Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí - Leaders' Questions

Iarraim ar gach páirtí na srianta ama a thabhairt dá n-aire.

Mar Theachta Dála atá i mo chónaí in aice leis an bhfarraige, tá aithne agam go pearsanta, agus beidh ag Teachtaí eile chomh maith, ar na mná agus fir chróga atá mar pháirt den gharda cósta agus a chuireann iad féin i mbaol go minic ar mhaithe le sláinte agus sábháilte daoine eile atá i dtrioblóid ar an bhfarraige. Ar an drochuair, tá amanna ann nuair a bhíonn baol agus dainséir na farraige móire róláidir. Ní thugtar buíochas ná ómós d'fhoireann an gharda cósta minic go leor ach conas nach féidir fearg a bheith ort agus tú ag léamh an dóigh ina gcaitheadh le teaghlaigh fhoirne Rescue 166 agus iad fágtha le costais dlí mar gur throid Roinn an Aire ina n-éadan ag an bhfiosrúchán. Tá sé náireach agus caithfidh an tAire é a cheartú.

On 14 March 2017, Dara Fitzpatrick, Mark Duffy, Paul Ormsby and Ciarán Smith, four members of the Irish Coast Guard, tragically lost their lives in the line of duty while supporting a rescue mission off the coast of Mayo. Its accident investigation unit was drawn in to carry out an investigation into what had happened and the publication of that report is still pending four years later. As the Minister stated in response to parliamentary questions here previously, the delay in the publication of that report is the result of the establishment of a review of that investigation, which we understand has been carried out at the behest of the helicopter operator, CHC Ireland.

The Minister appointed that review board. In order to have their interests represented, the families of those who tragically lost their lives quite understandably hired legal representatives to represent them at the board because they feared there would be an effort to assign blame for the accident to their loved ones. Their legal bills are now mounting, to the tune of hundreds of thousands of euro, because the Minister's officials in the Department of Transport fought against them successfully to ensure their legal costs were not awarded to them. This is scandalous.

RTÉ reported yesterday that the chairperson of the review board, Patrick McCann, has acknowledged the contribution made by the families' legal representatives at the review. It reported he had acknowledged that the families had little choice but to have legal representation given the highly technical nature of the proceedings. Despite the chairperson and sole member of that review team saying that, the Minister's officials took the most callous approach in dealing with this issue and fought the families at the review board. How on earth can the Minister's officials argue against the awarding of legal costs to these families and why did he allow that to happen? Why did he not intervene? It is an horrendous way to treat these families of four people who died in the line of duty, trying to save others.

I have one simple question for the Minister. Will he reverse this decision and ensure the families involved are awarded their legal costs in respect of their representation at the review board?

Our thoughts on this whole issue go to the families of those people who tragically lost their lives while doing the great public service of putting themselves in danger on others' behalf. It is absolutely in all our interest that the families are not put into any further difficulty or stress to add to the tragedy they have had to cope with. It would be scandalous if we were fighting against the paying of such costs but that is not true. I am confident that following the completion of the review group's work, and what I expect to be the imminent publication of the full report from the Chief Inspector of Air Accidents, that will be resolved quickly.

More critically, we will also look to learn the lessons contained in those reports so that the families of other people in our air rescue system will have confidence that we learn lessons, that we recognise the critical work they continue to do day in, day out and that we minimise the risks they take. How the State manages the issue of costs is always a complicated system but there will be no attempt by the State not to look after the families. We will ensure the issue of legal costs is resolved quickly. I have asked my officials to engage immediately with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to ensure we make that possible. I have also engaged with the Minister at that Department, Deputy Michael McGrath, and he is of a similar view. The matter will be resolved quickly. It should not in any way distract from the core issue here, namely, recognising the great loss of loved ones that those families suffered. Looking at why it happened and what we can do to ensure it does not happen again has to be the centre of our attention, rather than the legal costs. That will not be an issue in the coming days and will be resolved quickly.

I am glad to hear there is a change of tune but it should never have got to this point. The Minister said what I said was not true.

Did the Department oppose the applications by the families' teams to the review board to have their costs covered? The review team made a determination on this. In part of its determination it said: "... it would have been difficult if not impossible for the Commander's family to represent its own interest and the late Commander's interests without legal representation". Members of the families talk about their hurt and being dragged into a process which is not of their making as it was the helicopter company that brought the review and say that the Department strongly objected to the costs being covered. Will the Minister reiterate, in clear terms, that the costs of the families of the four people who lost lives in the line of duty will be covered by the State and that it is a burden and a worry about which they no longer have to worry?

My Department has not strenuously fought against the payment of such costs. We received the review report on 1 October. We had to check its contents with the Office of the Attorney General to ensure we were able to pass the report to the stakeholders, including the families. As soon as I was given the all-clear for that from the Attorney General's office, which I believe was on 14 October, we signed off the next day and made sure that the report went to all the stakeholders, including the families. The original investigation report is not subject to direct control from the Department as it is an independent procedure, but I expect that now will be allowed to be shared with the stakeholders in a similar way. The issue of costs were addressed in that report and at no stage did the Department strenuously fight against that.

Did the Department object to the application?

No. As I said, I have already engaged with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform to make sure that we can engage with the families and ensure that this issue is not something to add to the terrible hurt that they have experienced in this affair.

I ask the Minister to provide information on the status of the carbon budgets and a clear timeline for the publication of the carbon budgets and the climate action plan. With just over a week to the start of the crucial climate talks at COP26 in Glasgow and with only nine years to the 2030 deadline for the achievement of our ambitious and welcome 51% reduction target, what is lacking is a sense of clarity and urgency in the Government's response in respect of its proposed measures to deal the climate emergency and to show how we are going to achieve our emissions reduction targets. Everyone I speak to in the renewable energy sector and people involved in this are concerned about the lack of implementation measures, the lack of urgency and the lack of clarity.

We were led to believe that the carbon budgets would be published in the first week of October, before the fiscal budget. It would have been preferable if we could have seen those budgets aligned. It would have been useful to have been able to scrutinise budget 2022 in the context of our vital climate action targets alongside the carbon budgets, but we were unable to do so. Now there are reports this week that the proposals of the Climate Change Advisory Council are likely to be published next week, but the Dáil and Seanad will not be sitting next week. It will be well into the commencement of COP26, therefore, before we will be able to have a debate in the Oireachtas on these crucial documents regarding the crucial measures in the carbon budgets and in the climate action plan.

There is also a lack of clarity on other key measures we need to take regarding climate change. There were reports yesterday that the just transition commissioner will not be placed on a statutory footing, as was promised in the programme for Government. What is the position on that? There are also real concerns about the announcement in budget 2022 of the removal of the Sustainable Energy Authority of Ireland, SEAI, grant for plug-in hybrid electric vehicles. This grant had already been reduced in July from €5,000 to €2,500. We agree with the need to incentivise the move to fully electric vehicles, and I welcome the budget announcement of the extension of the grant in that regard, but there is still a lack of clarity and a lack of notice to people who might have made decisions on making a move to more environmentally-friendly transport and who are now faced with this change.

We must ensure that there is public buy-in for the measures necessary to tackle climate change. We have to ensure that people, particularly in rural areas, are assured about decisions and can have confidence in them. We have to bring people with us. That is crucial in advance of COP26. All of us, including those who will be on Merrion Square tomorrow at 1 p.m. for a pre-COP26 climate action protest, want to see real clarity, certainty and urgency from the Government.

On the timelines with regard to carbon budgets, we have to be careful here because the Climate Change Advisory Council is independent in the way it has been established and in the way it sets out its work. However, I understand it is meeting on 25 October, which is next week, and I hope and expect, subject to it being satisfied with its process, that it will be able to issue the first of the two carbon budgets for the first and second five-year periods bringing us to the end of the decade. I expect it will also publish supporting documentation to show the research that has been undertaken in the Climate Change Advisory Council to justify the approach it will recommend to the Government. The appointment of the full complement of four final members of the Climate Change Advisory Council had to await the enactment of the Bill before it could be done under proper statute. There was also the drafting of regulations, which we have now agreed. That allows the council to progress with its carbon budgets to outline which greenhouse gases we account for. That had to be done first before the council could then publish its budget.

Once it does that, we expect that very quickly - 3 November in the following week is my indicative timeline - the Government will consider a draft climate action plan which we will issue in response. We have been working a great deal on this in advance. That will contain extensive details. Similar to the previous plan adopted by the then Minister, Deputy Bruton, it will contain a wide series of actions and main chapter headings setting out the strategic direction we need to take in this area. It is transformative beyond compare because the 50% reduction in emissions requires us to completely change our energy system, transport system, land use and agricultural system and industrial systems for the better. We can and will do this.

Much of the work that has been done has fed into some of the key measures that have been put in place in the last month. The key emphasis in Housing for All on town centre first and compact development was informed by what we know we will have to do on the transport side in our carbon budget. In the national development plan there were just two Departments which had full clarity on their ten-year capital programmes - €35 billion in the case of the Department of Transport and €12.9 billion in the case of the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications. We needed that clarity to be able to give the sectors the Deputy mentioned certainty about the scale of investment the Government will have to make and, in many cases, the back-up scale that will be needed for other investments. A huge amount of work has been done. We will have it in time to go to COP26 with a draft climate action plan from Ireland to give it a sense of where we are going to proceed. However, the real challenge now will be implementing it at the speed and scale that are necessary to meet the correct calls of concern from the climate strikers.

I entirely agree with the Minister about the necessity for urgency and the scale of the challenge facing us. I am somewhat dismayed to hear that it will be 3 November and later in November before we will see consideration by the Government of the draft climate action plan and publication of the carbon budgets. That appears to be quite significant slippage, particularly as COP26 will have started on 31 October. It is a real concern given that these are measures which have had to be in preparation for a long time. We all are well aware of that and of the section 6A timeline for the carbon budget, which was for the period commencing last January. We know, therefore, that this is something that has been in preparation for a long time. It is simply not good enough to see this slippage into November. I accept what the Minister said about the advisory council, but it is unfortunate to see that long, ongoing delay.

I would like a response on the other issues I raised regarding other measures that also require clarity. We also have to emphasise the huge opportunity that lies ahead of us in moving from fossil fuel bases. That is an opportunity we must grasp with positivity as well as urgency.

I accept the Deputy's point about the date. To be honest, the decision was whether to go out straight away, the day after the Climate Change Advisory Council hopefully publishes its budget approach.

I thought that was inappropriate and it was better to give that a certain amount of time. In addition, the Dáil would not be sitting and I would prefer to come back to this House on 3 November, which is in plenty of time for when the serious negotiations in the COP take place in the second week of November. Therefore, it will be in time for that.

On the specific issue the Deputy mentioned in terms of plug-in hybrid vehicles, it is absolutely appropriate that we focus the resources we have on the switch to 100% electric vehicles rather than plug-in hybrid vehicles. There is considerable research which I will share with the Deputy separately, showing that the emissions reductions from the plug-in hybrid sector are not significant because of behavioural issues and so on. It is far better to focus the resources we have on the switch that is now taking place at speed and scale towards 100% electric vehicles. I believe that is the right policy choice.

The partition of Ireland is the most damaging event in the history of Ireland since the Famine. It set in train decades of second-class citizenship for nationalists and Catholics in the North of Ireland. It institutionalised discrimination and state violence and sundered thousands of villages, towns and communities throughout the Border region. It also hammered the social and economic development of Ireland and has seen the loss of thousands of lives. Even today because of partition, the Tories, who know nothing about Ireland and care nothing about Ireland, still have an enormous influence on how we run this country. Indeed, they can determine how people and products move around our nation.

The President of Ireland, Michael D. Higgins, made a decision not to attend the event scheduled to take place in Armagh city today. He stated that it was inappropriate to attend. Of the events title, the President said that it was not a neutral statement politically. He stated, "What began as a religious service or reconciliation is now the celebrating, the marking... [of] the partition of Ireland and the creation of ... [North of] Ireland." The President is a scholar of Irish history and has a record second to none on reconciliation. We, in Aontú, believe he made the right decision. It is a decision that is supported by the majority of Irish people. I cannot think of another country on this planet that would be involved in the marking, the celebration or the commemoration of the partition of its own country. It is a peculiarity of the Irish psyche that we are even having this discussion here today.

The Government could have presented a united approach on this issue, but instead it disagreed with the President's decision. It has contradicted the words of the President. Does the Minister think the President was wrong? Do the Government's actions not implicitly indicate that it believes the President's actions were wrong? I believe that today the Government is snubbing the President of Ireland by going against his decision and attending the partition commemoration ceremony. How can the Government square the circle? Irrespective of what euphemisms or language the Minister might use in this situation, if the President was right not to attend the event due to its political nature, why is it right for the Government to be represented there?

I am loath to interrupt the Deputy while the clock is running, but he has repeatedly mentioned the President. There is a long-standing practice that Members should not draw the President into any argument or ask the Government to comment on the President. I ask the Deputy to bear that in mind.

I will bear that in mind.

I was going to wait until the end but he has repeatedly done it.

How can two arms of the Oireachtas take opposite decisions at the same time and for both of those decisions to be considered the correct decision? It is absolutely impossible. In the words of the former Fine Gael Minister, Paddy Donegan, is this Government not a thundering disgrace?

A Leas-Cheann Comhairle, I very much take on board your words of warning in this regard. However, in this case I think we are on safer ground because in this I am absolutely certain there is no difference or any controversy with regard to the President's decision. The Government fully accepted and understood that his decision in this regard was taken absolutely properly. His role on this issue is not in any way being called into question. It never was, from the very start of this becoming a controversial matter.

Under our Constitution, the Government and the various arms of the Oireachtas have different requirements, obligations and considerations. In this instance, the Government has decided that the that the Chief Whip and the Minister for Foreign Affairs would attend. The Minister for Foreign Affairs is engaged on an ongoing basis in the North. While absolutely acknowledging the President's decision and his rightful approach, the Government felt that did not preclude the Government sending a representative and it was appropriate for us to do so.

On the wider issue, I will be in Belfast myself this afternoon, attending a British-Irish Council meeting. Going back to the Deputy's original commentary about the effects of partition, I come from a similar viewpoint in the sense that I would prefer to see our island united. That would bring benefits beyond compare, too many to quantify. I also voted in that referendum to remove the articles in our Constitution. The provisions of the Good Friday Agreement recognise various different traditions and various rights on this island. We are all committed to work within the institutions set up under the Good Friday Agreement and provided for under our Constitution to try to bring reconciliation and optimise relationships, not just North-South but also east-west.

That is one of the reasons Government has been considering events like this and other events in which we also engage. We engage in the North South Ministerial Council meetings all the time to the best of our ability. We engage in the British-Irish Council in a way that is absolutely appropriate. I would like to see that extended further. The other provisions of the Good Friday Agreement give us opportunity, particularly at the time of Brexit when it is not just the partition between North and South but we are also contending with the major difficulties that Brexit brings, to use the institutions and have ongoing contact in the spirit of the Good Friday Agreement and in the spirit of the Constitution. The Irish people passed a referendum to amend our Constitution committing us to work with all parties in the North and to work with the British Government. That is what is happening today both at the British-Irish Council and with the attendance of Ministers at the event in Armagh.

There is no doubt that reconciliation is critical, but I think there is a misunderstanding in this State about what reconciliation means. Reconciliation is built on pluralism and by definition pluralism accepts there are differences and respects those differences. Reconciliation is about reaching out the hand of friendship. It does not mean that we have to dress up in each other's political clothes. Pluralism does not mean that unionists have to attend a 1916 commemoration. It certainly does not mean that nationalists have to attend a commemoration of partition.

In recent weeks the Government has engaged in verbal gymnastics. There has been a desperate search for a euphemism to hide what is actually happening here. What we see are two mutually exclusive and opposite actions happening and the Government claims they are both in agreement. By definition of physics it cannot be that the two decisions going in opposite ways can be in agreement at all. I do not think anybody is being fooled. Even Deputies from the Government parties are calling this out at the moment. While I welcome the Minister's opposition to partition, can he point to any actual examples of Government efforts to end partition since his party came into power?

The shared island unit within the Department of the Taoiseach is a prime example. One of the things we did with the shared island unit was to start engaging with environmental NGOs and others in the North, recognising that the shared island is a shared environment. Pollution and issues like climate change recognise no borders. Brexit gives rise to concerns that we could end up with two different standards of environmental protection, including habitats protection, that could drive a further wedge and create a new border which would be terribly damaging. We have been using that mechanism as a means to try to get an all-island approach to how we look after the environment. I cite the work we are doing today on transport. I have been working directly with Nicola Mallon on an all-island strategic rail review, investigating how we might run a rail line to Letterkenny from Derry, for example.

Yesterday I attended a European conference in Ostend on a shared approach to offshore wind energy. I could go on all day outlining examples of how we work in that way. That is the work that delivers best on our aspirations.

I welcome yesterday's announcement on agriculture. I agree with convergence, as outlined in Pillar 1.

With Pillar 2, there is much concern among the communities that deliver LEADER that there is a shortfall of approximately €70 million. This is at a time when communities and especially the agricultural sector are stepping up to the mark when it comes to climate action.

In this regard, last Monday a group of us from the agriculture committee visited Devenish Farm in Meath. We spent five or six hours going around the farm looking at how it measured hedgerows and carbon on the trees and how it used different types of grasses. It is a carbon-neutral farm. It is one of the main farms of eight or nine throughout the world picked so different universities can study these matters. To put it simply, it is a private entity.

There are a couple of points between agriculture and climate action. In light of developments we have heard of from the people involved with LEADER and their view that there is a shortfall, will the Government pick up that gap to ensure this programme, which is vital to rural communities, will be delivered?

A private company is able to nail down the amount of carbon sequestered in trees or hedgerows by using light detection and ranging, LiDAR, systems on a helicopter. In the past week or two, I have heard that Teagasc, which gets a lot of money from the State, and the Government are not looking at hedgerows in considering the carbon tonnage sequestered around the country. We are looking at carbon budgets but we still do not know where we are starting because we do not know what is sequestered. It is a damn bad way of doing things and puts pressure on people.

The agricultural community does not mind stepping up to the mark but it does not want to have to act with false figures. Why has the Government not brought in expertise from Devenish Farm, which has done all this work, to help Teagasc or the Government itself to formulate more accurate figures?

My final question relates to electricity supply and power. The Minister stated in the past week in an interview with the farming section of the Irish Independent that he would not rule out the reopening of Shannonbridge and Lanesborough power stations. Will he elaborate on this and explain what he means?

I thank the Deputy for his questions. They cover two different matters so I will start with his first point. I also visited the farm he mentioned in Louth last month. Sorry, it was in Meath. There is a big difference. I was very impressed. The mapping of soils and what goes on is very impressive. Similar to what I have seen and heard about the UCD Lyons Farm, there is use of mixed sward grass systems that is a game changer because it is more resilient in flood and drought conditions. It has deeper root systems and it is a game changer because it brings a significant reduction in nitrogen use and cost. I understood when I was there in September that they had been able to get their sheep to market five or six weeks quicker. They compared flocks on the mixed sward grass versus the normal perennial rye grass sward. As any farmer knows, getting animals to market that much quicker gives a hell of an advantage. I absolutely agree with the Deputy that the farm is a good example of how good environmental practice is going to be good for farming. A key element is knowledge about the soil, including quality and farming with different soils.

The final CAP payment is still in consultation with stakeholders and others. The final design of the new Common Agricultural Policy scheme is yet to be agreed. To my mind it is a significant step in the right direction of paying farmers for good environmental services in both Pillar 1 and Pillar 2. When my party members sat where the Deputy is now, we spoke about much of what is now contained in the plans. Hedgerows are critical but we spoke many times about giving farmers the ability to plant trees while still farming. This might involve planting a number of trees per hectare and recognising this as a green measure to allow a farmer meet the requirements for payments.

That is a really good example of how we could meet our carbon budgets and improve farming while giving farmers payments for the ability they have to be flexible and know their land best and what goes best in what place. That is instead of covering a farm with clear-fell monoculture forest. We should allow farmers to use their smarts for areas they may not use now but which may be good for a bit of forestry. What we spoke about is now starting to be a paid enterprise.

I do not have the full details for the LEADER budget but my understanding is the allocation in the revised CAP plan is similar to what was in the previous seven years and that there is not a decrease. I have to check that and come back to the Deputy. As I stated, the final details of the CAP payments are subject to consultation. It will be December before they are completely finalised. I will reply to the electricity supply query later.

I thank the Minister. We have spoken about this many times but talking about it and doing it are two different things. My understanding from the people involved with LEADER for many years is that it will be approximately €70 million or €80 million down. Will the Government make up that deficit if it exists? It is a simple and straightforward question.

We have spoken about hedgerows. I drive every day from Galway and for every yard of the road, there are plenty of hedgerows. My understanding is they should be counted for sequestration purposes. My understanding was that we were going down that road and we would have it done. I have heard in the past week that this will not be one method of offset and farmers will not have this as a mitigating measure when there are so many hedgerows around the country. There is no point foisting something on farmers if we do not know the accurate figures before we start. The Minister might comment on Lanesborough and Shannonbridge before the lights go out.

Stopping the lights going out is our critical concern. The Deputy knows there has been much public commentary about this because we had two large gas plants down and auctions that had not delivered new back-up power, meaning we are very tight for the next number of years. I do not believe the details are finalised but in speaking with the ESB and others, it seems the ESB is looking at those two former stations. I understand one of them is starting to install some of the battery back-up systems that will give us the sort of capability to provide energy security. It means that in peak hours, such as the two-hour peak between 5 p.m. and 7 p.m., we could have back-up capability to be able to reinforce the grid and keep voltage and frequency stability. There are many skills in the midlands in managing the grid and those two stations may well be very critical and useful in providing that back-up and system management services that electricity systems now need. It is in that regard I made the comments to a newspaper two weeks ago.

What about the trees?

I will have to come back to the Deputy about the trees on another day.