1. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the national risk assessment published by his Department. [61416/21]
Vol. 1016 No. 6
1. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the national risk assessment published by his Department. [61416/21]
2. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the recently published national risk assessment. [61501/21]
3. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Taoiseach the extent to which the ongoing national risk assessment has identified particular issues needing priority attention. [61939/21]
4. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the national risk assessment published by his Department. [63548/21]
5. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the national risk assessment published by his Department. [3328/22]
6. Deputy Rose Conway-Walsh asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the national risk assessment published by his Department. [3336/22]
7. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the national risk assessment published by his Department. [3608/22]
8. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the national risk assessment published by his Department. [3611/22]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 8, inclusive, together.
The national risk assessment has been prepared annually since 2014 and provides an opportunity to identify and discuss significant risks that may arise for Ireland. The experience of the past number of years has brought home the importance of work in the area of risk management and preparedness. By promoting an open and inclusive discussion on the major risks facing the country, the national risk assessment plays an important role in this work. A draft national risk assessment was published in July last year for public consultation thus providing opportunities for stakeholders and Oireachtas Members to contribute to the development of the report.
More than 50 organisations, public representatives and individuals participated in the consultation process. The final version was published by the Government in early December. Climate change, biodiversity loss, and social and economic inequality emerged as the most significant concerns highlighted in the submissions received, and risks across each of these areas are captured in the final report. Many of the risks included in the report had been identified in previous assessments, however, there are a number of new risks related to Covid-19 and a number of other previously identified risks have evolved significantly. For example, new risks identified in the report include inflation, economic scarring and digital exclusion. The combination of the pandemic, Brexit and supply-chain constraints have also exacerbated previously identified risks, including skills shortages and the supply and affordability of housing. This is at the same time as major risks, in particular climate change, are taking on even greater importance.
The national risk assessment also references emerging international views on lessons for risk governance from the Covid-19 experience, in particular an emphasis at EU level on improving resilience. There will be scope in the months ahead for further consideration of lessons learned for risk management. It is important to note that the national risk assessment is just one element of the overall system of preparedness and resilience planning for Ireland and is not intended to replicate or displace the detailed risk management and preparedness carried out across Departments and Government agencies.
However, it is an important opportunity to reflect on strategic risks facing the country in the years ahead.
As there are eight questions in total, we will have to stick to one minute per question.
Will the Taoiseach provide the House with an update on the current status of the recovery from the recent cyberattack on the Department of Health and the HSE? Has the Government quantified the cost of the cyberattack economically and, more importantly, in terms of health and fatalities in our hospital system? For example, is the number of appointments that were cancelled known? Have the delays in the delivery of health services been quantified? Before the attack, the National Cyber Security Centre, NCSC, was funded to the tune of €5 million. To put that in context, the Taoiseach's Department spent three times that amount on PR during that period. As a result of the queue of crises that have developed in the State over recent years, the Dáil has taken its eyes off this particular crisis. It is really important that an update be provided on the damage that was done and the steps taken by the Government to make sure such a thing does not happen again.
We are in a very precarious situation with regard to what is going on with Russia at the Ukrainian border. There is also an issue here in our own territorial waters regarding the activities of Russian submarines and the manoeuvres of the Russian military. I listened quite intently to Mr. Patrick Murphy, CEO of the Irish South and West Fish Producer's Organisation. I spoke to him before I came into the Dáil today. This could have serious consequences for the environment, for fish stocks, including stocks of tuna and blue whiting and, possibly, for our communications cables. As the Taoiseach knows, this group is going to take a flotilla of boats out to the waters where they fish next month when the Russian manoeuvres are under way. As Mr. Murphy put it, this is their farm. Will the Taoiseach update the House on any communications he has had with the Russian embassy? Even though it is down four ships, will he send the Irish Naval Service to accompany the group that is going out to fish in these waters while the Russian manoeuvres are taking place?
Is sufficient emphasis being placed on the supply of goods and services in the update and review that is taking place in light of the issues arising from Brexit and its ongoing implications? To what extent are the Taoiseach and his Department continuing to identify the best way to offset any negative impacts now emerging? The supply of fuel, an issue that has already engaged the House today, is obviously a very pressing issue and one that is becoming more important as time goes by. Is sufficient provision being made to provide alternative energy from this country's own resources and capabilities? What is being done to determine the availability of such energy resources at an earlier stage and to address issues in respect of offshore and onshore electricity generation?
On several occasions during the pandemic, our health service was threatened with being overwhelmed. Ministers argued that this was due to the power of the virus, but this was only partly true. It was also down to the weakness of our public health service infrastructure. There were not enough beds, including ICU beds, and there were not enough staff. We got through it thanks to the heroic efforts of the health staff but we were also lucky. The result of this was that society was locked down for considerably longer than would otherwise have been necessary. Another result is that the Government ended up paying money to private hospitals for bed capacity, amounting to €115 million at the pinch points. I put it to the Taoiseach that, if we are to learn the lessons of the pandemic to date, two key changes need to be made. The first is that the public health service needs to be significantly expanded, with particular attention paid to bed capacity, ICU capacity and staffing levels. We also need a single-tier public health service. We need to nationalise private hospitals and integrate them into a fully public health system.
Healthcare capacity has to be included in the national risk assessment along with issues of public health. It is beyond question that, when a public health emergency hits, it is already too late. I commend those who work on the front line in that system. Prior to the outbreak of the pandemic, we had the longest waiting lists in the EU. We had a series of some of the longest and strictest lockdowns because we had so little spare capacity in the health system. Today, more than 800,000 people are on some form of waiting list. This includes 96,000 children. Last week, when the end of Covid restrictions was announced, six ambulances were lined up in front of Mayo University Hospital. Some of those patients had already waited five hours for an ambulance. We just do not have the capacity required. It is an enormous risk. I spoke to a woman last week who had been urgently referred to the breast clinic by her GP. Despite this, she was told she would have to wait three months. This also presents an enormous risk. Will the Taoiseach assure us that healthcare capacity will be front and centre in our risk assessment?
I will mention the risk of people dying unnecessarily during the winter, as happened in this country even before the energy price hikes. Every winter, 1,500 to 2,000 people, most of whom are elderly and less well off, die as a result of the impact of winter, the cost of heating and so on. That situation will get exponentially worse in light of the current price hikes. I again ask whether the Taoiseach will use the powers available to him under the Consumer Protection Act 2007 to control the price of energy, including electricity and heat, and to expand the financial assistance available through the fuel allowance to cover more households. Of course, there is an international context to this matter but this country lining up with NATO in a conflict between it and Russia is not a very sensible strategy to address that wider international context.
It is very positive that the Omicron wave was less destructive than had been feared. The question for now is how not to waste the breathing space we have been afforded. We should use that space to make our society more Covid-resilient and pandemic-resilient rather than just forgetting about it all. The question for the Government is whether it is going to ensure that workers have the right to clean air in their workplaces. Will it proceed as quickly as possible to implement our Workplace Ventilation (Covid-19) Bill 2021, which has passed Second Stage, to ensure that everyone has the right to clean air? Will it provide needed HEPA filters to schools and ensure that every worker has the right to a high-quality, high-grade FFP2 mask or equivalent like those provided to Deputies and Senators? If we are to avoid more variants of concern, we must scrap patents on vaccines. We should support the People's Vaccine campaign to ensure that vaccines are distributed to the 40% of the world's population who still do not have a single dose.
I thank the Deputies for their questions. Deputy Tóibín raised the issue of cyberattacks. These are a clear risk to the country. Cybersecurity is vitally important to our economy and to wider society. The attack on our health system last year had a devastating impact on health services, particularly on front-line services with regard to access to scans and so on. It also had an impact on patient care for that period and on senior HSE staff who worked around the clock to try to deal with the issue. Additional funding has been provided. The national cybersecurity strategy sets out a framework and a range of measures for protecting the State from cyber threats through building up infrastructure and capacity in that area.
The NCSC is responsible for a range of measures to improve the resilience of critical infrastructure and public sector ICT. It also manages the State's incident response process. It works with the Defence Forces and An Garda Síochána. It is now working on a detailed risk assessment of critical infrastructure vulnerabilities in the State.
We are prioritising expanding our cybersecurity and resilience infrastructure and increasing resources in that regard. The Government has agreed a package of measures that will ensure the continued development and expansion of the National Cyber Security Centre, NCSC, including increasing its staff complement to 45 by the end of this year.
Regarding the point made by Deputy Kelly on territorial waters, the broader issue concerning the situation with Russia and Ukraine is a serious one. We appeal for a de-escalation of tensions in respect of the massing of thousands upon thousands of Russian troops on the Ukrainian border. There are fundamental principles at stake here as a country, including a rules-based international order, which is what Ireland is about. Deputy Boyd Barrett said we are about lining up with NATO. We are not. We are for a rules-based international order, first and foremost. That is Ireland's principle, and Russia should acknowledge that too, as well as the territorial integrity of states, democracy and peaceful co-operation. Ireland wants a diplomatic resolution not just to this situation but also to the illegal annexation of Crimea. That is the Irish position. We have updated our travel advice. We are recommending that citizens avoid non-essential travel to Ukraine.
Regarding the proposed Russian activities within our exclusive zone and territorial waters, legally and technically they are entitled to do that. This is not, however, a regular occurrence at all, despite what has been said. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, has spoken to the Russian Ambassador and made it very clear that the Government is very unhappy and does not welcome this development. The Minister attended a meeting of the EU Foreign Affairs Council, FAC, yesterday, where Russia's continued aggression and threats against Ukraine was condemned. I like to think that is something on which the entire House could agree unanimously. Russia was called on to de-escalate, to abide by international law and to engage constructively in dialogue through the established international mechanisms.
I thank the Taoiseach. The time is up and we need to move on to Question No. 9.
There were a couple of other questions.
There were, but I am afraid 31 questions are being answered today. We are not going to have time to debate them all.
9. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the first year of the shared island initiative. [61417/21]
10. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Taoiseach the progress to date in the development of the shared island theme; and the various entities with which his Department has interacted in recent times in this regard. [61938/21]
11. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Taoiseach the extent to which he and his Department continue to engage in dialogue with all communities in Northern Ireland with a view to strengthening and improving confidence through the medium of the shared island concept. [63310/21]
12. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the shared island unit of his Department. [2230/22]
13. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach his priorities for the next phase of the shared island initiative. [3069/22]
14. Deputy Bernard J. Durkan asked the Taoiseach the progress made on the shared island initiative; and the extent to which specific objectives can be and are being achieved. [3252/22]
15. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the shared island initiative of his Department. [3308/22]
16. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the shared island unit in his Department. [3316/22]
17. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the shared island initiative. [3329/22]
18. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the first year of the shared island initiative. [3609/22]
19. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the first year of the shared island initiative. [3612/22]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 to 19, inclusive, together.
The Government's shared island initiative is working to realise the full potential of the Good Friday Agreement, to enhance co-operation and connection on the island, and to engage with all communities and traditions to build consensus around a shared future. We are working on an ambitious and whole-of-government basis, and through all-island partnerships, with the Northern Ireland Executive, the United Kingdom Government and with local authorities and civil society across the island.
Progress in 2021 included the allocation of €50 million from the Government's shared island fund to move ahead with key cross-Border investments; new phases of the Ulster Canal; the Narrow Water Bridge project; a major new North-South research programme delivered by the Higher Education Authority; commencing an all-island strategic rail review, in partnership with the Norther Ireland Executive; setting new shared island investment priorities across virtually all sectors as part of the revised national development plan, backed by a total all-island investment commitment of more than €3.5 billion for the decade ahead; the roll-out of the shared island dialogue series, with participation by more than 1,000 civic representatives across all regions, communities and sectors in seven events, which have also fostered exciting new civic initiatives, such as an all-island women's forum; and a comprehensive shared island research programme - working with the Economic and Social Research Institute, the National Economic and Social Council, the Irish Research Council, and other partners - which is now publishing a stream of high-quality work to inform discussions.
On 9 December, I addressed a shared island forum event, which more than 3,500 representatives attended online. I outlined the Government's priority investment projects and policies for the shared island initiative in 2022, implementing our national development plan and programme for Government objectives. I also launched a report by my Department on the shared island dialogue series over the past year, which highlights issues and suggestions from civic society for the future of the island across a wide range of themes, of which the Government is taking account. A copy of the report has been sent to every Member of the Oireachtas.
The dialogue series has provided an inspiring view of our shared island society - diverse, dynamic, hopeful and ready to write a new chapter of reconciliation on this island. We are continuing the shared island dialogue series this year to foster deeper civic engagement regarding how we can work in practical and meaningful ways across all communities for a shared future.
The first shared island dialogue of 2022 took place last Thursday, 20 January, on the theme of tourism on the shared island. More than 150 stakeholders from across the island joined the discussion, and the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, Deputy Catherine Martin, participated in the dialogue on behalf of the Government. The next dialogue on sport is planned for late February, and the series will continue through this year, with in-person and regional events convened when possible. The participation of so many people from a range of backgrounds has been encouraging, notwithstanding the limitations imposed by the impact of Covid-19.
I thank the Taoiseach for that update and for the report sent to our offices. I was struck by the remarks of the Taoiseach at the engagement in December and by the pertinent remarks made by Patrick Kielty that went viral. We must be honest about the shared island initiative and unit having great potential but that, due to the impact of Covid-19 or a need for a wider buy-in, it may perhaps not be reaching that potential as much as it could be. I was very taken by the last comments made by the Taoiseach when he said the plans for the roll out of the series are already afoot, including the engagement last week on tourism. We must, however, be extremely ambitious this year to make up for lost time.
Let us be frank that politics in London are chaotic, while politics in Northern Ireland are getting sharper as every day that passes brings us closer to the assembly election. The shared island dialogue series has an important role to implement and show people across this island the benefit of closer co-operation in every aspect of life. I would like to know more about how we can supercharge that endeavour through 2022.
I thank the Taoiseach for his reply. To what extent can he use this shared island facility to establish a greater level of confidence between the communities in Northern Ireland and between the North and the South? This is an important issue now, namely, the building of confidence to progress the rest of the objectives of the programme.
Is the Taoiseach satisfied with the progress made to date? Does he propose to take further initiatives to identify more ways and means of advancing the causes set out in the programme? Is it intended to expand the debate in this context beyond the shared island initiative structures? I refer to the addition of a citizens' assembly debate, for example, or something like that, to promote the positive elements of the structure.
I agree with some of what was said. We must be ambitious about the shared island unit and the initiative. I do not think that it will come as a shock concerning Sinn Féin's position in this regard. We believe that planning for Irish unity must occur. Within that context, there must be a citizens' assembly to allow all voices to be heard. I have had this type of interaction with the Taoiseach before as well, and he said that he did not think that such a mechanism is sufficient in the context of what needs to be done. That is fair enough. We must then look at the shared island dialogue as something that can be expanded. We cannot shy away from the constitutional question, because it is happening. It is part of the reason there is an element of chaos within political unionism and that is just the reality. I welcome the infrastructural project work, such as the Narrow Water Bridge. The research aspects are incredibly interesting and we have had discussions on this topic before, particularly in respect of future modelling and educational attainment North and South.
It has come to light that there has been a slew of racist, sexist and misogynistic tweets by the leader of the Ulster Unionist Party, Doug Beattie. These tweets were shockingly derogatory, and included comments about women and Muslims. He used incredible terms about the Traveller community. I am not going to introduce the language used in those tweets into the Chamber today such is its severity.
For generations, unionist politicians have spoken derogatorily about minorities, especially Catholics. Ian Paisley is on the historical record as having said that Catholics breed like rabbits and multiply like vermin, for example. Does the Taoiseach agree with me there is no place for tweets like Doug Beattie's in the modern day and will he join me in calling for his resignation as leader of the Ulster Unionist Party?
The shared island initiative is the Taoiseach's flagship proposal. Can he tell the House that his successor, the current Tánaiste, is going to continue it? Is that agreed? As regards the North-South Ministerial Council, with the DUP not participating even though it has been declared illegal by the court in Belfast, what work is under way in trying to ensure that the DUP participates? This cannot go on forever. What projects does the Taoiseach expect the shared island initiative to fund? There is €500 million in funding proposed up to 2025. One was an all-island strategic rail review which recently closed for submissions. There is an idea of a high-speed rail link between Belfast, Dublin and Cork. Is this one of them, for example? Is it going to go the way of Boris's bridge? Genuinely, what projects are going to be funded in the next year or so?
Regina Coeli hostel in Belfast is the sole female-only homeless hostel in Northern Ireland. With domestic violence at a 15-year high in the North, it provides accommodation and support services for up to 200 women a year. Many residents are vulnerable women who have left abusive relationships or struggle with substance abuse. The Legion of Mary has decided to close the building, stating it cannot afford the cost of necessary repairs. I salute the workers, mainly women, who have decided to fight the closure and are occupying the premises. I support the demand of their union, Unite, that the Legion of Mary hand over the facility to the state.
If I could, I would like to ask Deputy McDonald whether Sinn Féin's Northern Ireland Minister for Communities, Deirdre Hargey MLA, will instruct the Housing Executive to take on the facility. Seeing as this is Taoiseach's Questions, however, I ask the Taoiseach, in light of all the fine words spoken in this House last week about gender-based violence, if he will make defence of this facility a real priority for the Government in its dealings with the Northern Ireland Executive.
One thing among others that people in the South and the North share is fuel poverty. The Taoiseach did not have a chance to respond in the last round of questions but I hope he will this time. Fuel poverty in the North is 22%. It is only 13% in England. The ESRI estimates one in six in the South suffers from fuel poverty. A RED C poll last year found that 19% of people turn the heat off because of fears of not having enough money to meet other bills and the cost of food. We share, North and South, a failure of government to deal with energy price hikes that are impoverishing working people, the vulnerable, pensioners, disabled people and so on. Will the Taoiseach take a lead in taking some measures to address this?
I also want to ask about the ongoing protests against the planned closure of the Regina Coeli hostel for women in Belfast. This hostel is the only one of its sort in the North, providing for women who have suffered from homelessness, drug addiction or domestic violence. Now they have been told by the Legion of Mary that it is to close. The workers have refused to accept it. They have occupied the building. A petition by Unite the Union has gathered in excess of 11,000 signatures. People are demanding the relevant Minister, Sinn Féin's Deirdre Hargey MLA, intervene to save the hostel, bring it into public ownership, save the 12 jobs and defend this important service. Will the Taoiseach join us in urging the Legion of Mary to hand it over instead of shutting the doors and urging the Minister, Ms Hargey MLA, to intervene to ensure this happens?
I thank all the Deputies for raising a variety of issues pertaining to the shared island programme and agenda. Deputy Richmond raised the broader issue in terms of potential. The Patrick Kielty contribution was an extraordinary one. It certainly struck a chord with many people who watched his contribution over and over again. It went viral and was very widely accessed by people. It illustrates the potential of ideas through the context of the shared island dialogue having an impact, getting people to think and reflect.
The research programme undertaken by the shared island fund has been quite comprehensive, in respect of the Economic and Social Research Institute, ESRI, and the National Economic and Social Council, NESC. For example, the ESRI has done a very good piece of research on enhancing the attractiveness of the island in terms of high-value FDI, and on FDI intensity. There are a number of FDI projects in high-value sectors. Ireland ranks fourth and Northern Ireland 17th in Europe. Northern Ireland is above Scotland, north-east England and Wales. It goes through the different complementarities North and South and the different strengths. The advantage of the protocol for Northern Ireland has clearly been confirmed by evidence in the report that the European Union market potential has been a major driver of the location of choice of high-value FDI, including in manufacturing, which is a particular sectoral strength for Northern Ireland.
Shared island research was published in June on collaboration on healthcare on an all-island basis. There was a shared island dialogue on health participation with the Minister, Deputy Donnelly, and more than 120 sector stakeholders. There will be 11 publications under the Irish Research Council shared island programme in 2022, from June onwards, across a range of themes, and two reports on educational underachievement issued at the standing conference on teacher education in October. These are just illustrations of the kind of very detailed research underpinning a lot of work which we are funding. We are on the cusp of awarding up to €40 million in research projects between third level institutions in the Republic and in the North. Deputies will remember a call went out. It has been oversubscribed, which is a great illustration of the fact all in our third level community on the island are working together on projects that will be of benefit to the entire island, addressing challenges the island as a whole faces. The Minister for Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science will be in a position to announce that shortly.
Deputy Kelly raised issues about other projects, including the railway and so forth. The €40 million is the most immediate, the Narrow Water Bridge. We are looking at greenways, the north-west industrial development potential between the north-west development partnership group and Donegal County Council in terms of industrial centres on both sides of the Border to create attractions for employment.
In response to Deputy Durkan, the confidence in this is strong, particularly in the non-political field if I am honest. Many people want to get on with this and there is a lot of buy-in.
Deputy Ó Murchú and I have had the discussion before, as he referenced. The full potential of the Good Friday Agreement has never been realised, in my view. The shared island initiative is a very good mechanism and avenue to realising its full potential in that respect.
I will come back to the hostel in Belfast.
We are out of time.
We will communicate with the Northern Ireland Executive but it is a matter for it. On Doug Beattie, he has made it clear himself how unacceptable his tweets were.
He has been liking tweets to say he is sorry.
He himself has come forward and made it very clear they were absolutely unacceptable and wrong and he should not have done it.
I still did not get an answer. That is two different rounds where I did not get an answer.
I dealt with fuel. I have answered and responded on fuel poverty all day today. The Deputy asked questions earlier.
On price caps.
I have indicated the approach we intend as a Government, working with the social partners to deal with the cost of living and issues, including energy.
We need to move on to Question No. 20.
20. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to the new German Chancellor. [61488/21]
21. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach if he has been in contact with the new Chancellor of the Federal Republic of Germany. [61601/21]
22. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he has had recent discussions with the President of the European Commission. [61739/21]
23. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach if has been in contact recently with the President of the European Commission. [61991/21]
24. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken to the new German Chancellor. [63549/21]
25. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the recent meeting of the European Council. [2231/22]
26. Deputy Alan Kelly asked the Taoiseach if he has spoken with the new German Chancellor. [3309/22]
27. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach if he will report on recent correspondence he has had with the new President of the European Parliament. [3317/22]
28. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he has had recent discussions with the President of the European Commission. [3330/22]
29. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the recent meeting of the European Council. [3610/22]
30. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the recent meeting of the European Council. [3613/22]
31. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the recent meeting of the European Council. [3616/22]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 20 to 31, inclusive, together.
As the House will be aware, Chancellor Olaf Scholz took up his office on 8 December as the head of the new German coalition Government. Ireland and Germany are close partners and friends, and I was therefore pleased to have the opportunity to talk to him by phone on 1 December, prior to his formal appointment. I also subsequently wrote to congratulate him and to express my commitment to working with him on shared challenges the EU faces in the period ahead.
In our call, we discussed some of those challenges, including Covid-19. We noted the importance both of our Governments attach to climate action and the need to achieve a green transition. I also took the opportunity to brief him on the importance of the Northern Ireland protocol as a means of mitigating the negative consequences of Brexit and protecting the Good Friday Agreement. I expressed our appreciation for the solidarity the previous German Government had offered Ireland throughout the negotiations on Brexit, and he was very clear to me this would continue under the new Administration.
I had the opportunity to meet him in person, along with other European leaders, at the meeting of the European Council on 15 to 16 December. Our meeting had a wide agenda, including Covid-19, crisis management and resilience, energy prices, security and defence, migration and a number of external issues, including Belarus, Ukraine, our southern neighbourhood and Ethiopia. Ahead of our meeting, the EU 27 leaders attended an eastern partnership summit, which was also attended by Armenia, Azerbaijan, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine. Belarus has suspended its participation in the partnership, and at our meeting we left a symbolic empty chair, which we hope will be filled by a representative of a democratically elected government in Belarus in the near future.
I also attended a euro summit on 16 December at which we heard the economic assessment of the President of the European Central Bank, ECB, Ms Christine Lagarde, and the president of the Eurogroup, the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe. We also considered progress on banking union and capital markets union.
I most recently met the President of the European Commission at the meeting of the European Council. The Commission has played an important role in the management of the Covid-19 pandemic, including in relation to vaccines, and I am in regular contact with the President by phone on this and other matters.
I wrote to the newly elected President of the European Parliament, Ms Roberta Metsola, this week to congratulate her on her election and I look forward to working with her on the challenges Europe faces. I also welcomed her tribute to victims of gender-based violence, including Ashling Murphy, which resonated so strongly with everybody here.
It is a fact there is a Franco-German axis at the heart of the EU project, which all member states, including small ones like Ireland, recognise. There is always momentum coming from that axis for further European integration, which has been given a new impetus during the current French Presidency of the EU. For many reasons, Germany is important for Ireland and Ireland is a friend of Germany. Germany is Ireland's largest market in the eurozone, for example. Mr. Olaf Scholz is Germany's new centre-left Chancellor. I hope the Taoiseach will be able to develop a good relationship with him. The Chancellor has a significant issue to deal with just now, that being, the Ukrainian crisis and the threat of war on Germany's doorstep. It seems Chancellor Scholz has adopted a more critical, robust and pragmatic policy towards Russia. Now he has to decide whether to issue an operating permit for the Nord Stream 2 pipeline.
Will the Taoiseach confirm that Ireland and the EU support Ukraine's sovereignty and territorial integrity? Does he believe the EU should unite in solidarity with Ukraine and that all member states should, as the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, said, support the most comprehensive and severe range of sanctions and restrictions on Russia in many decades should Russia invade Ukraine? Does the Taoiseach agree every effort should be made to bring about a negotiated settlement of this dispute and avoid a military confrontation in the region and that this would be far more preferable to military action by Russia and NATO-led countries?
As the Taoiseach is well aware, since 2016, the European Commission and individual member states of the European Union have been supportive of Ireland's interests in the Brexit negotiations. Some difficulties have emerged regarding the operation of the protocol and concerns have been expressed by the British Government, but I hope whatever obstacles exist can be removed. From speaking to my constituents as well as to people north of my home area, businesses there want to ensure there are no impediments to trade or to people going about their daily business. We have seen the transformation that has happened since 1998 with the development of the all-island economy.
I have been engaging with members of the Ukrainian community in my constituency. They have expressed to me the concerns they are hearing from their people at home. They are very concerned about a possible invasion by Russia and are anxious the EU sends a clear message that, if Russia takes such action, severe sanctions will be put in place. They also ask that we clearly express our concern about military training in the Atlantic. Will the Taoiseach assure the House that Ireland will raise these critical issues at Security Council level in the UN?
We all agree we are dealing with a ratcheting-up of the situation by the Russians. In the Taoiseach's interactions at the European Council but also in any other engagement he may have had, be it with the Commission or ambassadors, what has been the Irish Government's position on the matter? What conversations is the Taoiseach having? To some degree, people are wondering where the EU stands on this question. I accept this situation is the outworking of a serious geopolitical play between NATO and the Russians.
We all know Ireland has certain radar system failings. There is a possibility that Russian operations, which should not be undertaken, will be carried out off Cork. Mr. Tom Clonan has spoken about the need for Ireland to build up our peacekeeping capacity. In saying that, we all accept we are not going to war with Russia, but this is an incredibly serious situation that needs to be resolved. What conversations has the Taoiseach had, particularly at EU level?
The issue of inflation in the State cannot be overestimated. There is a massive problem with prices increasing across the State, especially for fuel. Farmers are being hit significantly by large increases in nitrogen and input costs. The Taoiseach has indicated in a number of replies that some of that price pressure is coming from the actions of Russia and other external factors we cannot control. He has also stated he does not believe we can get a derogation on VAT to ameliorate the damage being caused by price increases, but has he asked the new President of the European Parliament? Has he requested a derogation? What have been his efforts to push for that? Is it the case the Government is putting its hands up, surrendering and saying it cannot do any more, or is it the case we have an active Government that is fighting for the needs of citizens, including farmers and families, throughout the country in seeking a derogation?
Vladimir Putin is a thug and autocrat who has done very nasty things recently to working people in Kazakhstan, has waged a bloody war in Chechnya and is now flexing his muscles in Ukraine, so of course we should condemn what Russia is doing, but why is there no condemnation from a country that is supposed to be neutral of a clear agenda by NATO to expand eastwards and escalate military tensions with Russia? Why does the Government correctly condemn Russian military exercises in Irish waters but allow the US military to use Shannon Airport every single day of the week to prosecute wars across the world and kidnap and torture people in its rendition programme? We do not condemn that. Why is the Government saying nothing about the fact NATO wrote to EU foreign ministers before Christmas asking them to increase military expenditure and align more closely with the NATO military alliance, which is a US-led and aggressive military alliance? Neutrality means not taking sides in dangerous conflicts and game-playing between major imperial powers.
At the start of January, there was a mass movement in Kazakhstan, an uprising triggered by an increase in fuel prices. The move started with a strike of oil workers in Zhanaozen and became widespread general strikes and protests across much of the country. It was put down with incredible brutality by an incredibly brutal dictatorship. The military and police were given orders to shoot without warning. They did so, killing well over 160 protestors. More than 8,000 people were arrested and many remain in prison. It was horrific brutality.
The response of the European Union was to call on protestors to avoid any incitement of violence and to make a similar call on authorities - in other words, to blame both sides. Why? The reason is that the European Union is interested in protecting western oil interests because the Kazakh regime is happy for western as well as Russian oil interests to exploit the massive natural resources that exist there. I call on the Irish Government and the Taoiseach to condemn what happened in Kazakhstan and to condemn the Kazakhstan dictatorship and the brutal repression of the protestors.
I was intrigued by Deputy Ó Murchú's comments. He said we all agree that Russia is ratcheting things up. I do not know what that means. To be fair-----
Obviously, what Russia is about to do off the coast of Cork is fairly ratcheting things up.
In fairness to Deputy-----
I think that is a fair commentary.
I just note the difference in language between Deputy Ó Murchú and Deputies Boyd Barrett and Paul Murphy, who, to be fair, have called out Russian activity. I do not hear the same sentiments from Sinn Féin's benches at all for whatever reason.
Vladimir Putin is bad and what the Russians are doing is absolutely disgraceful. Is that clear enough?
Yes, that is good. Good man. I got that out of the Deputy.
Deputy Haughey spoke about the Franco-German axis and the more pragmatic approach being adopted by Chancellor Olaf Scholz. Ireland accepts Ukrainian territorial integrity. As I said earlier, our principles in our approach to the Russian-Ukrainian situation involve, first of all, acceptance of and adherence to that fundamental, rules-based international order. That is the essence of Ireland's independent foreign policy. We are not politically neutral but we are militarily neutral. It is an important distinction. We are members of the European Union. We work with our European Union colleagues on rules-based multilateral approaches to international disputes. We want a diplomatic resolution to this. We want this de-escalated. We do not believe it necessitates the massing of so many hundreds of thousands of troops. It does not necessitate a war or an invasion or the violation of Ukrainian territorial integrity. That is clear. Holding military exercises in international waters off our coast is not welcome and not helpful. There is an ecological issue here, which Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan has highlighted, in that there are other implications for marine life, biodiversity and so on that may flow from the Russian military exercises off the west coast. Ireland, along with its EU colleagues, will support comprehensive sanctions if an invasion takes place. I earnestly hope it does not. If the de-escalation of the aggression could happen, I think the world would breathe a collective sigh of relief. The world is trying to come through Covid-19 and all its implications, and now to go through another crisis, which could occur as a result of an invasion, would, I think, be very difficult for the world as a whole to deal with.
The European Union Commission has been very supportive on Brexit, and I hear what Deputy Brendan Smith has said. Ireland will play its part at the UN Security Council as a voice for peace, a voice for reason and a voice for the de-escalation of violence.
I have responded to Deputy Ó Murchú's points about the radar and so on. We have to be realistic and proportionate about the issues here. Ireland is not in the league of the big powers militarily and never will be. There are issues. The defence commission we established will come forward shortly with a view to the more medium-term strategy for the building up of our Defence Forces into the future and according to our needs as a country.
Deputy Tóibín raised the issue of inflation, which has been a constant theme today. It is very clear to us in terms of the VAT issue, but we do think there are other ways. We have already taken measures in the budget and-----
Did the Government ask the European Union?
The President of the European Parliament does not have an executive function in this regard.
I refer to the European Union in general.
We know the rules-----
Change the rules.
-----and I think it would be a very dangerous move in some respects. I think there are other ways to reduce the impact of this on people. That is the key point.
I think I have dealt with Deputy Boyd Barrett's points.
We are a country with a policy of military neutrality, and that is scrupulously observed by us as a country. It is not inconsistent, by the way, with military neutrality that military aircraft of-----
Why no criticism of NATO?
I do not think NATO is being aggressive here. As for the prospect of Ukraine joining NATO, there is a reality.
Is NATO not expanding eastwards when it is not static?
Countries eastwards have opted to join the European Union; many more want to do so.
What about Cuba, when it was the other way around?
How do you mean, what about Cuba? I have been to Cuba-----
Yes, and there is a blockade on Cuba-----
-----as Minister for Foreign Affairs, and as for the situation with Cuba, I would support-----
Tríd an gCathaoirleach, más é do thoil é, mar táimid ag rith as am.
I think we are running out of time for Cuba, you are saying to me, a Leas-Cheann Comhairle. All right. I hear you.
What about Kazakhstan?
I think that what happened in Kazakhstan is absolutely wrong and shocking.