Skip to main content
Normal View

Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 22 Mar 2022

Vol. 1019 No. 6

Pre-European Council Meeting: Statements

I call on the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, to make a statement under Standing Order 55.

I thank the Ceann Comhairle. I am happy to stand in for the Taoiseach in making this statement.

The European Council will meet in Brussels later this week, on 24 and 25 March. That meeting will be followed by a meeting of the Euro Summit, which will also be held in Brussels. This will be the third meeting of EU leaders within a month, and since Russia’s brutal and illegal large-scale aggression and invasion of Ukraine began on 24 February. Before turning to this week’s European Council agenda, I will briefly update the House on these recent meetings, which were a special meeting of the European Council on 24 February and an informal meeting of the European Council in Versailles on 10 and 11 of March, as well as on the situation in Ukraine and Ireland’s response to date.

First, I will address the situation in Ukraine. We are continuing to witness scenes of acute human suffering, significant civilian loss of life, large-scale destruction of the built environment, attacks on nuclear facilities, and repeated breaches of international law perpetrated by Russia in Ukraine. More than 3.4 million people have left Ukraine since 24 February. President Zelenskyy and members of his Government remain in the country, and continue to show formidable leadership in the most testing and difficult circumstances imaginable. Last Wednesday, the Taoiseach spoke by phone with President Zelenskyy. The President thanked Ireland for our continued humanitarian aid, shelter, global support and sanctions against Russia. The Taoiseach assured him of our ongoing solidarity with his Government and people, including in the face of the enormous losses they have suffered.

At least one Irish citizen has lost his life so far. I refer to the tragic deaths of Pierre Zakrzewski and his colleague, Oleksandra Kuvshynova, who were killed while working as journalists. In his call with the Taoiseach, President Zelenskyy also expressed his condolences on the loss of Pierre Zakrzewski. I offer our deepest condolences to their families and loved ones, and to all who have been bereaved by this terrible war. I strongly condemn the killing of journalists, without whom the world would not bear witness to Russia’s actions and to the plight of the people of Ukraine since the outbreak of hostilities.

Ireland’s primary objective is, and will remain, to see this war end. Ireland stands ready to support any initiative that can deliver peace. As we meet, war is continuing. In response, Ireland and the EU are providing a range of urgent direct and indirect supports to Ukraine. The EU has already agreed a package of €500 million in military assistance for Ukraine. Ireland constructively abstained on the lethal equipment packages, but will pay our full share and our funding will go to non-lethal elements. As a specific contribution, we are also providing 10 tonnes of ready-to-eat meals and 200 units of body armour to the Ukrainian defence forces. The EU is likely to consider an additional package of assistance in the period ahead. Ireland will again contribute in line with our policy and commensurate with our responsibility. Ireland is also providing €20 million in humanitarian aid, as well as medical supplies. We are continuously assessing the best means by which we can practically and politically support Ukraine and the Ukrainian people.

The Taoiseach has welcomed Ukraine's application for EU membership. EU leaders have acted swiftly and have asked the European Commission to submit its opinion on Ukraine's application without delay. EU leaders agreed in Versailles to take the steps available in the meantime to strengthen the bonds and deepen the partnership between the EU and Ukraine. Ultimately, as well as bringing an end to this war as soon as possible, we must also pursue accountability for violations of international humanitarian and human rights law during the conflict. In the immediate term, Ireland’s focus remains on meeting the humanitarian needs of those caught in the midst of violence.

The widespread and generous response of the Irish public to the situation in Ukraine has been heartening, in the midst of the darkness of the crisis itself. I was glad that across the country and the world, Irish people found creative and powerful ways to show solidarity with Ukraine in the context of marking St. Patrick’s Day. It delivered a strong message that we regard democratic and humanitarian values as being at the core of who we are as a people at home and as a diverse diaspora abroad.

The Taoiseach attended an informal meeting of the members of the European Council in Versailles on 10 and 11 of March. Leaders adopted the Versailles Declaration, committing to protect citizens, values, democracies and the European model in the face of Russia’s aggression against Ukraine. Leaders were united in demanding that Russia cease its military aggression and withdraw unconditionally from Ukrainian sovereign territory. They agreed that those responsible for the indiscriminate targeting of civilians must be held accountable, and welcomed the decision of the prosecutor of the International Criminal Court to open an investigation. They welcomed the move to secure Ukraine’s nuclear facilities with the assistance of the International Atomic Energy Agency.

They reaffirmed their commitment to the reconstruction of a democratic Ukraine and to continuing to provide ongoing co-ordinated political, financial, material and humanitarian support to the people of Ukraine. They also considered how to improve the EU's defence capabilities, including against hybrid and cyber threats. In their declaration, they also set out how the EU will reduce its energy dependencies and reinforce its economic base. Leaders addressed the importance of reducing strategic dependencies in critical sectors, to make Europe better able to achieve both a green and digital transition. EU leaders committed to phasing out dependency on Russian gas, oil and coal imports as soon as possible. This will require an acceleration of efforts to decarbonise our economies, as well as taking steps to diversify sources of energy supplies and improve gas storage. EU leaders will return to these issues at their meeting later this week. The Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, will elaborate further on this in his closing remarks.

In the period since that meeting, the Taoiseach has also discussed the ongoing situation in Ukraine with a number of world leaders. While in London on 13 March, the Taoiseach met with the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson, and emphasised the strength and unity of the EU response. The Taoiseach and the Prime Minister welcomed the close collaboration between the EU, the UK and other partners to hold Russia to account, provide support to Ukraine and address the humanitarian needs of its people, noting that in an uncertain world, the EU and the UK are key partners underpinned by shared values.

During his visit to Washington DC on 17 March, the Taoiseach and President Biden discussed the situation in Ukraine, noting that the appalling events there are a reminder that freedom and democracy can never be taken for granted. Both agreed on the importance now of standing firm in support of the people of Ukraine, and agreed to work together bilaterally at the UN to defend shared democratic values wherever they are now under threat. The Taoiseach also discussed the situation in Ukraine with Vice President Harris, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, and the Prime Minister of Canada, Justin Trudeau. In each of these discussions, there was a shared determination to work together tirelessly to bring an end to this terrible war.

I will now look ahead to the agenda for the European Council on Thursday and Friday of this week. I will address the agenda items dealing with Ukraine, security and defence, Covid-19 and EU external relations. In his wrap-up, the Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, will address the agenda items on energy, economic issues, the euro summit and external relations. Given the sharp rise in energy prices, including as a result of the conflict in Ukraine, the discussion of the issue by leaders is important and especially timely. When they meet this week, EU leaders will discuss Ukraine from a range of perspectives, namely, humanitarian, migration, energy, nuclear security and safety and reconstruction. They will also meet with US President Joe Biden, which will be a useful early opportunity to follow up on the Taoiseach’s discussions with him in Washington last week.

On security and defence, EU leaders plan to adopt the Strategic Compass, which is a strategy document that will provide enhanced political direction for the European Union’s approach to security and defence policy for the next five to ten years. Ireland has always engaged constructively in the development of the EU’s Common Security and Defence Policy, guided by our traditional policy of military neutrality and our contribution to crisis management and peacekeeping. That continues to be the case. We have played an active role in shaping Strategic Compass, working to ensure that it reflects the core values that underpin our approach to Common Security and Defence Policy, including our commitment to the UN and the rules-based international order. The text of Strategic Compass sets out the significant security and defence challenges faced by the EU, including existing and emerging threats, the increasingly contested multi-polar world and the strategic implications for the EU. It provides a strategic perspective for the next decade and sets out the tools and initiatives required to: enable the European Union to act more quickly and decisively when facing crises; secure our interests and protect our citizens by strengthening the EU’s capacity to anticipate and mitigate threats; stimulate investments and innovation to jointly develop the necessary capabilities and technologies; and deepen our co-operation with partners, including the UN, which is at the core of international peace and security, to achieve common goals.

While work began on Strategic Compass some months back, the text also reflects the immediate security situation following Russia’s unprovoked and unjustified military aggression against Ukraine. We welcome in particular the strong focus on efforts to develop the EU’s capacity to counter hybrid threats and cyberattacks. As we know from our own experience in Ireland, such threats are faced by all 27 member states and are best tackled in close co-operation with one another.

Different member states have different traditions and approaches in the area of security and defence. For us, that is our traditional policy of military neutrality. That position is fully understood and respected by our partners. We remain clear that our active participation in the Common Security and Defence Policy does not prejudice the specific character of our security and defence policy or our obligations. The report of the Commission on the Defence Forces has given the Government some timely recommendations to consider on Ireland’s own security and defence capability, which are being given careful consideration at this time.

Covid-19 has been a standing item on the agenda of the European Council and EU leaders will again take stock of the epidemiological situation across Europe. Their focus will be on co-ordinating efforts in response to the pandemic as well as strengthening pandemic prevention, preparedness and responses. While Omicron remains the dominant variant and is highly transmissible, thankfully it does not seem to cause the same degree of threat as previous variants. Member states have taken the opportunity to ease restrictions and shorten the isolation and quarantine periods for close contacts. Case numbers are again on the rise in a number of member states, including Ireland. As a result, we must remain collectively vigilant against this deadly disease, which continues to circulate in our communities.

The Minister of State, Deputy Brophy, will later address energy, economic issues, and external relations.

Tá sé léirithe ag an Aontas Eorpach, agus againne in Éirinn, arís agus arís eile go dtacaímid go daingean leis an Úcráin agus lena saoránaigh. Tá a fhios agam go bhfuil gach duine sa Teach seo ag tnúth leis an lá ina mbeidh síocháin san Úcráin arís, agus go dtí sin, seasfaidh muintir na hÉireann an fód le muintir na hÚcráine.

The issues before EU leaders this week are by necessity and circumstance complex and serious. They demand and will receive their immediate collective attention. The Taoiseach will report to the House on their discussions after the meeting.

It appears the Taoiseach may not be able to attend this week's meeting of the European Council. This is a very important summit. I welcome the opportunity to speak on two pressing matters that will, as the Minister set out, dominate discussions, namely, the invasion by Russia of Ukraine and energy costs. I also extend our best wishes to the Taoiseach. I very much hope he will make a speedy recovery from the virus and will soon return to work.

I also extend our total and unwavering solidarity to the people of Ukraine, who bravely stand and fight for their country. The actions of Russia are illegal and unjust and no country should be subjected to the kind of military aggression faced by Ukraine. The priority must be to end this invasion and to secure a full Russian withdrawal from Ukrainian territory. This war must stop. To this end, we need economic sanctions to be strengthened again at this meeting of the European Council. We hope our Government will press for a maximalist position and not for incremental advances.

There also has to be a step up in the diplomatic response to this Russian aggression. The Government has resisted any calls for the expulsion of the Russian ambassador from Dublin. It indicated some time back that it would do something else by way of applying greater diplomatic pressure. As we speak, I am unclear as to what those actions were or might be.

We are clear, however, that Russia's diplomatic footprint must be challenged and addressed in Ireland and across the European Continent. The unfolding humanitarian crisis, which we see on our television screens day after day and night after night, demands action from all of us. Yesterday I visited The Address Connolly in my constituency, a hotel where more than 600 Ukrainian refugees are in residence. It is quite something to see men, women in particular, and children of all ages, up to and including teenagers, taking refuge in the heart of our city. They are in the warm embrace of the Dublin people but they are so dislocated from their families and lives. It is utterly devastating.

We have to play our part and I have no doubt that we will do so but we need a plan. As I said earlier, we need to see the detail of how we will accommodate people and how all of this will work in practice. We also need to see further action from Government to ensure that hard-pressed families, workers and consumers are protected from price hikes, which have already wreaked havoc on the budgets of households across the land. I said to the Tánaiste earlier, and I wish to reiterate, that we need to see a relaxation of EU VAT rules so that we can reduce energy bills. On 13 October 2021 the European Commission launched its toolbox for action and support to tackle rising energy prices. Among the measures outlined was an allowance to exempt temporarily or apply a reduced tax rate to vulnerable households on electricity, natural gas, coal and solid fuels under the energy taxation directive. As the House will know, since the beginning of November Sinn Féin has called on Government to engage with the Commission on a special derogation to remove VAT on household energy bills, such as gas and electricity and there has to be action on home heating oil as well. There was an exchange of views on whether or not there are excise duties on home heating oil or not but there are and they need to be removed without further delay. The Council meeting, therefore, takes place at a time of huge challenges all around. The greatest challenge for Europe and the Ukrainian people is the humanitarian challenge but we should not forget that citizens here are struggling badly and that we need action to address this.

I mention the strategic compass and the future of European defence. I would like to record that historically there has not been a robust defence of Ireland’s neutral position. There has been a creeping disregard for that position and that is a mistake. The position of Ireland as a militarily neutral country with an independent foreign policy is a great strength. It is the very thing that will allow us to make our contribution on the international stage and that has ensured that Irish peacekeeping troops are the most effective in the world and are universally well-received. This is a country with a past of colonial oppression, conflict, partition and latterly, peacemaking and that is the platform from which we can assert our voice on the global stage. Any diminution of or move away from that position of neutrality would be strongly resisted by Sinn Féin and by the Irish people. What if the neutral countries like Ireland had our place set out in the basic law of the European Union and in the treaties? That is what we should be looking for. We should be looking to exert our full strength and to assert our full voice. We should not resile from that position, particularly now, when we again learn the hard lesson that this world with hyper powers and nuclear weapons can be a very dangerous place and that in the end it is men, women in particular, and their children who suffer most and who flee for their lives.

Today we are forced to watch on at the Russian attempt to grind the sovereign State of Ukraine into submission. The unspeakable horrors being experienced by the Ukrainian people have shaken the global community to the core. The ongoing tragedy for Ukraine is that, as the Russian strategy becomes clearer and its depravity more apparent, Mariupol will not be the only city that will come under this onslaught. Its name now sits along with Guernica, Dresden and countless other sites of suffering in modern consciousness as a testimony to the consequences of the deliberate targeting of civilian populations in war. There is good reason to believe that these crimes will form part of the International Criminal Court’s investigation into Russia’s criminal aggression against Ukraine. The ending of this senseless war must be the foremost priority for Ireland, the EU and the international community. While we continue to support the Ukrainian people in their resistance to the Russian invasion, every possible effort must be made to end the violence. While negotiations to date have achieved nothing of note, at some stage Vladimir Putin must understand that he has to engage in a real dialogue with President Zelenskyy.

I have some concerns regarding announcements over the last few days surrounding the EU strategic compass, following which the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Defence, Deputy Coveney, indicated that Ireland may well play a significant role in the EU rapid reaction force. While others have spoken of the need for a conversation to take place about Irish neutrality, I believe in the centrality of neutrality to Irish foreign policy, in its contribution to our sense of identity as a nation and in how it has allowed us, as a small country, to make a major impact in peacekeeping and humanitarian efforts across the world.

Last week, the Committee on European Union Affairs hosted the Ambassador of Moldova, among other ambassadors. Moldova is a very poor country and its ambassador appealed for greater assistance from the international community and from the EU to deal with the large influx of Ukrainian refugees there. I welcome the fact that Ireland has agreed to take in 500 refugees from Moldova but more needs to be done to lift the burden on Moldova, which is experiencing massive difficulties and challenges in trying to deal with the influx. This war has the potential to spread internationally because many countries in Africa are at risk of famine due to their heavy reliance on wheat and other goods coming from Russia and Ukraine. There are serious challenges for us in Ireland and across the EU but we also need to look at the rest of the world, including Africa.

I begin, as I have done in most of our debates on European Council statements, by decrying the shortage of time we have. It is not in accordance with the commitments we made after the Lisbon Treaty. All of the normal debates, issues and challenges faced at the European Council which we normally debate in this Chamber beforehand, have been eclipsed in the last four weeks following the illegal and unprovoked war of extermination launched by Vladimir Putin’s Russia against the people of Ukraine. The world, and especially Europe, has changed and nothing will be the same again. I welcome the Minister’s comments on the next phase of sanctions that are to be taken and I wish I had more time to deal with them in detail. With the few minutes I have I want to address our short-term and immediate response to this humanitarian crisis which has resulted from the displacement of unknown quantities of human beings within Ukraine and across Europe.

In Ireland we may well be on the edge of Europe but it is expected that we will welcome up to 200,000 refugees here and we must prepare for that. Most importantly, we must be ready today, tomorrow and the next day to receive and properly look after desperate and traumatised people arriving on our shores but I do not believe we are ready.

In particular, I want to reference my home constituency and the port of Rosslare. In a most welcome and generous act, Stena Line is offering free passage aboard its ferries to Ukrainian refugees who seek refuge in Ireland. Yesterday, more than 180 people arrived in Rosslare availing of that facility. Another Stena Line vessel is due to arrive from Cherbourg on Thursday, and an even larger vessel, the Stena Estrid, will arrive from Cherbourg on Saturday. It is expected that many hundreds of people will be on board those vessels, hundreds of traumatised refugees seeking refuge in Ireland. However, while there is an amazing amount of goodwill, from local volunteers trying to do everything they can to the local authorities desperately seeking accommodation and doing what they can, there is an absolute absence of co-ordination at the port.

I ask the Minister and the Minister of State to take action today in regard to co-ordinating a response. We need to appoint a lead agency, as happened during the Covid crisis when the Army was in charge and marshalled the resources of Departments to good effect. There is a variety of agencies and individuals desperately trying to do good but without that co-ordination. The International Protection Accommodation Service, IPAS, needs a strong physical presence to meet those arriving who have no shelter. Comprehensive Covid testing needs to happen because people are not being tested for Covid. There are practical issues such as making payments. It is taking hours to process people. The Department of Social Protection is giving them cheques. However, third-party cheques cannot be easily cashed by people who have no identification and do not speak English. It is being facilitated now, because it was needed, by the local community bringing people to the local supermarket and providing them with a cashing facility.

Let us be practical about what we can do. In short, there are so many issues, such as the situation with cars. Dozens of cars are arriving but as soon as they drive off the ferries, they are not insured to drive on our roads. What would happen in an accident? We need to talk to the insurance companies this week in order to provide a solution to that. We need to collectively recognise that our ports, in particular, are zones for war refugees, which is something we have never experienced in our lifetime. The closest to this was at the start of the Troubles when there was mass migration across our Border. I have many other suggestions to make from my experience. We need to learn from these matters and act now. That is my appeal. I hope to be able to talk to Ministers directly to put resources in place to meet these matters that are happening this week.

The Russian invasion of Ukraine will, no doubt, dominate the forthcoming meeting of the European Council. We know it was the main issue considered at the special meeting of the Council held in Versailles on 10 and 11 March. Russian actions are illegal, unprovoked and unjustified and constitute war crimes by any objective criteria. There have been indiscriminate killings of civilians and attacks on buildings and critical infrastructure. We are all horrified by the scenes we witness on our television screens every evening and by the enormous pain and suffering being visited on the Ukrainian people.

Ireland, with its unique history and tradition, must continue to press for an early cease fire and a negotiated settlement, however unrealistic this may seem at this time. We must do this at the UN Security Council, at the Council of Europe, in the European Union and we should support the role of the International Criminal Court in this context. Countries like Turkey, France, Germany and Israel are to be encouraged to continue their efforts to have a peace agreement put in place.

It is entirely appropriate that the US President Joe Biden will attend the European Council meeting this week. Democracy in the world is under serious threat. Authoritarian regimes such as those in Russia and China challenge western liberal democracies. The invasion of Ukraine ordered by Vladimir Putin has brought this conflict to a head in a stark way. Recognising the threat to liberal democratic values in the world, President Biden hosted a democracy summit last December. He has spoken about the battle between democracies and autocracies. We know what side Ireland is on. We are on the side of the West. We advocate free trade as well as a rules-based international order and multilateral diplomacy. I commend our Taoiseach, Deputy Micheál Martin, for the unambiguous stance he has taken in recent weeks on this global challenge.

The EU has rightly imposed several rounds of sanctions on Russia, but have we gone far enough? I do not think so. The EU imported an estimated €12 billion worth of oil and gas from Russia since the start of the conflict. It also imports large amounts of coal. There are divisions within the EU on this matter. Of course, there is a huge energy dependence on Russia in this regard and this certainly needs to be reduced, but the time has come to include energy supplies in EU sanctions and I welcome Ireland's stance on this issue.

On the question of EU enlargement, we know that President Zelenskyy has asked for Ukraine's application for EU membership to be fast-tracked. Ambassadors for Ukraine, Georgia and Moldova recently attended a meeting of the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs to make their case for membership. North Macedonia and Albania are in the waiting room, as are Serbia and Turkey. It is clear from the Versailles summit that some member states are resisting Ukraine's membership in the short term. It seems that regional rivalries, unease in the western Balkans, and concerns about the scale and scope of EU budgets are issues of concern. Ireland has and should continue to support enlargement as a general principle. Enlargement is good for Ireland and it is good for the EU. The process of accession has been too slow and cumbersome, and it is questionable whether the political will is there to encourage this. I hope the European Commission will give a positive report to the summit this week on Ukraine's application.

Increased fuel prices are affecting everyone in this country. We are told that Ireland is seeking flexibility on the application of VAT on fuel. We need to reduce VAT on fuel to below its current lower rate of 13.5%. I also hope the European Commission will respond positively to this request at the forthcoming summit.

It seems a bit academic or even indulgent to be engaging in a debate on Ireland's traditional policy of military neutrality while innocent civilians are being killed in towns and cities across Ukraine. However, a debate is inevitable given the dramatic events in Europe in recent weeks and the realisation that things have changed, and changed utterly.

From a legal point of view, we need to first examine the EU treaties, specifically the Lisbon treaty, as well as the Constitution. A protocol to the Lisbon treaty states that the treaty "does not affect or prejudice Ireland’s traditional policy of military neutrality." Article 29(4)(9) of Bunreacht na hÉireann, which was added following the defeat of the first Lisbon treaty referendum, states that "The State shall not adopt a decision taken by the European Council to establish a common defence pursuant to Article 42 of the Treaty on European Union where that common defence would include the State." Article 42 of the Lisbon treaty makes provision for a mutual assistance clause. They are the legalities but we need to begin with the fact that we are members of the universal collective security organisation known as the United Nations, as well as the European Union. Therefore, any pure notion of neutrality is compromised from the start. We are not part of a military alliance, specifically NATO. Although we participate in NATO's Partnership for Peace, we should not contemplate NATO membership.

It is also fair to say that we are not politically neutral, as our response to the Ukraine invasion clearly demonstrates. We need to be fully involved in proposals for a new EU common security and defence policy following the Ukraine invasion. As regards Ukraine, so far Ireland, in the EU, has collectively agreed to tough sanctions and has provided humanitarian assistance as well as non-lethal equipment through the European peace facility.

We participate in EU Battlegroup and Permanent Structured Cooperation, PESCO, missions and pay into the European defence fund. We are also involved in the proposed rapid reaction force and we signed up to the strategic compass at a meeting of the foreign affairs ministers in Brussels this week.

As a general principle, we should participate in specific missions that are compatible with our traditional peacekeeping role. We should have the ability to opt in or out of missions and we should draw a distinction between EU and non-EU territories as necessary. I also believe we need to be able to defend and arm our neutrality. We have the report of the Commission on the Defence Forces, and I look forward to the Minister presenting his proposals in this regard in the coming months. A debate on Irish neutrality can and should take place in due course. It is too early to say if a referendum is needed, having regard to the constitutional provisions which I referred earlier, but a referendum on the issue is certainly not needed now.

Finally, the Russian invasion of Ukraine has demanded a huge humanitarian response to the consequent refugee crisis. So far, almost 10,000 Ukrainian refugees have arrived in Ireland and they are most welcome, but they require accommodation and other essential supports. This is a challenge that requires a whole-of-government response and cross-departmental action.

There is also a huge refugee crisis on Ukraine’s borders. I welcome the €20 million provided so far by the Irish Government for humanitarian assistance in the region as well as the €11 million provided through the EU mechanism for practical help in Ukraine. Ambassadors from Poland, Romania, Georgia, Moldova and Ukraine attended our meeting of the Joint Committee on European Union Affairs earlier this month. They outlined for us in stark terms the refugee crisis they are facing in their countries. We were in awe of their response and the support they are being given by the governments in those countries. Certainly, the EU and Ireland should do everything possible to assist them in that regard.

Ireland’s tradition of military neutrality is an honourable one. Unfortunately, too many governments have missed the opportunity it provides. Despite the huge respect our UN peacekeepers, the blue helmets, have attained across the world, and despite the role in conflict resolution those of us in Ireland have played in Sri Lanka, Colombia, the Middle East and the Basque Country, the opportunity has been repeatedly wasted. We have had a half-hearted approach to military neutrality from the parties that sit across the Chamber for far too long. They have actively undermined it in the approach to Shannon Airport, for example, for so many years. They have not believed in it. It was there in words but not in practice.

It is an honourable tradition. It comes from us being victims of empire for so long and rejecting any military alliances that give any support for that type of imperialism or empire-building approach. It means that we have the opportunity to play a role in conflict resolution around the world and actively seek out that position internationally. I do not believe we have ever done that, really.

Perhaps we could be playing a far more considerable role right now, for example. We have a seat on the UN Security Council. That seat was won, in my opinion and that of many others, because of our position of military neutrality. Governments across the floor of this Chamber have wasted the opportunity for far too long, however. There needs to be a passionate embracing of that policy and a backing up of the role of our UN peacekeepers and many superb diplomats and peacebuilders we have had over the years.

We have had experience of conflict resolution in the last 20 years. It is ongoing on this island but we have not utilised it enough. Indeed, the people who were involved in that peace process are the people who went to Sri Lanka, Colombia, the Basque Country and the Middle East. To a lesser extent, our own governments were formerly involved in it, even though we are militarily neutral. We are not politically neutral, though. We can condemn and stand up against wanton acts of brutality such as we have seen from the Russian Government in recent times. We can support sanctions and support confronting this across the world. We can do all that and maintain military neutrality.

I welcome the debate on military neutrality. I welcome also challenging those who did not stand by it for far too long. They talked about it but they never stood by it. They never delivered the full potential of it internationally. They left it to others who were involved in peacebuilding on this island to fulfil the role of conflict resolution and that is the reality. They also did not build on the huge respect, and I will say it again, for our UN peacekeepers - our blue helmets, the thousands of Irish men and women who kept the peace around the world because we are militarily neutral. The Government failed them by not building on it. It failed those involved in the peace process in this country by not building on it, and now it appears it is going to fail again in this moment in which we could play a much more constructive role in peacebuilding and bringing this conflict to an end.

I just came from a meeting of the Joint Committee on Foreign Affairs and Defence in which we had a presentation from Dóchas, the International Committee of the Red Cross, ICRC, and others. It was a really sobering and genuinely terrifying presentation. I wanted to wait until I heard some of the testimonies from those witnesses on the ground in Ukraine and elsewhere before I came into the Chamber for statements on the European Council meeting.

I will begin with the figure we heard several times today during different debates of the 10 million Ukrainians who will become refugees; 3.5 million of whom will move throughout European borders and elsewhere and 6.5 million of whom will be internally displaced. The scale of that is of a magnitude we cannot even comprehend. We then get into the detail of the first wave of refugees from Ukraine being people who had the means to go elsewhere, potentially because they had family, could travel and could support themselves as they did so. That is the first wave of refugees we have seen. It is the first wave of refugees who arrived here and elsewhere. They were extraordinarily welcomed and we need to make sure we meet their needs in any way we can.

I also heard today about the 6.5 million internally displaced refugees in Ukraine currently and the sociodemographic make-up of that particular group. They are people who are predominantly older and less well-off. They are the people who would not have access to different languages. They do not have supports in other jurisdictions. As they slowly make their way across the border in terror, fleeing bombardment as they do so, their needs will be greater and even more complex. As they make their way to Poland, Romania, Moldova and elsewhere, the European Union needs to be able to meet them but countries also need to be able meet their needs as they take them in. That will be a more complex group. That is really important to say.

There remains great uncertainty in terms of what happens next and how this will affect the flow of aid into Ukraine and other friendly neighbouring countries. To date, neighbouring countries that received refugees have done so in the spirit of camaraderie, solidarity, humanity, co-operation and kinship. However, they are working around the volunteer support shown by the public, local business, churches, schools and universities. This all needs to be co-ordinated. The European Union has a done a great job in welcoming people but now there needs to be a greater co-ordination in that regard.

As I listened to testimonies from that group of people who are making their way towards borders, I was very conscious of the impact the war in Ukraine will have on global food shortages and those who will be most impacted by that. Ukraine has become the breadbasket of the world, particularly in terms of Africa. Ukraine and Russia account for 30% of global wheat exports, 20% of global maize exports and 76% of sunflower oil supplies. Any disruption in production or supply could drive prices up, affecting millions already hard hit by high food inflation in their own countries. The conflict has brought shipments from Ukraine to a halt and paused Russian grain deals, and created uncertainty around sanctions. An estimated 13.5 million tonnes of wheat and 16 million tonnes of maize are frozen in two countries - 23% and 43% of their expected exports in 2021 and 2022. The majority of that was going to places in Africa.

At each previous pre-European Council statements debate, I raised the issue of vaccine inequity in terms of people in the developing world who have not been able to access vaccines to the same extent we have.

Global food supply shortages were already going to be an issue. Now, people who have not been able to access vaccines to the same extent that we have done will not be able to access food. There is a horrific humanitarian catastrophe right on our doorstep. This is the great global challenge of our time and we need to able to meet it.

To add even more doom to the scenario, in the Arctic yesterday the temperature was 30% above normal. In the Antarctic, it was 40% above normal, because of climate change. We have a humanitarian crisis on a scale that is incomprehensible. This should be a great challenge of our time. I cannot believe Members here are talking about a debate around our neutrality. Our neutrality will not mean anything when climate change is suffocating not only us but the global world.

We talk about how Germany is investing once again in its military and in its arms shipments and supplies. The European Union needs to be investing in its humanitarian budget to ensure that people in the global world are not starving. While there needs to be an industrialisation, it cannot be an industrialisation of a military capacity. It has to be an industrialisation based on humanitarian need, about how we get bread and wheat into people’s mouths, as well as about how we remove ourselves from fossil fuel dependency.

If, as we are constantly being told, and we are, in a wartime scenario, we require imagination. It requires a vigour to change and to remove the old people of old. Putin has his hands around our necks because we are depending on his oil and his gas. The EU pays him to the tune of €700 million per day. We need to crush that. Not only do we have a fear of him killing us quickly, he also has an impact on our global world through the impact that is having on the environment. There is now a great chance to remove ourselves from these figures of old and to meet the greatest challenges of our time, which are climate change and hunger. This all needs to happen in sequence.

With the indulgence of the Leas-Cheann Comhairle, at the outset I would like to join others in this House and in the Seanad in marking the passing of David Hill on Saturday. David tragically passed away on the rugby pitch while we were playing the annual Ireland versus Scotland parliamentary game. It was an awful experience for all us who were present but, more pertinently, for David's friends, colleagues and his family, with whom I spent some time on Sunday. I would like to pass on my own personal condolences to our colleagues in the Scottish Parliament. I was lucky to play against him four or five times and to meet him many times. I considered him a friend. It was a tough loss. Today is a tough day for many of us.

In respect of this debate, I would like to briefly address a couple of areas. We have had most of the larger, wider philosophical discussions, such as about climate change and neutrality many times over. I do not seek to repeat them. Maybe there is a time when we will repeat them, but I have a few specific points and questions about the upcoming European Council meeting. The Minister of State might be able to respond to them in due course.

I join with others in wishing the Taoiseach well for a fast and speedy recovery. However, I am aware and cognisant that potentially, he will not be able to attend the meeting. I am aware of the rulings of the European Council. Can the Minister of State clarify which member state will be Ireland’s voice at the European Council meeting when it takes place? In due course, what will be in the memo to be sent forth from the Irish Government to that proxy about the position of the Irish Government regarding a couple of key issues that will need to be discussed at the European Council debate? It will focus Russia's brutal war in Ukraine and the many facets that impact us here in the European Union. Equally, it will focus on how we in the European Union react and respond to support the people of Ukraine.

Let us be under no illusion. The people of Ukraine are not just defending their country but at this stage, they are defending all of Europe from a violent and vicious aggressor who has invaded Europe in a manner and with means that are appalling. As every day goes past and with every hour or two we spend watching this unfold on our television sets, online or in the print media, it is harrowing to see. Munitions are being deployed on the civilian population and people are stating their belief that chemical weapons are now being used. This is appalling. It is war on scale that has not been seen on the European continent for some 70 years. It is not good enough to simply condemn the matter. It is not good enough to state our solidarity, to light up our buildings and to hang out our flags unless we continue, as much as is possible on a cross-party basis, to push the European Union to force a resolution in a form that is acceptable to the Ukrainian people.

First, I come to yet another discussion on European sanctions, not just those on Russia, but also on their proxy in Belarus, in occupied Georgia, and in the supporting entities that are allowing them, particularly in occupied eastern Ukraine, to carry out this brutal and vicious war. We have seen the European Union put unprecedented sanctions in place. However, we have had to see four or five rounds of sanctions. Yet, many of the measures that people were calling for from both sides of the House in terms of sanctions still have not been implemented. Other member states, admittedly not Ireland, are blocking this and are being extremely duplicitous, for want of a better word, in their reaction to this. It is absolutely galling.

First there is the continuing need to end immediately the importation of Russian oil and gas into the European Union, to put the fullest extent of sanctions on the financial services sector and to target those oligarchs, their proxies and their shell companies located across the European Union. We should continue use every European treaty possible to put pressure on non-European Union jurisdictions, such as Switzerland, that can make use of favourable terms and treaties with the Europeans to make these sanctions work. This will turn off the supply chain, turn off the money tap and turn off the financial fuels of war the Russian Federation is using to mercilessly carpet-bomb the people of Ukraine.

On the issue of supports that are needed for the people of Ukraine, as well as those for the people of Ukraine who are putting up the resistance, we need talk about humanitarian aid and about military assistance. We can all have a debate about that but I will not get into it today. However, it is clear that while what has been allocated so far and the tranches that have been delivered have helped, they will not be enough. We need a continuing European support. I saw an interesting tweet by an MEP from Luxembourg today, from my own political family. She said that today was the first day that she did not get a push notification from the media in Luxembourg about the war in Ukraine. As we enter the 25th or 26th day of this Russian invasion of Ukraine, we cannot allow ourselves to lose focus and lose interest in ensuring that the sanctions and the response of the Irish Government, the Irish people and equally, of the European Union, cannot be allowed to wane. This is because the intensity of the invasion is not waning. The intensity of the fight and the pressures on the people of Ukraine are not waning. There are 10 million Ukrainians who do not have a home any more and who are displaced. These are numbers that we have not seen since the Second World War. We cannot be allowed to get distracted, either by domestic political issues or by other international political issues.

I was speaking to groups across the country over the past couple of days. We are now seeing the impact of war starting to hit home for us on practical levels, such as in fuel prices, in food availability and in how we co-ordinate the humanitarian response to welcome Ukrainian refugees as guests into our country. We cannot allow ourselves to be distracted from the certainty of purpose about why we are doing this, about how we doing this and what the response needs to be.

I believe that this European Council meeting has to prepare not just a short-term response, but a medium- and long-term response. I say this because this war will not end quickly. The fallout from this war will not end quickly. We will not saying that we can cater for refugees for the next couple of weeks or that this is the financial support to be provided for the next couple of weeks when this invasion could go on for weeks, months and God knows how much longer after that. At the end of the day, if your house has been blown up, if your husband has been killed, if your son has been killed and if you have nowhere to go back to, you have to look to the European Union. You have to look to the Irish Government, to the aid agencies and to the people of the countries of the European Union - particularly Ireland - for protection and for guidance through what will be a harrowing and traumatic period of time that none of us can comprehend to be quite frank with ourselves.

We can talk about this in the abstract. We can use that as a basis for a debate. However, every single Member has had people who are originally from Ukraine or who are Ukrainian citizens living in our constituencies. They have come to us and have looked for assistance in getting their family members out. They have looked for assistance in pastoral support. In the same way, families in our constituencies might be offering up a holiday home or their spare room. This will not be a response for a couple of months. Those families, both Irish families and Ukrainian families, will need a continuing response. The response is not a normal one. These people are fleeing the traumas of war. Their lives have been crushed. The sad news is that is only going to continue.

In conclusion, my appeal is that this European Council does not take a short-term view. They might now apply half the sanctions that many of us had been calling for three weeks ago, stop dilly-dallying and stop letting personal concerns get in the way. Second, they should lay out a genuine two-year plan for how we deal with the fallout from this bloody, vicious war.

We have all made statements and some could argue they fall between being trite and overplaying the issue but this is one situation where we can say with hand on heart that the world has utterly changed. We never thought we would be dealing with a case of 10 million displaced people, comprising 3.5 million who have left Ukraine and 6.5 million who have been internally displaced. It is hard to believe that is modern-day Europe. If someone had told us this a couple of weeks ago, I do not think we would have believed it but this is the world we are dealing with. We are dealing with a particular type of Russian regime under Vladimir Putin. Surrender threats have been directed at Mariupol and we have seen the action and the ordnance that has been used. Many Members, including Deputy Brady, have spoken about how that city is to be added to the long list of places that have been hammered beyond recognition. I refer, for example, to Grozny, Dresden, even Coventry in Britain and a large number of other areas. We had never considered that we would see so many in Europe nowadays. There are also places in Syria and Palestine that have suffered to the same degree, and I reiterate there has been a failure on the West's part to deal with these issues.

Nevertheless, I get it. First and foremost at this point, we are dealing with Russia. We really need to get to the bottom of what is needed from the point of view of sanctions. When the Ukrainian ambassador, Ms Larysa Gerasko, appeared before the Oireachtas Joint Committee on European Union Affairs, she spoke about the need to cut off the seaports and outlined how the Department of Foreign Affairs has been given a list of businesses that are still trading with Russia. I accept that the world is complicated and interconnectivity in business and other matters is far more developed and intertwined than many of us had believed - Brexit gave us the first inclination in that regard - but we must do all we can. It is not okay to allow a free flow of money to Russia and its proxies that allows for this war to be fought.

There has been much talk about militarisation and my argument in that regard is that it does not serve a purpose for the EU to be further militarised. Obviously, Ukraine wants to become part of the EU and we certainly do not want militarisation to become part of the negotiating gambit when we arrive, as I hope we will, at a time when straight and real negotiations take place to bring about a diplomatic end to this absolute horror, which will have a significant impact on those people who are suffering under the barrage of Russian ordnance but which will also have an impact throughout wider Europe. Alongside the humanitarian response we need to get in place - I am not sure we have all our t's crossed and i's dotted, and we need to ensure we are hearing the concerns of local authorities - we need to ensure we have covered all the bases and that all the moneys that can be removed will be removed. We must facilitate, insofar as possible, an end to this abject and absolute horror.

I am sharing time with Deputy Barry.

The world is disgusted and revolted at what Vladimir Putin is doing, his bloody invasion and the imperialist logic behind it. Rightly, people's hearts go out to the people of Ukraine and they want to show all the solidarity they can. The best hope is that the resistance of the Ukrainian people, alongside the opposition of the Russian people to this bloody war, will bring it to an end and, with any luck, bring down the Putin regime. Nevertheless, I just do understand why the response to this horror of the leaders of Europe, the United States and parties in this House, largely on the Government's side, seems to be to want to use this crisis to make an argument for spending more on weapons and putting ourselves closer to the NATO military alliance. If that is the lesson one draws from this, our world is doomed. This horror flows directly from the logic of the global arms industry and all the major powers building up terrifying military and nuclear arsenals and using them again and again. Largely, the West has either ignored these horrors when they have happened elsewhere or, worse, actively colluded in them. I refer, for example, to what Saudi Arabia has been doing in Yemen for the past five years, killing 330,000 people and bringing 14 million people, as we speak, to the brink of starvation. Not only do we not sanction Saudi Arabia but we arm it, travel to the country on trade missions and say nothing about what it is doing. We support Israel and allow it to bombard Gaza again and again, to steal its people’s land and to demolish their homes, and then we expect that logic will not be pursued by other powers in the world. Of course it will be.

Furthermore, global arms expenditure has shot through the roof. While we talk about housing, health, education and our ability to deal with humanitarian catastrophe, globally we are now spending $2 trillion a year on weapons and arms, and the countries that spend it are the United States, at 39% of it, China, India, Russia, the UK, Saudi Arabia, Germany and France. They are all to blame for this madness. If you build up nuclear and military arsenals, if you fight to control spheres of influence and if you back dictators or ignore their crimes, what do you expect is going to happen? There are going to be wars, atrocities and brutal regimes such as Putin's. The last thing we need to do, faced with this horror arriving on the doorstep of Europe, is to say we need more militarism. We need to oppose militarism, full stop. We need to oppose all dictatorships and that is what Irish military neutrality is about because it came from the Irish revolution. It came from a revolution against an empire and against the First World War, to say we would not be part of this imperial madness but rather that we would stand against it and align ourselves with forces in the world that stand against war and empire. That is what we should do today.

The Minister for Defence, Deputy Coveney, has stated there is a good chance Ireland will be involved in the European rapid reaction force due to be operational by 2025. I say to him and his Government colleagues that there is no chance this will happen without major opposition in Irish society. It will not be the fortunate sons and daughters of Ministers who will be sent out to die in the interests of French and German capitalism. It will be the sons and daughters of the working class and that will not be allowed to happen without a fight here at home. Deputy McAuliffe might mark my words on that and convey them to his Government colleagues. There will be a fight here at home if the Government tries to go down that road.

Scab ships that are docking here in Dublin are owned by a company that sacked 800 workers by video link and is now employing staff at a rate of £1.82 an hour. The Tánaiste has stated this could not happen in the EU but he ignores the fact it is an EU country that is providing P&O with its flag of convenience. If the trade union leaders were prepared to lead a fight against a race to the bottom, which they should be prepared to do, these boats would and should be met by mass pickets and mass protests when they dock in this city.

At the weekend, I found myself on the ferry back from Cherbourg, France, to Rosslare. I was returning from a series of meetings in Paris at which the challenges of the current crises, relating to energy, food security, refugees and the strategic autonomy of the European Union, were discussed in depth. While those discussions were heavy and solemn, it was not until I boarded that ferry and saw for myself the sad and exhausted faces of hundreds of Ukrainians, on the last leg of their harrowing and arduous journey, that I was struck most by the sheer horrible reality of what is unfolding before us. I commend Stena Line, whose crew was extraordinarily attentive to the needs of those Ukrainians in their care on that journey. Those I met on the ferry are the lucky ones, the ones who got away quickly or had the means to get away, and I hope they will find a new life in Ireland.

Deputy Brian Leddin: At the weekend, I found myself on the ferry back from Sherbourg, France, to Rosslare. I was returning from a series of meetings in Paris, where the challenges of the current crises, relating to energy, food security were discussed in depth,

I thought I was alone when I watched on the large television in the lounge the scenes of destruction in Mariupol. It was only when I went to leave I saw there was a woman sitting alone silently, tears streaming down her face. I felt pain for her but I cannot imagine the pain she must have felt as she saw the wilful destruction of her country and the slaughter of her fellow Ukrainians before her very eyes.

Back in Ireland, I read yesterday the words of one of her countrywomen, Ms Nadezhda Sukhorukova, in Mariupol. On her Facebook page, Ms Sukhorukova wrote:

I'm sure I'm going to die soon. That's a matter of days. In this city, everyone is constantly waiting for death. I just wish it wasn't so scary. Three days ago, there was a direct hit into the fire department. The rescuers have lost their lives. One woman's hand, leg and head were torn off. I dream of my body parts staying still, even after an air bomb blast. I don't know why, but I think this is important.

This grim prospect is a real one for hundreds of thousands of people right at this very minute on the doorstep of Europe in a country that shares our values and wants to be one of us. We have to hope that Ms Sukhorukova and her fellow citizens somehow survive but it seems there can be little hope of that as Putin's forces pulverise every square inch of Mariupol, where she and hundreds of thousands of others wait for their annihilation by Russian missiles or by the cold and starvation. Ms Sukhorukova's words will be with us for as long we live, and should we, as legislators, as people with influence, not do what we can to bring an end to this suffering, we will bear the weight of these words.

Ten days ago, the Versailles declaration was signed by EU member states. It stated, "Russia's war of aggression constitutes a tectonic shift in European history." Could it be more clear? We in Ireland should understand this and understand that the positions we have taken in the past with respect to defence, security and neutrality simply have to be reviewed. We may find that these positions no longer hold much water in the face of the tyranny we are seeing in Ukraine and the asymmetric warfare that has been unleashed. Constructive abstention may be neither the strategic nor the morally correct position to hold.

Europe, as well as NATO and the global community, has faltered since the Versailles declaration. We blinked. Repeated appeals for a no-fly zone to be instituted over Ukraine and for increased sanctions have been rebuffed and Putin has pushed on. At what point do we say, "Enough is enough"? Do our values as a Union, our commitment to the rules-based order and to the protection of human life not extend to seeking to protect aspirant nations on our doorstep? How is what we are seeing any different to what we saw in Poland in 1939 or in Yugoslavia in 1991?

Putin's end will come, hopefully sooner rather than later, but there is no possible end to the regime of Vladimir Putin that will do justice to the hundreds of thousands of victims of his terror. Europe must ensure it does everything it possibly can to bring an end to their suffering. It should stand up to the bully, the coward that is Vladimir Putin.

How prepared are we to do so? Europe is providing funding to Ukraine's defence effort for lethal and non-lethal purposes and we have introduced unprecedented sanctions. This is positive, but is it enough? At the same time, we are funding Putin's war effort by purchasing his fossil fuels to the tune of €1 billion per day. The concept of the blood diamond is well understood. This is blood oil and gas.

I have been saying in this House since I was elected two years ago that Ireland can provide clean energy, not only for its own needs but for Europe's needs also. I have always said it in the context of our necessary decarbonisation process. We have been and are going in the right direction for some time but, in my view, not as quickly as is possible or necessary. We talk about the 5 GW of offshore wind that is in the pipeline but that is to meet our domestic demand. The events of the past month, as much as the climate emergency, demand that we seek to exploit the at least 50 GW potential that is there, particularly off our south and west coasts. We need to send a signal now, not next year, to the European Union and to the international renewables sector that we have this energy and we want to exploit it quickly.

From my meetings in Paris, I was not assured that our counterparts quite understand how Ireland can help Europe. When the Taoiseach goes to the European Council, he should reiterate the Government's position that we see that liquefied natural gas, LNG, has no role for us here in Ireland. There is no technical barrier to the development of a green hydrogen economy, with green hydrogen storage for generating power on those days and weeks that may occur, as the Germans call the Dunkelflaute, where demand is high but renewable generation is low. It is a matter of policy, incentives and economics, all of which are within the gift of Europe and of Ireland to adjust so that we get the result that we need, that is, an energy system not dependent on fossil fuels and on autocrats such as Vladimir Putin. We should spare no effort in pursuing this objective as quickly as possible.

I want to be associated with all the words of solidarity with the people of Ukraine. I want to use my limited time here today to talk about the challenges that are facing the food supply chains, not only in Ireland but across Europe.

I welcome indications from the EU agriculture Commissioner that the Commission is set to deploy the €500 million crisis reserve. These funds must be delivered rapidly and to those farmers most in need.

Sinn Féin, for several weeks, has sought the deployment of this crisis funding as an important first step to deliver immediate supports to farmers who have been bearing the brunt of spiralling input costs but farmers, as well those in the broader agrifood supply chain who depend on them, urgently need clarity today as to what portion of the fund Ireland is set to receive and how it will be delivered to those who need the support most. In recent weeks, farm organisations have called for €90 million in funding for the Irish pig sector alone. That gives some indication as to the scale of the intervention required across the EU.

The response of the Government has lacked urgency. There are actions that it could take that would go some way towards alleviating the current situation. A substantial reduction on the excise on agri-diesel, including the carbon tax component, is required. The promised review as to the status of farm contractors with regard to the carbon tax should also be completed urgently. The Minister, Deputy McConalogue, should also engage with his EU counterparts to secure reductions in anti-dumping tariffs on products such as fertiliser and to ensure that the discussion on wider supports starts this week.

The Commission has shown flexibility on the planting of fallow land in 2022. This is welcome, as we seek to maximise our own grain yield, but serious questions remain as to the potential impact this may have considering that the planting season has already commenced.

At the outset of the invasion of Ukraine, Sinn Féin called on the European Commission to respond with a package for farmers negatively impacted by the sanctions on Russia and it is disappointing that in the weeks since then, the response from both Dublin and Government has remained unpointed, without direction and lacking entirely in detail. The Commission has made it clear that it believes that any additional response to these ongoing crises rests within state aid and the Government should be equally clear that the Common Agricultural Policy, that is undermined by a poor EU budget which it agreed, has left member states in a difficult position and potentially facing a food security emergency. As such, the response must be now EU led and consist of funding mechanisms that deliver for farmers and consumers.

Ireland is uniquely placed in that we have €1 billion to access through the Brexit adjustment reserve which should be made available to farmers impacted by the withdrawal of Britain from the EU. To date, farmers have not received a single cent of funding from that stream. Instead, €100 million was allocated to meat factories. Urgent funding support is now required for farming families across the pig, beef, seed potato and horticultural sectors, as well as others. Funding and taxation mechanisms exist, both at home and in Brussels, that would significantly alleviate the burden being borne by our farmers and ensure that the peoples across Europe can have one assurance in the times head, that is, that we will have adequate food to feed ourselves.

I welcome the opportunity to speak today. The upcoming European Council meeting is probably one of the most important in our lifetime. Not in the recent past have we faced such terrible aggression and challenging circumstances as those we are currently facing. Putin and his army are causing life-changing damage to Ukraine and its people.

What we are witnessing right now is beyond what words can adequately describe. The killing and maiming of innocent men, women and children is beyond cruel. It is a terrible indictment on all of us that this is happening and looks like continuing for the foreseeable future.

If Putin gets his way in Ukraine, where is next on his list? I have argued that diplomacy must be the answer and it is for this reason that Europe must be united, which it has been so far, in order to bring a peaceful solution to this crisis. Unfortunately, every single one of us must suffer in the short term in order to stop this. What I mean by this is that Russia continues to supply gas to Europe valued at €250 million per day. By us paying these vast sums to Putin, we are in effect helping to fund his terrible war effort. The short term pain we must suffer now is that this valuable source of income for Putin must be stopped immediately. We will all suffer because of this but we need to bring the reliance we have on Russian gas to an end. If Putin did not have this source of funding, we can be sure that his war efforts could not be funded in the same way. I know that the subject of Russian gas is on the agenda for the upcoming Council meeting and I urge the Minister to make the strongest possible case for severe restrictions on Russian gas and how Putin supplies it to Europe. The bottom line is that if we can limit his supply of money, then we can limit his ability to wage war on innocent Ukrainians.

I note also that President Biden will address the meeting. It is important that the United States and Europe stand united in their approach to this crisis. Obviously, the last thing anyone wants is for the crisis to involve more countries and develop into something bigger than it already is, but at the same time we cannot allow Putin and his threats to stop us from taking the necessary steps to end this aggression.

One of the main reasons Putin was able to wage this aggression was the fact that he and his cronies have so much money tied up all around the world and have continued access to it. In recent weeks, I raised the possibility that Russian money was being laundered through the Irish Financial Services Centre, IFSC, in Dublin. Can the Minister give us an update on this? Can he confirm that the Government has taken the necessary steps to ensure that the IFSC is not and cannot be used by the Russians to launder dirty money, which as we all know is now being used to fund the terrible actions in Ukraine?

I also take this opportunity to acknowledge publicly and thank the people of Louth for their efforts so far to help our Ukrainian friends at this desperate time. The amount of supplies, including foods, medicines and clothes, among others, that was donated by the people of Louth in recent weeks has been fantastic. My understanding is that at least 12 lorryloads of supplies have been donated from Dundalk alone. At times of great need, the people of our community always step up to the mark, as can be seen on this occasion as well.

The next challenge we face is how to house adequately the many thousands of Ukrainians who are arriving in Ireland. Despite us being in the middle of our own housing crisis, we are stepping up to the challenge. Many people in Louth, and in particular Dundalk, have registered their homes to house Ukrainian families. Scores of Ukrainians have come to my constituency office in recent weeks. They were collected at Dublin Airport by members of their family and taken to Louth, in particular my home town of Dundalk. One family of four has taken in eight. Another family of four has taken in ten. We are talking about households with ten, 12 and 14 people living in them. I have contacted local authorities' numerous times. I contacted the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Justice and the Department of Children, Equality, Disability, Integration and Youth. Everyone is passing the buck from one to the other. All I hear from the Government is talk of the community. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, spoke this morning on national radio. He mentioned that hundreds of millions will be spent. Where are the hundreds of millions? In fairness, all we are doing at the moment is putting severe pressure on local authorities. In Louth, for example, there are approximately 6,000 people on the council waiting list. The last thing we need is conflict between Ukrainians coming to this country and people who think they have a God-given right to get a house, which they probably all think. There is no point in the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, having millions four or five months down the road. Now is the time to look after these people who are coming here. The last thing we want to do is put a wedge between the people on the council waiting list, who are waiting for their right to have their own house and the people of Ukraine, who are having a terrible time and suffering and being maimed. Women are leaving their husbands and children behind them and coming to a strange country where they cannot even speak the language. We need action, not talk.

I wish the Minister the very best of luck at the European Council meeting later this week. The task that faces Europe now is a massive one, but one that must be accomplished. The killing of innocent men, women and children must be stopped. Putin must be stopped at all costs. If he succeeds in Ukraine where is he going to go next? The only way to stop this monster is to cut the supply of funding to him. We need to act as one and recognise that all these people are suffering. We want to help them and we want to stop Putin. Never before in our lifetime have we faced such a crisis and I hope we do not face anything like it in the future. Whatever action or sanctions are needed now to stop this aggression must be taken. We stand with our Ukrainian friends. We will do everything in our power to ensure that we have a peaceful end to this conflict. Irish people have always stood up and done their best, but I can see a barrier coming between people. Some 10,000 people have come in recent weeks and there is talk of as many as 200,000 coming. We in Ireland are opening our arms to them. Instead of making promises and trying to put the responsibility back on communities, it is time for the Government to stand up and to spend the money it has.

Like many Irish people, I have looked at the devastation in Mariupol and - let us call it for what it is - the war crimes that are being committed there. I have seen the real fear and anxiety in Kyiv and in each European Union country that borders Russia. It is very hard to be neutral when we look at the pictures each night or talk to people in any of those places. It is very hard to have no feelings on what Putin is doing or a neutral view of what he is doing to the people of Ukraine.

I mention that because in the context of this debate the European Council meeting is an opportunity for us to restate our solidarity with the people of Ukraine and our commitment to them in the face of the utterly unacceptable infringement of their sovereign territory. How can Ireland help in that context and in the context of us being neutral and having a long tradition of military neutrality? We know that even in the case of war on this island it was only solved by talking and us coming to an agreement. There will ultimately have to be an agreement between Russia and Ukraine. A further escalation of the conflict is not needed and should not be encouraged.

How does Ireland react to the pictures and our desire to stand with Ukraine and by the same token play a part and ensure other powers do not escalate the conflict? I believe our proud tradition of humanitarian response is the best approach to take, both through Irish agencies on the ground that have a long tradition of operating in such areas, and also at home. We must consider the comments from Deputy Fitzpatrick. We must consider how the people who come to Ireland are dealt with, but in dealing with the humanitarian response we must not allow a space to develop for people on the far right or those who want to exploit racism in this country. We must also ensure we do not bypass the people who have been seeking asylum in the direct provision system. The Government has made a commitment to end the direct provision system. We cannot satisfy the need of the Ukrainian people in Ireland and bypass the people who are in direct provision. Neither can we satisfy the housing needs of the Ukrainian people and bypass the broader need for housing in this country. The answer is not to help one over the other or to turn one against the other, but to try to deal with both and to ensure that we do not have a competition for resources because that would be the ultimate breeding ground for racism. We must make sure that Ireland responds.

I reject the suggestions in the Seanad that we have changed our policy on neutrality. Even in the Second World War when we were clearly militarily neutral, the Government criticised the invasion of Belgium and Holland. Perhaps in hindsight it should have done far more than criticise an evil despot, but it did criticise the invasion of small countries such as Belgium and Holland. On this occasion we must at least do the same.

We cannot bypass the need to switch from carbon deposits. We must switch towards more renewable resources and go tapaidh, which would be much better.

I will pick up on a couple of the points raised by Deputy Carthy, but will focus on them through a slightly different lens. I looked through the European Council agenda, which states that it "will continue its discussion on how to build a more robust economic base ... notably by reducing strategic dependencies in sensitive areas like critical raw materials, semi-conductors, health, digital and food". The food security piece jumped out at me. We are dealing with the immediate crises, which are physical security, mass migration and energy security. These are self-evident. We cannot help but deal with them as they are right in our faces at present, but the outworkings of this crisis will take months to play out. It is appropriate that the Minister of State is receiving these because some of the worst effects will play out beyond the borders of Europe.

We know that Russia and Ukraine account for 30% of the world's wheat exports, 17% of its corn exports and 32% of its barley exports. Ukraine alone provides the wheat supply for more than half of the world food programmes. Where does this harvest go? We know that Ukraine is the leading supplier of wheat to Tunisia, Libya and Syria. There is a terrible irony that so many of the countries in the fertile crescent are affected in this way. Egypt is the world's largest wheat importer. It relies on Russia and Ukraine for more than 80% of the wheat purchased on international markets. Lebanon, which has seen its currency devalued significantly over the past couple of months, relies on Ukraine for 70% of its wheat imports. As the price of world commodities shoots through the roof, the value of Lebanon's currency drops through the floor creating a perfect storm for it.

The global nature of world commodity prices means that the impact will not stop there. The war in Ukraine will compound the expected shortages caused by adverse weather conditions in China and will drive grain prices up worldwide. Those who can afford it least will suffer the most, as it ever was. Already, 811 million people go to bed hungry every night and a total of 44 million people in 38 countries are teetering on the edge of famine. How much worse will this unjustified and unjustifiable war make this? The UN Secretary General António Guterres summed this up by saying, "This war goes far beyond Ukraine" and "a sword of Damocles hangs over the global economy", especially in the developing world.

This has to be a moment when we take stock and look at the structures underpinning our global and globalised economies. We are beginning to do that in respect of our energy systems and we are having to do it for our agriculture. It has thrown into sharp relief, and Deputy Carthy raised some of these points, how reliant we are on imports of fodder and fertiliser. I worry that we might be looking at our fourth fodder crisis in somewhat less than a decade this coming winter. All of this is against the backdrop of an Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change report, which has barely been mentioned due to everything else that has happened in the world. It states: "Any further delay in concerted global action will miss a brief and rapidly closing window to secure a liveable future."

I acknowledge all that the Minister for Agriculture, Food and the Marine, Deputy McConalogue, is doing around a targeted intervention package in the tillage sector and multispecies sward initiatives, in addition to tillage incentives and approaching crop supports that will, hopefully, see many more farmers grow additional plant crops, such as barley, oats, wheat, beans and peas, but in a European context we will need to see serious measures if we are to avert catastrophic famine across the developing world in the coming months. I hope the Minister of State will bring that message to Europe. In doing so, we will need to make sure that every step we take moves us in the right direction for agriculture, biodiversity, wildlife restoration and our agriculture systems in the context of that all-encompassing climate crisis we must face up to.

In October 2021, the Rural Independent Group brought to the attention of the Government and the Opposition the fact that Ireland had been given a toolbox by the EU to reduce the burden on people due to the high cost of energy. What did the Government do? It raised taxes instead of easing them for people in this country. I see Deputy Leddin is leaving the Chamber. He talked about Putin. What the Government has done to the food producing industry is criminal. There is no alternative to fossil fuels in this country at present.

Unfortunately, there are consequences to Government inaction. I will draw attention to the plight of pig farmers. Some 5% of them have left the market, with 20% or 30% of pig farmers now in crisis and about to go out of business. Energy is the issue. Guarantees regarding the supply of energy and affordable prices need to be given to everyone, but especially food producers. The pig industry sector supports 8,000 jobs and generates €1.7 billion in output. This week, the Irish Farmers Association, Meat Industry Ireland, the Irish Grain and Feed Association and food processors are looking for a pig stability fund. This has to happen for the producing of food in this country. I said to the Government and the Opposition last October that shelves would be empty and that our food producers would not be able to produce food due to the escalating cost of fuel. Currently, in order for those in the pig industry to bring in an acre of extra silage at today's prices costs €50 an acre more. Where does the Government think milk and food will come from in this country? It was given the toolbox to reduce costs but what did it do? It increased them.

I am glad to speak on this issue. I do not like the agenda for all these meetings when I see that item two is security and defence. Our neutrality is certainly being steadily undermined. I see President Biden will also join this meeting on its first day.

I thank local communities, daoine na hÉireann and those in every hamlet in Ireland who are putting their hands up again. Deputy Fitzpatrick spoke earlier. I do not often agree with him but I do on this occasion. It is time the Government stopped huffing and puffing, and talking about funds, and looked for the emergency funds that are there to support the families who are offering to take in these unfortunate people from this savage war of attrition in Ukraine. There is a fund. What the Minister, Deputy McConalogue, gave to pig farmers was a pittance. They thought they had a good meeting with him. Grown men, who were farmers for 40 years, cried at that meeting in Kildare. The poor fellow is at sea and does not have a clue. Farmers want a €70 million fund at least; otherwise the pig industry will go the way of the beet industry. Where will we be then?

I salute Anthony Laste and Anthony Broxson from Clonmel and Carrick-on-Suir, who made a journey with valuable, vital health supplies and proper equipment that is tailor-made to what people in Ukraine need in this crisis situation. Anthony Broxson is on his way back but Anthony Laste is trying to get the father of his wife, who is Ukrainian, back home. It is proving very difficult as his father-in-law does not have a passport because the Russians invaded part of his country some years ago and they have no passports there. The Department of Foreign Affairs is trying to help. I hope it will.

We need to help. Ní neart gur chur le chéile. We will help but the Government is talking about it in the same way it is talking about the fuel crisis. It had a toolbox to bring down the fuel crisis. I ask it to support the farmers. We will be in fierce trouble. To talk of planting wheat on 21 March is madness. Anybody who knows anything about land knows spring wheat has to be set no later than February. Winter wheat can be set in October-November, definitely. The Government does not even know the basics of farming, which it should. It should support our own people and farmers.

We are facing an unprecedented crisis thanks to the green agenda, which has ordinary households, farmers and the fishing sector lying almost in ruins. Europe is telling Ireland to act but we are asleep at the wheel. Our Government must eliminate the carbon tax and cut all energy taxes immediately. Tinkering around the edges, which we have been doing, will not help our people.

As early as September 2021 the issues of energy and transport were addressed at an informal Council meeting, but Ireland still remains one of the only countries not to take decisive action. In fact, our people were left to get through the entire winter before the Government acknowledged, or acted in a half-baked way, to reduce excise on petrol and diesel. This was a full six months after the EU Commission signalled a need for member states to act. The action engaged in by this out-of-touch Government was disgraceful. On 13 October 2021, the Commission released a communication which included a toolbox of measures that the EU and member states could use to address the immediate impact of price increases. In November, my colleagues in the Rural Independent Group moved a Dáil motion seeking to have this toolbox of measures implemented, but the Government sat idly by. Now it tells us that there could be a farming crisis when it is the cause of the crisis. The Minister, Deputy McConalogue, is sound asleep. He ruined the fishing industry last year. He is on the verge of ruining the farming industry this year. He has no idea. He is so out of touch.

I welcome the opportunity to speak on this however short the time. I stand, as I have already repeated, in full solidarity with the people of Ukraine. I deplore what has happened. Words do not convey it. We should do everything possible on a humanitarian level, as we are doing. I welcome the briefing that will take place later this week on the practicalities of the numbers of refugees coming to our country. However, I fully agree with what Deputy Boyd Barrett said that if the message from this is that we must increase our military spending then we are absolutely doomed. We speak today in a world where 44 million are on the brink of famine globally. In addition 23 million are just one step away because of wars or the direct effects of climate change, war, the inequality of power and the powers that be playing war games generally. That in no way takes from anything else and I wholly condemn what Putin has done.

The meeting this week, which we are not sure if the Taoiseach can attend and that is no reflection on him, is one where we should reassert our voice. That is that positive, strong, proactive, neutral voice that is not adding to the warmongers in the world because you cannot make peace with war. It is not possible. We need to use our voice, now that we have a seat at the UN Security Council, to call for a diplomatic solution. Whether we like it or not, we will have to sit with Putin or people on his behalf. Bad as things are now, they will get worse with a further war. It is in all our interests to find a solution. In my opinion the ingredients are there, whether or not we can trust him in terms of diplomacy. Ukraine has said that it will not join NATO, and so on, in a package of solutions.

In the meantime, I am worried by what an unelected member has said about the strategic compass that we passed without discussion that Europe must learn to speak the language of power. I think Europe has to learn to speak the language of peace. They talk about things being rule-based but then we must apply rules in an even-handed fashion. Saudi Arabia and Yemen, where we do not do that, have already been mentioned.

My time is short so I will make three very brief points. First, on the upcoming European Council, I am satisfied with Ireland's position on Ukraine's application for EU membership. However, I want more clarity on our position on sanctions particularly around purchasing Russian coal, oil and gas. The impact of sanctions in this area would be very powerful but it would also hit the European and Irish economy very hard. We have to make choices and ask ourselves if we starve the Russian military machine now and literally cut off the supply lines of euro and dollars will it bring Putin to the table sooner? Would it shorten the war and human disaster unfolding in front of our eyes? My view is the tougher the sanctions now the greater the impact and the greater the likelihood that we just might shorten this war.

Second, the response of the Irish people in offering assistance and shelter has been so positive and heartwarming but we urgently need immediate co-ordination at local, county, regional and national levels. I know that reception centres have been set up and good work is being done but the Taoiseach himself said that we are in a war situation and being on a war footing requires a war-type response. At the very least we need a Minister of State at the Department of the Taoiseach with responsibility for co-ordinating our refugee response. So many of the pieces are already in place. People have shown generosity. Local voluntary community groups, NGOs, local authorities and so many bodies are willing, ready and able but the Government has ultimate responsibility to join the dots, put the supports and the structures in place. This will be far more difficult than we think both at individual and national level. We can make it work but we need a co-ordinating body and a Minister with full responsibility to manage the situation. Otherwise the difficulties will multiply. They will multiply anyway but if somebody is in charge that helps.

Finally, human trafficking and women and children must be at the top of our agenda. Our systems at both national and European level must ensure that those women and children fleeing one horror do not find themselves in another.

The agenda for this week's meeting of the European Council is being discussed by EU affairs ministers at the General Affairs Council meeting today at which the Minister of State, Deputy Byrne, is representing Ireland. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, has outlined his expectations for the discussions around Russia's aggression against Ukraine, security, defence and Covid-19. I will address the issues of energy, economic issues, and Euro summit and EU external relations.

At the informal meeting at Versailles the members of the European Council discussed how to ensure the security of energy supplies and agree to phase out dependency on Russian gas, oil and coal imports as soon as possible. This can be achieved through a strong focus on accelerating the development of renewables, promoting energy efficiency and improving the interconnection of the European electricity and gas networks. Reducing overall reliance on fossil fuels, diversifying supplies and routes and improving levels of gas storage and enhancing the EU contingency planning will all support increased security of supply.

The European Commission has been invited to propose a REPowerEU plan by the end of May, building on its recent communication of a joint European action for more affordable, secure and sustainable energy. EU leaders will also discuss soaring energy prices that have reached unprecedented levels across Europe, including here in Ireland. There was already an issue of significant concern and it is one that has been exacerbated by Russia's invasion of Ukraine. Energy prices are at record highs and remain volatile. The Government is acutely aware of the social and economic impact of these increases on the whole of our society. The Government has utilised the tax and social welfare system to counter the rising costs of living of which energy costs are one of the biggest drivers with a number of measures implemented in budget 2022. Earlier this month, we announced a temporary reduction in the excise rates for auto fuels. This is in addition to the extensive supports already announced, including the €200 energy credit, public transport fare reductions, fuel allowance increases, an enhanced drug payment scheme and bringing forward the working family payment. In February, the Government announced a new national home energy upgrade scheme providing increased grant levels up to 50% of the cost of a typical deep retrofit. Unfortunately, in these exceptionally difficult times, governments cannot fully shield society from the impact. The best medium- to long-term approach to insulate consumers from volatility on international wholesale energy markets is to accelerate our efforts to deliver on the green transition.

Leaders will also return to economic issues and this week's meeting. This will include endorsing the political orientation of the Versailles declaration insofar as strengthening Europe's economic basis is concerned while unlocking the full potential of our Single Market to underpin the green and digital transitions. It is expected that leaders will also endorse the strategic priorities of the Commission's annual sustainable growth survey and invite member states to reflect them in their national plans, national reform programmes and stability programme updates to be submitted in April as part of this year's European semester process.

The annual sustainable growth survey produced by the Commission in November identified four key dimensions of competitive sustainability as guiding principles for Europe’s economic revival: environmental sustainability, productive productivity, fairness and macroeconomic stability. These four dimensions are closely interrelated, mutually reinforcing and fully consistent with the strategic direction established by the recovery and resilience facility, forming the core component of the historic next generation EU budgetary package. The Government agrees that they continue to provide the right emphasis at this time, including having regard to heightened economic uncertainties. Leaders will also meet in Euro summit format this week joined by the European Euro group President, Deputy Pascal Donohoe, and European Central Bank President, Christine Lagarde. It is expected that the leaders exchanges on the economic outlook for the single currency area will be informed by the most recent monetary policy decisions adopted by the ECB and the statement on fiscal guidance for 2023 adopted by the Eurogroup finance ministers on 14 March.

Given renewed uncertainties and risks, the Government’s view is we need to remain agile and flexible in our political response to current circumstances. The Taoiseach looks forward to further constructive exchanges with leaders to this end.

The European Council will also prepare the EU-China summit to be held on 1 April 2022 and exchange views on relations with China in the new global context. The events of recent weeks will have systemic effects on world geopolitics, including on the EU's relations with China. The EU-China summit is an opportunity for an open and frank discussion on Russia’s aggression on Ukraine, on the EU’s and China’s response to that aggression and on what that might mean for EU-China relations and wider global relations.

The European Council will also discuss the prolonged political crisis in Bosnia and Herzegovina. The Government is a strong advocate for the western Balkans. This will be a useful opportunity to discuss how the EU can further engage in order to buttress stability. Leaders will also meet on Friday for a Euro Summit. They will discuss the economic situation and review progress on banking union and capital markets union.

Before I conclude, I thank Members again for their active participation in this debate. The Taoiseach will report to the House early next month following this week’s European Council.

Top
Share