Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

I am sure the Taoiseach will join with me in sending our sympathies to the Palestinian people on the loss of Saeb Erekat, secretary general of the Palestine Liberation Organization, who died this morning. He was a great advocate for peace, stability and a homeland for the Palestinian people. The world is a poorer place for the loss of him.

Joe Biden was elected as the next President of the United States on Saturday last. Mr. Biden's election is good for Ireland in many ways. He is, as we know, proud of his Irish roots and he is, without doubt, a long-standing friend of Ireland. During the presidential election campaign and throughout his time in office, he has acted to promote and protect peace, progress and the Good Friday Agreement. He comes to the office of President at a time of threat from the British Government, with both Brexit and the refusal to honour agreements looming large. The President-elect and both parties in Congress have made clear that there will be no trade agreement with Britain unless the Good Friday Agreement is safeguarded in all of its parts.

The election of Joe Biden has, I believe, the potential to reshape the nature of the Brexit negotiation, particularly with regard to the aggressive and arrogant approach taken by the Tory Government and Boris Johnson to Irish interests. Throughout this process, Tories have actively sought to undermine the Good Friday Agreement and, most recently, Mr. Johnson has played a reckless game by using as a bargaining chip the protection secured for Ireland as part of the withdrawal agreement. Central to this game-playing has been Mr. Johnson's dangerous Internal Market Bill. The latter undermines protections that are absolutely vital to ensuring there will be no reimposition of a hard border on our island, safeguarding the all-island economy and protecting the Good Friday Agreement and our hard-won peace. The recklessness of this Bill is such that even the House of Lords last night voted to strip out powers that would allow Tory Ministers to break international law.

Instead of preparing for an end to the transition period, Mr. Johnson used the smoke and mirrors of this Bill to sow confusion and mistrust in negotiations. Perhaps this was an effort to buy time to see where the chips landed in the US election. Now that election is over and in President-elect Biden, Ireland and the EU negotiating team have a very formidable ally, one who has already impressed upon the British Prime Minister that playing fast and loose with the future of this island simply will not be tolerated. It is time for Mr. Johnson to realise that the best way forward for all of us, including Britain, is to engage in what remains of negotiations in good faith, to respect international law and their agreements. A very necessary first step is that the British Government drop its dangerous internal market Bill.

Throughout the Brexit process, it has been critical to defending Ireland's interests that we have spoken as one. I believe this unified approach in the Dáil has yielded much success and I believe this is how we must proceed as we enter the Brexit endgame because the decisions made in the closing stages of negotiations will have ramifications for years, indeed, for generations, to come. I ask the Taoiseach, therefore, how he plans to work on a cross-party all-of-the-Oireachtas basis over these coming crucial weeks.

I thank the Deputy for raising this issue and for her remarks, and also for the point about unity of purpose across all parties in this House on the crucial issue of Brexit, which I welcome very much indeed. I also take the opportunity to join with the Deputy in expressing our sympathies to the family of the Secretary General of the PLO on his recent passing. I share that sympathy with all in that organisation and those of his loved ones.

We are particularly pleased that President-elect Joe Biden has won the confidence of the American people. It is an outstanding personal mandate - the largest ever in the history of US presidential elections. It is fair to say he is the most Irish of Irish-American presidents since John F. Kennedy. During the campaign, he nailed his colours to the mast in terms of his absolute commitment to the Good Friday Agreement and to the upholding of the Good Friday Agreement, and to his resistance to any measures, mechanisms or developments that would undermine the Good Friday Agreement and peace on the island of Ireland.

In the context of Brexit, fundamentally the negotiations that have been under way for quite some time between the EU and the United Kingdom are ones that, in our view, must yield a sensible outcome, which is a comprehensive free trade agreement without any tariffs or quotas that would limit the damage of Brexit to jobs, the Irish economy, the UK economy and the European economy. Given the enormous negative impact that Covid-19 has had on our economy and on jobs, the last thing that our respective economies need is a second seismic shock via a no-deal Brexit.

I welcome the decision of the House of Lords last evening on the internal market Bill. The talks have intensified over the past week or so and they are at a crucial point. We would like to see an outcome to those talks on the basis of a deal being arrived at and that deal, essentially, then would lead to the neutralisation of the offending clauses of the internal market Bill and strict adherence to the protocol and to the withdrawal agreement because those are international treaties that the UK Government signed up to and that the British Parliament approved of. In our view, the EU was correct in taking infringement action against the UK in respect of those legislative proposals.

The key end objective for Ireland is that the future relationship between the UK and Europe would be a progressive one that has solid foundations that could lead to a fruitful engagement into the future, but, above all, one that would protect jobs and protect our economy. That is our objective. I intend to consult party members. We met last week on related matters. We discussed Brexit and the implications for the operation of the protocol. I believe there were constructive discussions on the protocol in the joint committee over the past while and important progress was made.

I am conscious that the First Minister and deputy First Minister have written to us about the issue of Northern Ireland goods' access to the European Union free trade agreements. That is something that has been raised with us by stakeholders as well. A joint letter has been received from the First Minister and deputy First Minister on practical arrangements around the application of certain aspects of the protocol. Those practical solutions are being explored by the United Kingdom and the European Union to address specific concerns regarding some specific supply chains from Great Britain into Northern Ireland. It is important that all outstanding issues are settled in the coming weeks to the give certainty which businesses and citizens need.

Notwithstanding all of the difficulties that have presented in the course of this process, there is no doubt that a deal is still possible. If good sense is to prevail then there will be a deal but of course we cannot be certain of any of that. That is why I have raised this issue with the Taoiseach today. There are many issues on which the Oireachtas will divide, that is in the nature of our system and of our political differences, which are honestly held, but on this issue, and particularly since the edifice of the Good Friday Agreement and the peace process itself cannot be disrupted, undermined or weakened in any way, that it is absolutely essential we act as one. I therefore ask the Taoiseach that we have, as a matter of regular occurrence, briefings and contact not just with Sinn Féin or myself as its leader but with all Opposition parties and with the Houses as a whole because as weeks now start to tick down and as pressure intensifies, it becomes all the more important that full briefings and full information is shared.

I undertake to do that. I am conscious that the Minster for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, is introducing the Withdrawal of the United Kingdom from the European Union (Consequential Provisions) Bill 2020 tomorrow. I believe he has had consultation with party spokespeople across the House and has secured a good degree of consensus and constructive engagement on that Bill, which is crucial for preparedness on Ireland's behalf. I spoke with the President of the European Commission over the weekend in relation to ongoing contacts between the European Union side and the UK side. We had an interesting meeting of the British-Irish Council on Friday and again the Brexit issue was discussed at length. It was interesting that a number of administrations on the British-Irish Council, from the Scottish Government across to the islands and the Welsh Government had very negative attitudes to the Internal Markets Bill and they made that very clear to the Secretary of State, Michael Gove. The level playing field, fisheries and a governance mechanism are still the outstanding issues and progress still has to be made on those three.

I raise an issue with the Taoiseach that has been raised numerous times in the Chamber in relation to Debenhams workers who have been on strike for over 200 days. It is becoming one of the longest strikes in Irish labour history. My colleague, Deputy Boyd Barrett, raised this issue with the Taoiseach last week and the Taoiseach acknowledged that the talks in the WRC did not deliver a solution. The Taoiseach said something has to be done. Regardless of political affiliation, I think we all agree that something has to be done because this cannot go on. What the workers are looking for is very just: a fair redundancy. That is the cornerstone of this fight. Many TDs, of all political affiliations, have visited the picket line and the workers want to see a solution. They want to see a meaningful settlement to which they are entitled. Some of the workers worked for the company for decades.

They feel as though they have been robbed by their employer and they feel let down by the State. This should never have happened. If we look back at what happened in Clerys, the Government should have implemented the Duffy Cahill report and this should never have happened.

A solution can be found at this late stage. This could go on indefinitely and we want to see a settlement by the Government. The Taoiseach can intervene personally. Sometimes the last people to get paid as creditors are the workers themselves. They are the people who made all of that money in the first place so it is a terrible injustice. The Government can waive the fees that are owed to the State, which could accumulate up to €20 million. To sort out the strike would cost between €12 million and €14 million. The Government has the power to waive these fees with regard to final settlements. The strike has to end, and it will end, but it has to end with workers feeling they have not been robbed. That is very important. They should not be robbed and they feel they have to have a settlement. This could go on forever. It is in the Taoiseach's power to intervene in this personally and end the strike as soon as possible.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue of the Debenhams workers. It is very difficult and unsatisfactory from the workers' perspective that it has dragged on for so long and they have not received their redundancy entitlements as per the collective agreement they entered into with their employer. The Government will, of course, honour the statutory redundancy but that is not the issue at stake. The recent exploratory talks at the Workplace Relations Commission ended without agreement. The Ministers of State, Deputies English and Troy, jointly chaired a forum with the social partners on 4 November to discuss the legislative provisions that deal with redundancy and insolvency from a company law and employment law perspective. I am already on the record of the House saying we need to change the legislative situation, particularly in terms of liquidations and the parity and status given to collective agreements. That in itself may not be of much use to the workers here and now in the current situation.

I am not quite clear regarding what the Deputy said about the Government waiving fees but I take it he might be referring to State agencies or arms of the State that stand to get something from the liquidation, such as Revenue or the Department of Social Protection. The challenge facing the Government in situations such as this is the creation of a precedent for other situations. We do not want a situation emerging whereby the Government on an ongoing basis picks up the tab for rogue employers or, indeed, for employers who never honour their commitments irrespective. The legislative framework is fairly clear in this regard. That said, we have not stopped looking at ways of seeing whether we can be of some assistance here, notwithstanding the legal constraints. A liquidation takes place within a legal framework and it is not that simple or easy for the Government to just waive the legal issues to one side and intervene in a manner that could ultimately create a precedent that would allow other employers to get off the hook from their obligations. I do not think anybody in the House wants that either. We are supportive of the best outcome possible for the workers but the issue is trying to get the mechanism to secure that. That has proved very thorny and very difficult to get sorted.

I do not doubt the Taoiseach's bona fides in trying to settle this outstanding strike. The State should step aside as a creditor because otherwise the workers will not get the redundancy they are looking for. It is really important that something concrete happens. We can talk until the cows come home and have all of the platitudes we want but this is about will.

It is like everything in life: if the will is there, things can be settled. Things are not as complicated as they are made out to be. The Taoiseach and the Government have the power to intervene on this occasion, because the previous Government made a mess of the situation where workers were being screwed by their big employer. Of course, there are rogue employers but there are some good employers as well and some very good workers. Those workers have been out for over seven months, rain, shine and everything, including Covid-19, and they still have that amazing solidarity to stay the course. They deserve it. They deserve two extra weeks with their statutory redundancy, and that is the least they deserve.

What the Deputy is saying, essentially, is that whatever is due to the various Government Departments, to Revenue or in terms of social protection should be waived, if I understand him correctly. That creates a very significant potential incentivisation for others in the future to welch on their obligations to workers, knowing the State will pick up the tab. Essentially, that means creating a new statutory redundancy scheme in an ad hoc way and simply saying the State will pick up the tab anyway, which would then incentivise employers to prioritise other issues for themselves and other creditors. I am not sure that is the simple or easy way out of this either.

That said, I am again going to bring all parties from the Government side to meet on this to see if we can develop mechanisms to try to get this resolved. The workers have been out for a long, long time and it has been very difficult for them. They have been treated shabbily. I will see what we can do in this regard.

I want to ask the Taoiseach a quick question with a “Yes” or “No” answer. Does he understand the difference between lo-lo and ro-ro freight?

If he does, he will not, as part of Government, be endorsing the Irish Maritime Development Office, IMDO, report or review that was carried out for the Department of Transport. Given my 30 years in logistics management and my experience, let me explain what logistics management means. It is the part of the supply chain that plans, controls and implements the efficient and effective flow of goods and services from the point of origin to the point of consumption to meet the customer's requirements. That is not contained within the IMDO document. It is called the Irish Maritime Development Office but there is no development within this review - none. What we are doing is trying to replace an efficient and effective route, the landbridge, which currently takes 13.5 hours for the 150,000 freight movements per year. The IMDO did not feel the need to talk to the people who operate the trucks, the Irish Road Haulage Association, which had no part in this review. Yet, the office of the Minister for Transport can release a press statement, headlined: “Sufficient capacity on existing continental services to accommodate displaced landbridge traffic”. Nothing changes. We seemingly have capacity just sitting there, waiting for Brexit to happen.

I have been in the Dáil for nine months and not one word I have said has been listened to - not one. There is no solution in this report for the landbridge traffic. It is an utter disgrace that the people who are operating logistics management in this country were not even consulted. What it actually says is that, as an alternative to the 13.5 hours movement, we should use container ships that do not take trucks or drivers and that travel for 38 hours. It is not efficient and effective.

It is the worst solution I have ever seen. The Taoiseach, in his opening remarks in reply to Deputy McDonald, said that the Government is in the business of protecting jobs and businesses. That report does not do that for this country. It is beyond belief for me to sit here after nine months and have to read that and, worse still, to have it presented by the Department of Transport to my constituency colleagues who know something but certainly not as much as I do about transport. I am gravely concerned.

I thank the Deputy for raising this pertinent question. She also raised it the last time she contributed during Leaders’ Questions. I went back to my Cabinet colleagues and discussed it with them, particularly the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Robert Troy, who had a discussion with the Deputy in this House another occasion. We cannot divulge confidential discussions of the Cabinet subcommittee but this issue was raised there and has been raised outside of Government and across Government and Ministers.

We have been assured repeatedly, particularly in the context of Brexit preparedness, that sufficient capacity exists. My understanding was that the Irish Maritime Development Office, IMDO, had engaged with all stakeholders but the Deputy is clear that they have not engaged with the Irish Road Haulage Association, IRHA. I will raise that to make sure there are direct discussions with the IRHA.

It is too late.

It is never too late. The Minister for Transport and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, have been clear on the messaging to businesses to act now and to trial direct services to continental ports. The IMDO analysis is informing Government policy on this. Issues have been raised. I am anxious to make sure no stone is left unturned and all potential eventualities are catered for. For example, there could be significant difficulties with the land bridge, even if there is a normal Brexit as opposed to a no-deal Brexit. There will be issues. There will be a lot more around customs declarations and a lot more administration. There are a lot of issues there.

The IMDO says there is enough capacity on direct routes to continental Europe to take all of the current traffic from Ireland to continental Europe via the GB land bridge. Shipping companies are giving assurances to the IMDO on this matter and to the effect that if there is a demand for increased shipping capacity on direct routes, they will respond. They have indicated a number of options that can be quickly implemented by them if required, including using existing spare capacity, increasing sailings, redeploying ships and chartering vessels. Last week, we saw moves from Irish Ferries and Stena Line to increase direct sailings from Rosslare and Dublin to Cherbourg from January 2021. Departments and agencies have initiated a communications campaign to the sector, "ACT now and Prepare to Switch", to encourage importers and exporters to focus on the direct route option now.

Has the Deputy met the Minister for Transport? If not, we should organise that. I will ask the Minister and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, to meet the Deputy on this issue. She is raising issues that, from her perspective, are not satisfactorily responded to. I am anxious to get the issue brought to some resolution.

Everything that the Taoiseach has said is misinformed. The IMDO is not informing the Government; it is misinforming it. The IMDO says there is enough capacity on the direct route but I will inform the Taoiseach what happened on Saturday. Eight vehicles were left behind on the pier in Rosslare Europort. I happened to be there. It happened because the ship that should be in Rosslare is anchored off Holyhead because the crew have Covid and it is quarantined for two weeks. These are the issues that the IMDO do not inform the Taoiseach about. This is not the real world in here; out there is. The supply chain is going to be damaged irreparably if the Government does not take action and use the connectivity fund that we were told could be used if Brexit had a detrimental effect on certain sectors. It is not even our money. It is being provided by Europe for the atrocity that Brexit will visit upon us. We do not have direct ferries to the closest possible port. We have ro-ro ferries that sail twice a week.

All of the other ships that the IMDO are reporting on are in excess of that length of traffic. The sailing from Rosslare to Cherbourg is 18 hours. The sailing from Dublin to Zeebrugge is 38 hours. That is not an efficient, effective alternative.

I again thank the Deputy for her comments. I will ask the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minster of State with responsibility for international and road transport and logistics, Deputy Hildegarde Naughton, to engage with her on the specifics and details as she sees them. I have received consistent reassurances from the Minister and the Minister of State that this issue is adequately prepared for. I am anxious that the points that the Deputy has raised are dealt with and resolved.

There will obviously be problems if Covid-19 arises in a given situation, independent of Brexit and anything else, and crews are knocked out by the virus and forced into isolation and so on. That can happen. Outside of those circumstances, we need to make sure that we are prepared for any eventuality that may emerge.

The Debenhams workers organised a meeting last Thursday. Representatives from many political parties, including Fianna Fáil, were at that meeting. The workers were filling us in about the outcome of the Workplace Relations Commission, WRC, negotiations - or non-negotiations, as such. They raised serious issues about what can be done under the legal framework of insolvency. They said that it looks as if the ongoing impasse will mean that the current asset value of the liquidated Debenhams business might be depleted by the end of the year. This will affect not only the workers but also the State, which would potentially forgo many millions of euro due to it as a preferential creditor. It was also explained that the workers had been offered €500,000, down from €1 million.

This dispute is now into its eighth month. The Taoiseach talks about his sympathy for those 1,000 workers but he still does nothing. We are eight months on. The Debenhams workers' union, Mandate, have written to the Taoiseach twice, on 22 October and 2 November, and he has not replied on either occasion. Words and sympathy are all well and good but what the workers want is action. We are now 215 days into this dispute. It is clear that the liquidators, KPMG, are not going to meet the workers' legitimate redundancy claim. The Taoiseach could act. He could move with urgency to establish a public State insolvency fund to deal with the situation faced by the Debenhams workers, a situation that will, most likely, be faded by other workers in the future. It has been faced by workers in the past. The Taoiseach could establish such a fund and make the payment to the Debenhams workers a priority. As I have stated previously, such a fund could be financed by a small increase in employers' PRSI. This could have been included in the recent budget. A figure of €10 million is a modest amount compared with the supports being given to businesses through loans and grants during the Covid crisis. Will the Taoiseach give a commitment to act now? This matter will only be resolved politically, it will not be resolved under the insolvency legislation. The Taoiseach should try to resolve this dispute and protect workers into the future.

It is now 1,715 days - in other words, four years and eight months - since the Duffy Cahill report was issued and still no action has been taken. The Taoiseach promised yet another review but where is it? When the Duffy Cahill report was issued, it was strongly opposed by IBEC. Is that still the position? Is IBEC still opposing it? Is it because of lobbying by employers that no action has been taken on this matter? Perhaps there is a whistleblower out there who might let us know what is really going on.

I had another point to make but I will come back to the Taoiseach on that another time. The Debenhams workers cannot be left out on the picket line for another week, two weeks, three weeks or four weeks. The liquidator is saying it will potentially walk away on 23 December. What will that mean for everybody involved? The Debenhams workers need to be protected and we need political intervention.

I discussed the matter earlier with Deputy Gino Kenny. The situation has never been simple in terms of resolving the dispute since the liquidation occurred, as I have acknowledged and been honest about from the beginning. People may have been given expectations during this dispute that could never be realised. Simplistic solutions were offered which never had any prospect of being realised. The liquidation process, in itself, was never going to replace the legitimate redundancy entitlements of the workers.

The company treated the workers very shabbily. I accept that saying that is not enough for the workers. There has been no lobby by anybody against any resolution of this so let us not create another conspiracy. I have had general discussions with the head of ICTU and I have met workers on this, and there has been ongoing consultations with Ministers. The Mandate trade union has done everything it possibly can and it has not been easy for the union either.

With regard to the fund the Deputy mentioned and the increase in PRSI, that again would have far-reaching consequences as this cost would be on every employer. Whether they are doing well or not in the middle of Covid-19, they would still be charged that.

The more important point on that is that what we are essentially proposing here, if we are to go down that route, is that one would be getting others to bail out the shoddy behaviour of some parties. That is a general point we cannot ignore. Once this is done once, it has been done a second and a third time, and let us be under no illusion that are creating a precedent then. Whatever mechanism is arrived that, we all better be clear if it has far-reaching consequences and could tip the balance the wrong way. Employers should meet their obligations and the law should be changed to ensure that collective agreements are given higher priority in liquidations. That should certainly happen. I will discuss this with colleagues across Government again with a view to seeing if there is any way we can develop a resolution of this and a way of bringing it to a conclusion.

A public state insolvency fund is a matter of course in European countries so it is not unusual and this proposal is not being plucked from the sky. We have solidarity funds such as the Social Insurance Fund where people contribute through PRSI for the good of all even though that they may not get sick. All sorts of reliefs have been brought in for the very wealthy in this country. There was the special assignee relief programme where €28.1 million was forgone in taxes in respect of only 1,000 top executives. The key employee engagement programme was brought in in 2017, which has cost €10 million in tax incentives for top executives. The Government is, therefore, able to bring in certain measures and to bail out the banks. It can bring in guillotined legislation to seal the records of mother and baby homes. When it comes to workers, creative and exceptional measures have to be put in place to deal with them. We should also bring in longer-term practices and amendments to company law and so forth. These workers have to be looked after.

The State provides statutory redundancy and in certain redundancy contexts provides a safety net where employers are either not in a position to pay their redundancies or workers are left with nothing. The State continues to play a strong proactive role in this area. Our systems are as strong as other member states across Europe. We are open to strengthening those. I will engage with the Deputy again and, as I have said, I will talk to other colleagues across Government to see what can be done.