Richard Boyd BarrettQuestion:
1. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [20609/22]
Vol. 1021 No. 6
1. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [20609/22]
2. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [20611/22]
3. Deputy Pádraig O'Sullivan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [21795/22]
4. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [21856/22]
5. Deputy Cathal Crowe asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [22932/22]
6. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [22942/22]
7. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on education will next meet. [22979/22]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 7, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on education oversees implementation of the programme for Government commitments in the area of education. This Cabinet committee last met on 13 May 2021 and discussed topics including special education policy in schools and the increased demand for places at third level in 2021 and 2022. It will meet again shortly. I have regular engagement with Ministers at Cabinet and individually to discuss priority issues relating to their Departments.
In addition a number of meetings have been held between my officials and officials from relevant Departments since the establishment of the Cabinet committee in July 2020. On 29 March, we announced ambitious plans for a reimagined senior cycle of education where the student is at the centre of his or her senior cycle experience. An expansion of the DEIS programme was recently announced, which will benefit 347 schools. Some 310 schools will be included in DEIS for the first time and 37 existing DEIS primary schools are being reclassified and will be eligible for increased supports. This will mean a €32 million increase in the Department of Education's expenditure on the DEIS programme from 2023, which will be the largest-ever single investment in the programme.
Last week, Government decided that income-contingent loans for fees would not form part of the future funding model for higher education. We have instead committed to a multi-funded model which will be a mix of additional Exchequer investment, employer contributions through the National Training Fund and student contributions. It is intended to provide additional funding to the €2 billion annual spend on higher education in Ireland through the annual budgetary process. Government will also progress measures to reduce the cost of education for students and families through changes to the student grant scheme and student contributions over time.
Since 2019, five technological universities have been founded. The most recent was with the establishment of the South East Technological University this month which saw the dissolution of Waterford Institute of Technology and IT Carlow and the creation of a stand-alone university in the region.
The system for allocating special education teachers is crude, it is not fit for purpose, and it is letting down our children with special needs.
This fact was underlined for me this week by the principal of Rathmichael National School in my area. It has just lost a special education teacher because of the crude way in which the allocations are made. The school is appealing the decision, and I hope the Minister will consider that appeal. The principal pointed out that the figures are crudely based on the number of children coming in with a diagnosis in junior infants and those leaving in sixth class. What is not taken into account is that many children identified as having special needs are not identified until later. Often, the school must help with that being done and with the children going through the system. The assessments can take up to two years.
Something I did not know is that some parents, because of the long waiting lists, then get private assessments but, incredibly, those private assessments are not counted in the HSE's figures because the two systems do not join up. That seems crazy. The same principal pointed out that children with slightly less severe but nonetheless special needs are ignored, essentially, because they do not have assistance and are not identified. This issue must be addressed. We need a system for allocating special education teachers and support that is based on the real needs of the children and not on crude calculations.
Last Friday, hundreds of parents of children with disabilities protested outside the Dáil. There were also protests in Cork and Enniscorthy. These were organised by Families Unite for Services and Support, FUSS. The hashtag used was #LetsMakeAFuss. The speeches we heard were extremely powerful. We are talking about parents forced to make a fuss and to struggle to get, or to try to get, what their children deserve as a basic right and need. They really should not have to have protests, to take court cases against the State and to try to pressurise for just their basic rights. These parents, however, feel they have no choice because their children are being utterly failed by the State in respect of the extremely long waiting lists, inadequate supports and absence of support in our schools.
I raise the particular issue, that in all of Tallaght there is only one secondary school with an autism class. Thankfully, there are now many primary schools with autism classes, but we are getting to a point where students will graduate from primary school and want to be going on to secondary school, but where there is only one such secondary school. Surely that does not make any sense and we need to expand the number of schools with autism classes.
I also raise the issue of better services for children with educational needs, in particular for children with autism. I was glad to join the Families United for Services and Support protest outside the Dáil last Friday. I heard some powerful testimonies from parents and from young adults who had been failed by a system that simply could not provide them with the supports they needed to ensure their right to an education was vindicated. This is a serious matter. We are seeing an inconsistent level of services being provided for children with autism across the State.
Yesterday, I had the privilege of visiting the wonderful Rainbow Club in Mahon in Cork. The Taoiseach is familiar with Karen and Jon O'Mahony and their great work in providing supports to parents and, crucially, to children from a young age right through to teenage years and beyond. These wonderful services are being provided for about 1,000 children each year now. They are picking up the pieces and filling the gaps that exist in the State system, where we are seeing a lack of joined-up thinking and co-ordinated services, particularly for children with autism and autism spectrum disorder, ASD.
In his contribution, the Taoiseach referred to DEIS and the overhaul that system had about six or seven weeks ago. It was positive and progressive. These reviews happen every few years and the last one occurred in 2017 or 2018. Therefore, the model the Department of Education uses to determine deprivation and the need to intervene in a school context is based on Pobal and census figures dating from 2016. The review is good and welcome, and most schools in County Clare and around the country that have had their designations changed welcome what happened in March. It does not, however, fully take into account transients, those in rental accommodation who move every few months. Living in one home for many years is simply not the case for many families. Equally, many schools I can think of in Clare had 50 or 60 pupils, all with English as a first language, at the start of this academic year, but that situation has now been flipped on its head. I know of one school that has doubled its enrolment, and where those with English as a first language are the minority. Therefore, DEIS needs to be reviewed in this context. There must be a mid-term review of the programme at the end of this summer so we can again examine new designations for the start of the 2022-2023 academic year.
Last week, the psychotherapist, Stella O'Malley, was invited to address an Education and Training Boards Ireland, ETBI, conference for principals and deputy principals on managing gender issues in schools. Ms O'Malley is an extremely controversial figure among the transgender community in Ireland and internationally. Why would that not be the case, when she recently messaged on a gay rights advocacy group, which excludes trans people, that "I don’t think you should have any empathy, and I haven’t asked anybody to have any empathy and I don’t think you should have empathy or sympathy". There should be no role for views such as this in sex education in our education system. This highlights the need for legislation on objective and factual sex education in schools. It has been four years since the introduction of Solidarity's Provision of Objective Sex Education Bill 2018, which has been blocked with a money message by the Taoiseach's Government on Committee Stage. Will the Taoiseach stop blocking this Bill now?
I thank all the Deputies for raising these issues.
Deputy Boyd Barrett referred to the system for allocating special needs teachers and the broader issue around assessment, and so forth. My sense of this situation is that we have a more direct route to dealing with special needs in education through the National Council for Special Education. The allocation of resources happens much faster in respect of delivery in the school. The same does not apply in the health service. It seems to be far more opaque regarding the allocation of resources in the health service and the follow-through in that regard in terms of delivery on the ground, if I am honest about it, and I am not happy with that. We must increasingly use the school-based model for therapists. As the Deputy is aware, a pilot scheme was developed some years ago, and that has been effective. The progressing disabilities services, PDS, model is diluting the level of provision in special schools. To be fair, that policy was announced about ten years ago, but it has been slow in the delivery. Some good centres have been created, but the model of a multidisciplinary team on a school campus is one I would like to see more of. That said, there has been a significant expansion of special needs provision in schools for the past 20-odd years, manifested in the thousands of special needs assistants and resource teachers in our schools. Those are the facts. There has also been the creation of autism classes. More needs to be done, however, and it is particularly the case in this area of multidisciplinary teams.
Additionally, and Deputy Murphy raised this issue, I do not want any court cases or protests. There should not have to be protests or court cases in respect of children with special needs. I brought in the Education Act 1998 and automatic enrolment for children with special needs, also in 1998, which was the first time children with autism had a special pupil-teacher ratio, or that any children with special needs had such a ratio. That brought in special classes within mainstream schools and then children within the mainstream classes themselves. Those developments have not followed through at post-primary level. It is crazy there is only one school in Tallaght at post-primary level with an autism class. I envisage a greater role for the ETBs in the provision of special education, especially at post-primary level. Every secondary and post-primary school should play its part in respect of providing for children with special needs. A proper second level curriculum must be provided and there should be an intake of pupils by all schools. This should certainly be resolved based on catchment area. It cannot be left to just one school to provide in this regard. In any event, given the needs of post-primary autism, one school will have a limit to what it can do because of issues with progression, space and facilities.
There have been some very good examples where post-primary schools have embraced this. Recently in Cork, the ETB started a new special school at post-primary level and it has turned out to be a significant success. The ETBs need to play a stronger role across the country in being the patrons of new schools, at post-primary level especially, and to make sure children have rightful progression from primary to post-primary. The same sort of revolution has not happened at post-primary level as has happened at primary level over the past 20 years. That needs to be corrected. That may mean some strengthening of existing legislation that obliges schools and gives the Minister powers to direct schools to take children in.
Deputy Bacik has also raised this issue in the context of the Rainbow Club. I am glad she visited it. It is an example of what can be done outside of the box or outside formal structures to create opportunities for parents and children. It has been a fantastic success over the years. They seem to have an easier capacity to recruit specialist therapists also, even though their facilities are not optimal, if I am honest, as regards the hall and so on in Mahon. They have made a big impact.
On DEIS, I take Deputy Crowe's points about how one assesses deprivation, disadvantage and so on in the modern era, particularly with a much more mobile population. The older designations may not apply to some more mobile residents in a given area. Currently 884 schools and more than 180,000 students benefit from the DEIS programme. The Minister recently announced the expansion of the programme benefiting 347 schools. Some 310 schools will be included in DEIS for the first time, and 37 existing DEIS primary schools are being reclassified and will be eligible for increased supports. That means in the 2022-2023 school year there will be 1,194 schools in the DEIS programme, serving in excess of 240,000 students. That is one in four students in a disadvantaged scheme, to give additional weighting and teacher allocations and supports to the schools. That is a €32 million increase in the Department's expenditure on the DEIS programme from 2023 onwards, the largest single investment ever undertaken by a Government in the DEIS programme. The programme was started by Fianna Fáil many years ago. I am glad to see it is getting such an expansion.
In response to Deputy Barry, again I am not aware of the individual concerned but there has to be proper understanding and empathy in issues pertaining to trans people and the whole LGBTQI community. Legislation is one dimension but the most important dimension is the curriculum reform that is currently under way by the National Council for Curriculum and Assessment.
8. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health will next meet. [20604/22]
9. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health will next meet. [20607/22]
10. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health will next meet. [21060/22]
11. Deputy Cathal Crowe asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health will next meet. [22933/22]
12. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health will next meet. [22945/22]
13. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on health will next meet. [22980/22]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 13, inclusive, together.
The Cabinet committee on health oversees implementation of programme for Government commitments in health, receives detailed reports on identified policy areas and considers the implementation of health reforms, including Sláintecare. The Cabinet committee last met on Thursday, 28 April and is expected to meet again shortly. In addition to the meetings of the full Cabinet and of Cabinet committees, I meet with Ministers individually to focus on different issues. I meet regularly with the Minister for Health to discuss priorities in the area of health, including Sláintecare and the management of Covid-19.
In 2022, we will spend a record €21 billion on our health and social care services. This will allow us to reduce waiting lists, increase capacity, protect our most vulnerable, address inequalities and deliver the right care in the right place at the right time. Work is continuing to advance a number of priority programmes of work identified in the Sláintecare Implementation Strategy and Action Plan 2021-23, including progressing six new regional health areas, waiting list reduction and taking steps towards the establishment of elective care centres in Dublin, Cork and Galway.
The years 2020 and 2021 saw record increases in the health sector workforce, and a further 1,778 whole-time equivalents have been recruited to end March 2022. This growth in the workforce has enabled the delivery of services, including the establishment of 51 community health networks, 15 community specialist teams for older people, and four community specialist teams for chronic disease management. Some 21 community intervention teams are now operational with nationwide coverage. A total of 829 acute beds have opened since 1 January 2020. Baseline critical care capacity is now 305.
A range of accessibility and affordability measures are being progressed, including funding of €30 million for new medicines in budget 2022, with 24 new medicines or new uses of existing medicines approved to date this year. The drugs payment scheme monthly threshold was reduced from €114 to €100 on 1 January 2022 and was further reduced from €100 to €80 on 1 March 2022. I refer also to the abolition of public in-patient charges for children under 16, GP care without charges for six- and seven-year-olds, increases in the fees payable to contracted dentists for a number of items, including examinations and fillings, and the reintroduction of cleaning for medical card patients. A scheme for accessible contraception for women aged 17 to 25 is due to launch in August. We will continue our investment in an expanded public health service and embed the lessons learned throughout the pandemic into our health and social care services.
There are 2,000 medical scientists in this country. The Medical Laboratory Scientists Association, MLSA, is going on strike on Wednesday, 18 May, Tuesday, 24 May, and Tuesday, 31 May. The reason is that, way back in 2001, there was a report of the expert group on medical laboratory technician and technologist grades that recommended that medical laboratory scientists should be put on pay parity with clinical biochemists. Also, 20% of medical scientist posts in our hospitals are not filled. The MLSA has engaged with the HSE and the Department of Health through the Workplace Relations Commission. It got a ballot for industrial action, which was due to take place in March and early April. It deferred it because it wanted to try to find a resolution. All that has come to naught and it has no choice but to take industrial action.
The Department and the HSE should meet their demands, give them the parity that was recommended back in 2001 and fill those posts. They point out in their briefing on this that all the problems of CervicalCheck, which increased the demands on these laboratories, resulted in them warning way back in 2006 against the decision to outsource screening to American laboratories and that it would cause problems because we did not have the capacity or the ability to retain laboratory scientists. These matters have very serious implications. I urge the Government to meet the demands of the medical laboratory scientists.
I want to raise with the Taoiseach the very serious issue of long Covid, which I fear will be a pressing issue for our health service and our society in the coming years. Figures suggest that, worldwide, well over 10% of people who get Covid suffer some form of long Covid, and that a minority of them suffer a very severe form of long Covid that can continue for many months and even potentially years, with quite severe symptoms. I met a man, for example, in campaigning to save the Tallaght long Covid clinic, which was thankfully saved, called Pete Brennan, who was suffering from very severe fatigue, memory loss and shortness of breath. It was having a massive impact on his life. There are many other people similarly affected. We are going to need to invest in long Covid clinics throughout the country.
A month ago, I asked the Minister for Health through a parliamentary question how many people in Ireland have long Covid. The question was referred to the HSE which answered that it does not currently hold information centrally on the numbers of patients affected by long Covid. I found it quite astounding. We cannot manage what we do not measure. If we do not know how many people have long Covid, how does the State know where to put the resources, how much resources to put in and so on? It does not make any sense. Does the Taoiseach agree that we need to start collecting those data centrally?
I would like to raise the issue of the long delays in the roll-out of free GP care for children. In 2015, funding was secured for the extension of free GP care to all children under 12 but this was not rolled out. Again in 2020, the then Minister, Deputy Harris, announced free GP care for children aged 12 and under on a phased basis, with six- and seven-year-olds first. In the most recent budget, the current Minister for Health, Deputy Donnelly, confirmed again that funding would be put in place for the extension of free GP care to six- and seven-year-olds.
We are being told that consultations are under way with the IMO on the introduction of this service. While parents and households generally are in the middle of a cost-of-living crisis, with costs rising for all sorts of basic services, food, rent and fuel, it is long past time for us to see the roll-out of free GP care, at least with the cohort of children in question. It should be rolled out for all children thereafter. Can the Taoiseach give us the date on which this will actually happen? It is now approaching seven years since funding was first put in place for the extension and there does not seem to be any credible excuse for further delays, particularly when there is a cost-of-living crisis and when Ireland is the only country in western Europe without such free care.
With regard to the health aspect of this agenda, I wish to raise the incessant overcrowding and trolley usage at University Hospital Limerick, UHL, week in, week out. There is yet another inquiry, and I expect its outcome will again indicate that far too many people are funnelled through the same hospital system. When the Minister for Health, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, visited the hospital on 17 February last, he stated UHL was doing too much heavy lifting in the mid-west. Surely, the answer to this is not just within the curtilage of UHL; the solution to the healthcare crisis in the mid-west lies with Ennis, Nenagh and St. John’s hospitals. These hospitals need to have the capacity to discharge out of hours. I am aware of a scenario in which a patient who was feeling quite well, and whom the nurses said was feeling quite well, on a Friday evening could not be discharged until Monday. That is bed blocking. It is blocking by policy and the mechanics of the hospital institution. We need to have the capacity to let people go home, if they are well enough to do so, on an out-of-hours basis.
Last week, more than 200 parents marched down St. Patrick's Street in Cork chanting, "We are marching through our town 'cos Micheál Martin let us down." They were parents of children with disabilities who are not getting access to disability services, particularly in the schools. Under pressure from the parents’ campaign, the Minister of State responsible for disabilities, Deputy Rabbitte, has committed to restoring therapist allocations to Cork special schools to pre-pandemic levels. According to school principals, this equates to 60 therapists. The Minister of State told The Echo that the HSE could validate the allocations in less than two months. Does the Taoiseach understand that the parents are now watching for action on that promise like hawks and that the failure to deliver on it will inevitably — and shockingly, because it should not have to happen — lead to an escalation of their campaign? Will he act on this issue now?
I believe Deputy Boyd Barrett was the first to contribute on this group of questions, and he raised the issue of medical laboratory scientists. There are a number of labour relations mechanisms to deal with outstanding issues related to industrial relations pay claims and pay and conditions. It is not an issue that gets resolved in the Dáil Chamber. I appeal to both sides to engage with a view to resolving it. From experience, I believe these are never simple issues. There is always the potential for relativities to be involved in addition to other factors and implications; that said, it is an issue that we want and need to have resolved. I appeal to people on all sides to get around the table at the appropriate forum, avoid strike action and resolve the issues.
On Deputy Paul Murphy’s comments on long Covid, he made a fair point that the information is not held centrally, although we have to bear in mind the intense pressure on health services during Covid and, even worse, after it, because as it receded many people presented with a range of conditions and were affected by delayed diagnosis. There has been a lot of pressure on emergency departments but also on basic services since the ending of the emergency phase of the pandemic. We need a clear focus on long Covid in time to get a central register of people who have the condition, because that would inform better practice and protocols on its treatment and also enable more informed allocation of resources to the health service and a better focus. I will engage with the Minister for Health on this.
Deputy Bacik raised the issue of the roll-out of free GP care. I do not believe funding was provided in 2017; I think the policy was announced then. Negotiations and discussions are ongoing or beginning with the IMO in respect of the extension to six- and seven-year-olds. We need to change the way we announce and deal with this because it becomes an annual negotiation once it is announced at budget time. Very often, the leverage of the State or taxpayer in the negotiations is weakened by the prior announcement. There needs to be common sense and perspective regarding this among all parties. In our view, we want to increase eligibility. There has been very significant engagement with GPs throughout Covid, and there was a beneficial co-operative agreement, but essential additional resources were provided as well. It is in that context that I hope we can get the six- to seven-year-olds dealt with relatively quickly and then assess how to deal with our collective aspiration to increase universal access to GP care, in particular.
Deputy Crowe raised the issue of University Hospital Limerick. There is no doubt that it has been the scene of far too much overcrowding. Notwithstanding the very significant investment in the hospital in recent times, the Minister has sent down a specialist team to determine how the hospital can develop an optimal model for governance and dealing with the issues and the pressure on it. In the medium term, there is a need for more inpatient beds and capacity in the hospital group covering the region. The hospitals in the group, namely Ennis, Nenagh and St. John’s, have a role to play in alleviating the pressure. Sometimes that means some hospitals must take on specific roles or develop additional services that do not need to be provided in the tertiary hospital. The Beaumont group of hospitals comprises a good example of how services are spread. However, there are particular pressure points in Limerick that have to be acknowledged.
Deputy Barry raised the issue of disability services. Progressing Disability Services took therapists out of the special schools. More latterly, that has been alerted to the public representatives in terms of the diminution of provision within the special schools themselves. The figure of 60 therapists, which the Deputy mentioned, is not one I have heard from the Minister of State, Deputy Rabbitte, or the HSE-----
School principals have raised this.
The Minister of State has met the school principals. There was a meeting with them recently in Limerick. It depends on how long one goes back. The programme for progressing disability services has been going on for ten years. I raised it with the disability organisations seven or eight years ago. Not too many of them raised this with the HSE at the time. Those are the facts. However, the matter has to be dealt with now. I am certainly keen to deal with it to make sure we can help special schools in the first instance with multidisciplinary teams and the provision of therapists.
14. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Brexit and Northern Ireland will next meet. [21867/22]
15. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Brexit and Northern Ireland will next meet. [22895/22]
16. Deputy Cathal Crowe asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Brexit and Northern Ireland will next meet. [22934/22]
17. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Brexit and Northern Ireland will next meet. [22935/22]
18. Deputy Gary Gannon asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on Brexit and Northern Ireland will next meet. [22981/22]
I propose to take Questions Nos. 14 to 18 together.
The Cabinet committee on Brexit and Northern Ireland was formally established by the Government on 6 July 2020 and had its first meeting on 29 October 2020. The committee last met on 4 March 2021 and is scheduled to meet again on Monday, 27 June. A meeting scheduled for 29 November 2021 was postponed due to a Covid meeting. A meeting on 24 February 2022 also had to be postponed due to the convening of a European Council meeting at short notice.
Relevant issues arising on Brexit and Northern Ireland are regularly considered at meetings of the full Cabinet. In addition to attending meetings of the full Cabinet and Cabinet committees, I meet Ministers on an individual basis to focus on particular issues, where required. In the wake of the Assembly elections on 5 May, I spoke yesterday to the leaders of the main parties in Northern Ireland. In all the calls with the party leaders, I emphasised the importance of early formation of the Northern Ireland Executive.
The people of Northern Ireland want their elected representatives to address the pressing issues facing them, including the cost of living and healthcare waiting lists. The Government will continue to work with the British Government and the leaders of the political parties in Northern Ireland to seek and support the formation of the executive and the operation of all of the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement.
This morning, I also spoke to Prime Minister Boris Johnson. We agreed on the importance of having a strong, functioning Executive in place to deliver for the people of Northern Ireland. We also spoke about the protocol. I urged the Prime Minister to engage in intensified European Union and United Kingdom discussions to address the issues relating to the implementation of the protocol. I set out clearly my serious concerns about any unilateral action at this time, which would be destabilising for Northern Ireland and erode trust. The focus should be on agreed European Union and United Kingdom solutions that address the practical issues arising from the implementation and operation of the protocol.
I congratulate Sinn Féin and the Alliance Party on their success in the Stormont election. They now have to deliver for the people and the people will hold them to account if they do not. I also want to congratulate the Aontú team in the North on its advance electorally in the North. Aontú had the largest increase in votes among nationalist parties in the North and came ahead of more established political parties such as People Before Profit. It begs the question that if a small party like Aontú can do it, why can Fianna Fáil not do it?
The election is also significant because it now puts the votes for pro Irish unity political parties on a par with unionist political parties and makes the lack of preparation for unity more reckless every day. The election also returned a majority of MLAs who support the protocol and the resumption of the Executive without any precondition whatsoever. Yet, we have exactly the same situation as we had before the election. The institutions of the Good Friday Agreement are on the floor, have not been implemented and are not working, and a minority political party is stopping the whole process from working. What actions will the Taoiseach take to ensure the institutions of the Good Friday Agreement are fully implemented and up and running?
We all share the view the Taoiseach expressed yesterday that it is now incumbent, following the elections, that political parties in Northern Ireland would form a functioning Executive. There are seriously worrying developments, with the DUP demanding the removal and replacement of the protocol, it appears, before it returns to the Executive and with reports stating that the British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss will scrap parts of the protocol as soon as next week. Could the Taoiseach confirm whether he has had any discussions with the British Government or EU Commissioner Maroš Šefčovič on progress towards a resolution?
With such an impressive result for the Alliance Party in the Assembly elections, which more than doubled its seats and, therefore, there being now a large confirmed block of those who are not designated as being in either tradition but rather, as are sometimes referred to, neithers, it is clearly time to consider how the in-between voice on the constitutional question can be adequately accommodated in the Assembly and in any discussion we have in this jurisdiction on the future of our island. Has the Government a clear view on how this might be addressed?
Some reports suggest that the British Government is rolling back from a blanket amnesty for Troubled-related offences. Can the Taoiseach confirm whether the British Government has briefed him on its plans which, it seems, would require individuals to apply for immunity from prosecution instead?
Brexit has served to remind us in County Clare and along the western seaboard how geographically peripheral we are in the Continent of Europe. It is obvious now that we are a long way from Dublin, but we are also a long way from Britain and the countries on mainland Europe.
In 2015, a national aviation policy was launched which is now totally defunct and no longer relevant as we come out of Covid and continue to grapple with Brexit. The Minister, Deputy Ryan, has indicated that in the coming weeks he will initiate a brand new aviation policy. I ask the Taoiseach that the Government prioritise that airports like Shannon be given continental connectivity. It cannot all be funnelled through Heathrow. That is a vulnerable link in itself. We have had to battle for the landing slots there many times over. It is important for trade, commerce and tourism connectivity that we have continental links to the likes of Schiphol and Frankfurt to provide us with onward opportunities further east into Europe as well as Asia and beyond. I ask that the Government lead this over the coming weeks as we start to prepare a brand new national aviation policy.
Whatever way one looks at it, the outcome of the Assembly elections in Northern Ireland last week was historic. For the first time since the creation of Northern Ireland 100 years ago, a nationalist party, Sinn Féin, is the largest party in the Northern Ireland Assembly. The success of a centre ground party, the Alliance Party, is also significant. Geoffrey Donaldson, the leader of the DUP, has stated that it will not nominate a Deputy First Minister this week until the issues concerning the Northern Ireland protocol are resolved. We are where we are.
The issues regarding the implementation of the Northern Ireland protocol need to be resolved, and resolved fairly quickly. In my view, the EU has shown considerable flexibility on the matter, in particular as regards checks on goods coming into Northern Ireland from Britain. We have the continuous threat by the UK to introduce legislation to set aside aspects of the protocol, although that was not in the queen's speech today, I understand.
The Taoiseach had a phone call with the British Prime Minister today. He spoke to the leaders of the parties in Northern Ireland yesterday. Can he tell us where we are as regards EU-UK negotiations? Can these negotiations be given an added impetus, given the stalemate in Northern Ireland? Will there be renewed moves to resolve the protocol problems?
I want to raise the issue of the killing of an RUC man, Joe Campbell, in Cushendall in 1977. His family, who I spoke to, said it appears he uncovered collusion by members of the police force with paramilitaries. Information on a specific threat was withheld from him.
What is his name?
His name was Joe Campbell. Information on a very specific threat to him was withheld. The RUC was at least negligent and failed to act to prevent one of its own being killed. He was not even warned about the threat. When an investigation took place, the chief constable at the time could not remember the incident and an inadequate investigation took place. The ombudsman later investigated it as it was damaging to the family and policing. Information was also withheld from the family. His widow is 87 years old and has been waiting since 1977 for truth and justice. Now that it appears there will be no blanket amnesty, will the Taoiseach make sure that the inquest is not delayed? Will he make sure that it has, in its terms of reference, that the British state will be compelled to a transparent process of information disclosure, and that the British state cannot hide behind false national security claims? The family has been waiting long enough.
I thank all of the Deputies for the points that have been raised. In response to Deputy Tóibín, this Government has been very active in terms of committing a whole range of research, through the shared island project, ESRI and NESC. The first systematic and comprehensive research into North-South systems, be that education, health, enterprise and so forth, is of broad use to all of us who wish to share the island together into the future. It is the first time this has happened on a systematic basis.
Deputies Haughey and Bacik raised issues regarding engagement with the British Government. Deputy Haughey asked specifically about the prime minister.
I want to congratulate all of those elected to the Northern Assembly. I congratulate the performance of the Sinn Féin Party. All of its MLAs were returned. It is not the first time that a nationalist party topped the first preference poll, but it is the first time that this has been turned into the most seats in the Assembly. That is a significant moment. I also acknowledge the extraordinary success of the Alliance Party's surge, whereby it not only maintained its seats from the last Assembly but more than doubled its presence. One very interesting feature of the Assembly campaign was the fact that every party but one ended up running a campaign based on the cost of living, the health crisis and the need for the Assembly to intervene and help people. The one exception to that ended up failing to add a single seat in the assembly, namely the TUV. Any attempt to apply different rationales to the vote after the event must be resisted.
I have outlined to the House that I spoke to all of the leaders yesterday by phone. I take them at their word. Each had their own words when they said they respect the outcome of the election and want to go back to work, even though many are coming from different perspectives. This morning, I spoke to the British Prime Minister, Boris Johnson. We had a frank and honest exchange on the blockages to progress. I reiterated my view that what is needed is a proper and professional intensification of the EU-UK discussions regarding implementation of the protocol. I set out in very clear terms my serious concerns about any unilateral action at this time.
I shared my view that this would be the wrong approach. It would be destabilising in Northern Ireland and it would further erode trust.
I also made the point to the Prime Minister that responsibility for ensuring the safeguarding and implementation of the Good Friday Agreement is the joint responsibility of the United Kingdom and the Irish Government. There is no place for unilateralism in this role. I have been a long-term believer that progress in Northern Ireland is achieved only when the UK and the Irish Government are working closely together in a common cause. We both agreed it was important that the Assembly and the Executive would be re-established and get up and running.
I challenged, and continue to challenge, the view in terms of what I believe to be a false narrative. Deputy Haughey is correct that it has been asserted that the European Commission is not taking steps to address disruption being caused on the ground in Northern Ireland as a result of the operation of the protocol. That is not the case. It is simply not true and it must be challenged at every available opportunity. The Commission, and Vice President Maroš Šefčovič in particular, have done an extraordinary volume of work. He has demonstrated consistent good faith in seeking to understand and address the specific issues that are causing concern. For example, the issue of medicines, which at one time we were told was the primary cause of concern, has now been dealt with. Last October, Vice President Šefčovič put forward a substantial package of flexibilities and mitigations, including on customs and sanitary and phytosanitary arrangements. What is required now is a proper reciprocation of that effort and the good faith offered by the European Union.
I believe the leaders of the Northern parties when they say they want to get back to the Executive and deliver for their constituents. I believe the job of the two Governments is to work together constructively to make that happen. We will have difficult challenges ahead in that regard. I think we have to witness the intensification of those negotiations between the United Kingdom Government and the European Commission.
In terms of the issue of the amnesty, raised by Deputy Bacik, I welcome the moves made by the British Government in that respect. It has listened to the parties in Northern Ireland and, critically, the victims' groups, but we will want to see more detail in respect of what specifically it intends to propose. Again, however, there is no room for unilateralism in such matters. These are issues that were agreed by everybody as far back as 2010. They were agreed between the British and Irish Governments and the Northern Ireland parties. I have met with many victims' groups and they want closure; they do not want amnesties.
Deputy Cathal Crowe raised the issue of the national aviation strategy. Again, I will raise that with the Minister. Of course, I believe that airports such as Shannon Airport are critical in such a national aviation strategy, and particularly in the context of continental connectivity.
I have dealt comprehensively with the questions put by Deputy Haughey.
In terms of the points raised by Deputy Daly, I ask that he give me some background to the case. We stand ready as a Government. We have honoured our commitments in terms of legacy. We want to see a proper framework developed around legacy, where families can get closure or, at least, get inquests held or get access to information that would assist them in understanding who murdered or killed their loved ones and the background to the manner in which their loved ones were killed. Again, too much of this has just dragged on for far too long - on all sides, may I add. There is also a lot of hurt out there in terms of murders and deaths that were caused by paramilitaries and by state forces. There is a need for a system that brings closure to the victims to some extent. They may never get complete closure. This has just dragged on far too long, however.