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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 18 Nov 2020

Vol. 1001 No. 1

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Yesterday, the Taoiseach's Government voted to block the Dáil from putting questions to the Minister for Justice, Deputy McEntee, regarding the appointment of the former Attorney General, Séamus Woulfe, to the Supreme Court. His claim that this would impinge on the separation of powers is utter nonsense, as he well knows. In the Dáil in 2017, the Taoiseach said that any attempt to use the separation of powers as an excuse to avoid accountability in respect of a judicial appointment was "bogus". He will know that, on that occasion, a debate was held and questions were put.

The Government is clearly circling the wagons. This morning, Green Party Minister, Deputy Catherine Martin, was wheeled out to make this same bogus argument on radio. The Government knows that the Minister is accountable to the Dáil and is duty-bound to take questions. The Government came into office on 27 June. Séamus Woulfe stood down as Attorney General on that date. The proposal to appoint him to the Supreme Court came to Government on 16 July, just three weeks later. In addition to Mr. Woulfe, three sitting judges had also expressed an interest in this position. The Minister did not have just one name to consider, but four. She needs to explain very clearly how she whittled down that list of four names to one. By what criteria was that selection made? With whom did she confer and collaborate? Who did she inform? Why did the Minister fail to inform the Taoiseach and Government colleagues of expressions of interest from these judges in advance of the decision to appoint Séamus Woulfe?

It beggars belief that no member of Government asked whether there were other applications. The Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the leader of the Green Party were all left out of the loop in a Supreme Court appointment. Not one of the three men charged with leading Government asked questions about this important matter. If this is true, it is remarkable. In the endgame of government formation talks between Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, the Taoiseach announced that the position of Attorney General would be rotated in line with that of Taoiseach. The position was central to the horse trading. Séamus Woulfe, the outgoing Attorney General and a long-term member of Fine Gael, was appointed to the Supreme Court.

In 2017, the Taoiseach described the appointment of former Attorney General, Máire Whelan, to the Court of Appeal as "an insider appointment" and said that "it stinks to high heaven." In that case, he was incredulous and angry that other applicants for the position had not been treated fairly. It is, therefore, very strange that he did not ask if there were other applicants on this occasion. When calling for a debate and a session of questions and answers in 2017, the Taoiseach said that the Government's reaching for the separation of powers was "bogus" and he criticised the Government for resisting taking questions. He was right then but he is very wrong now. Blocking the Dáil from putting questions to the Minister for Justice stinks to the highest heavens. It raises the question of whether this was the type of insider appointment against which the Taoiseach railed three years ago.

For the sake of clarity, for transparency and to ensure this Oireachtas can do its job and discharge its responsibilities, I ask the Taoiseach to ensure the Minister, Deputy McEntee, comes before the Dáil to make a statement on these matters and to take questions.

First of all, I have taken questions on this issue as Taoiseach. I took them yesterday and I am taking questions right now. The Deputy is asking questions and I am going to take them. The Deputy's question was very interesting. At the outset, I must say that her assertion that there was horse trading involved in the appointment of Paul Gallagher as Attorney General and some connection to the appointment of Mr. Justice Woulfe to the Supreme Court is an untruth and a false assertion. She should withdraw it because it impugns the integrity and ability of the present Attorney General, who has had nothing to do with that. It is historical precedent that the Attorney General is appointed by the Taoiseach of the day. That has always been the position. There has always been an important relationship between the Taoiseach and the Attorney General in any Cabinet.

It was also interesting that, in the Deputy's question, she wanted to ask the Minister, Deputy McEntee, who she collaborated with and on what criteria did she judge. That is the very reason why in my opinion the Minister, Deputy McEntee, should not actually have to say or to compare judges with a person who was deemed suitable by the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board. I do not believe politicians should be embroiled in negotiations on who should or should not be a judge.

I do not think that is the function of politicians.

When I learned that the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, JAAB, chaired by the Chief Justice, Mr. Justice Frank Clarke, and by the presidents of the other four courts, in addition to representatives of the Law Society and the Bar Council, had deemed Mr. Justice Woulfe suitable to be a Supreme Court judge, that was good enough for me. I have no interest in embroiling myself any further. Notifications may be sent in and representations may be made by judges to the effect that they would like to be considered for particular positions. The Minister for Justice of the day brings one name to Cabinet. As far as I was concerned, the fact that the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board was satisfied that Mr. Justice Woulfe was a suitable candidate for the Supreme Court satisfied me and I was not going to second guess it. That is the point.

On the case of Ms Justice Máire Whelan - I do not want to embroil the Judiciary because the said person is a member of it - JAAB was not used on that occasion. Be that as it may, JAAB was involved in deeming Mr. Justice Woulfe as a suitable candidate. The Deputy is tantamount to saying that in future, the Minister for Justice should come to the Dáil and say which candidate he or she picked or recommended to Cabinet against the other candidate or candidates and on which criteria. I do not agree with that. Dáil Éireann is not the place to decide on that. The Judicial Appointments Advisory Board is the current body for that but in the future the commission that we intend to establish will be the way to do this, and the Government is committed to a judicial appointments commission. That was before the previous Dáil. Our view of that is that the chairperson of that should be the Chief Justice, and that would represent the right balance in our view and we have said that. That is my position on that and we will introduce the legislation to establish that commission. We will also engage with Members of the House on that because that is an important reform of the process for the selection and appointment of judges and it would take it further out of the realm of the political domain.

The Taoiseach's response is incoherent gibberish and he knows it. The Taoiseach has changed his tune from when he sat on the Opposition benches and correctly challenged the Government of the day to give an account of itself and challenged the then Minister for Justice and Equality to give an account of the process by which a selection for a judicial appointment was made. The standards then are the standards now. The responsibility of the Oireachtas to hold the Government to account remains paramount. The Taoiseach reaches for the JAAB process, even though he knows that was one of two channels through which names came forward. Please do not rehearse that nonsense again. That there was horse-trading around the position of Attorney General is not only truthful, it is a verifiable truth. It played out in the media between Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and, let it be said, the Green Party.

I hear that the Taoiseach does not want to be further embroiled in these questions so the straightforward, correct and proper thing to happen is that the Minister for Justice presents herself and gives an account of those three weeks between 27 June and 16 July and sets out, for the satisfaction of this Oireachtas, the process by which four names became one and four applicants became Seamus Woulfe. That is what this Oireachtas demands and deserves.

Sinn Féin has a habit of continually repeating a claim and then asserting that it is the truth. What the Deputy has just said is an untruth. It is not verifiably true that there was horse-trading involving the position of Attorney General. Stop misleading the House in that regard and deliberately creating a story that has no foundation in fact. The Deputy should withdraw that claim because I know that there was absolutely no relationship between the appointment of the Attorney General, Paul Gallagher, and the appointment of Mr. Justice Woulfe - none.

I thank the Taoiseach and the Government for supporting the north quays project in Waterford. It is a transformative project for the whole of the south east and it might - I say "might" - just be the turning point our region has been waiting for.

As the Taoiseach is well aware, the south east is home to just under 10% of our country's population and it has fallen behind the rest of the country. Each year, we leave behind €10 billion of GDP year on year. My parish's €16 billion of GDP should be a €26 billion economy, and it might be were it to be like the other university regions of Ireland. The region and the whole country pay a massive social cost for this underperformance. We pay for it in higher unemployment, poverty and crime rates, less consumption and services, and of course the hidden cost in the loss of our young and the brain drain from the region.

In recent years, the south east has rightly detected that the Government was actively planning for the prevention of a positive future from emerging in our region. It was preventing a university of scale, the north quays project, our airport expansion, our hospital expansion and the delivery of the M24. These projects were all aimed at fulfilling the potential in our region. We have seen the transformation of other regions and wondered where our future is. I voted for the Government's finance measures and the spending of €10 billion on capital projects this year. I wish to see transparency and equity in the provision of this money. It is great to see that over the next four years, the north quays will see €25 million per year to support the project. For those who shout that I am engaging in parish pump politics, they should hold no fear because I would say there is not a snowball's chance in hell that we in the south east will see the €890 million allocation, although Waterford will see its 2.44% of that if recent history is to be any judge.

The importance of the north quays is welcome but it is not going to close the GDP gap. The measure that will close that gap is higher education and the building of a university of substance in the south east, equivalent to the capacity and scale of those in Limerick, Galway and Cork. In the programme for Government, the south east is singled out and emphasised as the region where the technological university must be built. Yet with €56 million spent on technological universities by Government so far, the south east consortium is funded behind the Cork, Dublin and Galway-led consortiums. These three regions already have thriving universities. It begs the question of what the Government's commitment is to a Waterford-led technological university that is capable of transforming the whole south east in the way the University of Limerick has transformed the mid-west in the past 30 years, for example. Is the strategy to prevent a university of scale emerging to protect the existing national universities from the competition that we in the south east might bring? In turn, such a strategy would result in holding our region back.

Last week's announcement by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, on the urban regeneration and development fund allocation of €80.6 million, involving a total package of €110 million, with €30 million committed by the Department of Transport, is a major shot in the arm to the south east. It is essentially a game changer for the city and the region. It demonstrates real intent by the Government in delivering on its programme for Government commitments for balanced regional development, which we need and which is essential for the overall development of the country because it is unbalanced at the moment.

The technological university of the south east is critical to achieving that objective. I have had discussions with the Deputy and with other Deputies from the south east on this. It is extremely important that we facilitate the ongoing discussions that are under way on the establishment of the technological university for the south east, because it is anticipated that an application for technological university designation under the Technological Universities Act 2018 will be submitted by the consortium in April or May of next year. If the application is successful following all due legal processes, the consortium would anticipate technological university establishment by January 2022. That is a significant milestone to work towards, which would have a knock-on beneficial impact in terms of economic regeneration and activity in the south east more generally.

The consortium of IT Carlow and Waterford IT has been progressing proposals since 2011, and it is time to really move this forward. As I discussed with the Deputy, there are strong oversight structures. The appointment of Tom Boland, who is highly respected and experienced, as the programme executive director, has given added momentum to the work under way. More than 300 staff are now involved in the various working groups to get this project over the line. The plan has been developed as a joint governing body steering group for the TUSEI consortium and it is moving in the right direction.

Clearly, capital needs will arise in respect of the new technological university. As a former Minister for Education and Science, and having been very involved with Waterford Institute of Technology, when it was creating the new base in the late 1990s and early 2000s, and likewise with IT Carlow, I assure Deputy Shanahan that the Government is genuinely committed to doing the right thing here and to develop the capacity of this technological university as a prime driver of economic activity in the region.

There is strong foreign direct investment, FDI, in Waterford and we should use that FDI base to leverage more inward investment in Waterford and generally across the south east. It is important that we utilise the university as an important leveraging tool when we have discussions with foreign direct investment companies and multinationals which may wish to come in, but also to provide the research base for our indigenous companies across the south east. They can use the facilities in Waterford, Carlow and elsewhere to help local industry. Collaboration with industry is the great strength of technological universities.

I thank the Taoiseach and note that we met recently to discuss this issue. There has been much talk about a diffused model for the south-east technological university. National policy has been to consolidate services, and that was the logic behind having DIT in Grangegorman and UCD in Belfield. There is no model on earth, however, of a multi-campus diffused university working. It is worrying for us in the south east that we are forced to accept a model of higher education which we know has failed everywhere else. We are being asked to accept consolidation as a means of achieving regional university status for the highest performing institute of technology in the country. The people in Cork and Dublin were not asked to suggest any such model, and I have concerns about the primacy of Waterford IT within this TU-led development.

I ask the Taoiseach to ensure that the Government delivers a workable university for Waterford and the south east, which acknowledges Waterford as the gateway and economic driver of the south-east region. Within that, we need to see reasoned and fair educational modelling. We need to see recognition of the past and future performance of the institutions in the area, particularly WIT which has been completely under-resourced, to be fair, over the past 20 years. We need to see that our track record in achievement in higher education and servicing our students will have primacy within that configuration

Unity is strength. The technological university for the south east must be seen in that context. However, Waterford has also grown extremely well in recent decades and it has created its own niche, as has IT Carlow, in different faculties. Each institute of technology has significant strengths. If we talk to people in industry, they all identify the role of institutes of technology as being critical to their growth and to economic and industrial development in the regions. That is a fact. If we look at our life sciences, in particular, from engineering to instrumentation and lab technicians, those areas have been superb. I refer to the quality of graduates who come from these institutes. If I was a Carlow or Waterford representative, I would be confident regarding the quality of that institution and the capacity of that institution to grow and develop. It will need Government support and I acknowledge that, and we intend to provide and deliver that support.

I raise the issue of funding for Irish Water projects which are administered in our county of Kerry. I will give some examples. We have a water main in Farranfore that keeps breaking. It causes awful trouble because it is on a main artery road through our county. From there up to Ash-hill and Farmers Bridge, everything needs upgrading and replacing. An upgrade is also needed to the water scheme at Moyvane and Knockanure. The Kenmare sewerage scheme needs an extension. In the great town of Kenmare, for example, it is not possible to get planning permission for a henhouse, simply because we are being told that until the sewer is extended, it will not be possible to have any more planning permission granted. The sewerage scheme at Kilcummin has been well raised here over many years, and at the same time we are no nearer to having a scheme put in place. I refer to the need for the replacement of the mains from Daly's roundabout in Killarney up to Ballyspillane estate, because the road there is like one in Beirut from water breaks. It would surely be more cost effective to replace the pipework rather than to continuously repair the road. On the way from Glenflesk to Knockanes, a section of piping needs to be replaced, and there is also 6 km stretch which needs replacing in Callanafersy. A part of the work has been done at Lauragh, but from there down to the church there is 2 km of pipework to be replaced. The infrastructure of the whole of the mid-Kerry region has constant breakages in this regard, and there is a section on the Office of Public Works, OPW, road in Beaufort where a part of the work has been done, and excellent work it is, but there is much more work to do.

I also highlight one example of an emergency issue which was raised by a local councillor in the Castleisland area, Jackie Healy-Rae, following on from a meeting between councillors and representatives of Irish Water. One housing estate in Kerry, Desmonds Avenue in Castleisland, is served by a cast-iron main which burst in mid-September. Ever since, there have been water quality issues. When tests were carried out on 9 October, ten of the houses recorded iron levels in the water of 1,319 mg/l. Under the drinking water regulations, the limit for iron content in water is 200 mg/l. There is a serious issue here, an emergency situation, and that is down to the cast-iron pipe which is serving that estate and that needs to be replaced. Irish Water's response to Councillor Healy-Rae was that it had no money and will not have any money until 2021. That is not good enough. This is an example of the investment that we need in County Kerry. We desperately need this money. I compliment our excellent staff working for Irish Water, through Kerry County Council, past and present. They have done excellent work. We must remember that these are the people who go out on Christmas Day and late at night in all types of weather to keep the water flowing in our county.

I thank the Deputy for raising these issues, but I did not get the name of that estate.

It is Desmonds Avenue.

To be frank, if that is a health risk, and from the data, the Deputy is suggesting that it is a health risk, there should be no excuse for not sorting that out. We are conscious of the need for Irish Water to get additional capital, and, to be fair, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, gave additional funding to Irish Water in the July stimulus package and in the budget. Something like this issue should be dealt with. I know there are many challenges, and Irish Water has many challenges, but something that represents a clear health risk should be dealt with. We are also committed to further investment in Irish Water more generally.

A huge scale of work is necessary in our water system and it will take several years and investment cycles to resolve the situation fully. Regarding our capital investment plans for drinking water, and for water infrastructure more generally, strong multi-annual allocations are being directed to Irish Water. A funding package of about €8.5 billion was committed in Project Ireland 2040. As part of budget 2021, the Government increased provision for Irish Water's capital investment programme by €100 million, over and above last year's initial allocation, to €692 million. We also provided €87 million as part of the July stimulus package.

I will check for the Deputy what allocation from that €87 million in July found its way to Kerry. I will also follow through with the cases raised by the Deputy and will forward those to Irish Water.

We understand the centrality of Irish Water and water infrastructure to the development of towns, to the facilitation of house construction and to the facilitation of industry. We are determined to give it a higher prioritisation in capital allocation because it represents a key part of our capacity to deliver housing and development in the regions. The Minister, Deputy O'Brien, will bring a policy paper to Government in the coming weeks to set out a route map to achieving this ambition.

I thank the Taoiseach very much for that reply. On sewerage schemes, Irish Water seems to want to work in areas where infrastructure is already in place. Unfortunately, there are areas in County Kerry that have no schemes whatsoever, which is hard to believe. Places such as Caherdaniel, Scartaglin and Currow have no schemes at all. How are these areas supposed to develop? How are they supposed to grow? How are we supposed to cater for the future needs of young people who want to live and work in those areas? Planners and national policy always seem to say to people we would rather people live in the village than be looking for planning in the countryside. I have always made the argument that people should be allowed and encouraged to live in the countryside. National policy seems to want to put people into towns and villages, while at the same time people in places such as Caherdaniel, Scartaglin and Currow have no scheme whatsoever. That is ridiculous. We have to ensure that works and funding are put in place.

I want to highlight the holy show of how the work is actually carried out. I declare what could be perceived as a conflict of interest in this, but when it comes to work with the council we have recently heard that it has sought to tender all the work for Irish Water in counties to one individual. That is wrong. We should be keeping in place the smaller contractors in their own areas who have worked diligently along with council staff for many years in providing an excellent service day or night. Again, I thank the people who work for Kerry County Council and I compliment them for their efforts seven days a week, 24 hours a day.

I thank the Deputy for his remarks. Generally it is the policy to try to have as much development in towns and villages as we possibly can. Part of the reason is the high cost of infrastructure and the disproportionate cost if new schemes are being developed. We have to prioritise. In Deputy Healy-Rae's first contribution he identified a range of schemes that needed investment, such as in Killarney and other towns. They need to get priority in the allocation of capital.

On the urban and waste water, to be fair, the Environmental Protection Agency's recent report demonstrates that Irish Water is making progress and is improving our wastewater systems. Irish Water has reduced the number of priority wastewater sites listed by the EPA and has increased the number of large towns and cities that now meet the required European Union standards for wastewater discharges. The agency itself will say that it has a long and complex programme of work ahead to deliver wastewater services that fully meet the required standards. To be fair all around there is an historical large agenda of work and progress has been made. Significant capital moneys will be allocated. It is about getting on with the work and getting it done.

Ba mhaith liom ceist a chur ar chúrsaí iascaireachta agus go háirithe ar pholasaí an Rialtais, polasaí a foilsíodh i 2019 agus a cuireadh i bhfeidhm ó Mhí Eanáir na bliana seo. Bun agus barr an pholasaí sin - polasaí maith a bhí ann - nach raibh cead ag na trálaeir mhóra a bheith ag iascaireacht taobh istigh de 6 mhuirmhíle ar fud ár gcósta. Faraor, chuir an Ardchúirt an polasaí sin ar neamhní an lá deireanach de Mhí Iúil. Ó shin, tá bearna mhór ann agus tá na trálaeir mhóra laistigh den limistéar sin. Tá mise agus Teachtaí eile ag déileáil le neart gearán ó dhaoine atá thíos agus atá thar a bheith buartha.

My question relates to a policy directive by the Government that came into effect in January 2020. It was published last year and prior to that there was a whole, long history and entry into this policy. The idea and the concepts behind the policy were excellent. They sought to have a sustainable fishing industry within the six-mile zone. More particularly, the documents that accompany the decision and the consultation process said it was to improve the protection of coastal environments and essential fish habitats and to benefit biodiversity and commercially exploited fish stocks. It was to have socioeconomic benefits for the smaller inshore boats and fishermen and saw the importance of diversification opportunities, with more jobs and a more intimate connection between fishermen, consumers and businesses in the area, among many other advantages. That was brought in after a consultation period. As I said, the decision was made in March 2019 and the policy came into effect in January this year. Three boat owners, or their companies, took a case, which was successful on very narrow grounds. On the last day of July 2020, the High Court issued a very detailed and comprehensive judgment. Many arguments were put up by the three big boats. None of them was upheld by the court except that the Department had failed in its consultation process. Simply, the consultation process was faulty. Once the Department went down the road of the consultation process it had to do it right. Unfortunately, it did not and now we are in the situation where the policy is gone. Mar a dúirt mé i nGaeilge, tá sé ar neamhní. It is not valid. We now have a serious gap and the trawlers are back in Galway Bay and in others bays on coasts throughout the State. What is the Taoiseach doing about that? The consultation process was faulty. To me, it was a relatively simply matter to accept the judgment of the High Court and go back to do the consultation process properly given the importance of the contents of the policy in question.

Táim buíoch don Teachta as an gceist seo a ardú. Aontaím go bhfuil an polasaí a bhí ann roimh chinneadh na cúirte ceart ó thaobh bac a chur ar trálaeir mhóra teacht isteach laistigh de 6 mhuirmhíle ón gcósta. Is oth liom a rá gur olc an scéal é go bhfuil na trálaeir mhóra ar ais laistigh den limistéar sin. Níl sé sin sásúil i gcomhthéacs an pholasaí a d'fhoilsigh an Rialtas a bhí ann i Mí Eanáir na bliana seo. Caithimid athmhachnamh a dhéanamh air sin agus mar a dúirt an Teachta, caithimid athmhachnamh a dhéanamh ar an gcomhfhreagras agus ar na déileálacha leis an bpobal agus caithimid slí ceart a chur i bhfeidhm.

I take on board what Deputy Connolly has said. I will engage with the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine on this specific issue, on the aspects of the High Court's decision that undermine the policy and on the moves the Department proposes to take to rectify that, if that is possible. I take on board what the Deputy said and will pursue the matter with the Minister with a view to seeing if we can develop a consultation process or other processes that would meet the requirements of the High Court decision.

That was July. We are now in November. Nothing has happened. The Taoiseach is not even clear whether an appeal has been taken. I do not wish to put the Taoiseach on the spot but we know that from July the substantive judgment was given. The order might not have been perfected. Is an appeal under way? If there is an appeal it would not seem to be a very good way to proceed because there will be a further delay.

The court did not take issue with the Government's policy and what was behind it, but it did take issue with the consultation process. This is a golden opportunity to do it right because when the Government brought in that policy it was a blunt instrument that affected a certain number of trawlers over 80 m which fish sustainably. Those fishermen were caught in that overall ban, including one earning a livelihood on the Aran Islands and others in the south west and so on. Unfortunately, those trawlers were caught. The real issue was the non-sustainable fishing of sprat, on which the ecosystem is dependent. The bigger boats, by and large, take in the sprat in an unsustainable way for fish meal, while it is caught for human consumption by the smaller fishermen. The consultation process was faulty. There were 900 submissions, the vast majority of them begging the Government to bring in a sustainable policy. This is a chance to go back and look at the small number of trawlers that were unfortunately caught by the blunt instrument, separate from the industrial trawlers or those carrying out fishing on an industrial basis.

There are clearly a number of issues that must be considered by the Department following the judgment. The Department clearly has to assess the implications for other trawlers and fishermen moving forward.

Has there been an appeal?

As I said, I will engage with the Minister and will come back to the Deputy on the policy position the Department will adopt in response to the court decision and how it intends to proceed into the future.