Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

In recent days, to say the least, the discussions and negotiations on Brexit have been frantic. The Taoiseach said yesterday that he was confident that a deal could be negotiated, something everybody in this House wants for the country and its people. However, outside his assurances, there is huge uncertainty in the air. Depending on the report one reads or the radio interview to which one listens, the degree of uncertainty varies. That uncertainty is hugely worrying for all citizens on this island, but it is especially worrying and urgent for businesses across the island which are crucially dependent on certainty, especially on supply chains to the United Kingdom. There is uncertainty about a hassle-free landbridge across the United Kingdom into markets in continental Europe and beyond. Owing to the uncertainty businesses on this island are already losing contracts because they cannot ensure certainty in 2019 on their supply chain to the United Kingdom and beyond. Losing contracts means that opportunities are being lost employment wise and that people will be discommoded. It is an absolute no-no that they would lose contracts and that we would have to pay the price of the British Brexit folly.

The Tánaiste was on radio this morning telling us that there was no need to panic. He said he agreed with the Taoiseach and "was confident" that a deal could be done. However, President Tusk says there are "no grounds for optimism" and called again on Prime Minister May to break the impasse and bring forward new proposals. When our ambassador to the United Kingdom, Mr. Adrian O'Neill, addressed the British Academy and the Royal Irish Academy, he said it was disappointing and concerning that more progress had not been made on Northern Ireland. He also said the British were "backsliding" on the Northern Ireland backstop by demanding that it be time limited. He went on to say it was not consistent with what had been agreed to last December and March. As a former Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade who was involved in the early stages of the negotiations, does the Minister agree with Ambassador O'Neill's assessment of the current position?

Given that President Tusk has written to all member states to ask them to prepare for a no-deal Brexit, what plans does the Government have in place for businesses, citizens and employees for UK-Ireland supply chains and the landbridge across the United Kingdom into key markets in continental Europe and beyond?

I too am disappointed that we do not appear to be on the cusp of a deal, but it is important to acknowledge the solidarity of the EU 26 towards Ireland is enduring. That priority is of the utmost importance. The European Union remains clear that the outcome of the negotiations, whenever it might be - I acknowledge that in the circumstances uncertainty is unhelpful - must be a workable solution towards the avoidance of a hard border, which means no physical infrastructure and no associated checks and controls anywhere on the island of Ireland. That was agreed to last December and there can be no compromise on it. Our preference is still for an overall UK-EU relationship which would resolve all of the issues, but it remains essential that the agreement on the backstop be fully maintained because it provides certainty that there will be no hard border in any circumstance.

In recent years we have had opportunities to debate and assess our position on contingencies, but the Government continues to work with our EU partners to secure the best deal possible. In that regard, the budget announced last week provided significant additional funding for the preparations for the withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union. A new €300 million future growth loan scheme was provided for, in addition to the €300 million Brexit working capital scheme. We have increased the budget for InterTradeIreland by more than €1 million. We have also increased the budget for local enterprise offices across the country by €5 million. A cross-government awareness campaign is well under way and being led by the Tánaiste, Deputy Simon Coveney; the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Heather Humphreys, and others entitled, Getting Ireland Brexit Ready. Events have taken place in Cork and Galway and further events are planned for this week and next in Monaghan and Dublin. A considerable number of positive actions have been taken by the Government to ensure we can mitigate the consequences of Brexit.

Let me be clear: there is no such thing as a good Brexit. It will be a difficult challenge, but in the next few days the focus must be on encouraging the parties to continue their negotiations to find a settlement.

I appreciate that all of those supports are in place, but what we and businesses need is certainty. No amount of support for LEOs or meetings in Monaghan will help a business which cannot provide certainty for its clients in the United Kingdom or beyond on supply chains. We need urgency to bring the talks to a conclusion and put a deal in place to provide that certainty. I again ask the Minister for his views on Ambassador O'Neill's remarks, in particular, that the British are backsliding on the Northern Ireland backstop and that their position is not consistent with what was agreed to. Is that a shared Government position? What is the Minister's instinct on the timeline? He was involved in the early stages of the Brexit talks and is still involved from a security point of view. We need to show Irish businesses that we understand the pressures they are under, that political drama might sell newspapers and provide breaking news but that certainty is needed for decisions that affect real lives, not in December, January or February but now.

My own instinct is that I believe a deal can be done. The last sections of negotiations are always the most difficult. It will require calm heads and further negotiation. I have the utmost confidence, as does the House, in the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste, both of whom are involved in the negotiations at the coalface.

It is important that we deal here in facts. I was very disappointed that Members of this House chose over the past 24 hours to make claims derived, allegedly, from unidentified and faceless contacts in Europe. Such claims are baseless. The backstop cannot be temporary. EU solidarity is very much in evidence. I agree with the Irish ambassador, H.E. O'Neill, that every effort must be made at this stage to ensure obligations on the parts of governments that were entered into last December or otherwise and that were clear and concise in terms are honoured in full.

Every day that passes we are nearer to the end of the Brexit negotiations. I do not need to remind the Minister of the importance of this and of what is at stake at the heart of these negotiations. In December last year the British Government signed up to an agreement that included the provision of a backstop aimed at avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland and that would safeguard the Good Friday Agreement. We know the backstop in and of itself did not fully provide the protections that were required but it was an important step forward and an acknowledgement of the unique circumstances that apply to our island, North and South.

Since that agreement there has been, regrettably, no clarity on the legal text forthcoming in respect of the implementation of the backstop, despite assurances that it would be in place as of March of this year. Instead, we have a British Government that is backsliding, has ignored deadlines, has avoided living up to its obligations and has shirked its responsibility. The latest British Government proposal is for a time-limited backstop, which, in reality, would mean no backstop.

I welcome the Government's dismissal of that proposal yesterday, but unfortunately the Tories' toxic deal with the DUP has undermined the progress that we should have made by now. The DUP and the far right of the Tory Party have sought to undermine the agreement the British Government previously signed up to. The DUP has moved from a position of not wanting a hard border to one of now seeking a hard border. That is absolutely reckless. It is an irresponsible position to take, but the reality is – we know as much in this House – that the DUP does not represent the majority of the people in the North, who voted to remain.

Sinn Féin will continue to defend the position of citizens in the North and across the island who want the best deal possible. People want a frictionless border. They want full protections for the Good Friday Agreement in all of its parts. They want to be sure that the backstop is the bottom line and that it is the absolute minimum we will accept. The Tánaiste said on "Morning Ireland" this morning that the transition period could now be extended. That proposal may have merit and we are open to that, but the crux of the matter is that time is running out in respect of delivery. The Government has said it is not into deadlines. I appreciate that, but there needs to be a deadline at some stage because there has to be ratification of this deal and that will not be a straightforward process. Earlier this week, the European Parliament was clear when it said that it will not support the withdrawal agreement without a workable and legally operable backstop. I welcome that statement.

I am looking for insight that the Government and Ministers may have picked up yesterday in Luxembourg or this morning. Does the Government expect any meaningful progress to occur at the European Council meeting this week? Can the Minister for Justice and Equality outline to the Dáil when the absolute deadline arises for a backstop to be agreed for the ratification process to take place?

I will neither impose deadlines from Dublin during a critical phase of the negotiations nor pre-empt what might happen over the next 48 hours. What I will say is that the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste are very much engaged and are meeting all the major players involved. They are satisfied with EU 27 solidarity towards Ireland and in respect of our key priorities, which have been made clear since the day the British voted to leave the European Union. That solidarity remains totally in place and united. For there to be a withdrawal agreement of any description there has to be an Irish backstop, as committed to by the UK in December and as repeated by the UK Prime Minister, Mrs. May, on several occasions since. That backstop, as an insurance policy, will hopefully never be called upon to come into effect, but it cannot be temporary and it cannot have an end date. As has already been committed by the UK, it must apply unless and until a future trade relationship is negotiated.

I am sure that the Taoiseach and the Tánaiste have the full support and backing of this House in the challenge that lies ahead for the UK, the European Union and for us here in Ireland as well. I acknowledge the support of Sinn Féin but I have to say, a Cheann Comhairle, that Sinn Féin can do more. It criticises the DUP as well as the disposition of the British Government and the relationship with the DUP. Deputy Doherty and his party can do more work to ensure that there is a voice for Northern Ireland and that the decision on the part of the people - who voted to elect the Northern Assembly, which would consequently elect the Northern Executive - could be realised. However, that did not happen because of intransigence on the part of the DUP and responsibilities being abdicated by Sinn Féin. Therefore, it is a little rich for Sinn Féin to look to the Government and criticise the relationship between North and South when Sinn Féin has specific responsibilities, experience and, dare I say it, expertise in that regard.

I advise the Minister to have a word with the Tánaiste in respect of what is going on in the Northern Assembly because the Tánaiste has addressed this House on numerous occasions in respect of the difficulties in the North. The Minister should know fine well. It is a little unsettling that he would take to his feet in this manner given that people in my constituency are asking me what it will mean on 1 April for travel and trade and given the comments in that regard by the European Council President, Mr. Tusk, on preparing for a hard Brexit. It is a little unsettling that the Minister would take to his feet in this manner when we all know - everyone in Europe and the world knows it - that the DUP is central to the intransigence relating to the British Government. It is a little unsettling that the Minister would take to his feet in the Dáil in this manner when I did not criticise the Government. Indeed, I supported what the Tánaiste said this morning. It is a little unsettling that the Minister would take a pot-shot at Sinn Féin on the matter. I call on him to reflect on the comments he has made. We are genuinely serious as a party that represents all four corners of this island. We understand the absolute damage and chaos that Brexit can cause. Will the Minister outline the position to those constituents who come to me? Let us hope and ensure, as we work together, that this does not happen. In the event of a hard Brexit what does it mean for people in the Border communities, North and South, with regard to trade, travel and freedom of movement from 1 April 2019?

I have already expressed a view to the House that there is no such thing as a favourable Brexit or a good Brexit. Even what has been described as a soft Brexit will result in challenges of a significant nature for us as an economy and a society, for our relationship with the UK and in terms of North-South relations on this island. I wish to point to the effective and wide-ranging contingency plans under way in recent years involving each Minister and Department. We will ensure that we are ready for the outcome no matter how difficult and challenging that outcome might be.

For the current round of negotiations and having regard to events at the European Council today, it is absolutely essential that the European Union and the United Kingdom continue to acknowledge Ireland's core issues and priorities. These are the matter of our citizens, North and South, as expressed through the common travel area and otherwise, the need to ensure there is a frictionless, invisible border on the island of Ireland and to ensure that the commitment by the UK agreed last December is included in writing in the withdrawal agreement.

Being from Kerry, there is no doubt it is the finest county not just in Ireland but in the whole world.

That is not true.

It is probably the finest place a person could be privileged enough to represent. However, from a policing point of view it brings its own problems. I thank the Minister very much for taking time out from his busy schedule during the summer to visit County Kerry. He was kind enough to visit Garda stations where he listened attentively to the issues and concerns raised by local gardaí on the ground, including senior members of the Garda. I very much appreciated that. However, the position has worsened in respect of some of the issues we discussed with the Minister at that time. Since taking up his position, the new Garda Commissioner has said that things cannot continue as they were. For things to continue as they were, the Garda would need to have their existing resources maintained. However, cuts in overtime have resulted in many areas in County Kerry having a non-existent service. I know the Minister is not happy with that and does not want to stand over it. Unfortunately, it has led to members of the force being injured during their work. There have also been a number of assaults on gardaí, both male and female, in County Kerry. That is not acceptable, either in the past, present or future. I want the public to be assured in that regard. Whether it is from Valentia Island to Tarbert or from Ballyferriter to Gneeveguilla or Scartaglen, County Kerry is a massive county. It is a beautiful county but it is massive, and it takes a great deal of resources to police it properly.

The Minister may remember we discussed situations that arise at night when gardaí are in a patrol car. He fully understood the need to have three rather than two gardaí in a Garda vehicle in such circumstances. We asked him for that at the time but even two gardaí in one car would be a luxury. We were looking for three gardaí as a necessity but now we realise it would be a luxury because many parts of the county do not have a Garda car with one garda in it, never mind three gardaí.

Those are my concerns and those of the people on the ground. As the Minister knows, unfortunately, drugs have become an issue in places where we never had a drug culture or a drug problem previously. I remind him again that in late May or early June, we had a large public meeting in Cahirciveen in County Kerry, which was attended by hundreds of people and also senior gardaí. I appreciate and acknowledge their attendance. They were kind enough to come and give of their time and answer all the questions asked of them at a public forum, which was very worthwhile. Following that meeting, we highlighted our concerns to the Minister. I ask him to give whatever assurances he can give in that regard.

I assure Deputy Healy-Rae that I and the Government are fully committed to rebuilding An Garda Síochána to ensure the Garda is effective in dealing with crime, both urban and rural, where it occurs and, ultimately, bringing criminals to justice. I was very pleased to have had a brief opportunity during the summer while in south Kerry to engage with Deputy Healy-Rae, his brother, Deputy Danny Healy-Rae, and members of the Garda Síochána on the front line. Since then, I have the opportunity on a daily basis to be fully briefed by my colleague, the Minister of State, Deputy Griffin, but I do not-----

Does he talk to the Minister as well?

I see the Deputy writes books as well.

-----and vociferously. I do not have precise figures for County Kerry but I can say that since the Garda Training College reopened, having been closed for many years, we have seen an increase in Garda numbers throughout the country, including in County Kerry. I refer to a commitment in the programme for Government to have an overall Garda workforce of 21,000 personnel by the year 2021. I was pleased, in the context of last week's budget, to hear my colleague, the Minister for Finance, announce increased funding for the Garda Vote bringing it to the order of €1.7 billion. The extra €110 million in the allocation to An Garda Síochána next year will allow for the recruitment of up to 800 new gardaí from the Garda Training College in Templemore. Without interfering in any way with the work of the Garda Commissioner and his management team, it is fair to hazard a view that many of those new recruits will be stationed in County Kerry.

I do not direct the Garda Commissioner in terms of the deployment of resources. That is exclusively a matter of operation for the Garda Commissioner and his team. However, I acknowledge what Deputy Healy-Rae has said with regard to his constituency in Kerry. I am keen to ensure that the Garda Commissioner and his management team take into consideration the valid points being made, having regard to the challenge presented by crime throughout the country, particularly in the district to which the Deputy refers.

I thank the Minister. It would be wrong of me not to acknowledge the work being done in increasing the number of gardaí on the beat, which I welcome. However, I draw the analogy between a garda in O'Connell Street and a garda in Kerry shouting that he or she needs help. There would be a fair difference in the response times involved in getting help or additional resources to those gardaí. We have challenges in Kerry that are not faced in this city or other places. I want to make sure that the policing of County Kerry and its lengthy coastline and the need for additional resources are at the forefront of the Minister's mind at all times. He saw this at first hand when, at our meeting, he viewed maps on the wall showing the size of the county. He understands the position.

It is welcome to have a Minister who has his feet on the ground and understands the problems and difficulties we face. I hope the businesses, families and people in our communities, including the great people involved in community alert schemes who try to help protect and police their own areas in the best way they can, will receive the support and resources they need from the Minister, the Government and An Garda Síochána.

I thank Deputy Healy-Rae for his comments. I assure him that I will continue to give active consideration to deploying every possible means to ensure that crime in our country is tackled. However, in order to support the Commissioner in the recruitment drive, we have now provided an appropriate level of funding for new recruitment and to accelerate the process of civilianisation within An Garda Síochána. Availability and visibility on the part of the Garda Síochána are priorities. I acknowledge also the increased budget, not only to facilitate recruitment but also to augment the Garda fleet. Already this year, the Garda has rolled out in excess of 200 new Garda vehicles. This is an issue of concern to Deputy Healy-Rae. As far as County Kerry is concerned, I will be happy to convey his concerns to the Garda Commissioner at my next meeting.

The N24 national primary route is a vital social and economic corridor across the southern part of County Tipperary. It links Limerick and all points between to the major port of Rosslare and is a particularly important route for Tipperary town, Cahir, Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir.

Since 2003, which is 15 years ago, we have had promises of bypass roads for Tipperary town and Carrick-on-Suir and the upgrading of the roadway to motorway status. Minister after Minister has promised these developments and has met deputation after deputation in the county but they have failed to deliver. Most recently, a very detailed case was made to the Minister, Deputy Ross, showing how a project combining the M20 from Limerick to Cork and the N24 from Limerick to Cahir could be done with a saving of hundreds of millions of euro. That deputation, too, has fallen on deaf ears. Again in the 2019 roads programme there is no mention of the N24. It has been overlooked again. Worse still, the next ten-year so-called pipeline programme makes it clear that the upgrading of the N24 will be at least another ten years hence. That is 25 years altogether. The roadway and improvements to it are effectively in permanent suspension.

This is unacceptable. It is detrimental to the towns of Tipperary and Carrick-on-Suir. Some 7,000 vehicles a day, including heavy goods vehicles, choke the main street of Tipperary town and choke O'Mahony Avenue in Carrick-on-Suir. This traffic brings no economic value or advantage to the towns and indeed damages the towns as locations for retail, business and industry. It is no wonder that these towns have levels of unemployment four or five times the national average, in excess of 20%. They have been neglected by this and previous Governments. I ask the Minister to approve the upgrading of the N24 immediately, including the bypasses of Tipperary town and Carrick-on-Suir, and to establish a jobs task force to tackle the very serious levels of unemployment in both towns.

I am deputising for the Taoiseach today. I very much regret that it is not within my powers to direct or order the immediate sanction for the upgrading of a road in Deputy Healy's constituency. I am, however, very much aware of that road, traversing as it does the Tipperary constituency from Rosslare Port and leading ultimately to Limerick. I am unable to give sanction today, nor am I in a position to provide Deputy Healy with a progress report. Had he given me notice of his intention to raise the issue, I could have furnished him with an update. What I will do is make immediate contact after these questions with my colleague, the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross.

Problem solved.

I will acknowledge in that regard, however, that last week's budget did see an additional €1.26 billion in capital expenditure being allocated to that Department over the allocation for 2018 to 2021 to that Department. I am not sure the extent to which Deputy Healy has engaged by way of deputation to my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Ross.

(Interruptions).

Good luck with that.

He could get the bus to that.

Where is he? Where is the Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport?

With the assent of Deputy Healy and having regard to the fact that I am not in a position to grant his request, what I can do is certainly recommend to my colleague, the Minister, Deputy Ross, that consideration would be given, notwithstanding his very heavy diary commitments-----

(Interruptions).

-----towards a deputation to meet Deputy Healy at the earliest opportunity.

Deputy Ross is looking after Deputy Flanagan's brief. Let Deputy Flanagan do the roads and Deputy Ross do the judges.

I remind the Minister that both he and his Government have had at least seven years' notice and previous Governments have had 15 years' notice of this situation. Of course, I did say in my few words that we had met the Minister, Deputy Ross, very recently but our appeals to him have fallen on deaf ears as well. I am appealing to the Government. These towns have been neglected for years. They have been neglected and condemned to a situation where, as I have said, they are being choked by 7,000 vehicles every day. They were left out of the regional development plans by the previous Government whereby a number of towns were earmarked for construction of industrial and office accommodation and facilities by IDA Ireland.

These towns are very vibrant with very good community, social, cultural and sporting organisations, and they have always tried to help themselves, but they need Government support now. The key Government supports they need are the upgrading of the N24 and a task force addressing the serious unemployment levels. We need IDA Ireland to target those towns for job creation and development. While I acknowledge that the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, is standing in for the Taoiseach today, I want him to bring this issue back to the Taoiseach and ask him to take up the issues and approve the initiatives I have raised because they are vital for these towns.

I agree with Deputy Healy that this is an important issue regarding the N24 and other infrastructural projects in the regions. I want to make a brief comment on the importance of the regional Action Plan for Jobs and the success of that programme since it was introduced by the former Minister for Jobs, Enterprise and Innovation, Deputy Richard Bruton, some years ago. Notwithstanding what Deputy Healy has said about unacceptable levels of unemployment in towns across south Tipperary, including Carrick-on-Suir, Cahir and Clonmel, I point out that there has been something of a favourable change in the live register figures for south Tipperary since 2012, where live register figures have dropped by over 50%. It is important that Government policies for the regions continue to focus on regional development through the local enterprise offices, Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland to ensure that people in the regions and in south Tipperary have an opportunity to live and work in areas they have chosen. I will be very happy to convey the Deputy's comments directly to the Taoiseach as soon as he returns from Brussels.