Ceisteanna ar Reachtaíocht a Gealladh - Questions on Promised Legislation

Last week, we had the very welcome news of an agreement on the Irish protocol. While we still need to see the detail and how it will be implemented in practice, such progress is important for everyone on the island. From speaking to people in Brussels this morning, it appears that there has been movement over the past 24 hours, at least in principle, on the level playing field and governance, providing some level of optimism that a deal might still be possible. However, given the shortness of time, if there is not an agreement by the end of the week, it is unlikely that the ratification process will happen this year. Could the Taoiseach give us an update on progress in the talks? Does he have a view on the possible extension of the transition period or the provisional application of the treaty until ratification can take place in January?

I thank Deputy McDonald for raising the issue. I agree that the news last week of a conclusion to the negotiations on the protocol and the withdrawal agreement was very good news. Both sides deserve commendation in terms of the constructive way that they engaged. The indications were good prior to signing off on that agreement which was important in terms of the experience on the post-Brexit island of Ireland. The fact that both sides are still in negotiations is a good sign. It gives me greater hope than I had last week that a resolution can potentially be found to the very difficult and challenging issue of a level playing field and fisheries and a dispute resolution mechanism to deal with that. It is important that both sides get it right and that they concentrate on getting a deal. If they can get a deal over the line, subsequent to that, it is a matter for the member states and others then to work out how we deal with that procedurally.

Thanks to the pressure of the German Minister for health, the European Commission has brought forward the approval process for the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine to 21 December. We all hope it will be approved and we are aware that it will then take a day or two for the market authorisation. Does the Taoiseach agree with the Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, that there is a strong possibility that we will be in a position in this country to vaccinate some citizens on the priority list before the end of this year?

Yes, we may very well be. It depends on what happens on 21 December. The European Council discussed the matter last week. We made it very clear that there would be no pressure on the European Medicines Agency in making its decision, although we were conscious that the FDA's decision on the Pfizer-BioNTech vaccine was coming sooner. Then there are the logistics of transporting the vaccine. There is every possibility now that it may indeed be the case that some people may get vaccinated before the end of the year.

I think all of us across the Chamber can agree that a monumental effort by all staff - teachers, SNAs and others throughout the school community - has gone into keeping schools open throughout the pandemic. I note that today, UNICEF has called for teachers, and I imagine also SNAs, to be prioritised in the roll-out of the vaccine.

In terms of the provisional order in which people will be vaccinated that has just been released, key workers in essential jobs who cannot avoid a high risk of exposure are No. 10 and people working in education are No. 11. How do we differentiate between essential workers and teachers? If possible, could we consider teachers and SNAs as front-line staff in terms of prioritisation for vaccination so that we can continue to keep schools open?

The strategy and sequencing of who gets the vaccine first is a live document. Some of it will depend on the availability, manufacturing and volumes of vaccines that will come into the country at particular stages. As I said yesterday morning, January and February will see limited supplies, relatively speaking, although I hope we should have enough to get all our nursing home residents and staff vaccinated.

I said last week that the national immunisation advisory committee was involved in this decision and it is a body with long-standing experience in immunisation matters with the HSE and the National Public Health Emergency Team, NPHET. As far as possible, we should allow the public health specialists to determine the sequencing. It is based really on the vaccine being particularly effective in preventing ill health from the virus and reducing symptoms. That seems to be its stronger quality. Again, the experts would take questions from the Deputy and others on this.

I raise with the Taoiseach the treatment of Aer Lingus workers by company management. For five months now they have been blocked by management from getting the short-time working payment to which they are entitled. Workers have been providing the relevant UP12 forms to the company with the details of the reduced hours they are on. However, the company has not been forwarding that information accurately to the Department of Social Protection. Instead, continuously and consistently, the company has put the wrong information on the forms, indicating that workers have been doing full hours while they have only been on 50% of total hours. The workers fear there is an attempt effectively to starve them out of the company and replace them with new workers on worse terms and conditions.

The company is in receipt of substantial State money through the temporary Covid-19 wage subsidy scheme, so will the Government intervene immediately to ensure the forms are filled out correctly and workers can get the money they are owed for Christmas or else threaten to freeze the funds?

In terms of any issues between Aer Lingus and employees, we implore all employers to treat their employees properly and fairly. I do not have the specifics of the case and it is not a legislative matter because there is no legislation promised on the matter as outlined. If the Deputy wishes to make a submission to the Government on that, he may do so.

The Taoiseach knows with the rolling out of the vaccine programme that informed consent will be vital. Where older people in nursing homes may have dementia, for example, or where some older people may be unsure if they will avail of the vaccine, will the Taoiseach assure the House that older people will not be told that access to visitors is dependent on them availing of the vaccination programme and that there will be proper informed consent in the administration of the vaccine in nursing homes throughout the country?

I do not know who has suggested that.

Is the Taoiseach going to answer the question?

I am answering it rhetorically. I am slightly concerned that such ideas are being put out there without any source or origin. Nobody is suggesting-----

How are we going to deal with informed consent?

The strategy has a very clear ethical framework governing informed consent and that deals very much with the matters raised by the Deputy. Informed consent is essential and it is an ethical requirement in administering the vaccine. Nobody has suggested that somebody might be denied a visitor because he or she does not want the vaccine. It is outrageous to suggest or imply that. I do not know who said it.

We do not have any other mechanism to raise such matters.

The Deputy knows he does. He is an experienced Deputy.

I have been at this for 18 years.

A company in Tipperary called KB Sports is owned by Mr. Kieran Bergin and it has become involved with online trading and parcel delivery. It has 16 workers and is to employ 17 more. The company has a large number of deliveries to make as it is one of the top 50 online shippers in Ireland. It has hundreds or thousands of deliveries to make.

The company was informed by An Post out of the blue that the final shipping date for Christmas was 14 December. It was not made aware of that date beforehand. The company decided to go with An Post because it wanted to deal with local businesses. We salute all the fir an phoist agus mná poist for the work they do, but this is shocking. The company has committed to make deliveries all over world, including to clubs and families, but this cannot be done. There is going to be a huge breach of faith that will be very damaging to that wonderful new company that adapted to the lockdown to help people. This is very serious.

I do not know the details of the case. I do not know if the Deputy has contacted An Post but I suggest he should do so urgently on behalf of the company.

It can do as it likes.

I cannot deal with every individual decision of every semi-State body and its operational decisions.

The final report of the Special Committee on Covid-19 Response recommended a move away from residential care towards care in the community for elderly people. In part, this was based on its interim report but it was also influenced by the Covid-19 nursing homes expert panel report. There are various reports going back to Time to Move on from Congregated Settings - A Strategy for Community Inclusion, a HSE report from 2011. Today, the Sage Advocacy group again called for greater choice to be provided to our elderly people in the care they receive. Will the Government introduce legislation to allow care in the community for people so they will have a meaningful choice rather than being forced into residential care settings?

The Government is disposed, especially with the option in the fair deal scheme, to people having the option of home care-based supports. As the Deputy knows, in the recent budget there was a record allocation to home care packages and interventions in the community. It appears that is having an impact with a better flow in the hospital system and reduced waiting times for people on trolleys compared with this time last year. That is relative to admission rates as well. There is a commitment to look at giving legislative provision for home care.

On 28 December 1972, a bomb that originated in County Fermanagh caused the deaths of Geraldine O'Reilly and Paddy Stanley in Belturbet, County Cavan, while injuring many other people. Unfortunately, nobody has ever been brought to justice for this heinous crime and there has never been a proper or thorough investigation in Northern Ireland into the persons responsible for this activity.

On 10 September, during oral questions to the Minister for Justice, I brought to the attention of the House new information that had come to me through the work of Dr. Edward Burke of the University of Nottingham regarding collusion between British state forces and loyalist paramilitaries in Northern Ireland relating to bombings in the southern Border counties. Will the Taoiseach pursue again with the Northern Ireland and British authorities the need to have proper, full and thorough investigations into the bombing in Belturbet? The least the O'Reilly and Stanley families deserve is the truth and the identity of the reprehensible people who caused the deaths of two young innocent people. It is never too late to get the truth.

Last night "RTÉ Investigates" very powerfully demonstrated the horror, trauma and tragedy of the killings of Geraldine O'Reilly, who was 15, and Paddy Stanley, who was 16, in the Belturbet bombings 48 years ago. Nobody has been convicted. To compound the grief further, the families have suffered further because An Garda Síochána will not disclose the contents of the reports of the investigation to the families because it is still considered live, which is utterly wrong 48 years later. As we know, the Belturbet bombing was later added to the interim report on the Dublin and Monaghan bombings.

I ask the Taoiseach today for a proper and full investigation into this atrocity, the murder of two innocent teenagers. It is never too late to do the right thing and full, open and transparent reports should be made available to the O'Reilly and Stanley families so we can bring peace to their minds.

I thank the Deputies for raising this matter, the murder of two young innocent people in Belturbet in 1972. The victims were two teenagers, Geraldine O'Reilly and Patrick Stanley. It was a reprehensible crime. Deputies Smith and Smyth have been pursuing the matter for quite some time and the Garda investigation remains open. I will pursue the matter with the British authorities and the authorities in Northern Ireland.

I accept the point made by both Deputies that the families involved have been left with no answers. Unfortunately, in recent times we have had a number of cases where families have not gotten closure. This involves the British Government but also the non-State actors who continue to stay silent about what they know. They need to start living up to their obligations in terms of telling people what they know about heinous crimes of this kind. In this particular case I will do everything I possibly can to see if we can get further answers for the families.

Unfortunately we have run out of time so the matter to be raised by Deputy Danny Healy-Rae will be dealt with tomorrow.