broadband services. The timeframe for roll-out depends on a number of factors, including the complexities that may be encountered by the procurement team and bidders during the process. A timeframe of three to five year is envisaged for the roll-out once contracts are in place. A detailed roll-out plan for the network, including a prioritisation programme to target areas of particularly poor service, areas with business needs and areas of high demand, will be published once the contracts are in place. Eir set out certain commitments under the agreement announced by the Minister, Deputy Naughten. It plans to provide broadband to an additional 300,000 premises in rural areas on a commercial basis. It has committed to completing the roll-out over a 90 week period, passing an average of 500 premises per day. In line with the published agreement there are regular review meetings, the purpose of which is to monitor this roll-out to ensure Eir meets its obligations under the agreement. My understanding is that there will be penalties for Eir if it does not measure up to what it has already agreed, though I like to be updated regularly on the 500 premises that are passed every day. The roll-out for high-speed broadband is a necessary part of the programme.

I ask the Taoiseach whether any advance has been made in respect of the proposal made by myself and a number of other Deputies regarding the Luggala estate in County Wicklow. The Taoiseach may have heard a very nice programme on RTE on Sunday Morning. On "Sunday with Miriam" Garech de Brún and Paddy Moloney of the Chieftains were talking about the enormous role Luggala has played in the cultural history of Ireland over recent decades, from films being shot there to music being recorded there. The Guinness Trust has put the estate up for sale. It is interested in selling to the State. I understand the initial indicative price was quite high, but I think that is negotiable. A purchase would also allow Garech de Brún, in the context of all his contributions to Irish music and culture, to occasionally reside in the house but in particular would allow the State to acquire the 5,000 acres. The Taoiseach has just spoken about the expansion of Dublin. This is an amenity for the people of Leinster, but also for visitors to Ireland who are on the eastern side of the country. Thankfully we have many.

Has the Cabinet committee on regional and rural affairs had an opportunity to discuss Luggala? An initiative on the part of the Taoiseach to bring Luggala into public ownership would be a very historic achievement for him. It would make the Wicklow Mountains one of the biggest regional public parks and wild parks in Europe. It would be an enormous boon to the country's capacity to attract cyclists and walkers, which Luggala already does. If it was bought by private interests, a very significant part of Wicklow would potentially be closed off and become entirely private.

The Cabinet sub-committee has not considered the question of the purchase of Luggala. I recall the Minister, Deputy Ring, making the comment that he would be interested in negotiating or discussing the possibility of a purchase of this estate. I have never been to Luggala. I have obviously seen the pictures of it.

The Taoiseach has probably walked around it.

I believe it is a magnificent house and location. The State acquired substantial grounds in that area for an expansion of the national park. Clearly when the Deputy makes her point she looks to the expansion of Dublin over the next 20 years. The Wicklow Mountains and the environment are going to be of particular importance like the Lake District is across the water, where very substantial numbers of people travel every weekend. Hopefully they observe the country code and leave nothing behind but their footprints. The State acquired another premises belonging to the Guinness Trust a number of years ago, Farmleigh, which is used extensively for everything from the Bloom festival to the country markets. The big house is available for heads of state who might stay there. I will take the Deputy's suggestion. I am quite sure that if the State were to announce that it had acquired this fine estate there would be people saying that the money should be spent on social housing. It is always about a balance.

No, because there would be a lot of employment generated which would enable some of those people to buy their own houses.

It is an important consideration. I will have Deputy Burton's view brought to the Minister and see if he is willing to continue on from his initial comment. I did not hear the programme that the Deputy mentioned, but I admire Paddy Moloney and the Chieftains. He seems to have been around forever and ever.

John Boorman was there as well.

He seems to get better with every performance. Matt Molloy and all of the members of the Chieftains are wonderful ambassadors for the country.

We will have to go to visit because it was said that it was daylight when they left the house after parties. I heard the programme too. Good Irish cultural music and heritage is important.

I asked how many times the Cabinet committee on regional and rural affairs has met since the formation of the Government. I am disappointed to hear the Taoiseach say that it has met four times last year and none this year. We are four and a half months into this year and that shows scant regard for the issues. The Taoiseach relied on many of my rural colleagues during those talks to form a Government that lasted for so many days last year. We pressed hard for a Minister and we expected a minister for rural affairs. What did we get? As I said the other night, we got the hind tit. We got a Minister for Arts, Heritage, Regional, Rural and Gaeltacht Affairs. Rural affairs was tagged on. That was a major disappointment. In every aspect, we are failing the people of rural Ireland.

I see the Minister with responsibility for broadband has arrived. I want to ask him about the state of the tender process. On regional development, the Minister, Deputy Ring, had people looking at our post offices. When their report came out, what did the Minister, Deputy Ring, do? He did the greatest Pontius Pilate impression that was ever done in any church, never mind in any parliament. He washed his hands of it and handed it over, lock, stock and barrel, to the Minister, Deputy Naughten. It was a disgrace. It was two weeks before Holy Thursday. I could not get over it. I know he is a religious man but - my God - that was a bit fast. We are also losing out terribly with the spatial strategy.

On Bord na Móna, I am glad the Minister responsible is here. He abandoned us with a shot in the dark. He turned the lights off on it last Thursday evening. I actually heard about it in the Dáil at 1 p.m. and at 2 p.m. the plant in Littleton was switched off. It was there since the late 1940s. The Minister should have been more vigorous and understanding. He should sell the peat briquettes that are there at a low cost to get some money in the company and be innovative in ways of putting in other business there. We told the Government when the carbon tax was brought in, and when it was not being brought in in Northern Ireland, that the factories would close down and jobs would be lost. There was a direct effort by this Government to close down peat plants because of its carbon tax and the way it was forced through in the last Government. The Taoiseach is reaping the rewards. Rural Ireland is quickly becoming a desert and a wasteland. I want to know what the Taoiseach is going to do about it.

We have published-----

The Taoiseach publishes everything.

-----our action plan for rural development, "Realising our Rural Potential". It is divided into five pillars. The first is about supporting sustainable communities and includes: making rural Ireland a better place to live in, enhancing local services, empowering local communities and building better communities. Pillar two is about supporting enterprise and employment and includes: growing and attracting enterprise, supporting sectoral growth, skills and innovation, supporting rural jobseekers and protecting incomes. Pillar three is about maximising our rural tourism and recreation potential and includes: supporting targeted rural tourism initiatives such as the Wild Atlantic Way, the midlands and lakelands district, Ireland's Ancient East; developing and promoting activity tourism and developing and promoting our natural and built heritage. The fourth pillar is about fostering culture and creativity in rural communities and arises from the evidence of the commemoration of 1916. This pillar includes increasing access to the arts in rural communities, enhancing culture and creativity in rural Ireland and promoting the Irish language as a key resource. The fifth point is about improving rural infrastructure. That includes the capital investment plan 2016-2021, the broadband and mobile phone access to which I have referred, rural transport and flood relief measures together with all the other issues that apply from the Common Agricultural Policy right through to every part of the country. This is the document. It is very comprehensive.

The Taoiseach should put it into practice.

I do not know whether Deputy McGrath has read it but I have covered a few subjects-----

The Taoiseach should put it into practice.

-----that would be of genuine interest to the people of Tipperary-----

They want action.

-----from rural tourism to the beautiful mountains over which I have had the privilege of walking over the last number of years and opportunities to empower local communities to avail of small and medium enterprises, local jobs and local communities.

It is all contained in here, along with money to back it up. The question is making it happen.

Over the past five or six years, we have consistently raised the new pressures on rural Ireland and the regions and the degree to which large sections of the country have felt alienated from the centre and have not experienced the level of economic development that they could have had and that they need. It must be said that the proposed rural action plan is a damp squib. The plans for towns and villages are devoid of any concrete actions. In fact, the plan for towns basically calls on local communities to sort things out for themselves by using a brief planning guide. I heard the Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation speak about steps one and two in an interview. People do not need that patronising guide on how to develop.

The threat Brexit poses to rural and provincial Ireland, particularly the agrifood industry, is of an entirely new scale. The bulk of merchandised goods exported to Great Britain are located in regions outside Dublin, as was pointed out in the ESRI and the Department of Finance reports. Again, if we look through the Article 50 document published, we do not find any new proposals or funding to help the worst impacted areas or industries. If we look at the equine industry, we can see that there has been no affirmative action by the Government. Tillage farming presented a perfect opportunity to do something early this year, but nothing was done for tillage farmers. We are blue in the face from hearing about broadband. The Taoiseach mentioned procurement. Has the tender been issued?

We are passing one house every minute of every working day as we speak with 1,000 megabits per second.

Has the tender been issued?

It is not one process.

I recall meeting the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment and officials along with the Independents 12 months ago. The single most important enabler of economic development is broadband and the tender has not yet been issued.

It is happening.

The tender has not been issued. It has been going on for 12 months. The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment has been in office for a year. I am not going to blame him for it but surely collectively people need to realise the lack of urgency around all of this. We are being told the same thing year after year. I asked the officials last year not to promise me again it will be done by 2021. That was the scam before the previous general election. The previous Government said it would be done by 2021 - the whole lot covering every house in the country. The tender has not even been issued. Has the audit relating to mobile phones taken place?

We changed the legislation to deal with the provision of broadband between service providers. SIRO is the issue there. Eir does its work. I recall several Fianna Fáil Ministers in New York after they put Telecom Éireann on the Stock Exchange, the assets that were stripped and how it left urban and rural Ireland without any signal at all.

(Interruptions).

The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment is on the back of this horse because we want to see broadband brought to rural Ireland once and for all, and by that I mean small town Ireland and everything else.

We have had discussions about Brexit and will have more, but one piece of the jigsaw is not clear yet. We have provided the European Council with a document containing all our priorities, but the Deputy knows we cannot investigate the detail of this until we get to a point where the first phase is dealt with, namely, the principles, modalities and the liabilities that apply. The second issue is the question of borders, with our Border being a case in point that every other country in Europe now understands. The third issue is the rights and reciprocal rights of Europeans living in the UK and vice versa. We have our own issue with the common travel area that has existed since 1922.

We will then move on to the future structure and framework of the UK with the EU. Central to that, as the Deputy is well aware, is the question of trade and how that will apply. We must figure out how we can have the closest possible relationship between Europe and the UK, and we will be on the European side here, given that the Single Market will be gone and we still do not know the British Government's view on tariffs or the customs union. That is where the problem and challenge will arise. We share the Deputy's view on this. The Government has set up a specific unit in the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine to deal with the question of agrifood and drink exports to Great Britain, hedging forward and support for small and medium enterprises. We are well aware of the drop of €500 million in real value terms over six months because of currency fluctuations, so the Government is very interested in this. We have 100 trade missions abroad this year to increase sales of our products in other countries. I have just come back from Canada where I spoke about elements of that.

The Deputy mentioned the equine industry. It is a case in point and he is perfectly right. Those who train horses to that level do not want to have delays and to be weighed down by an inordinate amount of bureaucracy. Clearly, in respect of stud farms North and South, our relationship with the British racing industry is very close. English horses race here and win sometimes while Irish horses race in England and win more often. That industry has the potential to deliver €2 billion to the Exchequer every year. It is and will continue to be strongly supported by the Government. These are issues we must take into account in real detail when those negotiations begin.

Official Engagements

Joan Burton

Question:

7. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the President of Croatia on 4 April 2017. [18007/17]

Gerry Adams

Question:

8. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the President of the Republic of Croatia, Ms Kolinda Grabar-Kitarović, on 4 April 2017. [18228/17]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 and 8 together.

I met with the President of the Republic of Croatia, Kolinda Grabar-Kitarovi, in Government Buildings on 4 April as part of her three-day state visit to Ireland. During our meeting, we discussed the bilateral relationship between our two countries, EU-UK negotiations following the triggering by the UK of Article 50, and the future of Europe, including EU enlargement. President Grabar-Kitarovi also briefed me on regional issues in south-east Europe, touching on economic, political and social challenges.

The Croatian President requested our advice in planning for Croatia's EU Presidency in 2020. In light of our extensive experience of seven EU Presidencies, I was pleased to be able to offer our assistance and our officials will follow up in this regard.

Given that Ireland is a small country, did the Taoiseach discuss with the Croatian President the difficulties and discrimination small countries face within the EU? It is almost impossible for small countries to access the Juncker plan in respect of investment because, by and large, small countries do not have the very large and international private enterprises that can invest in the Juncker plan, which is almost entirely directed at the private sector. Croatia is a small country which has had its political ups and downs in recent years. The draining of confidence in the European ideal is because fiscal rules for the EU are now set by Germany. Notwithstanding the Taoiseach's very close alliance with Angela Merkel and the European People's Party, he seems unable to influence the gag that exists in terms of more investment spending. EU countries like Ireland, other smaller countries, and indeed large countries like France and Italy will not be able to prosper and modernise to the degree they need to unless a mechanism is found to provide for investment spending outside the very strict German deficit rules that now exist in the EU.

The Taoiseach knows better than I do that Croatia is the EU's most recent member state. The Taoiseach said he discussed the British position and that of the Government about the consequences of Brexit.

Did the Taoiseach ask the Croatian President if she would support special status for the North?

The Taoiseach said that all of the Government's priorities are contained in its position paper. The shambolic meeting last week on this issue is evidence of the Government's failure and refusal to afford the Opposition the opportunity to make submissions which would influence Government policy. There is little new in this position paper and it fails to provide detail. It is aspirational and much of it is simply repackaging of action plans and so on. It proposes what it calls adaptive sectoral Brexit response plans but there is no detail given and no indication when these will be published. What is needed now is action, concrete proposals, support for our exporters to help them to diversify, investment in our third-level education system and proper funding for organisations such as InterTradeIreland and Tourism Ireland.

Is the Taoiseach aware that the European Parliament's chief Brexit negotiator, Guy Verhofstadt, writing in the Financial Times, has indicated support for the North securing special status as a method of stopping a hard border? He does so even without the Taoiseach lobbying for that.

We did that. Mr. Verhofstadt is a member of our group.

Will the Taoiseach tell us whether he raised this issue with the President of Croatia?

Deputy Micheál Martin has a brief supplementary question.

It was a welcome visit by the Croatian President. She knows Ireland well from her time as her country's Foreign Minister. Ireland was a consistent and strong supporter of Croatian membership of the European Union. One of the striking things about her visit was how much it reinforced the imbalance in many of our diplomatic relations. Croatia has three permanent diplomats assigned to Dublin. In contrast, we have one assigned to Zagreb. Negotiations on Brexit have so far focused overwhelmingly on a handful of governments and Brussels. We have contact with all governments but, as I have said to the Taoiseach on numerous occasions, we do not have enough personnel on the ground to go much further than general engagement. An overwhelming lesson we must learn from Brexit is that we must build broader and deeper coalitions with the European Union and its member states. We do not have the personnel to do so. For the past year I have been asking the Taoiseach for a statement concerning staffing and other resources we will put in place for post-Brexit arrangements. We cannot wait two years for this because of recruitment timescales. In view of the changes due to Brexit, we need to increase our personnel levels in the European Union, particularly in places where we have one-person stations. The Taoiseach said to me in the past that a staffing assessment would be prepared. Has this been done? Is the Taoiseach satisfied that we have enough personnel in place to fully represent Ireland on all of these issues?

With regard to Deputy Burton's question about the fiscal rules, I do not accept that smaller countries are being discriminated against by the European Union. There are many different funds, including social funds, the Cohesion Fund, Common Agricultural Policy funds and so on. The Juncker plan concerns major infrastructure across countries, including transcontinental-----

We cannot qualify for it.

We can but we will not.

-----facilities such as rail lines, major autobahns and so on. It is not a case of discriminating against small countries. Ireland voted on these fiscal rules in a referendum and 60% of voters approved the issue while 40% did not.

That was a long time ago.

It was a long time ago but it is now part of the Constitution. If there has been a referendum on the issue, one cannot just change the rules again. The Labour Party has put forward a view that sufficient-----

When the Taoiseach's-----

We shall hear from the Taoiseach, without interruption, or we will move on.

-----resources are not being expended in capital works. We are now in a position of being able to borrow ten-year money at 0.1%.

We cannot spend it, however.

When Deputy Burton entered Government with Fine Gael in 2011, the rate was almost 15%. It is not a case of not having access to money, it is not spending willy-nilly to a point where construction inflation increases out of all order and money goes by the tonne into the hands of developers. It is a case of having a balanced approach to the way the money is spent and the economy is managed at the same time. The referendum was approved by 60% of voters. It is part of what we accepted. Ireland was the only country to have a referendum on it. We need to move on to avail of other major projects from the European Investment Bank and so on.

Deputy Adams spoke about the Croatian President. She is a very capable woman. She is a former Foreign Minister and a Fulbright scholar. She is very well clued-in to the situation across Europe and beyond. Deputy Adams described last week's meeting as shambolic. I explained at that meeting that included in the detailed document published is the outcome of the European Council meeting. That meeting, the European Parliament meeting and the European Commission meeting all agreed on one thing, which is that there are particular and unique circumstances applying to Ireland. I read Mr. Verhofstadt's article today. When I asked last week if there was any need for further discussions, there was no response because we were going to have discussions and statements in the House, which we had. I do not regard the meeting as having been shambolic. Perhaps Deputy Adams does for purposes outside this House.

Who is now talking about Northern Ireland? It is the Irish Government. The Minister of State at the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Dara Murphy, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Flanagan, in their foreign affairs and European roles have spoken to every single person who has anything to do with European issues. The Minister of State had a full bilateral meeting with representatives from Croatia less than two months ago. The English are all over Europe talking about Northern Ireland. The Irish are all over Europe talking about Northern Ireland. However, nobody from Northern Ireland is doing so. The Scottish are all over Europe talking about Scotland. Who is speaking for Northern Ireland? This Government is doing so. Who is mentioning it? This Government. Who else is mentioning it? Britain is mentioning it. It is being said that there is no wish for a return to a hard border. Imagination and creativity are required to deal with this issue. We want the closest possible relationship with the United Kingdom from a European point of view. However, there is no voice from Northern Ireland being heard in Europe. The only voices to be heard are Irish and British. We are happy to continue to explain, in so far as we can, the details, the problems and the unique, particular and special circumstances that apply to Northern Ireland.