Mary Lou McDonaldQuestion:
1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recently published report of the interdepartmental group on security of Ireland’s electoral process and disinformation. [37663/18]
Vol. 973 No. 5
1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recently published report of the interdepartmental group on security of Ireland’s electoral process and disinformation. [37663/18]
2. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recently published report of the interdepartmental group on security of Ireland’s electoral process and disinformation. [39903/18]
3. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the first report of the interdepartmental group on security of Ireland’s electoral process and disinformation. [39906/18]
4. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the interdepartmental group on security of Ireland’s electoral process and disinformation co-ordinated by his Department; and if he will further report on the recent launch of the public consultation on the regulation of online political advertising. [40019/18]
5. Deputy Alan Farrell asked the Taoiseach if he will provide an update regarding the public consultation on the regulation of online political advertising. [41818/18]
6. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach his plans to protect Ireland's democratic and electoral process in view of developments in other countries; and if this will require legislation or constitutional change. [41808/18]
7. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach his plans to protect Ireland's democratic and electoral process in view of developments in other countries; and if this will require legislation or constitutional change. [41810/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 7, inclusive, together.
The Government established an interdepartmental group to consider the security of the election process and disinformation. The first report of the group was published on 17 July 2018 and looked at issues concerning the security of the electoral process, taking into account risks that apply across the whole spectrum. The report found that risks to the electoral system in Ireland are relatively low as a result of mitigation factors already in place. However, the spread of disinformation online and the risk of cyberattacks on the electoral system pose more substantial risks. The finding was in line with EU level and recent international experience.
The report identifies a number of proposals to deal with the gaps identified. It also acknowledges that actions arising from such proposals require widespread support from both political parties and civil society. The next steps, as agreed by Government, are to expedite the establishment of the electoral commission and regulate the transparency of online political advertising. This will build upon some of the principles proposed in the Online Advertising and Social Media (Transparency) Bill from Deputy James Lawless and recent discussions in the Dáil and the Joint Committee on Communications, Climate Action and Environment.
Regulation of online political advertising is to be considered, in the first instance, by way of public consultation, which was launched by the group on 21 September. Views can be submitted up to 19 October and the consultation will form the basis for an open policy forum thereafter. The forum will involve all relevant stakeholders across industry, academia, political parties, the media and civil society. It will seek to identify policy solutions that respect the right to freedom of expression and relevant EU law while promoting the transparency necessary for open political discourse in a democracy that will protect the electoral processes from hidden influences and disinformation. The open policy forum is planned to be held before the end of November 2018, after the presidential inauguration, as we believe it would not be appropriate to hold it during an election campaign.
Ba mhaith liom buíochas a ghabháil leis an Taoiseach as teacht isteach agus an cheist seo a fhreagairt. I welcome the publication of the report. It certainly makes for interesting reading and points to a number of issues associated with the electoral process in Ireland. I am sure we are familiar with the problems associated with the electoral register, whether that is people dropping off the register or finding it difficult to register, or the register being very much out of date in some instances. I think it is accepted by every party that the problems associated with the register need to be addressed and the establishment of a permanent electoral commission would be a step in the right direction in addressing these issues. That has been a feature of programmes for Government for at least a decade now but it has yet to happen. At what stage are preparations in respect of the electoral commission Bill and when might it come before the Dáil?
One particular area of note in the report concerns the possible extension of the franchise to citizens outside of the State. I asked the Taoiseach about this a fortnight ago in the context of the proposed referendum to extend presidential voting rights to citizens in the North and the diaspora. This report notes that the register of electors in its current form cannot provide for a possible extension of the franchise to Irish citizens resident outside of the State. That will clearly need to be addressed. What are the Taoiseach's plans in that regard?
Thank you, Deputy. The time is up.
The report's recommendations on tackling online disinformation, regulating online advertising, supporting the media and ensuring transparency of funding are all very welcome and should be implemented.
There is also commentary in respect of donations. An article in The Sunday Times at the weekend highlighted loopholes that exist in respect of disclosing political donations. I do not know if the Taoiseach saw that article. It made reference to a number of instances of money being paid to both his party and to Fianna Fáil for what the director of one of the corporate donors identified called "face time".
Deputy, we need to stick to the allocated time.
It ought to be a source of concern. A particular group called Golden Horseshoe, which apparently made a donation to the Taoiseach, was mentioned. I do not know if the Taoiseach wishes to comment on that on the record.
I think every party in this House would welcome the establishment of an electoral commission as soon as possible. The report references the online dangers that may well exist in regard to our electoral system.
I also want to raise with the Taoiseach the electoral register which was recently published and made available to public representatives. This year the Dublin local authorities took the unilateral action of reordering the details of electors in the hard copy of the electoral register, the one which is provided and available to public representatives and to candidates.
The new design is unusable because street numbers are randomised in relation to odd and even numbers. As such, it is impossible for a new candidate in particular to identify where specific houses are and then identify a name. I questioned the Minister on this and was told by way of reply to a parliamentary question that the electronic soft copy provided to Deputies in Excel would suffice and that local authorities had discharged their duty to provide the register in a usable format. I do not know how many people use the electoral register, but in its current format, it is not usable. It is a significant constraint in a democracy for candidates and public representatives who have a legitimate need to access the electoral register. I ask the Taoiseach to tell the House how he intends to proceed on this matter.
I too welcome the publication of the report in July. While it finds that there is a low risk of cyberattacks or disinformation online in this jurisdiction, we cannot be complacent and must put measures in place when we face elections. While I understand a reluctance to proceed very overtly in the course of a presidential election, I ask the Taoiseach if he intends to follow the recommendation to regulate online advertising in place before next year's local and European elections. If that is the deadline, it is a tight one if there is to be a consultation before the end of the year, draft heads of a Bill and a clear delineation of rules well in advance of a May election. It would be naive to think there are not some elements who would like to interfere with our electoral processes in an unauthorised way. We are not so irrelevant that it would not take place.
The register of electors is a source of frustration in every single election as we always come across those who have simply disappeared off it. People who have lived in the same houses for years on end and never moved find suddenly that they have been removed when they go to vote. They do not check because they assume they do not need to having always been on the register. While we exhort people to check the online register, we need a more robust system in place to ensure we facilitate those who want to vote. That is obviously contingent on proper safeguards. A permanent electoral commission is the solution to that. We have talked about it for a long time and we need to establish one.
While the Government likes to talk the talk about being modern, its response to this issue has proceeded at a snail's pace. I appreciate the Taoiseach's comments on Deputy James Lawless, who has taken a leading role on this overall issue. However, the interdepartmental report includes nothing which could not have been put together over a couple of days by any of the many researchers and academics in our universities who specialise in online communications and security. It is a simple fact that aggressive campaigns of disinformation have become almost routine in European elections. What differs between countries is that some have adopted robust measures to identify and expose this activity. Everyone here has experienced online abuse and disinformation and, equally, we all know that one party in particular specialises in aggressive online attacks on opponents. In a public policy context, this disinformation is deeply sinister. For example, RT has, for some reason, decided to promote anti-vaccine conspiracies, which are being retweeted here with no official pushback. The issue is whether the Government is serious about doing something, or is this another process which will simply go nowhere? Can the Taoiseach tell the House what, if any, measures will be in place at the time of next May's local and European elections? Will he, at a minimum, ask Internet companies to provide basic transparency by identifying the source and financial scale of political advertising?
Yesterday, Facebook announced that it is changing its rules so that by the time of the next local elections in the UK all political advertisers will have to be registered and all their advertisements will have to be made public on a register to be held for seven years. Furthermore, the number of people targeted, the amount of money spent and the age, gender and location of those people will all be made public. Can the Taoiseach or his party commit to having similar rules in advance of our local and European elections, or indeed a general election? Even if we do not get the legislation enacted in time, that is the new benchmark for transparency. Will the Taoiseach commit Fine Gael to making fully public the amount of money it is spending on Facebook, Google, YouTube and other platforms? Will the Taoiseach take into account in the new legislation what Facebook said yesterday about new rules? I agree with Deputy Martin and others that such legislation must be introduced immediately and in advance of us having any election.
We have seen how certain interest groups have attempted to manipulate elections here and internationally. It is very important that we address this matter urgently. I echo my colleagues' calls on the need for this matter to be addressed in advance of the next local and European elections. It is also important to ensure the electorate is provided with certainty as to the source of the advertisements placed online, most especially having regard to their authenticity given the volume of fake news that is out there. Deputy Martin pointed quite rightly to anti-vaccine conspiracies becoming prevalent online, which is something I have researched. While there have been responses, it is a matter the House should debate. I would appreciate very much an update from the Taoiseach on the public consultation process which is under way following the report of the interdepartmental group. Can we rely on the process to be completed in advance of the local and European elections? To hone in on one other matter, I note the need for advancements on the electoral register, in particular the need to bring it online, as echoed by Deputy Burton.
I suggest to Members that we take five minutes from the second group of questions, in which only two are listed, given that there are seven questions in this bunch. Is that agreed? Agreed.
I will certainly raise with the Minister of State, Deputy John Paul Phelan, the issues Deputy Burton raises on the format of the electoral register. I will ask the Minister of State to provide the Deputy with a more detailed response. All of us as public representatives want to have the register in a format which is usable as we go door to door. Some people now bring electronic devices with them as they go door to door but I know not everyone is doing so. As such, the register should be available in PDF format or another format which is accessible for people.
In response to Deputy Howlin's question, I note that it is unlikely we will have primary legislation in place before next May. However, that is not entirely within the control of the Government and will depend on the Houses also.
As regards online advertising by political parties, I had thought every party had to set out the amount spent on online advertising in its annual SIPO returns.
Fine Gael has actually refused to do it.
If that is not the case, we will be happy to do it on a voluntary basis. There is no difficulty doing that at all.
That is news.
Following a public consultation process, the Joint Committee on Environment, Culture and the Gaeltacht published a report in January 2016 containing a series of recommendations for the establishment of an electoral commission. These were based largely on the joint committee's own recommendations. The Department of Housing, Planning and Local Government is currently preparing a regulatory impact analysis on the establishment of a statutory electoral commission. The analysis is examining the costs, benefits and impacts of a number of options. Once the analysis is complete, the intention is for the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government to obtain Government approval regarding the functions, membership, accountability mechanisms and timelines for the commission's establishment. This will be followed by a public consultation in the final quarter of this year on the Government's proposals. The outcome of the consultation will inform the drafting of heads of a Bill.
As Deputies know, a reform of the electoral register is under way to allow people to join it online and so on. It is our intention to hold a referendum next May to extend the franchise in presidential elections to Irish citizens living outside the State.
That would require a new register of Irish citizens not living in the State to be established, but I am sure it could be done.
Any fundraising carried out by my party is carried out in accordance with the law. We accept no corporate donation of more than €200. In fact, we brought forward that law to break the link between business and politics-----
With fine results.
-----ensuring no donation of more than €200 could be made to any political party. I note that Deputy Mary Lou McDonald has raised this question. It concerns me that Sinn Féin may be using partition as an advantage in that regard because, unlike other parties, Sinn Féin is established both in the United Kingdom and Ireland-----
And the United States.
-----and the rules on corporate donations in Northern Ireland-----
There is nothing to stop Fine Gael from organising nationally. Both Fine Gael and Fianna Fáil should do so.
-----and the United States are very different-----
There is big money there.
-----and much looser than they are here.
They are not. They are very stringent.
That creates a murkiness surrounding Sinn Féin's finances and the way in which it engages in political fundraising. What I would like to know from Sinn Féin is whether it accepts corporate donations of more than €200, which would not be permitted in this State.
A Cheann Comhairle, if he does not mind, will the Taoiseach give way?
Will the Taoiseach give way?
I give way.
Whatever about the Taoiseach making a political charge against Sinn Féin and the way in which it operates politically, it is entirely wrong and factually incorrect to suggest there is something murky or illegal about its financing or fundraising. It is trebly regulated: in this jurisdiction, in Northern Ireland and in respect of moneys raised overseas.
I thank the Deputy. She has clarified the matter.
It is entirely legally compliant. I wish the matter to be clarified on the floor of the Dáil.
The Taoiseach has the floor.
I was more than happy to give way in the hope Deputy Mary Lou McDonald might answer my question.
Why? Is it questions to the leader of Sinn Féin now, rather than to the Taoiseach?
Will the Deputy please not interrupt the Taoiseach?
The defensiveness indicates that there is something to hide-----
There is nothing at all to hide, but the Taoiseach will not slander me or my colleagues with abandon.
The Deputy has made her point.
The Taoiseach can forget about doing so.
The question I asked was whether Sinn Féin, as a political party, accepted donations of more than €200 from any corporation. All other parties represented in this House do not. In co-operation with the Labour Party, we passed a law to ensure no party could receive a corporate donation of more than €200 in order to break the link between business and politics.
All of our funding is covered.
What I want to know is whether Sinn Féin applies this rule to its fundraising by its UK arm, accepts the spirit of this law and does not accept corporate donations of more than €200. It would set it apart from the other parties represented in this House if it were the only party active in this State that continued to accept corporate donations of more than €200. It may do so through its Northern Ireland entity, its UK entity or some kind of US entity, but there is no other party represented in this House that does that type of thing.
Everything is raised in compliance with the law.
Given that the Deputy asked a question about how my party raised funds, it is only legitimate for me to ask a similar question.
Which I note the Taoiseach did not answer.
The Taoiseach is expected to answer questions, not ask them.
I thank the Ceann Comhairle.
I shall go back to answering.
That would make for a refreshing change.
The public consultation process on the regulation of online advertising was launched on 21 September and views can be submitted up to 19 October. It is planned to hold the open policy forum at the end of November, after the presidential election and the inauguration of the President, to allow sufficient time for analysis of submissions. We do not think it would be appropriate to host the forum during a presidential election campaign. That is the reason for setting the date. In September the Broadcasting Authority of Ireland launched guidelines for the coverage of general, presidential, Seanad, local and EU elections. The guidelines set out requirements to be met by broadcast companies in their coverage of elections and which apply in addition to the rules in the BAI's code of fairness, objectivity and impartiality in coverage of news and current affairs. They provide guidance for broadcasters on the manner in which fairness, objectivity and impartiality may be achieved in their coverage. They are updated periodically by the BAI in advance of elections or referendums.
8. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee G, justice and equality, last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [37664/18]
9. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee G, justice and equality, last met; and when it will next meet. [39904/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 and 9 together.
Cabinet committee G was established in January this year to provide for political oversight of developments in respect of justice and equality issues, including implementation of the Government's programme of reform for the justice sector. There have been two meetings of Cabinet committee G since: one on 18 January and one on 16 April. The next meeting of Cabinet committee G will be held later this month, when the Minister for Justice and Equality will be in a position to bring to us his response to the recommendations of the O'Toole commission. The work of the committee is informed by recent reports of the effectiveness and renewal group, ERG, the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland, the O'Toole commission, and the Charleton tribunal, which published its most recent report this week.
Several important steps have been taken to reform the justice sector. Mr. Aidan O'Driscoll has been appointed as Secretary General of the Department and a new management team is now in place, as recommended by the ERG, which I know has a different meaning in the neighbouring state. It is clear from the group's second report that the building blocks highlighted in the first report have been established and that a strong start has been made to implementation of the necessary reforms. The third report of the group will be submitted to the Government by the end of the year.
The report of the Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland was published on 18 September. As I mentioned, a high level implementation plan will be brought to the Cabinet committee with a view to it being taken to the Cabinet for approval in December.
The conclusions made in the Charleton report published last week will also inform the development of the implementation plan. They will also be taken into account in the Department of Justice and Equality's restructuring plan.
I thank the Taoiseach for his response. To respond to his previous contribution on Sinn Féin's financing, he has his desired result because journalists are-----
I ask the Deputy to stay on the matters raised.
I believe I have the floor and the freedom to speak unfettered. By all means, Fine Gael should organise in the North, but the Taoiseach already knows that.
The key finding of the Charleton tribunal is that Sergeant Maurice McCabe has again been vindicated. Mr. Justice Charleton has found that he was "repulsively denigrated for being no more than a good citizen and police offer." We owe Sergeant McCabe a huge debt of gratitude. He has done an enormous public service, as the Taoiseach has acknowledged. Mr. Justice Charleton has established that the then Garda Commissioner undertook a most disgraceful attack on Sergeant McCabe, aided and abetted by the then press officer Mr. David Taylor. As the Taoiseach knows, there is a lot of anger at the fact that it looks likely that Mr. Taylor will be able to retire on a full pension and with full entitlements and, it seems, without being subject to disciplinary proceedings, despite the findings against him. Does the Taoiseach agree that we need to look at a mechanism to appropriately sanction those who have been found by the tribunal of inquiry to have acted in the most appalling fashion?
I wish to ask the Taoiseach about the report on the future of policing. In his initial reply he has given us the sequencing as he sees it. There is a divergence in the views taken by some members of the commission on the internal governance remit, which some members, including Mr. Eddie Molloy, with whom many of us are familiar and have worked for many years, believe must be separate from the structure of An Garda Síochána. I agree with this view. Has the Taoiseach or the Government taken a view on the recommendations of the oversight board of An Garda Síochána, the new independent complaints body that would supersede GSOC, and the new body to replace the Policing Authority and the Garda Inspectorate, the policing and community safety commission? At the heart of all of the issues of policing in recent decades has been the lack of a separate and independent oversight body. The Policing Authority is relatively new, but it has done a good job to date.
I would be very concerned if its functions were to be subsumed back into a committee surrounding a Garda Commissioner. Such a measure would indicate that we are moving back to the kind of internal system that has led to serious problems in the past. I would be interested to hear the Taoiseach's personal views on this, if he has had a chance to form them. Should we have a debate on these matters? They are at the kernel of ensuring we have effective oversight of policing into the future.
It has been quite striking that the Government's response to the Charleton report has focused on the political domain-----
It has not, actually.
-----rather than on the shocking-----
-----campaign of slander against an Irish citizen by the head of our police force. The extraordinary conclusions reached in the Charleton report are quite shattering and go to the core of our justice system. If we are honest, none of us could have comprehended that such a thing could happen. The overwhelming majority of the report focuses on that matter and on the failures of our national child protection agency, particularly the shocking manner in which it treated the McCabe family when it failed to deal with a report of rape and sexual abuse that had been completely falsely attributed to Mr. McCabe. It is quite shocking that this was left in the north-eastern police division for three years without being corrected. I think those two issues go to the core of what has emanated from Charleton so far.
I accept that the Taoiseach and others have a position on the former Tánaiste. He believes she was grievously wronged and should still be in the Cabinet. She is not still in the Cabinet. The fundamental point is that Deputy Fitzgerald claimed at the time that she had no knowledge of events of which it turned out she had clear knowledge. That was the problem. If questions that were tabled in the Dáil had been answered properly, transparently and honestly, we would not be where we are. The Taoiseach will recall that he admitted to the Dáil that it had been misled and he apologised for that. Is it now his position that it is okay for Ministers to fail to give accurate information to him or to the Dáil? The trawl that was initiated by the Taoiseach on foot of the failure to answer questions in this House led to the discovery of emails that we would never otherwise have found out about and Mr. Justice Charleton would not otherwise have received. There is nothing personal in any of this. Dáil Éireann holds Ministers to account. That is its fundamental role. As the Taoiseach knows well, the reasons I have given led to the resignation of the former Tánaiste. The issues in question were not explicitly addressed by the tribunal.
That is wrong.
Most of the people who are baying at the Opposition today accepted last year that the resignation in question was regrettably necessary. The shambolic manner in which this was treated over four or five weeks is a textbook illustration of how things should not be done. That is why a group was formed to oversee the reform of the Department. At the time, the Taoiseach expressed enormous frustration about having been given wrong information, which he then had to give to the Dáil and so on and so on. I think that is something that has to be put on the record from the perspective of the Opposition. The Opposition lost confidence. This is a political domain. That is the issue.
On behalf of the Government and the House, I thank Mr. Justice Charleton and the members of his team for the work they did on the disclosures tribunal. I think it is a really good report. The tribunal did its work in an expeditious amount of time. Mr. Justice Charleton's findings are eloquent. My first response today, which is the same as my first response last week, is to thank Maurice McCabe. I have always believed that he is a distinguished public servant. I hope the report will give him and Lorraine and their family some comfort into the future. Sergeant McCabe was in touch with me over the weekend to thank me for my support of him. I was in touch with him again to express my view that he has done enormous service to the State and to wish him and Lorraine the best into the future.
The Government's response to the Charleton report has to be about Tusla and about Garda reform. The Minister, Deputy Flanagan, is very much leading up our whole programme of Garda reform. A new Garda Commissioner is in place. He will be enabled to bring in a new management team around him. We now have additional resources for the Garda. There is more money and more equipment. There are more gardaí. We have a plan, as set out by Kathleen O'Toole in her commission report. We are very determined to follow through on what has been recommended by Mr. Justice Charleton.
The same of course applies to Tusla. The tribunal was extremely critical of Tusla's engagement with it. We discussed this at the Cabinet today. The Minister, Deputy Zappone, has written to and spoken with the chair of Tusla to express her concerns regarding the adverse recommendations and commentaries in respect of Tusla. She will meet the board of Tusla shortly to underline the need to deal with these issues and the other serious shortcomings that have been identified in the report with regard to Tusla. We believe the apology that Tusla has made to the McCabe family is the very least that can be expected. We will need to see more done to improve the situation at Tusla.
As I have said, the Government intends to respond to the Charleton report by introducing further Garda reform and by helping to fix Tusla. I believe Members of the Oireachtas need to respond to the report as well. In relation to Keith Harrison, a number of Members of this House raised false allegations in this House and in doing so gave them credibility. Those allegations were taken up by the media, which took them to be true even though they were not. That caused a lot of damage and a lot of hurt to some innocent gardaí and eventually cost the State a lot of money. The point I would make about this section of the tribunal is that some Members of this House need to correct the record with regard to what they said about Keith Harrison.
An allegation was made by a party leader that the former Garda Commissioner, Nóirín O'Sullivan, was part of a conspiracy to smear Maurice McCabe.
That is not true.
We know the tribunal found that not to be the case.
That is not true.
I was not referring to the Deputy.
On a point of order, if the Taoiseach was referring to me, it is certainly not true.
I was not referring to the Deputy.
The Taoiseach should have made that clear.
I was not referring to the Deputy. I believe the comments in question should now be withdrawn from the record of the House. While the former Garda Commissioner, Nóirín O'Sullivan, did not do everything right, the tribunal has clearly found that she was not part of such a conspiracy. I believe that allegation should be withdrawn and the record should be corrected.
Who made the allegation?
The central charge that was made against Deputy Fitzgerald - that she was aware of the alleged legal strategy of the former Garda Commissioner and that she failed to act on it - was also false. Mr. Justice Charleton has found in his report that Deputy Fitzgerald's response to that information was considered, appropriate and correct. He has found very much in her favour in that regard. He has also found that she resigned selflessly to prevent this House and this Government falling and to avoid a general election. All I would ask of Deputies is to do what I had to do during that period. When I was given inaccurate information during that period, I came in here and I did the decent and right thing by correcting the record of the Dáil. All I would ask of the Deputies opposite is to do the decent thing by coming into the House to correct the record regarding the false allegations made by Keith Harrison, the false charges against Nóirín O'Sullivan and the unfair allegations and accusations made against Deputy Fitzgerald.
10. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach the position regarding the progress on the recommendations of the Dublin inner city forum. [37668/18]
11. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the north-east inner city initiative. [38652/18]
12. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the north-east inner city initiative. [39679/18]
13. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the north-east inner city initiative and the status of recommendations of the Dublin inner city forum. [39905/18]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 to 13, inclusive, together.
The north-east inner city programme implementation board, which is chaired by Mr. Michael Stone, continues to oversee the implementation of the 24 actions set out in the Mulvey report and to make progress with work on the Dublin north-east inner city initiative. The Department of the Taoiseach is closely involved with the work of the board and the local programme office. The chair of the board reports on a regular basis to an oversight group of senior officials chaired by the Secretary General of my Department. This ensures strong and active participation by all relevant Departments and agencies and deals with any structural barriers or issues highlighted by the board. From the outset of this initiative, there has been targeted community engagement and a focus on improving supports and facilities for a wide range of projects and services. One of the major aims of the initiative is to ensure the area is safe for families, residents and the people who work there. Since the start of this year, 51 new gardaí have been assigned to the area to provide reassurance to residents. A Garda community support vehicle, which is expected to be a major asset for the community and for community policing, has been deployed. Increased patrols targeting drug dealing and anti-social behaviour blackspots have also started to make a real and noticeable difference.
The board is also working hard in several other areas.
Efforts to ensure employment opportunities are maximised for local people have resulted in the establishment of a single employment engagement team composed of five staff. Another key objective is to improve the physical environment and build a sense of pride in the area. Recent improvements include the completion of a draft greening strategy by Dublin City Council, the installation of new playground equipment on Sheriff Street, and the commencement of phase 2 of the north canal cycleway, which is a very fine project.
It is also important that statutory and voluntary services work effectively together. At a recent conference held in Croke Park, we examined ways in which children and youth services could work and collaborate better, with recommendations from the conference expected in the coming weeks.
Over recent months, the board has placed an emphasis on ensuring that the longer-term actions required to make a fundamental and transformational change to the area are initiated and implemented. Community involvement and engagement are crucial to the success of the initiative and the board is committed to a policy of openness and transparency. For these reasons, the community and general public have been kept up to date with developments through the board's website, which is www.neic.ie, local newsletter drops and regular community events.
The Government remains committed to supporting and investing in Dublin's north-east inner city community and ensuring that Mr. Stone and the board have the necessary resources to help make the area a much better place for people to live and work.
I thank the Taoiseach. As we are a little behind, I ask Members please to adhere to their time.
It is seven years since Fine Gael decided to abolish what had been a successful approach to development in disadvantaged communities in general, but especially in communities hit by drug abuse. The new approach of devolving everything to local authorities has narrowed the work and there are serious signs of a lack of momentum and new pressures in many communities. I would appreciate it if the Taoiseach agreed to an independent evaluation of the new development approach versus the one that was ended in Fine Gael's first year in office. Why are so many communities feeling increasingly helpless in the face of the spread of hard drugs into new areas?
Recently, I met the chairman, Mr. Willie Dwyer, and manager, Mr. Fran Laycock, of the Seán O'Casey community centre. Their centre has been excluded from the approach to the north east by a dividing line. The community centre is fantastic and does incredible work. It was opened in 2009. To be fair, the former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern, had a particular role and was helpful in getting it together. It has a senior citizens' day care centre and provides sporting and cultural activities, with a great theatre, but it does not have a proper stream of funding.
It is exactly the type of centre that I would have thought-----
I will now call Deputy McDonald. Will the Deputy take his seat, please?
If I may just-----
No, the Deputy is over time.
I warned you in advance.
We have a way of operating here. I think you need to calm down a little.
I have given the Deputy plenty of co-operation.
I just want to put the final question to the Taoiseach, if I may.
I gave the Deputy a minute and a half in the last segment.
A minute and a half. People have gone for five.
Take your seat and we will move on.
Just let me put the last question. I will be finished then.
Would the Taoiseach agree that the Seán O'Casey community centre should be included in the overall funding resources that the north-east inner city initiative has made available to other groups and companies? I would appreciate it if he looked into it.
The difficulty with the Seán O'Casey centre in East Wall is that the boundary for this initiative was arbitrarily drawn-----
-----and missed the dynamic between interlocking parts of the inner city. I support Deputy Micheál Martin's observations in that regard.
The Taoiseach mentioned improvements to the physical environment, which are welcome. There are some incredibly innovative approaches being taken. My particular favourite is called "city orchards", which is the use of derelict spaces for apple and pear trees and involves education as well as precinct improvements, all of which is good. However, the bottom line is that the main physical improvement that needs to happen in the north inner city, which I am proud to represent, is housing. May I mention the words "Ballybough House"? I could mention other blocks of flats. They are small, cramped and damp. I have placed on the record of the Dáil the fact that many families do not have a kitchen table because there is not room in their flats. They do not have a place where children can have meals together with their parents or do their obair bhaile. All of us who have families understand the disaster that that is.
This is all about housing. If we are not prepared to invest big in regeneration and housing, we will be at nothing in the north inner city.
Notwithstanding the good work being done by the initiative and the forum, much of the north inner city has too many derelict sites. While student accommodation blocks are flying up and being built, completed and opened within 18 or 24 months, too many families feel a level of helplessness and hopelessness about the fact that relatively few completely refurbished homes or new builds are coming online.
Previously, I asked the Taoiseach about one of the problems facing the building industry, in that we have a complete lack of apprenticeship places. In the north inner city, there are higher-than-usual unemployment levels, especially among young people, and men in particular. In the construction and motor trades, many young people would give their eyeteeth to get an apprenticeship, but under this Government's handling of SOLAS, the level of apprenticeships is like something out of a bygone age.
Will the Taoiseach focus on the fact that many people in the north inner city, notwithstanding the great fall in unemployment levels, are still unemployed or lacking access to training programmes?
Will the Taoiseach do something about that? I am referring in particular to boosting significantly the number of apprentices, who would then be available to build the houses that we need.
This is an important project - it is a demonstration project in many ways - that had cross-party support. It was strongly led by the Taoiseach's predecessor, Deputy Enda Kenny. We need to drive it.
I wish to ask about capital works that were promised. For example, €450,000 has been allocated for the Lourdes day care centre on Seán McDermott Street. That capital project is long overdue. Other major projects include the Rutland Street school, which is to be a multipurpose facility with a community base for the area; the Magdalen convent and its grounds; and the magnificent but dilapidated Aldborough House, which I understand is subject to separate planning. When will we see these projects taking shape?
Is it envisaged that this project will be put on a statutory basis in the long term or is it timelined? Why has the only body representing the public, the North Inner City Community Coalition, not met in six months?
I am good on time.
The Deputy is excellent.
As to including the Seán O'Casey community centre, I am certainly happy to have my people examine that and to ask Mr. Michael Stone what his assessment would be of doing that. As is always the case, one has to draw a boundary somewhere. No matter where one draws a boundary-----
Someone will be outside it.
-----there will always be something on the wrong side of the boundary, but boundaries can be changed where it makes sense. I will certainly commit to Deputies that we will have that matter examined.
Regarding housing stock, there are a number of housing bodies in partnership with Dublin City Council that are working to deliver four main housing regeneration schemes in the area. These schemes are at various stages of redevelopment, with 228 units expected to be delivered. They are as follows: 80 units in a mix of one-to-four-bed apartments for the refurbishment of St. Mary's Mansions by Clúid Housing, with the demolition phase almost complete and building works expected to be completed in August 2019; 72 units at the Croke Villas redevelopment, with the majority of works expected to be completed by the end of this year; 47 apartments on Railway Street by the Circle Voluntary Housing Association, with planning applications expected by the end of this year and construction completed and homes ready for occupation in the second quarter of 2021; and 29 old persons' units by Oaklee Housing, with works having commenced on this site already and the expectation being that the homes will be made available to older people living in the area in the fourth quarter of 2019, thus freeing up other properties for families on the housing list.
There will, of course, be more after this. I strongly encourage Dublin City Council to come forward with more plans to regenerate its existing housing estate. Plans such as O'Devaney Gardens, Dolphin House and Charlemont Street, where we can see old developments being-----
There is not one unit yet at O'Devaney Gardens.
They have to be built first. There are 50 under construction.
The Taoiseach's party has been in government for ten or 12 years.
The Deputy was in government for half of that. Let that not be forgotten, as I am sure the Deputy would like it to be.
I raised it at every opportunity but the Taoiseach's party was not interested in O'Devaney Gardens.
We are getting an insight into Fine Gael's failures in government.
Deputy Martin should be familiar with them.
Regarding Deputy Burton's other questions, she will be delighted to know the education budget for 2019 provides for 1,000 additional apprenticeships and the youth employment support scheme, YESS, which comes under the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection and is a dedicated programme targeted at the long-term unemployed. The Deputy will have an opportunity to show her support for the additional apprenticeships and additional help for the young unemployed by voting for the Appropriation Bill this year and not against it.