Ceisteanna - Questions

Cabinet Committees

Alan Kelly

Question:

1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and Investment last met; and when it next plans to meet. [13097/21]

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and Investment will next meet. [16849/21]

Matt Carthy

Question:

3. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee dealing with infrastructure last met; and when it will next meet. [19937/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

4. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with the economy will next meet. [20474/21]

I propose to take questions Nos. 1 to 4, inclusive, together.

The cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment has been established and first met on 8 July. It has met on a total of 11 occasions, most recently on 12 April.

The next meeting is scheduled for 6 May. Membership of the committee is comprised of the Taoiseach; the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Employment and Trade; the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications and the Minister for Transport; the Minister for Finance; the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform; and the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. Other Ministers or Ministers of State attend when required.

The Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment is responsible for issues relating to the economy and investment, and had an initial focus last year on developing the July jobs stimulus. Its work programme also includes the development of a national economic and recovery plan, which will aim to support recovery in employment and business activity later this year, with a particular focus on digitalisation and decarbonisation and the ongoing review of the national development plan itself.

Issues relevant to infrastructure can arise, as required, at a number of Cabinet committees, most notably the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment, but also in other Cabinet committees, such as the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change and the Cabinet committee on housing. Issues relating to the economy, investment, and infrastructure are regularly discussed at full Cabinet meetings, where all formal decisions are ultimately made.

The stability programme update was published last week. It contained scary figures on employment for this year and next year. Unemployment is projected at over 16% this year, falling to over 8% in 2022. Young people have been especially hard-hit by this pandemic. They have been hard-hit in their education and work prospects as well as rents and the prices of homes and into the near future I predict evictions. Young people are over-represented in insecure and low-paid employment, despite a high level of education, skill and enthusiasm for the future. The pandemic has delayed a generation of talented youth from entering into and engaging fully with the workforce. This will have a massive knock-on effect on future earnings and progression. Nearly 60% of young people aged 15 to 24 are out of work with young women even worse affected.

This is becoming no country for young people. We need a new deal for a new generation. I feel strongly on this; I have raised it previously at Leaders Questions and I will keep doing so. There must be comprehensive Government action to avoid a scarred generation. We need to know what the plan is. We have heard talk about solidarity taxes being floated. The Taoiseach might share his views on that. We have also heard talk of reopening, with many closed sectors of the economy potentially starting again but what level of restart grants will be provided for those retail, hospitality and other services, such as hairdressers, that have been closed? As part of a national recovery and resilience plan due to be published next month, we really want to know what investment is planned to ensure high quality future employment prospects for our youth. What sort of reachback will we put in place to ensure our youth are protected and to ensure that we can catch up in the coming year and give them prospects in this country?

We have a number of Members offering so I propose that we will have one minute for the question because if all ask questions then the Taoiseach will have no time to answer. If Members want to hear an answer we should stick to one minute per question.

The easing of restrictions and the reopening of society open up an opportunity to reset the economy and to rebuild in a way that represents a necessary departure from Government policy thus far on the Taoiseach's watch and from the approach of previous Governments. This will, by definition, mean a more active State with more intervention and less sitting on the sidelines. I raised the area of housing with the Taoiseach earlier, which is essential, including the rental sector, and also the affordability of accommodation. In other words, we need to move away from a world in which co-living is advanced as the new normal into a space where appropriate, sustainable, safe and secure accommodation is provided and regarded as a right rather than a luxury. I mention the area of working life, the gig economy, insecure employment and low pay. All of these things have to be tackled and they have a particular resonance for younger people and workers. I mention the areas of childcare, early education, the rights of children and their economic entitlements and recognition and supports for parents. I ask that there will be some form of recognition, namely a bonus for front-line workers who have seen us through the hardest and worst of times. That needs to be advanced. I would like to hear the Taoiseach's thinking on what that might look like.

Can the Taoiseach inform us whether the Cabinet committee that deals with infrastructure has discussed the issue of the North-South interconnector? The decision by EirGrid to underground the Kildare and Meath high voltage power lines means that the North-South interconnector is the only project in EirGrid's GRID25 plans that it intends to pursue using overhead, pylon supported power lines.

The Taoiseach knows, because I am sure his representatives have told him, that there is huge community anger and frustration with the lack of engagement from and the arrogance of EirGrid. We are told that the Taoiseach committed to a Fianna Fáil parliamentary party meeting that there would be a review into that decision, something that I cautiously welcomed. Yet, the Minister responsible has indicated that this review will just be a review of previous reviews and that it is full steam ahead as far as this project is concerned. Will the Taoiseach commit to adhering to his pre-election commitment to carry out a full feasibility analysis to underground this project, in recognition that it is only through the undergrounding of the North-South interconnector that the project will be delivered at all?

One of the sickest aspects of our economy is the fact that property speculators and vulture funds can make money and profit from putting people who have done nothing wrong on the street. The Taoiseach and his Government continue to facilitate that, despite desperate pleas from myself and others about their failure to close loopholes in the Residential Tenancies Act 2020 that allow this to happen, most recently with the decision to end the Covid related eviction ban on the grounds that the 5 km rule has been lifted. Tomorrow, eight residents of the Saint Helen's Court complex in Dún Laoghaire, who have always paid their rent and who have done nothing wrong, including pensioners, workers, ordinary people and families with kids, are due to be evicted. This will happen because the Government has lifted that eviction ban and because it failed to close the loopholes that are being utilised by Mill Street Projects Ltd., a vulture fund which wants to put people on the street to maximise the value of the property.

I also heard from a young woman this week whose father died in homeless services, who has herself been homeless for most of her life and whose sister's son died in homeless services. She is also due to be evicted next Monday because of the lifting of the 5 km rule. She has lived in homeless accommodation for most of her life, as has her sister. For the first time she had a housing assistance payment, HAP, property, which she was paying the rent for. She has done nothing wrong and now she will be evicted. She also informs me that two of her friends will be evicted from other HAP properties, the same HAP that is supposed to be the social housing solution. What kind of sick economy is that? Never mind the lack of human conscience of the people who would do that to other individuals but what is the Government going to do to stop these brutal and inhumane evictions that are driven by the profit greed of vulture funds and property speculators?

I have five further Members offering and we have five and a half minutes left in the slot. Do we want to take five or ten minutes from the remaining two blocks of questions? There is 15 minutes for each block. Is that agreed or will we go back to the Taoiseach now to hear his response and not hear the five other Members?

Is it agreed to have five minutes for each?

We will have 45 minutes on one subject so.

It is immaterial to me what Deputies do but if they are going to ask the Taoiseach questions, it is quite reasonable that they give him time to answer.

We only need to stick to the time limits.

Can we take five minutes off each block and add ten minutes to this? I ask Deputies to be brief.

The past 14 months of the pandemic have demonstrated how essential some of our workers, who work in retail and other industries that have traditionally been defined by low pay, are. When will we see the introduction of a living wage in this country? Will it be in the lifetime of this Government?

The economic impact of Covid has been shouldered overwhelmingly by ordinary workers and young people, lower paid workers in particular, while a tiny elite of billionaires have actually profited greatly. New figures from Forbes show that the wealth of billionaires increased by more than 60% during the pandemic. Denis O'Brien, owner of the Beacon Hospital and much more, is now €1.4 billion richer than a year ago. His wealth has increased by €4 million every day in the last year but we still have no wealth tax on millionaires in this country. Even the IMF has now called for wealth taxes. The Minister of State, Deputy Joe O'Brien, has called for a solidarity tax. Does the Taoiseach agree that we now need to introduce a wealth tax on the super-rich in this country to raise money that could be invested in an eco-socialist green new deal to invest in green jobs, education and an Irish NHS? Billionaires are not essential workers; public services and climate action are essential.

Just as the shocking unemployment figures, showing that 59.2% of young people now stand unemployed, have been revealed to us, the Government intends to contract out the local employment services many of which are run by local partnerships. When the Taoiseach was in opposition, I sat on the social protection committee chaired by a Fianna Fáil Deputy and well attended by Fianna Fáil Members, all of whom opposed the JobPath model mainly run by Seetec and Turas Nua which was basically a punitive model that chased the unemployed down, punished them and made them feel guilty for being unemployed as against the local employment services, LES, model which have local knowledge and encourage local development. They are big enough, small enough and compassionate enough. They understand and engage with people to the degree that 89% of those who go through their services found satisfactory decent jobs and 83% of employers found them as a recruitment mechanism very satisfactory to deal with.

Given the "I, Daniel Blake" phenomenon of the experience of JobPath, will the Government now abandon plans to privatise and tender out our local employment services and look to the partnerships that have been working? Their model has been up to standard in the local communities, both rural and urban. If they have been working, the Government does not need to try to fix them.

Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael are looking to build 409 pylons throughout Meath, Cavan and Monaghan, and then on into Armagh and Tyrone. They will be up to 51 m high and carry 400,000 volts, in some cases only 13 m from people's homes. In the communities along the curtilage of this interconnector there is widespread fear and opposition with concerns over health and the costs to homes, businesses and farms in those communities.

Aontú has prepared a Bill seeking a proper analysis of the true cost of overgrounding which we believe would lead to the undergrounding of this. We have done something strange. We invited all Deputies in the Dáil to sign our Bill. So far, only one Deputy in any of those constituencies has signed. No Fianna Fáil or Fine Gael Deputies have signed the Bill even though they stood in campaign meetings across those constituencies saying they would go to the barricades in support of the communities. Will the Taoiseach help us get this Bill through the Dáil?

I signed that Bill on behalf of Sinn Féin. The review of the North-South interconnector presents an opportunity to get this right once and for all. That opportunity should be grasped. If the review happens as outlined by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, at the committee that discussed the Estimates last night, it will not amount to a hill of beans. In fact, it will be a pointless waste of time. A short desktop review of the existing reviews will not do. We have an opportunity now. I encourage the Taoiseach to take that opportunity to work with the local communities to deliver a review that will see this project delivered underground. Any real review will identify that as the way forward. It will identify it as being cost-effective and feasible, and in real terms the only way that this project will be delivered.

That is quite a raft of questions for the Taoiseach.

Deputy Kelly asked about the stability programme update and the implications for unemployment. The Government is very seized of the very serious unemployment situation because of the impact of the pandemic on the economy and society in general, particularly for young people. I have said that we need a new deal for young people emerging from the pandemic. It is a new deal that needs to create a society that encompasses education, employment and quality-of-life issues as we emerge from the Covid-19 pandemic. The Government's economic recovery plan focuses on areas such as creating jobs in the green economy, and the digital transformation particularly of public services and also our society more generally. In that respect, the implementation of the broadband plan will be essential.

An early manifestation of that commitment came with the apprenticeship programme launched by the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, and the Minister of State, Deputy Niall Collins. That is a very expanded apprenticeship programme and internship programme, particularly within the State service. The number of apprentices within Government agencies and semi-State bodies had declined. The apprenticeship strategy now is designed to increase that to 750 per annum within the public service and State agencies but also to reach a figure of 10,000 apprentices per annum in the coming years, which will create opportunities for young people. The recovery plan is designed to create a pathway towards employment creation in the coming years to get back to pre-pandemic employment levels over time.

Deputies Kelly and McDonald also asked about the opening up and easing of restrictions. Both those Deputies had become converted to the zero-Covid strategy; I do not know what their views on that are now. Prior to the end of March, we said that by the end of April we would consider the reopening of hairdressers and barbers, and that whole area of personal services. We understand that hairdressers and barbers, in particular, have been under extraordinary pressures in respect of their businesses and enterprises. We will obviously take health advice, but we want to be in a position next week where we can hopefully signal positive news to hairdressers and barbers, but that will obviously depend on how we progress in suppressing the virus in the coming period.

Considerable progress has been made in reducing the numbers, particularly the numbers of people in hospital and in ICUs. By and large, the people have adhered to the regulations and guidelines. That has yielded dividends and has enabled us to be in a position to at least consider and examine the sectors that we could reopen. A number of people identified that area.

Regarding the emerging economy, as I said, the green economy and digital transformation are two key themes. My Department is also working on a well-being framework to analyse how society measures up, not just the economy and GDP but actually the quality of life within society.

In all of the contributions, Deputies spoke about unemployment. The level of State intervention in the past year has been unprecedented. The level of supports from the State for workers in particular has been unprecedented and will continue. The allocation this year for housing is in excess of €3.3 billion, for homelessness in particular. I agree we have more work to do in terms of homelessness. Everything we do has to be within the law and within the constitutional framework. Deputy Boyd Barrett knows that, but tends to ignore it in all of his contributions and wants to brand the Government in a certain way. The Government wants to reduce homelessness progressively and incrementally and we will do that.

There has been a 42% reduction in family homelessness in emergency accommodation, with a 19% reduction since the beginning of this year. We want to continue to make progress on that front. Expanding Housing First is a key initiative of ours which we will do. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, is committed to doing that.

In my view, there is need for, and there will be, a more active State in certain areas. In the health service, it will be bigger. It will far outdistance any other Department in terms of public expenditure. There will be very significant projects within that. There has to be a transformation of health service into the future. Many serious initiatives have to be undertaken. We have to learn lessons from Covid in regard to our health service, but it has stood up well. The €600 million we allocated before Christmas in terms of the winter initiative has been a very positive initiative which has not got the attention it deserves because of Covid, understandably, but it has resulted in certain initiatives that can be imbedded into the health service into the future in terms of primary care, community care and diagnostics, a better flow through the hospital system and a higher volume of home care packages, all of which have been provided this year arising from a huge allocation in terms of the health budget.

We have provided protection for tenants that is consistent with the Constitution and the legal framework. Without question, we have done that. We also want to support sectors of the economy, such as the hospitality, tourism and aviation sectors, as we emerge from Covid. Many Deputies spoke about low-paid employment and so on. Some sectors have definitely suffered more than most. We need to consider how we can help those sectors as we emerge from Covid. We have made clear there will be no cliff edge from the existing supports, including the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, and the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, and other related supports around rates relief and so on. They have all been extended until the end of June, when we will then consider, in the context of the national economic recovery plan, how we evolve those support schemes and what new initiatives we need to support those sectors that have suffered the most. We intend to do that.

There are a number of initiatives here, including the recovery and resilience plan which we will submit to Brussels as part of the European-wide recovery and resilience. Depending on how once prices it, over time Ireland stands to get approximately €153 million from that initiative. We will again focus on the green economy, creating jobs there, and on digital transformation and other initiatives to create jobs. We are also applying for the Brexit adjustment reserve fund and it is hoped funding will come our way from that fund. We have a number of initiatives to deal with the issues the Deputies have raised.

In terms of the living wage and Deputy Gannon's point, as a Government we have taken an initiative on that. It has been referred to the Low Pay Commission for examination. We want to progress that initiative. It is an objective in the programme for Government. In terms of the broader issue and the points raised by Deputy Paul Murphy, we want to create jobs in our economy and we want an economic model that works and creates jobs and incentivises enterprise, in particular small enterprises to facilitate them in growing their companies. In terms of inward investment, since the beginning of the year, thousands of jobs have been announced, which is a good thing that then creates jobs in our indigenous sector as well. We have supported workers to an unprecedented extent through the various interventions we have taken.

In regard to JobPath and the local employment services and so on, the Minister for Social Protection will bring proposals in that respect to Government. Again, our objective is to help workers but also to provide opportunities for them. There are issues around public procurement we have to observe, but the Minister is hearing and listening to what is being said. We understand the important work local employment services do and the contribution they have made to date.

In regard to the North-South interconnector, the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications has spoken about the review that is under way. The Deputies' know the position of EirGrid. It believes it cannot be undergrounded. I have pointed to areas around the country where certain initiatives have been undergrounded. The context is the all-island single energy market and so on. There is a review.

We have given these questions as much time as we can. We need to move on to Question No. 5.

Shared Island Unit

Neale Richmond

Question:

5. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach the status of the latest activities of the shared island unit of his Department. [16456/21]

Gary Gannon

Question:

6. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Taoiseach the status of the shared island unit of his Department. [17188/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

7. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the priorities of the shared island unit of his Department. [17201/21]

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

8. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Taoiseach when he expects the shared island unit will meet with those involved in the Dublin-Belfast economic corridor report; and the details of the North-South initiatives being considered. [17205/21]

Aengus Ó Snodaigh

Question:

9. Deputy Aengus Ó Snodaigh asked the Taoiseach an bhfuil plé déanta go fóill ag a aonad um oileán comhroinnte maidir le ról na Gaeilge i dtodhchaí chomhroinnte na hÉireann. [18418/21]

Matt Carthy

Question:

10. Deputy Matt Carthy asked the Taoiseach if the shared island unit in his Department has conducted an economic appraisal of the challenges and benefits a united Ireland will present. [19938/21]

Mick Barry

Question:

11. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach the position regarding the priorities of the shared island unit of his Department. [20333/21]

Peadar Tóibín

Question:

12. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of his Department’s shared island initiative. [20477/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 5 to 12, inclusive, together.

On 22 October, I set out the Government's vision and priorities on shared island in an online event at Dublin Castle. In budget 2021, the Government announced the shared island fund, with €500 million being made available out to 2025, ring-fenced for shared island projects. This provides significant new capital funding for strategic investment in collaborative North-South projects that will support the commitments and objectives of the Good Friday Agreement.

The Government is working with the Northern Ireland Executive and the British Government to progress existing and new cross-Border investment projects. Our priorities for such investment are set out in the programme for Government. Progressing cross-Border investment projects was a key focus of our discussions at the North-South Ministerial Council plenary on 18 December, and in December more than €6 million in funding from the shared island fund was approved by the Government to launch the delivery of phase 2 of the Ulster Canal.

As part of the shared island initiative, the unit is progressing a comprehensive research programme, working with the National Economic and Social Council, the Economic and Social Research Institute, and the Irish Research Council, with research outputs being published through 2021 and in subsequent years. Strengthening social, economic and political links on the island and the promotion of all-island approaches to the strategic challenges facing Ireland, North and South, are key objectives of this work. As I have said previously, our shared island initiative does not preordain any constitutional outcome under the Good Friday Agreement. Our work takes place in that context.

I launched the shared island dialogue series to foster constructive and inclusive civic dialogue on a shared future on the island, founded on the Good Friday Agreement. To date, three dialogues have been held. I addressed a dialogue with young people on 26 November on the theme of New Generations and New Voices on the Good Friday Agreement, on 5 February, the Minister for Environment, Climate and Communications participated in a dialogue on climate and environment on the island, and on 25 March, a dialogue on civil society engagement on the island was held, with participation by the Minister for Foreign Affairs. The dialogue series will continue through this year, including with a focus on equality, economy, health and education issues for the island. We are ensuring new and under-represented voices, including of women, young people and ethnic minorities, are represented in these civic discussions on our shared future on the island.

Building a shared island will require co-operation at all levels, and I warmly welcome the increased focus and ambition for cross-Border co-operation at local authority and regional levels, including through the Dublin-Belfast economic corridor launched on 24 March, the framework of regional priorities of the Irish Central Border Area Network, also launched on 24 March, and the North West Regional Development Group's recently agreed statement of updated regional priorities. I and a number of Ministers have engaged directly with these important cross-Border initiatives in recent weeks to affirm the Government's support for their work and readiness to collaborate with them, taking account of their regional development strategies and our commitments and objectives on a shared island as set out in the programme for Government. The shared island unit in my Department is actively engaging with local authorities and the cross-Border local authority forums in follow-up.

Ar deireadh, bhí plé tairbheach ag aonad um oileán comhroinnte mo Roinne le hionadaithe Gaeilge maidir leis an tionscnamh oileán comhroinnte, agus tá cuireadh tugtha dóibh a bheith páirteach sa tsraith idirphlé maidir le hoileán comhroinnte. Tá an t-aonad ag súil le leanúint leis an bplé seo i gcomhar leis na Ranna líne iomchuí a bhfuil freagracht orthu i leith na Gaeilge.

I am grateful to the Taoiseach for his comprehensive response and his continued and vital enthusiasm for the shared island initiative that he established. Events in recent days and weeks have shown us the absolute need for that initiative to be successful and for engagement to take place at every level, political, societal and economic, across this island, without, as the Taoiseach said, there being any predestined constitutional outcome. I am very relieved that the North-South Ministerial Council meeting on enterprise and innovation has gone head today, although it was really disappointing that the council meeting on transport failed to proceed last week. The British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference really needs to meet and I ask the Taoiseach to put that proposal directly to the British Prime Minister and to engage fully on it with both the First Minister and deputy First Minister.

With all the issues we are facing on this island, including the post-Brexit landscape and coming out of the Covid-19 pandemic, co-operation between North and South, and east and west, has never been so important. I implore the Taoiseach to make sure the Government is constantly bringing forward that positive engagement. Even if some people are not necessarily up for conversations or working towards common solutions to practical problems, the Government must never be found lacking in that regard.

I have a question regarding the ambition of the shared island initiative on the issue of education. I note the head of the shared island unit has highlighted that education is a priority for it. I ask the Taoiseach to put some bones on that and outline what it actually means. I have heard talk of investment in universities. In the past couple of weeks, as we saw members of certain communities rioting, it was clear that one of the many things they have in common, on both sides of the peace wall, is that they come from areas with an extremely low level of educational attainment. Does the Taoiseach believe the shared island initiative can create investment that will finally start to address those issues? I understand research is a priority but there is an abundance of research already available demonstrating that communities with a low level of educational attainment are where issues and confrontations are likely to emerge.

We have a housekeeping difficulty again in that Deputies Boyd Barrett, Ó Murchú, Ó Snodaigh, Carthy, Barry and Tóibín are all offering but there are only a few minutes remaining. I propose that we take ten minutes from the next question and bring them forward to allow the Deputies to speak on this group of questions. It will mean that we only have time to deal with two groups of questions today. Is that agreed? Agreed.

If we are going to overcome sectarianism and division and move forward to a united Ireland, which certainly is something I would like to see, we have to be an example in terms of what unification would give to people. I have talked a lot about the importance of having an all-Ireland national health service. Something else that is critical and can help us to unite people is taking a lead on the question of providing decent jobs. I want to cite a particular example of where we are not taking the lead in that regard.

I have had reports recently from Dublin Port concerning certain Brexit-related operations that led to the employment of several hundred workers by Doyle Shipping Group. From what I understand, it seems that these workers are, in effect, working for Revenue, the Departments of Health and Agriculture, Food and the Marine, and the Office of Public Works, but have been contracted out to Doyle Shipping Group, which is treating them absolutely disgracefully. It has not paid them the hourly rates they are supposed to get, it is not giving them their proper overtime rates and it is unilaterally trying to change their contracts. When some of the workers, including one who contacted me, questioned Doyle Shipping Group about this, they were sacked unceremoniously. There was no consultation; they were just gone. I assume these workers are being paid by Departments. This does not exactly bode well in terms of how the State protects the rights of workers. I do not expect the Taoiseach to know the details of this situation here and now but I ask that he look into it. It is unacceptable that this sort of thing could be happening on what is, in effect, a Government-supported project and employment at Dublin Port.

I spoke to the Taoiseach previously about the report of the Dublin-Belfast Economic Corridor group. The report is produced by all the local authorities, North and South, in the area of the corridor, in conjunction with the University of Ulster and DCU. It deals with all the positives the area enjoys, including infrastructure, a young and dynamic population and the existence of the various universities and learning institutes. Thinking of the future for the likes of my own town of Dundalk, Drogheda and Newry, I see them as centres for innovation and enterprise even beyond what they are now. There is a huge amount of potential for this area, which has been impacted greatly by partition and dealing with the outworking of issues associated with Brexit.

Some of the proposals in the report would dovetail with the work, or what the work should be, of the shared island unit. The Taoiseach spoke recently at a Dundalk and Newry chambers of commerce joint event on Brexit, where he referred to the Narrow Water Bridge project and the Newry southern relief road. Will the Taoiseach give an update on those projects? There is also the wider issue of the need for greater cross-Border rail connectivity. Translink has indicated that we could have an improved Dublin-Belfast Enterprise service by 2024, with greater frequency and better rolling stock. However, Iarnród Éireann tells me that this will not be possible before 2026 or 2027. We need to see whether there is any possibility of improving on those timelines.

What issues are being impacted at this point in time as a result of the North-South Ministerial Council meeting on transport not being able to proceed because of the DUP not taking up its position? I agree with the calls in this House regarding the necessity of the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference meeting. We need the involvement of the two Governments at the top level. There have been issues with rioting and such in the North. There has obviously been a stoking of the situation by political unionism for political purposes. However, we must remember that we are long removed from the unionist monster rallies against the Anglo-Irish Agreement in the 1980s and the spectre of Ulster resistance and such. We are far removed from that. We need leadership, a plan in regard to Irish unity and a conversation on what that would look like.

For our communities, particularly working-class communities, North and South, nationalist, unionist and other, what is required are jobs. It has been shown in much economic modelling that the real dividend that this island, North and South, could get directly from Irish unity would be an economic dividend and a jobs boost. What we need at this point in time is leadership to ensure that happens. I ask the Taoiseach to come back to me on his plans to meet the Dublin-Belfast Economic Corridor group, his plans for dealing with the issue of the North-South Ministerial Council meeting and in respect of the particular projects to which I referred.

As Deputy Ó Snodaigh is not in the Chamber, I will move on to Deputy Carthy.

I thank the Taoiseach for the update on the activities of the shared island unit. It is important to note on the record of the House that he and his Government failed to take an opportunity to make a meaningful contribution to creating an all-Ireland civil debate by ensuring there would be a unionist voice in the Seanad, when he stitched up yet another back-room deal between his party and Fine Gael. There was an opportunity to put a unionist in the Seanad who would contribute to the ongoing debate, but the Taoiseach failed to take it up.

It strikes me very evidently in my conversations on these issues with organisations, including many farming organisations and bodies that operate on a North-South and all-Ireland basis, many within the Border region specifically, that the debate around the constitutional question, as the Taoiseach framed it, is already happening apace. People are having the discussions around dinner tables and in community centres. Obviously, a lot of it is taking place in online Zoom and MS Teams meetings at the moment.

The debate is happening everywhere except in the Department of the Taoiseach because the Taoiseach seems to be absolutely resistant to having a conversation on what a united Ireland might look like. Many people are asking that simple question. It does not have a simple answer but it is a question that people want to participate in. The Taoiseach is doing a huge disservice to his position and office by refusing to create the space for that conversation to take place and I call on him to rethink it. I also call on the Taoiseach to rethink some of what I would describe as the reckless language he has been using. To describe as explosive the notion of having the implementation of one aspect of the Good Friday Agreement is, in my view, utterly reckless. I ask the Taoiseach to move away from that and from yesterday's language.

Let us start talking about the future of our country. Those of us who want to see a united Ireland do not just have some notion of putting right the historical wrongs or some romantic fantasy or anything like that. The reason we want to see a united Ireland is because we believe it will be a better Ireland for all who live here. We believe it will create the capacity for us to address the inefficiencies within our healthcare system and other public services. We believe it will allow us to develop a vibrant all-Ireland economy that serves all communities. That is legitimate and positive in my view. If we believe a united Ireland will be better for all the people in the country, then we not only have a right but an obligation to work towards it. I ask the Taoiseach once again to be part of that process.

I will oppose any measure which would increase sectarian division among ordinary people. That includes any hardening of the Border North-South and any hardening of the border between east and west. Hardening of the east-west border would serve to increase the insecurity of ordinary Protestants about the future and generate a sense of their being coerced into an economic united Ireland. I am not sure whether I am the only Dáil Deputy who issued such a warning in the Brexit debate in this House. Does the Taoiseach not accept that a peace process controlled by establishment parties and sectarian politicians has failed to deliver either a peace dividend or overturn sectarian division? Finally, I salute the actions of the Belfast bus workers against sectarian violence. The half a dozen actions such as the ones they carried out are what we need for a real peace process uniting Catholic and Protestant working-class communities.

On Easter Monday a gun and 200 rounds of ammunition were found in a house a little outside Moy on the Armagh-Tyrone border. The gun is thought to have been used by the Glenanne gang in the murder of nationalists in the area. It was found a mile from the house of an Aontú Mid Ulster Councillor, Denise Mullen, whose father was murdered by the Glenanne gang in front of her when she was four years old. The gun was handed into the PSNI station in Armagh. Some days later, the community followed up with people in the PSNI station to see whether the police service was investigating its provenance. At that stage those in the PSNI station said the PSNI had not received any gun. They denied any gun had been dropped into the station whatsoever. Denise Mullen contacted the Northern Ireland Police Ombudsman. I contacted the Taoiseach's office and the Office of the Minister for Foreign Affairs. Four days later, the PSNI admitted a gun had been left in with the ammunition.

Shockingly, this is not the first time something like this has happened. The same thing happened in Dungannon police station six years ago when a gun was handed in. The police initially denied it had been brought in and then had to admit it. This is a threat to the confidence of many nationalists in the ability of the PSNI to be able to investigate what the Glenanne gang did. They murdered 120 nationalists in that area over a short period. I have asked three taoisigh, namely, Deputy Micheál Martin, Deputy Leo Varadkar and Mr. Enda Kenny, to meet victims and survivors of the Glenanne murder gang. To date, no Taoiseach has agreed to meet or accept the invite of those victims. I understand it has been difficult for the Taoiseach and I am not putting any blame on him. Covid-19 has got in the way of his ability to do it. However, I would ask that, even if it is through MS Teams or Zoom, we start the conversation around those families in their search for justice.

I fully agree with what Deputy Richmond said in terms of the need for strong continuing dialogue. I am always open to dialogue and conversation on issues pertaining to the future of this island and to all of the questions relating to that. Indeed I have been open to them since the beginning of my political career when I was elected a councillor and Deputy. I do not need Deputy Carthy to lecture me on my interest or engagement in this issue. I think Deputy Richmond's point about the three sets of relationships, namely, the British-Irish, the North-South and the two traditions, is important. They underpin the Good Friday Agreement. We have to fulfil that potential, and in my view it has not been fulfilled to date. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, has had some good and useful meetings in London this week. I spoke to all the leaders of the political parties last week and had good conversations in respect of the issues that arose in the previous week. We are continuing that engagement.

Deputy Gannon made a point on education and early school leaving, and I agree with it 100%. One of the failings since the Good Friday Agreement has been the inability of the Northern Ireland Executive, along with the two Governments, to carry out a major investment programme in school completion to prevent early school leaving in the communities that need investment the most. Maybe at the time it should have been contemplated. That is something I am passionately committed to. There are serious issues in terms of early school leaving, non-school completion and non-progression to further and third level education in conurbations within Northern Ireland. That is a problem. Many representatives of the universities have said this to me and many educationalists have said this to me as well. If we do not address that, we will continue to sow challenges and problems for the future.

I am not aware of the specific incident Deputy Boyd Barrett has raised, but obviously decent jobs a decent economy are key to the North-South relationship. That is part of what the shared island is about. It is to increase connectivity and get good projects flowing. I am not aware of the specifics of the situation pertaining at Dublin Port.

Deputy Ó Murchú made another point and again I can reference the various projects we are pursuing. We have already allocated resources to research projects. We are looking at North-South industrial projects in terms of city deals, commitments to an industrial estate in Derry and parallel development in Letterkenny and Donegal. The idea is that there will be a joint initiative in the region around industrial promotion, creation of jobs and rail connectivity.

I heard what Deputy Carthy said. To be fair, Sinn Féin will be past masters at Seanad deals and are no strangers to them, whereas what happened today was an open democratic election that was transparent from the get-go. We do not need that kind of cynical commentary on what is a properly conducted bona fide election.

The Deputy also referred to creating space for discussion. Let me repeat the point that I have created a lot of space for discussion. The shared Ireland dialogue series is to create space for people to have a discussion without preconditions about how we share this island in future and how we live together in a better way than we have lived in the past. For example, we still have too many peace walls in Northern Ireland. We have to work hard at this.

Deputy Barry commented using the old trope about establishment politicians, whoever they are. We live in a parliamentary democracy. We have an electoral system that elects people by direct franchise. Then the Parliament elects the Government. Often, I think that phrase "the establishment" is a con job and has no real meaning other than to try to brand people and undermine the status of people as if they are some sort of alien group who are against the people. It is a completely false proposition.

I will meet with the victims and families to discuss the actions of Glenanne group. If we can arrange that, I will certainly facilitate it. I have met some in opposition but that would have been in a different context. I am not aware of the specifics in terms of the issue around the gun being handed in to the PSNI. I will finish on a broader point. It is important, given all that has been achieved in respect of policing in Northern Ireland, that we continue to support the PSNI and express confidence in the PSNI and its capacity to police fairly and impartially on behalf of the people of Northern Ireland.