Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Yesterday morning's news of an attack on Mr. Kevin Lunney should stop all of us in our tracks. We read in this morning's newspapers the details of the attack and the injuries suffered by Mr. Lunney, and they are absolutely appalling. It is the type of attack we thought had ended on this island. Mr. Lunney was kidnapped by four masked men, thrown into the boot of a car and driven away from his family home to an isolated spot where he was aggressively and savagely assaulted. As a consequence he is enduring life-changing injuries. I am sure everybody will join me in wishing him and his family well during this very difficult time. I hope everybody in the House joins me in saying there is no room on this island for that kind of attack and for somebody to be treated in that manner.

It is worrying that there has been a pattern of attacks on both people and property over a number of years that culminated in this attack on Tuesday evening. Today, the chairman of Quinn Industrial Holdings has stated he is "frustrated and angry" more had not been done to protect Mr. Lunney. There have been a series of attacks on property and people and there appears to be complacency in dealing with the matter and pursuing those who are responsible.

What has the Government done in the 48 hours since the attack to ensure extra Garda resources will be made available and that it can co-operate with the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI, so that, once and for all, there can be a strong policing response that will send a message that we will take no nonsense? What kind of engagement has there been with executives from Quinn Industrial Holdings to assure them that the Government understands the pressure they are under and it will not stand for this kind of behaviour? Will extra resources be made available? My colleague, Councillor John Paul Feeley, suggested a specialised unit from the Garda Síochána and the PSNI to root out the problem once and for all. I know the Tánaiste will join me, as I hope everybody will, in condemning the attack. It is worrying that a complacency in policing has led to the attack. Once and for all we must drive out that complacency.

I thank Deputy Calleary for raising the matter. I am glad he has done so because it gives me an opportunity to express support and sympathy for the Lunney family and Mr. Lunney, in particular. This was a shocking incident and many people today are talking about it, as they were yesterday. A completely innocent person coming home from work had his car rammed before being brutally pulled from the vehicle by a gang of masked men and taken across the Border and beaten in a way that will potentially leave life-changing injuries, both mental and physical. He was left in a ditch. It is shocking and the response needs to be very robust from both the PSNI and An Garda Síochána, and it will be. We cannot allow this kind of brutal intimidation, which is a reminder of the kind of gangland paramilitary-style punishment beatings of the past. I do not say that lightly. These are a way of intimidating people for whatever reason who are working in the series of companies that Mr. Lunney works with.

I hope Deputies will appreciate I am somewhat limited in what I can say about this awful incident, given it is now subject to a significant investigation by both the PSNI and An Garda Síochána. However, I join the Garda Commissioner and the Minister for Justice and Equality in condemning in the strongest possible terms the attack that took place. This was an act of cowards in many ways who have no regard for the rule of law on either side of the Border. I understand both the PSNI and An Garda Síochána are conducting a major inquiry into the incident and are determined to find those responsible and bring them to justice.

Let me be clear that no stone will be left unturned by An Garda Síochána or the PSNI and both police services will relentlessly pursue these individuals. I wish them well in their inquiries and encourage anybody with information on this matter to come forward to the Garda or the PSNI as quickly as possible. I understand the Minister, Deputy Flanagan, has requested that the Garda Commissioner keep him personally updated on progress in this investigation. I have had responsibility for relationships with Northern Ireland for the past two years and I can confidently say the relationship between the PSNI and An Garda Síochána is probably stronger now than it has ever been. This is a case on which they will work very closely to try to get to the bottom of it as quickly as possible.

With respect to broader Garda resources, Garda strength in the northern region now stands at approximately 1,500, which is an increase of 150 since the end of 2017. It is also worth mentioning that there will be an armed support unit in Cavan, and armed support units have now been established by the Garda Commissioner in all regions to provide an armed response capacity on a regional basis to support and supplement the national emergency response team. There continues to be a Garda focus in the Border counties and this incident is a reminder of why that is necessary.

I welcome the Tánaiste's condemnation of the incident and I agree with his language. The difficulty is that this is the culmination of a number of attacks that have gone on for two years, including a previous attack on Mr. Lunney when he had his nose broken. Another executive had boiling water thrown in his face. As I said, there seems to be complacency in seeing through the investigations and people are getting away with these attacks. I welcome the Tánaiste's indication there will be a massive investigation but the Government must send a signal of confidence to the business and investment communities that this kind of thing will be pursued and people will follow through on the investigations. It is a challenging area in which to do business, as Deputies Brendan Smith and Niamh Smyth have continuously highlighted. Unless and until somebody is brought before the courts for this wave of attacks, the perception that people are getting away with this will go on. We must draw a line under this.

I want the Tánaiste to give an assurance today that every possible resource will be made available and every possible political support will be provided, not just from the Government but from every party inside and outside this Chamber. This kind of act cannot continue and somebody must face justice for what happened on Tuesday night.

It is true that Quinn Industrial Holdings has been in ongoing contact with An Garda Síochána and the PSNI in the context of threats that have been made, violent intimidation and acts that have happened. This is not the first instance but it is by far the most serious.

Both the PSNI and An Garda Síochána will attach the highest priority to this case. There is an obligation on the communities living in the area. Many people know who carried out these acts and who is behind the brutality, intimidation and total lawlessness of what happened. Those people need to come forward and help the PSNI and An Garda Síochána in the investigations they will conduct and I strongly encourage them to do that. This is not what people living in Border counties want or will accept and they need to work with the PSNI and An Garda Síochána to stamp it out and respond to an event that, quite frankly, could have resulted in a man's death. It was a brutal assault that is going to have a considerable impact on both Mr. Lunney and his family. It needs a quick response from the policing and judicial sectors.

I will repeat what I said yesterday. Sinn Féin condemns the vicious and abhorrent attack on Mr. Kevin Lunney, who was just doing his job and has been a part of creating employment for many people in the Border community. I echo the words of the Tánaiste that there is no justification for anybody to shield or cover those who are behind this attack - and, indeed, many other attacks - on individuals and properties related to Quinn Industrial Holdings. I encourage those with any information, regardless of how insignificant they think it is, to bring it to the relevant authority. This needs to be stamped out quickly.

I want to focus on the fact that thousands of school secretaries across the country will go on strike tomorrow and will begin an indefinite work-to-rule action until their modest demands are met. This follows a breakdown in talks yesterday between their union, Fórsa, and the Department of Education and Skills. I am sure the Tánaiste will agree that the staff are invaluable members of our school communities who often go beyond their job requirements to meet the needs of parents and pupils. They work on the front line and they are the first port of call for parents and students. Our schools simply would not function without them.

Our teachers would agree that these staff are underpaid and undervalued by the Department. School secretaries have my full support and that of Sinn Féin in their dispute and claim.

At the heart of the matter is a dispute that centres on the fact that the majority of school secretaries, just over 3,000 of them, receive as little as €13,000 per year. They also have irregular and short-term contracts with no pay during summer holidays, school breaks or at Christmas time. It is beyond doubt that these secretaries receive low pay with little security.

This is only compounded by the inequality within the system because, on one hand, a few hundred school secretaries are paid directly by the Department of Education and Skills with starting salaries of €24,000 and, on the other hand, 90% of them are not. Those who are not receive as little as €13,000 per year.

The importance of these staff will become clear tomorrow when they begin their strike at the start of the school day because their schools cannot function without them. They are integral to the education system that needs them and, in that way, they are public servants who provide a service to our children and parents. That cannot be disputed and is why Sinn Féin believes their claim is justified. They should be employed as public servants with the same contractual security as their colleagues.

The Department of Education and Skills has failed to seriously engage with staff and union representatives in order to resolve this dispute. The relevant Minister was made aware as far back as May of this year of the pay claim, the job insecurity and the two-tier pay structure but he has dragged his heels in reaching an agreement. I am sure the Minister will claim that the specific responsibility for the employment, pay and working conditions of these staff rests with the schools through the capitation grants they receive and not with his Department. Any of us in this House with children of school going age know that the capitation grants that are supposed to cover heating, lighting, insurance and teaching materials simply do not cut it.

We need real action. We need for these employees to be valued. What will this Government do to avert further action and recognise the work and value of school secretaries?

I drop my kids to school when I can and am more than aware of the value of school secretaries as I am sure are Deputy Doherty and many others in the House.

Industrial action by school secretaries who are members of the Fórsa trade union will commence tomorrow. Fórsa's pay claim is a follow-on claim from the current pay agreement which runs until the end of this year. The Department's position is that the union's claim will be fully considered once the current costs have been determined. The Department is conducting a survey of schools which closes tomorrow. Bearing that in mind, any industrial action is surely premature and unwarranted, not least because the period of the current agreement has not even expired yet. The current pay agreement committed both parties to engaging with one another in the course of 2019 to consider the nature of an agreement to apply from 1 January next year.

The Department is not the employer of the staff concerned and does not hold current information on their pay rates and working hours. A previous survey was conducted ten years ago and the current pay agreement has been implemented in the meantime. The results illustrate that this matter presents significant issues for the Exchequer with a potential cost to the State of between €188 million and €347 million per year in funding to allow for the employer pension contributions in State-funded community and voluntary organisations.

On foot of a chairman's note to the Lansdowne Road agreement, the Department of Education and Skills engaged in an arbitration process with the union in 2015. This resulted in a cumulative pay increase of 10% between 2016 and 2019 for staff and a minimum hourly pay rate of €13. This arbitration agreement lasts until the end of this year and was designed to be of greatest benefit to lower paid staff. For example, a secretary or caretaker who was paid the then-minimum wage of €8.65 per hour in 2015, prior to the arbitration, is now paid €13 per hour which is an increase of 50%.

Having said all that, my experience is that these issues get resolved by talking. I encourage Fórsa to engage with the Department to try to find a way forward that avoids industrial action, including that scheduled for tomorrow, and the disruption that will cause to children, parents and the staff of schools.

I agree with the Tánaiste when he says that these issues get resolved through talking but it is clear that there is frustration among the unions. They will argue that the departmental cost was submitted to the committee of the Department of Education and Skills in May of this year and the talks that took place this week were not about the substance of the claim but went around the houses on the costs. There is frustration among the secretaries themselves and 94% of them voted in favour of industrial action and the strike.

The Tánaiste mentioned that he values the work of these school secretaries and I do not doubt his bona fides. I do not know the school secretary in the school the Tánaiste drops his kids to. Some 10% of school secretaries start on a salary of €24,000 and go up to €40,000 but the school secretaries in the school I drop my kids to could be earning as little as €13,000 per year with no payment at all over Christmas and Hallowe'en, among other conditions that do not exist for other public service employees. That inequality is the core of this issue. School secretaries do so much and go beyond the call of duty to keep schools together despite the different additional burdens placed on them.

How can we ask them, if we truly value them, to continue to do that job while their colleagues in other schools are earning twice, if not three times, as much as them? Does the Tánaiste believe that the issue of pay must be dealt with? Does he believe that school secretaries should be recognised for the public service they provide as public servants?

What I agree on is that this will be resolved by discussion and consideration which is part of the plan. There was is an ongoing consultation this year with a view to putting new arrangements in place for the start of next year. I am not directly involved but I understand that a school survey is needed as part of that process in order to ensure that all those involved, particularly the Department of Education and Skills, understand the numbers and the facts. That survey will conclude tomorrow. Surely it is premature to trigger industrial action before the survey is complete? I ask people to show some restraint and to give discussion a chance to produce a result that would be acceptable to both sides rather than resorting to industrial action tomorrow which will cause significant disruption in schools. The Deputy is correct. School secretaries are a hugely important part of the school infrastructure, staffing, the safe functioning of schools, looking after children and so on. Given the nature of what is happening and what is under way, I appeal to Fórsa to look again at tomorrow's industrial action and to continue the consultation with the Department.

Last Tuesday, when he took questions in his capacity as Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, I asked the Tánaiste about the Libyan detention centres, forced returns, the Mediterranean and the recent impasse. His response to me was very strong, namely, that migrants stranded in the Mediterranean need a much better co-ordinated and collective response from the EU instead of the ad hoc, case-by-case management seen to date. The Tánaiste was critical of the EU being unable to agree collectively on an approach to migration and rescue. He stated that a new system which will ensure survivors' well-being is being planned and that Ireland will be part of it. That is very positive. Other positive aspects are the OECD Development Assistance Committee, DAC, peer reviews from 2014 and the mid-term review from 2016. I understand that the current review, which will be published next year, will also be positive. The reviews from 2014 and 2017 highlight Ireland's commitment to the least developed countries and the quality of our programmes there, which are focused on poverty and hunger reduction. We have an excellent record in providing untied aid and there is a commitment to move beyond the 0.7% threshold. However, that considerable regard for Ireland is being undermined by aspects of the increasing EU securitisation agenda. The OECD DAC has concerns that overseas development aid can be used for activities that harm human rights.

I wish to raise two issues. First, the European Peace Facility, EPF, which plans to make more efficient the deployment of military missions. The EPF involves a component to train and equip foreign government military actors in fragile states by, among other things, providing weapons. It has a potential budget of $10 billion for the next six years. Compare that with $3.7 billion budget for the preventing conflict instruments of the EU. There are concerns regarding governance and accountability if there is an oversight role for the European Parliament. Where does Ireland stand in this regard, particularly in the context of the positives I have just outlined? I accept that Ireland is trying to reach a coalition with like-minded states but it is obvious that more needs to be done to ensure that there is a publicly accessible list of the eligible equipment for the EPF which would exclude weapons and ammunition, ensure that civilian peace-building alternatives are considered first and to ensure accountability techniques for the potential misuse of military assistance and, of course, the protection of civilians. There must also be transparency, so that there will be a timely disclosure of all EPF documents such as the proposals for action programmes and that they go to national parliaments and foreign affairs committees. How can Ireland be the positive voice on humanitarian and human rights issues while at the same time not be as active on the EPF, which has the potential for over-reliance on force as a means to resolve issues?

I thank the Deputy for asking a progressive series of questions. That does not often happen in this House. Normally, it is a case of criticism and defence when we discuss these issues, if "defence" is the correct word in this context.

The Deputy knows my views on the EU's responsibility for vulnerable migrants in the Mediterranean particularly in camps in Libya from which many are desperately trying to escape and are at the mercy of people traffickers who are brutal in their methods. I am both disappointed and frustrated by the lack of the EU's capacity to respond comprehensively to the humanitarian challenge which we all face. Part of that was driven by an inability to agree disembarkation procedures in terms of locations and so on for various political reasons I do not have time to go into. I hope that we will be able to find a way forward that can allow EU involvement on a humanitarian search and rescue basis. Of course, we must ensure that we are not encouraging people trafficking or creating any type of pull factor while at the same time ensuring that we are not knowingly allowing people to drown. Given the resources that we have the potential to provide to ensure that does not happen. I am proud to say that Ireland has made a very significant contribution in recent years. Irish naval vessels have taken approximately 14,000 people from the waters of the Mediterranean off the coast of Libya. We will continue to work with other EU countries to try to find and agree a more collective approach towards migration and accommodation of migrants and refugees if and when they disembark in the European Union, which is a challenge for Ireland in light of demands on housing, criticisms of direct provision and other challenges. However, it is something we must do. We cannot allow EU Mediterranean countries to carry the entire burden or what will happen - it has already happened in Italy - in the forthcoming general election is that people will respond by putting those who engage in hardline thinking on migration issues into office. We need to work together to ensure that this does not happen and, in that context, we must help Italy with the burden it has shouldered.

I will return to the EPF facility in response to the Deputy's supplementary question in order to give a more comprehensive answer. There is a role for the EPF, for training and supporting countries in parts of the world that have been destabilised or torn apart by conflict to build security capacity. However, Ireland's expertise and role lies in the areas of peacekeeping and the provision of civilian supports in post-conflict situations. Those are the areas in which we have credibility and that is the emphasis in our contribution to most of these EU debates.

I do not think that what the EPF does really squares with the earlier part of the Tánaiste's response. I will introduce another aspect, namely, the EU Trust Fund for Africa. Much concern has been expressed on that, including by the EU Court of Auditors. There is concern that the trust fund is spending EU aid money in ways that contradict development and undermine human rights. Libya is one example. It is money from the trust fund that is keeping detention centres there, in which conditions are appalling, going. In the Sudan, EU funds have been used to train Sudanese border police and support the activities of the rapid support force, which is really the Janjaweed. Ireland was rightly very strong in condemning the killings and rapes in Sudan some months ago but that violence is being carried out by forces whose training was funded by the EU. The trust fund has also been misused in Eritrea and Niger. All that has led to there being more deaths among migrants crossing the Sahara than among those seeking to traverse the Mediterranean. Does Ireland have a legal obligation to contribute to the EU Trust Fund for Africa?

I will come back to the Deputy on the legal obligation. I am not sure of the direct answer to that question and whether that comes out of EU central funds we contribute to or whether it is opt-in funding from a trust fund. I will check that and come back to the Deputy.

The EU needs to spend money in its neighbourhood to support fragile governments. In some cases, it needs to support the training of police officers and military personnel. For example, a number of Irish military personnel have been in Mali on a training mission for a number of years. We are doing that in partnership with the UK and it is the one such peacekeeping operation we are carrying out in partnership with the UK. I was there when I was Minister for Defence. That mission is hugely appreciated and necessary in introducing sophisticated training capacity around demining, civilian protection and so on. To paint EU funding of security training as a bad thing in all circumstances is wrong. While we need transparency in how the money is spent and the results of same, we cannot solely focus on civilian engagement. There also has to be EU support for state actors if they are trying to bring stability to fragile states.

My question is on direct provision. Direct provision is a system for accommodating those who are seeking asylum and it is now 20 years old. In general terms, it seeks to provide protection for those who are fleeing either political or religious persecution. It is an outdated system and needs to change. It was originally introduced in 1999 as a temporary emergency measure. The system has had some modifications over the years, particularly following the McMahon report of 2016, but essentially the basic system remains. The McMahon report's terms of reference were to look at improving the existing system but it did not look at providing alternative systems for asylum seekers. It looked at improving the speed at which their applications were processed and that was important for shortening their stays within the system. However, many stay in direct provision for several years, even after they have been granted refugee status because they have not been integrated into the community and they cannot find independent housing.

Ireland fulfils its obligations under international law by providing shelter, food, access to healthcare and education. However, it has been criticised by human rights organisations on the basis that the direct provision system is degrading and dehumanising because it segregates asylum seekers into institutional care and does not integrate them into the community. The demands on direct provision are increasing again, with more than 6,000 people in the system, including 1,700 children. They are a vulnerable group of people who have to spend a prolonged period of time within direct provision. There are 39 direct provision centres and almost every county has a centre. Due to increased demand, asylum seekers are now placed in temporary emergency accommodation, even outside the direct provision institutions.

In Clare, we have two centres, in Knockalisheen and Lisdoonvarna, and we are aware of the situation in Oughterard in Galway, which has been controversial over the past week or so. The choice of a site now follows a familiar pattern. There is an expression of interest, the locations are assessed, rumours circulate, fear of the unknown dominates discourse, protests opposing the location of a centre are held, tensions run high and people take up entrenched positions. There is a lack of engagement with the community and a lack of assurances that communities will not be disadvantaged by having a centre close by. There is a failure to assure that adequate supports will be put in place to provide adequate health, education, social inclusion and transport services. Fear of the unknown drives anxiety. Is direct provision a failed model and does the Government have anything to offer to provide new models of care?

There has been much comment in recent weeks and years about the system of direct provision. There has also been debate about the location of centres. I appeal to everyone to ensure this debate is thoughtful, respectful and factual, just as the Deputy's contribution was. Under EU and international law, Ireland, like other countries, is obliged to examine the claim of any person who comes here and claims international protection or asylum under defined grounds, such as a well-founded fear of persecution for reasons of race, caste, nationality, religion, political opinions and membership of or participation in any particular social group or social activities. While that claim is being examined, the State is legally obliged to offer accommodation and related services to anyone without means, including all meals, medical care and utilities. A weekly personal allowance is paid to each person in a centre and exceptional needs are covered by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. There is no obligation on any asylum seeker to accept the offer of accommodation and no restriction on their freedom of movement throughout the State.

I understand concerns have been raised by people in Oughterard. This is the latest such case as other communities have also raised concerns. Local communities have genuine questions. Where centres have opened in new locations, the Department has engaged with communities, addressed questions and supported communities in establishing links to new centres. I know people are unhappy that there are rumours, on the one hand, and a lack of information, on the other hand, in many cases but until the legal process is complete, the Department of Justice and Equality is somewhat restricted in what it can say. This has caused a lot of problems.

Direct provision was introduced 20 years ago, as the Deputy said, to deal with a situation where asylum seekers were effectively homeless. Any credible alternative put forward must be capable of providing immediate access to food, shelter and medical care to vulnerable people, as the direct provision model does. Since its inception, more than 60,000 people have been helped by the direct provision system. There are positive relationships between residents and local communities in areas where centres are already open in the State, including through friends of the centre groups, which promote integration between communities. That being said, direct provision is not ideal but we have to be honest too. People who advocate simply doing away with direct provision also have an obligation to outline what we should replace it with. We have a shortage of housing in the areas of social housing, affordable housing and rental accommodation. We will fix that and I am glad to say that supply in all of those categories is increasing rapidly. We also have significant increases in the number of people claiming asylum in Ireland and we need to ensure we can protect them and offer them shelter and support. Although we need to ensure standards across all the direct provision centres are sufficient, consistent and above a certain threshold, for now direct provision is the way to do this. However, we need to be open to change and to adapting that model to improve it in time.

It is incumbent on people to provide an alternative system or to at least provide suggestions to support an alternative system. One of the alternative systems is that, rather than having 120 or 220 people in one building, they would be dispersed throughout a community. Many of these centres are located in rural Ireland. One thing rural Ireland has is housing stock. What it does not have is people. Those people could be dispersed among communities and there is huge support for asylum seekers when they come to a community. Lisdoonvarna is a case in point. It was a controversial site in spring of last year and the community has embraced the asylum seekers who arrived in the town. Voluntary groups come together to support them but they are still congregated in one location, usually in a hotel or hostel that is no longer used.

The Department of Justice and Equality needs to look at a new model of dispersing people throughout a community, whereby, rather than allowing them to be congregated, they are integrated into a community. That is the direction in which the Government should go, which would counter what has happened recently with the protests in Oughterard. The community there was not informed or given assurances that they would have the necessary supports to look after such a large group of people coming into a relatively small community. However, if they were dispersed throughout the county or throughout an area, I do not think there would be the same level of opposition.

That is a fair point, and the truth is that the Government operates both models. We have 38 or 39 direct provision centres across 18 counties. Many other countries do not have that, but instead put nearly all their asylum applicants into one or two very large national centres. We are trying to ensure integration across the country and that towns, which are sometimes small, have direct provision centres as well. Irish integration has been quite good, considering the pressures that exist in that area.

We also accommodate refugees whose asylum status is already settled when they come to Ireland, although it is often done quietly. They are normally accommodated in private rental accommodation, in long-term leasing arrangements that ensure they are integrated and dispersed among communities. It is a good model. However, if we were to assign a percentage of social housing for asylum seekers or refugees, it could create a danger of resentment from people on housing lists. We need to be careful in how we manage this, but Ireland, by and large, has been quite good at integration, which has been noted in international commentary as well.