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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 25 Oct 2017

Vol. 960 No. 8

Ceisteanna - Questions

National Risk Assessment

Brendan Howlin


1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the publication of the final national risk assessment 2017 overview of strategic risks. [41719/17]

Gerry Adams


2. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the status of the national risk assessment 2017 overview of strategic risks. [43822/17]

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

The 2017 national risk assessment was published on 29 August. This is the fourth national risk assessment produced by the Government. It aims to provide an overview of strategic risks facing the country. It is focused on the identification of risk and is not intended to replicate or displace the detailed risk management strategies across Departments and agencies in respect of individual risks. Instead, the assessment aims to stimulate consideration within Government, and more widely in public debate, on the strategic risks that face the country over the medium and long term. As in previous years, the national risk assessment was prepared in collaboration with a steering group of Departments and agencies. It follows an open policy debate organised by my Department and a process of public consultation.

Since its inception, the process has highlighted a number of important strategic risks at an early stage. Indeed, a number of risks identified have since come to pass or become increasingly prominent in the intervening years, including withdrawal of the UK from the European Union. This year's assessment states that Brexit is an overarching theme that could have far reaching impacts on nearly all aspects of national life, while also noting the importance of keeping sight of our other strategic risks. Other risks identified include possible changes to US trade and tax policy, risks arising from continued housing supply constraints, climate change, technological risks, competitiveness pressures and changing demographics.

Many of the risks identified are being resolved through policies and actions in place or being developed by relevant Departments. Others are largely dependent on developments at international level over which we have little control. However, the purpose of this process is to encourage honest and open discussion about strategic risks facing the country, including in the Oireachtas.

If one did not want to sleep at night, one should read the national risk assessment report, which outlines everything that could potentially befall us. The issue of Brexit is central to the assessment but changes to our climate have the potential for even greater harm. We have witnessed Hurricane Ophelia and the enormous damage that it did to our country, including the taking of three lives. Many parts of the country meanwhile are still cleaning up following Storm Brian. It is clear our weather patterns are changing and that reflects climate change internationally. We cannot individually hide from stronger and more violent storms and increased rainfall.

I am sure the Taoiseach will be aware that a court challenge has been lodged to the national mitigation plan. Friends of the Irish Environment claim approval of the plan should be quashed on several grounds, including that it fails to specify measures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions as it is required to do. They also claim that the plan does not comply with the requirements of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015. Since the House has not even debated the mitigation plan, what is the Taoiseach's response to these charges? When will he afford the House a proper opportunity to debate the issue of climate change in general and, more specifically, our strategies to deal with it?

I support the call for time to be set aside to discuss climate change and all the consequences it has for people on this island and worldwide. The Government could usefully set aside time to discuss the national risk assessment report. I would like to address one issue, which is Brexit. Research conducted by the European Commission's agricultural and rural affairs committee warns that a hard Brexit with no deal could wipe out almost 10% of the State's GDP and this will most severely affect agriculture. That is a more serious outcome than was previously envisaged by those who have spoken on this issue. Has the Taoiseach seen the report? If so, has he any comment on it?

Earlier this week, Theresa May told her parliament that no physical infrastructure would be imposed on the Border after Britain leaves the EU. I do not know how she can say that because if we do not have the type of deal Sinn Féin has argued for, which would provide for special status for the North within the EU, member states will enforce border controls and so on. Did the British Prime Minister give the Taoiseach in their recent 40 minute telephone conversation any idea of how Britain intends to achieve this?

Mr. Barnier's staff have started work on drafting a withdrawal treaty. Has the Taoiseach instructed our officials to ensure the Good Friday Agreement is included as an annex to such a treaty? Did he raise this at last week's Council meeting or at any bilateral meetings with other European leaders? Did he raise it yesterday with President Macron?

The work of the emergency services and State agencies during the recent storms was incredibly impressive, as was the work of the National Emergency Co-ordination Centre. Given the Taoiseach has talked about how the structures worked well, I am sure he will agree that we should acknowledge the work of Deputy O'Dea who, as Minister for Defence, created the current structures and implemented the framework which is still in place today. I hope the Taoiseach's stated desire last July to rebrand the structures along the lines of the UK COBRA committee will be shelved because an attempt to centralise the spotlight goes directly against the lead agency principle, which is what is working. Will he outline to the House what changes, if any, are planned in that regard?

What is the status of the new framework document, which has been ready for almost two years but which has yet to be published? While the national risk assessment identifies climate-related events as an increasing risk, it has been consistent in pointing to cyber-related risks as posing the greatest threat to us. What measures are envisaged to take action in this area? For example, we have strict laws concerning election spending and activity. Given what has been evident in the US, France, the Brexit referendum and a host of small countries, has the Taoiseach initiated any work to protect the integrity of our own elections?

I echo the previous three Deputies who have raised the problem we have in that we are identifying climate as a risk but any assessment of our response to it in either mitigation or adoption is not being taken seriously. I echo the calls for further debate in that regard.

I will suggest one other area which is missing from the document. The definition of risk, timescales and so on is dependent on the timeframe one is considering. However, it seems to me that we are facing an increasing risk in Ireland and across the world from the reduction of biodiversity that is occurring. It is a different risk and it may not be immediate but it is fundamental. We are seeing it in the loss of species in the seas, in the lost fertility of our soils and in the halving of the volumes of insect life in our country over the past 30 or 40 years. People might say that we can manage each on its own and that it is not a huge risk to the country but combined, when we continue to degrade our environment and allow it to get to a stage where it will not be able to recover, I argue it is the most fundamental risk. The climate issue is related because restoring wildlife will help us to manage climate in a variety of ways. Why is it that we do not include that sort of biological risk of the destruction of our environment, which is happening, included within the risks?

I want to talk about the risk of fire. After the Grenfell Tower fire, much concern was expressed about the housing stock in this country. Kevin Hollingsworth, a chartered surveyor, stated that up to 40% of the housing stock built during the Celtic Tiger period was non-compliant with fire safety standards and compartmentation requirements to stop the spread of fire and there were promises of reviews of multi-storey buildings. I would like to know what became of all of that concern and when we will hear about these risks. I have pressed this issue on a number of occasions and I am getting slightly frustrated now. I have engaged with the Minister of State, Deputy Doyle, on issues to do with the technical guidance documents dealing with fire safety and possible problems with them, and I think he is acting in good faith. However, we have been trying to get a meeting with officials at the Department responsible for the environment to discuss these issues and serious allegations about the defective nature of the fire safety regulations and compliance with fire safety. People's lives are seriously at risk. I have seen estates in Dublin which fire consultants tell me are an immediate and imminent fire hazard and where we could have repeats of the Grenfell Tower fire. I want that meeting with officials of the Department of the Taoiseach and the relevant Minister, be it Deputy English or whoever, to happen. We have been messed around for weeks. It is a serious, urgent and life-threatening risk if the scale of breaches of fire safety in residential buildings in this country are anything like what Kevin Hollingsworth says they are.

On Storm Ophelia, I am advised this morning by ESB Networks that all homes and businesses have now been reconnected to the electricity network. I join with others in acknowledging the phenomenal work of the staff of ESB Networks, the assistance we received ScottishPower and others in Britain and from Électricité de France, EDF, and Réseau de Transport d'Électricité, RTE, in France, which also came to help.

I have no difficulty in acknowledging the role of the former Minister for Defence, Deputy Willie O'Dea, in establishing the Office of Emergency Planning, which showed its worth last week. I do not propose to change the approach fundamentally but we should always look at what was done well and what could have been done better after any major national crisis or serious event and make changes on foot of that review. Cabinet committee F, which is similar to the COBRA committee in the UK but not the same, is not designed to replace the Office of Emergency Planning but is something separate. It is an opportunity for Ministers, in the form of a Cabinet sub-committee, to get together with the Garda Commissioner, the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces and others to understand better threats such as terrorism or cyberattacks and consider what we can do to prevent those or prepare to manage them should they occur. We have only had one meeting so far and another one is scheduled to be held in the next few weeks. We have not considered the risk of outside bodies or entities trying to interfere in our elections and perhaps we should give that consideration given that it is a real problem and is happening all over the world now. I understand that it may even have happened in Catalonia recently, with external actors spreading fake news and things such as that. It should be a matter of concern for all of us.

I am aware of the court challenge to the national adaptation plan and the Government will respond to that challenge. I would welcome a debate in this House on climate change, the national planning framework and the capital plan. However, scheduling such matters is a matter for the Business Committee, of which I am not a member.

I have seen the latest reports on Brexit and how it may impact our economy. I am not sure we need another report to tell us that a hard Brexit would damage our economy. I think we all know that. The work that I am doing is trying to prevent it. We are doing everything that we can to prevent that outcome.

I welcome Prime Minister's May's strengthening of her language in recent weeks ruling out any physical infrastructure on the Border between Ireland and Northern Ireland. That is very welcome. I said it at the dinner in Brussels and unequivocally restated it in the House of Commons. As is often the case with the statements from the UK Government, while the words are welcome and we agree with the sentiments, we need to see them backed up with the detail on how they can be written into international agreements and law, which is what is required. We do not quite have that yet, which is one of the reasons sufficient progress has not been made.

The Good Friday Agreement is always raised in meetings to do with Brexit. It was raised in my meeting with President Macron yesterday and it was raised at the European Council meeting last week. Whether it is necessary to include it as an annexe to the UK exit treaty is a different matter. It is already a recognised international agreement. I simply do not know at this stage if it would be beneficial to add it as an annexe to that treaty but I will give it further thought.

The risk to biodiversity can be considered for the 2018 national risk assessment. If Deputy Eamon Ryan would like to make a proposal or submission on it, I will make sure that the people in my Department who co-ordinate this will take a look at it.

To hell with fire safety, it would appear. I asked about fire safety.

I am out of time.

If the Taoiseach wants to-----

I think there was a request for a meeting.

I have been asking for two weeks.

I suggest that the relevant people's offices speak to each other and try to organise it.

We have been trying that.

Cabinet Committee Meetings

Mick Barry


3. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee D (infrastructure) will meet next. [42739/17]

Brendan Howlin


4. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee D (infrastructure) will next meet. [44892/17]

Richard Boyd Barrett


5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee D (infrastructure) will next meet. [44702/17]

Gerry Adams


6. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee D (infrastructure) last met and when it is scheduled to meet again. [44614/17]

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

Cabinet committee D met on 15 September 2017 and the next meeting of the committee is scheduled for 23 November 2017.

The committee’s terms of reference relate to infrastructure and its main focus at present is on housing and the forthcoming ten-year capital plan.

Since the meeting on 15 September, the Government has announced a number of additional measures following the review of Rebuilding Ireland. These include a range of actions in budget 2018, involving increased expenditure allocations, taxation changes and the establishment of Home Building Finance Ireland to provide additional finance to developers.

The Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government has also announced further actions in respect of the rental market and the planning system.

The draft national planning framework - Ireland 2040 - was also published for consultation in September and the final version will be published in December, alongside the new ten-year capital plan.

This approach will provide clarity, coherence and certainty in respect of planning and capital expenditure, while facilitating a sustainable approach to meeting Ireland's future investment needs.

I understand that Cabinet committee D covers Irish Rail. Some people might be surprised that the next meeting of the committee is scheduled for 23 November given that there will be a national rail strike next Wednesday. It will be the first of five. The strike is being staged by a group of workers whose pay has effectively been frozen for ten years and who do a very good job.

Irish Rail carried 43 million passengers in 2016, an increase of more than 3 million on the previous year. The problems in the company do not stem from the workers but from successive Governments. In 2007, the State subsidy for Irish Rail was €189 million. Last year, it was €110 million. That is a massive cut, in the region of 70%.

I was told this morning that the workers have been offered a pay increase of 1.75% but there are lots of strings attached. The first is that they would accept line closures and the second is that they would effectively refund their pay increase through forced redeployment, reductions in contracted hours, freezing of increments, etc. Some workers could have their pay cut by as much as €60 per week. The Taoiseach expressed concern about the effect of a strike on working people. There are two groups of working people involved here, namely, the commuters and the staff. By sticking to its policy of low investment in the company and low pay for staff, it seems that responsibility for the strike lies at the Government's door and that it is responsible for the difficulties faced by working people. Would the Taoiseach not consider convening a meeting of that Cabinet committee to ensure a decent pay increase for these hard-pressed workers?

Does the Taoiseach have a definitive date for the publication of the capital plan? We should agree the national planning framework at least in tandem with, if not before, we allocate money under the capital plan. It seems we are now pushing back the date for finalising the national planning framework and I agree with that because there are many new submissions to come in. We need to get it right but it seems odd that we would determine the next decade of capital expenditure and then determine the national planning framework. Does the Taoiseach have a view on that?

The Taoiseach will recall that during our time in government I set a limit of 10% on the amount of money that could be allocated to public private partnerships, PPPs, in proportion to the overall capital budget. By their nature, PPPs are more expensive and it seems odd that we would opt for them if we can borrow money at a much lower rate on the open market now. We needed PPPs when there was fiscal constraint and we could not borrow sufficient money. I hear talk about loosening that and having more PPPs when, after we reach our medium term objective of a balanced budget in structural terms next year, we should be able to borrow significant moneys at a much cheaper rate. I would be interested in hearing of the Taoiseach's attitude to PPPs in the context of the next development plan.

One very important part of our national infrastructure is ports and harbours. What is the point in the Government's passing legislation, such as the Harbours Act 2015, when nothing happens afterward? The Taoiseach probably helped to prepare the legislation given that he was Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport up to July 2014. The Act sets out future of ports of regional significance, including Dún Laoghaire Harbour, and this was supposed to reflect national ports policy. Two years on, however, nothing has happened to Dún Laoghaire Harbour. Under the legislation, responsibility for Dún Laoghaire Harbour was to be transferred to Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council.

I told the Taoiseach repeatedly while he was Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport that there is a totally dysfunctional, out of control, unaccountable quango in Dún Laoghaire Harbour coming up with madcap plans that never materialise but cost a lot of money to dream up, such as giant cruise berths, which were shot down, floating pools, floating hotels and floating apartments. What is needed is for the harbour company to float off into history and for the harbour to be taken under the control of the people and the local authority, which will come up with plans that respect the unique heritage and importance of Dún Laoghaire Harbour and reflect the aspirations of people locally, instead of nothing happening. A lot of money is being wasted. There are major financial questions hanging over the harbour company after due diligence studies and risk assessments that go on and on but nothing happens. Will the Government play any role in expediting what were intended to be the consequences of legislation that was passed two years ago in respect of Dún Laoghaire Harbour?

Has a Cabinet committee discussed the urgent need for investment in our wastewater and sewerage infrastructure? The wastewater treatment facilities in 50 of our large towns and cities do not comply with EU standards. These include the facilities at Ardee, Drogheda and Dundalk in my constituency. Untreated raw sewage is still entering the environment in 44 urban areas. The Environmental Protection Agency, EPA, warns that projects to deal with a high risk of pollution and a threat to public health have been delayed for at least three years. These projects include those at Ardee, Blackrock, Castlebellingham, Drogheda, Dundalk, Dunleer, Omeath and Tallanstown in County Louth. They are among 148 priority urban areas where improvements are required in order to meet the EU standards. This local infrastructure is failing because of the consistent lack of investment by Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and, also, the Labour Party when it was in government.

It is amazing, is it not?

That has resulted in the European Commission taking the State to the European Court of Justice for breaching the urban waste water directive. There is the potential for a substantial fine. What actions has the Government agreed on to meet this challenge?

Details of the renewed funding for Traveller-specific accommodation and the implementation of Traveller accommodation programmes were published recently. The purpose of the review in this regard was to examine how these programmes were working. It found that they are not working. A total of €55 million for Traveller accommodation remains unspent since 2000. The Government now has the report. What is it going to do about it? How quickly will take action?

At the start of this year, the Taoiseach's predecessor told the House that the infrastructure plan was finished and ready to go. It was in an advanced enough state that the Taoiseach, during the leadership campaign, announced the figures with the then Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, smiling alongside him. Since then, it has been delayed repeatedly. Despite this, the medium-term capital investment figures in the recent budget were not changed. The delay is not about points of scale and substance, it appears to be purely presentational.

Last week, the head of the strategic communications unit announced that he would be running a campaign to sell the new infrastructure plan. How much will be spent on this and will the campaign be prepared before the Cabinet agrees the plan? The failure to deliver on capital plans is a recurrent problem with this Government. Every housing target has been missed and we discovered in recent days that work on 25% of the schools announced as beginning construction in 2015 has not started. Before the Taoiseach publishes any new plan, will he agree, or undertake to publish, a statement on the delivery of current targets? Not many statements have been made recently, although we heard for two years that the Government would build so many houses and schools. Could someone please analyse and compare what has been constructed with what was committed to, promised and announced?

The Taoiseach will be aware that several schools, including some in our constituency - a number of them DEIS schools - effectively required to be rebuilt or remodelled under the schools building programme and, in particular, the schools refurbishment programme.

The plans have been submitted. I understand that in many cases, contractors fell by the wayside given the collapse of the construction industry. Nonetheless, the delays are now running past a year and a half. I am really concerned about the future of some schools. In respect of an enormous number of recently built and extremely fine schools in Dublin west, teachers in long-standing schools are being left in the freezing cold with the rain coming in and no insulation. The Taoiseach referenced this during various constituency functions we have both attended. These schools are now two to three years behind the given date that was published in good faith. What is going on with regard to the schools building list? Is it an attempt by the Minister for Education and Skills to hold back money? Is it simply confusion in that Department so that they cannot get the schools we need built?

Cabinet committee D mainly covers infrastructure but it also covers transport, which is a key part of our infrastructure. It is a Cabinet committee. Cabinet committees do not deal and never have dealt with industrial relations disputes. These disputes are dealt with by the Workplace Relations Commission and then by the Labour Court if a resolution cannot be found. It is correct to say that Irish Rail staff have faced a prolonged pay freeze for the best part of ten years and are now being offered a small pay rise. It is important not to forget that there are lots of people who did not have a ten-year pay freeze; they had very substantial pay cuts and will not see their pay fully restored until 2019 or 2020. Many of those people will be the passengers who are affected when the rail strike occurs and we should be cognisant of and sensitive to that fact because these people are not being offered a pay rise and will lose money by not being able to get to work that day. Obviously, it will impact on businesses as well.

There are many strikes in public transport in Ireland. There is a disproportionate number of strikes in public transport in Ireland relative to other sectors but they are always resolved whether they involve the Luas, Dublin Bus or Bus Éireann or previous strikes in Irish Rail. They are always resolved and after talks at the Workplace Relations Commission or on the recommendation of the Labour Court. Unlike other sectors, there seems to be a requirement that there be a few days of strike before an agreement is made, which is disappointing and unnecessary because I do not believe that the final agreement made by the unions and the employers would be any different if there had not been a couple of days of strikes on the bus or the railway before the agreement was made because strikes are ultimately futile. All they do is damage the companies concerned, cost the striking workers money, inconvenience passengers and cost other people too. I would much prefer to see industrial disputes being resolved in the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court without a strike just as they are in so many other semi-State bodies and so many other parts of the public service.

There is no date for the publication of the new national development plan, although we are targeting the month of December. It is intended that the national planning framework and the ten-year capital plan should be done at the same time and agreed and published at the same time because they need to speak to each other.

I support public private partnerships, PPPs, in principle. I think they have worked well. Much of our motorway network was built through PPPs, as was the case with many of our new schools, which are very fine buildings. However, I do not think PPPs are universally good. I do not like the idea of people referring to PPPs for public infrastructure as though they are off-balance sheet. They are not. It is just that the cost is spread over 40 years rather than over three, four or five but they are very much on-balance sheet. It is not free money. It is money that has to come out of taxpayers' pockets and PPPs can be very expensive. Sometimes it is cheaper to borrow the money up front given that interest rates are so low rather than go for a PPP model but there can be advantages as well, not least the fact that the risk is partially shared by the private sector and that, therefore, spares the taxpayer some of the risk. Second, it is a bit like a mortgage. While it might be cheaper to buy a house up front, sometimes one just cannot do so because one does not have the cash so it makes sense in those circumstances to pay it off over 40 years in the form of a PPP.

I am not up to date with developments at Dún Laoghaire Harbour Company. The plan was to transfer it to the local authority thus allowing it to be developed as an amenity for the area, which is the right future for that harbour. Some of the small harbours have already been transferred to local authorities, for example, Sligo and Wicklow. I am not sure what the reasons for the delay are in that particular case.

In respect of capital spending, I may have picked Deputy Micheál Martin up wrong but on budget day, the Minister for Finance did announce additional capital allocations to Departments for 2018, 2019, 2020 and 2021. While it is always the case that some capital projects fall behind schedule, it is important to acknowledge that over the past five years there has been considerable progress in terms of our public infrastructure, much more so than people might have expected during a period when we had very little money to invest in infrastructure. Over 200 new schools have been built, which include many fine buildings in my constituency. A total of 67 primary care centres have been built, including three in my constituency. Having not built any new public hospitals in the best part of 15 years, as I speak, there are now three-----

That is not true.

It is true. Tullamore was the last one. Having built none since 1997 or 1998, there are now three under construction - the national rehabilitation hospital in Dún Laoghaire, the new national children's hospital with satellite centres in Blanchardstown and Tallaght and the national forensic mental health hospital. Wings of hospitals were built, as were major hospital developments such as-----

Come on, be honest with people.

I am being honest. There certainly were so, for example-----

The Taoiseach is a terrible propagandist. The Mater or St. Vincent's-----

Examples would be the Nutley wing in St. Vincent's University Hospital or the Whitty Building at the Mater Hospital but there have been no whole new hospitals.

The maternity hospital in Cork.

That is part of Cork University Hospital.

It is a brand new maternity hospital.

I will give the Deputy that one. It is a fine hospital. The point I am making, which is also the truth, is that we now have major new hospitals under construction, which is the big deal, quite frankly. I hope a fourth one will be under construction by this time next year, which would be the new national maternity hospital on the Elm Park St. Vincent's campus.

As the Deputy knows, Páirc Uí Chaoimh has been built and was officially opened at the weekend. Newland's Cross has gone - the last set of traffic lights between Dublin and Cork. The N11 has been upgraded and New Ross and Enniscorthy roads are under construction. The Gort to Tuam motorway, which is the single biggest infrastructure project in the west of Ireland, is now complete, as is Luas CrossCity, which will be opened to passengers in the next couple of weeks. That is the report on progress made so far but I will be happy to add to it and give some more detail at a later stage.

Unfortunately, the EPA report comes as no surprise to anyone in this House. There are 40 locations around the country where raw sewage and wastewater is still being released into our rivers, seas and lakes. This should not be happening in a wealthy modern Western country. Many of the problems highlighted in the EPA report stem from a long-term legacy of bad policy such as the fact that we failed to invest in water and wastewater infrastructure, in part because it was funded by general taxation. One of the downsides of the abolition of water charges is that, once again, water and wastewater projects have to compete with health care, education and other projects for funding when they could have had a dedicated source of funding. Another factor was the very fragmented set up run by local authorities rather than a single utility model like the ESB or Bord Gáis Networks, which would have worked a lot better. It is now being put right. With Irish Water, we have a single utility model, which is very much the ESB model. It is a publicly owned utility with a national remit and expertise. So far, Irish Water's priority has been clean drinking water and a huge amount of progress has been made since 2014 when Irish Water was set up. The number of boil notices is down by 75%, 20,000 boil notices have been eliminated and 90 million litres of water is now being saved every day because of the first fix free programme so people can see the success Irish Water has had in improving our drinking water. Obviously, the next step will be moving to wastewater. At least five projects will be completed this year - Youghal, Belmullet, Rush, Killybegs and Bundoran. What is remarkable is the fact that there are still people in this House who oppose the Water Services Bill and still want to break up Irish Water.

If there is one sure way of making sure we reverse the progress we have made in providing people with safe, clean drinking water, and making sure we get nothing done in the next number of years when it comes to wastewater and the discharge of raw sewage into our rivers and lakes it is to rip up Irish Water all over again. I would certainly encourage people who are opposing the Water Services Bill in the House and who still want Irish Water to be abolished to have some regard for our environment and public health and to drop their embargo on the Bill.

It was the Government's cuts in 2011 that did the damage.

We will move on. That Taoiseach proposed to take questions Nos. 7 to 11, inclusive, together. Is that correct?

We have very little time remaining. We have eight minutes.

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Eamon Ryan


7. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach the outcome of his meeting with Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon. [43766/17]

Micheál Martin


8. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, in Dublin on 5 October 2017; and the issues that were discussed. [43826/17]

Joan Burton


9. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the Scottish First Minister, Ms Nicola Sturgeon, on 6 October 2017. [44891/17]

Brendan Howlin


10. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the Scottish First Minister. [44894/17]

Gerry Adams


11. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his engagement with the First Minister of Scotland, Ms Nicola Sturgeon, on 5 October 2017. [44615/17]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 11, inclusive, together.

I met with Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, on 5 October in Government Buildings. We held a very useful discussion on a range of shared challenges and priorities such as education, housing, health care, unemployment, economic management and the budget. Our conversation also touched on Brexit from our respective positions.

The First Minister set out her preference that the UK remains in the Single Market and customs union and restated her support for Irish priorities, including the avoidance of any new barriers to trade or the movement of people on our island. We acknowledged the strength of bilateral relations between Ireland and Scotland and committed to working to maintain and deepen them. I will meet the First Minister again in Jersey next month at the summit of the British-Irish Council. In the interests of ensuring continued strong relations across these islands, the First Minister also invited me to visit Scotland and I look forward to taking up her invitation in the new year.

I will take a supplementary question from each Deputy in the order in which they were tabled.

I will be brief because the Taoiseach and I seem to agree with Nicola Sturgeon, the Scottish First Minister. What does the Taoiseach see as the purpose of the British-Irish Council at this stage? Given the fundamental differences between the Scottish Administration and London on Brexit and the fact that members of the Northern Assembly will not be present, what is the purpose and expected outcome of the British-Irish Council? At a time when we most need it, it seems to have the least possible functional use, given London and Edinburgh cannot agree on anything.

I talked with the Scottish Government's Brexit Minister about four weeks ago. It was very clear he has done a lot of work on many scenarios and has issues with London. We should all acknowledge how the Scottish Government has approached this issue and how supportive it is of Ireland's agenda. During the consideration of the so-called Great Repeal Bill in the House of Commons, the SNP has been very active in building coalitions to try to protect and promote Scotland's interests. The most important of these amendments is one which seeks to ensure that powers removed from Brussels will be devolved to the devolved Administrations. This is absolutely vital to achieving a special deal for Northern Ireland. It is impossible to be sincere in saying Brexit is a huge threat to Ireland while also ensuring Northern Ireland is not at the Brexit negotiating table. In the absence of a Northern Executive, has the Taoiseach stated to Prime Minister May that we support the devolution of powers to the Assembly and the Executive?

Recent analysis suggests Scotland would lose €30 billion as a result of a hard Brexit. It would be reasonable, given the size of the two economies, to suggest the Republic of Ireland could suffer a loss of approximately half of that in the event of a hard Brexit. Northern Ireland's losses could be proportionately as high and well in excess of €5 billion, perhaps up to €10 billion. In that context, did the Taoiseach discuss the likely implications of a hard Brexit for Scotland in the context of the figures suggested for Scotland and also the likely fall-out for the island of Ireland? Did the Taoiseach identify in his meeting with Nicola Sturgeon the key issues which both Scotland and Ireland, North and South, might agree on. Does he agree with the comments of his party colleague and now Commissioner, Phil Hogan, that we are on a cliff edge to a hard Brexit. The Taoiseach has indicated he does not share that view but come December, he has a very difficult decision to make on whether he, as part of the 27, will allow the next phase of talks to go ahead, notwithstanding the fact that at this point in time we have no clear ideas on the outcomes for Scotland or for Ireland, North and South.

We all know the disastrous decision by the English Tories to call a referendum. The outworking of that referendum has placed a huge burden on people in Scotland, this State and the North and created very real economic, political and social challenges. Scotland, like the North, runs the risk of being pulled out of the European Union against its will. In the case of this island, it is against the will of the people in the North who voted to remain, against the will of the Oireachtas, which also voted accordingly, and the European Parliament. We have proposed that the North should be designated a special status within the European Union. The Taoiseach has yet to embrace that concept. The Scottish First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, is proposing at the very least that the British State should remain a member of the Single Market and the customs union. That is good. Her support for Ireland on these issues is also very welcome. The Taoiseach will know the British Prime Minister has made it clear that devolved Administrations will have no part in the negotiations. The First Minister of Scotland is a friend on these issues. Did the Taoiseach also discuss the particular importance of the Good Friday Agreement with her and the threat posed by Brexit to this agreement? Did he seek her support on that? I noticed earlier that the Taoiseach refrained from saying he supported it as an annex to any deal put together to facilitate the British leaving the European Union. The best legal advice and the strongest position is to have it there as an annex. I commend that position to the Taoiseach. Did he discuss any of this with the First Minister of Scotland, particularly in the context of the future of the Good Friday Agreement?

We are out of time but the Taoiseach may give a short reply.

I will be as brief as I can. It was a real pleasure to meet and talk with First Minister Sturgeon. We had spoken on the phone previously but it is the first time we met. She is a very impressive person. She is somebody who is very direct and business-like. I was very impressed by her. We are aligned on many issues and I look forward to working closely with the Scottish Government in the months and years ahead if we are given the opportunity.

Deputy Ryan asked a very valid question about the role and value of the British-Irish Council. I will attend my first meeting of it in a few weeks' time so I want to reserve judgment until I have come back from it to see what its value is. At the very least, it is an opportunity for the Taoiseach of the day, the First Ministers of Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland - if the Executive was up and running - and the Administrations in the Isle of Man and the Channel Islands to meet each other. We all have busy diaries and schedules. The fact we are required to meet each other at least once a year is probably no harm. Even that has some value, although the British Prime Minister does not attend or has only attended on one occasion. I will see how it goes and perhaps when we come back after that I will be able to give the Deputy a better view on its value as a body. We may find that post-Brexit it becomes more valuable or we may need to give it a new role, particularly as Brexit will affect Ireland and the UK differently and will also impact on the Channel Islands and the Isle of Man which are not in the EU but are bound by EU law in some way.

How powers are allocated between Westminster and the devolved Administrations is a matter for the Westminster parliament.

It would not be advantageous to our national interests to try to tell the United Kingdom how it should allocate power between Westminster and the devolved parliaments. We have a particular role, obviously, regarding Northern Ireland, but that does not apply to Scotland and Wales.

It is not true to say that the devolved Administrations have no influence on Brexit; they do. They have influence through the Joint Ministerial Committee.

There is no real room for negotiation.

They also have influence through the-----

The Taoiseach should not mislead the Dáil again.

They could have if the repeal Act is changed.

-----Sewel convention and also through the legislation. They are not part of negotiations; that is absolutely correct. However, it is absolutely incorrect to say they have no influence or role because they can have an influence and a role.

Deputy Burton asked about a hard Brexit. Our meeting was quite short and rather than focusing on the hard Brexit, we spoke more about how we could avoid it, which is what both Scotland and Ireland would want.

Des the Taoiseach have a plan to avoid it?

It is not inevitable by any means. We plan to avoid it, obviously, by negotiating an exit treaty with the UK and a subsequent new relationship treaty with the UK that does not result in a hard Brexit.