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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 30 Jan 2018

Vol. 964 No. 4

Ceisteanna - Questions

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Brendan Howlin


1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Lebanon and his engagements there. [54821/17]

Gerry Adams


2. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to Lebanon. [1285/18]

Micheál Martin


3. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent trip to Lebanon; the meetings that were held; and the detail of his discussions with the Defence Force while there. [1383/18]

Michael Moynihan


4. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent trip to Lebanon. [1398/18]

Richard Boyd Barrett


5. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to the Irish troops in Lebanon. [1833/18]

Joan Burton


6. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent trip to Lebanon. [3004/18]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, together.

On 21 December last I travelled to Lebanon to visit members of the Defence Forces serving with the United Nations Interim Force in Lebanon, UNIFIL. The purpose of my visit was to demonstrate Government support for the UNIFIL mission and the Defence Forces serving overseas and also for me to gain a better understanding of the work they do. I was accompanied by the Minister of State with responsibility for defence, Deputy Paul Kehoe, and the Chief of Staff of the Defence Forces, Vice Admiral Mark Mellett.

Ireland has contributed strongly to UNIFIL since the force’s establishment in 1978. Today it represents Ireland's largest overseas deployment, with some 380 members of the Defence Forces deployed. These women and men work alongside Finnish and Estonian troops and serve in a joint battalion. The current UNIFIL force commander is Major General Michael Beary of the Defence Forces. The visit provided an opportunity to see at first-hand the security challenges faced by UNIFIL in southern Lebanon. At mission headquarters Major General Beary briefed me on operations and I laid a wreath at the memorial to deceased UNIFIL troops. I toured the blue line between Lebanon and Israel and observed operations and capacity demonstrations, including with members of the Lebanese armed forces who are being trained by our armed forces. I had the opportunity to meet the Irish troops serving with the 111th Battalion under Lieutenant Colonel Neil Nolan, most of whom come from the Cork area.. At the Tibnin monument to Irish troops who died while serving in Lebanon, I laid a wreath and met representatives of local communities in south Lebanon.

During my meetings with the Irish troops I thanked them on behalf of the Government and the people for their service, especially in being away from their families and friends at Christmas. I also emphasised Ireland’s strong commitment to the peacekeeping work of the United Nations and paid tribute to the contribution of the Defence Forces and the vital work they were doing, not only in southern Lebanon but in all missions with which our troops have served and continue to serve with distinction and courage.

The Taoiseach's trip to Lebanon to visit the 343 Irish troops serving with the UN-mandated UNIFIL mission was important and I commend him for it. I also welcome his decision to lay a wreath in memory of the 47 Irish soldiers who had lost their lives in the pursuit of peace in the region since 1978. Will he indicate whether he had any political meeting during his trip? If so, whom did he meet?

Speaking in Lebanon, did the Taoiseach at any point raise the Government's concerns about the move of the United States Embassy to Jerusalem? Did he have an opportunity to reiterate the Irish and EU stance on the importance of the maintenance of the position on Jerusalem until such time as there was a comprehensive peace agreement? Will he indicate when the Government will formally recognise the state of Palestine? Was he asked about the matter when in the region and did he make observations on it?

On the Taoiseach's discussions with the senior military personnel who accompanied him or were stationed in Lebanon, did he have discussions on the evolving role of this country in respect of PESCO? In which of the 17 projects outlined in PESCO will Ireland participate?

I join the Taoiseach in commending the Irish peacekeeping troops based in Lebanon who are contributing to UN efforts to maintain peace in that dangerous region. I acknowledge his concern about the decision made in December by the US President, Mr. Trump, to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. The decision is in contravention of established international understandings and UN resolutions and has significantly heightened tensions in the Middle East. President Trump has substantially cut US funding for the United Nations Relief and Works Agency, UNRWA, for Palestinian refugees in the Near East. At Davos he threatened to cut all aid to Palestine and close the Palestinian office in Washington. He is ignoring the rights of the Palestinian people in his support for Israel.

Currently, 350 children are held in Israeli prisons. Among them is 16-year-old Ahed Tamimi who faces up to ten years in prison for slapping an Israeli soldier. Tomorrow will be her 17th birthday which she will celebrate in an Israeli military court. Will the Taoiseach join me in calling for her and all imprisoned Palestinian children to be released? Will he consider committing to increasing our funding for UNRWA, as Belgium has done, to make up some of the shortfall as a result of President Trump's dangerous decision? Will the Government support Senator Francis Black's Occupied Territories Bill which would ban trade in goods produced by Israel in the illegal settlements? Will the Taoiseach agree to implement the Oireachtas decision of three years ago to recognise the state of Palestine and upgrade the Palestinian mission in Dublin to the status of a full embassy?

I too have had the privilege of visiting our troops serving overseas in the cause of peace, including in the Middle East. They are a source of immense pride for the country and always have been. One is always struck by the warmth with which they are received by host populations and the acceptance of their bona fides in making a contribution and their objectivity in peacekeeping and peace enforcement. The work of the men and women of Óglaigh na hÉireann in Lebanon and elsewhere is one of our most important contributions to the world.

Considering that I have raised this issue with the Taoiseach here on a number of occasions, he is fully aware of what I describe as the appalling treatment many of our soldiers and their families are receiving at the hands of the State. The simple fact is that many of them are living at little more than subsistence level. This has been well documented by the spouses of many working in the Army. Therefore, there is a significant divergence between the laudatory rhetoric in which the State engages and in which we engage when we celebrate the contribution of our troops overseas and the accounts of the quality of the conditions in which the troops work, the lack of investment and any significant paradigm shift in the recruitment and retention of those who work in the Defence Forces generally. I do not know whether this issue was raised with the Taoiseach in Lebanon in any shape or form or whether he made any attempt to address the legitimate concerns of the Army and Defence Forces personnel generally.

The security position in the region gives cause for real concern. The instability of Lebanon's Government, the role of Hezbollah, the circumstances in Syria and the increasingly assertive policy of Mr. Netanyahu and his government all add up to being very combustible.

Has there been any communication between the Taoiseach and the US Government on the threatened cuts to the funding for UNRWA? Palestinians will be in a perilous state if the cuts proceed. The recognition of Jerusalem by the United States as the capital of Israel is posing immense challenges to all those genuinely interested in peace in the region.

Obviously, it was positive to visit our troops. There is no doubt about their bravery and the importance of the work they do, but we really have to up the ante in our political criticism and questioning of what Israel is doing. As mentioned, there are many child prisoners, including Ahed Tamimi, while illegal settlement continues. Also to be considered is the strangulation of Gaza and the appalling humanitarian circumstances there.

Specifically regarding our troops, I presume the Taoiseach is aware that there have been some worrying signs of what Israel is talking about regarding Lebanon. This month Brigadier General Manelis, the Israeli defence forces spokesperson, warned of a possible war, another war, between Israel and Lebanon. In the summer of last year which was, interestingly, the same time Irish troops were forced to go to ground in the buffer zone in Syria having been fired upon by certain rebel groups that are reputedly co-operating with the Israelis Israel was talking about the UN presence in southern Lebanon as being unnecessary, implying cover was being given to Hezbollah. Israel was making all sorts of excuses to criticise the UN presence in the region. This is the sort of stuff that preceded previous Israeli attacks in Lebanon where thousands of people have been killed, including UN peacekeepers on a number of occasions. Therefore, we need to be robust in our criticism of Israel's warmongering in this regard.

It is welcome that the Taoiseach visited Óglaigh na hÉireann on its mission abroad. It is very important that the Irish Army receive recognition from the highest level of the Government. In Irish troops' various peacekeeping missions around the world - their mission in Lebanon has been one of their longest - they are recognised as being peacemakers and able to defuse circumstances that would otherwise be very tense and difficult, often at great personal risk, and which have resulted in death and injury in a number of cases. We really should pay tribute to them for their professionalism, commitment and peacemaking. That is a tribute to the peacemaking mandate of the United Nations, with which it is important that we continue.

What is the position of the Taoiseach on the conflict between Israel and the people of Palestine? Traditionally, the role of Ireland, as a small country - these are two small countries - has been to act as a peacemaker. That role should continue.

A lot of people who have been involved at different times in Middle East peace processes were deeply disappointed at the move by President Trump on the location of the American Embassy. I think that possibly has more to do with internal politics. Could the Taoiseach confirm that Ireland remains committed to a two-state solution, namely, that we recognise the state of Israel but that, as a Dáil, we will move to recognise Palestine?

I wish to restate what a privilege it was to visit our troops in Lebanon. Next year will be the 40th anniversary of Irish participation in Lebanon, with a small gap. A total of 32,000 Irish people have served in Lebanon, which is a huge number. Almost everyone knows somebody who has served in "the Leb" at some stage. What they have managed to do in south Lebanon is to allow people living in that part of the country to have a normal life. A lot of the troops who have come back to see south Lebanon, having been there 20 years or 30 years ago, say they cannot get over how stable it is, and how much economic development is now happening, in particular as the Lebanese diaspora bring their money back into the country. That would not be possible were it not for the UN mission in that region, essentially providing a buffer zone between Lebanon and Israel.

It is also a very important part of our foreign policy that we show our commitment to multilateralism by making our troops available to serve on those missions. There are other missions of great importance under way, such as in Mali, for example.

I did not have any political meetings. I met with some of the local council leaders, but they were courtesy calls. There were no meetings with politicians, as such. Inquiries were made about meeting with Prime Minister Hariri but it just was not possible to do it given the short timeframe in which the visit happened.

While I was there, an increase in tensions was reported as a result of the decision of the US administration to recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. There was a march on the blue line but thankfully no life was lost. Ireland's position is that our embassy in Israel remains in Tel Aviv and until there is a peace settlement between Israel and the Palestinians we will not recognise Jerusalem as the capital of Israel. We disagree with the US administration's decision to do so and we voted accordingly in the United Nations and recorded our protest with the US Embassy. We believe that by taking the decision to recognise Jerusalem as Israel's capital the United States has made it much harder for it to be seen as an honest broker in terms of a future peace settlement.

It is the Government's position that we are committed to a two-state solution - the establishment of a Palestinian state living side by side and at peace with Israel - and not threatening its security. In terms of recognition, what the programme for Government says is that we recognise the state of Palestine in the context of a peace agreement. There is no peace agreement as yet. We would have to think long and hard as a Government about recognising a state that does not exist. It does not exist because it is under occupation and we would have to consider the consequences of that. We know that when Sweden recognised the state of Palestine the response from the Israeli Government was to then lock it out of any engagement on the issue.

We are very engaged in the region. As the Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, will explain in his speech in the Seanad tonight, we are involved in a significant number of projects in the Palestinian territories, including a solar farm that we are going to help build in the buffer area between the Gaza wall and Israel which will allow Palestinians to have power for more than four hours a day. If we recognise the state of Palestine, while I have no doubt that would have an effect in terms of solidarity, we would then be cut out of doing all the good things we are currently doing to assist Palestinian people on a practical basis every day. It is one of those decisions one has to make as to whether one wants to stand up for people all the time or whether one wants to do practical things to help them. Generally, I fall on the side of helping people rather than shouting for them.

On PESCO, we have not decided yet which programmes we are going to opt in to but they will most likely be around counterterrorism, marine security and harbour protection, but that is not decided yet. We will be increasing our funding to organisations that help Palestinians. The Tánaiste and Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, will make a statement about that in due course. We very much regret and disagree with the policy decision of the United States to cut its funding to UNWRA.

In terms of our Defence Forces more generally, pay restoration is now under way. As part of the public service agreement with public servants, pay will rise between 6.2% and 7.4% over the lifetime of the agreement, fully reversing all pay cuts applied to people earning up to €70,000 and also reversing the 5% cut in allowances.

Cabinet Committee Meetings

Gerry Adams


7. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee D, infrastructure, last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [1286/18]

Michael Moynihan


8. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on Cabinet committee D, infrastructure. [1400/18]

Richard Boyd Barrett


9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee D, infrastructure, will next meet. [1832/18]

Joan Burton


10. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee D, infrastructure, last met; and when it plans to next meet. [3005/18]

Brendan Howlin


11. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee D, infrastructure, last met; and when it plans to meet next. [3377/18]

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

Cabinet committee D has met twice, on 12 September 2017 and 23 November 2017. It is scheduled to meet again on 1 February 2018. As I previously indicated, Cabinet committee D was established to cover the areas of housing, climate action, infrastructure investment and delivery, the national planning framework and the ten-year capital plan.

In regard to housing, the Government has announced a number of additional measures following a review of Rebuilding Ireland. A second housing summit was held on Monday, 22 January and a range of new affordability schemes were announced including the Rebuilding Ireland home loan, the affordable purchase scheme, and the affordable rent scheme.

Additional actions previously announced include measures contained in the budget to increase expenditure, 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 relation to the rental market, and published updated draft guidelines for planning authorities on apartment development, to ensure that the right stock of homes is being built, in the right locations.

Rebuilding Ireland is working but it will take time. In 2017 a total of 25,892 new households had their housing needs met under Rebuilding Ireland, an increase of 36% compared to 2016. That is 100 individuals and families being housed by the State every working day. The latest available housing market data show that residential construction activity is now picking up.

On climate change, Ireland is committed to concerted multilateral action through the Paris Agreement. While the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Naughten, and his Department have responsibility for climate change, Ireland’s response to climate change is about broad cross-cutting issues that requires a whole-of-Government response, in addition to engagement with our EU partners.

Ireland’s first national mitigation plan, published in July 2017, sets out the Government's collective approach to reducing Ireland’s own greenhouse gas emissions. It represents the first in a series of roadmaps across all sectors to make progress towards Ireland’s national transition objective. In addition to the national mitigation plan, Ireland's first statutory national adaptation framework was published by the Minister, Deputy Naughten, on 19 January. It specifies the national strategy for the application of adaptation measures in different sectors and by local authorities in order to reduce Ireland’s vulnerability to the negative effects of climate change. Climate Action will also be one of the main themes of the forthcoming ten-year infrastructure plan.

Cabinet committee D is contributing to the development of the national planning framework and new ten-year capital plan. This long-term approach will provide clarity, coherence and certainty in relation to planning and capital expenditure. The ten-year plan will be finalised in tandem with the national planning framework in the coming weeks.

Will the Taoiseach comment on reports that the Dublin Region Homeless Executive, DRHE, proposed restrictions on the right of charities dealing with homeless citizens to speak to the media? Can the Taoiseach state whether Cabinet committee D at any time discussed this proposal and if the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government, or his officials, had any act or part in this action by the DRHE?

Second, the Oireachtas housing committee published a report authored by my colleague, Teachta Ó Broin, last week entitled Safe as Houses which received cross-party support. It makes 26 recommendations to ensure better compliance with building standards and to strengthen consumer protection for homeowners and council tenants. Given the ongoing efforts to encourage building it is imperative that the building control system in place is robust and consumers are protected. Has the Taoiseach had an opportunity to read this report? Will Cabinet committee D discuss it? Does the Taoiseach accept that greater accountability and protections are needed in the construction of homes and will the Government seriously examine implementing the recommendations?

Finally, President Trump last week at Davos again denied the existence of climate change and global warming. Last November Professor John FitzGerald of the Climate Change Advisory Council warned that this State is going to miss its 2020 greenhouse gas emission targets.

That could cost the State hundreds of millions of euro in fines. When published, the national mitigation plan was widely criticised for its lack of ambition. The national adaptation framework was published earlier this month. Its headline grabbing measure was the establishment of regional climate change offices and the requirement for Ministers to produce sectoral adaptation plans. Will the Taoiseach indicate when these offices will be established and how long it will be before Ministers will produce specific sectoral plans?

In recent months, the Taoiseach's refusal to answer simple factual questions has been a feature of this series of exchanges. Several times I have asked for basic information about decisions on infrastructure and investment. What tends to happen is that the Taoiseach goes on talking about other issues that have not been asked about but not about the specific questions asked.

The infrastructure plan will soon be published. It was first drafted well over a year ago. The main figures in it were used by the Taoiseach when he was campaigning for the Fine Gael leadership. It has been repeatedly delayed to prepare for the new propaganda campaign that will get under way once it is published.

Will the Taoiseach tell us how many of the projects in the new ten-year plan have already been announced in the current five-year plan? Will he give us guarantees that detailed costings have been sought for the projects that will be announced? Will the Taoiseach give us an assurance that the role of independent agencies will have been respected in deciding on the location and nature of projects? As I have said, I have come across evidence of where Ministers are ringing people to tell them to get their applications in fast without the due diligence or needs assessment that should have informed such presentations.

I put it to the Taoiseach that all this glossy stuff and all the propaganda will follow. When we look at the example of Tallaght, as I gave it to the Taoiseach earlier, it puts all of this in context. A tender was issued in December with the intention of awarding the contract in March. The HSE has now extended the tender process to October with the contract due for early 2019. It is for a renal unit. Therein lies the codology and the three-card trick nature of what is going on.

Of the many pressing infrastructure needs the country has, the most pressing is being able to put an affordable roof over the heads of our citizens. This is vital from a social and economic point of view. Given that in the budget the Taoiseach committed, between the local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF, and Home Building Finance Ireland, approximately €1 billion in supports for private developers to deliver housing, what, if anything, is the Government doing to ensure that we are going to get an appropriate return in terms of affordable housing? It amounts to public investment being given to private developers.

When the LIHAF proposal was first introduced, for example, the Government announced that 40% of any development supported by LIHAF was going to be affordable. Within a month, that was gone. Now, there is no guaranteed percentage and no definition of affordability. All this money is going out but nothing is guaranteed. The same applies with Home Building Finance Ireland, the Ireland Strategic Investment Fund and NAMA land. There are no guarantees that for anything built, in some cases in particularly large developments, any significant or guaranteed proportion will actually be affordable.

I wish to remind the Taoiseach that prior to the crash we were building 90,000 houses per year. They were unaffordable. That is part of the reason we had a crash. We can up the supply but if the prices being charged by private developers are unaffordable, it is not sustainable. What commitments are we getting on affordability?

I am sorry to tell the Taoiseach about this although he may have some personal experience of it. It has been happening every morning since the new Luas to Broombridge opened. It is a fine development that I strongly supported in government and I am delighted to see it open. However, the centre of Dublin, our capital city, is completely gridlocked every morning. Thousands of people are between half an hour to an hour late for work every day. I see Deputy Haughey nodding in agreement, I think. It affects anyone who is a user of public transport in this city. It is simply desperate. The bad news is that we seek the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport here and there but he does not seem to be anywhere.

Deputy Burton will find him in Stepaside.

Nothing will change unless the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport intervenes at the Taoiseach's request. Most of the big trams are not arriving – they are late. They are not coming until March. At that point, the whole of the central area will close down. I imagine the Minister for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, is familiar with this as well.

I regularly go on the bus simply to see if there is any improvement. The drivers are beyond their wits' end. There is chaos on the main streets of our capital. The queues on the quays are backed up to Prussia Street and Aughrim Street and all along the quays. All of the northside is the same and, I am told, it is the same for people coming in from the southside.

The Taoiseach represents a Dublin constituency. The Luas is a great achievement. The Taoiseach uses phrases like "inter-connected-whole-of-government". Will he find the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport and put him on a tram or bus or get him to walk? I do not care which option he chooses. Will he get the Minister on a bus to allow him to see and feel the frustration of the staff and especially of the passengers?

It seems we are as bad as the trains and buses at keeping time – some of us, anyway.

The Ceann Comhairle knows that I am very disciplined on these matters.

I want to deal with the capital plan as well. I am glad the Minister for Finance and Public, Expenditure and Reform is present. When will the capital plan be published? Earlier, in a different debate, the Taoiseach told us that it would be in the coming weeks. I do not believe for a moment that the Government propaganda unit, with its €5 million to spend, has not already got detailed plans, colour documents, logos and websites planned. Specifically, when will the capital plan be published?

My next question is specifically about public private partnerships. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Donohoe, will recall that when in government I restricted PPPs to 10% of the total capital spend. We could not get as much money as we needed. In the worst of times people did not lend us money. We could not spend it because of the restrictions on spending in any event, and thus PPPs were an option. After the experience with Carillion, I hope that the 10% ceiling will not be breached. I listened with care to the arguments to the contrary from Fianna Fáil at the end of last year when the party demanded significant expansion of PPPs.

Will the Taoiseach provide an update on where we are with Carillion? My understanding is that it now falls to the PPP company, which is now the Dutch infrastructure company, to re-award the construction contract to either the subcontractor, Sammon Construction, or to some other entity to ensure the unfinished schools can be completed. As I understand it, there are two completed schools now. Loreto secondary school in Wexford, the project I am most familiar with, is ready to be occupied and was to be occupied last week. Will the Taoiseach give an update on when those schools can be occupied?

Deputy O'Reilly asked about Cabinet committee D. We did not discuss any proposed gagging clause for service providers. That matter did not go before the committee. Certainly, it is not something I would agree with. At the same time, though, I expect public money to be spent on services and not on other things.

The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government, in line with Government spending rules, is now carrying out an audit of the different charities and NGOs that operate in the housing and homelessness sectors because the funding for them has exceeded the €100 million threshold. The figure will be €113 million or €120 million this year.

That is amazing.

It is appropriate, in line with Government rules, to carry out an audit of how the money was spent to ensure the money is spent on providing services for people and not duplicating other activities.

I have not had a chance to read the Oireachtas committee report yet but the Government will examine the report and provide a reasoned response. All of us, through our constituency work, will be familiar with people who live in houses or apartments that were not built up to standard. These people will now be stuck with those consequences for the rest of their lives, or if not for the rest of their lives, for a long time at least.

On climate change, as we all know, the 2020 targets will be difficult to meet. We had a lost decade, a recessionary period during which we could not make the types of capital investments we would have liked to make. In addition, when the targets were set they did not fully comprehend the fact that Ireland's economy does not have much heavy industry. Many countries are meeting their targets by closing down dirty heavy industries that we did not have in the first place. These are the two reasons it will be difficult for Ireland to meet the 2020 targets. However, the 2030 targets are probably more achievable and we must ensure we meet them.

On the ten-year investment plan, as it is still in draft form, I am not yet able to indicate how many projects it contains and what proportion of them are existing projects. However, it would be fair to conclude that many of these projects are in progress. It is a ten-year plan running from 2018 until 2027 and some of the projects in it are not new. Metro north, for example, which is due to start in 2021, will obviously be restated in the plan, as will projects such as the national children's hospital, which are only starting now. Sites at which construction has commenced include St. James's, Blanchardstown and Tallaght hospitals. While I accept that a renal unit is not yet under construction in Tallaght hospital, the paediatric unit is under construction and it is great to see cranes beside the hospitals again.

What does the Taoiseach make of the shifting sands?

We have not yet set a date for the publication of the capital plan and no decision has been made on the public private partnerships, PPP, rule.

What is the position regarding Carillion?

I do not have an update on Carillion, except to note that the National Development Finance Agency and the Department of Education and Skills are working to resolve the matter as quickly as possible. I heard a radio report this morning on children and teachers who are very keen to get into their new school and we are keen to make that happen as soon as possible.

On Home Building Finance Ireland, HBFI, the Government made a decision today to prepare legislation for the HBFI. It is important to make a distinction between loans and grants. HBFI will provide loans to developers who will use the money to build houses and apartments - homes for people - and then repay it with interest. I have read some poor commentary comparing the amount of money we are providing for social housing with the amount we are providing to HBFI. There is a difference between grants and loans. With the latter, one gets all the money back plus interest.

We also get all our money back with social housing.

This vehicle will not cost us anything. We will make a profit out of it because the developers will have to repay the full loans with interest, which is much different from grants. In the meantime, the developers will use the money to build houses and homes and increase the supply of all forms of housing at all different price levels, which is what we should be doing.

LIHAF, the local infrastructure housing activation fund, is different because it is the State doing what it should do, namely, building infrastructure to make lands accessible. It provides funding for housing infrastructure such as roads and water.

I very much agree with Deputy Burton on traffic in Dublin. It was particularly bad this morning.

The position is desperate.

It took me 75 minutes to travel into the city. It was not as bad last week.

It was just as bad last week.

I am not sure the problem has been caused by the Luas. As Deputy Burton stated, additional Luas carriages will come on stream in March. Much of the reason for the increase in traffic is that the economy has bounced back. It is recovering and expanding and there are more and more people working, which will require much more investment in public transport, particularly in the city of Dublin. We intend to do exactly that.

We have less than ten minutes remaining for the next group of questions.

I thought I was finished.

That is a case of wishful thinking.

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Gerry Adams


12. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his engagement with the Prime Minister of Hungary, Mr. Viktor Orbán, on 4 January 2018. [1287/18]

Brendan Howlin


13. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to the Hungarian Prime Minister, Mr. Viktor Orbán, on 4 January 2018. [1288/18]

Micheál Martin


14. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Hungary; the meetings that were held; and the issues that were discussed with Mr. Viktor Orbán. [1382/18]

Seán Haughey


15. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if the issue of European immigration was raised when he met Mr. Viktor Orbán while in Hungary. [1447/18]

Richard Boyd Barrett


16. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to Hungary and his meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán. [1680/18]

Ruth Coppinger


17. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the Prime Minister of Hungary. [1789/18]

Gerry Adams


18. Deputy Gerry Adams asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his engagement with the Prime Minister of Bulgaria, Mr. Boyko Borisov, on 5 January 2018. [1830/18]

Joan Burton


19. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the Hungarian Prime Minister, Mr. Viktor Orbán, on 4 January 2018. [1834/18]

Joan Burton


20. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach the contact he has had with the Bulgarian Prime Minister, Mr. Boyko Borisov, since Bulgaria assumed the Presidency of EU on 1 January 2018. [1835/18]

Eamon Ryan


21. Deputy Eamon Ryan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visits to Hungary and Bulgaria. [3094/18]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 12 to 21, inclusive, together.

I travelled to Budapest on 4 January for a bilateral meeting with Prime Minister Viktor Orbán and onwards to Sofia on 5 January to meet Prime Minister Boyko Borisov. I was accompanied on both visits by the Minister of State with responsibility for European affairs, Deputy Helen McEntee. The meeting with Prime Minister Borisov was an opportunity, in particular, to have detailed discussions about plans and priorities for the incoming Bulgarian Presidency of the Council over the next six months. The visits were also part of the Government's ongoing programme of political engagement with EU partners in the context of discussions on the future of Europe and the Brexit negotiations.

Agendas for both meetings included Brexit; enlargement of the European Union, particularly into the western Balkans; the need to ensure the EU remains economically competitive; the post-2020 European budget; and bilateral relations. I thanked both Prime Ministers for their support and understanding on the specific Irish concerns arising from Brexit. This was especially important in facilitating the agreement reached at the European Council in December, allowing negotiations to proceed to the second phase. In reply, both Prime Ministers expressed their continuing support for ensuring the commitments entered into are delivered in full, including in the legal text. While Brexit does not affect countries in central and eastern Europe in the way it affects Ireland, I am reassured that Bulgaria and Hungary are 100% behind Ireland's position.

In addition, we agreed on the need to provide certainty to our citizens and businesses on the nature of a period of transition and to begin to shape the framework for the United Kingdom's future relationship with the European Union. Both Prime Ministers agreed that this future relationship should be as close as possible. I will continue to work closely with them and our other EU partners as this work advances in 2018.

Regarding the western Balkans and their perspective for EU accession, this issue is of strategic importance to both Hungary and Bulgaria owing to their geographic proximity to the western Balkans. It is also one of the Bulgarian Presidency's key priorities. I reaffirmed Ireland's support for the eventual accession of the western Balkan states to the European Union once the necessary conditions have been met. The EU has been a driver of peace and prosperity and the forging of closer links with this region will be of benefit to the countries of the western Balkans in bringing growth and stability. In this regard, I pointed to the important role of the UK's and Ireland’s shared membership of the EU in securing peace on this island. I am, therefore, reassured that the countries of central and eastern Europe view Brexit as we do and that we view the western Balkans as they do.

On EU competitiveness, I emphasised the importance of unlocking the full potential of the digital Single Market. Both Hungary and Bulgaria are fully supportive and agree that this is crucial to supporting the growth and jobs of tomorrow.

On the EU budget, I had very constructive exchanges with both Prime Ministers on the need to ensure Europe is equipped with a budget to meet the challenges of the future. This is a debate that will get fully under way in 2018, including at next month's informal European Council meeting on 23 February.

Both Prime Ministers expressed their concern to ensure adequate Cohesion Funding and both agreed the need for continued support for the Common Agricultural Policy.

During the meeting with Prime Minister Orbán, I raised the issue of rule of law in Hungary and the concerns raised by the European Commission and others regarding freedoms of the press and judiciary, which I share. I also raised the Hungarian law on non-governmental organisations and its law on higher education which threatens the Central European University in Budapest and for which Hungary has been referred to the European Court of Justice. I also discussed with the Prime Minister our differing views on Europe's approach to managing migration. This matter has been difficult and divisive in recent years, including the question of quotas. As always, ensuring progress depends on dialogue and seeking to forge a genuine consensus which will allow the European Union to respond effectively.

In my meeting with Prime Minister Borisov, I congratulated him on the ambitious programme set for the Bulgarian Presidency and assured him of Ireland’s commitment to working with him and his team in making the Presidency a success. Its slogan, United We Stand Strong, and the key themes of consensus, competitiveness and cohesion capture very well the essential needs of the European Union at this time.

Prime Minister Borisov briefed me on Bulgaria's relations with its neighbours, Turkey and Russia, and geopolitical implications, including for energy supply. He expressed the hope that Bulgaria would join the euro as soon as possible and I expressed my full support for the country doing so.

Ongoing political engagement with our EU and international partners will remain crucial, particularly as the Brexit negotiations proceed. I will continue to meet my counterparts and use every opportunity to advance Ireland's interests.

I have been asked why I did not make explicit reference to these visits when informing the House of my travel plans on 13 December 2017. As Deputies will be aware, it is not customary to announce a visit until the host is ready to do so, which was not the case at the time. Plans and arrangements were still being advanced. However, I stated at the time that other arrangements, including meetings with European partners, were being prepared. This reflected the position at the time. I can confirm that the Prime Minister of Estonia, Mr. Jüri Ratas, will visit Dublin this week.

I make no criticism of the Taoiseach's decision to meet the Hungarian Prime Minister. Dialogue is important if differences are to be resolved between parties. However, the Government of Prime Minister Orbán is one of the most regressive governments in the European Union, especially in respect of its anti-Muslim and anti-immigrant policies. Did the Taoiseach raise concerns about the Hungarian Government's approach to human rights with Prime Minister Orbán? Did he discuss with the Prime Minister the European Union's approach to the issue of migrants?

We know that an Amnesty International report in December accused EU leaders of knowingly being complicit in the torture and exploitation of thousands of migrants held in the detention camps in Libya run by the Libyan coastguard. Has the Government investigated these complaints? Has it raised any concerns in relation to these complaints with its EU partners? Is the Taoiseach satisfied that the EU programme is functioning properly?

The Taoiseach discussed the issue of Brexit with both the Hungarian and Bulgarian Prime Ministers. Last week in Davos, the Taoiseach called for a Norway-plus deal for Britain. Is this the approach supported by Michel Barnier? The Taoiseach acknowledged that his proposal would have to be a specific agreement, as there is no precedent for this type of relationship. That being the case, why does the Taoiseach not also argue for the North to have designated status within the EU? We are constantly told that there is no precedent for this, but if he is prepared to propose a Norway-plus model without precedent, then why not also propose a designated special status model for the North? Has the Taoiseach or any of his officials actually spoken to the British Government about proposing such a Norway-plus model? I think it is important that the House would be informed.

Finally, Government Departments have been advised to provide contingency plans, including emergency legislation, in the event that the EU and Britain do not arrive at a deal on Brexit. This is especially important in the context of today's leaked documents on the analysis carried out by the British Government on the economic impact, which showed that the North would be one of the worst hit areas. Will the Government publish these contingency plans, and will the Opposition be briefed on the content of these contingency plans?

We have fewer than two minutes remaining. Would Members agree to carrying the questions over until tomorrow?


We will go to the Taoiseach for an answer.

I would like to ask a question.

You cannot because we are 20 minutes late.

I formally suggest that we accept the Ceann Comhairle's proposal, and we roll over the balance of this until tomorrow.

Do you want to raise your question now, Deputy Howlin?

Can I get a little bit more time tomorrow?

In truth, I was surprised that the Taoiseach added a visit to Budapest to meet Prime Minister Viktor Orbán to the schedule. When I specifically asked him on 13 December to list meetings, it was not listed. It is surprising. I have some experience in government, although obviously not at the Taoiseach's level, and I understand that meeting Prime Ministers is not done overnight. There is normally a very long lead-in in arranging diaries of this sort, so I was surprised that we were not advised in advance.

In regard to the discussion with Prime Minister Orbán, the Taoiseach indicated that he raised a number of human rights issues. My concern is this that there is a debate now on the future of Europe and on whether it will continue to be the liberal Europe we joined and had an aspiration for, based on fundamental rights and on the European Convention on Human Rights that is the legal basis for the developments in our Union. Did the Taoiseach put those points to the Prime Minister, and what did he say to in response? Did the Taoiseach receive any specific requests from any Hungarian non-governmental organisations, NGOs, to meet with him? Did he meet with any NGOs, human rights groups or opposition parties when he was in Budapest?

That concludes the questions. We will carry over the remainder of the questions until tomorrow. We must now move to questions to the Minister for Finance.