Saincheisteanna Tráthúla - Topical Issue Debate

Climate Change Negotiations

I thank the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for selecting this important issue for debate. The importance of the UN Climate Change Conference, or COP26 as it is also known, cannot be overstated. Speaking at the world leaders’ summit opening, Elizabeth Wathuti, a climate activist from Kenya, outlined the realities for those living on the front lines of climate change, facing droughts, famine and deteriorating living conditions. She gave a very clear message, saying, "The decisions you make here will help determine whether children will have food and water". She continued:

The children cannot live on words and empty promises. They are waiting for you to act.

It is no exaggeration to say this meeting is essential to prevent the worst effects of climate change by ensuring that global temperature rise is limited to 1.5°C. This will need emissions to be reduced by 45% by 2030 compared with 2010 and from there to net zero emissions by 2050. As Elizabeth said, this conference must be about action and not words. Most states, including Ireland, have not done enough to meet vital climate targets.

I welcome the Taoiseach’s commitment to reduce greenhouse emissions by 51% by 2030 and to be climate neutral by 2050 but I must do so with scepticism. Our greenhouse gas emissions decreased by 3.6% last year, which can be attributed to the significant decrease in transport and economic activity across the lockdowns. It was an indication of the massive change necessary in the next nine years if we are to reduce our emissions by 51%. Moreover, we failed to meet our 2020 target; instead of 20% below 2005 levels we achieved 7%. Ireland is a small country on a global scale, but we produce a disproportionate amount of emissions and we must take responsibility for our fair share. I am sure the Minister of State will cite the forthcoming climate action plan but we have already seen lobbyists and big players seeking exceptions for their sectors. This is against the backdrop of the historic climate case ruling last year when the previous Government’s national mitigation plan failed to comply with the requirements of the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development Act 2015. The climate action plan will need to be an incredibly ambitious and detailed if it is to achieve what we all need it to achieve.

Most importantly, our climate action must be grounded in a just transition. This means a transition that ensures the economic and social consequences of the climate emergency are managed to maximise opportunities of decent work for all, reducing inequalities, promoting social justice, and supporting industries, workers and communities affected. However, the Minister of State will have to excuse my deep worry that this will not happen. The Minister of State and his party refused to accept the need for a more robust definition of "just transition" in the climate action Bill, and more recently there has been the abandoning of the programme for Government commitment to establish the just transition commissioner as a statutory office. These are deeply worrying developments and offer very little reassurance about the prospect of a fair and just fight for climate and social justice.

Speaking at COP26, Sir David Attenborough said:

This story is one of inequality as well as instability. Today those who have done the least to cause this problem are among those to be hardest hit.

This week, when climate decisions have never been more significant and attention is focused on this issue, what assurances can the Minister of State give me his Government will do everything necessary to achieve the massive changes necessary and that they will occur in a fair and just manner?

Ireland is committed to concerted global action to address the climate crisis and Ireland engages in negotiations under the United Nations Framework Convention on Climate Change, UNFCC, and the Paris Agreement through its membership of the EU. Ireland has actively engaged with EU partners in preparation for the 26th conference, namely, COP26 in Glasgow, which commenced on 31 October and will conclude on 12 November 2021.

The Taoiseach is attending the world leaders' summit to deliver the national statement. This will set out how Ireland is contributing to achievement of the Paris goals, including limiting global warming to 1.5°C and to helping developing and vulnerable countries mitigate the impacts of climate change. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications will lead Ireland's national delegation for the continuation of the high-level segment during the second week of COP26. Ireland is committed to playing an active and constructive role at the COP this year, particularly on issues linked to our climate priorities and with the intention of illustrating the coherence between our international climate agenda and our domestic climate ambition.

The latest Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change, IPCC, report, Climate Change 2021: the Physical Science Basis, reconfirms the limited window there is in which to act to prevent more devastating impacts of climate change and underlines the increasing urgency needed to tackle the climate crisis. The report, based on the latest climate science, has observed unprecedented changes in the climate system. Every region of the world across the entire climate system has already been impacted by climate extremes. There is ever greater certainty about climate change and ever greater urgency about the need to tackle it. The role of human influence is undisputed and has resulted in warming of the atmosphere, oceans and land. The report reinforces and builds on existing evidence which links extreme weather events to climate change. Some changes, such as the rise in sea levels, are irreversible. This is leaving low-lying lands and coastal communities extremely vulnerable. This scientific evidence demonstrates that the atmosphere is warming and the climate is changing with each passing year. This year's COP is crucial in ensuring that climate action is taken in a manner that balances considerations of fairness, cost effectiveness and solidarity to ensure no-one is left behind.

It is critical that, despite the challenges Covid presents to a global gathering of this nature, COP26 is both as inclusive and transparent as possible. This is reflected in the make-up of our own national delegation, which reflects our citizen participatory approach to climate action, and the promotion and participation of women, young people and NGOs in the negotiator and observer groups. It is also reflected in our national negotiation priorities. A primary objective is the finalisation of the Paris rulebook, which will allow for the full delivery of the Paris Agreement. This includes consensus on matters such as carbon markets in Article 6, transparency, climate finance and adaptation. These are called for by developing countries.

Climate finance has enabled us to support people in the least developed countries, LDCs, and small island developing states, SIDSs, and to amplify the voices of these countries in climate change decision making. Ireland will support LDCs and SIDSs at COP26 in preparing for a climate resilient future, standing in solidarity with countries that have done the least to contribute to the problem of climate change yet face the harshest impacts. Agreement on a way forward for future finance discussions, solution-forward approaches to address loss and damage, and the scaling up of support to enhance action on adaptation are also key deliverables.

We are committed to realising the goals of the Paris Agreement, championing progressive action and ensuring that the most vulnerable are at the heart of all our engagement. Ireland has a strong commitment to, and track record in, providing a balanced share of climate finance for adaptation and including grant-based finance for LDCs and SIDSs. At the UN General Assembly in September, Ireland launched the champions group on adaptation finance with the Netherlands, Sweden, Denmark, Finland and the UK. This group plans to advocate to other donor countries on increasing the quality, quantity and accessibility of climate adaptation finance, specifically to meet the $100 billion goal.

I accept the Minister of State's commitment, but I remain sceptical. He did not address the abandonment of the programme for Government commitment to establishing a just transition commissioner. Our annual transition statements highlight the inadequacies of actions so far. Our society and economy need major change. That is possible and is something that can and should be done. We need the Government to take substantial and brave leadership and we need a unified approach.

Regrettably, in response to the Climate Change Advisory Council's report, we saw the same old narrative of climate action versus rural Ireland. Farmers know that we need climate action. They are among the cohorts most vulnerable in Ireland and they deserve more respect. Policies over recent decades have decimated small family farms. Those clinging to a business-as-usual model are putting us at considerable climate risk and squandering opportunities to protect rural living, spinning the false narrative that the current model favours farmers when it does not. Rather, it favours large agribusiness, including the likes of Larry Goodman and supermarkets. Ms Alannah Wrynn, a young climate activist from Clonakilty, summed it up. She stated:

This idea of the division between activists and farmers shouldn't be there at all. With a just transition to a more sustainable way of food production it's important that farmers are given the opportunity to become educated about it and that they actually have financial support.

Currently, the system does not support farmers. Rather, it incentivises them to do the opposite of taking climate action. The Minister of State knows as well as I do that the small environmental pilot scheme under the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine will not cut it where the targets that we need to meet are concerned.

The COP26 commitments on deforestation are welcome, but how are we going to meet them when there are serious backlogs in the issuing of forestry licences in Ireland? Despite assurances from the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine and the Minister of State at that Department last year when they passed very questionable legislation on forestry, that legislation has not resolved the problems restricting afforestation efforts and preventing communities from planting trees. How does the Government propose to end deforestation when it is taking two to three years to get a licence to plant trees?

In terms of transport, the Minister of State knows the scale of investment in accessible public transport and active travel infrastructure that is needed in rural Ireland. It has not been allocated. We all know that we are not going far enough.

These are just three examples from a litany of sectoral issues that need to be addressed in an effective action plan. We need an ambitious plan that will tackle vested interests and get all of government, civil society and private enterprise working towards our climate goals.

I agree that casting this as a rural versus urban narrative is not helpful. This is something that we can only solve by working together and being constructive in our approach. I thank Sinn Féin for dropping its Private Members' wind farm Bill, seeing that the Bill was the wrong thing to do and having the humility to change course.

Respectfully, instead of slashing Sinn Féin, can the Minister of State answer my question on the just transition commissioner?

Let the Minister of State continue, please.

I agree that lobbyists seeking exemptions has been counterproductive. Sectoral lobbyists have come in looking for procrastination, but that has not served their members. Instead, it has led to more pain.

We cannot make progress on climate action without a just transition. It would not be feasible or viable to get people to change unless they feel that the changes are fair.

Clonakilty is a town that has been leading in being progressive on green issues. It is a thriving town in a rural area that has business because it has become a fantastic environment to spend time in and has attracted people to it. It has a bikes scheme and various other green measures that have been more progressive than those of some cities.

Regarding afforestation policy and the delays in getting planting licences, the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, has made great progress. I believe that the metrics show that forestry licences are being granted much sooner than was previously the case.

If the Deputy has further questions that she wishes to ask me on these matters, my office is always open to her.

Energy Policy

I expect that the Minister of State will confirm that the role and responsibilities of the entities accountable for the energy sector, namely, EirGrid and the Commission for Regulation of Utilities, CRU, can be summarised as "EirGrid's task is to deliver a safe, secure and reliable supply of electricity now, and in the future" and the "CRU's mission is to protect the public interest in Water, Energy and Energy Safety" by ensuring "safe, secure and sustainable energy and water supplies at a reasonable cost" and "to help deliver a secure, low carbon future at least cost." It should be clarified by the Minister of State how the energy crisis has escalated to a stage where emergency generators are required urgently in Dublin. Are EirGrid and the CRU competent and capable of fulfilling their duties? Given that the buck stops with the Minister, what has the Minister of State's Department been doing to ensure that they are fulfilling their duties?

Deregulation of electricity generation started in the early 2000s with the aim of liberalising the market. It should be explained why, despite no longer proceeding because of a recent legal challenge, ESB North Wall was initially selected by EirGrid, with support from the Department, to provide 200 MW of emergency generation without due process. Will the Minister of State clarify whether there was any payment or advance made by EirGrid to the ESB associated with the emergency generation? If so, how much was it?

Since that controversy, it has come to my attention that EirGrid is now running a new tender process that has a strong bias towards the ESB North Wall site. I have learned that the technical criteria and timelines swing very much in favour of the ESB. One example is the six-month delivery timeframe between the contract's award in March 2022 and the commencement of service provision by quarter 3 of that year. Another example is the suggestion by EirGrid that fast-tracked planning should be considered because the standard planning process is unlikely to be open to being utilised for the successful delivery. However, this fast-track process under section 181(2)(a) of the Planning and Development Act 2000, which was amended in June, only appears to be available to the ESB, as it is described as a "statutory undertaker". Is there a cosy relationship between the ESB and EirGrid that is enabling the former to get what is undoubtedly an unfair advantage?

Earlier this year, the ESB withdrew significant generation capacity and paid penalties to the tune of approximately €4 million in respect of 400 MW of generation that was due to become operational next October as part of the capacity market auction. Last December, it shut down the West Offaly power station and the Lough Ree power station in the midlands, removing 228 MW of generation capacity. This makes for a total of 628 MW. When the ESB's media spin is filtered out, one can see that it has abandoned the midlands, having profited from the region for decades.

Will the Minister of State please explain why the ESB, a semi-State company, is being rewarded handsomely despite exacerbating the supply shortage? Could the ESB have orchestrated this crisis by exercising its market power knowing that it would be rewarded as I have outlined?

The position of successive Governments for almost 20 years has been that competitive energy markets result in greater choice for consumers and businesses in terms of suppliers, products and prices, support competition and drive down prices.

Data from approved price comparison sites show consumers can make significant savings by switching energy suppliers. Accordingly, one of the main thrusts of Government policy on energy costs is focused on the competitive market. Government policy has supported competition to drive down prices. Based on CRU data, active customers who switched supplier or renegotiated with their current supplier every year for the last four years could have saved €704 on gas, €1,097 on electricity or €1,696 on their dual fuel costs. A recent CRU survey found that over half of electricity and gas consumers have switched supplier at least once.

I thank the Minister of State. I respect that he may not be privy to some of the information and queries I have relayed in my presentation. I acknowledge the CRU might well be accountable to an Oireachtas joint committee, but the same cannot be said for EirGrid. EirGrid is the responsibility of the line Minister.

On the questions I asked, I am led to believe the amount paid by EirGrid to the ESB, approved with the sanction of the Minister, was €10 million and that €10 million was a down payment on a €110 million contract. That is highly unusual, I would say. It was sanctioned and paid in the midst of a process that could not subsequently be defended in the courts and was, therefore, withdrawn. I ask the Minister of State respectfully to find out if this money has been repaid, who is responsible, who is culpable and who is paying for this failure of EirGrid and the CRU to provide the sort of competition that was and is necessary to have lower prices in the energy sector? In the context of climate action and COP26 in Glasgow, we have been saying we want to be a net contributor into the future in terms of energy generation. We have, and are, failing currently and the public is paying for this in terms of ridiculously high energy prices.

I do not enjoy exposing these matters. I am a Government Deputy. I am intent on playing my part in implementing the programme for Government, especially having worked hard on behalf of my party to present it to our members and to the Dáil. However, when I see and recognise wrongdoing, and I see lethargy at this level and to this extent, it is my duty to highlight it. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Ryan, is accountable in this issue. He must respond quickly to the issues I have raised. Based on the facts I have presented and in light of the role of EirGrid and the CRU, which I set out earlier, and of the Minister, there are questions about all three living up to their collective commitment to provide a secure, reliable supply of electricity, which is at present far from being secure and sustainable energy at a reasonable cost.

I thank the Deputy. As he rightly stated, I have not previously heard the statements he put forward today and they are not in documents I received before this, but I will try to address them.

On procurement, the Deputy raises a question about whether additional energy generation capacity was correctly procured. There is the possibility under European and Irish law to procure things in an emergency capacity when they are needed. That is strictly laid out in law. There are certain situations where a contracting authority can decide to go through an accelerated form of procurement, to skip things like competition, quality control and transparency, where that is warranted and it is an emergency situation. If the Deputy has a particular question about a particular procurement, I am willing to investigate it.

The Deputy also made reference to, I think, a cosy arrangement between the ESB and EirGrid and he suggested the shortage of energy supply for this winter could in some way possibly have been orchestrated by the ESB. These are serious things to say. I invite the Deputy to substantiate them with more information. I will talk to the Minister, Deputy Ryan, about it as well. His office and my office are open to the Deputy if he wants to come forward with more information or if he wants to have the matter investigated further. As I said, they are very serious things to say.

In terms of the midlands, it has always had a critical role in the generation, distribution and supply of electricity throughout the country or the supply of energy at least in different ways. That will continue. It is Government policy to make sure the midlands is invested in, there is a just transition, and more capacity in renewable energy is focused on the midlands to replace what was there and what is part of the heritage of the midlands.

Crime Prevention

Gabhaim mo bhuíochas don Cheann Comhairle as ucht an ábhair seo a roghnú. Ní thugann sé aon sásamh dom an t-ábhar seo a ardú sa Dáil sa bhealach seo. Rugadh agus tógadh mé i nGaillimh agus tá mé thar a bheith bródúil as, ach ní féidir leanúint ar aghaidh ag tabhairt cluas bhodhar don drochiompar atá ag tarlú ar shráideanna na Gaillimhe le blianta anois. Tá sé éirithe níos measa le déanaí, ach níor tharla sé inniu ná inné. Tá sé ag tarlú de réir a chéile agus ag éirí níos measa le cúpla bliain. Chomh maith leis sin, tá teachtaireacht láidir ag teacht amach ón Rialtas nach bhfuil ag tacú leis na cúinsí ar shráideanna na Gaillimhe. Tá an Rialtas ag rá le daoine dul amach, bheith ag ól agus ag ithe agus ag baint taitnimh. Níl aon fhadhb leis sin ach is teachtaireacht lom atá ann gan an comhthéacs de na cúinsí eile atá ag teastáil. Tá an drochiompar ag cur isteach ar chosmhuintir na Gaillimhe agus níl sé sábháilte níos mó. Sin na gearáin atá faighte agam.

I thank the Minister of State, Deputy Browne, for being here today. I look forward to his response. It gives me no pleasure to raise what is happening on the streets of Galway. I am a proud Galwegian.

I want to see it thrive in the most sustainable and inclusive way possible. Unfortunately, that is not happening at the moment and has not been for some time. The latest in a series of assaults, where a woman has sustained life-changing injuries as a result of a firework in her eye, is just one of the many that have happened. I wish her and her family the best of luck.

What I raise today is not one issue, but what has been let arise on the streets of Galway. For example, back in August, I wrote to the superintendent and the council about Claddagh, where I live, and the removal of barriers. I do not want barriers in or around my city, but at the time it was inevitable because of the crowds congregating and drinking openly, against the by-laws. The Garda was under pressure. In a sense, I have great sympathy with the gardaí on the ground, less so with management, let me say, in the time of Covid and a time where we have by-laws that are not being enforced. We are now in a situation where the headlines in the local and national press and on the radio are screaming at us. I have here a series of complaints, from people who are genuinely interested, saying do not let this happen to our city. Some of them are born and reared in Galway and others have moved in and adopted it. They are all very rational reasonable people who tell me they do not feel safe anymore. That is an appalling indictment of my city, Galway.

One thing to come from the Policing Authority report was the wonderful advantages of having viability around police on the ground. Mr. Justice Charleton talked about the visibility of the Garda and its importance. Unfortunately, gardaí are not visible. It is a reactive policy rather than a proactive one. I want to work with the Garda, I have the greatest of respect for the force and I want more of its members on the ground, but we cannot continue with a reactive policy. There are suggestions Eyre Square might be closed off. I would not agree with that. However, in the beginning, I was in favour of railings around Eyre Square, and still am, as part of a planning process, not as part of a reactive situation. We should have had railings from day one where that park was for everyone in Galway, closed off like the parks in Dublin, but the experts at the time told us that was not possible and that we were thinking above our station - I think those were literally the words used at the time - and now here we are with problems.

On behalf of the Minister, Deputy McEntee, I thank Deputy Connolly for raising this important matter. I am aware of media reports of a number of serious assaults that have taken place in the Eyre Square area in Galway city in recent weeks. I want to assuredly condemn these frightening physical attacks on people as they go peacefully about their business in Galway city centre. The Deputy will appreciate that the Minister for Justice is precluded from commenting on any live Garda investigation. Under Irish criminal law, investigations can only be carried out by an Garda Síochána, which then submits a report to Director of Public Prosecutions, DPP. The DPP in turn is independent in her prosecutorial function. However, I would urge anyone who has witnessed any of these public assaults who may have any information that would potentially be of interest to An Garda Síochána to contact the local Garda in Galway city. Reports can also be made through the Garda confidential line on 1800 666 111. Similarly, if anyone has been subject to an assault, please report this to An Garda Síochána without delay as the Garda is best placed to advise victims of supports.

The Minister is assured by the Garda Commissioner that Garda management keeps the distribution of resources, including Garda members and units, under continual review in the context of policing priorities and in the context of crime trends to ensure their optimum use. The Deputy may also be aware that Garda Operation Soteria, the national strategy for reducing assaults in public places, incorporates a pro-arrest, pro-enforcement and early investigation policing approach to these incidents. Operation Soteria specifically targets crime hotspots for assaults and public order in each Garda division and facilitates focused policing operations in these areas at appropriate times.

I understand a number of assaults involved fireworks. Part 6 of the Criminal Justice Act 2006 gives An Garda Síochána the power to make arrests in relation to the possession of unlicensed fireworks. Penalties include a fine of up to €10,000 and up to five years' imprisonment if convicted of igniting fireworks or throwing an ignited firework at a person or property. The severity of these penalties demonstrate the seriousness attached to these offences.

The Department of Justice runs an annual safety campaign about the dangers of illegal fireworks. This year's campaign was launched on 22 September and asks the public to think about the impact fireworks have on others, particularly the vulnerable in our communities. The main message of the campaign is fireworks are dangerous and illegal and people should not be pressured into buying, selling or using them.

In addition to this campaign, An Garda Síochána’s Operation Tombola is in force to combat the illegal importation, sale and use of fireworks. Operation Tombola has both an overt uniform presence and a covert element, where appropriate, to disrupt firework related and other forms of antisocial behaviour. A key element of An Garda Síochána's community policing role involves ongoing, extensive Garda engagement with transport operators, and a range of regional and local operations have been put in place to address antisocial behaviour incidents on public transport.

The Minister continues to engage on an ongoing basis with the Garda Commissioner on all these community safety matters.

I thank the Minister of State for being here but in a ten-paragraph reply there is was zilch mention of community policing on the streets of Galway and what is needed. He tells me he cannot comment on a live Garda investigation. I did not ask him to. I did not ask anyone in the Department of Justice to comment. I am bringing attention to the danger on the streets of Galway. I do not want to do that but I am obliged to do so. This is not about fireworks, although a serious assault occurred and others did relate to fireworks. These assaults have been going on for quite some time. I am bringing to the Minister of State's attention now, which I do not want to but I must, the fact this has been going a number of years and is getting worse. In my opinion, it intensified with the message from this Government to go out and drink and be merry. The streets and the public areas were taken over in a manner that was not compliant with the Barcelona Declaration, which we passed almost 20 years ago, guaranteeing universal access to all our residents regardless of ability, with the motto in mind, "good design enables, bad design disables". All that went by the board. That is part of the problem.

The second part of the problem is the failure to have proactive community policing. There is one sentence in the reply that tells me the "The Minister is assured by the Garda Commissioner that Garda management keeps the distribution of resources" etc. under review. The headline in the newspaper two weeks ago was that the superintendent or chief superintendent - I may have the title wrong - said he was never reluctant to ask for more resources but he had the use of two or three trainee gardaí at the time. Trainee gardaí are a wonderful asset but they have to be part of an overall manned and womanned police force that is given a message that this behaviour is simply intolerable, we will not accept it and we are with you on the ground, muintir na cathrach, chun stop a chur leis. That is not what is happening.

This reply is not acceptable. I do not blame the Minister of State but, really, at some stage somebody has to come in to the House, put replies like this aside and say this behaviour is unacceptable, this is what we are going to do about it, that they will engage with the Commissioner and chief superintendent in Galway, and they will see what plan is there to stop this so that we can all live in safety and all enjoy our city.

Again, on behalf of the Minister I thank the Deputy for raising this matter. As the Deputy will be aware, the Garda Commissioner is by law responsible for the management and control of An Garda Síochána and for the effective and efficient use of Garda resources to combat crime and to keep our communities safe. The Deputy will appreciate the Minister for Justice is unable as a matter of law to intervene in these independent operational matters.

On the designation of gardaí as community gardaí, we are lucky to have a community-based police force in this country but the designation of gardaí as community gardaí is a matter for the chief superintendent. I cannot comment on anything the chief superintendent may have said on the distribution of gardaí between himself and the Garda Commissioner, but what I can say is this Government is committed to ensuring there is strong visible policing in our local communities. Budget 2022 reflects this commitment with an unprecedented allocation of more than €2 billion in Garda funding in the coming year. This funding will include a provision for recruitment of an additional 800 gardaí and an additional 400 Garda staff. That will be part of the process of gardaí being freed-up from administration to carry out operational roles. That has been ongoing and more than 800 gardaí have already been released from administrative roles back into operational ones. This increase in the number of members of An Garda Síochána and staff will deliver significant growth in operational policing hours nationwide and improve services to the public generally.

I am informed that 323 gardaí were assigned to the Galway district as of September this year, which is an increase of almost 24% since December 2015 when 261 Garda members were assigned to the stations in the district. I am further informed that there are seven Garda stations in the district compared to five in 2015. I understand that 23 community gardaí are assigned to the Galway district compared to 14 in December 2015, which is an increase of 64%.

Finally, I welcome the budget 2022 allocation of €2 million to the community safety innovation fund and €6.7 million in support of the youth justice strategy. This funding will support local communities in addressing those local needs as well.

Sitting suspended at 9.51 a.m. and resumed at 10 a.m.