Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Local Government Fund

I spent 11 years as a councillor. We have many fine Sinn Féin councillors in Cork. I know what I am saying when I say that Cork City Council is on its knees financially and needs Government support. Cork City Council has a budget deficit of €2.5 million, excluding the rates deficit. Without support from central government, ordinary people and families will lose out yet again at the hands of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael. Those parties are only too happy to bail out banks and big business, but not local authorities.

The Government has failed to support local authorities and now Cork City Council has been forced into proposing a rent increase for those in social housing who are some of the most vulnerable people in Cork and also major budget cuts for housing maintenance and other services. Will the Government help by bailing out local authorities the way the Minister of State's party bailed out the banks?

Bhuail mé Dé Luain le bord bainistíochta Chomhairle Chontae Chiarraí agus dúirt sé go bhfuil stádas an bhuiséid go dona ar fad i gCiarraí. Is contae ar an imeall é Ciarraí, le trí leithinis, agus tá an méid is mó bóithre nach príomhbhóithre iad sa Stát ann. All Deputies from the county met officials from Kerry County Council on Monday. As the Minister of State will know, Kerry is a county with a high degree of peripherality. It is also hamstrung by three peninsulas with regard to services. It has most non-national roads in the State per head of population and the fifth highest housing stock in the State. A special intervention is necessary to make up the €13 million or €14 million shortfall in next year's budget. What are called discretionary services, such as lighting, roads and disabled grants for people's houses, will be cut without a special intervention.

It will be no surprise that I will talk about Mayo County Council and the people of Mayo. The estimated 2021 Covid impact is €7.2 million, which represents 68% of the €10.6 million discretionary spend which will trigger severe austerity unless the gap is filled. This will affect local roads in one of the largest counties in the country. We need to remember that people are already paying property tax. Many of them do not have proper access to their houses. Issues relating to housing maintenance will impact particularly on the elderly, the most vulnerable and the disabled. We need to step in now. I ask the Minister of State to step in to support these people given the financial impact of Covid on Mayo County Council.

As the Minister of State will be aware, my constituency is a very rural one. In recent years, even Sligo County Council has been unable to help people out and pay housing grants that are normally supplied in most councils because it has no discretionary fund in place. Leitrim County Council is in a similar position and is under serious pressure, as are all rural local authorities. The reality is that 80% of the fund the Government gives to local authorities must be used for items that are already earmarked. Therefore, there they have very little discretion in spending that fund. I spoke to the chief executive officer of Leitrim County Council earlier today. He told me that in his estimation the local authorities would need to get an increase of €300 million in next year's budget and probably a further €200 million in the following year to deal with the crisis they are facing now.

This crisis has come about because many of the businesses from which they need to get rates are unable to pay those rates because they are not in business due to Covid. In addition, many people in local authority housing are really stretched to pay their rents. Many people also need other business services but they cannot get any money from them. Even parking charges in towns are not bringing in money. The Minister of State will understand that this is a real crisis. I would appreciate if the Government would make a real effort to try to deal with it.

I ask Deputy Gould to reflect on his political history because my party did not bail out the banks. He should get his facts right before commencing this debate.

I thank the Deputies for giving me the opportunity to speak on the importance of local authority funding and on the ongoing impact of Covid-19 on local authorities, and in particular their finances. The challenges are common across the local government sector, notwithstanding the differences between urban and rural authorities in scale and sources of funding. I addressed some of these issues in the House as recently as last night, and while there have been no significant developments overnight, I welcome the chance to hear Deputies directly on the financial issues.

I want to reassure the House that my Department and I are continuing to make the case for the local government sector in the context of budget. In this regard, the Department is engaging intensively with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform on the financial challenges facing local authorities as a direct consequence of the pandemic, both in terms of additional costs incurred as part of the strong local government response, and declines in local authority income streams. These matters are under active discussion.

My Department is also working closely with the local government sector on these financial issues to secure additional support for local authorities and to ensure that any additional resources that may be available are appropriately targeted where they are most needed. It is my intention, as part of this process, to ensure that local authorities, particularly those that suffered the impacts of the previous economic downturn most acutely, can recover as quickly as possible in order to drive local economic activity, and avoid significant deficits and additional debt as a consequence of the Covid-19 pandemic.

In this regard, it is also important to recognise the role of elected members in the financial affairs of local authorities. The adoption of a balanced budget is probably the single most important duty that elected members are called upon to carry out each year. I fully recognise that this process is likely to require tough decisions by elected councils in the coming weeks. While the Government is keen to support the local government sector and is working towards that end in the context of the forthcoming budget, it is important to reflect on the role of elected local authority members, who are best placed to determine the spending priorities in their respective counties.

This is also a reserved function and local authorities must balance those priorities against available resources. To achieve that balance, the elected members must make informed and necessary choices to balance the level of service provision with the available income. In advance of budget 2021, I note that 22 of the local authorities throughout the country have opted to vary their local property tax, LPT, upwards while only three have opted to vary it downwards. Arising from these variation decisions, the local authority sector will gain an additional €11.5 million from LPT next year compared with 2020. The elected members will now have to make decisions on how to balance the expenditure element of budget 2021 in line with the increase in LPT income. Some authorities have already indicated to me that, in the event of the pandemic remaining a national issue in the medium term, it will be extremely difficult to present members with a balanced budget given the negative impact on certain services and income streams and also the increased expenditure required across an array of different services. Notwithstanding that, the adoption of a balanced budget remains a requirement and I am confident that elected councils throughout the country will rise to the challenge and meet the requirements over the course of November.

I will clarify something that the Minister of State perhaps does not know or has forgotten. Was it not a Minister from his party who gave banks 20 years tax-free on their profits? Perhaps I am wrong but I do not think so. The Minister of State can check that out. Cork City Council has increased the local property tax by 7.5% which should bring in an additional €1.5 million but there will still be a shortfall of €2.5 million. The question for the Minister of State and the Government is whether they will betray local authorities this year, as they have done for years. There have been no traffic calming measures in Cork city for the past seven or eight years due to the lack of funding from central government. That is only one of a list of issues. Are we going to close libraries and cut back funding for parks and playgrounds? The Minister of State has a lot of questions to answer.

I am disappointed there are not any concrete proposals but I hope that next week there will be something extra in the budget for local authorities. I hope this does not go the way of the local authorities in England where Tory cuts and a lack of central government funding have been a disaster. Kerry County Council has been attempting to drive the local economy. It has been applying to establish walkways and greenways to give people hope that tourism will come back in greater numbers because it is so vital to the county. Funding of €11.5 million to be shared among local authorities is unfortunately of no use to County Kerry when it will have a €13 million or €14 million shortfall this year.

I am disappointed with the Minister of State's answer. We cannot lay this issue at the feet of elected members of county councils. They cannot manage the austerity that is being imposed upon them and nor can the people whom the Government is trying to get to empty their pockets again. These are people who have lost their jobs during the pandemic and are already suffering severe financial stress. We cannot go back to them and ask for more. It is completely unfair for the Minister of State to argue that the solution is to increase the property tax. We will certainly not agree to that. I ask the Minister of State to rethink this and value the services provided by local authorities.

I noted the Minister of State indicated the Department was working closely with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to face up to these financial challenges. I understand the pressure that always has to be put on to try get the money in place for the local authorities. However, the reality for many people, as well as the workers and executives in the local authorities, is that they are trying to do their best to manage with a budget which is inadequate. To say it will be up to public representatives and councillors around the country to try to balance the books is almost to slip into something which does not make any sense to anyone. The problem is not that local authorities cannot balance the books but that they will not have enough money to pay for the services they need to provide.

Having been a county councillor for almost two terms, I am acutely aware of the challenges local authorities face. Perhaps the Deputies did not hear me correctly. I said we would engage intensively with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform in the days leading to next week's budget. We are very clear about the serious circumstances that have befallen our society and the local authority sector and we are working hard to try to alleviate those matters. That is why we allocated €600 million for a rates waiver to the local authority sector. We were there to ensure that businesses could get support during this key period when this pandemic is presenting huge challenges to our society.

On the local property tax, I was only outlining what some local authorities have considered to increase their income streams. I am very clear that local authorities have seen an absolute collapse in their goods and services income, that rates income and the ability to collect rates will be under significant pressure and that the Government will do everything we can to support the local authority sector. I am also very clear that in my role I will be a very strong advocate for that sector because it has shown outstanding resilience in the face of adversity in recent years. As I mentioned last night, the community call to respond to Covid-19 was commenced in a number of days to meet that challenge for our elderly and vulnerable people. We have also seen the response of the sector to the various weather emergencies of recent times. I can guarantee Deputies I will work very hard over the next number of days to ensure local authorities will have support because they need it. We will be very clear on that and I will not be found wanting in that regard.

House Purchase Schemes

The Minster with responsibility for housing, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is very focused on delivering affordable housing schemes in key urban areas. As the Minster of State shares a constituency with me, he will be very aware of the need for a similar scheme in six or seven counties, namely, a sustainable house-building programme. County Longford will obviously be one of those. The average price for a standard three-bedroom, semi-detached starter home should be €229,000 whereas the average price of a house sold locally is only €122,000. The reason is that it is not commercially viable for builders to build houses in these counties at the moment. In County Longford it has been almost 12 years since we last had a three-bedroom, semi-detached house built commercially. In the intervening 12 years, the local authority estimates it has turned down more than 500 applicants for social housing on the basis that their income has exceeded the threshold. That means they earn too much to qualify for social housing supports yet they will be unable, in all likelihood, to secure mortgages. I am working with countless couples in such a bind. They are working hard, trying to save for a deposit for a house that will not, in all likelihood, materialise because the supply simply is not there.

Just 140 houses were built in County Longford last year and more than half of those were for social housing. I appreciate that we got things wrong in the noughties when nearly 4,000 houses were built in the county in the four years to 2007. Post-2008, a first-rate team from Longford County Council's engineering department rehabilitated many of these ghost estates and today the local authority housing stock is supplemented by an additional 1,000 houses through leasing and rental support schemes. The housing sector in County Longford and other socioeconomically similar areas needs a cautious and measured intervention. I earnestly hope the Department can roll out such a sustainable house-building programme. Ideally, I envisage the State, through the local authority, providing up to €60,000 of the €229,000 cost of a starter home, which I mentioned, and the applicants could in turn raise their mortgage through the Rebuilding Ireland scheme. This is the type of measured, assured and cautious intervention that will ultimately reinvigorate provincial Ireland.

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue we face in society. The Government is absolutely focused on ensuring affordable, quality housing solutions are available to everyone in society and this is reflected in the Programme for Government: Our Shared Future. The programme commits to putting affordability at the heart of the housing system through the progression of State-backed affordable housing. This is a key priority of the Minister and since taking office, he has reviewed the situation on the ground with regard to supply, progress to date across affordability measures and options for the expansion of affordable housing delivery.

The statutory basis for the delivery of affordable housing for purchase in the State is Part V of the Housing (Miscellaneous Provisions) Act 2009, which was commenced in June 2018. A total of €310 million has been made available under the serviced sites fund to support the delivery of affordable homes by local authorities for purchase under the scheme. The fund subvents the cost of facilitating infrastructure and a maximum funding amount of €50,000 is available per home. On this basis, at least 6,200 more affordable homes to buy or rent can be facilitated by this measure alone. To date, funding of €127 million has been approved in principle to provide infrastructural works and it will support 35 projects delivering 3,200 homes and 14 local authorities.

Serviced sites funding targets affordable interventions in areas where housing affordability is demonstrated as a challenge. To identify this, all local authorities were invited to complete financial economic assessments to confirm whether the provision of affordable homes was required and economically viable. Local authorities were also asked to assess housing affordability more generally within their areas. I advise the Deputy that Longford County Council did not submit an economic case for assessment to the Department at the time. This indicates the local authority did not identify a housing affordability issue in the county at that time. It is incumbent on the Government that funds are directed to and utilised where demand is greatest and where there is a clearly identified need and the potential for delivery under the scheme.

In preparing to reply to this topical debate I looked at new house prices in Longford on It indicates that of the 263 properties for sale in the county 143 of them, or 54%, have an asking price of less than €200,000 and a significant number of these have prices below €100,000. CSO data shows the emergence of a significant new build premium in the home purchase market. In the 12 months to June 2020, the difference between the median sale price of new and existing homes was €104,000, or 44% higher for new properties at national level. It is evident that many prospective purchasers in Longford are choosing to buy homes from existing housing stock rather than paying a new home premium. Notwithstanding the fact that the new build home price quoted by the Deputy would be considered achievable for moderate income earners, I acknowledge there may be challenges for some in purchasing a home in Longford. To support such households, other measures, such as a help to buy scheme and the Rebuilding Ireland home loan, are also available to eligible purchasers. Nationally, to make up the ownership and make it more affordable, as part of the €7 billion July stimulus plan an enhanced version of the help to buy scheme was announced. This will allow first-time buyers purchasing a newly built home or building one themselves to claim back up to €30,000 paid in income tax or DIRT and bank deposit interest over the past four years.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Burke, for the comprehensive overview and I emphasise the issue in Longford is not an affordability one but a sustainability one because we simply cannot get builders to come forward to build houses because it is not commercially viable. For decades to come, we will probably reflect on the Covid-19 period as a watershed moment and it will very much be a case of before and after. One of the biggest shifts certainly has been in lifestyle choices and where people choose to live. If we want to make it easier for couples and families to live in County Longford as it stands we simply do not have the housing stock to fulfil that aspiration. Coming from the same constituency as I do, the Minister of State will comprehend the viability challenge that exists for builders, and if it is a case that we can tweak the existing affordability scheme to foster sustainable house building in counties such as Longford then it will be a major breakthrough in terms of re-energising rural communities and provincial towns.

I will ensure the issue of new build viability is examined more, including the provision of serviced sites for local authorities in towns and villages. I thank the Deputy for taking the time to table the issue, which affects so many people in our society and country. To reiterate, I assure him of the firm commitment in the programme for government on affordable housing. I can confirm that housing and its affordability for local populations will be kept under review. The Minister, Deputy O'Brien, has confirmed to the House his intention to outline his detailed plans for affordable housing in the near future. I know the Deputy has also met him in this regard.

The programme for government has a range of measures and targets specifically in the area of affordability in the housing market through the lifetime of the Government and we envisage that these will be realised.

Industrial Disputes

I thank the Minister for Education and Skills for joining us. As she is aware, the Fórsa Trade Union school secretary branch, which represents more than 1,000 school secretaries in primary and secondary schools nationwide, has indicated that notice of industrial action will be served shortly to more than 1,000 individual schools and the Department of Education and Skills. School secretaries will hold three one day work stoppages on Friday, 23 October, Monday, 2 November, and Friday, 13 November, followed by an indefinite strike commencing on Monday, 16 November. The continuing dispute with the Department is due to a long-standing two tier pay system that leaves most school secretaries earning just €12,500 a year with irregular short-term contracts that force them to sign on during the summer holidays and the school breaks.

I was very disappointed to find out that last week at the Workplace Relations Commission, the Department of Education and Skills failed to engage in the substantial issues of the claim in terms of pay regularisation and terms and conditions. The fact that school secretaries, many of whom earn just €12,500 a year, are completely undervalued in terms of the work they do means they will take this action. It is unfortunate but I absolutely back them as they endeavour on this path. There is still time to resolve the issue. What occurred at the Workplace Relations Commission last week was very unfortunate. If we can get in front of the issue we have to do so.

I note the change in direction is a departure from the Fianna Fáil and Green Party manifestoes, which committed the parties to ending the two tier system. More surprisingly, it is also a change in direction from what was communicated by the Minister's predecessor. He committed to using the workplace relations mechanism to address the unfairness experienced by school secretaries throughout Ireland.

I am very conscious we are in the midst of a pandemic and I fully appreciate that the school secretaries to whom I have spoken do not take this decision lightly but they are no longer willing to be undervalued and underappreciated. I hope that if this does come to pass we will not simply dismiss their claim and tell them they should have waited until the pandemic is over. They have waited an incredibly long time. These are people who have very scant access to sick pay, maternity pay or secure employment. At present, in schools throughout the country they are the people who are the first port of call telling children to make sure their hands are sterilised. They were carrying tables around schools ensuring they were all set up. They are invaluable to the working of a school. If they have to take industrial action nobody will cross those pickets. This will mean our schools will close, which places everybody in jeopardy because we need to keep them open. How has the Department committed, or how will it commit, to addressing this issue using the workplace mechanisms already at its disposal? It requires immediate leadership.

I thank the Deputy. I am keenly aware of the vital role contributed by school secretaries in our school communities. I absolutely recognise the very important work carried out by these staff and other support staff in the running of our schools. I have met Fórsa, which represents many of the secretaries working in our schools.

In recognition of their valuable role in our schools I have put in place special arrangements for the coming year, whereby schools will be funded to employ a replacement secretary or caretaker in the event that staff who are at very high risk of contracting serious illness from Covid-19 cannot work on the school premises.

I have also extended the employment assistance scheme towards school staff including secretaries. The majority of primary and voluntary secondary schools receive assistance to provide for secretarial, caretaking and cleaning services under grant schemes. Where a school employs a staff member to support those functions, those staff are employees of individual schools and responsibility for terms of employment actually rests with the schools.

On foot of a chairman's note to the Lansdowne Road agreement, my Department implemented the 2015 recommendations of an independent arbitrator. The arbitrator recommended a cumulative pay increase of 10% between 2016 and 2019 and that a minimum hourly pay rate of €13 be phased in over that period. Last year, the trade union, Fórsa, tabled a follow-on claim from the 2015 agreement. Officials from my Department and the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, as well as school management bodies, are currently in discussions with Fórsa under the auspices of the Workplace Relations Commission.

I must remain cognisant of the implications arising from this claim across the wider education and public sector. An offer of a pay increase was made to Fórsa at a recent Workplace Relations Commission meeting but this was not acceptable to the union. The Workplace Relations Commission process remains ongoing.

In the current circumstances, Fórsa's intention to resume strike action later this month is regrettable. Any such action will impact on the day-to-day operation of schools at this most critical time. It could further disrupt tuition for students who have only recently returned to school after a six-month gap.

On the pay offer that was made, at a meeting of the Workplace Relations Commission last week, the Department repeated an offer of a previous 1.5% increase per annum which the union had previously and rightly rejected. Department officials said they could not agree to a Labour Court referral, despite a commitment made by the former Minister last year. It is not fair to tell school secretaries who are living off €12,500 a year that they should wait until the pandemic is over when they have been involved in this dispute since long before it began. That is manipulating the situation to the benefit of the State. It is unfortunate that this has been done.

Will the Minister do what her predecessor had already agreed? Will she use the mechanisms of the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court to address this issue with Fórsa? Given how valuable school secretaries are to the day-to-day running of schools, their action will have more support than we imagine. In three weeks' time, I imagine all the education spokespeople will be back here but they will be a little more vociferous in asking how such action was allowed to happen.

Will the Minister use the Workplace Relations Commission mechanisms that are already in place? The behaviour of her officials last week in the commission was unfortunate and quite insulting. It was a turning of the ship from what had already been agreed to. We need to get in front of this because the disrespect that has been shown to school secretaries, who have been asked to live off a wage none of us would ever agree to, is dismissive. I do not mean shown by the Minister personally but by the Department. I appeal to the Minister to demonstrate the leadership required to address this issue before the schools have to close.

Officials in the Department of Education and Skills have engaged with Fórsa throughout this process and remain committed to the ongoing process taking place under the auspices of the Workplace Relations Commission. It is disappointing that in circumstances where talks are actually ongoing, the union has moved to industrial action, which will impact on the day-to-day operation of schools at this most critical time.

On the matter of the Labour Court referral raised at the recent Workplace Relations Commission meeting, I must point out in the interest of fairness that several technical issues exist in respect of such a referral, as neither the Department nor the management bodies are the employers of the staff in question.

I thank the Deputy for raising these points.

Northern Ireland

I greatly appreciate the opportunity to raise this issue today and I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, for coming to the House.

This week the House of Commons intelligence and security committee released a report on the risk of terrorism in Northern Ireland. The report found that a hard border would be highly likely to lead to an increase in terrorist attacks and any border structure would be a target for such attacks. That is no surprise to the Minister of State, me or anyone who has been following discussions on Brexit over the past few years.

Today, we saw further evidence before the House of Commons Northern Irish affairs committee where academics have once again stressed the point made previously by the former US Senator George Mitchell, former Taoiseach, Bertie Ahern and many others.

The report rates a threat of violence from dissident republicans as severe with the New IRA the most widespread dissident republican group. This is a worrying fact on many fronts. It is worrying for people who will be affected by these attacks, the families who will be torn apart by such violence and for those people on both sides of the Border who have lived in relative peace for over 20 years.

This past summer we saw excellent work by An Garda Síochána which contributed to the arrest by the PSNI of nine members of the New IRA. These arrests led to sentencing of the effective army council of the New IRA. While this is welcome, it is quite clear the threat has not gone away. As per the report laid before the committee in Westminster earlier this week, we see an increasing amount of co-operation between the leadership and membership of the New IRA and the Continuity IRA. While many people once referred to these dissident republican terrorists as disparate criminal gangs working sometimes against each other, this new level of co-ordination should not be taken for granted. Any hard border could be used as a recruitment tactic for these groups, preying on disenfranchised youths on both sides of the Border and fanning the flames of anger and violence which have been diminishing since the Good Friday Agreement.

Dissident threats lie on both sides of the political divide. In this report, there is a worrying reference to loyalist paramilitary activity increasing, particularly around certain parts of Belfast. It does not really matter where it happens on this island. It is a concern for the Government and the agents of the State regardless.

We have been lucky to have such widespread support from our European colleagues to ensure there is no hardening of the Border on this island. However, we cannot pretend that threat has not gone away. With the UK's Internal Market Bill, we see the risk to the withdrawal agreement and the protocol that were designed to protect the Good Friday Agreement and to ensure the Border remains seamless. We have to be extremely aware that any further efforts to diminish that withdrawal agreement and undermine those protocols could provide opportunities to which we need to be alert.

What supports are being given? What response has the Government to these two reports laid before the relevant committees in Westminster this week?

On behalf of my colleague, the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy McEntee, I thank Deputy Richmond for raising this important matter.

Tackling the threat posed by dissident paramilitary groups which seek to undermine peace on our island continues to be a priority for the Minister for Justice and Equality and for the Government. There are, of course, ongoing reviews of the threat assessment arising from the activities of these groups. The Minister is kept informed of the threat assessment in this regard by the Garda Commissioner.

The security assessment of the terrorist threat level in Northern Ireland is classed as severe. The dissident paramilitary groups continue to focus their efforts primarily on targeting members of the security forces in Northern Ireland. I note that earlier this week, the UK's intelligence and security committee published a report on terrorism in Northern Ireland which underlined the ongoing challenge from dissident republicans. While the threat of attack from these groups here is generally considered to be low, they still present a real and persistent threat, carrying out fundraising and planning preparatory activities to support attacks in Northern Ireland.

The authorities here are taking and will continue to take all necessary and appropriate measures to counteract the threat from dissident republicans. In the context of Brexit, a primary concern for the Minister for Justice and Equality is security matters. The Minister is committed to working to ensure there is no diminution in the security relationship which exists with regard to subversive threat.

An Garda Síochána and the PSNI remain committed to working closely together to ensure the two services will continue to protect the safety of all of those on this island. This operational relationship is absolutely central to bearing down on and disrupting the activities of these groups and, therefore, to maintaining security across the island. Examples of the close co-operation are seen on a continuing basis with co-ordinated action taken in both jurisdictions in response to specific threats. Another aspect of tackling dissident paramilitaries is to disrupt the criminal activity and associations that are the main source of funding for these dissident groups.

The joint agency task force is a positive example of the extensive North-South co-operation undertaken between the police and other law enforcement agencies aimed at tackling crime and enhancing the safety of all communities on this island. This task force is led by senior officers from An Garda Síochána, the Police Service of Northern Ireland, PSNI, the Revenue Commissioners and Her Majesty’s Revenue and Customs. A number of other relevant bodies including the National Crime Agency and the Criminal Assets Bureau are also involved in operational activity. The objective of this task force is to build on existing law enforcement frameworks and to increase the collective effectiveness of operational law enforcement actions on this island.

I thank the Minister for his fulsome response and I welcome the comments made therein. I raised this issue earlier today at the Committee on European Union Affairs when the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Simon Coveney, was giving us an update on Brexit negotiations and preparation. I welcome the statement by the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Helen McEntee, yesterday at the Committee on Justice that a number of measures in the Department of Justice and Equality will be included in the Brexit omnibus legislation to come shortly before the House.

Regardless of what happens with Brexit, and we are at a delicate part of that process, it is vital we have that level of co-operation between An Garda Síochána, the PSNI and the relevant agencies. I welcome the Minister of State’s closing statement in that regard. That co-operation has been vital to maintaining the security of the State. We cannot take it for granted and we have to make sure, first and foremost, that the resources are provided to An Garda Síochána throughout the Border region and in the relevant sections and Departments that the Minister of State outlined to ensure they can continue to do their job as effectively as possible. We may not be as worried in this jurisdiction but when the threat of dissident paramilitary violence is ranked as severe in Northern Ireland, that is a threat to every person on this island.

Let us not pretend these dissidents are misunderstood freedom fighters. They are, as the Minister of State rightly said, subversives, regardless of what political badge they try to put on, loyalist, republican or otherwise. They do not value the importance of life in this State, they do not respect law and order or the people of this island, regardless of what border we may put there. We need to call them out and ensure An Garda Síochána and every other agency in the State is tooled up and able to direct its full resources. I appreciate An Garda Síochána is stretched at the moment and we thank Garda members for their continued efforts in dealing with pandemic but it is the Minister of State’s responsibility and that of the Minister, Deputy McEntee, to ensure the spectre of paramilitary violence is not let return to this island.

The Deputy makes some important and timely points. I assure the House that An Garda Síochána and its partners in Northern Ireland and the UK will continue to work closely together to tackle the scourge of dissident paramilitary actions. The close co-operation between police services on both sides of the Border has been a key element of policing for some time and Commissioner Harris and Chief Constable Simon Byrne are in regular contact in this regard. The Minister for Justice and Equality is working to ensure the existing excellent level of co-operation between An Garda Síochána and the PSNI is not undermined by Brexit.

It is recognized that Brexit may provide significant opportunities for subversives in Northern Ireland to increase their activities and take advantage of the situation. As the UK’s Intelligence and Security Committee notes, dissident republicans are actively seeking recruitment of young people, with the report noting that low socioeconomic areas proved to be fertile recruiting ground. The Independent Reporting Commission has highlighted in its report that countering dissidents requires a twin-track approach comprising a policing and justice response side-by-side with a comprehensive socioeconomic response addressing the systemic issues facing communities where the paramilitaries operate. The Minister subscribes to this view and supports the valuable work of the commission.