1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the establishment of a social dialogue unit in his Department. [23765/20]
Vol. 997 No. 7
1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the establishment of a social dialogue unit in his Department. [23765/20]
2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach his plans to establish a unit in his Department to co-ordinate social dialogue. [23928/20]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 and 2 together.
The Government recognises the importance of regular and open engagement with all sectors of society. This is particularly important as we steer our way out of the pandemic, rebuild our economy and support communities that have been severely impacted by Covid-19.
As committed to in the programme for Government, a social dialogue unit has been established within the economic division of my Department. This division already has extensive engagement with social partners.
Its initial focus will be on supporting engagement with the social partners including through existing mechanisms such as the Labour Employer Economic Forum and the annual national economic dialogue.
The Labour Employer Economic Forum in particular has helped ensure good discussions between Government, employers and trade unions during the Covid-19 crisis and I believe that further social dialogue will help in the many challenges that lie ahead.
I am also aware that the Tánaiste is meeting the employment rights arm of the Labour Employer Economic Forum next week. They will be discussing proposals on how Government can best address concerns on employment rights, particularly in low-paid industries where workers are at high risk of contracting Covid.
The point of this new unit is to help co-ordinate future social dialogue. As the Taoiseach said, the Labour Employer Economic Forum has helped with discussions between employers and trade unions during this crisis as well as beforehand. I am really concerned about the collapse of discussions in the Low Pay Commission. We all know what the Low Pay Commission is. We in the Labour Party created it through the work of Deputy Nash and others. It does fundamental work. We made an absolute commitment to bring it in to ensure that we could get to a threshold level of pay for people.
Patricia King and others have made a fair and rational argument over the increase in the minimum wage, but employers would not budge beyond 1%. I have known Patricia King for a long time and she did not take lightly the decision to walk out. This is not a good moment. The pandemic has clearly shown that the over-reliance on low-paid work in essential jobs in Ireland is a big problem. It says a lot that two unions have walked out. I am concerned not just at them rightly walking out; I am concerned over how employers are behaving. I know the Taoiseach said this is an independent process. I know the process off by heart; I helped create it. That is not the issue. The issue is deeper for me.
The commission can still make a recommendation but I am concerned over how it can function without the trade union side. We need to remember that while it can make a recommendation, the Government does not have to accept it and can always increase it. That is something the Taoiseach might bear in mind.
This comes on top of a report from the Central Bank a few days ago which exposed just how unequal Irish society is. The median wealth of a person in the wealthiest 20% of Irish society is €853,000. The median wealth of a person in the poorest 20% of Irish society is just €1,000 and the gap has widened in recent years. The programme for Government commits to progressing to a living wage over the lifetime of the Government. What process can be used if the commission is broken? How can the Government fulfil its programme for Government commitment if the commission is not functioning?
Thank you, Deputy.
How will social dialogue work without an acceptance that low pay rates and poor conditions like the lack of sick pay, which we discussed earlier, cannot be addressed? How will all this work in the future? I am totally supportive of Patricia King, as are the Labour Party and our trade union colleagues. We need to look at how we might ensure workers' low pay will be reprioritised.
There is a deeper matter here. What forums will the Government have in the future? How will it be able to engage and monitor this?
For the Deputy's information, we have a little over ten minutes and three further Deputies are offering.
Only two Deputies asked questions.
I know that.
Please bear that in mind when we are speaking.
I am not talking to Deputy Kelly but to the people who are coming next.
If we are not going to-----
In fairness to Deputy McDonald, she is down with me.
Sorry. If people consume all the time asking questions, there will not be time for an answer, but anyway. I apologise for this.
I wish to deal with two things. On the work envisaged in the establishment of this unit in the Department of the Taoiseach, I understand the models of sectoral engagement are different from the old social partnership process. I ask the Taoiseach to confirm that for me. There is no doubt that workers, businesses and all of society face sudden and unprecedented challenges. The public health emergency and consequent restrictions will create uncertain conditions for working people, but also uncertain trading conditions and business will require ongoing and substantial support from all arms of Government. Meaningful engagement with employers, particularly small businesses and microbusinesses which provide the bulk of employment, will be critical. From my contacts with business representative organisations, I know they are very keen that this new model of sectoral engagement comes to pass very quickly.
I raised the issue of the Low Pay Commission with the Taoiseach earlier. This commission was destined to fail because the legislation underpinning it is insufficient. It does not have fairness and the intention to move from a status of low pay to a status of decent pay hardwired into it. Labour and Fine Gael ignored the work of the British Labour Party which proposed substantial and progressive reforms of the British commission, the model the commission here mimicked. We need to go back and rewire the commission if it is to fulfil its stated purpose. It is senseless to have a commission on low pay that refuses to tackle and resolve the issue of low pay.
Last week the Taoiseach urged KPMG to talk to the Debenhams workers. Not only has KPMG failed to act on that suggestion, but non-union labour is now being hired to pass picket lines and go into the stores to pack stock that is at the centre of an industrial dispute. In other words the liquidator, appointed by the courts, is overseeing a scabbing operation organised on a national basis.
I appeal to those non-union workers to refuse to do KPMG's dirty work and to respect the picket lines that have been organised by the workers - overwhelmingly women workers - who are campaigning for justice.
In conclusion, I would like to ask the Taoiseach a direct question. Is he prepared, in the House today, to condemn this strike-breaking operation and to call on KPMG to ensure it stops immediately?
Workers in Debenhams in Blackrock, along with almost 1,000 other workers, were on the picket lines at 6 a.m. this morning. I joined them at approximately 7.30 a.m. They had to go through the immense frustration of watching strike breakers brought in by their former manager. To be honest, most of their disgust was directed at the former manager ushering in these strike breakers. Frankly, I do not think the strike breakers really understood what was going on. The workers were appealing to them not to do what they were doing.
It would be a very strong message for the Taoiseach to stand up and say that this strike-breaking operation is absolutely reprehensible. I have an invitation to him from the Debenhams workers in Blackrock. If one talks to them, it is clear that they are some of the loveliest people one could ever meet. They did not blame the strike breakers. They blamed KPMG, the inaction of the Government and Debenhams. One of the workers, Martin, has invited the Taoiseach to go to Blackrock and he will buy him lunch in the McDonald's there and give him a cup of coffee. Martin wants to talk things through in a social dialogue, explain the workers' plight and ask what the Taoiseach can do. That is a direct invitation from Martin, Viv and the shop steward, Eilis, at Debenhams in Blackrock to the Taoiseach. They are asking him to go there and engage in social dialogue with them tomorrow morning as they fight for justice in a very just cause against reprehensible treatment at the hands of KPMG.
If the Taoiseach is going to McDonald's, we will have to take a photograph of the event.
Deputies Kelly and McDonald asked about the Low Pay Commission. Sinn Féin and Deputy McDonald could take a leaf out of Deputy Kelly's book. Let us argue these issues in as non-political and non-partisan a way as we can. We are all in favour of looking after and doing the best we can for low-paid workers. The problem I see in the exchanges this morning is one party wants to party-politicise the issues. That party now blames Fine Gael and the Labour Party for what it is saying is a commission that was not wired properly. The commission made five recommendations that were accepted by successive Governments. It is a serious issue that a statutory body that was set up by the Oireachtas and had input from all parties is now in a breakdown situation. We have to move carefully before we just abandon it.
This matter can be dealt with as part of the work of the social dialogue unit in my Department. I established that unit, by the way, because I believe strongly in working with trade unions, employers and other interests to develop a consensual approach to society. Fianna Fáil brought in social partnership in the late 1980s at a time of great economic crisis. Social partnership did a lot for this country in its first ten years or so. It did a lot for workers and it did a lot to advance social entitlements and rights. I make no apology for saying I am a strong advocate for engagement in social dialogue with trade unions, employers and broader interests in society to advance a better quality of life and better rights and entitlements for workers. That is why I, as Taoiseach, set up a new unit within my Department to intensify our effort on that front.
There is a commitment in the programme for Government to move towards a living wage. Deputy Kelly is correct in suggesting that we must consider what is the mechanism or forum by which we arrive at that. I believe we should make an effort to restore equilibrium on the Low Pay Commission. The Deputy is also correct that the Government has not made a decision as to whether it will accept the particular recommendation to which he referred. That will be done closer to budget time. We are very conscious of the issues. One should, in fairness, ascertain the reasons that this recommendation has come forward. I am conscious that, as a Government, we are supporting a lot of employers. The vast majority of those availing of the wage subsidy are micro-employers through to small and medium-sized employers, as Deputy McDonald noted. That is who is availing of the wage subsidy scheme. More than 350,000 workers are being supported under the scheme and will be supported through to April. It seems to me, with the prevalence of Covid-19, that this support could be needed beyond then in terms of financial and economic requirements and impact.
I also take Deputy Kelly's broader point. I have gone through some of the work of Thomas Picketty, for example, which outlines how, globally and throughout Europe, those on higher incomes have got proportionately more over the decades compared with those on lower incomes. There is an obligation on the State to work towards bridging that gap and giving people a decent wage with decent entitlements such as sick pay. The Government is working on that and we want to work constructively with the legislation Deputy Kelly has brought forward. That was our intention at Cabinet yesterday - not to dismiss it but to recognise the need for a serious engagement with unions, employers and all concerned to see how we can devise a more structured sick pay regime within our overall pay and entitlement framework in this country.
On the sectoral issues, the Government appealed the High Court decision in regard to the sectoral pay awards. We are keen to protect the rights that have been enshrined in the various orders.
In regard to the Debenhams situation, I have met a number of workers on a number of occasions. I do not approve of strike breaking or any approach like that. It is not going to resolve these issues. The union involved has been seeking to resolve the matter. What I do not want to do either is walk people up a hill by pretending we can do everything. The workers now know that is not the case. Whatever we say and do has to be grounded in reality.
Will the Taoiseach meet the Blackrock workers?
I have met quite a number of workers. The issue now is how we can try to bring a resolution to this matter and that is not easy.
3. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change will next meet. [23766/20]
4. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change. [25393/20]
5. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee which addresses the environment and climate change will next meet. [25606/20]
6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change will next meet. [25610/20]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 3 to 6, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change was formally established by the Government on 6 July 2020 and had its first meeting on 30 July. It oversees the implementation of the programme for Government commitments in regard to the environment and climate change and receives detailed reports on identified priority areas, including the annual climate action plan. Its initial focus is to oversee the immediate priority areas identified in the programme for Government. These include the climate action (amendment) Bill, the development of a national retrofitting plan, just transition and support for moving to a higher rate of renewable energy. In addition, it considers progress made on the implementation of the current climate action plan.
The next meeting of the Cabinet committee will take place in the near future.
We finally got a legislative programme last week. I was quite disappointed with it on a number of levels. There are issues I raised with the Taoiseach, some of them very sensitive and important, which he did not see fit to include. The programme for Government commits to introducing a climate action Bill within 100 days of the formation of the Government. Will that happen? It is 88 days today since the Government was formed and it is running out of time. It will be a comprehensive Bill and if it is not brought forward next week, the Government will not meet its deadline. I am not sure how seriously this issue is being taken. In the debate on our Sick Leave and Parental Leave (Covid-19) Bill 2020 earlier today, the mantra we heard from three Ministers was that rushed legislation is bad legislation. It seems that the climate action Bill will be a fairly last-minute one.
To which legislation is the Deputy referring?
If the Taoiseach listened, he would know.
Is it the climate change Bill?
I thought the Deputy was talking about the sick pay legislation.
The same mantra that is being used to oppose one Bill is being used to bring in another Bill. The programme for Government commits to an average seven-year reduction in emissions and will define how five-year carbon budgets will be set. It provides that a net emissions target for 2050 will be set out in law. The longer those provisions are delayed, the harder it is going to be to implement them. I believe there will be a delay in getting this done. It is something I strongly support and want to support. I was the person, as Minister, who brought in the initial climate change legislation, making Ireland only the second country in Europe to do so, and I signed up to the Conference of the Parties, COP, on behalf of this country.
When will it be introduced? Will the Taoiseach inform the House on which date in the next two weeks it will be brought in and when it will go to Government?
The Taoiseach has already flagged that carbon tax will increase again this year. How will we ensure fuel poverty is dealt with? Will the Government ensure the fuel allowance is increased? Will it commit to increasing the fuel allowance season? Four extra weeks were granted last year. Will the fuel allowance apply from October to April again this year?
What is the position regarding the just transition group that has been set up? On a personal level, I remind the Taoiseach that Littleton, County Tipperary, is not to be forgotten about as part of that process. The plant there had to close its operation as part of this process as well. The midlands are often talked about where peat production is concerned but Littleton, as I am sure the Taoiseach is aware, is another area that was badly affected. I had to fight to have it included in the just transition work.
I raised the issue of increased utility costs with the Taoiseach earlier this month. During our exchange he gave an undertaking that the Government would engage with Electric Ireland on the matter. I wrote to him subsequently raising the matter again and last week I raised it again to follow up on the outcome of those Government discussions. At that time, the Taoiseach informed me he had passed the matter on to the Minister with responsibility for climate action, communications networks and transport, Deputy Ryan. I wrote to the Minister last week seeking details of the response from Electric Ireland to his discussions but he has yet to respond. I am asking a very simple question and I am at a loss as to why we are going around the houses on this. I ask that the Taoiseach expedite this matter in order that I can have a report on what Electric Ireland said to him because these price hikes are looming in early October.
I have one additional matter to raise. The programme for Government makes a number of commitments in respect of protecting and developing Ireland's biodiversity. The National Biodiversity Data Centre programme was established by the Heritage Council in 2016. Included in its work is the hugely successful all-Ireland pollinator plan. This initiative, with the support of Tidy Towns and the local authorities, has heightened awareness of biodiversity in every community across the island. Despite this, this organisation is not underpinned by legislation and operates with a very uncertain funding framework. Staff on the project have significant knowledge and specialised skill sets. Will the Taoiseach bring the work of the National Biodiversity Data Centre into the Heritage Council and underpin the organisation and its objectives in legislation?
I suspect the suggestion from the Minister with responsibility for climate action, communications networks and transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, that taxi drivers should be removed from bus lanes was some sort of misguided notion about protecting the environment from CO2 emitting vehicles. I have already asked that that proposal be abandoned. I have a positive environmental, climate action proposal to put forward. If the Taoiseach and the Minister, Deputy Ryan, accepted that the ten-year rule for replacing vehicles should be extended to 12 years to avoid financially penalising taxi drivers who might have to replace their taxis, that would also give them time to do something the taxi drivers would very much support, provided the State did it properly and gave them support, namely, electrifying the entire taxi fleet. This has been done in London. There are vehicles that are suitable, although the Government would have to do something about the vehicle registration tax, VRT, and give significant grants. In the interregnum that we have due to new restrictions and Covid, the Government could kill two birds with one stone. We could have a just transition whereby the taxi drivers are not punished by the Government but actually helped through this difficult period, while also using the interregnum to plan for the electrification of the entire taxi fleet. If I had more time, I would talk about the electrification of the bus fleet, which should also be considered. That is a serious proposal whereby the Government could help the taxi drivers who are now in trouble and also plan for the future by reducing CO2 emissions from cars.
I thank the Deputies for their questions. The heads of the climate action (amendment) Bill were approved by Cabinet this week and the legislation is at a fairly advanced stage of drafting. It is quite comprehensive. It will set a target to decarbonise the economy by 2050 at the latest and then make-----
Will it be with us in two weeks?
-----the adoption of five-year carbon budgets, setting maximum emissions by sector, a legal requirement. It will also establish the climate action council on an independent statutory footing and ensure greater gender balance and increased scientific experience and expertise in its membership. The objective is to have the Bill ready and published within 100 days, give or take a day or two.
On the issue of County Tipperary, Deputy Kelly will note that the Minister with responsibility for housing, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, got a €20 million initiative through Cabinet this week for retrofitting in designated local authority housing estates across the midlands and County Tipperary, as well as other counties. Those estates will be identified by the respective local authorities. This is the first significant part of the just transition response and it is needed to energise some of the county councils to develop capacity to deliver retrofitting programmes in their counties. That is something we want to expand more with local authority housing and an expanded programme of retrofitting across the country. A lot of skilling up of personnel will be needed as well to enable them to do that. We also want to create incentives for the private sector to engage in the retrofitting programme.
On utility bills, as Deputy McDonald knows, there is no mystery to how utility bills are devised. The regulator has a key role in that. Very often, the regulator becomes the Government overnight in terms of how issues are presented.
I am a great advocate of the all-Ireland pollinator plan. It does very significant work. I will talk to the Minister about the issues the Deputy has raised around the legislative underpinning of the National Biodiversity Data Centre.
Deputy Boyd Barrett raised issues related to the carbon tax, as did Deputy Kelly. Under the Government's programme, substantial amounts of funding will be raised from the tax over the next decade or so. It will be potentially up to €9.5 billion over a ten-year period. The idea is that €3 billion of that will be available to prevent fuel poverty and ensure a just transition. That will involve the fuel allowance rate and other issues related to that. It will also involve substantial funding for retrofitting and the national retrofit plan. Funding will also be provided for a rural environment protection scheme and a rural environmental plan separate from the Common Agricultural Policy, which will be designed to incentivise farmers on the issue of biodiversity farming practice that would be good for the climate and for protecting biodiversity in the country. While this did not have total agreement, there was agreement on it among parties which were genuinely committed to the environment and getting something done on it. Last year, the increase in the carbon tax raised €90 million which was used to protect the vulnerable. It was also used for the just transition and investing in the low-carbon transition. Also last year, €20 million was spent on the fuel allowance and €13 million on energy poverty efficiency upgrades.
The programme for Government sets out the broad thrust of how we intend to divide up any carbon tax revenue.
We intend to hypothecate it and ring-fence it so the taxpayer is clear that the money raised on a carbon tax will be used for express purposes with a view to achieving our climate change targets while protecting those on low incomes and social protection payments through the fuel allowance and retrofitting, which will give long-term savings to those in local authority housing who would benefit from a good, comprehensive retrofit programme.
To respond to Deputy Boyd Barrett's question on bus lanes, my sense is he has wronged the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and I know this would not be his intention. He has never said that taxis would be barred from bus lanes. He told me he did not know where that suggestion came from. He has met the Irish Taxi Drivers Federation and is anxious to work with it. Some of the issues raised by Deputy Boyd Barrett last week and the week before are matters that are under consideration. The Minister is very disposed to the idea of electrifying, over time, the taxi fleet but this could not happen without the type of supports the Deputy has suggested and identified. One has to work with the industry in pursuing these objectives and aims. The Minister is clear that his engagement with the Irish Taxi Drivers Federation and representatives of taxi drivers will continue on these issues and, in terms of the future, how they can make a contribution to the overall effort to decarbonise the economy itself.
Do not make them replace their cars next year with CO2 emitting cars then. Give them two years. It would be a win-win.
As I have said, I will relay the Deputy's points to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and I am sure the Deputy will also have opportunities to engage with the Minister on these issues. He is a positive individual whose basic objective is to try to bring people on this journey to a cleaner, healthier and better society by meeting our obligations on climate change because it is the existential crisis of our time.
7. Deputy Sorca Clarke asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to elected representatives in the Northern Ireland Assembly following recent statements and actions by the UK Prime Minster on Brexit. [24107/20]
8. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his engagements with political leaders in Northern Ireland. [25028/20]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 and 8 together.
Following my meeting with the Northern Ireland First Minister and deputy First Minister in Belfast on 16 July, I welcomed them and their colleagues in the multi-party Executive to Dublin for the 24th plenary meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council at Dublin Castle on Friday, 31 July, which I chaired. This was the first plenary meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council since November 2016. It provided the new Irish Government and the restored Northern Ireland Executive the opportunity to meet formally for the first time and exchange views on a wide range of issues of mutual concern, including Covid-19 and Brexit.
I took the opportunity to emphasise the Government's full support for preserving and strengthening North-South co-operation and the Government's commitment to ensuring the New Decade, New Approach agreement is implemented in full. I also briefed the council on my plans for a shared island unit in the Department of the Taoiseach.
The Government is focused on working with the Executive through the North-South Ministerial Council to deliver projects that benefit people throughout the island, including greater connectivity between North and South, investing in the north-west region and Border communities and supporting reconciliation as an integral part of the peace process.
I also spoke with the First Minister and deputy First Minister by phone on Wednesday, 9 September, to discuss political developments on Brexit relating to the publication by the United Kingdom Government of the draft internal market Bill. I expressed my deep concern at this development, which is a unilateral attempt to undermine the withdrawal agreement and the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland. This is completely unacceptable and risks seriously eroding and damaging political trust in Northern Ireland in our bilateral relations and between the United Kingdom and the European Union.
I have also discussed these issues by phone with Colum Eastwood, the leader of the SDLP. I have also indicated that I will work with all leaders of other political parties. I received an invitation to a meeting and we are endeavouring to organise or schedule that, or some mechanism by which I can talk to each individual leader again on these issues.
We also discussed the practical impact of Brexit for Ireland and Northern Ireland and I assured them of my ongoing commitment to working with them to advance prosperity on this island.
We all listened with deep concern and almost bewilderment as the British Prime Minister announced he was going to rip up his own agreement, which had been approved by his own Parliament, and then breach international law and introduce new legislation to override key parts of the withdrawal agreement relating to the North, legislation that would directly violate the Brexit deal signed only last year and give British Ministers powers to disapply elements of the rules of their own choosing.
I understand the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade is to meet parties in the North tomorrow, including my colleague, Michelle O'Neill. Meetings such as this are exceptionally important and I hope it will be a productive and helpful incentive for all.
There is no doubt that Downing Street is actively pursuing a path of betrayal by reneging on what has already been agreed and inflicting potentially irreversible harm on the North's economy, undermining the power-sharing administration and the Good Friday Agreement.
The Taoiseach listed the names of some of the party leaders in the North with whom he had spoken. Has he specifically spoken with the DUP leader regarding the comments she made that her party will also work to try to change the protocol included in the withdrawal agreement? The Government's priorities must be to avoid any border on the island of Ireland, protect our peace process and the Good Friday Agreement and work on an all-Ireland economy basis.
This is a critical time for a range of issues, not just Brexit but also Covid-19, so the necessity for co-operation is at an all-time high because of what we are all facing. We have consistently called for a new Ireland forum to examine these issues. To cut straight to the chase, the Taoiseach spoke about telling our colleagues in Northern Ireland about the shared island unit in the Department. What details did he go into with them? We do not have a huge amount of detail ourselves so it would be interesting to know what details the Taoiseach went into with them.
With regard to the withdrawal agreement and Arlene Foster, there was a bit of a schemozzle between the First Minister and some of her colleagues when she said she recognised the reality of the withdrawal agreement and then Sammy Wilson came out and said the complete opposite. In the Taoiseach's engagement with Ms Foster, what was the outcome of those discussions as regards where she was going to go on this at that juncture? Obviously she was going in a certain direction, recognising the "reality" of the withdrawal agreement, but was then perhaps overtaken by other comments and other political possibilities or realities.
In the Taoiseach's engagements with representatives of the assembly he should consider engaging with our MLA, Gerry Carroll. People Before Profit in the North and South brings a unique perspective that goes back to Connolly and Wolfe Tone on the possibility of uniting Catholic, Protestant and dissenter in a project to fight for a different type of Ireland. If we look at the reckless behaviour of Boris Johnson and, for that matter, Arlene Foster, with the health and economic welfare of the North, there has never been a more opportune time to begin to break the grip of unionism and argue for the unity of Catholic, Protestant and dissenter in a fight for a different type of Ireland.
Gerry Carroll would tell the Taoiseach that if we are to make that case, and we should, to unite working people for a different project and end partition, we also need to tackle the legacies of what Connolly called the carnival of reaction down here. They are manifest. I mentioned the case of St. Mary's Centre, or the Telford Centre, whereby religious organisations are turfing vulnerable disabled women out of nursing homes and social housing.
In the past week, I heard the religious order in St. Laurence College, Ballybrack, is selling off the playing fields of a publicly funded school, similar to what happened in Clonkeen College with the Christian Brothers. If one was in the North, beginning to question unionism and loyalty to the likes of Boris Johnson, one's questioning would be checked if one looked down South and still saw the rule of religious organisations, taking facilities away from school kids, as well as elderly and disabled women, while the State allowed it to happen.
If we are going to fight for a united Republic and end partition, surely we have to be seen to take the lead on matters like separating Church and State to show we are a progressive and modern Republic and, in my opinion, trying to fight for a socialist Republic which James Connolly, whose statue is behind me in this House, argued we should do many years ago.
In my discussions with the First Minister and the deputy First Minister on the internal market Bill, my objective is to protect the interests of the citizens of this island in the context of the future relationship between the United Kingdom and the European Union. Notwithstanding if somebody was pro-Brexit or pro-remain, everyone shares a pragmatic view that the least damage possible should be done to workers, employers, the economy and the social fabric of this island as a result of Brexit. The ultimate deal between the UK and the European Union does matter in terms of the well-being of people for the long-term on this island. That is what informs my response.
It has informed my response to the unacceptable behaviour of the British Government in coming forward with the internal market Bill and notwithstanding its new-found alleged concerns about aspects of the Northern Ireland protocol and withdrawal agreement, which I do not accept. Those concerns could easily have been resolved in the context of the joint committee set up especially between the EU and UK to deal with the practicalities of working out the Northern Ireland protocol. Some progress had been made on that already in the context of funding being provided for customs and facilities in the North in terms of declarations, sanitary and phytosanitary checks and all of that.
The European Union is very clear that it does not want to fall into any preordained strategy or react in a knee-jerk way. It will remain firm on the fundamentals, however. The joint committee met and there has been engagement between the European Union and the United Kingdom on this issue. It has not been resolved, however. I made very clear to the British Prime Minister - as has the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Coveney, to his counterpart - the Government's position on this. While the British Government's response is contradictory to the reality of the Bill, it is adamant that it does not want to affect, in any shape or form, the seamless interaction of goods and services between the North and the South. It does not want to create any situation that would erect any barriers on that front. On the broad thrust of the withdrawal agreement, it is still asserting that it is committed to its implementation.
There is a distance to go yet. It really boils down to whether the British Government wants to do a deal. The European Union will do a deal but it has to be a fair one, based on resolving the state aid issue, which could be resolved, governance structures around any future trade agreement and ensuring adherence to commitments. Obviously, the decision of the British Government to introduce this Bill has eroded trust with those it is negotiating with, including ourselves.
The First Minister and deputy First Minister are aware of the implications of all this for the North and the island as a whole. I have always been of the view that we should engage with the reality of what is before us. People voted for Brexit. We are not going to undo Brexit in the short term. Our objective is to protect the livelihoods of people on this island. That is what we will do in the next budget, based on a no-deal Brexit. We hope that is proven wrong. We are telling businesses to prepare for a no-deal Brexit and in any event to prepare for customs and the need for declarations, even if we have a basic free trade agreement without tariffs or quotas.
I have apprised them of the principles behind the shared island unit. There was a good series of articles recently in The Irish Times around the whole theme. The unit has been established and we are beefing it up with new people being recruited and deployed. It will be involved in a number of different strands of work. Some will be commissioning research and some will be outreaching and engaging in dialogue with different perspectives and people from different backgrounds, irrespective of their views on constitutional or political issues, to see how we can share this island in a better and more effective way across many fronts into the future. There is rich potential for us to do that.
I have no difficulty with meeting with Deputy Boyd Barrett's MLA in order to get his perspective. I accept the Deputy's long-standing commitment to a non-sectarian view of how the island should develop.
Our education system is evolving too. There is far greater State involvement in our education system now than there would have been previously. Religious orders played a significant role historically in the evolution and development of our education system and continue to do so. It was a Fianna Fáil Minister, the late Paddy Hillery, who brought in comprehensive and community schools. Mary Hanafin brought in the State primary school system that was originally run by the voluntary education committees.
I take the Deputy's point that some service providers have capacity issues both in education and health. I favour a stronger State input in health, social services and education. That said, we have a pluralist system in education whereby we have different patrons, the Catholic Church, the Church of Ireland and other denominations, as well as Educate Together and Gaelscoileanna. Our view has been to facilitate different patrons to set up schools and give choice to parents, insofar as is practical, in given locations.