1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change last met; and when it will next meet. [17169/21]
Vol. 1006 No. 4
1. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change last met; and when it will next meet. [17169/21]
2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change will next meet. [19935/21]
3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change last met; and when it will next meet. [20475/21]
4. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change last met; and when it will next meet. [21774/21]
5. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change will meet next. [21822/21]
6. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change last met; and when it will next meet. [21880/21]
I propose to take Question Nos. 1 to 6, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change last met on 1 April 2021 and is scheduled to meet again on 10 May 2021. It is chaired by the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan. The committee oversees the implementation of the ambitious programme for Government commitments on the environment and climate change. These commitments are reflected in the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021 which is progressing through the legislative process.
The committee also oversees the implementation of the current climate action plan and the interim climate actions for 2021, as well as the work which is now underway to develop an updated climate action plan. The committee also considers other aspects environmental policy such as, for example, investment in water services and water quality.
There are a number of speakers. We will begin with Deputy Duncan Smith.
I want to raise with the Taoiseach the just transition. There has been strong, understandable and righteous criticism of the weakness of references to a just transition in the draft climate Bill. We hope we can amend and strengthen that on Committee and subsequent Stages.
There is little faith that it will be strengthened. I want to highlight what happened in Lough Boora last week. A local man, Pat Barrett, built up a bike rental business over the past decade. A contract has now been awarded to a Dublin company by Bord na Móna. A just transition, if it is to work and to be believed, needs to ensure local people have decent, fair and sustainable jobs. In the midlands, Bord na Móna, which has been the focal point of discussion regarding the just transition for the past couple of years, has awarded a contract to a Dublin-based company when a local company had been built from the ground up and was doing the work. How can the Taoiseach expect people in the midlands or anywhere else in the country to believe the Government is committed to a just transition when we see such things happening in places like Lough Boora?
The programme for Government contains 19 separate references and commitments to a just transition, yet when the climate Bill was published last October there was not a single reference to this critical provision in it. During pre-legislative scrutiny of the draft Bill, the Joint Committee on Climate Action recommended that the Bill include a definition of a just transition. Members went so far as to propose wording.
Legislation passed by the Scottish Parliament in 2019 included a section dedicated to just transition principles. It committed to reducing emissions in a manner that supports environmentally and socially sustainable jobs, supporting low-carbon investment in infrastructure, developing social consensus through engagement, and creating decent, fair and high-value work. Instead of listening to the committee or learning from other jurisdictions, the Government's revised legislation includes a single and very underwhelming reference to a just transition underpinned by caveats and with no definition or, indeed, guiding principles.
There is still time for party leaders to correct this significant shortfall. Will the Taoiseach work with the Minister, Deputy Ryan, and the Tánaiste to strengthen the just transition provision so that, at a minimum, it reflects the commitments contained within the programme for Government and the recommendations of the joint committee?
The Irish Wildlife Trust, IWT, recently issued a very stark warning about the biodiversity crisis, which is often forgotten in the context of the equally urgent crisis of climate change. It is very important for us to remember that biodiversity collapse could spell the end of our ability to live on this planet.
One of the areas the IWT pointed to was the critical importance of the marine environment. It, like many other organisations, is deeply concerned about the ramming through of the marine planning framework and the rubber-stamping of what is essentially the grabbing of very sensitive marine sites, such as the Kish Bank and the Codling Bank off the east coast and other parts of the country, by private companies. It is concerned these decisions would be rubber-stamped despite the potential implications for biodiversity, marine life and, of course, fishermen when we talk about a just transition.
I want appeal once again to the Taoiseach to allow for proper scrutiny of the marine planning framework to take place before the vote next week. There should also be no question of there being a rubber-stamping of licences for private companies for sensitive areas off the east coast and other areas before there is a framework and law to govern the proper planning and development of the marine environment.
According to the EU emissions trading system, data-related emissions from large companies that fall under the scheme have increased 50-fold in the past seven years. This is at a time when the Government's climate Bill is supposed to reduce our emissions by 51% by 2030.
Despite this, it was reported at the weekend that two State agencies, the ESB and Coillte, are proposing to partner with tech companies to build even more new data centres, alongside wind farms, on Coillte land. It is intended to finance the billion euro investment needed by the wind farms which will clearly absorb a large proportion of the extra electricity provided, negating any emissions reduction.
According to a July 2020 EirGrid report, the number and scale of large data centres seeking to connect means Ireland's electricity demand is currently expected to grow by circa 38% between 2017 and 2025, equivalent to the growth of 50 years. As a result, data centres will account for 30% of Ireland's entire electricity use by 2028. This will obviously require a major expansion of electricity generation. It is also questionable whether Coillte should proceed with building large commercial infrastructure like data centres on land that is supposed to be reserved for forests.
Does the Taoiseach agree the focus of Coillte should be on regrowing Irish Amazons and not lining the pockets of Amazon CEO Jeff Bezos? Will he act to halt the unsustainable growth of power hungry data centres?
Massive investment in new ways of generating electricity from renewable sources will be necessary for the transition to a zero-carbon society. Essential to this drive will be investment in the electricity network. ESB network technicians will be key workers, helping to shape the nation's green energy future.
When preparing for battle, a good general will pay particularly close attention to the morale of the troops. Yet, the Government and ESB have consistently pursued policies which almost look like they are designed to undermine the morale of these troops. I am referring to a policy of creeping privatisation, outsourcing work and refusing to consult or deal seriously with the grievances voiced by so many technicians. The result of these policies is yet another ESB strike today.
Will the Taoiseach draw back from his policy of support for privatisation and outsourcing? Will he ensure that the ESB consults in a serious fashion with all of its network technicians?
Deputy Tóibín wanted to come in on this. He has one minute.
Strategic lawsuits against public participation, or slap lawsuits, are used against citizens who are trying to ensure that companies do not destroy the environment or break environmental laws. They tie up citizens in terms of money, time and energy. They may not be successful but their job is to silence or chill efforts by citizens to protect their environment. The Aarhus convention states that citizens should not be punished for ensuring that companies respect the law in respect of the environment. Article 3.8 has not been transposed into Irish law which would give protection to Irish citizens. Will the Taoiseach see this is implemented and meet some of the citizens who are being tied up in this manner?
On the midlands, I understand the Deputy's point on the just transition being designed to provide alternative employment for people in localities that have suffered as a result of the country endeavouring to reach its climate change targets and the closure of certain generating facilities and other activity as a consequence. There is a need to reinvest, particularly in the midlands. I do not have the specifics of the case - Deputy Barry Cowan has raised it also - of a person losing a contract for a good enterprise. Bord na Móna will have to bear in mind the overall objective of the just transition model which is designed to create new enterprises and support existing enterprises that can create new jobs. That is the core objective of the just transition agenda, particularly in the midlands.
Deputy McDonald asked why it is not stronger in the Bill. The transition to a low-carbon future will bring huge changes to society. It will create opportunities as well as challenges. Just transition is a core part of the programme for Government and our climate strategy agenda to provide alternative job opportunities to sectors and regions most effected, particularly protecting vulnerable groups. The Government will invest up to €108 million in the peatlands climate action scheme which will create over 300 jobs and will be delivered by Bord na Móna to rehabilitate 33,000 ha over 80 Bord na Móna bogs. The budget committed funding of just transition measures including €5 million for the rehabilitation and a further €6 million for the transition fund. Under the Bill, the requirement to have a just transition as one of the measures that will guide the Minister and the Government in preparation of the plans and the policies provided for in the Bill. It is in the annual climate action plans provided for that will set out the details. The Deputy should be under no doubt that the just transition is a key aspect in the preparation of the forthcoming climate action plan 2021. There is a range of other projects in the midlands for which funding has been provided particularly in economic, social and environmental sustainability of the wider midlands regions. Some 16 projects with total funding commitments of €1.2 million were approved last autumn and are up and running. Provisional approval for a further 47 projects with an indicative funding commitment of €27.8 million was announced in November. These are more complex, high value projects. The majority are expected to have grant agreements in place in coming weeks. The just transition commissioner continues with his current mandate and will produce a further report this year. The midlands retrofitting programme is on course to finish this year, meaning a minimum of 750 homes will have benefitted. Additional measures will follow on that. That midlands retrofitting pilot project was funded by carbon tax revenues. Under the midlands programme, work will continue under the newly revised energy efficiency programme and €45 million has been allocated to local authorities this year. Under that programme approximately 1,650 additional homes will be upgraded in 2021. We are desirous of accelerating the work in the midlands in particular as a demonstrative model of how we can allocate additional funding to replace employment lost and create new opportunities themselves.
On Deputy Boyd Barrett's point on the marine, biodiversity is critical. It is inextricably linked to the climate crisis. There is no rubber stamping involved in the marine spatial plan, quite the contrary, it provides a proper sustainable framework that will enhance the opportunities for biodiversity at sea. There is no one grabbing any licences under that plan. There will be legislation to come before the House -----
What about the relevant project?
-----which will give a more coherent planning legislative process and mechanisms that will both protect biodiversity and the environment but also enable-----
What about the legacy project?
-----opportunities such as the development based on offshore wind, for example, which is an important part of our renewable strategies.
On the wider issue, Coilte and Bord na Móna are two important State agencies along with the ESB in meeting our climate change agenda.
We are over time, Taoiseach.
They will stay as State enterprises. They are not being privatised. Their privatisation is not on the agenda at all. That equally applies to Deputy Barry.
We are over time.
To Deputy Tóibín, looking at the planning framework in Ireland, there is no evidence that citizens lack any capacity to take on big projects. Individuals object to a whole range of projects. There is a balance here. I will engage with the Deputy further on the points he has raised.
The Taoiseach might come back.
For information -----
There is no information. This is one thing that is strictly timed. The Taoiseach might return in the next question to answer what he did not answer.
There are hundreds of ESB network technicians who are waiting for an answer from the Taoiseach and they have heard nothing from him. It is very disappointing.
7. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet Committee on Government Co-ordination will next meet.. [19936/21]
8. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Government co-ordination last met and will next meet. [20486/21]
9. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Government co-ordination will next meet. [21775/21]
10. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Government co-ordination will next meet.. [21777/21]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 7 to 10, inclusive, together. The Government co-ordination committee generally meets in advance of Government meetings to: 1. review the activity of Cabinet committees; 2. review the agenda for that week's Government meeting; 3. discuss political priorities; and 4. review implementation of a specified element of the programme for Government.
I am a member of the committee with the Tánaiste and leader of the Green Party and the Secretary General to the Government, my chief of staff and the chiefs of staff for the Tánaiste and the leader of the Green Party also sit in on the meetings. The committee last met on Monday, 26 April, and its next meeting is scheduled for Monday, 10 May.
A few weeks ago the Dáil unanimously supported the legislation of my colleague, Deputy Ó Snodaigh, to preserve and revitalise Moore Street through the legal recognition of an ceathrú chultúr, a Moore Street cultural quarter. Throughout the debate Teachtaí Dála from every party and political group articulated a shared vision for the most important historic site in modern Irish history, as described by the National Museum of Ireland. The proposed Hammerson plan relies heavily on a huge office development and will not retain the full terrace or preserve the historical building, and as we know, people do not visit Dublin to see more office blocks. Dublin City Council has voted unanimously to make Moore Street an architectural conservation area, a decision which now imposes strict planning controls on the demolition of buildings in the area so it is incomprehensible that the Government would hand over this historic site to a developer which is a busted flush. Hammerson has recorded a pre-tax loss of £1.7 billion last year. It has publicly confirmed that it is its intention to make further disposals to strengthen its balance sheet, and yet the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage has repeatedly refused to meet with the 1916 relatives to discuss their architectural master plan, a detailed plan developed by a team of leading Irish architects, planners and conservationists that meets all of the agreed recommendations of the securing history report of the Minister's advisory group, the objectives of the Dublin development plan and so on.
Future generations will be scathing of the Taoiseach's Government if the Hammerson plan is allowed to proceed. I urge him to intervene urgently on this matter and ensure his Minister will meet Deputy Ó Snodaigh to secure and protect Moore Street as a cultural quarter.
Young people with families who are looking to buy a home are absolutely furious over the increasing number of homes being snapped up by outside investment funds and REITs, or so-called cuckoo funds. Fianna Fáil campaigned very strongly in 2019, in advance of the general election, to clamp down on cuckoo funds. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, committed to changing the law to block them from snapping up new developments. Round Hill Capital bought 135 homes in Mullen Park, Maynooth. First-time buyers were on the list to buy these. Local councillor, Ms Angela Feeney, has been dealing with many of them. They are absolutely devastated to see their dreams dashed. The same REIT has bought 112 homes in Bay Meadows, Dublin 15, and 297 apartments in Northwood, Dublin. These are the developments we know about. While first-time buyers are losing out on new homes, I can tell the Taoiseach for a fact that they are also losing out on second-hand homes. Investment funds are highly active in the market, seeking any second-hand homes that are in any way affordable or deemed to be affordable or within the reach of some first-time buyers. These are houses that will never come to the market. What is happening is insidious. The companies are asking for more than the asking price and the houses are not hitting the market. Young first-time buyers are missing out. They do not even know they are missing out because sometimes the houses are not even listed on www.daft.ie and www.myhome.ie. This problem needs to be tackled. It is unseen and causing considerable damage. There needs to be legislation to prevent it from continuing to happen.
The programme for Government makes a commitment to developing inclusive and age-appropriate relationships and sexuality education, RSE, and social, personal and health education, SPHE, curricula at primary and post-primary levels, including an inclusive programme on LGBTI+ relationships and making appropriate legislative changes, if necessary. That is not happening, however. Instead, the Catholic Primary School Management Association, effectively the Catholic bishops, has published a new programme, Flourish, outlining how RSE should be taught in its schools. Not only is Flourish not LGBTI+ inclusive, it is positively homophobic. Let me quote a number of lines from Flourish to the Taoiseach in case he is not aware of it. It states, "The Church's teaching in relation to marriage between a man and a woman cannot be omitted". It describes puberty as "a gift from God" and states "we are perfectly designed by God to procreate with him". It states a Catholic school must consider these topics within "a moral framework that reflects the teachings of the Church". This is very far from what is promised in the programme for Government. What is the Government going to do about it? Does it recognise that the Education Act 1998 needs to be amended along the lines we proposed in legislation still on Committee Stage, the Provision of Objective Sex Education Bill 2018, to prevent the religious ethos of a school from standing in the way of children receiving what they are entitled to?
The Taoiseach should answer the question raised by Deputy Barry, and earlier by Deputy Paul Murphy, on chosen representatives of ESB technicians being recognised by the ESB, a semi-State body, and on respecting the right of people to choose their own representatives in a legitimate dispute about outsourcing. The Taoiseach should intervene in this regard as a matter of urgency.
I want to raise the co-ordination by Departments in key areas, such as providing schools for our children. I raise this because the lack of co-ordination that was highlighted to me by the community of the new multi-denominational Gaelscoil in the Blackrock area, Gaelscoil Laighean, is really quite shocking. Four years ago, it won the competition or vote on patronage of the new school that was to be established in the Blackrock–Booterstown area. At the time, it was told that, for two years, it would be in a temporary location and that it would then be given a permanent location. Since then, there has been broken promise after broken promise from the Department of Education. The school is still in a temporary location. It is now moving to another temporary location. A few weeks ago, it received a letter from the Department stating it had agreed a permanent location for it with the local authority. We contacted the local authority and it stated there is no such agreement on a permanent location. I realise the Taoiseach will not know the answer to this off the top of his head but I ask him to look into the matter and get the Department to plan properly for permanent locations for schools.
Before the house of The O'Rahilly was demolished, I raised the impending danger with the Minister of State responsible for heritage, Deputy Noonan. I also raised it with the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien. Unfortunately, they did nothing and the house was demolished. The day after it was demolished, I raised it with the Taoiseach in the Dáil and he admitted the demolition was wrong and should not have happened. I submitted a question for the Minister, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, asking whether he had investigated this. I got a letter back stating it was not his responsibility. I am aware that departmental responsibility for heritage has changed only in the past couple of days. What is going to happen? The building has national monument status, yet nobody is being held to account. Moore Street was the birthplace of the Republic. It was the place of the last stand of the volunteers of 1916. It was, in part, the reason Deputy Micheál Martin holds the position of Taoiseach today, yet the Moore Street lands lie in dereliction today. It is actually a place of defecation rather a cultural hub of the north inner city where locals and tourists alike can engage with our history in a real manner. Right now, the one company involved, Hammerson, is running out of money. It will not have the money to meet its responsibilities in this matter. Will the Taoiseach ensure that it is brought back to life properly?
On the key question on Moore Street, raised by Deputies McDonald and Tóibín, there has been a lot of discussion between political parties in this House and various groupings over the past five or six years. My understanding was that a consensus had been arrived at between the various parties and members of parties. Prior to that, the State had intervened and purchased the key properties and declared them to be a national monument. That was proactive intervention by the State, which has not been acknowledged by Deputies McDonald or Tóibín in respect of Moore Street. That is an important point. That said, my sense is that there has been too much dereliction in that area for far too long. Quite frankly, I get the sense from the current Sinn Féin position that the party will not mind too much if there is dereliction for another ten years, if nothing happens again and we witness the continuing decline of the whole area, not just Moore Street but also the whole of O'Connell Street-----
It is on your watch.
It is not. I am only ten months in office now.
A defective Government-----
I am ten months in office. I do not keep on-----
-----has neglected the inner city of Dublin.
I did not interrupt the Deputy.
And that is on you.
I do not serially object for political purposes and to create political platforms. That seems to be-----
I object to poverty and dereliction and bad government, and I will continue to do that.
-----underpinning your latest development on this front. That is all I have to say.
Can we do this through the Chair?
The State owns the key buildings on Moore Street because it intervened. The Government intervened at the time. It is important to bring the area back to life and to ensure the development will share the history and create an historic trail that future generations can see in a far better way than in the past 50 years. I have been there-----
On your watch-----
And on your watch, too.
On your watch.
I know exactly what you are about and I know what your movement is about. I am not sure it exists for benign reasons. I have to put that on the record because there is one series after another. There was good, constructive engagement on this, yet, as ever, the Deputy's party seeks to gain partisan political advantage over everybody else on the issue and to name-call everybody else who does not go along with its agenda.
I largely agree with Deputy Duncan Smith's point. In our view, institutional investors buying existing supply and buying up entire estates is not acceptable. It runs counter to Government policy, which is to give priority to first-time buyers and make houses affordable for them. We will examine this. I spoke to the Ministers for Finance, Public Expenditure and Reform and Housing, Local Government and Heritage about the very specific development over the weekend.
At the moment, institutional investors and REITs account for approximately 5% of residential tenancies and approximately 1% of the housing stock in its entirety. The original intention of previous Governments was to bring in investment to facilitate high-density build-to-rent developments in Dublin in particular and some of the larger cities, and not in any shape or form the residential developments of the type that was the focus of the purchase at the weekend.
Deputy Smith might remind me of his latter point.
Second-hand homes are being snapped up as well.
Clearly, that has to be examined as well.
To respond to Deputy Murphy, the Government is developing a national relationships and sexuality education programme and all children attending all schools will have to have the State RSE programme provided to them. A review into RSE and its provision is on the way. The 1998 legislation, through the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, provides for the development or modernisation of curricula in all subjects and that still prevails.
As for the ESB situation, I answered that earlier. The issue should be resolved within the framework of the ESB. It has had a positive industrial relations framework for years. It is a State body and will remain so. There is no intent to privatise the ESB.
I will raise with the Minister for Education the issue of the Gaelscoil that Deputy Boyd Barrett mentioned. There were, and continue to be, issues with schools getting early recognition but not being given permanent accommodation. There can be reasons for that, such as when there is activism on the ground and a school is created, but the time lag between a school being sanctioned and granted permanent accommodation is too long in many instances.
Will the Taoiseach get on to the Minister about it?
I think I dealt with the issue of Moore Street raised by Deputy Tóibín. I will revert to him with a response from the Minister, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, in respect of the home of The O'Rahilly and accountability for what was a terrible deed, namely, the demolition of that very important building
11. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent phone conversation with the UK Prime Minister following recent events in Northern Ireland. [19969/21]
I spoke to the United Kingdom Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, on the evening of Tuesday, 27 April, and we updated each other on the Covid-19 situation and progress on the vaccine roll-out. We discussed Northern Ireland and the importance of the British-Irish relationship and had an exchange of views on the EU-UK discussions on the implementation of the Ireland-Northern Ireland protocol. We agreed it would be useful to meet in person as soon as possible.
I previously spoke to the Prime Minister on 8 April about the recent concerning developments in Northern Ireland. We agreed that violence is unacceptable and called for calm, dialogue and the need to work with the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement. We discussed the importance of the two Governments remaining in close contact to demonstrate a unity of purpose and support for the peace process. Prior to this, I spoke to the Prime Minister on Tuesday, 2 March. We discussed plans for a joint bid for World Cup 2030, bringing together the five football associations of Ireland, Northern Ireland, England, Scotland and Wales. We also discussed the situation of the Northern Ireland protocol.
I thank the Taoiseach for his thoughtful response, as ever, on a range of issues that require deep attention from both him and the UK Prime Minister, the Head of Government of our closest neighbour. I wish to take the Taoiseach up on a couple of issues that are important in the context of their recent conversations. I welcome the fact they agreed on the need to meet in person as soon as possible. On that note, it is very welcome that the UK Secretary of State for Northern Ireland is in Dublin meeting the Tánaiste and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, as we speak. I reiterate that it is of pressing need that the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference meet as soon as possible.
Last week, a meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council on the agriculture sector was cancelled and this simply is not good enough. We need the engagement of the Irish and British Governments, completely and intently, on the current activities in Northern Ireland. As the Taoiseach mentioned, he discussed with the Prime Minister the very worrying violence that happened on the streets of Belfast, Coleraine and Derry. There is a need, as we face into a period of potential confusion in Northern Ireland, for the British and Irish Governments to show leadership, and leadership has to come from the top. I refer to the letter from four former Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland of last week, in which they wrote that the British Prime Minister needs to take a personal interest and involvement in what is happening in Northern Ireland right now. I again call on the Taoiseach, as co-guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, to play that strong role with the Prime Minister, regardless of what may be happening domestically in the UK, to ensure that both Governments are fully invested in this process.
I agree on the need for the British-Irish Intergovernmental Conference to meet. I met the Secretary of State this morning, who is, as Deputy Richmond said, in Dublin. I echo the call for constructive leadership and that means we need to deliver on the spirit and the letter of the Good Friday Agreement. We need to remain steadfast on the need for the protocol to sort out the teething problems and to secure the protections it entails. We also need delivery on the substance of the New Decade, New Approach agreement, the precursor, as Deputies will recall, of the re-establishment of the Executive and the Assembly. That means producing an Irish language Act and that the Stormont House legacy mechanisms need to be in place.
I raised this issue earlier with the British Secretary of State to make clear that any resiling from those Stormont House arrangements, any dilution or watering down of them, simply will not suffice. I very much hope the Taoiseach and the Government at every level, including the Minister, Deputy Coveney, will apply all necessary pressure to ensure we get delivery. This is essential in the short and medium terms for the health and robustness of the Executive and for a government that delivers in the North, but it also has a longer-term significance, which I hope is not lost on any of us.
The Irish language Act was an essential part of the Good Friday Agreement, 23 years ago. It was also a central part of the St. Andrews Agreement, 15 years ago, and an essential part of the New Decade, New Approach agreement, which is well over a year old, yet I understand there to have been no progress on the delivery of an Irish language Act. This Act is a threat to nobody. It recognises for the first time the integral quality of the Irish language in the culture of many people in the North of Ireland. One of the major frustrations with the political processes in the North of Ireland is that things are agreed to and then not implemented. It is bad faith on the part of any political party to enter into talks, agree to a process and then simply not implement what has been agreed. Will the Taoiseach give us an update on what steps he has taken to put pressure on both the British Government and the Executive in the North of Ireland to fulfil their commitments in those agreements?
The violent scenes in the North over recent weeks were a worrying reminder of how the institutionalisation of sectarianism can lead to these sectarian outbursts. If we are to challenge that and achieve the unity of this island and the end of partition, and undermine the conscious stirring-up of sectarianism by forces such as the Democratic Unionist Party, DUP, we have to offer a better alternative, not just joining together two somewhat dysfunctional states. We cannot hope to convince people in the North to become part of a united Ireland unless we have a state-of-the-art national health service.
Our national health service is failing in many regards. It is a two-tier system. The majority of our student nurses and midwives want to leave the country because they are not paid enough, are treated badly and have to work in intolerable conditions. Over recent weeks, I have raised issues affecting young psychologists. I am overwhelmed by the response I have got from them. They are living in poverty while trying to train to get into psychology to deal with the mental health crisis and they say it is an absolute nightmare. Those are just two examples. We need a single-tier quality national health service. If we do not have that, why would people of a unionist tradition in the North want to be part of our country?
We also have to separate church and state. It is unbelievable that the national maternity hospital is to be controlled by a Catholic religious order. How could people in the North want any part of a health service like that?
I thank Deputy Richmond for tabling this question in the first instance. I accept the points he made. He has retained a very consistent and constructive interest in this issue for quite some time. He mentioned the importance of meeting with the British Prime Minister and the necessity for ongoing open exchanges between the British Prime Minister and myself. Such exchanges will continue in the context of the realisation of the Good Friday Agreement agenda, the spirit of that agenda and the legal obligations associated with it. In that context, any pulling back from obligations under the Good Friday Agreement in respect of the North-South Ministerial Council or sectoral meetings is not acceptable and is very regrettable. A number of such meetings have now been cancelled due to non-attendance, the most recent being a meeting with regard to agriculture. That is not conducive to the full realisation and operation of the agreement.
I am conscious of the correspondence of the four former Secretaries of State for Northern Ireland. This is important because of their experience and their insights into how the British Government should approach these issues. I briefly met with the current Secretary of State, Brandon Lewis, this morning in advance of his substantive meeting with the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, this afternoon, during which a range of issues will be discussed.
I take the Deputy's point with regard to the importance of the British–Irish Intergovernmental Conference, an important institution of the Good Friday Agreement. It brings together the Irish and British Governments under strand 3 of the agreement on matters of mutual interest which lie within the competence of both Governments. The continuing importance we place on this institution is reflected in the programme for Government. We believe it is important that the next meeting of the British–Irish Intergovernmental Conference, BIIGC, takes place at an early stage, as circumstances allow. We are currently engaging with the Government of the United Kingdom through the secretariat of the BIIGC to set a date and agenda. The most recent meeting of the BIIGC took place at the Cabinet Office in London on 8 May 2019. At that stage, the conference discussed east-west matters, economic and security co-operation, legacy rights, citizenship matters and political stability.
We are, of course, continuing to engage bilaterally with the British Government on a range of key issues. As I have said, such engagement is continuing today. Crucially, we continue to engage in support of the power-sharing institutions in Northern Ireland. As the Deputy will know, since the restoration of the Assembly and the Executive, the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, has been in regular contact with the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Brandon Lewis, on a range of matters including Covid, the implementation of the New Decade, New Approach agreement which was referenced by Deputy McDonald, Brexit and issues pertaining to the legacy of the Troubles in Northern Ireland. There is also regular contact and co-operation between our two governments at official level. We have to work closely on North-South and east-west agendas in support of the power-sharing institutions and, in the context of what Deputy McDonald said, the fulfilment of what has already been agreed with regard to a range of issues.
With regard to the Irish language Act, is Acht tábhachtach é gan dabht. Tá dualgas ar gach éinne an tAcht a chur i bhfeidhm agus tacaíocht a thabhairt dó, mar a luaigh an Teachta Tóibín. Níl aon dhainséar leis. Léiríonn sé an meas atá ag gach éinne ar an teanga agus tábhacht na teanga i ngnáthshaol agus i gcultúr daoine mórthimpeall an Tuaiscirt agus ar fud an oileáin ar fad. The Irish language Act is important legislation that respects and reflects the principle of parity of esteem that is embedded in the Good Friday Agreement. That idea of cultural and linguistic parity of esteem is very important. The initiatives in Wales with regard to language give context to the importance of the language Act. It has been committed to on all sides and should be followed through on. Language should never be weaponised politically. That can undermine a language. Fundamentally, it sheds light on a culture and creates opportunity for creativity and enjoyment. That is what a language is all about. I would like to see the Irish language Act enacted by the Assembly and brought forward. I would also like to see the commitments in the New Decade, New Approach agreement followed through on. The spirit and letter of the Good Friday Agreement should be preserved.
I could not agree more with Deputy Boyd Barrett's points on the need to deal with sectarianism. We need more substantive work with regard to disadvantaged communities in Northern Ireland, particularly with regard to encouraging those young people in disadvantaged communities who might leave school early to complete the second level cycle of education. They should be enabled and empowered to progress to further and higher education. That is a critical policy area that needs far more attention from the Executive, the Assembly and the British and Irish Governments collectively. They must do something fundamental to give people a brighter future, particularly those young people who do not have that future at the moment. This relates to access to work or further education and to people's capacity to complete the second level cycle. That is critical.
With regard to the state of our national health service, in the context of this pandemic, we should acknowledge that, relatively speaking, our health service has stood up well in terms of both the quality of its personnel and the planning and work the HSE carried out. We love to knock and criticise but at times we seem very slow to acknowledge that the Irish healthcare service responded in a very positive, robust and resilient way at different stages of the pandemic while under a lot of pressure. We need to build on that. We need to learn lessons from the pandemic and embed the reforms that have been introduced during the pandemic. This Government has put unprecedented investment into health through the winter initiative, which led to those reforms. We need to embed these into the future of the health service.