Commencement Matters

International Agreements

I welcome the Minister. The European Convention on Human Rights which was drafted in 1950 and has been in force since 1953 has had a very positive effect on the lives of Europeans. I will not trouble the House with a list of all the decisions of the European Court of Human Rights and the positive effect they have had on this country and beyond. An effect that can be seen is a greater tolerance of diversity and understanding of our fellow citizens in areas such as criminal justice, the right to a fair trial, the protection of the home, the rights of people with disabilities and privacy - the list goes on.

What has motivated me to raise this matter is a concern that the newly elected British Government has recommitted to repealing the UK Human Rights Act. While it is entitled to do as it pleases, given its mandate, there are Irish and peace process dimensions to the decision. The Good Friday Agreement committed both jurisdictions to incorporating the European Convention on Human Rights domestically. It specifically committed the Republic to ensure at least an equivalent level of human rights protection as would pertain in Northern Ireland at a time when protections in the North were seen as greater than in the Republic. I do not need to remind anyone present that the Good Friday Agreement was agreed on a broad front that included putting weapons beyond use and a commitment on both sides to the value of human rights. This we both did.

We incorporated the European Convention on Human Rights through the European Convention on Human Rights Act and the British through the UK Human Rights Act. What was done was, in truth, a bargain and an act of trust where both sides committed to actions that would build confidence in one another. The new British Government now seems to be committing to weakening that trust, although perhaps unintentionally, something I do not say lightly.

The Good Friday Agreement, under the UK legislation section, commits the British Government to complete incorporation into Northern Ireland law of the European Convention on Human Rights, with direct access to the courts and remedies for breach of the convention, including power for the courts to overrule Assembly legislation on the grounds of inconsistency. What is now proposed at Westminster is withdrawal from these commitments. It is speculated that the UK Government will draw up a new Act, a British Bill of Rights as it is called, which will specifically not oblige the courts to adhere to the rules of the European Court of Human Rights, with provisions granting Parliament the power to ignore the European Court if it so wishes and one where the courts will have no power to overrule the assembly on grounds of inconsistency. It appears to be a plan that would place the British Government in breach of its commitments under the Good Friday Agreement, a bilateral international agreement lodged with the United Nations. One of the first rules of international law is that any bilateral treaty means what the signatories state it does. During the course of the debate on the citizenship referendum, a clarifying statement was released by both Governments, indicating that the proposed amendment had no effect on the Agreement.

In addition, the treaty is not justiciable. No citizen in any jurisdiction can go to the courts to enforce its provision. This means that the Irish Government must insist that the British Government does not abandon its commitments under the Agreement for narrow sectional political reasons. Therefore, before any repeal of the UK Human Rights Act, I urge the Minister to indicate to the British Government that any such unilateral withdrawal from its commitments under the Good Friday Agreement would be a grave cause for concern to the Irish Government.

I thank the Senator for raising this important issue. Ireland's commitment to the promotion and protection of human rights is an underlying principle of Ireland's foreign policy and is a priority for the Government. Ireland is a member of the United Nations Human Rights Council and we pursue our human rights priorities in many international fora. Ireland is a firm supporter of the European Court of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights' protection system.

Early in my ministry I had the opportunity to meet Thørbjern Jagland, Secretary General of the Council of Europe in Strasbourg, and reaffirmed Ireland's strong support for the Council of Europe and the European Court of Human Rights.

It should be noted, however, that there is no legislation before the British Parliament at Westminster to repeal the 1998 UK Human Rights Act. The new British Government has yet to publish its legislative programme for this parliamentary term, although I expect it will do so in the next few weeks.

On the broad question of human rights and the Good Friday Agreement, the views of the Government are clear and unchanged. The protection of human rights in Northern Ireland law, predicated on the European Convention of Human Rights, is one of the key principles underpinning the Agreement. As a guarantor of the Good Friday Agreement, the Government takes very seriously its responsibility to safeguard its institutions and principles. Protecting the human rights aspects of the Good Friday Agreement is not only a shared responsibility between the two Governments in terms of the welfare of the people of Northern Ireland but is also an obligation on them as parties to the international treaty, lodged with the United Nations, in which the Agreement was enshrined.

The fundamental role of human rights in guaranteeing peace and stability in Northern Ireland can by no means be taken for granted and must be fully respected. We work continually with the British Government and the power-sharing Executive in Belfast in support of the Good Friday Agreement institutions and principles as the foundational architecture underpinning the peace process. The Government believes the Good Friday Agreement's provisions should be at all times fully respected. It is for this reason that I was somewhat disappointed that a renewed commitment to a Bill of Rights for Northern Ireland, based on the European Convention of Human Rights, as provided for by the Good Friday Agreement, was not included in the Stormont House Agreement, despite the best encouragement of the Government.

A key chapter of the Good Friday Agreement is dedicated to "rights, safeguards and equality of opportunity". The formal human rights architecture, including the European Convention of Human Rights, is woven into the structures of the agreements in order to give shape and effect to their principles and aspirations. The concrete importance of the human rights architecture is evident across a range of areas, from politics to policing to dealing with the legacy of the past. In the context of the Good Friday Agreement, the British Government undertook to "complete incorporation into Northern Ireland law of the European Convention of Human Rights (ECHR), with direct access to the courts, and remedies for breach of the Convention, including power for the courts to overrule Assembly legislation on grounds of inconsistency". This undertaking was given in the 1998 UK Human Rights Act. The Irish Government, for its part, took steps to strengthen the protection of human rights in this jurisdiction by enacting the European Convention on Human Rights Act 2003.

Placing human rights at the heart of the peace process in Northern Ireland has helped to ensure the participation and trust of all communities. A shared emphasis on human rights and all that this implies is part of what makes the peace process credible. The Government will work closely with the UK Government to ensure the protection of human rights remains at the heart of civic life, politics and ongoing societal change in Northern Ireland. I assure the Senator and the House that we will follow closely all developments in this regard.

I thank the Minister for his assurances. One of the defining moments in our recent history was the constitutional settlement in Northern Ireland, on which people north and south of the Border voted. I do not think it should be undermined for any short-term political expediency at Westminster. As the Minister rightly said, human rights formed an integral part of that treaty not only as a safeguard against unwelcome acts within the Assembly but also because this gave the people of Northern Ireland an assurance there was an independent force at play to prevent the descent into the sectarianism of the past. It is welcome that the Minister will be working closely with the British Government on this issue because it a cause of concern.

I am very grateful to the Senator for providing me with the opportunity to discuss this important issue, which, in many respects, cuts to the heart of the Government's approach to peace and stability on tes island, as well as our commitment to the international human rights framework on a more general basis. The Good Friday Agreement, including its provisions on human rights, was endorsed by an overwhelming majority of people on the island, as the Senator said. We will continue to work with the UK Government to ensure the Agreement's legacy thrives and, as I said, I will follow developments on these matters very closely. I have arranged a meeting next week with the recently reappointed Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Ms Theresa Villiers. I look forward to having this matter on the agenda. I assure the House that I will underline to her the importance the Government attaches to human rights in the context of the Good Friday Agreement and also a number of particular concerns that have been raised by the Senator.

Road Projects Status

I thank the Cathaoirleach for allowing me the opportunity to raise this important matter. I welcome the Minister, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, back to his alma mater. I am disappointed for once that the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade is not going to reply on my behalf because I will be expressing the view that the decision to annul, in the short term at least, the N20 project appeared to be a decision made by a Department of foreign affairs rather than a more national Department. People in the Cork and Limerick region are bemused, surprised but, above all, bitterly disappointed that the news on the Cork-Limerick motorway appears so negative.

No one appreciates more than I the economic difficulties and, to some degree, the crisis still facing the country. I know that every euro and certainly every €1 billion must be spent with great caution. However, this project which is urgently required from a regional balance point of view, a job creation point of view and a safety point of view has been on the planning shelves for quite some time. It was back in 2011 when the Minister's predecessor, again due to the economic difficulties then facing the country and the new Government, took the decision to put the project into cold storage. As the economy begins to develop and grow, as the Government begins to work on projects such as the Action Plan for Jobs, as the Minister, Deputy Richard Bruton, talks about regional development, as the prospect of building new industrial sites across the country improves and regional growth strategies are being considered, it is urgent that this idea of a new Cork-Limerick motorway be put back on track, if the House will excuse the pun.

The two very large centres of population, Cork and Limerick, could be brought much closer together from a transport perspective if this project was delivered. This would be a major boost to the towns of Mallow, Buttevant, Charleville and Macroom and places like Cork Airport would come back on the agenda very much strengthened. For these reasons and much more, this is something the Minister has to reflect deeply on. I have to concede - there is no point saying otherwise - that the Minister has to be cautious in the expenditure of moneys. However, it is a question of value for money and what is the long-term positive consequence of putting the project back on track.

We have seen, in the course of the past 12 to 18 months, how Dublin and the east coast region are again moving very much ahead of the country. While much of this is positive, from a housing or rent perspective, the Dublin and east coast imbalance must be addressed. If we look at regions such as Cork, Limerick and Galway and the towns in between and focus as much development as possible on these regions, not only is it good for each region but it is also good for the east coast region.

I know that the Minister will be meeting in the coming weeks with councillors and management in Limerick and Cork and that the various chambers of commerce in the region are also deeply concerned and disappointed.

If we want to ensure the economic "recovery" - the buzzword at present - is balanced, regional, fair and of long-term sustainable value to the country and not Celtic tiger-like, we must plan for the projects which are needed, will save lives, improve access and give us the required balanced regional growth. I am disappointed with the decision the Minister took recently but every decision is up for review. As times change and recovery continues, it is essential that we get a positive signal from the Minister on this matter. There is also, perhaps from a more parochial perspective of mine, the question of a new relief road for Mallow. While the major project would cost €1 billion, the relief road for Mallow would cost €14 million or €15 million. I ask for the Minister's comments on it.

We need to reflect on the time for construction of some of these big projects. There have been fairly dramatic improvements in the past ten or 15 years, but when I think of the Cork-Mallow road, it appeared futuristic when it was planned in the 1970s and started being constructed in the 1980s as a 20-mile stretch. From my personal perspective, I drove on the first stretch of that road in a school bus in leaving certificate year. By the time that short 20-mile stretch was officially opened, I had been twice elected to Dáil Éireann. We are very slow on the delivery of these projects. Obviously, because of slow development, costs increase. When this project was mentioned, in 2010-11, we were talking not about €1 billion but about €750 million. Apart from trying to get the green light, we must look not only at this road but at all motorway developments and at trying to expedite the development phases and the construction methodology because delays cost money.

In the case of the Cork-Limerick route, to save lives, save money and bring real growth to the region, Cork, Limerick and all the towns in between, I hope the Minister will try to reflect positively not on what I am saying but on what everybody in the region, including all the politicians across all the parties, are saying. I am not expecting a U-turn from the Minister today, but I ask him to reflect deeply on this serious decision for the southern part of the country.

I thank the Senator for raising this issue. I noted his point about whether the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade should be taking this issue. Something I do, out of respect to Senators and the House, is take virtually all of the Commencement matters relating to my Department because it is important to do so. The issue the Senator is raising is an example of this. I am very much aware of the importance of this issue to everybody who lives, works and represents the different counties and constituencies that could be affected by this road in the future.

As the Senator will be aware, I have responsibility for overall policy on and funding for the national roads programme. The responsibility for the construction, improvement and maintenance of individual national roads resides with the National Roads Authority and the local authorities in each county.

Ireland has just under 100,000 km of road in its network and the maintenance of these roads places a substantial financial burden on local authorities and the Exchequer. My overwhelming priority is to ensure we have the resources and the plans to maintain and keep safe the roads that we have built.

Given the national financial position, there have been large reductions in the Exchequer funding available for roads expenditure in recent years. In 2008 we were investing €2.3 billion in roads. This year the funding is approximately €730 million. The challenge I face is that the funds available to my Department do not match the amount of work that needs to be undertaken. For this reason, only a small number of road improvement projects, including PPP projects in the Government's 2012 infrastructure stimulus programme, are being progressed to construction stage. The challenge, therefore, for the NRA and road authorities is to manage the existing network as safely as possible with the resources available to them.

My predecessor had to decide in 2011 that the M20 scheme should be withdrawn from An Bord Pleanála because budgetary constraints meant that there was no prospect of the scheme going to construction within a reasonable period of time and approval of the then plan by the board would have triggered land acquisition costs of the order of between €90 million and €100 million. When the NRA raised the possibility of restarting planning on a Cork to Limerick motorway, I was conscious that capital funding was still very constrained, presenting real difficulties in relation to the scale of the M20 - an 80 km road with a projected cost of €800 million. I was also conscious of the continuing need to prioritise expenditure on maintenance and renewal, not only on roads but also public transport. Unfortunately, the financial realities are that capital funding will continue to be tight for the next number of years, limiting the scope for progressing additional new projects over and above the PPP programmes already in place. Allowing for the current funding position, I have had to conclude that I am not in a position to review the 2011 decision at this point. Over time, it is my objective to restore capital funding for the transport sector to ensure land transport infrastructure is maintained and renewed to support economic and social development.

While I have, I hope, stabilised the funding position, the scope for new improvement projects depends on the availability of additional capital funding in the future. Once the new capital plan is published, I will assess what can be done to address particular bottlenecks.

I accept that there are demands from other sectors and the difficult task of deciding between competing demands falls to the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. As regards the current position on the N20, I understand the NRA has provided funding totalling over €8.9 million for safety and minor improvement works at various locations on the N20 route in the past five years. This year's national road grant allocations to Cork County Council also include a provision of €1.75 million for major road improvement works on the N20 at Buttevant. The authority has confirmed that it will continue to provide the maximum possible level of funding for the route having regard to funding constraints for national roads generally and the many competing demands for resources. I emphasise that I expect the NRA to use safety assessment and pavement management systems to best effect to direct resources to where they are most needed.

I thank the Minister for the comprehensive reply. While he has not given me any information of which I was unaware, I note his point that "capital funding is still very constrained, presenting real difficulties in relation to" projects such as this. Knowing his deep interest in politics and economics, this restrained nature of capital funding is something on which we must reflect. The choice the Minister and his Cabinet colleagues will have to make in the near future will be about future planning and whether we invest in short-term - I hate to use the word - "auction-style" politics or in profound deep meaningful capital projects. If one looks at the capital project about which we speak, it will bring benefits for generations to come. Not only will it create jobs and enhance the environment, it will save lives. The Minister mentioned, for instance, the short-term expenditure of almost €10 million on safety and minor improvement works and that would have to continue year after year until this major project was considered. I ask him to think big. Within the Department and in the debates, arguments and engagement with the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Brendan Howlin, the Minister will have to make the case that capital development and capital infrastructure are vital for the future long-term enhancement of the country.

It is a question of the difference between a short-term perspective and a long-term perspective, between the politics we have had for generations and new politics and between investing in the future and simply looking to the next election.

I hope the Minister will have a meaningful exchange with his colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, on this and other projects for which capital funding into the future is hugely important. I ask him to look to the future and try to get projects such as the completion of the M20 up and running. The future development of the country depends on such projects, as opposed to short-term developments such as the repair of a bend on the road or the provision of safety measures. I hope 20 or 25 years from now, we will be looking back at decisions that were taken in the interests of the long-term good of the country, rather than with short-term considerations in mind. We need urgent action on this very important long-term requirement, which should be prioritised by the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform. The full support of the Minister is needed to try to get action and funding from the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform.

I thank the Cathaoirleach for giving me a little leeway in raising this important subject.

I thank the Senator for his concluding comments. I fully accept and agree with his point about the need to plan for the long term. I am constantly aware of the need to balance the short-term pressures of today with the pressures and opportunities that are to come. As the Senator accurately said, those pressures and opportunities stretch well beyond electoral cycles and Dáil and Seanad terms. I put it to the Senator that we need to work on two challenges within this framework. The first challenge on which we need to work is very much an overall or general challenge for the country. It relates to the total amount of capital funding available for us to spend on all kinds of projects, including those aimed at meeting the need in areas such as education, housing and transport, for which I am responsible. We need to work on two variables within this. First, we need to focus on how we can increase the capacity of the economy and make choices within the economy to make sure we have enough money to spend. Second, we need to look at the expenditure constraints and rules we face in the first place. I do not want us to get to a point at which the funding that becomes available to the country is invested only in things that are affordable in the short run, such as the introduction of tax cuts or changes or the construction of infrastructure for which in the long run there is no sustainable need or which we cannot afford to maintain. We have to make progress in that area, and we are beginning to do so.

The second challenge with which we need to contend is the debate on how the country can make progress overall. I have responsibility for putting forward the case for transport in that context and this project is a good example. I know that the Senator is disappointed with the answer I have given. I can accept the reasons for his disappointment. He made the point in his opening contribution that I need to be very careful with the money that is available to me. It is for that reason that I am now justifying a decision the Senator does not like. I am working hard to come up with a plan that will make a strong case for rebuilding expenditure on roads and the public transport network. In fact, I was engaged in that work this morning.

During the Celtic tiger period, the country substantially increased the amount of funding it was investing in transport infrastructure, to between 1.3% and 1.4% of national income. The current figure is 0.5%. Our 50-year average as a country is 1%. We have to build our national average back up. If we do not, we will be locked into a cycle in which the kinds of problem about which the Senator has spoken, generally and in relation to this road, will continue to develop. I am working on that issue with my colleagues in the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform. I accept that they are trying to manage other competing demands. I am trying to put forward the overall case, which is that certain projects are justified purely on the basis of a cost-benefit analysis. If we add to that analysis a consideration of the economic development and road safety benefits of these projects, the case for the construction of these roads is significantly enhanced.

I thank the Senator for raising this case with me. Of course, I will reflect on it. I know that there is a need for this project. I am sure the Senator did not expect me to come and tell him the road was going ahead. I am not in any way taking his point in a flippant manner. I know people want this road project to go ahead, but I am not in a position today to say it can go ahead in its entirety, with the cost entailed in it.

Sitting suspended at 11.05 a.m. and resumed at 11.30 a.m.