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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 19 Nov 2019

Vol. 989 No. 4

Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

School Accommodation Provision

The Minister is familiar with the rapid growth of the commuter belt in north Kildare in particular. We have discussed schools in Naas, Maynooth and elsewhere where demand has greatly outstripped capacity. This situation is repeating itself in Scoil Dara, which is a secondary school in Kilcock in my constituency. It is under severe pressure because enrolment numbers cannot cope with the demand and the number of children presenting. The official number allocated to the school is 875 but at present 923 pupils are enrolled because the principal and management are doing their very best to manage the numbers.

In September 2020, there will be only 150 places available for the school year but more than 236 applicants are looking for those 150 places. A very well-attended public meeting was held last Thursday evening. I attended, as did Councillor Paul Ward from Kilcock and many concerned parents who are at their wits' end trying to understand how the children can be accommodated in the school next year. Not only is Kilcock a vibrant, busy and well-populated town with more and more houses being built every week, there is also a very large rural catchment area. Approximately 12 primary schools feed into Scoil Dara. There are 12 rural and urban primary schools competing with each other for the 150 places available in the school.

A project is under way, and I hope the Minister will tell us more about it, to extend the school. An extension is in the works. My understanding is that it is some time away. The first solution must be to fast-track the extension because 12 primary schools into 150 places do not go. It is not fair to tell any of the schools their pupils cannot attend Scoil Dara. What is important is that we increase the 150 places to 250 places or whatever the number needs to be. The extension in the works needs to be fast tracked. The Department needs to work with all of the stakeholders to get the extension open as soon as possible.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle for allowing me to raise the issue of the need for a forensic assessment of the educational needs of Scoil Dara in Kilcock, County Kildare and its implications for other schools in north Kildare affected by a dramatically expanding population, thereby highlighting the demand for preschool, primary, post-primary and special needs requirements in the general area. This is necessary and I ask the Minister to have a very careful look at an assessment that has not been done before in an area that is now experiencing an unprecedented population increase. Parents are concerned that siblings of children already in the school may not be able to join them. The indications so far are that the school will not be capable of meeting demand in the area, as has been set out by my colleague, and I also attended the public meeting to which he referred.

There is a danger this could become a rolling issue that gains momentum as time goes by and that public confidence in the ability of the system to deal with the expanding population and school enrolment requirements might create an unnecessary problem. There is a suggestion that in a year's time or more, the Gaelcholáiste in Maynooth and the proposed school in Enfield, the patronage of which has not yet been agreed, will relieve the pressure but, unfortunately, that will be too late. There is an urgent need to look now at the entire Kildare North constituency with a view to averting the type of problem emerging in Kilcock and likely to emerge elsewhere.

I thank the Deputies for raising this matter as it provides me with an opportunity to outline the Department's position regarding secondary school places in Kildare North. I happened to speak to a principal of a primary school in Kilcock yesterday on another matter. There is a Donegal connection there. She clearly outlined the future pressures in the area, and it was good to hear that analysis.

Deputy Durkan is seeking a forensic assessment. We have a diligent team working in every school planning area and much of the work has already been looked at. In order to plan for school provision and analyse the relevant demographic data, my Department divides the country into 314 school planning areas - in north Kildare, there are six such areas, including Kilcock - and uses a geographical information system, which utilises data from a range of sources, to identify where the pressure for school places across the country will arise. With this information, my Department carries out nationwide demographic exercises to determine where additional school accommodation is needed at primary and post-primary levels. Where data indicate that additional provision is required, its delivery is dependent on the particular circumstances of each case and may be provided through one, or a combination of, the following: utilising existing unused capacity within a school or schools; extending the capacity of a school or schools; and provision of a new school or schools.

The question of enrolment in individual schools is the responsibility of their managerial authorities. It is their responsibility to implement an enrolment policy in accordance with the Education Act 1998 and the Education (Admission to Schools) Act 2018.

My Department has other major projects ongoing at post-primary schools in north Kildare, including a new 1,000-pupil school for Celbridge community school. This school is currently in interim accommodation pending a new permanent school. The project is at site purchase phase. A new 1,000-pupil school for Maynooth community college is expected to be completed for the 2020-2021 school year. A new replacement school for Maynooth post-primary school is also expected to be completed for the 2020-21 school year. The project to expand St. Farnan's post-primary school in Prosperous to cater for 1,000 pupils was recently devolved to the Kildare and Wicklow ETB and a design team was recently appointed.

To address the issue of a school raised by one of the Deputies, my Department has approved an additional school accommodation project for Scoil Dara in Kilcock. This will deliver five new mainstream classrooms to allow the school to expand to 1,000 pupils. This project also includes the provision of additional specialist rooms. My Department is assessing an application from Clane community school for new specialist rooms and the replacement of existing temporary accommodation.

I thank the Minister for those details. My reaction to them is bittersweet, particularly as I was already familiar with many of the projects involved. I welcome that a number of projects are commencing, but parents become enraged when they see statistics of this kind. For example, a new eight-classroom primary school for Naas will be established in 2021. Building the school that was promised in 2014 would have been a start. The diggers are literally going to the college today to prepare the foundations. Sites have to be acquired, planning permission has to be obtained and the tendering and multi-stage design processes have to be gone through, so we could be talking ten years for some of these schools. Parents like those at Scoil Dara are wondering where their children will go to school next September. When this project was announced a few months ago, the reaction was not particularly positive. It would be great if it came true, but prior experience has shown us that, since such projects take so long to deliver, many children will be out of the school system by the time it does.

The Minister mentioned that the Enfield school was due to open in 2020. That it is at such an advanced stage is welcome. If the patronage could be announced between now and Christmas, it would help with appointing a principal, which would then help with some of Scoil Dara's surplus children moving to the Enfield school. That could be done immediately.

The Deputy to conclude.

Given that we will not have additional capacity ready in time, perhaps the school could be provided with prefabs in the short term to alleviate some of the distress being felt.

Deputy Lawless is eating into Deputy Durkan's time.

I thank the Minister for his reply. I do not want to upset anyone, but I have a little experience with what happens in communities when children do not gain access to the school of their choice and may have to move to a different school than their siblings. It is the perfect storm and the one thing I would ask the Minister to try to avoid. In particular, will he send an emissary immediately to each of the schools affected with a view to determining what local management thinks about the situation and what its fears are and examining what is likely to emerge over the next 12 months? The population is increasing at a more rapid rate than we expected thanks to the extra houses in the area. The town of Kilcock and the other towns concerned are located adjacent to a national rail route, which creates the kind of pressure we are discussing. Will the Minister ensure that contact is made with all of the schools involved, in particular Scoil Dara, as a matter of urgency?

I again thank the Deputies for raising this matter, since it gives me an opportunity to talk to my officials about long-term planning in particular areas. Without going over what has been said about additional accommodation for Scoil Dara, I wish to tell the Deputies and parents who are concerned about what will happen next September that there are solutions that we can, and will, put in place. If that means providing additional temporary accommodation at Scoil Dara long before next September, we are prepared to do that. The Deputies might use their communications and networking with the school authority to encourage it to submit an application to the Department for temporary accommodation in order to get us over the vacuum of uncertainty. That vacuum drives parents nuts because they do not know when something will happen. We need a temporary solution for next September. Let us get that sorted.

There was a suggestion about Enfield's patronage. We will keep the process moving.

The preliminary stage for acquiring additional accommodation at Scoil Dara has been devolved to the school. I am happy to provide assistance to the school, but let us keep this moving. Parents and the wider community attended the public meeting. Public meetings can be heated and become forums for expressing frustration, but whatever needs to be done to ensure that students are sitting at desks next September will be done.

Company Registration

I thank the Ceann Comhairle's office for selecting for debate this important matter and the effect it can have on SMEs throughout the country. SI 110 of 2019 set a date for the legal obligation to file beneficial ownership information with the Central Register of Beneficial Ownership of Companies and Industrial and Provident Societies, or the register of beneficial ownership, RBO. There may be more than 300,000 companies operating in Ireland. All of them, including friendly societies and various other configurations, are obliged to file with the RBO by this Friday, 22 November.

Consider the trajectory that the Companies Registration Office, CRO, has set. We were advised that the portal would be up and running in April to file the returns required by the statutory instrument. It had not happened by May. We were then advised that it would be up and running by the end of May. June came, but it was still not up and running. It was not until 29 July that the portal to make these returns went live on the CRO's website. Tax practitioners complete company returns and company accounts, and directors of small family businesses up and down the State rely on them to ensure compliance.

Essentially, from September until the first week in December, they are at capacity. The corporation tax deadline falls in the middle of September and approximately 55,000 companies have to file their returns then. The income tax deadline must be met by every company director in the State at the end of October or, if using the online system ROS, by the middle of November. Then we have the annual returns for those companies with December year-ends which must be filed by 25 November. A huge body of work must be completed by accounting practitioners over that period of time and they do not have the capacity to comply with a new requirement.

I have no objection to the requirement itself in terms of what it seeks to do and am not looking for legislative change. I am simply asking that a reasonable approach is taken so that ordinary businesses can comply because the penalty for non-compliance is very severe. It is €5,000 on summary conviction but has the potential to run to €500,000 on indictment. The CRO has opened a Twitter account on which it has admitted that its website is not working. The website is not compatible with Microsoft Internet Explorer but the CRO is working with its IT department to resolve this issue. Four days ago it admitted that there were issues with the website. There is a huge amount of traffic to the Twitter account with people asking what is happening. In its last update, which was 48 hours ago, the CRO said it was working on the issue with its IT staff. A little more than 30% of companies have complied with the RBO at this point in time. The portal is not working properly and is either very slow or crashing and the CRO has admitted on its Twitter account this week that there are problems with it. We must be reasonable here and send a very clear signal that we are going to work with businesses on this. We must revise the deadline so that when capacity is restored to the system, we will get this information up-to-date. We want to work with businesses and individuals to ensure compliance.

On 10 October the CRO issued a news bulletin stating that in the two months since the RBO opened a high number of submissions had failed. One of the reasons for failure is the website itself while the other reason is that the data being sought is very technical and must match data held by the Department of Employment Affairs and Social Protection. We are talking here about names and dates of birth. If a middle name, for example, is spelled incorrectly or is at variance with data held in the aforementioned Department, the return may not go through. A huge body of work needs to be done here and I ask the Minister of State to be reasonable and to provide for an extension of the deadline.

I thank the Deputy for raising this important issue. The fourth Anti-Money Laundering Directive, which entered into force in May 2015, introduced the requirement for the establishment of a central register of beneficial ownership for corporates and other legal entities. The Register of Beneficial Ownership, RBO, to which corporates and friendly and provident societies now have to centrally file their beneficial ownership information, has been established in accordance with Article 30 of the fourth Anti-Money Laundering Directive, as amended by the fifth directive.

The requirements of Article 30, as they relate to corporates and friendly and provident societies, have been rolled out in two stages, precisely to allow time for small and medium enterprises to adjust to the new requirements. The first element, creating the initial obligation for companies to obtain and hold information on their beneficial ownership, was done via S.I. 560 of 2016. Consequently, companies have been in possession of much of the information required for central filing for some time and will have been aware of the requirement to eventually centrally file this information. The CRO, which oversees the RBO, kept companies updated via its newsletter and on its website on the progress of the central register and the central filing obligation. The second phase of the transposition, the establishment of a central register of beneficial ownership and the obligation to file beneficial ownership centrally to this register, was created by S.I. 110 of 2019, which entered into force on 22 March 2019. A registrar was subsequently appointed by my colleague, the Minister for Business, Enterprise and Innovation. The statutory instrument itself provided companies with five months in which to centrally file, creating the current filing deadline of 22 November.

I understand, however, from the Department of Business Enterprise and Innovation that while the register was due to go live on 22 June, this was delayed for technical reasons. The CRO began accepting filings on 29 July. Regarding progress on filing to date, the registrar indicated that as of yesterday morning, more than 32% of companies had already done so. I am sympathetic to the challenges being faced by small and medium enterprises in meeting their filing obligations. However, my options are limited given that there are fewer than four days to go until the filing deadline. Taking account of the approaching deadline and having regard to our legal obligations to deliver on the provisions of the Anti-Money Laundering Directives, I hope a practical approach will be taken by the registrar to slightly late filings to the RBO.

I thank the Minister of State for his reply, in which he states that S.I. 110 entered into force on 22 March 2019. However, from 22 March until 29 July, businesses could not do anything because there was no portal available through which to file their returns. There was a long period in which businesses were sterilised and their hands were tied. I note that the Minister of State hopes a practical approach will be taken but this affects hundreds of thousands of companies, many of which will have two directors and more. Potentially, a massive number of company directors could be liable for a summary conviction. Under the law, if a company files a late return, its directors are held responsible. I plead with the Minister of State to address this using the relevant statutory instrument. We must extend the deadline in order to be fair.

I also wish to take issue with the approach of the CRO. As I said already, it has publicly admitted on Twitter that there are technical issues with the website. It is not working in many cases and is not compatible with Microsoft Internet Explorer. If someone files the data set, he or she cannot even print it off. It is impossible to know what one has filed because one cannot generate a full record of it. One can pay a fee to download a form but it is only a summary of the information filed. We must get our act together on this. We need to be supporting businesses and we cannot have these issues arising. People are trying to do the right thing but will find themselves on the wrong side of the law because of technical issues. The CRO cannot support the traffic to its website. Similar issues arose with ROS recently. We must be fair here and give people and businesses a chance.

I accept the Deputy's point about fairness. That said, making any late changes to the statutory instrument at this stage is likely to give rise to difficulties at EU level. If a pragmatic approach was adopted by the registrar of the RBO with regard to marginally late filings vis-à-vis the deadline, that would be helpful. However, I would reiterate that the register has been open for filing since 29 July, which is almost four months or 110 days ago. We have 32% of returns filed at this point. If the system has crashed or has not been operating properly, as happened with ROS recently, then that is a legitimate reason for filings being late. A little bit of common sense can and should be applied here.

Social and Affordable Housing

I seek an update from the Minister for Housing, Planning and Local Government on the status of the O'Devaney Gardens redevelopment project. I do so in a constructive way in an effort to move this forward. The key issue is ensuring that the O'Devaney Gardens site is restored so that people can move back into and live in the area. It is a prime site of 14 acres, adjacent to the Phoenix Park and less than 4 km from O'Connell Street.

The Minister and I have both visited the site. There is growing frustration with the lack of progress. While I do not want to go back over old ground, some valid criticisms were made of the original deal struck between Dublin City Council and Bartra Capital, which the Minister advocated. They included the rate at which affordable purchase was set, which was approximately €400,000 in some instances. Criticism of the 50:50 split between private and public was particularly valid. Many people, including my party colleagues on the city council, Councillor Mary Fitzpatrick and Lord Mayor Paul McAuliffe, and councillors from the Minister's party raised some serious concerns in that regard.

As the Minister will know, a new arrangement has been made. This revised deal is better than the original agreement that Sinn Féin, Fine Gael and others advocated. It will provide 30% public social housing, 20% affordable purchase housing, 30% affordable rented housing and 20% private housing. The deal the council has struck for the State-owned land on this site, which was approved by the law agents, is effectively an 80% public and 20% private split. That is a vast improvement on the 2017 deal that the Minister and Sinn Féin councillors on the city council advocated.

That aside, my concern is with some of the comments made by the Minister on this matter. The reason I tabled this Topical Issue matter is to obtain clarity on the matter. I do not want a protracted stand-off between the Department and Dublin City Council. I am sure the Minister does not want that either. I note his comments questioning the legality of the new arrangement. I am here to put on record that the law agent in Dublin City Council was consulted on the matter, as was the assistant chief executive, and it passed the law agents.

I will happily come back to the Minister after he responds. I saw him laughing a moment ago. It is not a laughing matter that 14 acres of prime land that could house 800 families are not being utilised. The last thing I want is to see the Minister engaged in a row or an argument that will slow the delivery of public housing on this site. The revised arrangement is a better one. The deal brokered by Councillor Mary Fitzpatrick and supported by the Social Democrats, the Labour Party and Fine Gael and Green Party councillors is a better one. The issue raised by the Minister, the one on which I am seeking clarity, relates to the funding of the affordable rental housing.

Only today, in response to my party leader the Taoiseach referred to rolling out cost rental schemes throughout the country. I know we have a pilot scheme on Enniskerry Road but the serviced sites fund will finance these rental projects. Is it not the case that the affordable rental housing on the O'Devaney Gardens site would be eligible for funding under the serviced sites fund? I ask the Minister for clarity on that. Furthermore, the city council has requested publication of the guidelines for affordable rental housing. It may not even be the case that a Government subvention would be needed. The council has an agreement with an approved housing body. What are the Minister's concerns about the revised deal, which is a better deal for the people of Dublin and prospective residents of O'Devaney Gardens?

I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. I welcomed the decision by the elected members of Dublin City Council on 4 November to support the resolution for the redevelopment of the O'Devaney Gardens site in Dublin 7. The council voted by a margin of 39 to 18 for a development agreement which will deliver 768 much needed new homes in this city centre location. This includes a tenure mix which is structured to ensure community sustainability and comprises 50% private housing, 30% social housing and 20% affordable housing. This agreement followed on a previous council decision in 2017, which saw Sinn Féin, Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party, Fine Gael and the Green Party all support the tenure mix proposed.

My Department has worked consistently with the council in support of its efforts to advance its proposals for this site. This includes making over €10 million in serviced sites funding available, which will help to provide 165 more affordable homes for purchase at an average cost of 38% below open market rates. My Department will also fully fund 247 social homes on the site, including 56 units that are under construction. I am aware that a group of councillors, representing Fianna Fáil, the Labour Party, the Social Democrats and the Green Party, publicly stated on 4 November that agreement had been secured to purchase 30% of the total units at O'Devaney Gardens from the developer. It was disappointing that these councillors decided to make such an announcement without any prior engagement with me, particularly since an offer I had made to meet a delegation of councillors was not taken up prior to their announcement. As I understand it - this is an important matter so the Deputy should listen to the reply-----

-----this proposed side agreement has no legal standing. There is no legal or financial documentation. The details remain obscure, including on the potential role of an unspecified approved housing body. Crucially, these councillors have not identified the significant capital funding required to purchase these homes, which I believe would be acquired at full market price. No request has been made to the Department for any funding. The councillors declare the homes would be for affordable rental housing but the repayment requirements on any capital loan would likely mean rents at, or very close to, market rates.

Overall, I am pleased this important project has received formal approval by councillors that will allow it to proceed to the next phase. However, given the level of support for this project and the number of false starts, it is regrettable that some councillors have introduced distractions which have the potential to delay or even compromise this critical stage in the development process.

We are providing almost €100 million for O'Devaney Gardens between social housing and affordable housing. We had an agreement with councillors, including Fianna Fáil councillors, in 2017 as to how the mix for this site should proceed. Two years later, regrettably, we have seen a delay in the decision on the disposal of land because again, Fianna Fáil councillors leading the Dublin agreement group almost collapsed this deal because of a change of heart at the last minute. A month later, without any engagement with the Department, we secured the disposal of land, which is welcome. I am worried, however, about the manner in which that disposal took place insofar as what was said by the lord mayor and supporting councillors on a new agreement. There is no new deal here, no funding for a deal, no approved housing body involved and no legal documentation securing any new agreement for the site. We have the original proposal, which is a good proposal that Fianna Fáil originally supported. Almost €100 million will go into O'Devaney Gardens and I do not want to see the project delayed. I want it to progress and it will progress, provided the councillors act responsibly and do not allow any further delays in the progression of this important site, which will provide so many much needed homes. People have been waiting a long time for this site to be developed. It had difficulties for a host of reasons. We found a pathway forward in 2017 and my Department committed to that, as did I. We have committed the funding to that as well and it must now proceed without any further delays from the city councillors.

I thank the Minister for his response. I will try to be constructive in my response so I will leave aside some of his political commentary.

I put the facts on record. It was not political commentary, just facts. If the Deputy is trying to be helpful-----

I will try to be helpful as we always do. The Minister has been out at the site several times turning sods.

That is not the case.

He has been at photo calls left, right and centre at O'Devaney Gardens. His predecessor, the Tánaiste, did likewise. We genuinely want to see this project move forward. I am asking the Minister to look at the affordable element of the original deal from 2017, for which he advocated. While he may question whether the new deal is an agreement or a revision, the amended agreement was presented to the local authority and the law agent in the city council approved and oversaw it. When I see a cap of €310,000 for affordable purchase and affordable units priced at €240,000, it is a damn sight better than the original proposal. The Minister and I can argue the toss on that all night about whether it is better to have 80% public housing - a mix of public, affordable purchase and affordable rental housing - and only 20% private housing or a 50:50 split between public and private, as provided for in the original deal from 2017. The Minister has raised some concerns about the deal. Is he open to meeting the elected members of the city council on the issue? He should not forget that his Fine Gael Party colleagues on Dublin City Council supported the affordable rental aspect of the revised deal. They want to see affordable rental. Is the Minister willing to help to move this forward? I genuinely do not want another false dawn or delay and I am certain the Minister does not either. The problem is we have a 2017 arrangement that has been revised, irrespective of whether the Minister likes it, and it seems from his response that he does not want to hear about a revision and is putting his head in the sand. Will he meet the city council to try to move this forward?

I thank the Deputy for his reply. We need to move forward but let us do so honestly without misleading the public about agreements that have not been reached.

The Deputy mentioned an amended agreement but there is no new agreement or documentation. Rather, there is an offer from the developer to sell houses to the local authority at market prices. What a brilliant offer for the developer, for whom we will completely de-risk 80% of the site. The houses are at very near the market price. Unless the local authority councillors have the figures, given that I have not yet seen them, affordable rents cannot be made to work if the houses are bought at those prices. That cannot be the basis for cost rental or affordable rental. That is why the other schemes are in train.

The Deputy commented on the price of the houses. The majority of the houses will be sold for approximately €300,000. A couple starting their careers as a teacher and a nurse, earning €55,000 together, could afford to buy a house at that price. That is what we mean when we talk about affordability. It will happen on the site. The O'Devaney Gardens project will proceed and the land disposal has been agreed on the basis of the 2017 tenure mix. That is what people voted for on the night and it was made clear to them on the night by the housing officer of the local authority. They did not vote for the new agreement. The land disposal was agreed on the basis of the original agreement in place since 2017 and it is now in the hands of the executive, with which I will work to progress the site and to ensure that the funding will be provided. We as a Department have committed to almost €100 million for the site alone to provide social and affordable housing.

As for meeting the councillors, I have no problem meeting a delegation, but first I want to see all the documentation that the new agreement is purported to include, because I do not believe that it exists. I do not believe that a financial document, a legal document, financial backing or an approved housing body is in place, and even if all those aspects were in place, I do not believe that affordable rents could be delivered if the homes were to be bought at those market prices. The councillors need to open their eyes. They believe they have got a better deal but they have not got a deal. They have agreed to the 2017 agreement but, unfortunately, to be able to do that, they had to pretend something new was happening. We are fully committed to O'Devaney Gardens but we are committed to completing the project honestly, without misleading the public as to what is happening.

Middle East Issues

I apologise on behalf of Deputies Boyd Barrett and Gino Kenny, who, unfortunately, are double-booked. I ask the Tánaiste, Deputy Coveney, to condemn in the strongest possible terms the decision of the US Administration to no longer consider the illegal Israeli settlements in the West Bank to be illegal. It is clear the move had no legal basis. Article 49 of the Fourth Geneva Convention is clear: "The Occupying Power shall not deport or transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies." It has been recognised as illegal by a number of UN Security Council resolutions, the most recent being in 2016, and by the International Court of Justice. More importantly than it being against international law, it is clear it is against any basic element of justice and equality in the world. The settlements are built on brutal violence by settlers and the Israeli state against Palestinians, and maintained on the basis of extreme discrimination, poverty, apartheid and segregation, including through the use of separating walls, roads and so on. The act will doubtless give a green light for more violence and settlements to be built, and it will continue, as is the purpose, to block any road to a viable Palestinian state by breaking up Palestinian territory.

This is not the first move of such a sort by Trump. It is one of a series of moves in recent years, including the recognition of Jerusalem as the capital of Israel in December 2017, followed by the moving of the US embassy there in May 2018, the removal of funding from UN Relief and Works Agency for Palestinian Refugees in the Near East on the basis of its assistance of Palestinian refugees in early 2019, followed in March 2019 by the recognition of the Syrian Golan Heights as an Israeli territory, a decision that Israel was the only state to take, and now this. Each move has been calculated both to pander to Trump's pro-Israel base domestically and to assist in propping up a deeply right-wing regime in Israel. The acknowledgment of the Golan Heights as an Israeli territory in March was immediately before the general election, and the latest move has come at a time when Netanyahu faces the possibility of losing power. In the coalition negotiations that followed the election, Netanyahu immediately took advantage. He probably knew about the move in advance, and on the final day of the campaign, he made a trip to the settlements. He has repeated the language about extending Jewish sovereignty to all the settlements, meaning the annexation of more Palestinian land.

It is not just an issue of Trump's bad intentions. Ardent support for right-wing Israeli policy has a bipartisan consensus in the US, with the corporate Democrats and the Republicans both viewing the propping up of the racist, apartheid state of Israel as part of an imperialist strategy in the Middle East. It is clear the Oslo Agreement is dead and that it was never aimed at providing justice for Palestinians but to give limited concessions to cut across a mass movement. The redevelopment of a mass movement from below, uniting Palestinian and Israeli Jewish working-class people together in a struggle against the Israeli elite, is necessary. Their international allies are not the likes of the US or, unfortunately, the EU, which will cry crocodile tears but do fundamentally nothing about it. Instead, ordinary people, such as Palestinian solidarity activists, trade unionists, socialists and anti-war activists, will support the redevelopment of a mass movement in the Middle East.

I thank the Deputy for giving me the opportunity to put the Government's position on the record. In view of the US comments yesterday regarding the legality of Israeli settlements, I restate Ireland's clear position on the issue. Settlements are illegal under international law. The Fourth Geneva Convention states clearly that an occupying power must not transfer parts of its own civilian population into the territory it occupies. This is also the EU position. The views of the international community on settlements have been clearly set out in UN Security Council resolutions, notably resolution 2334 of 2016.

Settlements are illegal, they actively undermine the prospects of a two-state solution, and the relentless expansion of settlements inherently involves injustice and dispossession for Palestinians. The Government remains steadfast in its support for a comprehensive two-state solution that protects the future of the Palestinian and Israeli peoples. Ireland has been a strong and consistent voice on the issue of settlements in EU discussions. I supported yesterday's statement by the EU High Representative, Federica Mogherini, which reaffirmed the long-standing EU position that all settlement activity is illegal under international law and erodes the viability of a two-state solution. I have no difficulty stating I disagree fundamentally with the US comments on the issue. Ireland's views on settlements have been communicated to the US Administration at all meetings related to the Middle East peace process, most recently when I met Jared Kushner in New York in September. I hope to meet the US ambassador again soon and I will also raise the issue with him.

Israel is also well aware of our position. When the Israeli Prime Minister, Benjamin Netanyahu, made comments on the annexation of the Jordan Valley during the September general election campaign, Ireland was clear that annexation of territory by force is prohibited under international law, including the UN Charter. This is a fundamental principle of the relation of states and the rule of law. My officials called in the Israeli ambassador on that occasion to ensure that Ireland's views were directly conveyed. Any unilateral annexation by Israel of occupied territory would have no legitimacy and would not be recognised or accepted by Ireland or the international community more generally. Ireland and the EU will not recognise any changes to the pre-1967 borders, including with regard to Jerusalem, other than those agreed by the parties. Israel's settlement policy, including in east Jerusalem, is illegal under international law for the reasons I have outlined.

I have set out my views, in both the House and international fora, that the ongoing effects of the occupation, which has continued for more than 52 years, are not conducive to a lasting settlement. I assure Deputies that circumstances in Israel and the occupied Palestinian territory will remain high on my agenda, and I hope to travel to the region again before the end of the year.

Does the Minister agree that this action by the US Administration is likely to give the green light for further settlements and the violence that comes with that? If he agrees with that, which is self-evident, will he do more than disagree fundamentally with the comments of the US on the issue? Will he condemn those comments? He knows what those comments are aimed at and he has to accept what the consequences are likely to be.

I welcome that the Government has restated its position that all settlement activity is illegal under international law. In that case, why does it seek to block the measure proposed by Senator Francis Black? I understand the measure, which would block the importation of goods made in the illegal settlements, to which the Government and Ministers say they are opposed, has majority support in the House. Why, then, do the Government and Minister seek to block the progress of that Bill with the use of the undemocratic money message veto? The Government will cry crocodile tears about the Palestinians, as is the position of the EU generally. However, the US Chamber of Commerce, which represents the interests of US business and which fundamentally supports the approach of the right-wing Israeli regime, lobbied on the occupied territories Bill.

I again say that the real force for peace are the ordinary working-class people in the Middle East, be they Palestinian, Arab, Israeli or Jewish. The mass mobilisations and marches that we saw on the border checkpoints give a glimpse of how a new mass movement can develop from below, along the lines of the first intifada, which can fight for democratic and socialist change to ensure resources are used for the benefit of all and the national rights of all are respected.

This is nothing to do with socialism.

I think the Minister will find it is.

Everything for the Deputy always comes back to the same issues, such as global movements, democratic socialism and all the rest of it. This is an issue of international law.

International law is-----

I have and will continue to advocate in the EU, across the UN, and bilaterally with the many countries with which Ireland has very good relationships, including the US, to express our clear position on the Israel-Palestine conflict. I will continue to advocate for a two-state solution. I will continue to visit and prioritise the region in terms of Irish foreign policy, as I have done to date.

The comments from the US make it easier for an Israeli Government to focus on expanding settlements in Palestinian territories, and to do so illegally under international law. That is why I felt the need to counter the comments and outline the Irish and EU position very clearly.

I will not support Senator Black's Bill because I do not believe it is legally sound. I do not think Ireland has the capacity to impose what is effectively a trade sanction when the competence and responsibility for decisions on trade lies with the EU collectively. I will not commit public finances to a Bill that I know to be legally unsound. I have made that point very clearly in public and in private to Senator Black on many occasions, and she understands my position. It is a clear position, based on advice from the Attorney General. Deputy Murphy and others choose to ignore that, as if it is not the case. As a Government, we will not introduce legislation that is not legally sound and commit resources to do that and to fight the legal cases that will follow.

I am glad that we agree on one thing, that is, the illegality of the settlements and expansion of settlements in occupied territories. I will continue to maintain that position on behalf of the Government.