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Dáil Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 13 Jul 2022

Vol. 1025 No. 4

Ceisteanna - Questions

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Neale Richmond


1. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the American congressional delegation. [27627/22]

Mick Barry


2. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the US congressional delegation. [30991/22]

Ruairí Ó Murchú


3. Deputy Ruairí Ó Murchú asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the American congressional delegation. [34230/22]

Seán Haughey


4. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with members of the United States Congress. [35582/22]

Ivana Bacik


5. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent engagements with members of the United States Congress. [35870/22]

Paul Murphy


6. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the United States congressional delegation. [36009/22]

Richard Boyd Barrett


7. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the United States congressional delegation. [36006/22]

Brendan Smith


8. Deputy Brendan Smith asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with members of the United States Congress with reference to discussion of the appointment of a special envoy; and if he will make a statement on the matter. [34568/22]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 8, inclusive, together.

On 23 May last, I welcomed a delegation from the US House of Representatives for a meeting at Government Buildings. This was the first visit to Ireland by a US congressional delegation since April 2019, when Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Congressman Richard Neal led a delegation to visit Dublin, London and Northern Ireland. The bipartisan delegation was led this time by Congressman Richard Neal, co-chair of the Friends of Ireland Caucus and chairman of the influential Ways and Means Committee in the House of Representatives. The delegation comprised nine members of Congress, three members of the Republican Party and six of the Democratic Party. The majority of the delegation also sit on the House Ways and Means Committee, which has jurisdiction over revenues, taxes, trade agreements and tariffs. The representatives were accompanied to Government Buildings by US Ambassador Claire Cronin and other officials.

Our meeting in Government Buildings was an opportunity for a broad-ranging discussion covering Northern Ireland and Brexit, international support for Ukraine, and Ireland-US bilateral relations. The delegation apprised me of its visits to Brussels and London immediately before it arrived here, where its members had held meetings with the European Commission Vice President Maroš Šefčovič, the European Commission Executive Vice President, Valdis Dombrovskis, the British Foreign Secretary Liz Truss and the International Trade Secretary, Anne-Marie Trevelyan. Northern Ireland, including the safeguarding of the Good Friday Agreement, as well as Brexit and the protocol, were high on the agenda for those meetings, including broader issues on Northern Ireland. The delegation also shared its plans for a visit to Belfast the following day before returning to the United States.

Congressman Neal and the other members of the delegation were unwavering in their commitment to peace in Northern Ireland. Like us, they recognise that there are genuine concerns about aspects of the implementation of the protocol, but these can only be addressed in a sustainable manner through intensified European Union-United Kingdom discussions and agreed solutions. We agreed that unilateral actions are divisive and unhelpful, and contrary to the long-standing approach to resolving issues relating to Northern Ireland in a spirit of partnership. I very much welcome the continued, unequivocal support of the US Administration and Congress on this matter, which is testament to the deep and historical bonds between our two countries and the strong attachment of US elected representatives to the Good Friday Agreement.

The question of a special envoy was not discussed during our meeting but I know the issue is still under consideration. I also thanked the members of the delegation for their continuing backing of immigration priorities. We discussed the devastating war in Ukraine and our shared commitment to providing humanitarian assistance for the people of Ukraine.

Prior to arriving in Dublin, the delegation was in Kerry where its members undertook a cultural visit, including music from, and a tour of, the Great Blasket Island. They had a two-day political, economic and cultural programme in Dublin, which included a meeting with President Higgins and other Members of the Oireachtas.

I thank the Taoiseach for that update. I want to focus on one aspect. As we know, today in Westminster, the latest stage of the protocol-busting Bill is making its way, despite the distraction of an ongoing leadership election. We all, sadly, know the consequences of this legislation, if it is enacted, in terms of EU-UK relationships and the pathway that could go down. Was there any discussion with the congressional delegation during this visit or more widely as to what consequences there would be for the so-called special relationship if the UK were to break international law by passing this legislation?

During his recent visit to Ireland, Congressman Richard Neal strongly endorsed the Irish position on the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol, which is to be greatly welcomed. Indeed, other US politicians have done the same, including the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Nancy Pelosi, and President Joe Biden. They have spoken about the difficulty of agreeing a UK-EU trade deal if the UK threatens the Good Friday Agreement and overrides the Northern Ireland protocol. We need to be vigilant in this regard and to continue to present our case on these matters on Capitol Hill, as no doubt the UK is presenting its view to US politicians at this time.

The Taoiseach has also spoken about resetting the relationship between Ireland and Britain, with a new Prime Minister expected to be in place by September. That is a very diplomatic way of putting it. Can we at least hope that the new British Prime Minister will adopt an intelligent and sensible approach to EU matters, the Good Friday Agreement and the Northern Ireland protocol, and that he or she will restore trust and respect international law? I do not expect the Taoiseach to answer that question but, hopefully, he will get off to a very good start with the new British Prime Minister. I would welcome his views on that and on resetting the relationship.

Often, when US imperialism is criticised in here, the Taoiseach is quite sensitive about it, it might be fair to say. It appears he thinks the US is a force for good and for human rights and democracy around the world. In that context, I wonder if he saw the interview with John Bolton on CNN yesterday. John Bolton is a senior figure of the US political establishment, a former US Under Secretary of State, a former ambassador to the UN and National Security Advisor. He said the following: "As somebody who has helped plan coups d'état, not here, you know, but other places, it takes a lot of work."

When the CNN journalist asked Mr. Bolton what he was referring to, the latter replied, "I'm not going to get into the specifics", before mentioning Venezuela, saying that the coup there "turned out not to be successful". The journalist pressed further, saying, "I feel like there's other stuff you're not telling me, though [beyond Venezuela]." Mr. Bolton replied, "I'm sure there is." Here we have John Bolton admitting on CNN that he is involved in planning coups on behalf of the US Government. We know about the attempted coup in Venezuela against Maduro and trying to put Guaidó in power, but Mr. Bolton is clearly saying there were others. Does that trouble the Taoiseach at all? Does he think it is okay for the US Administration to be able to go around the world and organise coups d'état wherever it thinks it appropriate?

I would have suspected what Deputy Murphy has outlined in any case, but it confirms something for me. One thing the US has done is try to secure access for US Palestinian citizens to the West Bank and Gaza, and vice versa, something that is made extremely difficult by the state of Israel. The Israelis want to be part of the US visa waivers scheme. In essence, there is a bit of a quid pro quo going on.

Israelis are entitled to be part of a visa waivers scheme to enter the European Union but, simultaneously, they make it difficult for, or sometimes simply prohibit, people from the EU, including people from this country, going into Gaza and the West Bank. They make it extremely difficult for Irish Palestinian citizens to visit their families or vice versa. I had Palestinian guests from Gaza in the Gallery yesterday. They have family here and they told me about how extraordinarily difficulty it is to meet each other, whether for a family member going there or one of them coming here. Yet, we grant easy access for Israelis coming here. Should we not, at the very least, put some conditions on Israelis having free access to the EU while Palestinians and EU citizens, whether or not they are Palestinian citizens, are discriminated against when trying to enter the occupied territories?

I thank the Taoiseach for the update on the visit of the US delegation. I had the opportunity to meet with the delegates and I found all of them to be extremely interested in, and very focused on, the needs of our country and very well-informed on the politics of all of our island. It is not just when they are here that those individuals show interest in our country. On a regular basis, they pass unanimous motions in both US Houses of Congress in support of the Good Friday Agreement and condemning recent British Government decisions. From engaging with the delegates, it is clear they do not just want to see the agreement protected; they also want to see its potential maximised. They see the opportunities to build on it and have instanced the Taoiseach's initiative in the very large-scale funding that is made available to the shared island unit, which can build on the agreement and further develop the all-Ireland and cross-Border economy.

An issue I would like to see pursued again with the US Administration is the appointment of a special envoy to Northern Ireland. People such as George Mitchell held that post with great distinction. It is an extra conduit for strengthening Irish-US bilateral relations and it can bring undoubted benefit to our State, Northern Ireland and the US.

We need to see progress on regularising the status of the undocumented Irish in the US. The best estimates available to our diplomatic service indicate there could be up to 10,000 people whose status is not regularised. They are rearing families, working hard, paying their taxes and contributing handsomely to US society. We need to see progress on that aspect of our discussions and relations with the US.

First, on Deputy Richmond's point, I like the phrase "protocol-busting Bill" that he coined. We had a detailed discussion with the delegation in respect of the issues around the protocol. The delegates included both Republicans and Democrats and some had expertise in the trade area. They found it very difficult to comprehend what the issues were on the UK side. Their view was that the protocol issues could easily be resolved with proper negotiations and discussions. They have made it very clear to those they met in the UK system that they expect this issue to be resolved by negotiation and that anything that would undermine the Good Friday Agreement would cause very significant challenges all around. I will say no more than that.

Deputy Haughey raised a number of points that I would agree with in terms of the successor to Boris Johnson. We all want a sensible, managed relationship between the UK and Europe. The EU wants that and many people in the UK want it. We want a professional relationship that adheres to existing agreements. If agreements need to change, then we do it together in terms of identifying the issues, renegotiating or re-amending, but unilateralism would not form part of that approach. It is likewise in respect of the relationship between Ireland and the UK.

I agree we need to maintain our vigilant presence on Capitol Hill, through our US ambassador and politically as well. There is constant engagement with the US Administration. I recently met with President Biden in Madrid to do exactly what the Deputy is saying. One of the reasons I went to Madrid was to engage with a range of political leaders, including President Biden. We took the opportunity there to raise certain issues. As the Deputy said, what we want is an intelligent and sensible approach in respect of these relationships. I would like that to be the case in the event of a new British Prime Minister appointing a new Government. In the post-Brexit situation, we need a new dynamic between the UK and Ireland. Formerly, as members of the EU, UK and Irish Ministers and officials met very often. That is no longer the case because the UK is out of the EU. We need a new structure to deal with the bilateral issues between Britain and Ireland.

I think it is interesting that Deputy Paul Murphy said I get sensitive when there is criticism of US imperialism. I do not get sensitive but I am always struck by the sort of singular focus the Deputy has in respect of the US and no one else. While there is a terrible immoral and illegal war raging on Ukraine, I am always struck by his reluctance really to go there in any exchange with me or anybody else. His overwhelming focus is always on the US and sometimes on the EU itself. That is a fact in terms of the balance of his presentation.

Deputy Murphy referenced John Bolton, who is a Republican hawk. I do not accept at all that it is appropriate for any country to be organising coups in any other country. However, Mr. Bolton was a Donald Trump appointee, as the Deputy knows, and his views would not, in my opinion, be representative of mainstream opinion within the US. That has to be said.

He was a Bush appointee before that.

Did he organise the coups on his own?

I would like the Deputies' insights on Russian interference across the world and seeking transparency from Vladimir Putin as to how many coups d'état he is organising, how many people he is leveraging pressure on-----

Quite a few, I would say.

-----and how many professional private organisations like the Wagner Group are being funded and organised and creating mayhem across the world. To me, right now internationally - let us call a spade a spade - President Biden is a voice for peace.

Tell that to the Yemenis.

He is a voice for reason in international relations and we are fortunate he is at the helm in the United States in the context of a terrible war on the Continent of Europe that could escalate into a horrific nuclear conflagration if we did not have someone as sensible as him in office. That is a fact. Deputy Murphy will never accept that and will never bring himself to acknowledge it because he can see no good at all in the United States. That country is the big baddie.

Thank you, Taoiseach. We are out of time.

Will the Taoiseach respond on the visas issue?

Yes, but I want to make another point first. Prior to the war on Ukraine, President Biden, President Macron and Chancellor Scholz all spoke to Vladimir Putin saying, "We will get into negotiations and discussions on security issues you may have concerns about, but please do not start this war." He went ahead and started the war.

I am sorry, Taoiseach, but we are out of time.

May we have a 30-second reply on the visa issue?

May I have five minutes, a Cheann Comhairle, to finish my reply?

The five minutes will have to come out of the time for the next group of questions.

A minute or two will do fine. I agree with Deputy Boyd Barrett that there should be access into Gaza.

I secured access to Gaza then not through the Israeli Government at the time, but through the Egyptian foreign minister. I was the only foreign minister allowed into Gaza then because the Egyptian foreign minister said I could go in through the Rafah crossing. Other senior foreign ministers were not allowed in for ridiculously restrictive reasons. We should not replicate one bad practice with another. The Deputy is saying that because of the Israeli Government’s approach to Gazans trying to get into Ireland and Europe, and vice versa, that therefore we should restrict Israelis. We should uphold the best standards in terms of allowing people to travel and to move into each other’s countries. We should push strongly for a more liberal approach to Gazans in this context, especially in respect of families being reunited and meeting.

Turning to the question from Deputy Brendan Smith, he raised several issues regarding the optimisation of the shared island fund. The €70 million in funding that we announced in that context included a provision of €40 million for the restoration of the Ulster Canal, which is the kind of project that makes a huge difference. The Deputy is working hard in Cavan-Monaghan with the local authorities on cross-Border projects that we can fund out of the shared island fund and also on the dialogue aspect. Regarding the special envoy to Northern Ireland, that is under review. It has merit, especially in the context of the current difficulties we are experiencing regarding the protocol and its application.

Taoiseach's Meetings and Engagements

Neale Richmond


9. Deputy Neale Richmond asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the Dutch Prime Minister. [27626/22]

Ivana Bacik


10. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the Dutch Prime Minister. [32141/22]

Seán Haughey


11. Deputy Seán Haughey asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent meeting with the Prime Minister of the Netherlands. [35583/22]

Richard Boyd Barrett


12. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the Dutch Prime Minister. [36007/22]

Paul Murphy


13. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his meeting with the Dutch Prime Minister. [36010/22]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 to 13, inclusive, together.

The Prime Minister of the Netherlands, Mark Rutte, travelled to Dublin to meet me on 23 May. I was pleased to host him and his delegation for a working dinner at Farmleigh House. Ireland and the Netherlands are like-minded on a wide range of issues, and we co-operate closely at EU level. Coming ahead of the special meeting of the European Council at the end of May, and its regular meeting in June, my meeting with Prime Minister Rutte was a useful opportunity to discuss current EU and international issues, especially Russia's war on Ukraine, its consequences and our collective response to it; climate action, especially in the field of energy; and the EU's relationship with the UK.

With our EU partners, Ireland and the Netherlands have been steadfast in our outright condemnation of Putin's unprovoked and immoral war on Ukraine. The EU has acted swiftly and with great unity in our political, humanitarian, economic and military response. My discussion with Prime Minister Rutte covered all dimensions of the issue as it stood at that time: the humanitarian situation and the financial supports that will be needed by Ukraine in the immediate and longer terms; and the range and impact of sanctions on Russia. We also touched on Ukraine's application for EU membership in response to which, as the House will be aware, the June European Council granted Ukraine candidate status. We also discussed how to accelerate decarbonisation of our economies and societies, break our dependence on fossil fuels, and provide a more resilient, secure and sustainable energy system for future generations.

I briefed the Prime Minister on Ireland's climate policy approach and on the legislative framework now in place to support achievement of our targets. We also expressed our strong support for the EU Fit for 55 legislative package, on which significant progress has been made by the French Presidency over recent months. We reflected on our respective experiences of responding to the Covid-19 pandemic, and on the unprecedented work at EU level on vaccines and the economic recovery package, Next Generation EU. I also briefed the Prime Minister on developments in Northern Ireland and on the protocol. Prime Minister Rutte reaffirmed his very strong solidarity with Ireland, and his support for the work of the European Commission in seeking to find practical solutions to problems that have arisen in implementing the protocol. I took the opportunity to convey my thanks to the Prime Minister for his country's solidarity and support. The Prime Minister and I will continue to work closely together, bilaterally and in the European Council.

I will touch on two areas briefly concerning the Taoiseach's discussions. Both concern the ongoing war in Ukraine that was launched by Russia. I would appreciate if it is possible for the Taoiseach to expand on a point he referred to concerning the financial supports Ukraine will need. Does this feed into the wider concept that has emerged subsequently in the EU of a need for a new form of a Marshall Plan for Ukraine? I think a conference in Switzerland is planned on this aspect soon. The Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, told the House last week about a pledging amount and how Ireland could co-operate with the Netherlands on this aspect. The Netherlands has shown brilliant solidarity with Ireland on Brexit issues, but when it comes to solidarity with Ukraine, has a plan been mapped out concerning how Ireland and the Netherlands can work together to expedite the rightful accession of Ukraine into the EU?

Mark Rutte is a long-serving Prime Minister of the Netherlands and his steadfast solidarity and support for Ireland on the protocol issue and the Good Friday Agreement is greatly welcomed, as the Taoiseach said. The prime minister is very influential regarding future developments in the EU. Did the Taoiseach discuss with him the Conference on the Future of Europe? As we know, this concluded on 9 May 2022 and listed 320 measures and recommendations. It recommended treaty changes regarding making health a shared competence, switching from unanimity to qualified majority voting and increasing the powers of the European Parliament. How likely is it that these three matters will be advanced? I think it is unlikely that there will be any treaty change advanced as this issue is considered. Additionally, I am told that a detailed assessment of all the recommendations will be undertaken across all relevant Government Departments in the coming months, which will be overseen by the Department of Foreign Affairs. I ask that the House be kept informed of developments concerning this detailed assessment that will be overseen by the Department of Foreign Affairs.

The Dutch have rent controls that are not dissimilar to the ones we put forward, which the Taoiseach’s Government rejected. It was claimed that our proposals were "illiterate" and "unworkable". Perhaps the Taoiseach should have asked Mark Rutte about how the rent controls work in the Netherlands. That country has a points system for the quality and size of a property. The majority of properties below a certain standard are subject to maximum rent caps. This means that the Netherlands does not have the exponential rental crisis we have that is immiserating so many people. The Taoiseach should know that our housing costs are 78% higher than the EU average. Our rents have jumped by more than 70% in the last ten years, while rents in the rest of Europe have only increased by 13% on average. This has been the case because the Dutch, the Germans and the Austrians have rent controls, and we could go on through that list. Therefore, the next time the Taoiseach is chatting to the Dutch Prime Minister, he should ask him how the rent controls work in the Netherlands and perhaps consider introducing something similar here

It sounds like the discussion about solidarity with Ukraine took up a fair amount of time during the talks with Prime Minister Rutte. In that context, did the Taoiseach and the Prime Minister speak about the crucial issue of debt relief for Ukraine or are they happy for money to continue to flood out of Ukraine to pay for unsustainable and odious debts? Debt repayments this year amount to €6 billion more than the total education budget of Ukraine. Some €2.5 billion of those repayments is owed to the International Monetary Fund, IMF, alone, which is the biggest holder of Ukrainian debt. The truth is that Ukraine's debt is growing because of the crisis that has arisen as a consequence of the horrendous and brutal Russian invasion of the country. Ukraine's debt has already grown by more than €5 billion this year. Surely then it does not make sense on the one hand to have a Marshall Plan for Ukraine - and we are in favour of investment to help the reconstruction of the country - while on the other hand to continue to say that the odious and illegitimate debts that are the consequence of the oligarchisation of Ukrainian society should continue to be paid. It does not make sense to give with one hand and then to take back with the other. Surely, we need to have immediate debt relief and debt cancellation for the Ukrainian people.

Deputy Richmond raised the issue of financial support. There are two elements to this. There is the current financial crisis facing Ukraine. I met with President Zelenskyy and I was the first Taoiseach to visit Kyiv. I just received a letter from the President thanking Ireland and me personally for supporting the historic decision of the European Council of June 23 to grant Ukraine the official status of a candidate country for membership of the EU. President Zelenskyy has written to us articulating his gratitude to Ireland for our proactive support.

EU leaders have now agreed to support Ukraine via exceptional macro financial assistance of up to €9 billion in 2022.

That is to try to enable Ukraine to deal with current budgetary issues.

There is a further issue around the reconstruction of Ukraine post the war or in parallel with it continuing. The Ukraine Recovery Conference took place in Lugano at which Ireland was represented by the Minister of State, Deputy Fleming. We joined in the signing of the Lugano declaration, which sets out seven principles to guide Ukraine's recovery process. The Ukraine-led draft of the recovery and development plan presented at Lugano recently is the overarching framework guiding the recovery process and allows for co-ordinated multi-stakeholder participation and partnerships.

We contributed towards non-lethal elements of the European Peace Facility, bringing our total support to approximately €44 million of the overall €2 billion in support provided under the four packages. We provided a further €20 million in humanitarian aid, as well as medical assistance and supplies amounting to €4.3 million. That covers some of what Deputy Murphy raised.

When I spoke to President Zelenskyy, we discussed Ukraine's economy and finances. There has been a 50% reduction in its GDP. Its economy is in crisis because of the war. Therefore, a number of strategies need to be deployed. It is not a simple matter of waiving debt. That is not the way these issues will be resolved. I also met with Ukraine's Prime Minister, Denys Shmyhal. He met with the International Monetary Fund, IMF, to develop a structured approach not just to the current budgetary issues, such as continuing to pay civil servants and keeping everyone going, but also to the reconstruction of Ukraine.

On Deputy Haughey's points about the Conference on the Future of Europe and treaty change, I would keep an open view. He is correct in that it will be very challenging to get agreement on a treaty change among the 27 EU states. I support the idea of making public health a shared competence given our experience of Covid-19, the procurement of vaccines at a European Union level, the establishment of the Humanities in the European Research Area, HERA, institute, and the need to upgrade the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control, ECDC. There are a lot of lessons we should learn from the handling of Covid at a European level. The difference between the European Union's approach to Covid and its approach to SARS in the early 2000s, when I was the Minister for Health, is unbelievable in terms of the scale of co-ordination this time around compared with the previous time. I believe it worked, so we need to be open minded about that in terms of treaty change. Getting treaty change is a huge challenge in itself. We will keep the House informed of the development of detailed analysis by the Government and the Department of Foreign Affairs regarding the recommendations of the Conference on the Future of Europe. The Minister of State, Deputy Thomas Byrne, is actively working on that.

We have rent controls.

Ireland has a rent pressure zone, RPZ, rate of 2%, and that is a fact. Looking at the data-----

Surely the Taoiseach does not believe they are working.

They are working for existing houses and the Deputy knows that. By the way, I did speak to Prime Minister Mark Rutte about housing. The Dutch have huge challenges in housing and they have to build on an even greater scale than us. There is not a country that does not have issues with housing, particularly in cities.

It is much worse here though.

The Dutch are not in as benign a situation as the Deputy suggests.

They are in a better situation.

I dealt with most of what Deputy Murphy raised. The overall story is that Ukraine's application to join the European Union opens the door for substantial funding by the European Union and the world more generally for Ukraine. Other countries have come together, especially during the Lugano conference, and committed to supporting the reconstruction of Ukraine given the extraordinary devastation that has been wreaked by Russia under Vladimir Putin's Government.

Departmental Strategies

Richard Boyd Barrett


14. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach his views on the national reform programme for the European semester 2022 that was published by his Department in April 2022. [26002/22]

Paul Murphy


15. Deputy Paul Murphy asked the Taoiseach his views on the national reform programme for the European semester 2022 that was published by his Department in April 2022. [26005/22]

Mick Barry


16. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach his views on the national reform programme for the European semester 2022 that was published by his Department in April 2022. [30993/22]

Mick Barry


17. Deputy Mick Barry asked the Taoiseach his views on the national reform programme for the European semester 2022 that was published by his Department in April 2022. [32669/22]

Barry Cowen


18. Deputy Barry Cowen asked the Taoiseach his views on the national reform programme for the European semester 2022 that was published by his Department in April 2022. [35588/22]

Cian O'Callaghan


19. Deputy Cian O'Callaghan asked the Taoiseach his views on the national reform programme for the European semester 2022 that was published by his Department in April 2022. [36169/22]

Ivana Bacik


20. Deputy Ivana Bacik asked the Taoiseach his views on the national reform programme. [34512/22]

I propose to take Questions Nos. 14 to 20, inclusive, together.

Ireland submitted its national reform programme, NRP, for 2022 to the European Commission on 4 May. The NRP was laid before both Houses of the Oireachtas and published on thereafter. The NRP is an element of the European semester, the annual cycle of economic and fiscal policy co-ordination among EU member states. As part of the semester, Ireland, along with all other member states, is required to prepare and submit an NRP to the European Commission each year. No NRP was submitted in 2021 as the semester process was temporarily suspended due to the Covid-19 pandemic. The NRP provides an overview of economic reforms and policy actions under way in Ireland, including a response to country-specific recommendations received. In 2022, the NRP also fulfilled one of the two biannual reporting requirements of member states under the recovery and resilience facility.

The challenges and Government policy responses that were addressed in Ireland's 2022 NRP included climate action and the environment, housing, supporting participation in the labour market, rebuilding and supporting sustainable enterprise, planning for the future, and long-term fiscal sustainability. Development of the programme was co-ordinated by the Department of the Taoiseach, with input from relevant Departments and agencies, drawing on Government strategies such as the economic recovery plan, Housing for All, and the climate action plan. As part of this process, stakeholders were invited to make submissions on the key challenges to be addressed in the programme. The European semester process provides a valuable opportunity to engage in shared analysis with the European Commission and build understanding on key economic issues.

The Taoiseach will not be surprised that I want to raise the housing element of the national reform programme. One of the issues that should now set alarm bells ringing is that the construction sector in this country is starting to contract. As inadequate a plan as Housing for All is, and it is wholly inadequate and does not address the crisis, even it may not now be delivered as we are starting to see a contraction in construction because of rising costs. How will the Government respond to that?

We have a developed policy proposal because we cannot afford not to address the housing crisis and deliver on building the public, affordable and other houses that we need. If costs are going to stop the private sector from building, as is now becoming evident, we need a State construction company. We simply cannot not build public and affordable housing. We cannot allow a contraction of construction activity. The State will have to step in where the market in not capable of delivering. What does the Taoiseach say to that?

I want to ask the Taoiseach about the growing crisis in education in Dublin, where many schools are reporting that teachers are leaving to find positions in other parts of the country because they cannot afford to rent or the price of buying homes in Dublin. One Dublin school has reported that six teachers have left to work outside of Dublin, where accommodation costs are not as high. Some 55% of secondary school principals say they have unfilled vacancies, and an incredible 84% of principals who then advertise those vacancies say not a single teacher applies for the jobs. The consequence is that some Dublin schools seem likely to have to cut optional subjects. Una Mullally pointed out in a recent article that a teacher starting out in a secondary school in Dublin will pay two thirds of his or her income on very modest accommodation. Is the Taoiseach going to do anything about this? Will he at least agree to give teachers an inflation-linked pay increase? If he will not act to bring rents down, as he should, will he consider a premium for teachers working in Dublin?

In terms of housing more generally, I have said consistently since I was elected Taoiseach that it is the most pressing and significant social issue facing our country.

That is why we developed a comprehensive plan for housing, to which no party in the Opposition has responded in any detail beyond sound bites and slogans and some proposals that would make the situation worse. The proposals of the Deputies opposite would reduce supply in the market - simple as.

Either we have proposals and they are terrible or we do not have proposals. It cannot be both.

We now have the highest number of commencements on record. We have the highest number of planning permissions in over a decade. We have the highest number of completions in over a decade. We have established a high-level housing delivery group. Unfortunately, in the past two years we have been hit by Covid first, with two lockdowns, and now by a war on Ukraine, which is affecting commodity prices, in particular the prices of steel and timber, and, in turn, causing inflation. House construction has gone down slightly, according to the May BNP-Paribas report, but the predominance of the decline was actually in other sectors, not housing. We have increased the capacity of the industry in respect of skills, with a 40% increase in construction apprenticeships. We have expanded the help-to-buy scheme and set up the new First Home shared equity scheme. More than 1,000 people have already applied. Deputies opposite attack such schemes, yet the people are voting with their feet in applying to them because they find them useful.

We have introduced a new €30,000 grant for vacant properties. We have introduced a new subsidy to activate apartment building in city centres for owner-occupiers. We have expanded the tenant purchase scheme to include pensioners. We are building the first affordable homes in over a generation through the local authorities. We have passed the first ever Affordable Housing Act. We have revamped the Land Development Agency to focus on affordable homes and put the agency on a statutory basis. We have put in place the first ever cost rental units in the history of the State. We have banned co-living. We have capped rent increases and strengthened tenants' protections. We have enhanced the local authority home loan. We have reduced interest rates for State-backed mortgages to make it easier for single people to avail of such mortgages. We have launched the largest State-led social housing building programme ever. We have slashed red tape with a new single-stage development approval process for outlays of up to €6 million to accelerate social housing delivery. We have expanded the repair and leasing scheme from 40,000 to 60,000 to bring vacant properties into use. We have brought more than 6,000 voids back into use. We have delivered in excess of 700 Housing First tenancies. We have launched a new housing strategy for disabled people to run from 2022 to 2027. We have provided €81 million in funding for housing adaptation grants for older people. We have established the national homeless action committee. We have secured a local government rates waiver of more than €1 billion to support local businesses and services. We have launched €1.3 billion in urban regeneration funding for towns and city centres, which will help house construction infrastructurally. There is a €50 million water investment scheme for rural towns and villages. There is a €61 million fire services capital programme.

There has been a lot of action and work. Objectively, no matter the views of Deputies opposite, they cannot dismiss the level of activity in the past two years. Notwithstanding the Covid pandemic and the war, we will do everything we possibly can.

Furthermore, in 2021 about 20,400 houses were built. Some 12,600 of those were bought by households in the private sector; 5,200 were social housing. Therefore, the social houses and households generally accounted for 87% of the total, with 2,600 classed as others. Sometimes, listening to the debate in this House, one would imagine that the others accounted for the 87% instead of 2,600 and not realise the fact that the vast bulk of houses built last year went to private households or to social housing. There has been a lack of balance in the narrative surrounding housing and in the debate, with the suggestion that this is all investment funds and so on. It is not at all. It is the same this year. However, it suits politically and suits the sound bite environment in which we live in contemporary politics to create the narrative and the story that housing policy is limited to looking after vulture funds and so on, as Deputy Boyd Barrett and Deputy Murphy hammer out every day. In fact, 87% of all housing completed last year went to a combination of private households and social households. That is a fact. We are looking at a similar situation in 2022. We need balance and objectivity in the debate, which we are not getting.

As for the issue in education, there is no doubt rents are too high. We need more and more supply across the board. By the way, the State is now the biggest actor in housing supply. There is no question about that. Deputy Boyd Barrett and Deputy Murphy can nod all they like. Whether social housing, affordable housing through local authorities, cost rental or State involvement in respect of the First Home scheme, the State through the Government is the biggest actor in housing, not funds and not anybody else.

We pay; they profit.

This does not apply just to education but to anybody living and working in Dublin or in the major cities in respect of any profession. One cannot single out just one profession. There is no doubt but there are challenges and that people will opt for a lower rent situation that would meet their personal requirements if they can get it. Until we get supply to a really significant level, we will continue to be in difficulty here. We will look at other measures, such as through tax measures, to alleviate the pressures people are under. Pay in the private sector has gone up 10% over the past two years. There is the public service pay deal the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform negotiated last year, Building Momentum. A further negotiation has commenced and adjourned. It is the Government's desire that we would have a pay deal with the public service and then, in the context of the budget, that we would have proposals on tax and social protection in parallel with a pay agreement. Then, overall, we can help to alleviate the pressures on teachers and others working in the public service and in the private sector, also through tax measures. Parallel with that, we would have a cost-of-living package that would focus on families and children and reduce the burden on them. What the Government envisages providing now is an overall cost-of-living package that will be once-off and will be applied in this calendar year, before the end of the year, in order that people would have funding from that package and that the budget measures themselves would enable us to come through the winter and put in place more medium-term policies on childcare, spending on education and in all the various Departments.

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