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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 7 Dec 2021

Vol. 1015 No. 4

Ceisteanna - Questions

Cabinet Committees

Mary Lou McDonald


1. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality will next meet. [57208/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett


2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality will next meet. [58592/21]

Paul Murphy


3. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality will next meet. [58594/21]

Alan Kelly


4. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality last met. [58858/21]

Peadar Tóibín


5. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality will next meet. [58863/21]

Niamh Smyth


6. Deputy Niamh Smyth asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality will meet next. [60020/21]

Michael Moynihan


7. Deputy Michael Moynihan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality will meet next. [60022/21]

Seán Haughey


8. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality is next due to meet. [60023/21]

Cian O'Callaghan


9. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality will next meet. [60354/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 9, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality oversees implementation of programme for Government commitments in the areas of social policy, including sport, arts and culture, equality, including children and youth affairs, and public services, including matters relating to justice, policing reform and community safety. The Cabinet committee last met on 25 November and will meet again at an appropriate date.

I have regular engagements with Ministers at Cabinet and individually to discuss priority issues relating to their Departments. In addition, a number of meetings have been held between my officials and officials from relevant Departments on various social policy issues since the establishment of the Cabinet committee in July 2020. The impacts of the pandemic, across all areas, including arts, sports and culture, have been considered by the Cabinet committee on Covid-19. The Cabinet committee on education considers early education, special education and third level institutions in addition to planning and preparing for the medium term impacts and implications of Covid-19 on education.

As there are a lot of questions, I ask that we stick to one minute for each supplementary. I call Deputy McDonald.

Following publication of the mid-term review of the national drug strategy, a decision was made by the Department of Health to remove the community and voluntary sector from the strategy's national oversight committee. The sector is to be replaced by a civic society forum made up of Department of Health appointees. This new structure has yet to be formalised or established. There is a growing opinion across the oversight committee that officials are now intent on pushing out those who voice opinions contrary to the Department’s or, worse still, who attempt to hold it to account. I hope the Taoiseach is as alarmed as I am at this development, although I have to say I am not entirely surprised by the Department's actions.

Speaking at two recent events in the north inner-city, the Taoiseach acknowledged the irreplaceable work of the community in tackling addiction over the last three decades. His support for the community was widely welcomed but there is now a concern across the north inner-city that his view is at odds with the actions of departmental officials with responsibility for the national drug strategy. Following a cross-party initiative last week opposing the Department's decision to remove the community and voluntary networks from the national drug strategy oversight committee, the Minister of State, Deputy Frankie Feighan, asked Department officials to engage further on the matter. While I welcome this intervention, I am sorry to say that my experience tells me not to hold out too much hope as the Department has, in effect, dismantled the north inner-city drug and alcohol task force and closed down the community sector’s involvement in its work.

So bad is the situation that the Inner City Organisations Network and the North West Inner City Network, which are long-established bodies, have been left with no option but to issue a joint statement calling on the Taoiseach to urgently intervene. I wish to echo their call. There is now a clear and dangerous bias within the Department of Health against the community's role in the national drug strategy, locally and nationally, and that cannot stand.

As mentioned earlier, a social housing development which was going to deliver 34 social houses and eight affordable-to-buy houses in a project between an approved housing body and a local co-operative, facilitated by Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown County Council, has collapsed because the preferred tenderer has pulled out, citing hyperinflation in the construction sector. These are badly needed social and affordable houses, so this is a pretty devastating blow in a situation where there is a desperate crisis in our area in terms of the lack of social and affordable housing.

I put it to the Taoiseach that not only does he need to intervene on this, but the problem is the council cannot even give it to the other tenderers because of the time limits of the tendering process, and so on. This contractor who has pulled out is also involved in another social housing project in the area. This calls into question the entire Housing for All strategy. If a contractor can pull out based on hyperinflation, because it cannot make money, this can happen at any time. We know there is hyperinflation going on in the construction sector and profiteering, arguably, around the housing crisis. We need intervention around this particular project but, actually, it speaks loudly to the need for a State construction company to deliver on the social and affordable housing targets. We cannot be in a situation where, in terms of the delivery of social and affordable housing, we can be held hostage by contractors who can just pull out on the basis they have decided something is not profitable for them. I ask seriously whether we need to consider the establishment of a State construction company to deliver social and affordable housing. Otherwise, we could find our entire project in that regard under serious threat.

I want to return to the question I asked on the Order of Business. I got a lot of bluster back from the Taoiseach but I did not get an answer. It seems to me that a point of very basic inequality has been created, if I am reading the terms of the new PUP scheme correctly. I would be delighted if the Taoiseach could confirm to me that I am reading them incorrectly and that this inequality is not being created.

It seems pretty clear that if, for example, a worker who was earning €450 a week in the entertainment sector lost their job last week as a result of the impact of the Covid restrictions, the impact on the night-time economy and so on, and they then went on the dole, they are not entitled to move onto the pandemic unemployment payment, whereas the equivalent worker who loses their job next week will be entitled, correctly, to go onto the pandemic unemployment payment and will be able to get €350 per week. There will be a difference of income between two workers in identical situations in that they are both out of work as a consequence of pandemic restrictions but have a difference of income between them of €147 per week. I ask the Taoiseach to confirm that that is the case and to take action to reverse it to ensure that anybody who loses their job as a result of Covid restrictions is able to access the PUP at that €350 rate.

An in-depth TILDA - The Irish LongituDinal Study on Ageing - report published recently showed there is currently a crisis among older people in the State. Physical activity by older people during Covid is at 22% lower than it should be. Loneliness is a significant issue as well and the figures indicate there is double the level of loneliness that existed before the crisis. Loneliness is a threat to physical and mental health and, for example, 21% of older adults say they are currently suffering from depression, a figure that is double what it was before Covid. Nearly one third of older people say they are suffering from increased levels of stress.

One third of older adults said that they either delayed medical care or that medical care was delayed for them. These are heartbreaking and shocking figures. By any measure these figures are a disaster and they are mostly invisible to society. What is the Government doing to mitigate that?

Theatres, music venues and promoters have again borne the burnt of the most recent Covid-19 restrictions. They have been left floundering trying to come up with ways to implement the 50% rules on capacity. It leaves them in the unenviable position of having to put on twice the number of performances on depleted finances or of having to cancel their shows. I welcome the fact the National Campaign for the Arts met Department officials yesterday and that supports will be put in place. I would like to draw the Taoiseach’s attention to the amateur and community arts sector. For example, Born 2 Perform is an amateur kids theatre company in Cavan and Monaghan with hundreds of kids in it who need these supports. It has performances booked out for a week in January and it is left with nothing because it does not reach the benchmark of €150,000 of a turnover. We need to put something in place to save it.

The Department of Justice is spearheading a number of initiatives to tackle concerns about community safety, crime and quality of life issues throughout the country. I refer to the Greentown initiative, which aims to deal with criminal networks and to the recently established community safety partnerships arising from the Commission on the Future of Policing, one of which is located in Dublin’s north inner city. I welcome the fact the Taoiseach launched the fourth annual report of the north-east inner city forum last week.

I wish to draw the Taoiseach’s attention to a report published last year by Dr. Jack Nolan, retired assistant commissioner for Dublin City Council, on the Darndale, Belcamp and Moatview areas of Dublin Bay North entitled, Darndale, A Long View of an Enduring Challenge, A Socio-Economic & Community Plan. The report was drawn up in response to the escalating levels of violence and antisocial behaviour in the area. It advances an inter-agency approach and makes a number of recommendations. The Department of Justice and An Garda Síochána are central to the report. Can this report be considered by the Cabinet committee as a model of best practice and can all relevant Departments get fully behind the report?

I agree with Deputy Haughey about that report and how important it is.

The average deposit a first-time buyer needs to buy a home stands at €52,500. This has doubled in less than a decade. The average age of a first-time buyer is rising steeply and rents have almost doubled in the last decade. According to the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform, "The construction of new rental homes ... is only viable for households with a gross annual income of at least €100,000.” Does the Taoiseach agree that the increases in house prices and rents, well beyond the rate of wage increases, are completely unsustainable? Does he agree with the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform that the kind of new rental properties that investment funds are bringing on stream are simply unaffordable and out of reach for most people?

I will engage with the Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, on the community and voluntary networks and their engagement in the national alcohol and drug strategy. I passionately believe in the community and voluntary pillar in terms of the implementation of national strategies and in working to formulate and implement those strategies.

Deputy Boyd Barrett raised the issue of tenders. The issue he raises is a feature of the current inflation hike and the increase in building costs, which is not profiteering. We all know the cost of raw materials for building has increased due to supply chain issues arising from Covid-19. The Deputy is correct that there are procurement issues around what happens if somebody pulls out of a project, particularly in public contracts. As I told Deputy Kelly earlier, I will ask the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, to engage on this issue and to see what can possibly be done to rescue the provision of that housing. It is a feature of the tendering process that costs have gone up across the board, which everybody acknowledges.

What are we going to do about it though?

The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is reforming and adapting the public procurement frameworks to accommodate this and to make sure we can get projects going and not lose too much time in getting projects completed. In this case the developer has pulled out. I will ask the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, to get involved and to see if he can do something.

I refer to the points raised by Deputy Paul Murphy. I would not describe what I was doing earlier as “bluster”. On the issue of intervening in the jobs market, the point I was making is that there are 30,000 vacancies in the jobs market, which is up from 19,000 vacancies two years ago. We need to take focused and targeted approaches as we emerge from and evolve throughout the pandemic. We are not where we were when we were in level 5 and level 3 lockdowns; sectors of the economy are open. Anyone who has been on the PUP for more than 12 months will be targeted with activation measures to help them secure work. We will do whatever we can to support those people.

Deputy Tóibín raised the TILDA study. Covid has had an impact and this is a pandemic. We have provided unprecedented resources across the board, including community supports and mental health supports, to enable people to try to deal with this. There is no question but that it is stressful for people and it has dampened their future horizons. Delayed medical care is a sad, difficult and challenging reality of Covid-19, so we will put more resources in place to deal with that. We are hiring a lot more capacity from the private sector to deal with elective care, in particular, so that we can get operations, procedures and diagnostics done.

The report Deputy Haughey raised is an important framework within which to develop policy on community safety. In the north inner city last week I saw at first hand the significant progress that was made within that community due to the initiatives that have been taken in recent years. I am looking to see where wider application of that model can be carried out in other areas with a more multidisciplinary and multi-agency approach to dealing with a range of challenges that communities across the city and in other cities are facing. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, has made proposals in that regard.

Deputy Cian O’Callaghan made similar comments on that report and he raised the issue of first-time buyers. I agree houses are expensive and we need more supply. Since the last lockdown we have made a significant rebound in housing and there have been about 31,000 commencements from October 2020 to October 2021, which is good. The mortgage market is robust with significant increases in the number of people taking out mortgages. The help-to-buy scheme is helping people with affordability. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage, Deputy Darragh O’Brien, has developed a range of affordability measures that are making a difference.

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Brendan Smith


10. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach if he will report on recent discussions with the President of the United States. [57662/21]

Seán Haughey


11. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he will provide an update on his recent meeting with the President of the United States. [57663/21]

Mary Lou McDonald


12. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent conversation with the President of the United States. [59969/21]

Peadar Tóibín


13. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent discussions with the President of the United States. [60076/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett


14. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on recent discussions with the President of the United States. [60201/21]

Paul Murphy


15. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on recent discussions with the President of the United States. [60204/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 to 15, inclusive, together.

The relationship between Ireland and the United States is deep and of long standing. It is important to the country in many ways, not least politically and economically, and it is one to which I attach the highest value. I have had a number of recent contacts with the President of the United States. I most recently spoke to him by phone on 14 November, when he congratulated Ireland on defeating the All Blacks in that wonderful rugby international. I also had the opportunity to speak to him in person on the margins of the world leaders' summit at COP26, when he vigorously reaffirmed his full commitment to protecting the Good Friday Agreement and I expressed my deep appreciation for the strong position he has taken in that regard.

On 21 September I participated remotely in a global vaccine summit hosted by President Biden, at an event around the 76th session of the UN General Assembly in New York. I will also participate in a further virtual summit on democracy to be hosted by the US President on 9 December.

I look forward to continuing to work co-operatively and closely with the Biden Administration, as well as representatives of both parties in Congress to deepen Irish-American relations, strengthen EU-US relations, co-operate on global challenges and support the many Irish people who have made a home in the United States.

As a country, we welcome President Biden's strong interest in our country, particularly his ongoing and unequivocal support for the Good Friday Agreement. He has taken every opportunity to outline the importance of this international agreement and its significance, not just to our country, Britain and Europe but also to the United States. President Biden and other senior political figures have continually given a message to the British Government that Brexit must not damage any aspect of the Good Friday Agreement or its workings. Congress has passed motions in both Houses clearly stating their concerns about Brexit and particular interest in the Good Friday Agreement.

In the past very eminent personnel such as Senator George Mitchell held the post of US special envoy to Northern Ireland. Has the Taoiseach raised this issue with President Biden? The appointment of a special envoy would demonstrate the continued US commitment to Northern Ireland. Such an envoy would also act as an additional conduit for bilateral relations on a political, economic, social and trade basis.

As Deputy Smith said, it is clear that President Joe Biden is very proud of his Irish roots. He proclaims his Irish heritage whenever he can. The most recent example of this was when he called the men's Irish rugby team to congratulate them on their historic victory over New Zealand. I understand that he also contacted the Taoiseach to pass on his congratulations to the people of Ireland on that victory. It is also clear that the Taoiseach has struck up a good personal relationship with the new President. All of us who believe in multilateral diplomacy and a rules-based international order and who want to see effective measures to tackle climate change, for example, will welcome the change in tone of the US Administration since last year. Has the Taoiseach invited President Biden to make an official visit to Ireland? If so, when is he likely to come here?

Separately, it is clear that President Biden, as well as the EU, has concerns that Russia is planning a possible major military offensive in Ukraine. There are reports that Russia is ready to deploy up to 175,000 troops along the Ukrainian border. President Biden is reported to be considering new measures to deal with this threat and a video call with President Putin is scheduled. How concerned is the Taoiseach about these reports? Is this something that the European Council will consider at its meeting later this month?

President Biden's absolute and, to use the Taoiseach's word, vigorous commitment in respect of the Good Friday Agreement is very reassuring indeed. It goes beyond the Administration itself and the White House and is a position that is shared across the aisles in Congress, including the Senate, and I very much welcome that. Indeed, I had the opportunity to have exchanges and hear those commitments at first hand last week.

What vigorous assertions did the Taoiseach make by way of reply to President Biden? What exchanges has he had in respect of legacy and the proposed amnesty legislation the British Government is pressing? What conversation has the Taoiseach commenced in respect of the reunification of our island and the real prospect of referendums on that question in the coming years? Finally, what work has the Taoiseach done and what representations has he made in respect of the many thousands of undocumented Irish citizens trapped in the United States?

The USA is not sending officials to the winter Olympics due to China's human rights abuses. Ms Emma Reilly was recently sacked by the UN, reportedly because she blew the whistle on a practice whereby the UN provides to Chinese diplomats the names of Uighur human rights campaigners. She said she has the documents to prove it. In 2013 Emma received an email from Chinese diplomats asking her to confirm the names of Uighurs who were due to speak at a UN event in Geneva. She was told by her superiors in the UN that she should confirm those names to China. We can only imagine what happened to the people involved and their families. Emma tried to speak out about this particular issue and, as a result, armed police were sent to her door to prevent her from speaking at events. Will the Taoiseach speak with Emma Reilly, the whistleblower? Will the Government be sending a representative to the winter Olympics in China?

Both the US and the EU have urged the generals in Sudan to continue on the path to democracy, particularly in the face of the recent coup by General al-Barhan and Mohamad Hamdan Dagalo, a former leader of the Janjaweed who committed atrocities in Darfur. They have released some of the Government Ministers that they imprisoned but there has been a very significant crackdown on civil society, with protestors killed, large numbers of people wounded and many imprisoned. It is very questionable as to whether the generals who conducted the coup are serious about carrying through with the democratic revolution that started in 2019. Sudanese civil society and Sudanese people living here who support the democratic movement in Sudan have asked that the big powers, particularly the EU but also the US, would stop sending money to the Janjaweed and to the Sudanese military via the Khartoum process because that money is ending up in the hands of the Janjaweed who have carried out atrocities and who are engaging in a quite brutal clampdown on Sudanese civil society. Has the Taoiseach discussed this with his European and American counterparts? Does he have a view on whether sanctions could be imposed to stop this money from getting to the Janjaweed?

In his discussions with President Biden, did the Taoiseach raise the issue of a TRIPS waiver to ensure that Covid vaccines can be rolled out worldwide and not just in the global north? If there is a fire in our house, we cannot just put out the fire in the bedroom and forget about all the other rooms in the house. Similarly, vaccinating everyone in the EU and the US but leaving the global south unvaccinated will inevitably lead to a higher number of additional variants and more danger of potentially dangerous variants, such as Omicron, which will then spread around the world. Even the US has now accepted the need to waive intellectual property rights on the vaccines to end the artificial scarcity of vaccines and to put vaccinating the world before the profits of big pharmaceutical companies but the European Union, backed up by Ireland, has been the major block on this measure at the WTO. In light of Omicron, will the Taoiseach now change course and join those calling for the patents on vaccines to be scrapped so that the whole world can be vaccinated as soon as possible?

Deputy Smith raised the issue of my conversations with President Biden on the Good Friday Agreement. The President has been very consistent, in all my conversations with him, on the imperative of protecting the Good Friday Agreement and also on the importance of the protocol in the context of the trade agreement between the UK and EU. Deputy Smith referenced the idea of restoring the post of US special envoy to Northern Ireland. That idea has merit and is something we will continue to engage with the President and his Administration on. That post lapsed some time ago but it is something that should be reflected upon. Overall, Deputy Smith's point has merit.

Deputy Haughey raised a number of issues. He is correct in saying that the US President has very warm personal feelings for Ireland. I invited him to Ireland and without hesitation he said that there was nothing he would like better than to come to Ireland as President of the United States. Obviously, his schedule is the key in that regard but he has a great affinity with and affection for the country and is very warm in his engagement with us.

The build-up of Russian troops on the border with Ukraine is very worrying and is giving concern to the US Administration and also the European Union. We look forward to engagement between President Biden and President Putin on that issue because it needs to be resolved through negotiation. We want to avoid conflict in that situation, which is a worry given the scale of the build-up.

Deputy McDonald raised President Biden's commitment to the Good Friday Agreement. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, recently met the Friends of Ireland. The support from Capitol Hill, on both sides of the aisle, has been very strong in relation to the logic and importance of the protocol but also the importance of the Good Friday Agreement and the need for the EU and UK to resolve this in a timely and negotiated way.

I did not have the opportunity of discussing legacy with President Biden. I do not know if the Deputy saw last night's RTÉ programme on the kidnapping of Don Tidey. Garda Gary Sheehan and Private Patrick Kelly were murdered in their bid to free Don Tidey. It was interesting that the families feel they have had no closure whatever. There is a need for people to come forward. In the Deputy's case, I think the movement that she knows of should come forward and give closure to those families who represented Ireland, Óglaigh na hÉireann and An Garda Síochána. I genuinely do. I am appealing and making a very strong case to the British Prime Minister. In my view, the British Government is wrong on this. The Irish Government is not in favour of what the British Government is proposing but there is a need for the provisional movement, essentially, to come forward and show cause-----

We have all the mechanisms in the Stormont House Agreement.

-----because people are not getting closure. That would help to change the moral of the argument in terms of the British.

I am sorry, we are way over time.

I may engage with Deputy Tóibín directly afterwards with regard to Emma Reilly. If I can get some communications going on that, I certainly will.

Deputy Boyd Barrett raised Sudan. I share his concerns on this. We are not sure about the agreement on 21 November between Prime Minister Abdalla Hamdok and the coup leader, Lt. General Abdel Fattah al-Burhan. We do not think that it will, on its own, create a path back to constitutional order. The agreement has been rejected by the majority of the civilian political forces. It effectively consolidates the step taken by the military to maintain the reins of power and excludes civilian political forces. Ireland, with the European Union and at the UN Security Council, has denounced the military's action. We will work with the EU on that agenda.

I do not have time to go through the wider arguments on the TRIPS waiver. We favour increased vaccine supply to the global south.

The Government should do it then.

The mere waiving of a waiver does not do that. We need to be fair and honest with people in terms of what we are doing. It means building up capacity and licensing agreements but also distribution networks within certain countries, governance-----

Even Joe Biden supports it.

No, the US, to be frank, came out supporting it while it had export bans. Work that out. It had export bans at the time.

Why is the Government backing big pharma?

We are not.

Of course it is.

No, we are not.

We are running out of time.

The European Union is the only continent that is giving-----

The Government is backing big pharma.

No, that is just slogans again.

Can we do this through the Chair? We now have the last group of questions and we are running out of time.

My apologies.

British-Irish Co-operation

Mary Lou McDonald


16. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent attendance at the British-Irish Council. [58383/21]

Neale Richmond


17. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent exchange with the UK Prime Minister. [58576/21]

Peadar Tóibín


18. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent attendance at the British-Irish Council. [60077/21]

Alan Kelly


19. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent attendance at the British-Irish Council. [60112/21]

Seán Haughey


20. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the recent British-Irish Council. [60164/21]

Richard Boyd Barrett


21. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent exchange with the UK Prime Minister. [60202/21]

Paul Murphy


22. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent exchange with the UK Prime Minister. [60205/21]

Alan Kelly


23. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent exchange with the UK Prime Minister. [60116/21]

Dara Calleary


24. Deputy Dara Calleary asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent exchange with the UK Prime Minister. [60568/21]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 16 to 24, inclusive, together.

I attended the 36th summit meeting of the British-Irish Council hosted by the First Minister of Wales, Mark Drakeford, in Cardiff on 18 and 19 November. The council explored approaches to the acquisition of indigenous, minority and lesser used languages in early years settings. I welcomed the opportunity to provide an update to council members through Irish, as a means of showcasing the rich linguistic diversity across the administrations of the British-Irish Council.

The council also discussed the latest political developments, including the ongoing impact of Covid-19 across all administrations and on the protocol. On the morning of the summit, First Minister Mark Drakeford hosted a breakfast meeting for heads of delegation. Discussions focused on climate issues in light of recent developments at COP26.

I also had bilateral meetings with the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, the First Minister, Mark Drakeford, and the First Minister, Nicola Sturgeon, and participated in a business programme organised by Enterprise Ireland and the consulate general in Cardiff where we met a number of Irish companies which export to Wales and have a significant presence there.

Regarding my latest discussions with the UK Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, we spoke by phone on Wednesday, 24 November. I congratulated him on the successful hosting of COP26 in Glasgow and we briefly referenced the latest developments in relation to Covid-19. We then discussed the Northern Ireland protocol. I welcomed the continuation of the talks between the European Union and United Kingdom on the implementation of the protocol and said that it was essential that these now lead to substantive progress and joint tangible solutions within the framework of the protocol. I emphasised to the Prime Minister that it was vital for stability in Northern Ireland, the British-Irish relationship and the wider EU-UK relationship that this would be resolved through agreed solutions. I reiterated the European Union's commitment to addressing genuine implementation issues and reducing friction and administrative burdens on goods moving from Great Britain to Northern Ireland. I said it was the view of the Irish Government that the latest proposals from the European Union go very far in seeking to respond to issues raised, especially by the business community.

The Prime Minister stated he was committed to agreeing a deal if at all possible. However, he highlighted certain areas where he considered further progress was required. He said he did not wish to trigger Article 16 but noted that it remained a possibility where resolution was not reached through the current talks process. I repeated our view that any triggering of Article 16 would have far-reaching implications for stability in Northern Ireland, the British-Irish relationship and the wider EU-UK relationship. We agreed that co-operation between our two Governments is key to ensuring peace and stability in Northern Ireland, which is a priority for both Governments.

As the Taoiseach set out, the recent meeting of the British-Irish Council provided the opportunity for attendees to use indigenous, minority and lesser used languages. As the Taoiseach is aware, the Westminster Government has agreed to legislate for the Irish language, making Gaeilge an official language in the North. Has the Taoiseach used the British-Irish Council or any other opportunity to raise this commitment with the British Government? If so, can he provide details of these engagements?

As we have previously discussed, the Irish language will have full working rights in the EU from 1 January 2022. As a result, all new statutes will be made available in Irish, including regulations, directives and decisions. Is it not a cause of concern for the Taoiseach that while Irish language rights are advancing elsewhere, his Government is appealing a High Court judgment that simply reaffirms the constitutional duty of the State to provide Irish language versions of Acts of the Oireachtas?

The British-Irish and North-South strands of the Good Friday Agreement are critical democratic structures. At the July meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council, it was agreed that the next plenary would be held in December this year. Will the Taoiseach tell us when this meeting will occur and what action he has taken to ensure it takes place?

There is a crisis of confidence in policing in many nationalist and republican areas in the North of Ireland. That is not a wild claim. It is a real issue. A PSNI report on policing in south Armagh stated that little progress had been achieved on policing in south Armagh since the Good Friday Agreement. South Armagh is not alone. I have spoken to nationalists from Tyrone and Derry who have told me that PSNI policing is heavy-handed and militaristic. This has created a significant divide in these communities. In 2019 and 2020, there were only 16 emergency calls made to the PSNI station in Crossmaglen. That is incredible. The Aontú councillor in Derry, Emmet Doyle, has asked me to invite the Chief Constable of the PSNI to the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement to discuss the policing crisis in many nationalist areas in the North. I have made this request and understand that the invitation has gone out. I ask the Taoiseach to speak to the Chief Constable of the PSNI to see if we can address the crisis of policing in nationalist areas in the North of Ireland. Will he use the British-Irish Council to fix this disaster?

I welcome the fact the British Government seems to be drawing back from introducing legislation on legacy and also that it is dialling down the rhetoric on invoking Article 16. On the British-Irish Council, I am pleased the Taoiseach was able to attend the meeting. It seems a wide range of issues were discussed, including economic matters, trade, ongoing relations with the EU, COP26, Covid-19, and post-pandemic recovery. As the Taoiseach knows, the council was established in 1998 under the Good Friday Agreement to consider issues arising from the totality of relationships on these islands. There is no doubt Brexit has brought about change in these relationships so it is very important this forum meets regularly and is developed and enhanced. The agenda of the meeting last month was quite formal. Did the Taoiseach get any sense from the various delegations from the devolved administrations that Brexit was a bad idea and that it is having adverse implications for trade and economic progress generally in the various jurisdictions?

Did the Taoiseach and the UK Prime Minister discuss the issue of trade union and workers' rights in both Britain and the North? In the 1980s, Margaret Thatcher took a hatchet to workers and the trade union movement and brought in very draconian anti-worker and anti-trade union legislation to tie the hands of workers and limit their ability to take effective action to defend their rights. What is perhaps less well known is that the Northern Assembly has the power to repeal the anti-trade union laws Thatcher brought in but has failed to do so. It is somewhat disappointing that Sinn Féin has not done this. In order to address this deficit, People Before Profit MLA, Gerry Carroll, has brought forward a trade union freedom Bill to try to undo some of the anti-trade union legislation which is being brought into the Assembly. With all the talk of it being payback time for workers after Covid, this is the right time to call for the Thatcherite anti-trade union laws to be repealed in the Assembly. I wonder what the Taoiseach thinks. I hope all parties in the Assembly will support the legislation Gerry Carroll is bringing forward.

The idea of an amnesty in regard to legacy issues, as proposed by the British Government, is absolutely reprehensible. An amnesty would mean putting an end to all investigations and prosecutions. The Stormont House Agreement is a balanced and comprehensive framework to deal with legacy issues and should be implemented. It is unbelievable to think any government would want to cut off all potential avenues to the truth. Such an idea is absolutely deplorable.

Some family members have invested huge time, effort and resources - some have literally given up their entire lives - trying to get the truth about what happened to a loved one, be that a sibling, a parent or another relative. It is unthinkable that a unilateral decision would be made by the British Government. Not alone are the political parties in this State and our Government against such an amnesty, but the Northern Ireland Assembly voted unanimously last August in opposition to that proposal. The United Nations, the Council of Europe and senior political figures in the United States oppose it as well. We want to drive home to the British Government the message that it is totally unacceptable.

I wish to briefly raise my concern about the continuing boycott of meetings of the North-South Ministerial Council by certain parties in the Northern Ireland Executive and how that is impacting at a time when so many studies and Irish Government initiatives are showing not just the importance but the opportunities of cross-Border initiatives from an economic and social point of view. Seeing the Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science, Deputy Harris, in the North visiting Queen's University Belfast and Ulster University Magee campus yesterday shows the real potential in higher education and indeed the wider shared island initiative. As we come to the end of this calendar year, with elections in Northern Ireland next year and the sword of Damocles continuing to hang over us in the British Government's threat to trigger Article 16, where are we on ensuring we can get an element of normality back into relations not just North-South but also east-west?

Deputy McDonald raised the issue of an Irish language Act which we understand will be introduced in Westminster. I do not know if it will be done before the recess but certainly it will be done early in the new year. It is a pity it was not done in the Assembly, as agreed last year. The package of language and identity legislation agreed under New Decade, New Approach was detailed, balanced and should be implemented. When I was in Enniskillen recently at the remembrance ceremony I met the Minister of State for Northern Ireland, Conor Burns. He seemed to be of the view it would be coming forward. He was quite well disposed to getting this done, as was committed to.

Deputy Tóibín raised the issue of the crisis of confidence. We need to be careful in our language here. We need to work to build up confidence.

This is in a document from the PSNI.

We need to encourage people to join the police force. I do not think it is happening to the same extent as it did before. I was involved in the devolution of justice at the time, when I was Minister for Foreign Affairs. It was hard negotiated and worked for. The Patten reforms were transformational. We should work to ensure we can build on them. If we keep using language that to me is a bit pejorative or denigrates everybody, we will never do it and we will never get there.

It is like the chicken and egg. If we do not reform the PSNI, we will not get people to join it.

There was a fair bit of momentum there for quite some time but then people started resiling from encouraging people to join the PSNI. We need to get the balance right across communities so they are represented in the composition and so on.

Will the Taoiseach meet the PSNI Chief Constable?

It is essential and I do not want to see it deteriorating.

Deputy Haughey raised the issue of what transpired at the British-Irish Council. He made a very good point on Brexit. The First Minister of Wales was very clear on the negative impact of Brexit on Wales, in particular the decline in the volume of goods going through Welsh ports. The Welsh are very worried about the long-term impact on their ports, the consequent impact on local economies and the pattern of trade that is developing in the form of direct links between Ireland and the Continent. The Welsh Government is very aware of that. The First Minister of Scotland was also critical of the impact of Brexit. Importantly, both were very clear in their articulation to the British representative, the Secretary of State, Michael Gove, that they did not need any more disruption around Brexit. The last thing all of us on the council need is more disruption, such as triggering Article 16 and causing a further row with the European Union. The very clear message from all the others at the council to the British Government essentially is that it should resolve this within the framework between it and the European Union. It was quite useful from that perspective.

The British-Irish Council is a formal set-up but the informal side of it is better. The breakfast hosted by First Minister Drakeford was very useful, in particular on COP and climate and whether we could do more at a British-Irish level, for example, by having our own mini-COP26, which would be a proper conference on what all the administrations can do in respect of climate and energy, specifically wind energy, wave energy and so on.

On Deputy Boyd Barrett's question, I did not raise trade union rights with the British Prime Minister at my last meeting, a phone call with him, which was overwhelmingly about the protocol. However, I note the measures the Deputy's party is promoting in the Northern Ireland Assembly. I have not seen the exact details of the Bill. I favour the right of trade unions to assemble, work and advocate on behalf of their workers.

Deputy Brendan Smith again raised the issue of legacy. I met some relatives of victims of the Glennane gang recently at the request of Deputy Tóibín. I am totally opposed to the British Government's proposal for a number of reasons. Not only does it prevent the truth from getting out in respect of murder and killings by all groups, it potentially leaves the British Army off the hook in terms of some activities. There was collusion involving the Glennane gang and loyalist paramilitaries. There were Provisional IRA killings and murders for which there have been no closure and no accountability. Families are not getting enough information. Why the most heinous of crimes would be buried, if you like, by such an amnesty is something I cannot comprehend. I do not understand how those who perpetrated such crimes should be left off the hook like that without any obligation to be accountable to the families and give them some closure as to who murdered their loved ones. I say this genuinely. I saw last night's programme and it was particularly sad for the relatives of those who lost their lives. They have had absolutely no closure. No one has spoken to them and it has not been resolved.

Deputy Richmond raised the North-South Ministerial Council.

Reflecting on this, since the Good Friday Agreement, the institutions have not been working for close to ten years. There has been too much stop-start with the institutions and, therefore, we are going through our current challenging period because of Northern Ireland protocol issues that remain to be resolved between the British Government and the European Union. That is affecting the operation of the institutions. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Simon Coveney, and I brought a joint memo to Cabinet today updating it on North-South co-operation. A lot of good stuff is happening with the shared island initiative, which is gathering great momentum. We will work at this and the best way is to resolve the issues.