Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

I am sure the Taoiseach will agree that the courage and resilience shown by the family of Pat Finucane in their battle with the British state is inspirational. Pat Finucane was killed in February 1989 by a UDA death squad working in collusion with RUC special branch, the British Army's force reconnaissance unit and the British state. For three decades, like so many others, the family have fought a formidable campaign seeking a public inquiry into Pat's killing. Despite incontrovertible evidence that British state agents were directly involved in authorising and planning the killing, successive British Governments have blushed and stalled to prevent this.

An outcome of the Weston Park talks in 2001 was to appoint a judge to make recommendations on the need for public inquiries into a number of conflict-related deaths and, where required, that the relevant Government would implement the recommendation. Judge Peter Cory reported on 1 April 2004 and recommended a public inquiry into the killing of Patrick Finucane. That was more than 16 years ago. In 2012, the then British Prime Minister, David Cameron, acknowledged that there had been, as he put it, shocking levels of collusion in this killing. That was eight years ago. The British Supreme Court ruled in February last year that all previous investigations into the killing of Pat Finucane were incapable of establishing the full facts and failed to meet the standards of Article 2 of the European Convention on Human Rights. Pat's widow, Geraldine, had to bring a judicial review against the British Secretary of State for his failure to act on this decision. On 11 October last, the barrister acting for the Secretary of State told the court a decision on an inquiry would be taken on or before 30 November. That is next Monday and the family are still waiting.

The EU Council of Ministers has expressed its deep concern that a decision still has not been taken by the British Government. That is a concern we all share. Only a public inquiry can assist the family to get the truth. The Finucane family have spoken truth to power for 30 years. They have not been and will not be silenced. Their questions deserve answers and their questions will not go away. The British Government has an obligation to ensure that the truth is told. I have written to the British Prime Minister urging that his Government fulfil Britain's international human rights obligations and hold a public inquiry.

I also wrote to the Taoiseach last week and I asked him to engage with Mr. Johnson at this critical juncture. I know the Taoiseach met with the Finucane family yesterday. I know they have thanked him for his support and, in particular, they thanked him for his commitment to engage with Boris Johnson ahead of the 30 November deadline. It is incredibly important that the demand for a public inquiry has the full weight of the office of An Taoiseach behind it. It is also important that there is a unified stance from the whole Oireachtas in support of the Finucane family. It is in that spirit that I ask the Taoiseach when he will make this urgent contact with Mr. Johnson. Will he make it absolutely clear to the British Prime Minister that a full public inquiry must happen as soon as possible because the Finucane family has already waited far too long?

I thank the Deputy for raising this very important issue. I agree with the Deputy that there must be a full public inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane - a husband, a father, a brother and a son. Such a public inquiry, as the Deputy said, was provided for in the agreement reached between the Irish and British Governments at Weston Park in 2001. The Oireachtas is of one mind on this. We have reaffirmed this view many times over the years and we will do so again this week with an agreed motion in Seanad Éireann.

This is an important week for the Finucane family. The Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, has committed to taking a decision on whether to order a public inquiry before the end of November. As the Deputy said, this follows the judicial review of the UK Supreme Court decision in regard to the inadequacy of previous reviews into this murder. Our Government has reaffirmed our position on this issue to the Secretary of State through the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I will engage with the British Prime Minister on this issue and making very clear the consistent view of successive Irish Governments that there should, and must, be a full public inquiry into the murder of Pat Finucane. I also know the leaders of the SDLP, the Alliance Party and the Green Party, with Sinn Féin, have jointly communicated their support for a full public inquiry.

Yesterday, I sat down with Pat's wife, Geraldine, and her son, John, and I made it very clear to them that they would have the full weight of the Taoiseach's office behind their endeavour. For more than 30 years, Geraldine Finucane and her family have campaigned tirelessly to get to the truth of what happened to Pat. It has been a very long journey and they have conducted it with great dignity and determination. The Irish Government has walked with them on that journey and we will continue to do so until the commitments entered into at Weston Park are honoured. That is our commitment.

We note this battle is taking place also in Europe, where, in September, the Council of Europe’s committee of ministers expressed their deep concern that a decision has still not been made by the United Kingdom authorities on how to respond to the UK Supreme Court judgement of 2019.

That is the position right now. We will engage with the British Prime Minister. Given the extraordinary perseverance of the Finucane family, in my view, it is now more than timely for the British Government to respond appropriately in establishing a full public inquiry.

I thank the Taoiseach for that. From day one, as he knows, the British Government has resisted revealing the truth on the killing of Pat Finucane. In 2012, his wife, Geraldine, said:

At every turn, dead witnesses have been blamed and defunct agencies found wanting. Serving personnel and active state departments appear to have been excused. The dirt has been swept under the carpet without any serious attempt to lift the lid on what really happened to Pat and so many others.

I am sure that everyone in the Dáil hopes that the British Government will now stop resisting the truth and that Mr. Johnson will announce a full public inquiry because, as I have said and as the Taoiseach has so graciously reiterated, the Finucane family should not have to suffer any longer. They should not have to fight any longer. All the lies, bluffing and stalling have to end. Only the truth will give them peace. I ask the Taoiseach again to do everything he can to ensure they finally have that.

I certainly will. There is a very important aspect to this also. Where sovereign governments enter into agreements, they should be adhered to and followed through. The Irish Government at the time entered into its commitments and it established the Smithwick inquiry, irrespective of where it would land and without fear or favour. The same should apply to the UK Government. In the conduct of international affairs and relationships between two sovereign friendly nations a basic tenet of such relationships should be that if we enter into agreements, they should be honoured. As a former Minister for Foreign Affairs, I pursued this at the time and met with quite considerable resistance. If the Deputy recalls, at that time the Bloody Sunday inquiry was coming to a conclusion. That may have been a context for the wider British response. There may be other factors that we all know about that may be hindering the right decision being made but, suffice to say, I believe it is important that the British Government would adhere to commitments given solemnly in respect of an overarching agreement that has worked for the benefit of all the people on this island and enhanced the relationships between the people living on these islands. It is in that spirit that I ask the British Prime Minister and the British Government to do the right thing on this occasion and establish a full public inquiry.

Events of the past few weeks with regard to an appointment to the Supreme Court have put the spotlight very much on the relationship between the Government and Oireachtas and the Judiciary. They have certainly created problems for both and potentially brought both into disrepute. There is no doubt that we need to deal with the issue at hand, in particular the appointment to the Supreme Court, but we also need to see the much-needed and long-promised reform of the relationship between the Oireachtas and the Judiciary. There is no doubt but that the Dáil and the public are entitled to know the process by which an appointment was made to the Supreme Court. Regrettably, the Minister for Justice has refused to outline that process to us and to abide by the long-established tradition where a Minister comes into the House and explains his or her actions to ensure accountability to this House. I am saying to the Taoiseach, respectfully, that he needs to ensure that his Minister for Justice abides by that tradition of being accountable to the House. It is a requirement of a Minister and a requirement of the Taoiseach that he ensure that that opportunity is provided to Members of this House. We have to end the charade of the Minister talking about coming in and answering questions under the regular arrangements for oral questions. That just does not wash. It is not acceptable by any standards and the Taoiseach needs to end that charade.

We need to have a full explanation as to the criteria or the matrix that were used in identifying why one person was appointed to the Supreme Court as opposed to the other three candidates who had applied. I stress that I am talking about the process, not the merits of one individual over another. We also need an explanation of the reason the Minister did not inform other party leaders within the coalition about the existence of those other candidates.

The question which then arises is whether, in the absence of information about potential candidates, the Cabinet was actually capable of exercising collective responsibility under the Constitution. The other issue that we need an explanation in respect of is why there was a 12-month delay in filling a vacancy on the Supreme Court which first arose in June 2019. For all of those reasons, I ask the Taoiseach to respect this House and arrange for the Minister to come in and take questions in the normal manner.

I have answered questions on this issue on a number of occasions, as has the Tánaiste. The Minister for Justice will answer parliamentary questions in respect of it. I note what the Deputy has said in the context of the word "criteria". Criteria are not about process, they involve judgment calls in respect of candidates.

The criteria are all about process. One cannot have a process without them.

It then moves into breaching the separation of powers between the Oireachtas and the Judiciary.

(Interruptions).

Deputy Kelly, who is interrupting, knows the process full well.

I do. I explained it to the Taoiseach last week.

One name is always brought to the Cabinet and the Cabinet decides on that one name which is brought by the Minister for Justice. I do not understate the importance of the recommendation of the Judicial Appointments Advisory Board, which made a recommendation that Mr. Justice Woulfe be appointed to the Supreme Court as a suitable candidate.

It made that recommendation on 9 March. That board is chaired by the Chief Justice and includes among its members the presidents of four courts.

The Taoiseach is mixing it up.

The Taoiseach is insulting people's intelligence.

That is a significant body of opinion to recommend a candidate as being suitable for the Supreme Court.

I accept that the overall situation needs to be reformed, which is why the Government will shortly bring forward the Judicial Appointments Commission Bill. We will make amendments to the legislation that was piloted through the House by the former Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Shane Ross. At the time, I believed that the balance in the context of that legislation was wrong. The Government is of the opinion that the Chief Justice should chair such a commission for judicial appointments. The new legislation will be brought before the House as soon as it is ready. I accept the need for broader reform in the context of judicial appointments. The Constitution is clear about the manner in which judges are appointed and the Cabinet taking decisions in that regard. The name of Mr. Justice Woulfe was brought before the Cabinet and the Cabinet decided to appoint him to the Supreme Court in accordance with the Constitution and the law.

I ask the Taoiseach not to insult people's intelligence.

He is playing into the false narrative that his Fine Gael colleagues have been peddling for the past couple of weeks. It is beneath him to be doing that. I have appealed to the Taoiseach. He has a responsibility to Members of this House to ensure that the Minister is accountable to the House. I ask the Taoiseach to provide that opportunity for accountability. The Minister for Justice has refused to make herself amenable to accountability. The Ceann Comhairle, in upholding the rights of Members of this House, has been clear in setting out the requirements for accountability. I ask the Taoiseach to respect that, to respect this House and to insist that the Minister for Justice come here to make a statement and subject herself to questions and answers. We are entitled to that. It is nothing less than what we are entitled to. If the Taoiseach continues to refuse to allow that accountability, he will continue to damage the relationship between and reputation of the House and the Judiciary. I ask the Taoiseach to accede to the requests from all parties for the Minister to do her duty and for him to do his in order to ensure that this House operates properly.

My overarching objective in the context of this entire situation, and in particular the publication of letters between the Chief Justice and Mr. Justice Woulfe has been to uphold separation of powers between the Oireachtas and the Judiciary. I take that very seriously.

That has been my motivation from the beginning in the handling of this issue and was the motivation behind my statement to the House last week on this issue and it remains my overarching objective. I have not seen in the past in this House Ministers answering questions about specific judicial appointments.

The Taoiseach without interruption, please.

That said, the Minister, Deputy McEntee, is prepared to come in and answer questions on process as part of her normal questions.

The Taoiseach is around a long time.

Is it beyond the Deputy’s capacity to take questions?

Please, the Taoiseach without interruption.

Just because Deputy Kelly shouts louder than others sometimes does not mean that he is right. That type of browbeating does not work with me Deputy Kelly.

That is beneath the Taoiseach.

I make the point and I have made it repeatedly, Mr. Justice Woulfe was appointed appropriately in accordance with the Constitution and with the law and of that there is no doubt. If one reads the Cabinet Handbook it states that very clearly.

Do your job, Taoiseach.

Do your job, Taoiseach.

It is insulting. The Taoiseach is letting down the institutions of the State.

He is letting himself down.

In the House on 3 November, I pointed out to An Taoiseach that we need to use Irish data to inform Irish decisions and not continue to rely on NPHET advice, which is based on what the EU health authorities are saying.

On 6 November at a meeting with the Taoiseach, he will recall that I questioned Dr. Holohan, the Chief Medical Officer, on his presentation as to why the rate of decline of Covid-19 infection in Dublin had stalled. While I did not get an answer I specifically stated that we needed to have a further meeting to go into those figures. That did not happen. However, the rate of infection in Dublin continued to stagnate and we now see the same situation being replicated across our country.

Yesterday morning Microsoft announced that it is to create 200 software engineering jobs to support, among other things, cloud services for its global customers. The HSE is one of those customers using its Microsoft dynamics CRM, customer relationship management package. This is a system designed to help companies manage and maintain customer relationships and deliver actionable data. As we speak we have over 500 people working in 11 contact tracing centres inputting large volumes of data every minute on to this system. This data has the capacity to generate reports on who, where and how people are getting infected with Covid-19.

This is information that the Government urgently needs to make the right decisions on how we exit from the current lockdown, allow people to live again, allow businesses to open up and, more importantly, ensure that we do not face a further lockdown. To do that we need to know what this virus is doing in Ireland’s population, which is both geographically and culturally very different to other EU countries.

The Government will make decisions this week on an educated guess, on anecdotal evidence, on partial data but sadly, not with all of the hard, cold facts. It is akin to making up a flatpack kitchen but refusing to look at the instructions. While a bit of putty will cover over any mistakes in making up a kitchen, if this Government and its unaccountable advisers get this wrong, then our children and their children will be paying for it.

Who is interrogating this Microsoft dynamics CRM to generate the data on what is actually happening with Covid-19 in Ireland to provide the evidence for the policy decisions that the Taoiseach’s Government will make later this week?

My first point is that we should stand back from creating unnecessary rows and tensions between public health advice, Government decisions and the views of the Oireachtas. I accept that people have different perspectives on Covid-19 and the steps we must take to keep the virus down, open up society and relax restrictions.

We should never question the good faith of people on all sides, particularly in the public health realm and NPHET, whose fundamental objective is to protect lives and public health. We should not lose sight of that in the debate.

Second, the Deputy is correct in saying data are very important. We have done extra work in the past while in assessing data and doing work on them — it is essentially data analytics — within my Department and in conjunction with NPHET and others. The data will inform the next steps. That is an important point to make; it is not guesswork. Some of the steps may not be palatable while some will be. I said at the outset, when going into level 5, that we wanted to come out in or around level 3.

I can see that we are all fatigued by Covid but the bottom line is that Ireland is second best in Europe in dealing with the second wave. One would hardly realise that with the tension about the place, the attacks, criticism and giving out. I repeat that our performance is the second best in the European Union in terms of keeping the virus down. Will someone acknowledge that? I believe it needs to be acknowledged. Our figures are low because of a series of restrictions and the hard work of the Irish people. The Irish people have adhered to these restrictions, to be fair to them.

At a cost, yes. I accept that. It is a big cost but the Irish people are adhering and it is working. We would like the figures to be lower. I would prefer them to be lower again. They are still coming down. Last evening, the 14-day incidence per 100,000 was 108.7. Finland is ahead of us, with about 50 per 100,000. Other European countries are in a much more difficult space.

The big challenge for us as decision-makers in the Oireachtas is that what we do will pose risks as we move into December. There will be risks as we move into the Christmas period. How we mitigate those risks will be the key challenge facing us. Fundamentally, our job is to represent all the people of the country and to protect them and their livelihoods. There is an enormous economic cost to the restrictions, particularly in travel, tourism, hospitality, food and accommodation. This is where I sense the biggest impact has been. One should remember these level 5 restrictions have taken place in the context of the schools being reopened and staying open, which has been a tremendous boost to the parents of the children. Many of them have to go to work but would not be able to do so if schools were not open to the children in all the school communities. We have kept health services open alongside the Covid services, which was not the case in the first lockdown. Construction has kept going in terms of constructing badly needed houses and infrastructure. Manufacturing has continued.

Our job is to make decisions based on evidence. The Taoiseach should not allow himself to be fobbed him off and told the output from the CRM system is being used because it is not. The Health Protection Surveillance Centre is using data from a laboratory reporting system that was never designed for this pandemic. Hospital-based occupational health doctors and some public health doctors investigating outbreaks do not use the CRM so many other health-related outbreaks are not entered on it. We are still seeing a huge number of cases associated with hospitals and care homes, involving both patients and staff. From my investigations, I have learned Covid is spreading in these settings and spilling over from staff into communities. I understand that 12 hospitals currently have restrictions on elective procedures because of Covid outbreaks. If we were to use the data we have, it would allow the Taoiseach to tell the people with authority what they need to do to control this virus.

I thank the Deputy. I do not disagree with him on the utilisation of data to inform decision-making. That is important. Various sets of data can inform decisions. The Deputy is correct in saying there have been outbreaks in certain healthcare settings, which has been problematic for those settings in dealing with the normal throughput, services and so forth. To inform our decisions, our approach is based on analysing data.

Without question, I believe I am safe in saying that, after level 3, the decision to restrict visits to households was a key decision that impacted on reducing numbers, even prior to level 5 coming in. The spread within households has been significant overall in terms of the spread of the virus. I said yesterday - we can apply this to both households and other locations - that where we have gatherings associated with events and alcohol, we do get a spike. The data show that in certain areas and certain contexts fairly unequivocally. Deputy Naughten is correct in his broader point in terms of using data as best we can.

The higher we go in restrictions, the blunter an instrument they represent. Fundamentally, public health officials want congregation down as low as possible. That is up to us. People have been very good in adhering to this for six weeks. We are going to have to maintain our vigilance on this. The fact that vaccines are on the horizon should be a reason for doubling down now on best behaviour and ensuring we keep the virus as low as possible until we have more widespread use of the vaccine in the population.

Why the delay on details regarding the opening of hotels, public houses, restaurants and other businesses? If the intention is to open businesses for Christmas, why all the secrecy? If people are having a turkey for Christmas dinner, they will already be making plans for this. People make plans one month or five weeks in advance because they have to order the turkey or whatever food they will have for Christmas. Why? It is because of supply and demand.

Are there any considerations for the looming issue regarding the supply chain of food for hotels, pubs and restaurants for Christmas? Hotels, pubs and restaurants have not ordered food or drink from their suppliers for months. They still do not know whether they are opening. They cannot simply turn a switch and say they are opening tomorrow and expect all the suppliers to have stock for them. In preparation for the proposed opening up of the economy, hotels have contacted their suppliers. Suppliers have told the hotels they are unsure about the reopening and cannot judge the stock. They cannot guarantee supply. The knock-on effect is that there is no guarantee of supply.

Children all over the world send their letters to Santa Claus in advance. Why? It gives Santa Claus, Mrs. Claus and the elves due time so they can have the presents for the children on Christmas Day. Even the children around the world know this. Christmas is the busiest time of the year. People start planning to come home for Christmas up to 12 months in advance. We know that Christmas is different. What the Government has done to date has not worked. People will meet officially or unofficially. If the hotels, pubs and restaurants are open, we will have traceability and accountability.

The Government should work with what it has. There are 14,000 gardaí in Ireland, plus trainees. If the Government worked out the timetable, it would find out that at any one time we have a maximum of 6,000 gardaí on duty. That is approximately a ratio of people per garda of 900:1. If we work out the figures for hotels, pubs and restaurants, we quadruple traceability and accountability. We can work out the people who will not go to hotels and those who will not go to restaurants. It works out at between one and ten per person. We can then work out that we have 6,000 gardaí to go to where the problem lies at the moment, that is, where people are meeting for house parties. As the Taoiseach just mentioned, this is where the spike happens. The Government does not have the right number of people to quarantine what is in this country. The Taoiseach should use his head, common sense and a business approach and use what we have.

I accept the Deputy's overall point about preparation and the need to prepare.

Decisions will be made and announced by the Government in time for various sectors and actors to prepare in response to a Government announcement this week. I made it very clear five weeks ago that there would be a six-week application of level 5. I made it very clear in the first press conference that our objective was to arrive back at level 3 and see what we could do around that, depending on where the numbers were.

My focus has been to get the numbers down. That is Government's and society's focus and, as soon as one starts talking about relaxation two or three weeks out, that focus goes out the window. It is important we get the numbers down of a virus that is deadly, kills people, injures people long term and can do real damage. Sometimes in the debate, I feel that is getting lost. If I have to say it straight, I feel that key aspect of Covid is lost because of fatigue and the fact it is going on so long. That has to be our first motivation.

In terms of protection of livelihoods, if the virus gets to unmanageable levels, the economic damage will be far worse long term, as a consequential lockdown of a longer duration would be required. Ireland moved earlier than most European countries and is the better for having moved earlier with severe restrictions, while keeping aspects of our economy and social life open, in particular, schools.

It has been a tough sacrifice for people. I said earlier that the hospitality sector has borne the brunt of this because, in hospitality and tourism, people gather. Where people gather, the virus thrives, unfortunately. The Government has brought in unprecedented supports for sectors of the economy through the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, the temporary wage subsidy scheme, TWSS, the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and the new Covid restriction support scheme, CRSS, for those who have been closed long term or had very low turnover long term. The numbers are extraordinary by any yardstick, in terms of the scale of that intervention.

We understand the difficulties people are going through because of Covid-19. It has had a damaging impact on people's lives and livelihoods and different sectors of the economy. The Deputy said what is happening has not worked. It has worked. We were at 1,200 cases per day and that has come way down. I want to get that lower and that is our challenge. The challenge for December and beyond will be making sure that through our individual and collective behaviour we do not do things that cause the virus to rise again. It can rise quickly, as we know. That impacts on hospitalisations, on people's health and, ultimately, on the economy.

I have talked to several hotels in County Limerick, from three star to five star: Deebert House Hotel, Kilmallock, Woodland House Hotel, Adare, The Mustard Seed, Ballingarry, Rathkeale House Hotel, Longcourt House Hotel, Newcastle West, and the Devon Inn Hotel, Templeglantine. All these hotels are waiting for the lockdown to lift, in the hope of salvaging Christmas. I spoke at length to the manager of Adare Manor, where 600 people are employed, who told me what the Taoiseach talked about earlier on, if he mentioned the hotels were opening. The Taoiseach had a channel to get to the hotels, restaurants and businesses and tell them that if the level 5 restrictions hold the numbers to a certain level, they would then be allowed to open. Then the hotels could gauge it themselves and prepare going forward. However, everything is a secret and the Government expects it can turn a switch and everything will be rosy and things will happen straight away. The Taoiseach had the mechanism within his Department to go to dialogue and give the information to the hoteliers and businesses and tell them if we reach certain numbers, we will go to level 3; if we reach different numbers, we will go to level 4. Then they could prepare for it. That is called giving people personal responsibility. Empower the people. People are not fools in Ireland. They want to keep themselves safe and the Taoiseach can then use what force is necessary for the minority who will not do it.

First of all, in terms of mechanisms and so on, we have made many public statements. People have tracked the status of the virus over the last number of weeks in terms of numbers coming down. When we reopened after the first lockdown - go right through the summer into September and October - restrictions were lifted and certain things happened, notwithstanding all the dialogue in the world. All of the Deputies know this in terms of certain locations, certain events. It is not a secret how spikes happened in certain locations and how the virus went up. There is no secrecy here. I made it very clear at the beginning that we were going to level 5 and would try to exit at level 3. We will be giving the sectors proper notice in advance of an easing of the restrictions and an exiting from level 5.