Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Since the House last sat on Thursday, there has been a series of deadlocked votes at Westminster which led this morning to Michel Barnier stating, "Over the last days a no-deal scenario has become more likely, but we still can hope to avoid it." The European Parliament Brexit co-ordinator, Guy Verhofstadt, tweeted last night that, following those votes, a hard Brexit becomes nearly inevitable. His remarks were effectively endorsed by the Tánaiste’s party colleague, Mairead McGuinness, MEP, this morning in a radio interview.

Nobody wants a hard Brexit. We all cannot reiterate that enough. However, the indecision of the Westminster Parliament may land us in one, either by accident or by design on the part of some MPs. However, the one shred of light is that the customs union proposition may be the most politically palatable given that the division on it last evening was lost by only three votes. The British Cabinet is currently meeting. As we know by now, we cannot anticipate what it will decide. Many businesses, farmers and fishermen, as well as communities on the Border and across the island, are petrified as to what will happen on Friday, 12 April. Last Friday was supposed to be Brexit day but the date was kicked to 12 April, which is only a week away. If what those eminent people stated this morning comes to pass, we may end up, by accident, in a situation nobody wants.

There is an onus on the Government to ensure that we are adequately prepared and to begin communicating what are the plans. We all received a Government leaflet this morning which indicates that without the EU-UK withdrawal agreement "avoiding a hard border will be more challenging and will require detailed discussions". It also states "In that scenario the outcome, including practical arrangements for citizens and businesses ... will be made public as soon as possible."

The Taoiseach will meet President Macron today and the Chancellor Merkel on Thursday. Several weeks ago, the Chancellor Merkel asked if Ireland was prepared for what could be a hard Brexit and stated that in the absence of a deal there would be no Irish backstop. She asked the Taoiseach to outline how the Single Market would be protected between the Republic and Northern Ireland. She urged officials to get a move on. The Taoiseach has confirmed in the House that contacts are taking place between Ireland and the European Commission about protecting the Single Market but that he would not share papers or documents. Is that still the case? What is on the agenda for the meeting between the Taoiseach President Macron. Is it about protecting the Single Market and planning for the event of a no-deal Brexit? Where will today’s and Thursday’s discussions lead this island? What is the Tánaiste’s view on the likely outcome over the coming days?

I thank the Deputy for asking his question and for giving me an opportunity to update the House on this matter. I agree with Michel Barnier and others when they say that, as the days pass, a no-deal Brexit looks like a real possibility.

Of course, we hope that will not be the case but the country needs to be ready if it is. The Government is very much focused on working with all other parties in this House to ensure we do everything we can to prepare Ireland for that outcome, which would put huge strain and pressure on many sectors across the country. We are well prepared in many ways and we go through the detail of that preparation on a regular basis with stakeholders and many others. State agencies are constantly reaching out and speaking to different sectors and businesses on what they need to do to prepare for Brexit. I will bring two Brexit papers to Cabinet this evening when it meets at 8.30 p.m. on the Taoiseach's return from Paris. I assure the Deputy that the no-deal Brexit preparations have intensified significantly in recent days and that will continue.

On the difficult issue of how we respond to the challenges of an all-island economy in the context of the United Kingdom crashing out of the European Union and, therefore, Northern Ireland, as part of the United Kingdom, being outside of the customs union and Single Market without any deal in place, we have always said that is a very difficult challenge to respond to for us, as a Government, and the EU collectively. We have a dual responsibility to protect the integrity of the EU Single Market, of which we are very much a part, and Ireland will not to allow a situation where the UK leaving the European Union without a deal drags Ireland out of the Single Market with it. We cannot allow that situation. By that I mean that a response that involves checks in EU ports on all Irish products is not a runner. That would cause significant damage to our economy and we will not allow it. What we need to do, and what we are doing now, is to intensify our discussions with the European Commission on how we respond to the dual responsibility of protecting the Good Friday Agreement, the peace process and relations on this island as best we can while, at the same time, ensuring that we can reassure other EU countries that Ireland is protecting the integrity of the Single Market that we all share. The Taoiseach has referred to the conversations that have begun on that issue. There was a meeting last Friday and those discussions will continue into this week. We must find a way to protect the Single Market's integrity but also avoid physical infrastructure on the Border. That is something on which we do not have an agreed plan we are working this week, and into next week if necessary, in the context of a no-deal Brexit.

Every part of this House wants to work with the Government in preparation for a hard Brexit but we need information.

What is the plan?

We need to see the details of the plan so that we can share it and get it out there. Hope is no longer a strategy. The Tánaiste has hoped for a long time but, whether by accident or design, it seems we are moving towards a hard Brexit. The Tánaiste spoke of the challenge of protecting the Single Market while maintaining an all-island economy and said the Government was discussing detail. Surely that detail should be shared with the House. It is detail that is relevant to every single citizen of this island, in all 32 counties. We are their representatives. I presume that detail is being discussed in Paris today and will be discussed with Chancellor Merkel on Thursday. However, it is not being discussed in this House. The Government needs to share that detail and involve us in its planning. I presume the Taoiseach and President Macron are not discussing their Kylie collections today. They must be discussing this level of detail. This House should have some knowledge. We do not want to be given the entire negotiating strategy but we should have knowledge of the principles and key commitments to which the Taoiseach will sign up with President Macron and Chancellor Merkel on behalf of this island this week.

We need to be very careful in what we say here because accuracy is important. We need to be sure that we do not turn this into a political or party political issue.

The Government is not hiding anything from anybody. There is not a plan.

There is no plan.

What we are doing is working out a plan with the European Commission, because it involves both the European Commission and the Irish Government, to try to ensure that we fulfil our dual responsibilities as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement and as a committed member of the European Union and its Single Market and customs union. That is a complex challenge, and we always said it would be.

We always said also that it would involve difficult conversations with the European Commission. They are happening now-----

What about the Parliament?

-----but to present this as the Irish Government having a plan that it goes to Brussels with to look for approval for is not accurate.

The British Government also has a responsibility here, as a co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement. We will need to continue to work out a plan with the European Commission if the British Government does not follow through on its commitment to solve this problem on this island through regulatory alignment, as a strategy in the context of a no-deal Brexit just as it was committed to in the context of a withdrawal agreement being agreed.

Let us not forget that as early as December 2017, before a withdrawal agreement was designed or approved, the British Government committed to Ireland and to the EU that as a default position, it would solve the Border challenges on the island of Ireland through regulatory alignment.

The time is up.

That is still the way to deal with this but in the absence of the British Government following through on that commitment, we will continue to work with the European Commission to put what is a difficult plan in place that will protect the Good Friday Agreement but also protect the EU Single Market. As soon as that work is complete, of course, we will share it.

Over the last number of months, we have regrettably borne witness to the scale of the crisis facing our health service on the watch of the Minister, Deputy Harris. The debacle surrounding the cost of the national children's hospital rumbles on, nurses and midwives have had to engage in industrial action, one-in-seven consultant posts is vacant and support staff have announced their intention to ballot for industrial action. All the while, hospital waiting lists continue to grow and hundreds of patients are left on hospital trolleys, day in, day out.

Last night, in Cork University Hospital, there was a status black escalation declared, with patients attending the emergency department facing extreme delays of up to 12 hours and with services reaching breaking point. A status black escalation is declared, I understand, when the hospital is at maximum capacity and when it is deemed unsafe to admit further patients.

There is a capacity crisis in the health service and this is very concerning. There were 70 people on trolleys in Cork University Hospital this morning, with 570 people on trolleys across the State. Yesterday, in Limerick, there were more people on trolleys than in Dublin's nine hospitals combined, according to the INMO. I am sure the Tánaiste will agree that this is shocking.

There are also reports that during the status black escalation up to eight ambulances were lined up outside the accident and emergency at Cork University Hospital waiting to hand over patients. I am told that one of those ambulances was forced to wait for more than four hours. That is the sort of situation that puts patient and staff at serious risk and it is unacceptable.

We have raised the capacity crisis over and over again with the Government over the past number of years - nurses were on the picket line raising this very issue just over a month ago - and all we see by way of response is inaction and indifference on the part of the Minister. They are the ones who insisted that Deputy Harris remain in situ when we, in Sinn Féin, tabled a motion of no confidence in him.

What we need is a robust response. Last night, in the Tánaiste's own city, things got so bad that a black escalation, the highest level of escalation possible, was declared. Staff tell us that it is the worst they have ever seen. The Tánaiste must surely agree that this demands an adequate response. Can he tell me what is to happen at Cork University Hospital in the first instance, given this escalation over the past 24 hours?

More generally, what is the Government's plan to respond to the capacity crisis in a manner that will get to the root cause of the problem and address the crisis sooner rather than later?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. She had many questions but I will deal with those relating to Cork University Hospital, CUH, a facility I know well. This morning, the number of patients waiting on trolleys in Cork University Hospital was 55 and the Health Service Executive, HSE, trolley system reported 431 patients waiting on trolleys nationally. This is an increase on the same day last year when there were 296 patients on trolleys. The number of patients waiting on trolleys at Cork University Hospital this morning is exceptionally high. The HSE has confirmed that South/South West hospital group personnel were on-site and community teams were actively seeking additional community beds to support discharges. In addition, the national director of acute hospitals in the HSE will visit CUH today.

The HSE identified specific issues and challenges on the site. The first was a significant capacity demand mismatch, with high rates of attendance and admission and a low rate of discharges. The hospital remains in full capacity protocol, with the highest trolley count this year on the site. Key actions are now under way in Cork University Hospital to improve the position for patients and these include full mobilisation of all resources, escalation meetings with both the group chief executive officer and chief compliance officer and meetings scheduled with consultants. There is to be a review of diagnostics and cancellation of diagnostics tomorrow and Thursday. Community health organisation representatives are on the site to review patients for transfer to step-down facilities and there will be identification of patients to expedite transfers to local rehabilitation units. There will be utilisation of private capacity, with five beds being made available in the Mater Private. There will also be use of private ambulances to transfer patients.

The Deputy is right that a serious challenge has arisen in CUH as of last night and again today. We are responding with the seriousness that is needed. We need to and are putting the extra resources and the priority systems in place to respond to that in accordance with the needs of patients there.

The status black escalation, as the Tánaiste knows, is essentially a declaration that a hospital is no longer safe. In Cork University Hospital, as I said, the position was unsafe for patients in the first instance but also for staff. Some of those staff, who have worked within the system for decades and up to 30 years, told us directly that they have never seen the like of this before. It was dangerous. I described the scenario for the Tánaiste, with ambulances lined up outside the hospital and one that I know of that waited for more than four hours to hand over a patient. This is a very serious accident waiting to happen and it is playing out on this Government's watch. I am advised that the actions described by the Tánaiste, including the various meetings, are standard procedure in any event for hospitals on a full capacity protocol. The Tánaiste has not described for us any kind of emergency intervention commensurate with the crisis that has unfolded at this hospital.

I ask the Tánaiste again what additional action this Government will take to intervene in the case of Cork University Hospital. When will he accept there is a capacity crisis within the system? What are the plans of the Minister for Health and the Government to address it?

I know Cork University Hospital well and I know many people working there. I accept that today there is huge stress on the system in the hospital and the management is responding to that as best it can. There are two issues. The first is today's pressure, which is difficult for the staff on site.

They are working together to deal with that. The medium-term issue here is about capacity, which is why the Government is increasing capacity and has been doing so month on month. It will continue to do that. If we look at the increasing number of beds being funded and provided, we will see it moving in only one direction. The truth is we need more beds in our system. We have the budgets and plan to increase the number of beds, not just in Cork but in other parts of the country. The Deputy mentioned Limerick. There is a commitment to increase bed capacity in Limerick through a 60-bed modular unit that is funded and committed to this year. There is a recognition that more investment and more capacity are needed and they are provided. In the short term, particularly through winter months, we need to ensure that management systems are in place that, in general terms, deliver reductions in the number of people on trolleys. There is an acute problem in Cork that was seen last night and again today which is getting the emergency response that is needed.

Regarding Brexit, the world and its mother are conscious that Westminster and its parliamentary system are chaotic. It is a shambles of epic proportions and it is difficult to comprehend the magnitude of the disastrous management of Brexit by the UK Government and Parliament. That incompetence underlines how crucial it is to have stability of Government here and to have our Oireachtas united in defence of the national interest. It is fair and appropriate to acknowledge the solid contribution of the Tánaiste during a time of pending crisis by striking a correct balance throughout a complex process.

As a former Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, the Tánaiste is aware that the UK and Ireland are each other's largest export market for food and drink. Therefore, it is the sector that is most exposed to any negative economic impact of the UK Brexit decision. Borders and tariffs between the UK and Ireland would have a disastrous effect on our agricultural industry. Therefore, access to the UK market is crucially important in all negotiations. If access is curtailed, a substantial trade agreement must be the main objective in negotiations whereby free trade for agricultural products and food between the UK and Ireland is established.

Proper contingency plans are needed as beef farmers are threatened with income reductions of up to 40%. The UK is a high-value market for beef with prices usually above the EU average. We are also aware that the UK leaving the EU potentially reduces the CAP budget by up to €3 billion annually. Teagasc estimates that farm incomes could fall by 26% putting the livelihoods of some 100,000 farmers involved in livestock and beef production in danger and resulting in thousands of job losses. This level of fallout will have catastrophic consequences throughout rural Ireland.

What plans are in place regarding a contingency trade agreement that will alleviate concerns regarding our access to the UK market and guarantee a free flow of agricultural products moving from here to the UK with the highest standards of quality being maintained?

I also wish to ask the Tánaiste about substantial structural and adjustment funding aids, which will be necessary for our farmers to ensure there is a smooth transition period and that trade either continues or resumes. Is the Tánaiste satisfied with the level of preparation regarding the bloodstock industry and the movement of race horses and bloodstock between here, Northern Ireland and the UK?

The issue raised by the Deputy points to the importance of getting a withdrawal agreement agreed because for farmers in the Republic of Ireland and, in particular, in Northern Ireland, a no-deal Brexit would be hugely challenging. In a no-deal scenario, there will be a very significant support package for farmers in the Republic. We are working with the European Commission to ensure the Commission plays its role in that as well.

We are fortunate to have a Commissioner for Agriculture and Rural Development who understands the Irish agriculture industry very well. However, in the context of a no-deal Brexit and the imposition of tariffs not only between Britain and Ireland, but also, potentially, between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, with goods coming south, the all-island economy as it functions today, from an agrifood and agricultural perspective, would be significantly disrupted. Therefore, our focus now is on working with the European Commission on how we would respond to that to keep people in business and protect farm incomes.

The beef industry is particularly impacted in this regard. Of the 130,000 farm families in Ireland, 100,000 get some income from beef, and 70,000 get all their farm income from beef. Of all our beef exports, 53%, which is about 85% of all the beef produced, is exported to the UK, which is the highest-paying market in the world. If one imposes significant tariffs on what is a tight-margin business, one does a lot of damage. We are aware of this, which is why this is not an inexpensive problem to which to respond.

The Department of Public Expenditure and Reform has been working with the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine and they have been preparing a contingency no-deal plan. Unfortunately, it will not be possible to have a contingency trade agreement in place, either between Ireland and Britain or between the EU and Britain, in the short term. This is why the British Government published its contingency plan regarding tariffs and the approach on the island of Ireland in the context of a no-deal. If a no-deal happens, Ireland and the EU and the UK will act independently of one another to protect markets, but it will be a very difficult period if that happens. As I said, we are in the process of finalising a detailed and significant plan to support farming through a no-deal, should it happen. The supports for farmers have already begun. In the most recent budget there was a package of approximately €78 million for farmers. I think about 830 farmers from Tipperary have applied for the new beef support programme, which is a €20 million plan, but we need to be straight with people here. If a no-deal Brexit happens, the pressures on agriculture and farming in Ireland will need a significant Government and EU response, and they will get that.

I welcome the Government's commitment but I must reiterate that there is a high level of fear and trepidation throughout the agriculture industry. Farmers and beef producers in Tipperary and throughout the country are concerned for their futures. They seek assurances from the Government, the kinds of assurances the Tánaiste is giving us today, that contingency plans will be in place to protect their livelihoods. They need to be confident that the Government will stand by the industry by providing the necessary market conditions and the financial support for survival. If he could, the Tánaiste might refer to the bloodstock industry.

Regarding beef, as I said, we have consulted widely and we will have a plan in place that will be approved and, I suspect, available before a no-deal happens in order that people know what supports will be in place immediately, should that contingency be necessary, which I certainly hope it will not be. I assure other Deputies that our plans are not based on hope; they are based on putting detailed contingency arrangements in place that are funded to deal with all eventualities.

Regarding the bloodstock industry, and I think this is also the case with the movement of animals from South to North in a no-deal scenario, there will be challenges in protecting against the spread of disease, so the appropriate systems will need to be in place to ensure that the integrity of the herd in the Single Market, from a disease management point of view, is protected.

That will pose difficulties because we will not support checks on the Border. This is part of the conversation we are having with the European Commission about how we might be able to do that.

We heard about the current status of the national broadband plan from officials of the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment at the Committee of Public Accounts last week. The plan and the extremely faulty process associated with it have been subject to questions and concerns. Those questions have yielded few answers to date. The provision of effective and affordable broadband services across the country is, of course, a priority. We are, however, yet to be convinced that the provision of such services will be done in a cost-effective, transparent and sustainable way.

Serious concerns have been raised about the ability of the single remaining bidder, a consortium led by a US investment fund, to deliver on the project in the medium and long term. As a country, we are proposing to heavily subsidise the construction of a network that the private sector will then own. The same consortium, Enet, managed the metropolitan area networks, MANs, contract up to relatively recently. During that time, there was an absence of price transparency and we had some of the most expensive broadband in Europe. We cannot afford to heavily subsidise infrastructure only to find that it is underused.

While we were initially told the cost of the national broadband plan would be around €500 million, the Government and departmental officials have now conceded that the ultimate cost will be multiples of that figure. I expect the Tánaiste will respond with arguments about the importance of servicing rural Ireland. Will he guarantee that rural Ireland will not suffer as a result of initiatives being removed from Project Ireland 2040 to pay for the national broadband plan? The lack of competitive tension in the process, with only one remaining bidder, raises the question of whether the Government is certain the process is robust. If it proceeds, will it be the best possible deal? Is there a plan B or are we likely to be bounced into something that looks like it will cost billions rather than hundreds of millions of euro purely because we have supposedly gone too far in a flawed process? This smacks of lessons not having been learned from the national children's hospital shambles.

The Taoiseach has previously warned that the national broadband plan may not proceed if there is a no-deal Brexit. We all hope such a scenario will not arise. If the national broadband plan is a casualty of a no-deal Brexit, could that mean, given its importance, that Project Ireland 2040 will require a complete revision? How much has been set aside in Project Ireland 2040 for the national broadband plan? I ask that question given the Government has conceded that the national broadband plan will cost multiples of €500 million. From where is the extra money likely to come? What other projects earmarked in Project Ireland 2040 are likely to suffer as a result of the significant extra funding that will be required?

The national broadband plan, as the Deputy knows, aims to ensure every home, school and business in Ireland, regardless of how remote or rural, has access to high-speed broadband. We all have a responsibility to work to that end. This is being achieved through a combination of commercial investment across Ireland and a State intervention in those areas, mostly rural, where commercial operators acting alone are unlikely to invest. The national broadband plan has been a catalyst in encouraging investment by the telecoms sector. In 2012, fewer than 700,000, or 30%, of all 2.3 million Irish premises had access to high-speed broadband. Today, 74% of premises can access high-speed broadband.

The Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton, has said that he wants to bring the procurement process to a fair and impartial conclusion as quickly as possible. He has stated he will bring a proposal to Government for approval before Easter, in other words, in the next couple of weeks.

The ultimate cost to the State of delivering high-speed broadband to more than 500,000 premises in the intervention area was always going to be determined by the procurement process relating to the national broadband plan. This was part of its design and enables the subsidy required to be identified in advance of the Government making a final decision to proceed. We will, therefore, be making a decision with our eyes wide open in respect of cost. It is clearly not going to be cheap. We will now have to make a decision on whether we want to proceed. The cost is high due to the significant ambition of the project and the scale of the build. This one-off intervention will provide broadband to approximately 540,000 premises and will involve the laying of fibre along more than 100,000 km of road across 96% of the landmass of Ireland. It will result in high speeds of 150 Mbps, which will increase to 500 Mbps by the tenth year. The customer charge needs to be the same in rural and urban areas. The plan involves operating the network in a future-proofed way for the next 25 years.

The Minister is trying to ensure that the test the Deputy suggests, that this be cost-effective, transparent, and sustainable into the future, will be met. He will have to bring a proposal before Cabinet and we will need to make a collective decision. I suspect there will also be a lot of outreach to other parties in this House to ensure that this is done in a fully transparent way. If we make the decision to go ahead with the plan, we will be investing with a full understanding of what it will cost and of what we will get for that expenditure over the next 25 years.

The Tánaiste did not answer any of my questions. Will Project Ireland 2040 have to be revisited? From where will the extra money come? We have been told by the Taoiseach and departmental officials that it is going to cost multiples of €500 million, so what is going to fall out of the Project Ireland 2040 plan? These are very important questions and we want to hear an answer to them. We were told that the outline of the tender would be brought before the Dáil in advance of a contract being signed. Will that be subject to a vote of the Dáil? That is important. These are the questions I want answered.

With respect, it is unreasonable to ask me to outline the implications of the cost of this plan without knowing the scale of that cost. I do not know what the cost is going to be; it has not come before Cabinet yet. As a result, I am not able to give the Deputy an answer. Without that answer, I cannot give her an indication of the implications of that cost in the context of Project Ireland 2040. I would have thought that was self-evident. We need the Minister to bring a proposal before Cabinet and, ultimately, before this House first so that we can make a decision as to whether it represents value for money with regard to what we are trying to achieve at the end of a long process. One of the reasons this has taken time is that only one entity is still tendering. This means that the cost-benefit analysis needs to be very robust in order to ensure that the State gets full value for money. That process is now coming to an end. The Minister will bring a proposal to Cabinet for its consideration when he has one ready. We will then have a much clearer understanding of what this will cost and I will then be able to answer the questions the Deputy has raised.

We have gone considerably over time. I appeal to Members to adhere to the time allocated.