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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 11 May 2022

Vol. 1021 No. 7

Ceisteanna - Questions

Cabinet Committees

Paul Murphy

Question:

1. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with the economy will next meet. [18417/22]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

2. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with the economy will next meet. [18450/22]

Peadar Tóibín

Question:

3. Deputy Peadar Tóibín asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment will next meet. [21868/22]

Mick Barry

Question:

4. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with the economy will next meet. [22009/22]

Cian O'Callaghan

Question:

5. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with the economy will next meet. [22093/22]

Ivana Bacik

Question:

6. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment will next meet. [22897/22]

Mick Barry

Question:

7. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with the economy will next meet. [22946/22]

Barry Cowen

Question:

8. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment will next meet. [23213/22]

Christopher O'Sullivan

Question:

9. Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment will next meet. [23217/22]

Cian O'Callaghan

Question:

10. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee that deals with the economy will next meet. [23378/22]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 10, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment first met on 8 July 2020. It has met a total of 19 times, most recently on 28 March. The next meeting is scheduled for 16 May. Membership of the committee is comprised of the Taoiseach; the Tánaiste and Minister for Enterprise, Trade and Employment; the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, and Transport; the Minister for Finance; the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform; and the Minister for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media. Other Ministers or Ministers of State attend when required.

The Cabinet committee on economic recovery and investment is responsible for issues relating to the economy and investment. It had an initial focus on developing the July jobs stimulus 2020, and has since overseen the development of the Government's economic recovery plan, as well as the review of the national development plan. It has also overseen the development of the Government's national digital strategy. Regular updates and analysis of economic developments are also provided at these meetings. Issues relating to the economy are, of course, also regularly discussed at full Cabinet meetings, where all formal decisions are made.

The delivery of affordable housing is absolutely key to economic recovery. My colleague in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown, Councillor Melisa Halpin, just received a reply from the local authority about Cherrywood, which is the biggest residential development going on in the State. The local infrastructure housing activation fund, LIHAF, funding which the State extended to the developers was supposed to be reciprocated with 300 affordable homes, but the local authority now thinks that will not happen. There is extremely poor engagement from the developers. It seems that whatever affordable housing the local authority gets will only be €37,000 less than the market price, which is now on average €644,000 in Dún Laoghaire, which means it will not be affordable. There is similar pessimism with regard to the Woodbrook-Shanganagh site, which is also LIHAF-funded. Public money was given to the developers for infrastructure in exchange for affordable housing.

The discount is slightly more at €63,000 but given the average house prices in the area, the affordable housing we were supposed to get will almost certainly be unaffordable for the vast majority of people. That is utterly unacceptable. Indeed, the failure of the Cherrywood developers to engage seriously with the council after getting this money for the infrastructure to deliver affordable housing is a scandal. What is the Taoiseach going to do about this?

The most famous village in Ireland, Blarney, is facing the closure of its post office. It is not alone. More than 200 post offices face the threat of closure in the next 12 months. The root of the problem here is the Government's failure to increase the pay of postmasters and postmistresses and its refusal to switch the provision of some key State services to the post office network. Ulster Bank and KBC Bank are scandalously preparing to exit the Irish market. Has the Government even considered the idea of transferring their services to the post offices? I suspect that Fianna Fáil, Fine Gael and the Green Party will not be quickly forgiven if these 200 post offices are allowed to close. I know for certain that the people of Blarney will neither forgive nor forget. Does the Taoiseach intend to act on these issues or will he stand idly by and allow these devastating closures to take place?

My question is about economic evaluation of the Government's housing policy. The Government is planning to give €450 million in subsidies to developers to build apartments. These subsidies will be up to €120,000 and, in some cases, as high as €144,000. Despite this huge public subsidy there will be no discounts in the sale price, no affordability built in and the apartments will be sold at the full market price. For a fraction of this cost the State could buy the land and make it available for affordable housing and affordable purchase homes to be built. Has any independent analysis of these proposals been carried out? Is the Taoiseach aware of any other country in the world where the government is gifting such large subsidies to private developers? Does this scheme guarantee a minimum level of profit of 15% for developers? Why is the Government implementing the developers' wish list instead of measures to increase housing affordability? Is the Taoiseach concerned about the huge influence of people lobbying for developers on the Government's housing policy? Why is the Government so intent on gifting public money and resources to private interests?

Economic recovery is hampered by the scourge of low pay in Ireland, with one in five workers on low pay. This has a knock-on effect because many people are unable to afford basic costs such as basic housing costs and are unable to contemplate having a secure home. They are simply on too low a rate of pay to be able to meet rising housing prices and rising prices for childcare, transport, food and fuel. This morning the Labour Party's Living Wage Bill 2022 was debated and we welcome the fact that the Government did not oppose the Bill. However, when will the Government move on the Bill? When will it move to ensure there is a clear pathway to transform the minimum wage into a living wage, as promised in the programme for Government? A report from the Low Pay Commission has been with the Tánaiste since March. Can the Taoiseach confirm when that will go before the Cabinet, when it will be published and when we will see the transformative measures to transform the hourly rate of those on the lowest pay into a living wage? When will such measures come into effect to transform the lives of those who are so desperately affected by the cost-of-living crisis?

My question relates to the Cabinet subcommittee on economic recovery and investment. Notwithstanding that its recent meetings were sure to deal with issues pertaining to the cost of living, I specifically have a question about the costs associated with energy not only for households but also for business and its activities. In recent weeks another independent report and assessment appeared to indicate that the prices in Ireland are 25% over and above the European average, notwithstanding international pressures and other issues. The Taoiseach knows that I have been raising this matter for some time. It is the subject of investigation not only by our regulator, the Competition and Consumer Protection Commission, but also by the EU Commissioner for Energy, Ms Kadri Simson. I have briefed and asked the body within her remit to look at this issue and investigate, analyse and independently assess it for once and for all so as to bring some clarity to the issue of whether there has been a failing on the part of the regulatory and EirGrid systems that are in place here to ensure there is adequate competition, adequate supply and therefore adequate price variance available to the public and to business. Will the Taoiseach respond to the issue I have raised?

Like Deputy Cowen, I wish to raise the issue of the rising cost of energy. Due to inflation and an over-reliance on fossil fuels the cost of energy has skyrocketed. The rising cost of energy for households has been well documented and we have introduced measures. However, what has been less documented is the rising cost of energy for businesses, particularly small businesses. I have the example of a bill that a small business owner, a hotelier, showed to me. One part of the bill was an energy market adjustment charge of €5,000 extra due to the cost of energy. A well-known restaurateur showed me a bill that increased by over 250%. Urgent intervention is needed. It could either be through a financial support, and we have been good with financial support for businesses, or, second, and this is one that is an easy win, through the support scheme for energy audits, which makes €2,000 available to businesses that have a spend on energy of over €10,000. Many microbusinesses in small towns do not have that spend. Now, however, they are being pushed up towards it with the rising cost of energy but they cannot qualify for it. We should bring microbusinesses into that scheme as well.

I thank the Deputies for raising those issues in the broad context of the economy. There were quite a number on housing and energy.

In the first instance, the Housing for All strategy has a suite of measures, not one set of measures. There is a very strong focus on social housing and a target for 2022 of 9,000, with the aim of getting to approximately 10,000 per annum over the next five years and beyond. There are further targets for affordable housing, cost rental and private housing. As regards LIHAF funding, the LIHAF scheme has been in place for quite some time. I do not have the specifics in respect of the individual local authority and its relationship with the development companies to which Deputy Boyd Barrett referred, but I will talk to the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage about the two specific cases mentioned. Suffice to say that in certain areas LIHAF funding has been important for getting construction going and getting projects off the ground. We need to build far more houses than we are currently building. It is as simple as that. We are simply not building enough houses, irrespective of the type of house, for a population of 5 million people.

Over the last ten years we were not building enough houses so we have to rapidly increase and then consistently have an output of housing of 33,000 to 35,000 per annum for the next ten years. That will enable us to provide younger people, in particular, with affordable houses to rent or buy.

In response to Deputy Barry, I often thought he might have kissed the Blarney Stone when he first arrived from Dublin to Cork because he has what the Blarney Stone mythically gives one when one kisses it. The closure of post offices is a serious issue. I recently met with representatives of post offices in Cork. The Government intervened last year and in the previous year by providing a funding stream to underpin some of the services and to support the viability and continuation of post offices. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is looking at this very keenly at present because it is due to expire towards the end of the year. We are concerned that a town such as Blarney would be without a post office. We are looking at transferring services, but the customers of Ulster Bank and KBC Bank are going to migrate to other financial institutions and it is open to An Post to perhaps provide banking services and so forth. Fundamentally, however, there is the issue of the community-based services.

In collaboration with the Ministers with responsibility for rural development and public expenditure we will seek to do what we can on financial underpinning and what other services, in particular State services, post offices in rural Ireland could realistically provide.

Deputy Cian O'Callaghan referred to the Croí Cónaithe fund. This has two aspects. One is apartment building in cities and the other is to try to facilitate through much smaller grants the repair of housing in town centres across rural Ireland. We all go through villages and towns where there are buildings and houses that are not in use or that have not been refurbished or renovated. This is one aspect. With regard to the aspect identified by Deputy Cian O'Callaghan, where there is an upper limit of €120,000, and not all may achieve this, there has been a challenge with regard to the viability of apartment blocks in Dublin, Cork, Galway, Waterford and Limerick. There has not been anything near the level of development of apartment blocks that are desired in city centres for a number of reasons. There is the whole idea of compact living, whereby all services are available within walking distance to people who live in residential areas and we have a more energy efficient city. There is a societal objective to ensure the viability of building large apartment blocks. This has not been realised to date. There is an aversion to tax incentives and this is shared across the House. The Croí Cónaithe fund has been designed to see whether we can bridge the gap between the viability cost and the market price to enable us to get far more supply into the market so that young people can buy apartments at affordable rates. Currently this is not the case in cities. We are looking at a supply of approximately 5,000 apartments. This is what the scheme is targeted to deliver.

Deputy Bacik referenced the issue of low pay. We have not opposed her Bill. The Tánaiste will come forward with a report on low pay. The Government has committed proactively to a living wage provision.

Deputy Cowen raised the issue of energy and the wider issue of competition in the market. Again, the Government will be giving active consideration to this. This was a feature prior to the pandemic. The fact that our prices are price higher than our European counterparts has been a feature of the Irish energy market for quite some time. This will be examined by the Government.

I take the point made by Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan on energy audits and their application to micro-companies. He raised two issues. Yesterday, the Government extended the low rate of VAT for the hospitality sector, including restaurants and small hotels, until February 2023. This should be of some help notwithstanding the huge impact of energy input costs.

Cabinet Committees

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

11. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change will next meet. [19798/22]

Ivana Bacik

Question:

12. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change will next meet. [21061/22]

Ivana Bacik

Question:

13. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach the membership and terms of reference of the climate action delivery board co-chaired by the Secretary General of his Department. [21857/22]

Bríd Smith

Question:

14. Deputy Bríd Smith asked the Taoiseach the membership and terms of reference of the climate action delivery board co-chaired by the Secretary General of his Department. [21860/22]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

15. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the membership and terms of reference of the climate action delivery board co-chaired by the Secretary General of his Department. [21862/22]

Mick Barry

Question:

16. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change will next meet. [22010/22]

Barry Cowen

Question:

17. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change will next meet. [23214/22]

Christopher O'Sullivan

Question:

18. Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on environment and climate change will next meet. [23219/22]

Mick Barry

Question:

19. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach when the Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change will next meet. [23439/22]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 11 to 19, inclusive, together.

The Cabinet committee on the environment and climate change oversees the implementation of the ambitious programme for Government commitments on the environment and climate change. The Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021 sets out Ireland's key climate change commitments. It sets challenging carbon reduction targets for 2030 and the statutory commitment of achieving a climate neutral economy by 2050. The next step in the process will be to set sectoral emission ceilings that will determine the upper limits of greenhouse gas emissions for each sector. The cumulative sectoral emissions ceilings will keep within the overall carbon budgets approved by the Houses of the Oireachtas and which took effect from 6 April.

Agreed policies and measures designed to ensure that sectors quickly and significantly reduce their emissions have been set out in the Climate Action Plan 2021. The plan will be further revised this year to ensure that the actions it contains are sufficient to meet the reduction targets that will have been made explicit through the setting of the carbon budgets and sectoral emissions ceilings.

The Cabinet committee last met on Monday, 9 May, and the next meeting is provisionally set for 4 July. The Cabinet committee will continue to meet regularly during 2022 to progress all aspects of the Government's ambitious climate action and environmental policies.

The climate action delivery board was established in 2019 and is jointly chaired by the Secretaries General of the Department of the Taoiseach and the Department of the Environment, Climate and Communications. Membership of the climate action delivery board consists of Secretaries General from those Departments that have key responsibilities for climate action delivery. Its original remit focused on overseeing the implementation of the last Government's Climate Action Plan 2019. Since then, the programme for Government, the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Act 2021 and the Climate Action Plan 2021 have changed the context of the work of the delivery board.

In November 2021, the delivery board updated its terms of reference to provide for these changes, including the addition of a requirement for the delivery board to monitor the implementation of carbon budgets and sectoral emissions ceilings, which are now provided for by law. Quarterly reports on the implementation by Departments of actions committed to under the climate action plan will continue as before. These will continue to be submitted to Government and published on my Department's website to ensure full accountability and transparency in the delivery of our climate objectives. A full list of the members of the delivery board and its terms of reference are available on my Department's website.

This week the World Meteorological Organization warned there is a 50-50 chance we will breach 1.5°C at least once in the next five years. The alarm bells cannot ring any louder. The energy transition to renewables is the foundation on which everything will be built. The renewables industry is also ringing the alarm bells. It also states there is a 50-50 chance we will reach our ambitious 2030 renewables target. It points to a number of factors and I want to raise several of these with the Taoiseach. One is the capacity of An Bord Pleanála's marine and climate unit. At present it has eight staff. The industry reckons this is a fraction of what is needed. This unit will be dealing with five or six offshore applications next January, for example. Another element, which picks up on an earlier point, is the cost of renewables. With regard to the renewable electricity support scheme, the RESS 2 auction will be announced on 17 May. There is an indication at this stage that costs will be significantly higher than in the RESS 1 auction. What is the Government doing to address this? The industry points to the need for indexation and commercial rates. Will the Government establish a high-level cross-government committee to engage with the industry and look at the higher cost of renewables?

The World Meteorological Organization issued a warning yesterday, as we know, that there is now a 50% chance that temperatures will rise by 1.5°C above pre-industrial levels within the next five years, by 2026. This is yet another wake-up call on climate, as if we needed one. The brutal war on Ukraine reminds us on a daily basis of our continued overreliance on fossil fuels. On a more optimistic note, as we saw in the pandemic, we can see the State, and other states, pivoting quickly to address urgent challenges. We need to see this sense of urgency brought to bear on the climate crisis.

We have called for urgent action on fast-tracking retrofitting and energy efficiency measures for homes and households. In recent times we have called for those homes that rely on turf for heating to be first in line for energy upgrades and greater subsidies. Has the Cabinet committee considered this? I thank the Taoiseach for his clarification on the membership and terms of reference of the climate action delivery board. We still have questions about the obligations on the delivery board and in particular its reporting obligations. Will the Taoiseach confirm whether it still has to report to the Government every quarter? Must it still present an annual progress report and updated action plan to the Government? It appears that some of the changes to the terms of reference removed some of these obligations. Again, we need to see urgent action and an urgent commitment to the work of this delivery board.

People Before Profit has for many years campaigned for free public transport on buses, trains and the Luas as the type of radical measure necessary to increase the use of public transport. We have also called for much more investment in public transport to make it more frequent and reliable and a more attractive service to use. The Government has gone a tiny way towards what we have proposed with a 20% reduction.

I welcome it but I do not believe it is enough. I have heard concerns from bus workers and I think they would like reassurances that given our privatised model that allows private operators to operate, the NTA will not now use the reduction in fare income as leverage to demand that lower tenders are put in and pressure is put on wages and conditions of bus workers, which have been under threat for some time. They need reassurance on that because our bus workers-----

Who? Is it private operators?

The NTA because it is the one that tenders the routes. The NTA has given the 20% reduction but it is also the body that makes decisions about tenders. Bus workers do not want reduced fare income to be used as essentially a means of then demanding cheaper tenders and pressure being put on the pay and conditions of bus workers, who actually need a pay rise at the moment. They do not need pressure on their pay and conditions.

In the context of the sub-committee dealing with climate change, will the Taoiseach check to see when the territorial plan will be agreed and submitted to the Commission in order to draw down the matched funding to the NDP, which is €84 million, to provide the just transition funding and allow the body administering it, namely, the Eastern and Midland Regional Assembly, to be set up and in place to effect the sort of impact we wanted and expected to see on foot of the decision by An Bord Pleanála in 2019 to close power stations following the planning applications made for duel-powered stations at that time? It is imperative that this be put to work and that the acceleration of decarbonisation can be the incentive for coming out of this better than we went into it. I ask the Taoiseach to update the House as to the progress relating to the submission of the territorial plan, which in turn will ensure that funds can be drawn down and that can be put to work as soon as possible.

It has been suggested in this Chamber that the answer to our energy needs is drilling for more oil and gas off the Irish coast, which would take years before an appropriate location was found. It has been suggested that LNG might be the answer to our energy needs. It has also been suggested that perhaps we should reopen the bogs. I am not talking about the turbary rights where Deputy Cowen has fought for the rights of individuals to burn turf in their homes. It has been suggested that we should open the bogs for the production of energy. Surely by the time all this is done, the appropriate way to deal with the energy crisis is to advance and expedite our switch to clean renewable energy. Surely we should bring forward at a much faster rate mechanisms whereby we can increase and scale up floating offshore wind in particular, so that it can do two things - deal with the energy crisis this country is in the midst of and deal with a climate crisis that will bring catastrophes, the likes of which we have never seen before.

I thank the Deputies for the issues they raised. Funding has been provided by the Minister to increase the capacity of An Bord Pleanála. Along with the Minister for Housing, Local Government and Heritage and the Attorney General, I was determined, coming into office, that we would get the Maritime Area Planning Act 2021 passed so that the Maritime Area Regulatory Authority could be established to deal comprehensively with applications for offshore wind development. That is extremely important. All Deputies raised the report of the World Meteorological Organization. We had a previous debate in the Dáil about stopping carbon tax increases. We must get real in terms of providing resources to enable us as a State to address climate change. The Deputy raised legitimate points.

Is carbon tax paying for An Bord Pleanála? It is not.

My point is that we are not going to be able to retrofit houses-----

It is a deflection.

-----in the future to the scale we want if we do not have revenue. We will not get environmentally-friendly farms or protect people from fuel poverty if we do not have revenue. That motion was on the issue of turf, which can be resolved, and carbon tax. Parties like the Social Democrats, which talk about climate change, voted for that motion.

We voted with the Government on carbon tax.

No, but on the Private Members' motion. The point I am making is that future generations will not forgive this generation of politicians if we do not deal comprehensively and urgently with this. There will be significant challenges. We are up against it in terms of meeting the targets that have been set.

Tax profits instead of consumers.

We must tackle it on all fronts. It is not an ideological issue. Human behaviour must really be the way to deal with it.

The Government never taxes profits.

In terms of the climate action delivery board, we now have the Climate Change Advisory Council, which will report annually in respect of the targets Government has set and the targets set under the Climate Action and Low-Carbon Development Act. The delivery board will be reporting quarterly. There is no need for it to do the work of the Climate Change Advisory Council in respect of its annual report, which will be the key report in the respect of the delivery of the climate action plan and the targets within the legislation.

I welcome the implementation of low bus fares on public transport. This is a good thing. I admire Deputy Boyd Barrett's capacity to always turn a positive into a negative fairly quickly. By no stretch of the imagination is anybody seeking to suggest that a reduction in fares for people travelling on buses will be used to reduce the pay of bus workers. In particular, bus workers in the public sector will be covered by the normal public service pay frameworks while those in the private sector will be covered by a variety of processes in terms of labour relations mechanisms. There must be further work with private sector operators in respect of low fares and the Minister for Transport is engaging with them in that regard.

I do not have exact timelines but work is advanced in terms of the submission of the territorial plan for just transition. This is important and I am very anxious to get accelerated delivery in terms of just transition more generally, not just the submission to Europe but also the utilisation of our own funding in terms of the commitments that have been made and the targets set for retrofitting, for example. We need to get faster realisation of what has been committed to.

In respect of the matter raised by Deputy Christopher O'Sullivan, I do not believe we should open up bogs again to meet further energy needs. There are immediate issues around energy. We are a large importer of fossil fuels and will continue to be for a number of decades. Gas will be a transitional fuel. However, there is no doubt that the only future is to double down on renewables and to do so as fast as we can. This particularly relates to offshore wind energy. The Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, his Department and the Government at Cabinet committee level are endeavouring to drive this as fast as we can in respect of offshore wind energy to reach our 2030 targets and become a net exporter of energy through renewables from 2030 to 2040.

Citizens' Assembly

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

20. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach the expected timeline for the citizens’ assemblies committed to in the programme for Government. [21861/22]

Paul Murphy

Question:

21. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach the expected timeline for the citizens’ assemblies committed to in the programme for Government. [21864/22]

Neale Richmond

Question:

22. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the timeline for citizens’ assemblies as included in the programme for Government. [22026/22]

Ruairí Ó Murchú

Question:

23. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Taoiseach the expected timeline for the citizens' assemblies committed to in the programme for Government. [22989/22]

Ivana Bacik

Question:

24. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach the expected timeline for the citizens’ assemblies committed to in the programme for Government. [22901/22]

Cian O'Callaghan

Question:

25. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach the expected timeline for the citizen’s assemblies committed to in the programme for Government. [23379/22]

Mick Barry

Question:

26. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach the expected timeline for the citizens’ assemblies committed to in the programme for Government. [23440/22]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 20 to 26, inclusive, together.

The Government agreed on 8 February 2022 to the establishment of two citizens' assemblies, one dealing with the issue of biodiversity loss and the other dealing with the type of directly elected mayor and local government structures best suited for Dublin. The inaugural meeting for both assemblies took place on Saturday, 9 April 2022. The terms of reference, as set out by the Oireachtas, call on the assemblies to conclude their deliberations within eight months and to submit their reports ideally not later than nine months from the date of commencement and sooner if possible.

The establishment of the next citizens' assemblies, one on drug use and the other on the future of education, will be subject to a Government decision and resolutions of Dáil Éireann and Seanad Éireann at the appropriate time. The question of when the next assemblies might commence depends in large part on how soon the current assemblies conclude their work and submit their reports.

We recently sought to hold a referendum to debate our neutrality. The Taoiseach suggested, in response to that and in voting down our motion for a referendum, that we consider a citizens' assembly on neutrality. Is he serious about that? I believe we should still have a referendum to give the people the right to debate and decide. Will we have a citizens' assembly, which would also be welcome, to discuss the issue? One of the issues it could discuss as part of defining neutrality is consistency in standards and principles when it comes to foreign policy.

I draw attention yet again to the double standards in the response to what happened in Jenin in the past 24 hours. The Taoiseach has rightly condemned the murder of a journalist, and I am glad he has done so. He also called for an investigation. However, there is another important issue about that event. What the hell were the Israeli Defense Forces, IDF, doing carrying out “an operation” on Palestinian territory? For the last six weeks, the Taoiseach and western leaders have rightly condemned Russia’s “operation” in Ukraine. They have called it out for what it is, namely, a brutal, unjustifiable, inexcusable act of military aggression on somebody else’s territory. Why is the same thing not being said about Israel’s incursion into Jenin in Palestinian territory? What was Israel doing carrying out a military operation on Palestinian territory? What is it doing day-in, day-out carrying out military operations on Palestinian territory? Will we call that out as well?

Many in this House believe we should already have a citizens' assembly on drug use. We need to make sure that happens as early as possible in 2023. Anybody who has engaged with any community in Ireland knows the dangers and harm drug addiction is causing. Looking outside my constituency office on court days, I can see people who have been impacted by drug addiction. This impacts utterly negatively on wider society. People will often say it is like looking at a squad of zombies. It is incredibly frightening. There has been a failure in this regard. We are dealing with huge levels of drug debt intimidation, with families being put under severe pressure and gangs demanding money at high rates of interest.

We need to ensure the citizens' assembly happens. We have spoken about Europe and European affairs this week. At the Conference on the Future of Europe, I was surprised - this possibly points to the lack of representation of peripheral communities across Europe - that the issues of drug addiction and dealing with organised crime and its impact on communities were not brought up by anyone other than me, as far as I could see. That is frightening. If we are to talk about engagement, it has to happen at a real level. We probably need to look at a Europe-wide solution. We need this to happen as soon as possible. There has been a failure by everyone in this House in this regard. The Taoiseach should not get me wrong. I have taken an incredibly strong position on policing actions but we need further action.

As Chair of the Joint Oireachtas Committee on Gender Equality, I thank the Taoiseach for his engagement with our committee. We are making progress on reviewing the recommendations of the citizens' assembly. Its 45 important recommendations are effectively a blueprint for achieving gender equality. We want to produce an action plan by the end of this year to ensure those recommendations will be implemented. We have sought assurances from the Taoiseach and the Government that a referendum will be held next year to put into effect recommendations Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, of the citizens’ assembly. In other words, we are seeking constitutional change to delete the sexist language about women and mothers from the Constitution and to strengthen our equality guarantee. Can the Taoiseach give some indication that the Government will commit to holding that referendum, building on the work the joint committee is doing and the citizens’ assembly has done?

My colleague, Deputy Ó Ríordáin, and others have repeatedly sought a date for the proposed citizens’ assembly on drug use. Can that be brought forward to commence early next year, as I believe the Taoiseach indicated previously? Can that be confirmed?

We welcomed the citizens’ assembly on a directly-elected mayor for Dublin. Is it the intention to have an election for that office in May 2024? What is holding up plans for a directly-elected mayor of Limerick? We do not see any sign of plans to ensure the election for that office will take place either this year or next year. Since it has been three years since a plebiscite was held to introduce the office of a directly-elected mayor of Limerick and more than a year since the general scheme of the relevant Bill was published, we ask for a timeline for having a directly-elected mayor of Limerick.

I will ask the Taoiseach a question on the Stardust inquests. The families who lost loved ones in the Stardust fire have been waiting more than 41 years for truth and justice. They cannot be left waiting any longer. The Taoiseach has acknowledged that given the length of time the inquest will run, the juries will need to be paid. As the Taoiseach will know, neither the Coroners Act 1962 nor the Juries Act 1976 allows for juries at inquests to be paid. The Government gave commitments back in February that this would be addressed urgently. When will this matter be resolved? Will legislation be brought forward in this Dáil term, as it needs to be? What approach will the Government take to this?

I thank all Deputies for raising the various issues in the context of this group of questions.

On Deputy Boyd Barrett’s question, it is my view that there should be a citizens’ assembly in relation to all aspects of neutrality. In the first instance, however, we have committed to citizens’ assemblies on education and drugs. We will be examining the timeline around a citizens’ assembly on neutrality. We have to get Government agreement on that. Conscious of the war in Ukraine, it is my view that we should try to maintain unity of purpose in relation to the war across all of the various strands of Government policy on and responses to Ukraine; in relation to the European Union in terms of our humanitarian response and facilitation of the EU peace facility; in terms of our humanitarian aid to Ukraine, amounting to €20 million, which we have sent through the UN's international agencies to facilitate that contribution; and in terms of supporting Ukraine’s application to join the European Union. I want to maintain the broadest possible unity of purpose across society. If we were to have a premature debate on military neutrality, that in itself could take the focus away from where it needs to be right now, which is on the humanitarian crisis and dealing with accommodation and access to services in this country. We do that well. That is my view.

I do not necessarily accept Deputy Boyd Barrett’s view, which he put so starkly, that there is a contrast in standards in respect of different issues, conflicts and behaviours in different parts of the world. I do not want to get into scale but what is happening in Ukraine represents the worst humanitarian crisis historically since the Second World War. Those are not my words but the words of the UN Secretary General, António Guterres, and the United Nations. This is not a comparable situation, even though what is going on in Palestine is shocking too. I have been a strong, outspoken critic of-----

There are 7 million Palestinian who have been estranged from their homes for 70 years.

I have been a strong outspoken critic-----

There are 7 million of them.

I did not interrupt the Deputy. He should allow me to respond.

The Taoiseach should not get into a league table of suffering.

I am not getting into a league table. The Deputy deliberately intervened so as not to allow me to follow through on what I was about to say.

My point is that I have consistently been an outspoken critic of Israeli Government policy in respect of Palestine. Ireland as a country has consistently called out, to use the Deputy’s phrase, the constant and consistent violation of agreements already reached on Palestine. Our view is that the Palestinian people have a right to a homeland. We believe in a two-state solution to resolve this long-standing, historical conflict, with two states that go back to the 1967 borders.

We have been very strong and proactive supporters of UNRWA, as has the European Union. The Deputy never, ever gives credit to the European Union for the work it does for Palestinians.

He never mentions it, for whatever reason, because it does not suit the anti-European Union perspective that he has. The Deputy never does. He always has to be reminded. He talks about consistency of approach and consistency of standards. What amazes me from time to time, from certain parts of the opposite side of the House, is the complete lack of any acknowledgement of the fact the European Union represents the most significant supporter and benefactor of Palestinian humanitarian causes, of UNRWA and so on. That never gets acknowledged, although that has been a consistent European Union position.

The Israelis blow up EU stuff all of the time.

What I have said is that the Government has condemned this appalling murder of a journalist and also the continued violation of basic human rights in terms of the Palestinians' freedom of movement and so forth.

It gives Israel impunity.

Deputy Ó Murchú legitimately raised the issue of drug abuse. I accept fully the shocking impact that drug abuse has on communities, as well as organised crime. The Minister of State, Deputy Feighan, has commenced preparations for the Citizens' Assembly on drug use, which Deputy Bacik also raised. This has been done to ensure that there will be no delay in establishing the Citizens' Assembly on drugs when the two assemblies that are currently operating complete their work before the end of this year or, at the latest, in quarter 1 of 2023. That will allow a period of over one year for the Government to consider its recommendations.

In the meantime, of course, work is under way in regard to drugs policy, there is a whole range of activities going on and the Minister of State is involved. A health-led approach to drug use is what the Government is pursuing. The Government has adopted a health diversion programme to offer compassion, not punishment, to people who are in possession of drugs for personal use. The programme will connect participants with health services to provide a pathway to recovery and will also allow participants to avoid a criminal conviction, which can have far-reaching consequences, particularly for younger people.

In regard to Deputy Bacik's points, I look forward to the output and the work of the Committee on Gender Equality and the recommendations of the Citizens' Assembly. The Government is positive about holding a referendum in regard to those recommendations. The timelines are something we can discuss with leaders of the Opposition parties and the Oireachtas more generally in terms of those issues because the timing is important in regard to a proper lead-in and so forth. There also has to be agreement on the precise wording which has prevented that referendum from happening previously, when, in my view, it should have happened. I look forward to the action plan that the committee is going to produce. I have already discussed the drugs issue.

In response to Deputy Cian O'Callaghan, I have met with the families of the victims of the Stardust fire, in particular in regard to the issue of payment of juries because the Coroners Act and the Juries Act do not facilitate that. I have asked the Minister for Justice to give consideration to that issue. My understanding is that discussions were taking place between the Attorney General and the Minister for Justice and I will follow up on that. Time is moving on and I accept this issue needs to be brought to resolution. There has been significant progress in terms of the holding of inquests and so on, but this is an issue that has been raised in respect of ensuring that one can have juries for the much lengthier time that will be involved here.

Is féidir teacht ar Cheisteanna Scríofa ar www.oireachtas.ie.
Written Answers are published on the Oireachtas website.
Cuireadh an Dáil ar fionraí ar 2.04 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 3.04 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 2.04 p.m. and resumed at 3.04 p.m.
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