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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 19 Jan 2022

Vol. 1016 No. 4

An tOrd Gnó - Order of Business

In the context of the sensitivity of the topic today and expressions of condolence to the Murphy family, I have been liberal on time. I am going back to strict application of time limits for the next while. I remind Members about the use of phones in the Chamber, something we are all guilty of. We might reflect on the use of phones in the Chamber. The Ceann Comhairle has written to all of us asking that we desist from that and from taking photographs.

As agreed, during the emergency the rapporteur's report will be taken as read. Are the proposed arrangements for this week's business agreed to?

They are not agreed. That is surprising.

Last Friday, the Police Ombudsman for Northern Ireland published a damning report relating to Operation Greenwich, which investigated 19 murders between 1989 and 1992. I urge the Taoiseach to look in particular at the issue relating to Person K, who was involved in 16 murders and eight attempted murders. This person was the organiser of the Castlerock and Greysteel massacres. The individual in question has never been convicted of any crime. Despite repeatedly being arrested, charges have never been pressed. Person K is a mass murderer, licensed to kill.

We are discussing the Order of Business.

It is critical that we debate the damning findings of the report in question. The challenge for this House lies in holding the British Government to account. I ask that such a debate and statements take place tomorrow.

Some 40,000 people in this State have had fines brought against them for breaching Covid-19 regulations. People have gone to jail. Many have been forced to bury their loved ones in isolation over this period. The regulations the Government created have been enforced everywhere across the country except, it seems, among the political class itself. We have this really strange situation where the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, is refusing to come clean regarding what happened within his Department. The whole of the Government is looking at what is happening with Boris Johnson in England-----

The debate is in regard to the arrangements-----

-----yet we have not had the Minister come before the Dáil to answer questions.

We are discussing the arrangements for business.

Will the Minister for Foreign Affairs come before the Dáil to answer questions with regard to an event that broke regulations within his Department during the past 18 months?

Contributions should be in respect of the arrangements for this week.

I am looking for time to be made available.

While the Order of Business was agreed at our meeting last Thursday, the horrific and barbaric murder of Ashling Murphy took place afterwards. I want another debate, notwithstanding that there already are two debates, about the bail laws, free legal aid and the lack of tagging. Foot-dragging on all these issues has been going on in the Department of Justice and on the part of successive Governments with which the Taoiseach has been involved. I respect the premise that people are innocent until proven guilty, but too many individuals are availing of and making money out of the free legal aid system.

I thank the Deputy. We are discussing the arrangements for business.

I am asking for a debate because since the meeting of the Business Committee, a horrific and barbaric murder took place. We are wringing our hands, but we need to look at the bail laws, free legal aid and all the other issues, including tagging.

Just before Christmas, the Department of Transport-----

I beg the Deputy's pardon. There are two different groups. Deputy Tóibín is in the same group as Deputy Shanahan, not Deputy Mattie McGrath, so a member of the group cannot speak a second time. I beg Deputy Shanahan's pardon but I lost concentration for a moment. I call Deputy Pringle. Does the Deputy wish to raise an issue related to the Order of Business?

Yes, of course. On the Order of Business for this week, I know it happened prior to the announcement of business, but the Attorney General announced on Monday that he would not recommend the publication of the Brandon report, the full publication of which has been supported by the Taoiseach, the Tánaiste and the relevant Minister. We need to schedule a debate on this matter because it is vitally important that the report be published. I ask that my request be considered.

If we were not discussing the utterly tragic and terrible death of Ashling Murphy this week and the implications it has for how our society treats women, we would be discussing another tragic death of a 17-year-old man who took his own life after leaving the care of a hospital and who was on the radar of Tusla. That speaks to the terrible and consistent failure to provide adequate mental health services and supports for young people.

I have asked at the Business Committee that the Government would facilitate as a matter of urgency a debate on youth mental health services which are, quite frankly, a scandal. There are cases I am dealing with at the moment where the mothers of children are similarly afraid that their children's lives are in danger because of the lack of supports being provided for them. This is a matter of urgency and I would like a commitment from the Government that it will facilitate an urgent debate on youth mental health services.

I call the Taoiseach in regard to the proposed arrangements for the week.

I want to give due respect to those who raised issues as well, perhaps in the order that they raised them.

In regard to the proposed arrangements for this week's business.

In response to Deputy Mac Lochlainn, that report is quite damning. I do not think we can change the order this week. As the Deputy knows, there is a wider issue of legacy. There was also the commemoration of the Teebane massacre last week and the relatives there are looking for closure, with no one brought to justice there. The issue of "Person K" clearly requires focus of attention. Therefore, I do not have an issue with a debate but I think we have to be even-handed in terms of the legacy issues because there have been a lot of terrible atrocities carried out and people have had no closure in respect of them at all. I will leave it to the Business Committee to work out the arrangements for such a debate.

In response to Deputy Tóibín, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, has already said he is willing to come before the Oireachtas Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence.

He should come to the Dáil Chamber.

On Deputy Mattie McGrath’s point, again, the best place for consideration of bail laws and the various issues he has identified and highlighted would be the relevant Oireachtas committee because, by definition, those are issues that we need detailed consideration of and reflection on. Many Members in the House would like to examine those issues but would rather do it in a detailed way. Maybe the relevant committee could take up that challenge in the first instance. Again, we have a fairly packed agenda this week and it may not be possible to include that this week.

Similarly, on Deputy Pringle's point, we can have a debate in regard to the Brandon report as soon as it can be arranged and scheduled but I do not think it will be possible this week.

In response to Deputy Boyd Barrett, I understand the Business Committee has already agreed, or the Government has agreed, to the taking of a youth mental health debate next week. That is very important and I share the Deputy’s concerns. Therefore, that would be one we should all commit to doing next week. The Chief Whip has informed me that the Business Committee has already raised this issue. That should be facilitated and we will then see if we can accommodate the other requests that people have made.

Are the proposed arrangements for this week's business agreed to? Agreed. On questions on promised legislation, I call Deputy Mary Lou McDonald. I ask Members to keep to the time limits.

I will endeavour to. I want to return to the Police Ombudsman's report into Operation Greenwich, which my colleague has just raised. We have known for a long time that collusion between the British state and loyalist death squads was rife. Indeed, it was a central component of Britain's dirty war in Ireland, a concerted campaign of murder that targeted the nationalist community, its leaders, its human rights lawyers and Sinn Féin members and elected representatives. As the Taoiseach knows, the 19 killings and two attempted murders that this report deals with raise the most serious of questions yet the publication of this report so far was met by silence from both the Taoiseach and the Minister for Foreign Affairs. I am bothered with this. I would like to know when we will hear a full and complete response from the Taoiseach and the Government, and also if the Taoiseach has made contact with the British Prime Minister in light of this report.

As I said earlier, we could have a broader debate on legacy generally.

Collusion between British security forces and loyalism is, unfortunately, not new. We know about it, and there have been various investigations and inquiries. The panoply of intelligence operations in Northern Ireland, not just in loyalism but also in its relationship and engagement with republican paramilitaries, has been well-documented. Operation Kenova is ongoing. Many people lost their lives as a result of that level of activity and engagement by security forces with all paramilitaries. It is a murky and sordid narrative of collusion that resulted in the unlawful murder of many people. It is unacceptable.

It is welcome that a decision has finally been made on a pandemic bonus for healthcare workers. This is something we called for in May 2020. I want to give the Taoiseach an opportunity to outline exactly what it will involve and who will qualify for it. There seems to be quite a bit of confusion out there. For instance, will community home help workers, family carers and those who work in pharmacies qualify? Broadly speaking, we all agree that they should. I ask the Taoiseach to clarify that. The Tánaiste previously suggested on numerous occasions that people in the wider civil and public service, like those in the Department of Social Protection, should also benefit. Is that suggestion off the table? Is the Taoiseach ruling out providing anything to transport workers, postal workers, gardaí, members of the Defence Forces, etc.? Will the Taoiseach urge the private sector to come along the road with the Government and do something similar for its workers as well, particularly for those in retail?

The Government acknowledges the contribution of our healthcare workers in particular and of all workers across the economy during the Covid-19 pandemic. They have faced many challenges and have risen to the task, especially in our health services among those caring for patients on the front line. There have been a number of waves since the original one, namely, the Alpha wave, the Delta wave and now the Omicron wave. Time and again, front-line services have been put under enormous pressure. We have given detailed consideration to them and earlier today the Government approved a package of measures to recognise these efforts. A public holiday will be held on 18 March next in recognition of the efforts of the general public and of all workers during the Covid-19 pandemic and in remembrance of those who lost their lives.

Family carers, pharmacists.

The public holiday broadly recognises everybody-----

-----and then there is a tax-free recognition payment of €1,000 for-----

The Taoiseach did not answer the question. He was waffling.

-----the Taoiseach’s comments earlier about the cross-party approach to gender-based violence, his commitment to the strategy and his recognition that a cultural shift is required in this country. As one of the other Deputies mentioned, there are immediate things that can happen and that need to happen. A report at the end of last year from the Rape Crisis Network Ireland stated that in some instances survivors of sexual violence have to wait over a year before they can get counselling and those wraparound supports. While the strategy is fundamental, it will not help those victims in the short term. Someone who experienced sexual violence last week or who will experience it next week will not have the services and supports they require now. I ask the Taoiseach to commit to providing an emergency fund in order that these services can get money to tide them over while work on the strategy is being undertaken.

Additional funding was provided this year-----

It is not sufficient.

-----to Tusla. I will ask the line Ministers to engage with the Deputy to work through the details of that and to look at the areas the Deputy can identify to them where supports are required.

I want to raise the issue of the Debenhams workers. Many times in this Chamber and in the convention centre, the Taoiseach correctly described them as having been treated shoddily and shabbily by their former employer. Debenhams took advantage of the pandemic to walk off and leave its workers high and dry.

They waged an heroic struggle which ended after more than 400 days with an agreement that they would be able to access a training fund of €3 million. Incredibly, to this day not a single cent has been paid out of that training fund. The workers are faced with extensive red tape, with a very restrictive interpretation being applied by SOLAS to the rules around the disbursement of the fund. For example, a worker who wanted to do an online course and to buy an appropriate office chair rather than using a kitchen chair was told that a letter was required and money could not be paid out in advance. I ask the Taoiseach to instruct a Minister to meet the shop stewards. Will he intervene to make sure that the money is paid out so that workers get what they are owed, even if it is less than they deserve?

I will revert back to the union that has been representing the workers. This issue has not been raised with me but I will follow it up.

Just before Christmas the Government, through the Department of Transport, published a preliminary pre-qualification questionnaire for the national air-sea rescue service. The tender suggests a reduction of the helicopter bases from four to three and that the applicant companies can propose their own base configurations. This is creating extraordinary unease in the south east in respect of capability in the maritime space and our ability to transfer cardiac patients from University Hospital Waterford during the 129 hours per week when our catheterisation lab is closed. Members of the regional group along with Independent Senators in the Upper House have placed a motion to the Order Paper. Will the Taoiseach make space next week on the Order of Business for a debate on the shortcomings of this contract? Allowing this ten-year contract tender to proceed as presently described could significantly damage the capability of this critical service over the next decade.

Quite a number of Deputies, including the Ministers of State, Deputies Butler and James Browne, have been in touch with me on this issue and the Minister of State at the Department of Transport, Deputy Naughton, is also dealing with it. An absolute minimum number of aircraft is specified to be on standby for coastguard aviation tasking. That is a minimum requirement and bidders can propose more. The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Naughton, are very conscious of the overall needs, geographically and regionally, and all Deputies and Senators from the entire south east, including Deputy Shanahan, have been in touch with them. I do not want to speculate on the final procurement specifications or the outcome of the process but we do hear what people are saying to us on this issue.

We all know the phrase, mol an óige agus tiocfaidh sí. Last week we saw young entrepreneurs at the RDS at the online Young Scientist exhibition. I ask the Taoiseach to consider a hybrid-type leaving certificate examination this year because young people deserve it. They have been hugely discommoded, as have their parents and everybody else in the school community. They need that to be assessed and a decision made on it very soon. They are our future and our hope for the future. We should allow them to have a hybrid exam because of the amount of time they missed last year and this year, not to mention the uncertainty around returning to education, being educated, the conditions in which they are learning and the lack of investment in education. I ask that the Taoiseach, along with the Minister for Education, Deputy Foley, would make a decision on this very soon.

As I said earlier, the Minister for Education is meeting the advisory group on State examinations tomorrow, which is important. She will discuss this issue with parents, students, teachers, the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment, NCCA and the State Examinations Commission, SEC. It is important that we provide clarity and certainty as soon as we possibly can.

This question has come directly from Ms Antoinette Keegan of the Stardust Victims Committee. Ms Keegan points out that it is almost 41 years since the terrible Stardust fire in Artane, Dublin, in which 48 young people died and 214 were injured. The Attorney General announced on 25 September 2019 that the inquest must go ahead as this was in the public interest. The Department of Justice leased the RDS in Ballsbridge for one year for the Stardust inquest and has spent nearly €2 million out of a fund of €8 million on renting and fitting out the RDS. On 13 October 2021, the families of the Stardust victims and their legal team were advised by the coroner that after February, the lease expires.

These families are really upset. No venue has been tied down to continue the Stardust inquest from February onwards. Can the Taoiseach give the House reassurance that he will intervene and expedite this urgent matter that is causing great distress to the families and that he will meet them about this?

I will engage with the Minister for Justice on this. I am aware that there were issues around those raised by the Deputy but it is not for any want of effort by the Department of Justice. I will take the matter up with the Minister and the Department.

Will the Taoiseach meet the families?

I call Deputy McAuliffe.

The Government is taking steps to try to deal with inflation. It is a tricky business when, in itself, Government spending can drive inflation. The measures in the budget and targeted social welfare changes will help. The announcement of a €100 payment to assist fuel inflation was very welcome. As we more further into January, will the Taoiseach outline when the Government will bring forward that legislation and when the payment might be made?

Inflation is a concern. The European Central Bank has indicated to us that it regards it as a pandemic-fuelled inflationary cycle internationally and that it still believes it will be short term.

Legislation for the €100 rebate is expected very shortly, within the next number of weeks.

The public is looking to all of us in this House to show leadership on the issue of gender-based violence. One of our roles as legislators is to ensure that the laws we have provide effective protection. The Minister for Justice has spoken in the past of making strangulation a stand-alone offence. Strangulation is a common and often fatal feature of domestic violence. Similarly, the Law Reform Commission has recommended making stalking a stand-alone offence. That is something that the Minister for Justice has said that she is open to and exploring. When will we see legislation on these two areas brought to the House in order that the legislation on the Statute Book can contribute to the protection of women and to the sea change that we need and that the Taoiseach called for this morning?

The suggestions to provide legislation to create offences in respect of both of those merit the most serious consideration. Again, I will engage with the Minister for Justice. These are issues that might be pursued through the relevant Oireachtas committee in some detail because they are very important issues in respect of that wider debate. We should have a wide-ranging legislative provision to ensure there are no escape routes or hiding places for people who engage in such violence.

This week Oxfam published a report on the obscene amount of wealth in the hands of just a few. Ireland has the fifth largest number of billionaires in the world relative to its population. The world's ten richest men more than doubled their fortunes from $700 billion to $1.5 trillion. At the same time, the poorest workers and families in society have seen a drop in income. Those ten men now have six times more wealth than the poorest 3.1 billion people. Imagine, if we had a fair taxation system, what our health service, education and social welfare systems would look like. We could invest in climate change measures without hitting families and workers hardest. Has the Government any plans to introduce a genuine wealth tax?

We need to assess these reports and do a little more analysis of them. The Oxfam report claims that the wealth of Ireland's nine billionaires has increased by €18 billion to €49 billion since the start of the pandemic. The report admits that as Oxfam does not have data on individual wealth holdings, it makes estimates. It starts by making estimates of aggregate wealth based on measures like GDP, stock market values and national savings. These measures are very unlikely to produce reliable figures on wealth for Ireland. GDP is not a reliable indicator of income let alone wealth in Ireland. Neither is the price of, say, Ryanair stock, listed on the Irish stock market. Oxfam would then assume that the wealth is distributed in a particular way across the population. That is simply an assumption as it does not have comprehensive data on wealth distribution. Using this approach, for example, Oxfam claims that 18,350 people in Ireland worth $5 million and above. It concludes that a flat 1.5% wealth tax on this cohort of wealth, above $5 million, would raise €4 billion. I am not sure if we can have any confidence in that figure, to be honest.

I point to an analysis of wealth taken by the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, in 2016 which found that if the French wealth tax system was replicated in Ireland, the yield would only be €22 million.

I thank the Taoiseach. We are over time.

A simple "No" would suffice.

I call Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan.

We have put a tax on wealth here but Sinn Féin has opposed it. Sinn Féin has opposed the property tax.

The Taoiseach wasted a minute there. A simple "No" would have sufficed.

There are a number of Deputies waiting to get in and we are over time.

Front-line healthcare workers will receive a €1,000 tax bonus for their work during the pandemic under plans agreed by Cabinet today. I welcome this wholeheartedly and it is good to see people get the recognition they deserve. They have worked through the most testing of times. Healthcare workers, front-line workers including hospice staff, cleaners, porters, clinical staff and private nursing home staff are all to be included. I believe student nurses are also to be considered for a pro rata payment. Will the Taoiseach clarify what the situation is for private care providers such as, for example, somebody working for Home Instead or one of those types of providers? Will these people also be considered for this payment if they have been seconded or were working on behalf of the HSE?

The Deputy raises a very reasonable point. He has outlined those who are benefitting. My understanding is that, subject to further clarification, if contracted by the HSE they will be entitled to that payment of €1,000 as well.

I wish the Taoiseach and everybody in the House a happy new year. I want to ask the Taoiseach about a matter I have been raising here on a very regular basis over the years, namely, derelict housing and the opportunities there to bring thousands and thousands of housing units back into use in a relatively short period. I am asking that renewed focus be put on putting in place the proper conditions and incentives to ensure first-time buyers can avail of these properties and to ensure people who are currently hoarding these properties make them available on the market to first-time buyers. The financial supports should be there for first-time buyers to do up these properties because as the Taoiseach is aware, the cost of materials and labour is incredibly high at the moment. We all know these properties are there. They are all over the place in all our communities. We are in the middle of a housing crisis and the slowness with which these properties are being renovated is not acceptable. More needs to be done.

I thank the Deputy for raising the issue. It was raised earlier as well but Deputy Griffin has had a consistent interest in this. It is the intention of the Government to introduce a vacant property tax next year. The Finance (Local Property Tax) (Amendment) Act 2021 introduced by the Minister for Finance has enabled Revenue to collect certain information on vacant properties in the local property tax, LPT, return forms submitted by residential property owners last month in respect of the new LPT valuation period 2022-25. Those returns are currently being analysed by Revenue and included information on the quantity, locations and characteristics of long-term vacant properties as of 1 November 2021. The Minister will receive the results of Revenue's analysis of this information early this year. That analysis, together with other available sources of information will be used by the Minister and his officials to inform the optimum design of a vacant property tax. It will be important in designing that tax to achieve and appropriate balance between placing enough pressure on vacant home owners to allow the measure to actually work as an incentive and ensuring any such tax does not arbitrarily or excessively penalise homeowners in a discriminatory way.

There is just one minute left and five remaining speakers so with the Taoiseach's co-operation, I will allow each speaker in for 30 seconds. I call Deputy Murnane O'Connor.

We are going to debate gender-based violence later but I wish to send my condolences to the family of Ashling Murphy and to the women of Ireland. It has been horrific for us all. On the subject of women's refuges, County Carlow has no women's refuge. It is one of nine counties that does not have a women's refuge. The review paused during Covid but reactivated in September 2020 and was expected to be finished in April 2021 but we have had no word on that review. I ask the Taoiseach to get the review done so the likes of Carlow and other counties that do not have a women's refuge can have that addressed. We are sending people to Waterford and Kilkenny. It is just unacceptable. It is important that we now show the women of the country who come to us that we are there to support them.

I have a question around the changes to the LPT we saw in 2021. It has been stated by the Minister for Finance that there will be no change to the Exchequer as a result of the post-2013 houses coming on stream and the new scheme in general. Would it be possible for the Taoiseach to confirm whether that means the extra money will be retained for self-funding by local authorities? I am aware many areas with high population growth are especially concerned about this.

I am grateful to the Leas-Cheann Comhairle for letting me in. Mick Ryan, an Irish citizens and United Nations humanitarian worker was killed in the Ethiopian Airlines ET 302 crash on 10 March 2019. His family are seeking justice in the US for his death. Mick Clifford reported on this in last Saturday's edition of the Irish Examiner. In December last year, Naoise Ryan, his widow, who is from Cork, along with the other victims' families, filed a motion in a US court arguing the US Government violated their rights under the Crime Victims' Rights Act through a process that allowed Boeing to escape criminal prosecution. I believe Ms Ryan has made contact with the Taoiseach's office. Will the Taoiseach please use his good offices to best support Mick Ryan's widow and family to secure a meeting between her lawyers and the victims' family and US Attorney General Merrick Garland?

On two occasions I have raised the plight of the accessible community transport service in south Dublin with the Taoiseach. It provided door-to-door transport for people in wheelchairs and with severe mobility issues. He did respond to me in a letter but to be honest the letter did not offer any comfort in terms of the need for the service to replace its buses. It does not have the buses it now needs and the €50,000 it needs due to its inability to raise funds during Covid. The service will be gone at the end of February unless it gets the intervention and the funds necessary.

Will the Taoiseach ask the Minister to reconvene the working group on horticultural peat? The sector is in deep crisis at present. We must ensure the group has a chance to come together again. The Minister also needs to explain the reasons why the main recommendations the working group made were ignored. One of the recommendations was the phasing out of peat up to 2030. It has been completely ignored and as I said the sector is in deep crisis. We need that working group reconvened.

I spoke earlier with Deputy Murnane O'Connor and indeed I referenced the Deputy in terms of her campaign for a refuge centre in Carlow. With the Ministers involved, we will work on that to follow it through.

On the LPT, my understanding is that local authorities would be able to retain the surplus but I can get further clarification for Deputy Hourigan on that.

On Deputy Sherlock's question, I have met Ms Ryan and have been engaged on an ongoing basis. I have written to President Biden in respect of this. Most recently, I have asked our embassy in Washington to take up the most recent phase of this campaign for justice. I have a great belief in Irish people who work in the UN World Food Programme and in other programmes. To me, it is the ultimate manifestation of our values. It is awful that Mr. Ryan lost his life in the circumstances that he did and we must always do everything we can to support people and their families in situations like this.

I will follow up on the matter raised by Deputy Boyd Barrett again to see what we can do before the deadline he mentioned for that service.

On Deputy Nolan's question, my focus now, with the other Ministers, is to get something moving on this. We need to get action on helping the horticultural sector and the mushroom sector and to ensure there is adequate peat available to those sectors.

I thank the Taoiseach for his co-operation.