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Dáil Éireann debate -
Tuesday, 14 Jun 2022

Vol. 1023 No. 4

Ceisteanna - Questions

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Ivana Bacik

Question:

1. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent discussions with the Prime Minister of Ukraine. [24218/22]

Seán Haughey

Question:

2. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his most recent discussions with the Prime Minister of Ukraine. [26029/22]

Neale Richmond

Question:

3. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine. [30513/22]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.

I met with the Ukrainian Prime Minister, Mr. Denys Shmyhal, in Shannon Airport on 20 April. He gave me a first-hand account of events on the ground in Ukraine, including, in particular, the appalling killings and destruction in Bucha and the continuing attacks on civilians and towns. The Prime Minister, who was on his way to discussions at the International Monetary Fund, IMF, in Washington, outlined Ukraine's urgent need for financial assistance, both to enable the its Government to keep essential services going and to reconstruct infrastructure and buildings after the war. He also indicated areas where particular technical assistance will be required to help make Ukraine safe again in the face of the enormous damage caused by the war. He reiterated the determination of the Ukrainian Government to protect its people and resist the ongoing aggression by Russian forces.

I expressed Ireland's strong support for Ukraine's application to join the EU. The Commission will shortly publish its opinion on the application, which will be discussed by the European Council at its meeting later this month. I also expressed our support for the strongest sanctions against Russia and those in Russia supporting or facilitating the war. A significant sixth package of sanctions against Russia, which will see an end to the importation of 90% of Russian crude oil and petroleum products, was subsequently agreed at the special meeting of the European Council on 30 and 31 May. Prime Minister Shmyhal expressed his gratitude for Ireland's ongoing support for Ukraine, including in welcoming Ukrainians who have sought refuge in this country.

I met with the Ukrainian Minister of Foreign Affairs, Mr. Dmytro Kuleba, during my visit to the World Economic Forum in Davos on 25 May. He briefed me, in particular, on latest developments in the war, especially in Donbas, where there have been a large number of both military and civilian casualties. I expressed my total horror at the brutal way in which Russian forces are destroying towns and villages. I also had an opportunity for a short exchange with the mayor of Kyiv, Mr. Vitali Klitschko, while in Davos.

I met with the Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine, Ms Olga Stefanishyna, during her recent visit to Dublin on 3 June. She was especially focused on seeking support for Ukraine's EU application. She said that while the Ukrainian Government fully appreciates that joining the EU is a complex process, in which relevant criteria must be met, a strong signal from the European Council at this time would be of very significant value to the people of Ukraine, who are enduring so much. I expressed our support and undertook to engage with other EU leaders to ensure the most positive message possible is sent. I also met with the Speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament, Mr. Ruslan Stefanchuk, during my visit to the European Parliament on 8 June. I again set out Ireland's unequivocal support for his country and his people. He expressed his gratitude to the Government and people of Ireland. In my address to the European Parliament, I said that those countries looking to join the EU should be supported in undertaking the reforms and preparations necessary and that, when they meet the criteria, we should not place further barriers in their way. I expressed my hope that when the European Council meets in June and considers its application, it will be possible to send the people of Ukraine a clear and positive message.

I thank the Taoiseach for the update on his meeting with the Ukrainian Prime Minister and for his expression of support from the Government for the rapid accession of Ukraine to the EU. I join him in expressing solidarity with the people of Ukraine and support for its speedy accession to the Union.

I met last week with the Ukrainian ambassador, Ms Gerasko Larysa, in Leinster House. In previous weeks, I invited members of the Ukrainian Action in Ireland group to meet with the leaders and Whips of other groupings in the Oireachtas. I commend all the voluntary actions being taken, including, for example, the opening of a new support hub for Ukrainians in Vicar Street, Dublin 8 at the weekend and the provision of free bicycles to Ukrainian refugees by Paul McQuaid of River Cycles in Usher's Island, also in Dublin 8. These and many other examples of voluntary activity around the country to support Ukrainians are hugely welcome. The ambassador conveyed to me her thanks to Ireland for the huge support we have given to Ukrainians fleeing war but expressed concern about accommodation and that the Ukrainian adults who come here wish to engage in paid employment. To facilitate them in doing so, we need to ensure there is adequate provision not only of school places but also of childcare. I undertook to raise those issues.

I once again express my condemnation of the horrific Russian war and the appalling breaches of international rules of war, including the filtration camps about which we are now hearing. We must all condemn the unspeakable horrors that are being visited on the people of Ukraine.

I am pleased the EU has been able finally to agree a sixth round of sanctions on Russia. As we know, there will be a ban on all seaborne oil from Russia. In addition, the country's largest bank, Sberbank, has been barred from the Society for Worldwide Interbank Financial Telecommunication, SWIFT, system. However, it took a long time to agree this package. The Prime Minister of Hungary, Mr. Viktor Orbán, held up the agreement and a temporary exemption was given for piped oil imports. The negotiations were difficult and the final deal is not perfect.

Is there a weakening of solidarity with Ukraine within the EU? There are reports of difficulties, for instance, regarding the striking of a peace deal between Russia and Ukraine. France and Italy are talking with Putin, apparently, and the Baltic states are not particularly happy about that. Will Ukraine be made to accept the ceding of territory or be told it cannot join NATO as part of any potential peace agreement?

There is also opposition from some member states to Ukraine's application to join the EU being fast-tracked. I would like the Taoiseach to tell the House that EU solidarity is firm and that it is not being diminished regarding the issues I brought to his attention.

I am grateful for that comprehensive update from the Taoiseach. I join with others in strongly supporting his call for the full and rapid accession of Ukraine to the EU, as well as Moldova and Georgia in due course. One of the sad things, and we are over 100 days into this phase of the conflict, is that the attention of so many people is drifting. Sadly, it is drifting when the war is perhaps getting most vicious, particularly in the Donbas region. We see the true extent of the crimes that Russia is committing against the Ukrainian people. It is rarely being covered and is not being discussed to the same extent that it was in the first fortnight of the war. This happens with many conflicts and it is understandable. It behoves all of us who spoke so passionately on this previously, regardless of what side of the debate we were on or what angle, to continue to press this.

We have to remember this war is exacerbating so many of the difficulties that all the countries across the EU are facing. It is sickening to see Russia using food as a weapon in this war and especially food destined for the developing world. The Taoiseach talked about further EU sanctions. Like Deputy Haughey, I think the EU can go further and there can be a seventh round of sanctions. Regarding Ireland's role, the next time the EU agrees supports for Ukraine will we put financial resources behind EU lethal military support for the Ukrainians? Will we again look at the anti-aircraft missiles and Javelin missiles that are sitting in storage and soon to be disposed of and give those to the Ukrainian people who can use them to defend their lives, their homes and, indeed, Europe?

I find it interesting that the Taoiseach met with the Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine as she was on the way to the International Monetary Fund, IMF. People Before Profit-----

I referred to the IMF, which the Taoiseach might possibly have heard of.

Yes, but it was the Prime Minister I met and not the Deputy Prime Minister, before he continued on to Washington.

Sorry. My apologies. Prime Minister Shmyhal was going to the IMF to seek financial assistance. Since the beginning of this, People Before Profit has been saying that we should support the calls for a unilateral cancellation of Ukrainian debt. It would make a significant difference to the ability of Ukrainians to restore and rebuild their country, which has been shattered by Putin's bloody war. Yet the Taoiseach and all the major powers that claim they are such great supporters of the Ukrainian people have resisted the call for cancellation of Ukrainian debt, just like the IMF has previously resisted the cancellation of the debts of many impoverished and war-devastated countries in Africa, the Middle East and so on. It seems that support for the international financial system is more important to the Taoiseach's Government and other western governments than actually assisting the Ukrainian people in their hour of need.

I also welcome the very clear position taken by the Government concerning Ukrainian accession to the EU. I wish to raise the issues of housing and the resourcing of childcare and school places, in particular in respect of what is available to Ukrainian people now living here. Others have pointed out the Trojan work being done by community and voluntary organisations, local schools and statutory agencies. The response is still being found wanting from the Government, however, in respect of resourcing.

Examples include the lack of capacity in early childcare and learning services for children of school age. I cite Dublin's inner city as an example, where serious resource issues existed prior to Putin's criminal war on Ukraine. I raised those issues with the Taoiseach on several occasions. Now, however, this situation has been exacerbated almost beyond breaking point. We saw last weekend reports of issues around housing and accommodation, with people sleeping on the floors of hotels. I am sure that is not what we want for anyone when we receive them into this country. What are the plans to up the funding available for childcare, early child learning, school places and accommodation?

The Taoiseach has three and a half minutes to respond.

I thank all the Deputies for their contributions. I share with Deputy Bacik her horror at this war and the extraordinary inhumanity visited on the people of Ukraine. Towns have been levelled to oblivion almost in respect of buildings. Civilians have been targeted consistently. The Deputy also correctly identified a range of volunteer organisations and individuals that have been extremely supportive of the response here to the situation.

Regarding Ukraine's application for membership of the EU, there has been proactive diplomatic engagement by the Ukrainian Government. This has been represented most recently by the four parliamentarians here these days in respect of supporting Ukraine's application. We are engaging with the European Commission and its President, and with others, to pursue that. On Deputy Haughey's point, to be fair in the context of the sixth round of sanctions, it gets more challenging as we get higher up the rounds. The sanction on the importation of Russian oil is a significant move, because quite a number of EU countries are very dependent on Russian oil and gas, unlike us and some other states. Therefore, it is rather easier for us to declare our support in this regard. To be fair, countries such as Germany and others are taking on board significant pressure by reducing their dependency on Russian oil very quickly.

I do not believe there is a weakening of solidarity. As I said to Deputy Bacik regarding the application for EU membership, I hope that by the time of the next meeting of the European Council, in the next fortnight, that we will be able to achieve some degree of unity of purpose concerning Ukraine's application. There are challenges. Some countries have a more technocratic approach to applications to joining the EU. In a time of war, however, I believe it is necessary to send a simple and clear message to the people of Ukraine that they belong within the EU. We should be unequivocal about that message of support. I met with the speaker of the Ukrainian Parliament, as I said earlier. He sends his best wishes to the Ceann Comhairle and appreciates his recent meeting with him and with the Cathaoirleach of the Seanad. This clear message regarding the Ukrainian application is the point. Generally speaking, I favour a more proactive approach to enlargement in the western Balkans and in the neighbourhood of the EU more generally. A passive approach in this regard leads to manipulation by other powers that are not really advancing the cause of the citizens of those countries in the neighbourhood of the EU.

On the question of a ceasefire or a settlement, the leaders at the European Council have been adamant, especially the German Chancellor and the French President, that it is a matter for Ukraine to determine the timing and criteria governing any ceasefire and the conditions and so on. Also, in terms of the reconstruction of Ukraine, the governments of Europe stand ready to support that fairly substantially.

Deputy Richmond raised similar points. It is incomprehensible that food is being weaponised, with silos-----

We are out of time now.

Grain is not being allowed out of the ports. The strangulation of the ports by Russia is a significant problem. We support the provision of non-lethal weapons. That is the position of the Government. This has not held back the deployment of the EU Peace Facility, EPF.

On the point made by Deputy Boyd Barrett concerning the IMF and the seeking of financial assistance, again, the IMF is there to support many countries in distress. Without it, many countries would have gone under a long time ago. I do not see the IMF as the bogeyman in all of this. Rather, I see it as playing a constructive role in ensuring there is some degree of world order and in creating-----

We are out of time.

-----the financial wherewithal to enable countries like Ukraine, and others, in situations like this to recover.

All of the western countries and democracies are working towards reconstruction and reconstruction funds to enable the reconstruction of Ukraine in the aftermath of the war.

In terms of childcare and education, we have provided significant resources to Ukrainians who have come into the country, as well as accommodation. It has been quite unprecedented. Parallel with that, we are now witnessing a significant increase in the number of those seeking asylum, separate from the Ukrainian situation. It could be three times what we anticipated this year alone. There are huge challenges facing us as a country in that respect.

Departmental Offices

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

4. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the international unit of his Department. [24325/22]

Ivana Bacik

Question:

5. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the international unit of his Department. [25826/22]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

6. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the international unit of his Department. [26001/22]

Paul Murphy

Question:

7. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the international unit of his Department. [26004/22]

Seán Haughey

Question:

8. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the international unit of his Department. [26030/22]

Mick Barry

Question:

9. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the international unit of his Department. [26198/22]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 4 to 9, inclusive, together.

The international section of the Department supports my work at an international level, beyond the EU, to promote Ireland's foreign and economic policy objectives and to develop and maintain strong bilateral and multilateral relations. Working closely with other departments, especially the Department of Foreign Affairs, the section provides me with advice and briefing on bilateral and multilateral relations, and on international issues generally, including international peace and security, overseas development assistance, and international human rights.

The section also oversees the implementation of the Global Ireland 2025 strategy and chairs a senior officials group to monitor progress on implementation of the UN strategic development goals, supporting the work of the Department of Environment, Climate and Communications in overseeing coherent implementation across government. The section co-ordinates my international travel, as well as my engagement with Heads of State and government, and with other senior international figures and organisations.

Recent outbound visits include my attendance at the World Economic Forum in Davos on 25 May, where I participated in a panel discussion on European unity in the context of the EU's response to Russia's invasion of Ukraine, met a number of senior executives from multinational companies with a significant presence in Ireland, including at an event hosted by IDA Ireland, had bilateral meetings with the President of Israel and the Foreign Minister of Ukraine and engaged with, among others, the Prime Ministers of Moldova, Greece, and Croatia, as well as the Chancellor of Austria and other European, Middle East, African and Latin American leaders.

The section also supported my visit to members of the Irish Defence Forces serving in UNIFIL in Lebanon on 28 and 29 May, to mark International Day of United Nations Peacekeepers. During my visit to Lebanon, I met the head of mission and force commander of UNIFIL, Major General Aroldo Lázaro Sáenz, visited the town of Tibnin, laid a wreath at the memorial in memory of the 47 members of the Defence Forces who lost their lives serving in Lebanon, met members of the local community, visited the Defence Forces stationed at UN position 2-45, observed their important work first-hand and visited UN position 652, which helps to secure the Blue Line between Lebanon and Israel. During my visit I also had short meetings with the Deputy Prime Minister of Lebanon, Saadeh Al Shami, and the Minister of Tourism, Walid Nassar. I was accompanied by the Minister for Defence, Deputy Simon Coveney, and the Chief of Staff for the Defence Forces, Lieutenant General Seán Clancy.

The international section also co-ordinates inbound visits, and I was pleased recently to be able to receive, among others, the Governor of New Jersey, Phil Murphy, on 25 April, a visiting US congressional delegation, headed by Congressman Richard E. Neal on 23 May, and the Deputy Prime Minister of Ukraine, Olga Stefanishyna, on 3 June. I also met the Prime Minister of Holland, Mark Rutte.

The chair of the European Parliament's Palestinian delegation issued a damning statement last month in response to Israel's eleventh-hour decision to ban him from entering Palestine and the delegation from visiting Gaza. Israel's interference in member state politicians' engagement with the Palestinian institutions and civic and human rights group is a constant that would not be accepted from any other state with which the EU has a long-term economic and trade agreement.

Just a week before Israel's authorities banned the delegation's visit, the EU announced a €25 million humanitarian aid package to meet the basic needs of vulnerable Palestinians in Gaza as well as in the West Bank and East Jerusalem. On announcing that funding, the Commissioner called on Israel to respect international humanitarian law and condemned the continued eviction of civilians and demolition of their homes, schools and basic infrastructure.

Israel's blockade of Gaza is ruthless. It is a breach of international law and has crippled the economy, with two thirds of the population reliant on humanitarian assistance. In the West Bank and East Jerusalem, Israel continues to restrict Palestinian access to essential goods and services, including water, electricity and education. UN special rapporteur Michael Lynk has called for Israel's latest escalation of rocket attacks on Gaza to be investigated by the International Criminal Court. Yet, the UN, EU and this Government are totally ineffectual when it comes to holding the Israeli authorities to account for their innumerable breaches of international human rights law and the operation of an apartheid regime against Palestinians. Surely it is now time for the Taoiseach to not alone support the Control of Economic Activity (Occupied Territories) Bill 2018, but to champion its provisions through this House and with our EU partners.

We heard an important briefing today from Dóchas on the Horn of Africa crisis, where up to 20 million people could go hungry due to drought and the fallout from the brutal war on Ukraine. What additional aid will Ireland commit to the growing food crisis in the global south? How can we use our position on the UN Security Council to find solutions to the Russian embargo on Ukrainian grain exports, while being conscious that Russia is clearly weaponising food production in Ukraine?

I also wish to ask about our position on the TRIPS waiver, given that the WTO ministerial conference is taking place in Geneva now. I am conscious that Oxfam Ireland has urged the Tánaiste to use his position on the WTO's foreign affairs council to advocate for a full TRIPS waiver to facilitate the local production of Covid-19 vaccines, treatments and tests in lower- and middle-income countries. Will Ireland support a full TRIPS waiver to end global Covid-19 vaccine inequality? Will Ireland advocate this week at the WTO ministerial conference for the EU to support such a waiver?

In Ireland, 81% of people had two doses of the Covid-19 vaccine, compared to only 14% of people in lower-income countries. Nearly 30,000 people worldwide have died every day from Covid since the TRIPS waiver was first proposed, the majority in low-income countries. I am conscious of the immense devastation Covid has caused here, with reports growing of long Covid and a lack of treatments for people suffering from it. However, I am also conscious, as all of us are, that the implications and impact have been so much worse from those who suffered from Covid in low-income countries without the same access to vaccines and treatments that we in the developed world and, in particular, in the EU have had. Can we support a full TRIPS waiver?

Within days of Putin's bloody and inexcusable invasion of Ukraine, the Taoiseach, along with other European leaders, demanded that Putin and his regime become outcasts in the international community and have argued for boycott, sanctions and divestment of Putin's regime for his horrible crimes. Yet the Taoiseach has reported that he met the Israeli President and continues with normal economic, political and diplomatic relations with the state of Israel, which refused a European parliamentary delegation entry to Palestinian territory. The UN special rapporteur for the Middle East, Human Rights Watch, Amnesty International and B'Tselem all recently condemned the state of Israel for ongoing systematic crimes against humanity.

A siege against Gaza has gone on for a decade and has brought the entirety of Gaza into "a permanent humanitarian crisis". Yet, there is no call for sanctions, a boycott or divestment but just business as usual with the state of Israel. Could the Taoiseach please explain these extraordinary double standards? There has been no sanction at all against Israel, and even when the most respected international human rights organisations in the world are saying there should be targeted sanctions, he resists. I ask the Taoiseach please to explain it, because the double standards are shocking.

I note from the Taoiseach's reports that he spends a lot of time at meetings and travelling to visit various delegations and discussing the horror, as he described it, of the war in Ukraine and the extraordinary inhumanity being imposed by Russian forces on the people of Ukraine. I ask him to perform a very simple act of solidarity that would go a long way towards alleviating that horror. There are tens of thousands of Ukrainian people living in Poland, having fled Ukraine since the start of the war. Many are women who have been raped by Russian soldiers as part of the war effort. Rape is always used as a weapon in war. As a result, many of them end up pregnant. Under current Polish legislation, those who find themselves pregnant as a result of rape and who wish to seek an abortion have to go to court to prove they have been raped. That law is being applied to those Ukrainian women who have been raped by members of the Russian army or the other forces attacking them. They are being cruelly treated in being told they must also prove they are pregnant as a result of rape before they can access abortion. That is inhuman and cruel. There will be an amendment by The Left party before the parliament next week to lift that restriction and to allow Ukrainian women access to abortion. Access for all is hugely important. Will the Taoiseach support the amendment by The Left party and make it clear that he considers it an abomination that women who have been raped in a war cannot access abortion?

As we know, the British Government has published legislation to set aside various aspects of the protocol. It is clearly a breach of the UK's commitments under international law. It seems to me that the British Prime Minister has done deals all over the place, including with the European Research Group in the Tory Party, to win his recent no-confidence vote. The legislation can be seen in that context. Boris Johnson is, in effect, setting aside international law, destroying British-Irish relations and EU-UK relations, weakening the Good Friday Agreement and risking a trade war between the EU and the UK. The British Government has said that it is setting aside the protocol to protect the Good Friday Agreement. Nothing could be further from the truth. The complete opposite is, in fact, the case. The legislation has been brought forward simply to appease just one of the political parties in the North, to the detriment of the Good Friday Agreement as a whole. It is important for the international unit of the Taoiseach's Department to get the message out loud and clear to our friends across the world that what the British Government is doing could actually wreck the peace process, not the opposite, as some have claimed.

The decision to ban an EU delegation from entering Palestine is reprehensible and wrong. We have consistently, at EU level but, more significantly, at the UN Security Council, raised issues pertaining to Israeli policy within the West Bank, settlements and a range of other matters. We have been probably one of most consistent and proactive countries in that regard, most recently in respect of the murder of Shireen Abu Akleh, the Al-Jazeera journalist. I met with the President of Israel, at his request, on the margins of Davos. He has strong Irish connections, as the House will be aware. We never lose an opportunity to put across our perspective and viewpoint on the settlement policy and how wrong it is and the need for a two-state solution to that issue.

I say to Deputy McDonald and others that, internationally, Ireland is one of the few countries that continues to hold Israel to account for its actions in the Middle East. The US and others continue to support the position of Israel on the Middle East, although they also provide significant supports. President Biden provides supports. His administration has restored some supports for Palestinians that President Trump had got rid of. A broader international effort is required in advocating on behalf of the Palestinians with Americans and others to get balance, a proper approach and a proper process involved in order to have a meaningful opportunity for a two-state solution and financial supports for the West Bank and Gaza and the United Nations Relief and Works Agency for Palestine Refugees in the Near East, UNRWA. The European Union has made the strongest representations recently. The Commission was making attempts to put conditions on supports to the Palestinian Authority in the form of funding from Europe and we have pushed very hard to have those conditions removed. We feel that is an unacceptable new development in respect of EU funding of the Palestinian Authority.

The Horn of Africa crisis, which Deputy Bacik raised, is a very serious issue in respect of the potential of famine arising out of Putin's war. Without question, Putin has weaponised energy, food and migration. That is a real issue facing the world right now. I do not accept the proposition regarding a TRIPS waiver. The European Union has, however, reached agreement with the leaders of Africa, particularly through the African Union, following the recent European Union - African Union summit. Europe is the only real player involved in investing huge funds to develop the capacity to manufacture mRNA vaccines and technology more generally into the future in Africa - in South Africa and Senegal. It never gets acknowledged in this House. I am not referring to Deputy Boyd Barrett, but others in the House keep beating the anti-European Union drum. Actually, the European Union has been the great donor of vaccines. The issue with vaccines is no longer a TRIPS waiver. I never accepted that it was and thought at the time that the TRIPS waiver was more a sound bite than a solution. There is a surplus of vaccines at the moment. What is really at stake now is getting the vaccines into people's arms, overcoming a lot of hesitancy about vaccines across Africa and various states.

A Thaoisigh, I remind you of the time.

Am I over time?

You are way over. Finish up on these questions.

Europe is committed to creating that capacity within Africa to produce medicines into the future, particularly in respect of mRNA technology, which would be very significant.

I think Deputy Boyd Barrett has taken issue with the fact that I met the President of Israel.

There is a double standard. The Taoiseach would not meet Putin but he meets the Israelis.

I do not believe it is a double standard. What Putin is doing in Ukraine now is a bit much.

The suffering of Palestinians is less important.

No, I am not saying that, but let us not try to make a moral equivalence. The Deputy should just be honest.

There is a moral equivalence.

He should be unequivocal in his condemnation-----

-----of what is the worst form of warfare I have ever witnessed, on a relentless basis. Putin's Russia is bombing and levelling village after village-----

The Israelis have done that to Gaza as well.

-----and town after town and civilian after civilian.

No sanctions - ever.

Putin has weaponised food and weaponised energy-----

So have the Israelis.

-----which is having global consequences-----

What does the Taoiseach think the siege of Gaza is except a weaponisation of food?

The Irish effort in respect of Palestine has been very proactive down through the years-----

No sanctions - never.

-----but the Deputy does not have the wherewithal even to acknowledge that because it is his way or the highway. He has a broader world view in always trying somehow to make the real, shocking brutality of what is going on equal to somebody else's actions. We have to deal with the Middle East situation.

I am just against all brutality; I am not selective.

We have to deal with settlements. We have to deal with other European Union colleagues, the United States and other countries-----

The Taoiseach is selective in his condemnation.

-----to bring about a resolution to the Middle East crisis. Ireland continues to support generously-----

The Saudi regime. The Government supports it all right.

-----the Palestinians.

I will raise Deputy Bríd Smith's points with our colleagues in the European Parliament. I am not familiar with the precise nature of the amendment. Was the Deputy talking about the European Parliament?

No. I was talking about the Polish Parliament. The Left in Poland has an amendment seeking to give raped Ukrainian women access to abortion.

I am sorry. I thought the Deputy meant the European Parliament because, obviously-----

Whatever powers the Government has to condemn-----

We do not have such powers. I do not have powers-----

It should use whatever influence it has. The Taoiseach seems to be talking to many people about the war in Ukraine a lot of the time.

The Deputy has clarified the matter. We do not have powers in respect of the Polish Parliament.

I know. I am not stupid. I know the Government does not have powers in the Polish Parliament.

We have spoken to the Polish Government. We have had discussions at the European Council on a range of issues as to what can be done. Again, we will raise-----

Perhaps the Government could raise the issue of women who are raped as a weapon of war being given access to abortion.

May I answer? We will raise it with the Polish Government.

The Deputy did not make it clear that it was the Polish Parliament she was referring to. I wanted to establish if it was the European Parliament that was being referred to.

An amendment will before the Polish Parliament next week.

We will raise that matter with the Polish Government.

Deputy Haughey raised the protocol issue. I do not disagree with his fundamental point that this is fundamentally an issue of relationships, trust and, above all, honouring international agreements which were freely entered into by the British Government and ratified at parliamentary level in Westminster. This is very serious in its impacts on the Good Friday Agreement, the economy, trade and the whole relationship and trust between the European Union, the British Government and our Government.

National Economic and Social Council

Mary Lou McDonald

Question:

10. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the National Economic and Social Council, the agency under the aegis of his Department. [24327/22]

Ivana Bacik

Question:

11. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the National Economic and Social Council. [25828/22]

Cian O'Callaghan

Question:

12. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the National Economic and Social Council, the agency under the aegis of his Department. [26648/22]

Cian O'Callaghan

Question:

13. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the National Economic and Social Council, the agency that is under the aegis of his Department. [29502/22]

Brendan Smith

Question:

14. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the National Economic and Social Council. [30061/22]

Richard Boyd Barrett

Question:

15. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the National Economic and Social Council, the agency under the aegis of his Department. [30723/22]

Paul Murphy

Question:

16. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the work of the National Economic and Social Council. [30726/22]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 10 to 16, inclusive, together.

The National Economic and Social Council, NESC, advises me on strategic policy issues relating to sustainable economic, social and environmental development in Ireland. The NESC work programme in 2022 includes five main areas. It will carry out a major piece of research and consultation on climate, biodiversity and how to achieve a just transition in agriculture. It will continue to help us deepen our understanding of how to deliver more affordable and sustainable housing systems, drawing on international and national experience, including ongoing work in Ireland on cost rental.

NESC is supporting work on Ireland's well-being framework by examining how well-being frameworks are implemented in practice. NESC has also undertaken an extensive programme of research and consultation to support the shared island initiative. It produced a report on this in the first quarter of 2022 which made recommendations in five key areas: economy and infrastructural investment; social policy; climate and biodiversity; well-being frameworks; and data co-ordination.

Finally, it will examine aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic to help identify strategic lessons about public governance and how Government can be supported to arrange and manage its activity to deliver the best results for society.

The NESC Council published five reports in 2021 and one report in 2022. These are: Shared Island Shared Opportunity: NESC Comprehensive Report, Council Report No. 157; Grounding the Recovery in Sustainable Development: A Statement from the Council, NESC Report No. 152; Shared Island: Projects, Progress & Policy, Scoping Paper, NESC Report No. 153; Digital Inclusion in Ireland: Connectivity, Devices & Skills, NESC Report No. 154; Ireland's Well-Being Framework: Consultation Report, NESC Report No. 155; and Collaboration on Climate and Biodiversity: Shared Island as a Catalyst for Renewed Ambition & Action, NESC Report No.156. As reports are finalised in the relevant areas, they are brought to Government for approval in advance of publication.

We have a number of contributors. Each speaker will have up to one minute, beginning with Deputy McDonald.

The Taoiseach mentioned the Shared Island Shared Opportunity report in support of his Department’s shared Ireland unit about which I wish to question him. The Taoiseach correctly makes a very strong play around the need for dialogue and collaboration and the report echoes that. Will the Taoiseach explain why Fianna Fáil, the party of the Taoiseach, and his partners in Government are actively seeking to block an MLA or MP from parties in the North from participating in special Oireachtas committees? I am not talking about statutory committees but special committees such as the committees on gender equality or autism. That is what is happening and it completely goes against the grain of everything the Taoiseach has been saying around shared island collaboration and working together.

We have the bizarre situation where we have an all-Ireland centre for children with autism located in Armagh, north of the Border, but members of the Government will not work with counterparts from the North to develop policy solutions in a special committee on autism. I ask the Taoiseach for an answer on that point and, in fact, an undertaking that sanity will prevail and that members from the North can participate in special committees?

I thank the Taoiseach for his update on the work of the NESC. One of the five areas on which NESC is strategically advising the Taoiseach is aspects of the Covid-19 pandemic. We are all conscious that a lack of hospital bed capacity was one of the key reasons our lockdowns had to be so extensive in order to protect bed capacity in hospitals. We see reports that the emergency department in Our Lady’s Hospital, Navan, is to be closed. Has sufficient capacity been put in place in Drogheda hospital to ensure we do not see the repeat of the overcrowding we have seen in University Hospital Limerick, which I heard about on a recent visit?

Last week in my constituency, I heard from a constituent who told me of their family member’s experience in St. Vincent’s University Hospital where the person had to sit on a chair for two days while enduring the agony of appendicitis. Another person contacted my office last about a relative who was suffering with early symptoms of sepsis having developed blood poisoning, and who sat in a chair into the early hours of the morning semi-lucid and propped upright against a wall. It is a reasonable expectation for those people and their relatives that hospitals would be able to provide beds to every patient in need of care. Has NESC advised on the additional capacity we need to put in place to ensure people are not facing these sorts of waiting times in hospitals?

On 15 February, Frank McDonald, a retired journalist from The Irish Times, wrote to the Chairman of the Joint Committee on Housing, Local Government and Heritage regarding a very disturbing pattern which he noticed when reviewing the minutes of An Bord Pleanála’s meetings. He noticed that: “Decisions on [strategic housing development] schemes, particularly those of a high-rise nature, were made by panels of three that consistently included two particular board members rather than being allocated randomly among board members, contrary to assurances given to the Oireachtas by previous chairpersons of An Bord Pleanála.” This is a very serious allegation. The letter was only circulated to members of the housing committee yesterday, despite having been written and sent in February. Are the specific allegations that files on strategic housing developments were not allocated randomly under investigation? When did the Government and the Taoiseach first become aware of these allegations about An Bord Pleanála?

The Taoiseach told us some time ago that NESC is undertaking work on behalf of the shared island unit in the context of the economy and regional development. I suggested that a particular work project should be undertaken on the specific challenges faced by the Border region, in particular the central Border area of Cavan, Monaghan, Fermanagh and Tyrone. We are very dependent on the agrifood, engineering and construction products sectors. Our key market is Britain. That alone demonstrates the vulnerability of our local economy considering that the British Government proposes to break its international obligations following an agreement which it freely made.

The dairy, beef and sheepmeat sectors are all interdependent on a cross-Border and all-Ireland basis. The proposals made by the British Government have alarmed and frightened people in those sectors. They are utterly crazy proposals and a clear message must go back to the British Government that the protocol is working in the context of the agrifood and farming sector. We have significant volumes of milk coming south for processing in County Cavan and elsewhere.

Two years ago, the National Economic and Social Council produced a report in which it described Ireland’s housing sector as completely dysfunctional. It stated that this could be addressed by policy intervention by the Government and by structuring permanent affordability into the housing sector. Since then, the situation has got worse, not better. By the way, our housing costs are so far ahead of those of the rest of Europe, on average, that for the Taoiseach to suggest that this has to do with the Ukrainian war, or anything like it, is just ridiculous. It is part of the cost-of-living crisis, one of the biggest parts of it, and that is down to the Government’s policy failure, identified as recently as two years ago by the National Economic and Social Council.

One aspect of this is that because the Government refused to raise the income thresholds on eligibility for social housing and social housing support in those two years, thousands of people have lost their entitlement to social housing and social housing support and some of them are homeless. When will the Government raise those income threshold limits and restore the time that has been lost to the people on the housing list?

In the past number of days, two health unions - the Irish Medical Organisation, IMO, and the Irish Nurses and Midwives Organisation, INMO - have made a significant statement on the state of the health service and the conditions of their members. Junior doctors have voted overwhelmingly to take strike action in response to long hours, deteriorating work conditions and, most worryingly, constant breaches of the European working time directive. Alarm bells are ringing for everybody in respect of our health service. If we cannot keep doctors and nurses safe in their workplace, they will not remain in the health service and will go somewhere else.

How is the Taoiseach trying to address this and stop nurses and doctors leaving the country?

The Taoiseach has under two minutes.

I know. It will be difficult. Deputy McDonald's negativity towards the shared island unit is striking because when I was at the Joint Committee on the Implementation of the Good Friday Agreement there was unanimous support for what it has been doing from all members, including those from Sinn Féin to be fair, on that committee. We do work with elected representatives all over Northern Ireland. When I visited the North recently I had a very good engagement with the North West Partnership which involves councils from Donegal, Derry and Strabane.

Why is the Government blocking them from being on special committees?

We have initiated, for example-----

I have asked the Taoiseach a specific question. Please answer.

-----the Narrow Water bridge project.

I am not stopping. The Ulster Canal and so on. It is not about party partisan agendas -----

The Government is stopping MLAs and MPs from participating on an autism committee and a gender equality committee. Why is that?

The Deputy's capacity to reduce everything to her party is striking. It is the prism through which she looks at everything. That is a pity.

No, I want an answer to my question.

In relation to Deputy Cian O'Callaghan -----

He is absolutely waffling.

I was not aware prior to what Deputy O'Callaghan just said -----

Fianna Fáil does not want Northern representatives to participate in committees.

Let the Taoiseach answer, please.

I am not aware of those specifics. As the Deputy will know, the Minister has appointed a senior counsel to look at issues pertaining to An Bord Pleanála. When he receives that report he will consider that and I have no doubt he will continue to work with you-----

(Interruptions).

Deputy Brendan Smith raised a pertinent point on dairy and sheep meat and how the protocol is working generally for the agriculture sector. It seems to me that this is something that is not understood by the British Government particularly with its dual regulatory approach in food traceability which puts a lot of agrifood industries and enterprises at risk if it proceeds with its proposals as announced yesterday. The agricultural interests and the meat and dairy industries that I met are very clear about the negative impact that the Foreign Secretary's proposals would have on the agrifood industry in Northern Ireland. That is what illustrates more than anything the lack of real thinking through of those proposals by the British Government.

Responding to Deputy Boyd Barrett, there is no doubt that the cost of the war is feeding into shortages in materials and so on as did the imbalance in supply and demand occasioned by the bounce-back of the economies after Covid. The war has exacerbated that particularly with the costs in fuel and commodities beyond anything that we have experienced before. That is a big factor in housing inflation.

On Deputy Gino Kenny's points, the last two years have seen record recruitment levels into the HSE front line staff, with nursing, doctors etc. In the junior doctors strike, culture in the medical profession is the key issue. We have had these campaigns where they have been met with increased salaries, as they have before, and promises that the culture would change in how junior doctors are treated but that change has not always transpired. There is a bit more than a pay campaign involved in that and anyone who knows anything about a health service knows what I am talking about. The Minister will engage with the unions on those issues, particularly on the medical side and the junior doctor side and their role in the broader health service.

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