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Dáil Éireann debate -
Thursday, 10 Mar 2022

Vol. 1019 No. 5

Ceisteanna ó Cheannairí (Atógáil) - Leaders' Questions (Resumed)

This energy price crisis has been with us now for the guts of a year. The Government has taken a series of responses. In October last, through the budget we increased the fuel allowance, the qualified child allowance, the working family payment and the living allowance, targeted to those most at risk of fuel poverty. Three weeks ago, we went further with the €500 million package in terms of the €200 credit which will help people with their bills. It will not cover the full increase, but it will help this month. We introduced a 20% reduction in public transport fares, which commenced yesterday and is only the first in a series of fare reductions. We also increased again the fuel allowance and are helping with school transport and other costs. Again, that will not cover the full cost of what is happening.

Since then, a war has started on our Continent. Our first thought is in regard to how we can help and address that on the humanitarian side. The underlying root-cause behind some of this is our reliance on imported fossil fuel. The fact that so much money is going from Europe to Russia every day is the fundamental problem that we have to address. We went further yesterday with a cut in excise duty on petrol and diesel. In doing that, we said that it would not cover the full cost and that this is a market which is incredibly volatile, beyond precedent. On Tuesday, the wholesale market for diesel in Ireland increased by 22 cent. Yesterday, it decreased by a similar amount. It is yoyoing. It is dramatic. We cannot be exactly certain where it is going to go or where this war will go. We will have to manage it. It will serve nobody if we panic or have a panicked response. We have to be methodical and to keep responding in the same way as we did to Covid by being flexible and quick.

The Government would love to go further, of course we would. The first thing we must do - the Canadian ambassador will know this - is stand for the rule of law. This conflict is ultimately between the rule of international law and democratic constitutional legal systems and those who take a different view of how the world should be run. The rule of law protects us. The rule of law gives us strength, European law especially, in this country. What we did we did within the European law. That was correct. The law may change. Today at the European Council the Taoiseach will be, I am sure, looking to see what more we can do, what further flexibilities and protections and help we can provide, but we will always do it within European law.

On home heating oil, we had a discussion on it three weeks ago. The Deputy and I have different views. The tax on home heating oil is largely carbon tax. That is the form of excise, levied at 8.5 cent per litre, as the Deputy said.

Is Sinn Féin saying we should remove that and get rid of all the carbon tax revenue? As I said three weeks ago, the problem I have with that is that this would, in turn, remove the money we use to give the 100% grants to people's homes to help them cut their bills. That is the choice we must think about. The Sinn Féin policy has been that we should retain the carbon tax but not apply the further increases, but if we do not apply the increase, on the average full fill it might give people an average of 5 cent per day. Five cents per day is not going to protect people or cover the full costs. We must look at other means and measures, and we will. This means efficiency measures as well as price reductions. Ultimately, more than anything else, we must switch from foreign fuels to using our own. I am sure this is something Sinn Féin would surely support. We must switch from oil to wind. In that way we could provide security for our people and cut their bills. That is the change we need to make.

We need to deal with the right here and the right now. Let me explain to the Minister. People are ordering fill up home heating oil now. In Dublin they are being charged €1,840. I have seen other costs of close to €2,000. In January it was €750 or about that. This is more than €1,000 more. These families have not budgeted for that. It is easy for the Minister and his Cabinet colleagues to say "Let us not panic." They will be able to afford this extra cost. Many people out there cannot afford that. When the Minister talks about not wanting to reduce the tax on home heating oil, people are saying, "Do everything you can to help me, help my family, help my business and help the farmers at this time." Do it inside the law. The Minister could have done this. He could have supported the amendments last night where we would have reduced the cost of home heating oil by €100. It is not enough but at least it is what we could do right here, right now.

The Minister's Government should have been asking the European Union for the flexibility of that, right back in September when we were putting it to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe. Like the Minister, Deputy Ryan, he sat on his hands and let this crisis get out of control. We can reduce diesel and petrol prices further. The Minister needs to understand that people are panicking and they need support from the Government. They do not need to be told to slow down. People are telling the Minister to hurry up, get his act together and get these prices down further.


Hear, hear.

That advice to slow down got a lot of criticism yesterday but it was in answer to a straight question about what sort of efficiency measures we could do. It is just a fact. The people in rural Ireland are most exposed. Consider the drive down from Donegal, for example, which is a long distance. If you are on a motorway, which would not be on the Donegal route but elsewhere, going from 120 km/h down to 100 km/h could save about 20% plus. This is real and is the absolute law of physics. That measure and such efficiencies are important. Yes, we will look also at whatever other measures we can do.

I was speaking to the Taoiseach last night in advance of his going to Versailles today for a meeting of the European Council. He will be working with European colleagues to see if we can we go further and do more. There is a certain point, however, where we are actually exposed. That exposure is the reliance on fossil fuels. This is why efficiency also matters and making the switch matters.

People are very upset this morning because they were looking at the forecourts and they see that the price has not changed. The problem is the price was probably set several days ago, and it depends on different petrol stations as to when the excise was applied. The situation is highly volatile and subject to real change. We are absolutely attuned to the difficulties that Irish families are having. This is why we continue to make the measures such as those we have introduced.

There was nothing done on home heating oil.

The Government has decided to do nothing on home heating oil.

I begin by expressing my revulsion, the revulsion of my party and I am sure the revulsion of all of us across the House, at the latest war crime committed by Russia in Ukraine, namely, the bombing of a maternity and children's hospital in Mariupol. A picture from that atrocity of a heavily pregnant and bloodied woman being stretchered away from the smouldering ruins of the hospital is on the front pages across the globe today. It should remain burned into all of our brains. This is Putin's Russia, an evil regime that thinks nothing of dropping missiles onto pregnant women, newborn babies and little children.

Yesterday's horror in Mariupol, where the dead are now being buried in mass graves, underscores that we need to do everything we can to help as many people as possible escape the barbarity of Putin. The Irish people have acted with extraordinary generosity in response to the humanitarian crisis caused by this war. Thousands of offers of accommodation have already been made. In schools throughout the country, Ukrainian children have already started to attend classes. I acknowledge that the State has acted quickly and with speed for what can often be lengthy bureaucratic processes, be they in residency rights, the issuing of personal public service, PPS, numbers and healthcare entitlements. However, the State will have to do more than merely extend the right to use services to Ukrainian refugees. It must adequately resource those services to cater for the increased demands and increasing need of those experiencing them.

We know, for example, the childcare system in Ireland is at breaking point with waiting lists of 12 months or more in some areas. We also know that for those parents lucky enough to find a childcare place, the costs are equivalent to a second mortgage. The healthcare services are also under unprecedented pressure. Almost 1 million people are currently on public hospital waiting lists waiting to be treated or assessed, nearly 100,000 of whom are children. Disability services are also in crisis. In December, the Ombudsman for Children heavily criticised the Government for its failure to provide assessments for thousands of children. Not only is the State failing to provide adequate services, it is even failing to assess what services children currently need. Meanwhile, we all know that in the midst of a catastrophic housing crisis, more than 9,000 people are now in emergency accommodation, including more than 2,500 children.

When the Ukrainian people come to Ireland seeking refuge and as we open our doors, we must ensure they are able to access the services they are not only entitled to but that they will need. What additional resources, and please be specific, will be provided to childcare services, to education to meet the trauma being experienced by these children as they go into our schools, to the health service, and to the housing services to ensure the entitlements can be delivered upon and the need will be met?

I fully agree with and support Deputy Gannon when he spoke about calling it out, and especially when yesterday we saw the maternity hospital being bombed. There are no words to express the shock and horror of the images we see on the front pages of a newspapers this morning. Our Government is, on behalf of the Irish people, standing up. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, has been active in New York this week. We have led the call for the establishment of an investigation by the International Criminal Court to look at such instances. The Minister, Deputy Coveney, and our ambassador at the United Nations General Assembly, where we have a critically important place on the UN Security Council and on the United Nations Human Rights Council, are standing up as a voice for those nations that have been attacked. We will continue to do that.

Deputy Gannon rightly puts the question on what we can do here at home. The issue of how we manage the influx of young children who will come in is critical. I will share one personal experience. A number of years ago I was very fortunate to be brought by Human Appeal, an Irish Islamic charity, to a town called Reyhanlı on the Syria-Turkey border and the city of Antakya, or Antioch. I saw there at first hand how they managed with very similar circumstances. At that time there was the bombing and the destruction of Aleppo, and they were seeing very similar circumstances with people fleeing. I saw at first hand how they coped with and managed that. It provides us with a lesson. They engaged with the Syrians.

We need to engage with the Ukrainian minister for education, who I believe is talking to our Minister, and the Teaching Council is looking to see how we could employ some of the Ukrainian teachers who are coming here, how quickly we could establish classes that would give them flexibility in maintaining the Ukrainian curriculum, or how we could work with our Polish and other colleagues to ensure there is connection between how they are taught in the first number of weeks they may be there before they come to Ireland. It is a matter of involving the Ukrainian community and the Ukrainian ambassador, which I am confident we will be able to do, to make sure we can provide the best education and welcome for those children for whatever time they are here. That is our first duty.

Yes, we have a voice the on the UN Security Council, and, yes, we have sent humanitarian support. Ireland does not send military offensive weapons. What we can be good at and what we should stand up for in the UN Security Council and in the classrooms we will have to set up is looking after those children in particular as a sign of where our support stands and how our moral outrage at what is happening turns to effect.

Many of the ideas the Minister has suggested are welcome. They are good ideas. In the first instance, as the Ukrainian people arrive here we need to recognise the trauma they have experienced. That needs to be met first.

The idea of employing Ukrainian teachers has a lot of merit. The people coming over here are going to be looking at their cities under siege, maternity hospitals being struck with missiles and their husbands left with AK-47s in their hands. In addition to wanting to employ them, I want to ensure their emotional needs are met. How much will be put into counselling services? Will we have trauma-informed education services in order that these children can receive counselling when they arrive in our schools? Our systems are already stressed.

Many people are currently in Poland seeking sanctuary. Could we perhaps send buses to bring people who are in search of sanctuary and refuge here? What active measures are we going to take in that regard? For example, housing needs will be acute. There is a chronic lack of properties at the moment. The Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage has said emergency planning powers may be used to build modular housing. When is that building likely to commence? Is there a plan or a roadmap? I appreciate that this could not happen on day one but now, three weeks into the siege, where are we in terms of an actual plan?

As I said, we are going to have to act with real speed. In some instances, that will require the likes of modular housing and applying different rules from what we would ordinarily apply in the planning system. My understanding from the Department of Housing, Local Government and Heritage and from Cabinet discussions is that we are looking at those sorts of emergency measures to allow us to build modular housing outside the normal planning process. On the more immediate issues, the Deputy is right. Assessments and health supports for arriving Ukrainian citizens, particularly those who have suffered incredibly traumatic experiences, are critical. There is now a welcoming committee in Dublin Airport, which deals with a series of public health services, the provision of social welfare numbers, the provision of food and water and the organisation of shelter. Two thirds of the people arriving are staying with friends and family, which is very welcome because that gives them some secure succour and support. We will have to go further. As the children move into schools, the services of the National Educational Psychological Service will need to be applied. We must match the services we have, particularly in support of lone parents, of whom we may see a large number coming with children, and match our social security system, which has that expertise, to this new community that is arriving.

I will focus my questions on the situation in Ukraine, starting with the refugee component. Everyone in the House is aware that almost 2,500 Ukrainian refugees have arrived in this jurisdiction in the last number of weeks. In fairness to the Irish public, their response has been extraordinary. They have opened up their hearts and homes to people fleeing war from the opposite side of the Continent. The main point of entry to this State for Ukrainian refugees is Dublin Airport but the main points of departure from the war zone are the two Polish airports of Rzeszów and Kraków. There is no Irish State presence at those two airports. Would it be worth deploying a small team of diplomats or administrators there to begin the processing in Poland? That would provide an early warning for our people in Dublin Airport so we could have an idea of the numbers coming through. It would be good from an evacuation point of view so it could proceed in good order. We should not be sitting passively in Dublin Airport waiting for refugees to arrive. We should be proactively getting information and passing it on.

Our embassies in Warsaw and Bucharest are under massive pressure at the moment. Has any consideration been given to redeploying some people in the Department of Foreign Affairs, either from Iveagh House or from other embassies, to those two embassies that are under significant pressure? Any thoughts the Minister might have on that would be much appreciated.

On the defence component, the Commission on the Defence Forces reported in January after 14 months of forensic analysis. We have been told since then that the Government will now require an additional four to five months to analyse the analysis. This brings another dimension to the phrase "the paralysis of analysis". Other EU countries have made decisions on the resourcing of their military in hours or days, because they recognise the severity and gravity of the threat. Can that four- to five-month timescale be shortened to four to five weeks? We all understand that under normal circumstances you should measure twice and cut once, like any good tradesperson, but these are not normal times.

For the first 90 years of this State's existence, we had a stand-alone, dedicated Minister for Defence but for the last ten years the job has been paired up with another portfolio. It is fortuitous that the Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, is sitting next to the Minister, Deputy Eamon Ryan, at the moment. He is holding down two portfolios. We are now entering a period of considerable conflict in the Continent of Europe and we do not know where that trajectory is going to take us. Has any consideration been given to once again establishing a dedicated, stand-alone Minister for Defence at the Cabinet table? I appreciate that there is a constitutional ceiling of 15 senior Ministers but perhaps a "super junior" Minister could be considered. I do not think the public would have a difficulty with that for the duration of this crisis.

I agree with the Deputy that we have a proud record in difficult situations and conflict situations. Rather than adding to the conflict, we try to create peace in such conflict situations. There are examples of us sending diplomats and the likes of our Army Ranger Wing, which went to Kabul Airport last year and helped to get Irish citizens home, in conjunction with other countries. The Department of Foreign Affairs is working very closely with the Polish Government, which is co-ordinating the response in this regard. We are ready, waiting and willing to provide whatever help we can in that tradition of peacekeeping. Our diplomats and military will be on hand and available at a moment's notice to provide whatever logistical support they can. However, it has to be co-ordinated and led by the Polish authorities because they are on the front line managing it. Subject to their request, the Department and the Minister will provide the necessary response. This is something the Government discussed at the Cabinet subcommittee the other day and we would be very open to it, but it has to be led by those on the front line.

The Minister for Defence and I have had lengthy discussions on the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces. We have to deliver on it. We have to deliver additional resources to our Defence Forces. The report is well written and makes a strong case about our lack of resources in critical areas, such as maritime, air cover and support for the likes of the Army Rangers and other Irish soldiers on missions abroad. We need to provide additional resources and strengthen our military in its ability to carry out the critical work it does. However, we have to be careful. We will do it in June according to the timeline we have set. It is important we get this right. It is a highly complex issue. I am in regular contact with my colleagues in countries across the Union, particularly Green Party colleagues. It has been fascinating to discuss with my Finnish colleagues the situation in that country, or the dramatic changes in Germany with my German colleagues. As the Deputy noted, it completely turned around in a day. Denmark is facing a referendum on this matter in June. I am not so sure. Sometimes the lesson in these issues and these debates is not to rush it. There are certain things we need to rush, such as the humanitarian help and the provision of support in Polish airports as needed. We have to be quick there but with regard to the big strategic and long-term response, I think June is an appropriate time for us to assess and implement the recommendations of the commission's report.

With regard to the role of the Minister, I do not believe the creation of a separate Ministry would necessarily make a difference. There may well be a strength, and I think there is, in having the Departments of Foreign Affairs and Defence integrated under a single senior Minister. There is real merit to that in some ways as it provides status and seniority. I do not believe the creation of a separate Ministry would necessarily help with what we need to do on the commission report.

I thank the Minister for outlining the Government's position. I am glad Deputy Gannon mentioned the appalling atrocity in Mariupol yesterday, namely, the bombing of the maternity and children's hospital. I was recently contacted by the HSE, which pointed out that there is some small spare capacity in our neonatal ICUs in Ireland. There is a national neonatal transport programme available whereby hospitals in Dublin link up with the Air Corps to transfer very critically ill children from abroad. Ireland has the capacity to add a particular niche value in the evacuation and movement of people and refugees out of Ukraine. Perhaps the Minister might discuss with his Cabinet colleague, the Minister for Health, whether that could be brought into play. It would certainly make a huge difference to very sick or critically ill children in Ukraine and their parents.

The situation in Mariupol is atrocious but the difficulty is that it is impossible for citizens to get out of the city. Despite supposed arrangements to provide safe access routes out, that has not happened so that is not possible. Our embassy officials in Bucharest were hugely influential in getting a certain number of babies out recently in difficult circumstances. I will go back to the Deputy’s original question and I mention our engagement with the Polish, Romanian, Moldovan and other governments. We should be willing and able to provide support and assistance but it has to be done as part of a co-ordinated European Commission response. I understand that the European Commission is co-ordinating how such health supports would be provided and that is the best way for us to play our part.

I have never seen such anger as is among the general public in our country at this time. The simple truth that families, businesses and ordinary people are telling me is that this Government is grinding the country to a halt and we must get it out. The Rural Independent Group raised the crisis with the cost of fuel in the Dáil well before the Ukrainian war and with a broad smile on their faces the Government heaped carbon tax on the innocent, good and hardworking people of Ireland. Even after yesterday’s pathetic decrease, fuel is over €2 per litre and for every €2 of petrol bought this hungry Government’s tax takes over €1. For every €2 of diesel bought, it greedily takes €0.98 of tax one way or another. Since this Government took office, carbon tax has jumped from €26 per tonne to €41.50 per tonne, something Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael, the Greens, Sinn Féin, the Labour Party and the Social Democrats supported at the time. The next jump in carbon tax will take it up to €48.50 per tonne as the Government continues to destroy our economy.

The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications and the Taoiseach keep talking about their dreams of renewables, knowing full well that they are mocking the public because the renewables we really need are at least ten to 20 years away. I and others agree with the need for these renewables but as they are not here now or anywhere near being here in the foreseeable future, we stay on course with reality while the Government continues to dream.

It was not long ago that I put a great proposal from a west Cork company of putting a floating liquefied natural gas, LNG, terminal in Cork Harbour on the Government’s table. This would have given us a continuous supply of energy until other measures come into place but the Government refused to work with the company, a decision which has cost this country dearly and a decision that will come back to bite the Government on the leg. It is because of these shocking decisions the Minister is making, with the aid of Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, that the people of Ireland have been severely suffering in recent months.

The Government announced a 20% reduction in public transport fares in its first mini budget in recent weeks and I presume the Minister would have pushed for that. If we had public transport in rural Ireland this would be welcome. This 20% decrease will aid those travelling on the DART in Dublin, those travelling on the train in Dublin and those travelling on the Luas in Dublin. It also aids those who travel with Bus Éireann but most of the people in rural Ireland totally depend on private bus operators.

I mention one private operator, West Cork Connect. It runs the best service available in west Cork, from Skibbereen, Clonakilty, Bandon and Innishannon to Cork and back several times a day and from Bantry, Drimoleague, Dunmanway and Ballineen to Cork and back on the other side. West Cork Connect has invested hundreds of thousands of euro and the Minister and this Government are doing all they can to put it out of business as it is not eligible to pass this 20% decrease on to its customers. The same is true of GoBus and Aircoach. They also cannot get the 20% decrease so they must try to deal with crippling fuel costs and compete with a fully subsidised Bus Éireann, even where the private bus operators provide a service that this State cannot provide. The Government has done everything it can to destroy what they have built.

Transport comes under the Minister’s brief. Will this 20% decrease be given to the private operators that mainly serve rural Ireland routes and that are encouraging our youth and elderly to use these services, or was this farcical 20% decrease only intended for Dublin people in the main?

The switch to this renewable and local fuels future will have to be accelerated and I accept that. It is here and I just checked my phone to get the latest figures. As we speak we are using about 5,500 MW of power for lights, heating and our electricity systems. About 3,500 MW of that is coming from wind, particularly from the west, the north west and the south west, including in west Cork. We can use that and we can start planning to store, share and switch it. We can turn things on and off so that we use it in efficient ways as part of the solution and we will have to accelerate that. Our country will be rich and prosperous on the back of that; we will never be safe, secure or wealthy by giving our money to distant countries and regimes that we do not agree with. Let us work together to deliver that more quickly.

It is not just in electricity but we will also have to do it in transport. I agree with the Deputy and we have talked at length about the need for better rural bus services. The Connecting Ireland bus plan that we have is the most radical and probably the most important public transport project we have. I would love to work with the Deputy on how we would run a bus service from Lowertown out to Goleen and back to Schull, Skibbereen and every town and parish along the route.

I agree with the Deputy that private operators will also be critical; it will not just be Bus Éireann or public bus services. Those companies have done a remarkable job, particularly during the Covid period and we stood with them during that time. I met them at various stages and when they asked for support we agreed. At every turn when I went to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, to ask for more money because their fares and numbers were down he agreed because we needed to keep them running through those difficult times when the passengers were not there. They continue to provide that service and they are also part of our public transport service. We have continued with that support.

Even though the masks are off, schools are back and people have returned to work, we are continuing to provide Covid support to the private bus operators and we did so deliberately for a variety of reasons. For example, we recognised that we cannot provide the 20% reduction as easily, quickly or immediately for those private operators as we do for public transport companies. There is a simple reason for that. It is no lack of regard or respect for those companies or the work they do but we do not control, set, manage, monitor or operate their fare systems. What the customer pays the driver for those services is nothing to do with the public bus service. We have no control or management system to put the sort of change the Deputy would like to see in place. We will continue to work and look to give every support we can to them because they are a vital part of our transport network. Part of what we do in responding to Mr. Putin and saying we will not use his fossil fuels is to switch to public transport, including private operators.

I thank the Minister for his reply but it alarms me on so many fronts. His Department is anti-rural as it refuses to give this 20% to rural bus operators to pass on to their customers. I also have worries on other fronts. In addition to the plight of our fishermen and farmers and the state of our health sector, I have consistently raised the issue of the security of our national energy supplies in the Oireachtas in recent years. Tragically, all of the dangers I have raised and warned the Minister about have come to fruition. For example, we are paying through the nose for our oil, gas and power. Despite my best efforts the Government has refused to address my concerns.

As an elected Member of the Dáil I must act on behalf of my constituents and in the best interests of the Irish nation. The Minister needs to act in the nation's interests, not in the Green Party's interests. I wish to point out that I have asked the Minister numerous times in recent years about the officially commissioned report on security of energy supply. Where is this report and why is it over a year late? We are in an unprecedented crisis and it seems that the Minister is not able to take decisions on the national gas supply due to party politics.

The Minister talks about Connecting Ireland; €350,000 is all that each company will get. In County Cork we will only be able to deliver two services that are there already, not new services. These operators need a 20% decrease. Will the Government give it to them or will it refuse it to rural Ireland and keep it for the capital? That is where the carbon tax of this country is going. It is going to people who stay in Dublin, in the capital but not to the people of rural Ireland.

There is no need to shout.

I am not talking to the Minister of State, Deputy Madigan, but to the Minister. I am well able to talk to him and I do not need any lecture from the Deputy.

There is no need to shout.

I am talking to the Minister.

Can everyone calm down?

Talk through the Chair.

The Deputy can make his point without shouting.

I can make my point without any interference from the Deputy. I did not interfere with her.

Deputy Collins and I were neighbours for many years in LH 2000 and I am sure he had the same experience as me. Does the Deputy remember the first day he walked through the gates of Leinster House and getting a tingle in his spine? We all share something in our constitutional and democratic Republic that when one is elected as a Deputy for a constituency one represents all of the people in it. The Deputy represents all of the people in Cork South-West and I represent all of the people of Dublin Bay South, regardless of who they voted for. If they voted for Deputies Andrews or Bacik I still represent them. When we are elected as Deputies we have that tradition that we represent all of the people.

If I were to give advice, and I think everyone gets this anyway, when Deputies are elected and are in government, they are not just thinking about everyone in their constituency. They are thinking about every constituency across the country. We all act and serve in the national interest to do our best for all our people. That is the Republic we live in and what the Proclamation tells us.

The report on energy security needs to be concluded quickly. One of the complications is that we have a lot of interest in Cork, as an example, which is looking to see that there is the potential to convert the significant wind energy we have offshore to hydrogen in Cork Harbour, on Whiddy Island, or in Bantry Bay. It is complicated to understand if it is the right investment or what else we need. We will have to conclude that quickly, but we will do it in a way that gives security and looks after the best interests of our people.