Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Yesterday the Cabinet met at Páirc Uí Chaoimh in Cork to unveil the national development plan, NDP, to great fanfare. While the Government may have sought to distract the public with a dazzling performance in that hallowed stadium, the reality is the plan lacked any real substance. There was another glossy brochure filled with projects running years late, project that are running massively over cost and projects that have been announced and re-announced for decades. Regardless of whether it is roads, public transport or housing, there are a lot of promises that have never been delivered. When people read the NDP, they quickly see that "definitely" has become "maybe" or "not at all". One of these maybes is the Cork to Limerick motorway. Comments from various Green Party Deputies, and the Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, already have cast serious doubt over whether this project will ever happen. The wording in the NDP begs the question of whether the Government is actually committed to a motorway between Cork and Limerick. The only sensible people who do not agree with a motorway between Cork and Limerick are those who have never been near the current road. It is unsafe, dangerous and it certainly will not drive economic growth in its current state. Almost half of the road is a single lane with no hard shoulder. The main link between the second and third cities in the State is in parts no better than a boreen. I am sure the Minister knows that himself. Then I looked at the metro plan for Cork. To attract investment into the region, it is essential that we transform our public transport system but that also seems to be a "maybe" and may meet the same fate as the Dublin metro, another perpetual promise, off in the distance.

The Minster has repeatedly stated that ensuring that Cork and Limerick and the surrounding region have the potential to grow, thrive and be a proper balance to Dublin is high on his agenda. It is also high on mine. There is unity in the region that there is huge potential for growth. This about balanced regional development but you simply cannot do that without modern quality links between the other southern cities or without a decent road between Cork and Limerick. You cannot do that without proper public transport either and you cannot do it without a national development plan that is sharply focused on delivery. We need a Government that will be ambitious, that will modernise now and will enhance the connectivity between regional cities in a sustainable way.

We have had a few false dawns on the motorway between Limerick and Cork. Tá mise agus formhór na ndaoine i gCorcaigh, i Luimneach agus sa réigiún i bhfabhar an mhótarbhealaigh seo ach caithfear a rá go bhfuil amhras ann anois.

I ask the Minister not to squander another opportunity to get this done, as successive Governments have. The wording in the NDP raises very serious questions about whether the Government is committed to a motorway. I do not think it is unrealistic for people to expect that such cities would be connected by a quality motorway road. I hope he agrees that the days of short-term fixes and vague aspirations are gone. What we need is to move beyond promises and into specifics. I am seeking a commitment and reassurance.

Is the Government going to build a motorway between Cork and Limerick? What is the timescale? Will we get funding commitments? Is the Government going to build a motorway?

The Government has launched the most ambitious capital investment programme in the history of the State. It committed €165 billion of investment over the next ten years. This is a plan to deliver a sustainable development plan for the country. It is not just for the big cities; it is for rural Ireland as well. This plan is sustainable and focuses on the challenges of climate change as a priority, perhaps for the first time. This plan is consistent with the national planning framework that others in this House, particularly Deputy Kelly when he was in government, were involved in designing and the Government remains loyal to that. This plan provides funding certainty and policy certainty for the decade ahead, which is exactly what a national development plan is about.

Individual projects are named, of course. The city the Deputy and I both come from has been prioritised in this plan as one of the places where we can create a counterbalance to Dublin. As the Deputy is aware, the plan in Project Ireland 2040 is to facilitate 50% population growth in all the cities outside of Dublin to create proper urban centres of scale to create real counterbalance to an overcrowded capital city here in Dublin, while also investing heavily to deal with public transport deficits in and around the capital.

The plan announced yesterday is a continuation of the previous national development plan. It is committed to projects such as the project referred to by the Deputy. The Deputy has heard me speaking of the M20 project many times. I am absolutely committed to delivering a quality motorway between Cork and Limerick. I believe that Ireland's second and third city need to be linked with a proper road corridor but we also need to look at other alternatives such as a rail system that is fit for purpose and that will take people off the roads.

If we are to create the kind of counterbalance to the east coast and Dublin, which is overcrowded and needs counterbalance elsewhere around the country, then linking Cork and Limerick strategically makes a lot of sense, which is part of what the national planning framework talks about. In truth, this is an enormous project. It is going to take time to plan and it will need to go through the various permitting systems which is currently happening, and it will need to go through the necessary public consultation. While we currently see projects such as the Dunkettle interchange and the M22, as well as progress with regard to the M28 and many other projects in and around Cork city either happening in planning or taking shape, this is a huge project linking Ireland's second and third cities and it will take time. I believe the Government has been honest about that in the plans announced yesterday.

This one of the most crucial pieces of infrastructure in the State, as the Minister has said, and I do not believe one could find another developed European country where one could say there is no motorway between the second and third cities. It is a crucial piece of infrastructure. It is about the region as a whole offering a counterbalance, as the Minister has identified, and the very clear need for it and the very clear objective for it.

There is an element of the Government speaking from both sides of its mouth. I have listened to Deputies and Ministers in the Government who have made comments within the past 24 hours that this project could be in doubt. Last year it was the Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, and yesterday it was Deputy Leddin saying it was still to be decided and certainly was open to question, while the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan stated that while these projects are not a definite "No", they might not be completed. It seems to me that the Green Party does not want the M20. I am sure the Minister will agree that a failure to commit to a Cork-Limerick motorway is not good enough. We have had too many false dawns when it comes to this project. The Minister is a senior Minister in this Government and is a Cork Deputy. Many times at Leaders' Questions, questions are asked that are vague and aimless and go around the houses. Mine was a very straight question, namely, whether the Government is going to build a motorway between Cork and Limerick. Is the Government going to do that?

The Deputy is well aware that there is a strong commitment in this Government to build a motorway between Cork and Limerick. That has been confirmed by the Taoiseach many times, by the Tánaiste many times and by me and others. Any piece of infrastructure at that scale must go through a planning process, a permitting process, an environmental impact assessment and all of the other things that need to happen.

Route selection has not even been finalised yet. Therefore, yes, we are committed to delivering on the much-needed improved road infrastructure between Cork and Limerick.

It is a "Yes" or "No" question.

I have said "Yes" on many occasions with regard to this project-----

-----but I do not control a planning process and I should not. I also do not control public consultation processes or the other permitting that is necessary before an investment of this scale can take effect.

It is the political block he is talking about.

It is. The Minister is in government.

The Minister, without interruption please.

The Deputy knows well the commitment that has been given to this project. In my view, it is an essential part of Cork's and Limerick's expansion and growth and economic prosperity in the future, as well as a plan that focuses on people's quality of life. The Deputy will see additional commitments being made by the Government, however, in terms of sustainable transport systems also linking the second and third cities along with motorway infrastructure.

Before I begin, I wish my good friend, Vicky Phelan, all the best given the news she gave us over the weekend. I am sure everybody in the House is thinking of her; I know I am.

Obviously, there was fanfare yesterday in Cork. It was a great local occasion for the Minister, the Taoiseach and the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. I have been around when a number of these plans have been announced. I was probably involved in some of them. I have, however, never seen a launch of a national development plan, which aims to bring certainty to projects, actually create more uncertainty about their possibility than this one does. Even before it was announced, confusion abounded in the press conferences beforehand.

The Minister of State, Deputy Ossian Smyth, said this morning that none of the projects in the actual 160-odd pages are guaranteed but that it is more "a direction of travel". As the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, said there will be healthy competition between projects, that obviously means that all the projects are not going ahead. In reality, as my colleague, Deputy Nash, who is sitting behind me, said, this is more like a work of fiction. It is a wish list with no clear delivery for a huge range of projects.

What this plan actually means, when you break it all down, is that many transport projects must go through not one but two proofs by the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan. The first is that they will have to be climate-proofed and that is fair enough. However, they will also have to go through the new national investment framework for transport in Ireland, or NIFTI for short. That would prioritise future investment in land transport projects. I, along with my colleagues, think NIFTI is going to be quite shifty for the Minister for Foreign Affairs and the Government, particularly for all the backbenchers present. When Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael backbenchers want to know when a bypass, road or the M20 is going to be built, therefore, they will suddenly be staring into the eyes of the Minister for Transport and he will be getting very shifty about NIFTI-----

-----because he will have to qualify on two levels whether these projects will go ahead. All the backbenchers will, therefore, be getting fairly shifty with him.

There are two flagship projects in the 2018 national development plan, which I looked through yesterday. They appear to have been abandoned. One is the M20 motorway, which the Minister has been questioned about and refused to answer, and the other is the MetroLink. In 2018, both of these projects were listed for completion in approximately five and a half years from now. People want to know what has changed. How was the M20 gone from an M20 to an N/M20? Why are there no dates for the MetroLink? I ask the Minister to please answer. Will the M20 actually be built and will it be built as a motorway? What are the timescales for the completion of the Dublin MetroLink?

I can confirm first of all to Deputy Mattie McGrath that he is very unlikely to see the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, on a Honda 50 at any point in the future.

With an ashtray.

He generally pedals his own bikes.

He will be paddling his own canoe soon.

The NIFTI process is simply good governance, ensuring value for money and there is an environmental audit before hundreds of millions of euro are invested. The Deputy knows only too well why that is necessary, having served in Departments in the past. The truth is we are committing to significant expenditure each year. While people may say this is a wish list and there are not dates next to certain projects, this is a list the Government intends to pursue. It has committed to significant capital expenditure each year on roads, road maintenance, public transport systems, greenways and walkways and will need to deliver on that as otherwise, we will have a significant underspend each year.

I remember, during my time in government, a time when we were spending approximately €2 billion to €3 billion on capital investment. We are spending €10 billion per year now and growing. The idea this does not mean real investment in infrastructure is nonsense. We cannot put an exact date on certain projects because of their scale and the permitting system but that does not mean we are not looking to pursue them. If one looks at what has been achieved from 2018 to 2021, there is a significant list of achievements linked to the last national development plan, which is highlighted in the context of this one because it is a continuation of that plan with increased expenditure on capital projects.

We will move to deliver projects such as the N28, even though they have not happened yet, just as we will move to try to deliver on the N/M20, which I understand always has been called the N/M20, in the previous development plan and in this one. My view is that the road between Limerick and Cork should be a motorway. That is the view of the vast majority of people who look at this project and drive that road on a regular basis, as I do. The Government intends to commit a significant amount of money to deliver a project of that scale. Likewise, with the metro, which is an enormous project in terms of cost but is essential for a city the size and scale of Dublin and especially for those who live on its northside.

We have not given exact dates to certain projects. There are dates linked to other projects in the national development plan but anybody who thinks this is a wish list that will not result in significant increases in expenditure on the capital side, building new sustainable infrastructure for the State, has not read the document.

I read the document and I also looked at the one from 2018. Contrary to what the Minister said, it said the road between Cork and Limerick will be a M20 - not a N/M20. That qualification came in yesterday. That is a very big change for the people of Buttevant, Mallow and Charleville, from potential bypasses around their towns, about which the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, often talks, to having a motorway which will go from Cork to Limerick. The components of NIFTI, as the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has brought in and which the Minister, Deputy Coveney, says is good practice, were always in that Department. I know; I was in that Department. This is a qualification criterion in order that the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, can potentially look at what projects he wishes to pursue as part of his agenda in government, as opposed to what the overall Government may wish. There are a number of projects which had defined schedules and timelines in 2018. Those have now disappeared. How can the Minister stand over the fact that in five and a half years' time, we were due to have metro north and the M20 but now that has gone out into never land?

It has not gone out into never land. Those projects are named and we have the funding now, which is a significant increase on the funding for the last national development plan because, the country can now afford to borrow into the future for strategic capital investment, which is exactly what is happening. One does not propose to spend €165 billion and not deliver significant projects, many of which are named, some of which are not, in this development plan.

It was there a number of years ago. There was a timeline.

There was not a clear timeline-----

-----in relation to all projects----

The date given was 2027.

The Minister, without interruption.

We will progress projects-----

Read the document.

-----as quickly as they can be progressed through the planning process. The Deputy knows as well as I do of the potential delays in projects of this size and scale that will come through planning systems, environmental impact studies, potential legal challenges and so on. We now have the resources to be able to deliver a significant scale of investment annually, every year for the next ten years-----

I thank the Minister.

-----that will allow us to build strategic sustainable infrastructure. The latter will, in my view, include prioritising, over time, a motorway between Limerick and Cork.

I thank the Minister. We move now to Deputy Verona Murphy.

Last week, the Taoiseach visited Rosslare Europort and Rosslare. For the umpteenth time, an announcement was made regarding the allocation of €40 million to develop a customs post after Brexit. This money would have been spent in any event. The point is that the Government is not committing any money to Rosslare, other than that which has been necessitated as a result of Brexit. No investment was announced that would deliver an upgrade of the port, deepening the waters or providing a new pier and quayside in order to facilitate the cheaper movement of goods from Ireland to mainland EU. There has been no announcement to facilitate the creation of 2,000 jobs in the green wind energy sector, which Rosslare Europort is uniquely placed to accommodate.

The national development plan was announced yesterday. Astonishingly, there is no specific section to deal with post-Brexit infrastructural requirements or otherwise. There is recognition that Ireland is going through the most difficult of marriage break-ups. There is no consideration of this fact in the national development plan. There is nothing in the plan that would indicate the strategic importance of Rosslare Europort. The announcement for the umpteenth time of a customs post in Rosslare Europort is not an investment. It is part of our Government's obligation to the EU, paid for by the EU.

This is symptomatic of what Governments here do. This Government is not investing in the country's most strategic piece of infrastructure in order to: ensure sufficient capacity in our connectivity for commercial trade and tourism into the future; ensure Ireland’s competitiveness as a country on the periphery of the European mainland; and ensure that costs are kept to a minimum and within living wage rates.

Before Ireland finds itself in the same position as the UK, with empty shelves, foodstuffs not being delivered and dairy farmers letting milk run off down the drain because there are no drivers to collect it, I ask the Minister what commitment he can give that it will not find itself in such a position? When will the Department of Transport get the finger out and recognise that non-EU HGV driver licences must be recognised in order to issue work permits? How long will it take the Government to recognise that it must invest in Rosslare Europort, which is our most strategic piece of infrastructure, in order to ensure competitiveness? Are we waiting for inflation to rise to 8% or 9%, which will make dinners for lower-paid workers completely unaffordable? I would appreciate it if the Minister could respond.

In the context of the significant increase in shipping services from Rosslare Europort direct to the Continent as a result of Brexit and to enhance Rosslare Europort’s trade competitiveness, Iarnród Éireann and Rosslare Europort have completed their strategic investment master plan for the port for the coming years. The master plan includes investment of €42 million over the period 2021 to 2026 in customer facilities, port infrastructure, freight facilities, port assets, new technology and linking the new entrance of the port with proposed new port access road. Additionally, to support the free flow of import and export trade through Rosslare Europort to Great Britain, there has been significant engagement, preparation and investment in the State agency facilities required in Rosslare. The Office of Public Works, OPW, constructed temporary customs, agriculture and health facilities in the lead-up to a possible no-deal Brexit in 2019. These facilities are located outside the port in Kilrane, which is located on the N25 on the approach to Rosslare town. These are intended as interim facilities pending the construction of permanent facilities within the port.

Rosslare Europort is unique among the State-owned ports as it is not a commercial company operating under the Harbours Act. Instead, it operates on a commercial basis as a division of Iarnród Éireann and all investments are funded from port revenues. The Department of Transport continues to liaise closely with other Departments and Government agencies, and with Rosslare Europort and Iarnród Éireann, in respect of the design and development of the permanent customs, agriculture and health facilities. In August, the OPW submitted a planning application to Wexford County Council of these proposed facilities. This investment, along with the master plan, will ensure that Rosslare Europort is fully capable of having in place the controls required by the UK becoming a third country and of meeting the needs of future shipping capacity growth. Rosslare Europort and Iarnród Éireann are working together with the OPW on the co-ordination of works required. The parallel plans will require close liaison to ensure that the port remains fully operational while construction works are ongoing.

The Minister has missed the point. The much lauded €40 million that will be spent by the OPW constructing another customs post - in addition to the €11 million that was spent outside the port - will only serve to take up room in an already congested facility. We can ill afford that in a port that has increased traffic throughput by 400% post Brexit. Does the Minister understand that the port needs urgent investment in order to ensure the countries imports and exports move freely, directly to mainland Europe? The capacity increase was nothing but discouraged by the Government. The shipping company, DFDS, was told it was not required, nor were those who facilitate it. The Irish Maritime Development Office report stated we would move as required. There are no ships and capacity has not increased to where it should be. Without the latter, our tourism will not return and commercial traffic will suffer greatly. What will it take for the Minister to recognise this?

Is the Deputy saying she does not want the €40 million investment?

I am saying that it is taking up space. There is nothing wrong with where it is at present. All the Government has to do is ask the EU if we can extend the area of the port and keep what we have, which cost €11 million. The €40 million the Government is spending is to replace that which is in the port area and taking up space.

With respect, we need to work with the port authorities there and we are.

It is clear the Minister does not understand.

I have spoken with the port authorities. That is why the strategic investment is part of the master plan for the port that was put in place by the port authorities there. We need-----

It is a master plan that requires €200 million.

The Minister, without interruption.

I do not disagree with the Deputy that this is a port in which there should be capital investment. It is a port that has shown extraordinary capacity since Brexit took effect. We saw a dramatic increase in the amount of freight traffic through Rosslare in terms of direct ferry links with mainland Europe. I have spoken to many of those ferry operators about the latter.

Where is the money? Where is the investment?

With respect, as is the case with any port, we need to plan for investment and drive and fund most of that investment through revenues that come through the port. It is not a case of simply looking for capital grant aid from the Government for this. The Government will, of course, work with the port authorities in Rosslare to do what we can.

I would have thought five years was enough time.

As is the case in every other port, these are commercial decisions that need to be planned for and are made in that context.

Last week, we saw a major Government kite-flying exercise involving leaks from within on the issue of mica redress prior to the publication of the working-group report on the grant scheme. I can tell the Minister that they went down like the Titanic with people in Donegal. I am sure it was the same in Mayo, Sligo, Clare, Tipperary and other affected countries. What happened only served to enrage the people in my constituency who have sincerely engaged with the processes put in place by the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage. I agree with the mica group homeowners who have refused to sign off on Friday's report. It is a nothing report. It is a sham and a rehash of previous analysis. As Eileen Doherty, the campaigners' representative, said, "The objective of the working group was to make a number of recommendations to the Minister as to how these issues could be addressed. Nowhere in that document do I see recommendations".

Ms Doherty is right. It appears that this was just another disingenuous can-kicking exercise. It is disrespectful to my constituents in Donegal and others from around the country. Last night, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, wrote to Members of the Opposition seeking our views in order "to help inform a political consensus on the matters involved". Neither he nor the Government have shown the slightest bit of interest in any of our ideas. The Government has treated ideas, proposals and suggestions from the Opposition on all topics with a belligerence and contempt that stems from an unfounded confidence bordering on arrogance. It was disingenuous bullshit to send that letter out to us.

I will cite an example of that to which I refer. During the recent pandemic, the biggest crisis our country has ever faced, the Government, after an initial flurry of cross-party briefings, failed to follow through or keep Opposition representatives properly informed. The approach of the Government was insincere then and this time is no different. It is a sickeningly transparent PR stunt, but no one is falling for it. My deepest regret and disappointment is that the Government would do this on the backs of people who are suffering. I refer to those who have seen their homes demolished and who are watching their life's savings and dreams crumble before their eyes. These people are living in a state of constant anxiety and fear regarding the safety of their children and what the future holds for them in mica-riddled homes, with no hope of a resolution. Does the Government understand the impact that the lack of hope has on people's mental health and well-being? Lives are being destroyed in Donegal. I have a question for the Minister and I ask that he keep his answer concise and to the point. Has the Government made provision for full mica redress in next week's budget?

Before I call the Minister, and notwithstanding the fact that people can be angry and frustrated by events, we should try to adhere to the use of proper parliamentary language. I call the Minister.

I understand the anger and frustration felt by many families in respect of watching their homes literally crumble after having spent their life savings building them. The Government is going to respond to this issue. We do not have a final report from the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage yet, but we will have it in the coming weeks. It is a matter for the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Government more generally to decide how we plan for that in the context of the budget. I am not going to speak in detail about the budget today because it would not be appropriate to do so.

We have gone through a process here as a Government. Many Ministers have visited Donegal and the other counties impacted by the mica issue. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage is taking this matter incredibly seriously. The financial package that will be put together and approved by the Government in time will be one of the largest financial support packages ever announced in respect of anything. We need to get it right and we need to listen to people. We have tried to listen and take on board different views. The letters sent to the Opposition spokespeople asking them for their input represent a genuine effort to try to get all-party consensus in terms of how we can provide a financial support package for the families involved.

The Deputy can dismiss that as a PR exercise if he wants. If you are going bring to Government a package involving the kind of expenditure that I expect we will see in the coming weeks, then you try to build consensus around that, if you can, in order that the issue involved does not become an unnecessary point of political contention. I have heard many Deputies speak about mica - on both sides. There are equally strong feelings on both sides of this House in respect of this matter. Nobody here has a monopoly on wisdom or of compassion for the families that have had their lives turned upside down by the mica crisis they are facing in their homes.

My understanding is that it is unlikely that a package will be brought to Government in respect of this matter before the budget. I understand that it is probably a few weeks away yet. I assure the Deputy that this is something the Government has committed to dealing with head-on, working with the families, communities and the Opposition parties, in order to try to ensure that we will get what will be a hugely expensive but necessary support package for the families and individuals impacted by the mica crisis. I do not have an exact date for the Deputy, but we will approve that package in the next few weeks. However, people will not have to wait too much longer to see the detail of that package.

Perhaps I have a lack of experience, but I thought the budget set out what the Government intends to spend money on in the coming year. Perhaps I am wrong in that regard. As I see it, the budget is the deadline for what is happening with the mica issue. What I can see is that the Government is kicking the can down the road. This email, which I printed off, arrived last night for us. The report of the working group on defective concrete blocks was published last week. It is basically pages and pages of nothing. It does not make any recommendations. It does not do anything. The mica homeowners were right not to sign off on it and not to agree to it because there is nothing in it to agree to.

Homeowners are coming down here again on Friday to have a march and to put their case once again to the Government. The working group has failed. This letter is now asking us to provide costings. The Government has said it cannot provide costings, yet we are expected to provide costings. The Government must put the minds of these families at rest and tell them that the issue will be dealt with. This is being kicked down the road and is dragging on for weeks. The working group was extended from the end of July to the beginning of September and then it was the end of September. Everything has now been put back even further. The Government must end this for the people and let them know that something will be done.

I hear Deputy Pringle on that. At the last meeting of the working group, which was held on 29 September, the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O'Brien, thanked the working group for its engagement and involvement in the process in recent months. In particular, he acknowledged the stress and hardship which affected homeowners and assured them that enhancements would be made to the scheme. The working group submitted the final report to the Minister on 30 September. As the Deputy outlined, building on the motion in the Dáil in June 2021, the Minister has written to Opposition spokespeople to try to ensure that we fully understand their input as well.

The working group has not failed. The working group and the report it put together has informed the Minister and his Department as they finalised a proposal to bring to the Government. That is what is happening now. I can commit, as others from the Government have, to families, that in the next few weeks the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage will bring a comprehensive proposal to the Government for sign off, which will involve an enormous amount of public money to support families that have been impacted in a terrible way by mica. That is something the Government will deliver on. Regarding how that is dealt with in the context of the budget next week, that is a matter for the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform and the Minister for Finance.