Ba mhaith liom mo chuid ama a roinnt leis an Seanadóir Murnane-O'Connor.
Statement by the Taoiseach (Resumed)
Beidh ceithre nóiméad ag an mbeirt agaibh.
Cuirim fáilte mhór roimh an Taoiseach agus, ar son Sheanadóirí Fhianna Fáil, gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis as ucht teacht anseo inniu chun labhairt linn.
I wish to address the Taoiseach on two issues, namely, Seanad reform and Brexit.
After over a dozen reports on Seanad reform, it is now incumbent on the Taoiseach and the Government to meaningfully engage in the Seanad reform process. Fianna Fáil supports the Seanad 2016 Bill which seeks to implement the Manning report on Seanad reform. The Bill is in keeping with our explicit commitments in our manifesto, An Ireland for All. Fianna Fáil was the only parliamentary party to oppose the abolition of the Seanad in 2013 and set out detailed reform proposals at the time. While affirming the importance and value of the Upper House, Fianna Fáil recognises the need for expansive reform in the Seanad to revive its popular legitimacy and to restore its important role in the legislative process. This stance has been supported by the recent report of the working group on Seanad reform, which echoes many of the recommendations made by Fianna Fáil in 2014.
One of the key points we made at the time which were raised in the Manning report and which our leader was able to implement was appointing three Independent Senators. We have been able to appreciate the value of the contributions these Senators have made to this Seanad. The Bill draws on the Manning report and reflects much of the previous 2014 Fianna Fáil Bill in the area. After 12 reports on Seanad reform, we now need real action, not more idle talk. The Bill provides a clear route forward to reform the Upper House. It is vital that, following his failed campaign to abolish the Seanad, the Taoiseach engage in the process in a meaningful fashion and ensure the legislation passes through the Dáil on this occasion.
The outcome of the referendum on Britain's membership of the European Union is hugely disappointing. While we respect the views of the voters, we regard the outcome as a bad result for Ireland, the United Kingdom and the European Union. What is now needed is a calm, stable and measured approach. Our focus should be on showing that Ireland plans to remain a committed member of the European Union, making Brexit an absolute priority in the public business, pushing for the unique position of Ireland to be recognised in negotiations and working to reform the European Union in order that it lives up to the principles on which it was founded.
The long-term outcome of the referendum for Ireland will most likely depend on the relationship that Britain establishes with the European Union and the terms of such a relationship. We must ensure Ireland's interests are to the fore in any set of negotiations. Britain is our nearest neighbour and largest trading partner and the implications for trade, travel, tourism and other facets of life will be affected. The uncertainty about borders is a huge concern for the whole island, with massive effects on trade and the agribusiness. It is crucial that the Border be central to the negotiations on the United Kingdom's exit from the European Union. We need political, economic and legal certainty as soon as possible.
What does the Taoiseach hope to achieve with the all-Ireland forum and how does he plan to make it as inclusive as possible, given the Democratic Unionist Party's reluctance to participate? Given that Brexit, when it eventually happens, could take many forms, how is the Taoiseach's Department planning for all of the possible scenarios? What is the Taoiseach doing to convey to other member states that Ireland's position on Brexit is unique and distinct and that there is a need for sensitivity, particularly in respect of Northern Ireland?
We have already seen the impact on the mushroom industry as a consequence of the referendum result - 90% of all mushrooms grown in Ireland are exported to the United Kingdom. What efforts are being made to protect industries that are particularly vulnerable as a result of the Brexit vote? What are our embassies doing to promote Ireland as a destination for business and to lessen our dependence on the EU market?
In respect of the budget, what are the Taoiseach's plans to ensure it will be weighted in favour of those who have suffered most in recent years, particularly lone parents, the elderly and households with children? Will he commit to restoring the Christmas bonus in the upcoming budget? Why are there no Senators on the Committee on Budgetary Oversight?
I welcome the Taoiseach. I am my party’s spokesperson on housing and there are one or two issues about which I am very concerned. We have had four months of meetings with the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney. Arising from these meetings, we have been told there is an 84-point action plan. One of the only two results to emerge from the meetings is that the pre-planning and planning process will be hastened for local authorities that are building over 100 houses. However, that is miles down the road and we are in a crisis. The other result relates to the new housing assistance payment, HAP, scheme, which is not working. It is a rental scheme that all local authorities are introducing. People are given more rent to help with their rent allowance, but many landlords are increasing rents, with the result that there is no balance. Unless these problems are addressed, we will not solve the housing crisis.
In my local authority area, Carlow, there is a cap of €27,500 and anyone who earns more than this figure does not qualify for inclusion in the local authority housing list. Every local authority has set up a new rent scheme and everybody has been reassessed. Many of the people with whom I deal do not qualify for inclusion in the local authority housing list and are becoming homeless. We are not addressing the key issues to help people to find homes.
The new tenant purchase scheme introduced in the past four months allows only 50% of tenants to buy their houses. The other 50% - either because they do not work, because they are in receipt of illness benefit or because they are retired - cannot qualify for the new scheme. Apart from these two initiatives, what else in the 84-point plan has been done to help homeless persons?
The local authorities are preparing their budgets. Carlow is very small. The town council has been abolished and there have been extra costs for the land aggregation scheme for local authorities. In addition, rates and utility payments from the local enterprise boards have been lost. It is a small county council which cannot pass a budget because it does not have the proper funding coming in. I have spoken to the Minister about this. If a plan is not put in place to help the local authorities that require assistance, the ordinary Joe Soap on the road will suffer when the allocations for library services, parks and road maintenance are cut. We need to ensure everybody gets fair play and that the Taoiseach will help the local authorities that come to him asking for help to reach some agreement. I understand it is very hard to give so much capital funding to local authorities, but the Taoiseach needs to make an agreement with them because the working person will suffer the cuts.
Tá mé ag roinnt mo chuid ama leis an Seanadóir Lawless.
Ceart go leor.
Cuirim fíor fáilte roimh an Taoiseach, atá anseo linn inniu, agus roimh an méid a bhí le rá aige. Táim dóchasach go bhfuil spiorad nua ag teacht chun cinn sa Teach seo i dtaobh athchóiriú an tSeanaid as seo amach.
In his extensive statement the Taoiseach covered many matters, including very important issues such as Brexit and the future relationships between Ireland and the United Kingdom and between the North and the South. The one thing I would say in relation to all of them is that there are many domestic squalls surrounding the Government. As the Taoiseach pointed out, it is in an unusual position. I express my hope it will keep a firm hand on the tiller. Both the economic situation and the position on public sector pay need to be kept under control. We should not allow ourselves to be buffeted too much.
I welcome a number of things the Taoiseach said about the reform of this House. I welcome his reiterated support for the implementation of the Manning report and his commitment to making that happen. I was particularly struck by two features of what he had to say. The first relates to the formation of the implementation group. Those who have read the Manning report will be conscious that it sets out ambitious reforms for the future conduct of elections to this House and the future business of this House. Such reforms will require a huge amount of preparation and groundwork to be done. The extension of the franchise to citizens who are normally resident in Northern Ireland or who live elsewhere abroad will be a hugely ambitious task in a short timeframe. In that context, the Taoiseach's comments on getting a consensus in the Dáil were very important too. This Chamber is not the only one concerned with the issue. We must ultimately have a broad consensus based not merely on what Members of Seanad Éireann think about how Senators should be elected in the future but also on what the people of Ireland, through their public representatives in Dáil Éireann, think about the issue.
When the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, came to respond to the debate on the Seanad reform Bill, he outlined in a robust enough way some of the difficulties implicit in the reforms. Some might have seen his remarks as throwing cold water on the matter, but think they were an expression of the Government's desire to see us address the matter in a realistic way. Given that many Members of this House have been well served by the current system, under which they were elected, it would be naive of us to think they would be universally enthusiastic about the adoption of a different system. I emphasise that barring a miracle, the arrangements for the Manning report to be implemented in full will probably not be put in place in time for the next general election. They may be put in place on the Statute Book, which is my hope. From a practical perspective, a register of people in Northern Ireland will have to be compiled and voting arrangements will have to be extended to cover Irish citizens living in Australia, New Zealand, Canada and the United States. In such circumstances, it is highly unlikely that these arrangements will be fully operational in the near future. I say that to underline the point that those who are reluctant to embrace change should realise that it will take time. It is important to put the new arrangements on the Statute Book now in order that they can be implemented with the backing of an Oireachtas implementation group.
I welcome the Taoiseach. Irish people who live abroad are delighted that he appointed a Senator with a specific brief to advocate for their concerns, particularly about the undocumented status of many of them. Two weeks ago I attended the 50th anniversary celebrations of the Harp and Shamrock Society in San Antonio. I stayed directly across from the Alamo, where many Irish people died. Twelve of those who died were born in Ireland, while a further 20 were of Irish descent. Thirty of the 300 people who attended the event a fortnight ago were born in Ireland. This shows how diverse the Irish community is in that region. The same can be said of every state in the United States.
As the Taoiseach knows, the United States is less than 40 days away from a presidential election, the result of which will be as close as any in recent memory. The Irish and immigrant rights community in the United States is watching the race extremely closely, as opinions on immigration expressed by the two candidates could not be further apart in substance or tone. I was in New York last week with the Minister for Foreign Affairs and Trade, Deputy Charles Flanagan, and the Minister of State, Deputy Joe McHugh. We met representatives of Irish community and immigration advocacy groups. I assure the Taoiseach that they are already planning their responses to either a Trump or a Clinton victory in the forthcoming election and preparing their strategies for the first 100 days of the next presidency.
The Irish community leaders I met in Ireland House asked me and the Irish Government to petition the next President of the United States and the US Congress on new visas for the Irish. They made the case that Ireland had lost 18,000 visas a year under the 1965 immigration law, which today results in fewer than 350 green cards being issued to Irish people. I believe there is the political will in Congress and Irish people punch way above their weight. Given that 10,500 visas were secured in a 2013 Senate Bill, I believe an Irish visa Bill could pass if the Irish Government joined forces with legislative allies on Capitol Hill and Irish community groups to make a major push.
Irish companies now employ more Americans in the United States than American companies employ in Ireland. As the Taoiseach is aware, the Speaker of the House of Representatives, Mr. Paul Ryan, is very proud of his Irish roots and a major advocate of immigration reform. Will the Taoiseach, through his Ministers and the ambassador, make contact with the next President, whoever he or she may be, to ensure a visa Bill for the Irish will be initiated? I suggest any visa Bill also provide for a path for the undocumented Irish who would not be averse to coming back to Ireland to secure such a visa at the US Embassy here if it were guaranteed that they could return to the United States.
I thank the Taoiseach for his commitment to the diaspora and the issue of voting rights for immigrants abroad. As the Minister of State, Deputy Joe McHugh, alongside Ambassador Anderson, noted in New York, we have a constitutional obligation to the Irish diaspora under the Good Friday Agreement. This statement was wholeheartedly appreciated by the community leaders we met in America. They also wondered about the Government's stance on the voting rights issue. Can we expect a referendum on the matter to be held and the result implemented in time for the 2018 Irish presidential election? The subject of immigration reform and the plight of the undocumented Irish are of relevance to the process of Seanad reform that is under discussion.
I would like to share time with Senator Niall Ó Donnghaile.
I welcome the Taoiseach. It is always nice to see a Mayo man in the Seanad as there are far too many Dubs here. We will all be united on Saturday. That is, of course, if we can get a ticket. We will have a chat afterwards.
We will be united in victory, of course.
Alex is not here. I hope he will be more successful than I have been, but there are a couple of days left.
I welcome the Taoiseach to the Seanad. I am glad that he raised the issue of Brexit because I am interested in the Government's plans to protect the best interests of the entire island of Ireland. We are about to enter an extremely difficult period, for which there is no precedent. It is now the calm after the storm and before the next one, when Article 50 will be triggered. There is no timeline and, regrettably, not much hard evidence of planning on the Government's part. We need to see the entire island being proactive, rather than waiting on the Tory Government to make the next move. It created this crisis for its own selfish ends. The Taoiseach should certainly not allow it to dictate how we respond or the pace. It is now obvious that the Brexiteers had absolutely no plan and we still do not know what they want. We need the Taoiseach to work closely with the Northern Executive, with or without the support of the British Government.
The Taoiseach should, when necessary, stand up for Ireland and confront the British Government, in the same way as the First Minister of Scotland, Ms Nicola Sturgeon, is doing. I welcome Ms Sturgeon's moves. Also, she has explicitly said that if the negotiations on Brexit are not to her satisfaction and that of the Scottish National Party, she will consider another referendum on Scottish independence.
Mr. David Davis, MP, has been appointed as Brexit Minister in Britain. Has the Taoiseach plans for a Minister and Department here to deal with the fallout from Brexit and to plan across all Departments, including the Department of Agriculture, Food and the Marine which will be crucial in dealing with the Brexit issue? Not a day goes by without a new forecast or concern raised about the possible impact of the decision by English voters to leave the European Union. I say "English voters" because the people in the North of Ireland voted to remain in the European Union. We need dedicated individual and support staff to formulate responses and come up with solutions in what looks to be a challenging few years ahead. It is vital that the Taoiseach take personal responsibility to impress on the British Government that their wishes should be respected. I get the sense that the Government is dealing with all of this as a done deal and we in Sinn Féin will continue to press for the rights of those who consciously voted to remain part of the European Union.
I also want to find out whether the Taoiseach, since he was returned in April last, has been listening to the concerns of people. We had thousands on the streets again last week on the issue of water charges. They are clearly saying they should go forever. This means the charges being eliminated. It is time to give up the ghost on the water charges issue. People will not be fooled into paying their hard-earned money to keep Irish Water in the lifestyle to which it has become accustomed. All the while, we see the purchase of Siteserv and the non-implementation of the Moriarty tribunal findings become centre-stage in American politics in the US presidential election. It reflects badly on us, as a country.
I will turn briefly to the Apple issue. There is considerable public concern about the Government's refusal of the €13 billion. My party and I think we are missing a real opportunity for the Taoiseach, as leader of the country, to hold his hands up and come clean. This is a real opportunity for him to admit that we have for several decades knowingly facilitated tax evasion and tax avoidance on a significant scale, but this is not the only country to have done it. Billions of euro have been lost to people all over the world, but we are leading the charge. The Taoiseach's Government and particularly the previous Fianna Fáil-led Government have formulated policy to deprive Irish citizens of billions of euro due to the State from multinational companies. The Taoiseach, with Fianna Fáil, has given away our natural resources, oil and gas, as well as the fishing industry. The seaweed industry is even about to be given away.
Nobody is saying we should not do everything we can to encourage inward investment and job creation by multinationals which are welcome to be here. Our 12.5% corporation tax rate is highly competitive. Our educated English-speaking workforce and many other factors make this an attractive place in which to do business. Do we not owe it to the hundreds of thousands who have been forced to emigrate, those children who are not allowed on the school bus, those children and families who are homeless, those elderly and sick patients lying on hospital trolleys, those children with special needs, those with disabilities, those parents crippled by the cost of child care, those on low wages and zero-hour contracts and those farm and fishing families whose incomes have been eroded to have a fair fiscal policy that will drive a fairer distribution of wealth in the country?
An uair dheireanach a bhí an Taoiseach agus mé féin os comhair a chéile, bhíomar i bparlús an ardmhéara i mBéal Feirste. Seo muid anois in Seanad Éireann agus tá sé deas an Taoiseach a fheiceáil. Ciorcal mór an tsaoil a chuirtear ar sin i gColáiste Feirste, seanscoil seo agamsa.
I welcome the Taoiseach's commitment this week to convene the national dialogue on the Brexit issue. Of course, that dialogue should be national in the truest sense of the word. It should include achan chearn den tír seo. I look forward, regardless of the disgruntled remarks of others, to seeing as wide a representation as possible at that conversation to seek to assist the Taoiseach and the Government in ploughing a way through the choppy waters that have been forced on us against our will. The Taoiseach, I need not remind him, has a clear obligation to stand up for the best interests of Ireland in her entirety. He has a mandate from the people in the North that is clear about the people's ambition and aspiration to stay and keep Ireland in her entirety in the European Union.
Mura miste leis an Taoiseach, labhróidh mé fosta faoi chearta vótála i dtoghcháin uachtaránachta. It has been rightly referred to by Senator Bily Lawless, in the context of the remarks of the Minister of State, Deputy Joe McHugh, earlier this year, that a referendum would be sought to be held early next year to extend the franchise in presidential elections to the diaspora. That is the proper thing to do. It woud be in line with best practice in other states and countries around the world. I want to know if, as outlined clearly by the Constitutional Convention and a broad range of civic and political opinion in the North, the same enfranchisement and democratic right will be afforded to me and the hundreds of thousands of people like me in the North who are Irish citizens and wish to vote for their President who, of course, is not the President of a land mass but the President of the Irish people in their entirety. Perhaps the Taoiseach might confirm for me, without pre-empting the outcome of a referendum, although I would be reasonably confident heading into one, that when that referendum is held, it will not only seek to extend the democratic right to vote in presidential elections to the diaspora but also include Irish citizens living north of the Border.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Taoiseach go Seanad Éireann. I am happy to have the Taoiseach in Seanad Éireann.
The Taoiseach spoke about a Government unlike any other. We are also looking at a Seanad Éireann unlike any other because this Seanad, the Twenty-fifth Seanad, is the first which was saved from abolition by a popular vote of the people. I am sure the Taoiseach will agree with and support me in recognising that, the people being sovereign, as he himself recognised, those who voted to retain the Seanad in 2013 were voting for reform. When we spoke about a new relationship between the people and their Parliament, they were voting explicitly for the right to have a relationship, both in how this Chamber was elected and in the work that it conducted. I strongly support the advance in the area of Seanad Éireann reform and very much welcome the commitments the Taoiseach has given today in recognising the Manning report, the valuable work done in that regard, the importance of the proposals made and the transformative and positive nature of many of them. I look forward to the actions of the implementation group. I hope those of us who are heads of technical groups rather than parties will also be invited to the discussions and look forward to that happening in my capacity as leader of my group.
I raise one small point. The Taoiseach speaks about the Dáil debate as being the first step in the reform process. It is important to note that steps have already been taken in the reform process, be it the vote of the people, the work of the Manning group or the Bill we have put forward which has reached Second Stage in this House. If we wish to drive forward meaningful Seanad reform and deliver it for the people before the next time we will have an election, we need to ensure we will not take any backward step and that we will continue to move forward with the Bill while discussing implementation. I would like the Taoiseach's assurances in that regard.
The Taoiseach also spoke about budgetary scrutiny and the new process in that regard. I have a question for him on a specific commitment given. Something I strongly welcome is the commitment in A Programme for a Partnership Government on equality and gender-proofing. This is something, with many others, certainly during my time with the National Women's Council, on which I was happy to campaign and press for. I am delighted to see it as part of the Taoiseach's commitment. I would like him to outline how he sees the equality and gender-proofing aspects of the budget being delivered, both in budget 2017 and in the future. Will there be an equality statement to accompany the budget, as is the practice in Scotland? It is important that tax measures, including tax reliefs, also be included within the equality budgeting process. This is something on which it would be useful to hear assurance also.
I reiterate the point made by others that we need to be realistic when we talk about tax in Ireland. We need to be real on the figures. When we talk about corporate tax practices, we have to be real. When we talk about tax concessions, the language we use is important. In that regard, we need a reality check. I urge the Taoiseach to give leadership in the discussion on what the squeezed middle actually is. The fact is that median earned income in Ireland is €28,500. Half of all workers in Ireland are earning that amount or less and they cannot be invisible. We need to ensure this entire 50% of workers is not invisible in the discussion on the budget. What they need is real investment in quality wages and quality work and real increases in pay and public services. Investing in public services is the way to give back to and benefit the full population. Ireland has a role also in making the case at European level for public investment in public services.
I make a special appeal on care services. Care provision is the lifeblood of our society and should be recognised in all economic processes, including the summer economic statement and economic dialogues. That would be transformative not only in relation to child care but also in terms of home care and the question of statutory entitlements. We have heard Ministers say they do not want the budget to appear regressive. It must not be regressive and that must be tested. Further to the question of equality proofing, guidelines were issued by the Department of the Taoiseach to all Departments on their new three-year statements of strategy. It is unfortunate that the guidelines have not drawn attention to the public sector duty in terms of equality and human rights. It is important for the Taoiseach to provide leadership for Departments to ensure they are aware of their duties in that regard. I would like to have statements in the House on how the guidelines might be amended to include a clear reference to that public duty.
The Taoiseach represented the State at the highest level in signing the Paris climate change commitments and the sustainable development goals. In the past, we have also signed up to the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. It would be appropriate to remind Departments of these key commitments on which the Taoiseach has led and which apply across government and to ensure they are reflected in departmental strategies for the next three years. Ireland played a key role in the negotiations on the sustainable development goals, which should be commended strongly.
Ireland also played a key role in the recent summit on refugees. At UN level, Ireland is playing a key role in moving the discussions forward. However, we must also show leadership within Europe where the EU-Turkey deal is not acceptable and the human rights of refugees are in the balance. Leadership must also be shown within Ireland where, sadly, our already inadequate commitment to take 4,000 refugees has seen us receive only 400. I know that the figures are moving, but this is an area in which we can lead. The outcome of the summit was a call to all countries to do what they could. I believe we can and should do much more. We must also look at our direct provision system and the right to work. We must examine the way refugees are treated within Ireland. We must also send these positive signals because of the danger of the xenophobic language which drove so much of the Brexit debate. That is why we must send positive signals and messages of inclusion.
On Brexit, I welcome the all-Ireland conversation. Other Members have spoken about the important issues, but, crucially, we must not engage in any race to the bottom on conditions. We must look to opportunities such as investment in higher education. On the future of Europe, we can be strong European citizens while also being critical. We must be strong in areas such as trade and the CETA which the Government seems intent, unfortunately, on signing this very month. At a time of uncertainty and when we are talking about responsibility, it would be reckless for it to agree to the provisional application of this trade agreement with its immense implications.
I do not have a chance to make my other points, but I look forward to the overall debate. I say to the Taoiseach that while the Citizens' Assembly is welcome as a discussion, it is not a sufficient response to the demands from international bodies or the street. People want a chance to vote through the ballot box. We need a referendum to repeal, not replace, the eighth amendment. I hope a date for the referendum can be set within the lifetime of the Government.
I wish to share time with Senator Kevin Humphreys.
Cuirim fáilte roimh an Taoiseach. I welcome him back to the Seanad. I am glad to hear of his commitment to Seanad reform now that the question of abolition is firmly off the table. As others have said, we have a blueprint for reform in the shape of the Manning report, for which I note that the Taoiseach has expressed his support. However, we need to see action and a timeframe for implementation of the recommendations.
As the Labour Party's spokesperson on foreign affairs, I have a number of issues to raise with the Taoiseach, the first of which is Brexit. We have already spoken a great deal about it and the Taoiseach has addressed it. I welcome the stated Government priorities and the announcement of an all-island dialogue. We passed a motion in the Seanad in July mandating us to have a comprehensive dialogue and debate in this Chamber calling in, among others, MEPs and Northern Ireland's First Minister and the Deputy First Minister. I hope we will contribute to the debate. We must look at creative ways of moving forward. I had an interesting meeting with Alex Salmond, MP, earlier today when we spoke about the possibility of separate legal status for Northern Ireland and Scotland in the wake of the Brexit negotiations based, for example, on the Lichtenstein model. We must look at all options as we move forward in the process.
On our relations with the European Union more generally, I noted with interest the Taoiseach's speech in Bratislava. While it is important to commend him for his emphasis on our neutrality, I note the need to hold the line on that issue, particularly in the light of Jean-Claude Juncker's speech calling for a centralised common defence policy in Europe. We need to ensure we take a strong stance in defence of our neutrality.
On the question of refugees which others have mentioned, I welcomed very much the commitment of the previous Government to welcome 4,000 refugees from Syria through the European hot spots in Greece and Italy. However, I am very concerned by the slow pace of progress which has been noted by the Tánaiste in recent weeks. Can we expedite the process to ensure more refugees will be brought in and can we see implementation of the recommendations made in the Mahon report on the reform of the direct provision system which was a priority of the former Minister of State, Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin? I received an e-mail update today from Médecins Sans Frontières in which it described the appalling situation in Aleppo and referred to the very large number of civilians who faced siege in rebel held areas which were under bombardment from the Syrian Government and Russia. The 250,000 people in question have access to only approximately 30 doctors. The USA has announced today that it will take a much stronger stance against Russia. I would like to think Ireland would take a role within the European Union to press for a similar stance, given the apparent abandonment by Russia of the peace process.
On an issue closer to home, with other Members, I ask that the momentum for repeal of the eighth amendment be recognised within the political system. I am glad that the Taoiseach spoke of the plan for a citizens' assembly which I hope will recommend a referendum in favour of repeal. When will it be held? Can we have a very clear timeframe for the process of referral of recommendations to the Oireachtas committee and then to the Dáil and the Seanad? The momentum is clear. We need to see the repeal of the eighth amendment.
The Taoiseach is very welcome. It is welcome that he should come to the Seanad today, albeit he should do so on a more regular basis. I would like to see him attend the Seanad at the beginning and end of each term in order that we would see him back before Christmas. The level of the debate so far has been very good and informative, which I very much welcome.
I do not think politicians, like the media, have short memories. The reason I ran the campaign to have the Taoiseach attend today was that the terms "new politics" and "reform" were dripping from everyone's tongue. However, nobody knew or understood exactly what was meant by them. I was hoping the Taoiseach would put some meat on the bones, but, unfortunately, I have seen very little of it. What I see constantly are the major decisions of the day being kicked to either committees or for review or mediation.
One of the ones which drove me absolutely demented was when there was an undermining of the concept of collective Cabinet responsibility. I very much support the campaign to repeal the eighth amendment, but Deputy Mick Wallace's Bill was clearly unconstitutional. How it was wrangled to allow people to vote against it was that the Attorney General's advice was not sought by the Cabinet, but I do not find that right. One of the Minister's who did not seek the Attorney General's advice was very glad of her advice when he was rushing back from Rio de Janeiro where he found himself in severe trouble.
We had an interesting discussion this morning when Senators Michael McDowell and David Norris referred to delays in the appointment of judges and asked where the real responsibility lay. We read in various newspapers that a particular Minister will veto the appointment of judges, which raises questions about the concept of collective Cabinet responsibility. Whether it is true, it was said he had gone to the newspapers and announced that he was going to veto it. I find that very difficult to accept.
I wish to raise two issues that are close to my heart. I raised one of them yesterday, namely, the co-location of Holles Street hospital at St. Vincent's University Hospital. One of the issues was kicked to a mediator in the hope of finding a result. When the Minister attended this House he said: "I have no plan B." If St. Vincent's University Hospital, Elm Park, does not agree to it, it is scuppered and, therefore, 10,000 babies will be born in Holles Street hospital in overcrowded conditions and ten delivery wards when there should be over 20. An article in The Irish Times this morning reports that the State is still owed over €240 million by religious institutions. I suggest that if we cannot get agreement on the co-location of Holles Street hospital at St. Vincent's University Hospital, Elm Park, as part of the compensation to taxpayers and the State, the religious order involved should hand the hospital back to the HSE to manage it. Let us build a good quality hospital that the women and children of the State deserve. That would be a fitting legacy.
I constantly hear that the Rural Alliance and different Independents hold the strings of power over the Government. It is driving a wedge between rural and urban Ireland. However, parts of Dublin, Cork and Limerick have suffered equally from the recession. Such areas have also lost Garda stations and post offices. There are huge areas of disadvantage across Dublin that urgently require investment. All disadvantaged areas, whether rural or urban, deserve to share in the recovery. The sum of €20 million for reinvigorating rural towns is badly needed, but urban areas have suffered equally. They include Dublin's inner city, an issue which was kicked to a task force to consider. We need decisions and leadership. Even though it is a minority Government, we cannot let small groups derail the recovery. I am not only talking about economic recovery but also about the social recovery of communities, schools, hospitals and infrastructure. I ask the Taoiseach not to be misdirected by small vocal groups that are only looking after their parishes. The interests of the country need to be looked after.
I am sharing time with Senator Kieran O'Donnell.
Cuirim fíor-fháilte roimh an Taoiseach. Gabhaim mo bhuíochas leis agus tugaim mo thacaíocht dó as ucht an chomhrá agus an méid oibre atá le déanamh ar son an ghnáthdhuine ar fud na tíre.
In welcoming the Taoiseach to the Chamber I hope his presence will be a continuing one. In his address he highlighted many key issues. Listening to some of the comments, I am reminded that the more things change, the more they stay the same. I will not go into the parish pump issues that have been addressed either directly or indirectly.
The themes addressed by the Taoiseach highlight the fragility faced by the world and Ireland within the European Union, whether it concerns Brexit or our own existence in Seanad Éireann, including how we are elected. Other issues include the budget and the country's economic outlook within the European Union, the eighth amendment, the pressing issue of housing and the Government's approach to how it governs. That requires leadership and an holistic approach by Members of the Oireachtas. I am confident that under the Taoiseach's leadership, the programme for Government which is committed to a just society based on a resilient economy will be achieved. Those who navel gaze should look at how far the country has come in the five short years Deputy Enda Kenny has been Taoiseach. Unemployment has fallen; the economy is growing and the public finances are secure. We have seen profound change in the social lives of many and some of us are now more equal than we were.
When I hear people talking about Apple, I ask them to visit Cork city or other areas where thousands are directly employed by multinationals or in ancillary services. The country is viewed around the world as one in which the economy is growing and people are employed at home. We are welcoming home our returning emigrants. Earlier today, together with Senator Billy Lawless, I met the Governor of Michigan. We had discussions about attracting people to invest here, which will have a positive outcome. Challenges remain, including Brexit, public service pay and other demands. However, we can see how a growing economy benefits many people, with the fruits being invested in the country.
The budget in October will probably be the most important we have ever faced as a nation. We should deal with it prudently and based on how we can improve people's lives in a tangible and meaningful way. It is important to improve people's lives but in so doing there is a duty on all of us to recognise that the Government does not have a pot of gold to float every boat and make everyone happy.
The changed political landscape presents us with a challenge because no party has a majority. I thank all Members of the House for their co-operation and willingness to work together in a spirit that has seen us do business better and differently, for which I commend all Senators. I refer, in particular, to Senator Billy Lawless as a member of the diaspora and a citizen of the country. Having visited America during the summer, I know that his work is having an impact. I wish him well in his continuing endeavours. Some criticised and questioned his appointment, but I know from talking to members of the Irish diaspora in the United States that they see his appointment as an important one that values their work. This concerns not only the undocumented Irish but also the efforts to bring people home to work here, as well as bringing investment to the country.
The Taoiseach spoke about leaving nobody behind. This is a partnership Government and it is important that that partnership reach beyond the Cabinet room or Dáil Chamber and also be extended to this House. Seanad reform was agreed to in the programme for Government. As Leader of the House, I welcome the opportunity to work with the Minister for Housing, Planning, Community and Local Government, Deputy Simon Coveney; the Minister of State, Deputy Damien English, other Ministers and all sides of the House to bring about reform. As a former Chairman of a committee, I recognise the importance of bringing Oireachtas reform to the people. The committee system is the most pivotal part of what we do in this House, yet it gets lost in the cauldron of debate in both Chambers. Nonetheless, the committee system has demonstrated that it can work quite well on behalf of the people.
As Leader of the House, I am committed to bringing forward a second Private Members' motion which we discussed briefly yesterday at the Committee on Procedure and Privileges. The Seanad consultation committee has been re-established. It is important to reach beyond the gates of Leinster House to the communities we serve and those whom we represent. It is said Senators do not have a constituency, but we are here to work on behalf of the people. As Seanadóirí, we must go beyond the gates to reach out to the public. I hope the Seanad consultation committee can do so again.
Thanks to the initiative of Senator Kieran O'Donnell, we will have a continuing Brexit debate. I look forward to working with the Taoiseach on the implementation body to bring Seanad reform, whatever it brings, to the Upper House. It is important that we continue, collectively, to bring reform of the Seanad to fruition.
I will speak about the Citizens' Assembly. As somebody who served on the Constitutional Convention and chaired the health committee which dealt with the protection of life during pregnancy legislation, I very much welcome the establishment of the Citizens' Assembly. I spoke in the House yesterday about the benefits of it and the need to be temperate in our language when we approach what is a very sensitive topic. Equally, we must empower the Citizens' Assembly in order that it can do its work and bring forward its report. We should give it our support as Members of this House.
The ten-year health strategy is important and we all hope it will be successful and we can sign up to it. It is disappointing that no Members of this House have yet been appointed to the group discussing the strategy. In this House we have experts in the health area who are willing to engage and be part of that process.
As the Taoiseach stated, we cannot go back to the old days. We are ambitious for ourselves and the people. The Taoiseach and the Government are the same. I commend the Taoiseach for his work and wish him well in the endeavours he will continue. I hope the people will continue to see increased employment and consequent benefits to all our lives.
I welcome the Taoiseach and wish him well. I will touch on two key elements dealt with by him in his address. The first is Brexit, an issue on which, as the Leader mentioned, we will hold our own debate. I very much welcome the Taoiseach's call for an all-Ireland dialogue. The Good Friday Agreement has passed its 18th birthday - the age of consent - and I hope people will see that it has evolved over time, with the natural progression now being an all-Ireland dialogue on Brexit because it has implications both North and South, particularly in the economic sphere. We could have a common approach in viewing Brexit.
The second issue is our interaction with the European Union. There is much talk that Ireland, as such, has no direct role in the Brexit negotiations vis-à-vis the United Kingdom and the European Union. Ireland very much has a role in the navigation, as it wants to ensure our trade links with Britain are maintained. The United Kingdom is our largest trading partner and we have many common bonds. There is a specific role for the Taoiseach, acting on behalf of the Republic, to assist in a way that will ensure we can have safe passage through choppy waters.
If there was ever a manifestation of a reason somebody should be appointed to the Seanad, it is the example of Senator Billy Lawless's contribution on emigrants. He raised new themes and issues today related to the diaspora. I would like to see the measures fast-tracked, as the diaspora is a major issue. We all have family members living in America and Senator Billy Lawless spoke specifically about the United States. Something practical could be done. I ask the Taoiseach to engage with the new US President, whoever it may be, as quickly as possible in that regard.
At this stage I will allow Senator David Norris, the father of the House, to say a few words. I will try to confine the other speakers to three minutes and get as many as possible into the time allowed. I am trying to be fair to everyone.
I thank the Cathaoirleach. It is greatly appreciated.
I welcome the Taoiseach. I also welcome his remarks on Seanad reform, for which I have been campaigning for 40 years. I hammered out some of the well known phrases about the Seanad in those 40 years. I contributed to every report published during the 30 years I have spent in Seanad Éireann. The Seanad Bill introduced by Senator Michael McDowell was cobbled together by lawyers hired by former Senator Feargal Quinn. I recommend that the Taoiseach look at the detailed forensic critique to which I subjected it in this House. One of the issues - a parochial matter, I suppose - is the defence of the Trinity constituency. I point out to the Taoiseach that it is the longest surviving parliamentary constituency on the island, dating back to the beginning of the 17th century, and it must be respected.
As father of the House, I ask the Taoiseach to grant me the privilege of a ten-minute interview. I have suggestions to make about Seanad reform. They are not pick-and-mix or about referring issues to committees. It is a really radical and visionary approach that would get the Taoiseach an additional footnote in history. The partisan element of the process bedevils the Seanad. It should be removed, but it will require vision. Very few politicians are prepared to relax their control or their power but the Seanad should essentially be an adviser and accomplice to the Government, lending support based on a fully professional approach.
The Taoiseach should forget about all of the committees, etc. Why not grasp the nettle and really go for a referendum? We are having a referendum on something to do with the presidency, votes in America and so on; why not, therefore, grasp the nettle and have a referendum focused entirely on removing the party political element of the Seanad? It would also entail removing the Taoiseach's option of nominating 11 Members. In a non-confrontational and advisory Seanad composed entirely of professional people - the greatest brains of social reformers and people involved with the community - there would be no need for the controversy involved in wanting to defeat the Government or introduce party-oriented reforms. I ask for an opportunity to speak to the Taoiseach and give him details of this proposal. There were suggestions of tinkering earlier. There was a suggestion of opening the university seats to 1 million potential voters, leaving 1,000 voters to decide the other 43 panel seats and one vote - that of the Taoiseach - for 11 Members. That is just absurd and does not really amount to reform. Could I have the opportunity at some stage in the Taoiseach's very busy schedule to discuss these matters? I can provide a blueprint in advance of any such meeting.
I welcome the Taoiseach. He stated that as a result of Brexit, the European Union must prepare for a united Ireland. There is a severe issue between the North and the South because of Brexit and it will be detrimental on both sides of the Border if there is not a good result for the United Kingdom that could lead to a positive result for Ireland. In many instances, people do not realise there are more Border crossings between the North and the South than there are between the European Union and all of the countries to the east of it, a border ten times the size of the one between the North and the South. There are 30,000 people per day commuting between the North and the South. There are 1 million litres of milk coming across the Border to be processed in both jurisdictions. The knock-on effect of a hard border or restrictions on trade or people would be detrimental, North and South. What is the Taoiseach's Department doing to ensure that not only will the European Union be prepared for the eventuality of a united Ireland but that we will be also?
The other issue raised which was related to Seanad reform is votes for Irish citizens living in the North and overseas. The most fundamental right of any citizen in any state is the right to vote. Nevertheless, 100 years after the Proclamation we still deny that right to so many on the island, as well as people born on the island who live in other countries. Imagine it is almost 190 years since Catholic emancipation and 98 years since women were given the right to vote, yet we still deny a vote to one in three citizens born on the island. As part of the reform process we must extend the right to vote to citizens wherever they live who claim they are part of the Irish nation.
On the Irish overseas and the diaspora, I welcome the nomination of Senator Billy Lawless as the diaspora Senator. The Taoiseach has made some great appointments but of them all, that nomination is important because Senator Billy Lawless will be able to speak for the Irish overseas in the United States and throughout the world. Fianna Fáil produced the first policy paper by any political party on the Irish overseas and the diaspora. When one considers how many years the State has been in existence, the fact it took nearly 80 years for any political party to produce a policy paper specifically for the Irish overseas and the diaspora does not bode well for our treatment of them. However, I do not merely refer to the undocumented in the United States, but one key concern must be the forgotten Irish in England who left this country in hard economic times, worked hard and sent back money to their families, friends and relations and who have now fallen on hard times. They are people we must look after and I ask the Taoiseach to so do.
The Taoiseach is welcome. It is a great pleasure to address him and I thank him for his attendance.
I fjoin my colleagues in welcoming the nomination of Senator Billy Lawless. I was one of the first people who was sceptical about it, even though I knew the Senator was a good Galway man. It took a brave Mayo man to bring in a Galway man. The Mayo men came down the Curragh Line with their shoes under their arms - saving them for the big town - but we will forgive them for that. The nomination ofSenator Bily Lawless was a great and brave one by the Taoiseach, for which I congratulate him.
The Government is facing an unprecedented industrial relations crisis and a new approach is necessary to overcome these issues. The Government must realise or understand it cannot continue to expect workers to live in income poverty and not encounter industrial unrest. There must be an admission that the recovery message which was oversold, to all intents and purposes, created unrealistic expectations, given the economic uncertainty still facing the country. Unions cannot be expected to support the recovery unless there is honest discourse which I would describe as full transparency with respect to the finances of the State. Different figures are being bandied about all the time, which creates a level of expectation Members are aware cannot be fulfilled. I ask the Taoiseach and the Minister for Finance to state they got it wrong on the amount or level of recovery. We are in recovery, for which the Taoiseach is to be congratulated, but the level of recovery does not support the expectations in the country. Once this admission is made, we can then move on to an understanding of realistic margins within which the budget must be operated for the security of workers.
The Government must also admit the current hard-nosed approach to the talks on the Lansdowne Road agreement is not working. As a country, we are at risk of repeating the worst mistakes made in the recent past in which we agreed national pay deals and then agreed a series of side deals and special measures on top of them, which made a farce of the entire approach. The current industrial unrest can no longer be kept at bay and this will require a strong overarching solution. We need a social partnership again that will embrace all and bring everybody on board. It is not enough to ignore some of the unions that have a difficulty with the Lansdowne Road agreement, while others are mindful of the state of the nation's purse. The Government must reconvene the Lansdowne Road talks and give all unions, whether part of the current deal, the opportunity to avail of a renewed chance to put their case on the table. The Government must come to this process in an open an honest fashion; admitting it exaggerated the amount of money it had available and with transparent figures for what might be possible. Out of this, a new and overarching deal must be established to bring an end to the current unrest. We are at risk of ten years of industrial unrest unless we do something. I believe the Taoiseach's previous Government gave leadership and that the trade unions will respond to him positively. I, therefore, ask him to revisit the Lansdowne Road agreement. Let us go back to it and let us get all of the unions under the umbrella at the same time. I ask the Taoiseach to take this on board and again thank him for listening to me.
Tá trí nóiméad ag an Seanadóir Ó Clochartaigh.
Ba mhaith liom mo chuid ama a roinnt. Tógfaidh mé dhá nóiméad agus tógfaidh an Seanadóír Devine nóiméad amháin. Cuirim míle fáilte roimh an Taoiseach. Caithfidh mé a admháil go raibh díomá orm nach raibh tagairt dá laghad, i ndáiríre, do chúrsaí Gaeilge agus Gaeltachta san óráid a thug sé. An fáth a bhfuil díomá orm, ar bhealach, ná gurb é an Taoiseach atá i gceannas ar straitéis an Rialtais ó thaobh na Gaeilge de. Is é an Taoiseach an cathaoirleach ar an gcomhchoiste idir-rannach maidir leis an nGaeilge agus an Ghaeltacht agus is é sin an coiste atá in ainm is a bheith ag cur Straitéis 20 Bliain don Ghaeilge i bhfeidhm. Is dóigh liom nach bhfuil an Taoiseach ag tabhairt dea-shampla sa mhéid sin os rud é nár dúirt sé focal ar bith faoin straitéis sin ná faoi diongbháilteacht an Rialtais maidir leis.
Tá daoine amuigh ar an talamh ag rá gurb iad na Rialtais a bhí faoi chúram an Taoisigh na Rialtais ba mheasa a bhí ann ariamh ó thaobh na Gaeilge agus na Gaeltachta de. Chonaic muid lagú ar Acht Údarás na Gaeltachta ar an mbord a bhí ann agus ar an maoiniú atá ar fáil dó. Táimid ag feiceáil straitéise in ndáiríre nach bhfuil á chur i bhfeidhm mar is ceart. Ní léir go bhfuil aon tacaíocht ag go leor de na Ranna Rialtais don straitéis céanna. Bhí an Rialtas ag iarraidh Acht na dTeangacha Oifigiúla a chur os ár gcomhair a bhí lag agus ag lagú cearta lucht na Gaeilge. Ba mhaith liom dá ndíreodh an Taoiseach ar sin sa tréimhse atá aige mar Thaoiseach leis an méid sin a chur ina cheart.
As a man from the west, there were many expectations that with the Taoiseach things would improve in the west. However, I am afraid that in Galway, being the fourth largest city, people are disappointed at the difficulties they face and that more has not been done under the Taoiseach's watch for the people of Galway. There is a massive crisis in the the emergency department service. The Taoiseach visited in 2015 and stated the emergency department in University Hospital Galway was not fit for purpose, but 33 patients are still on trolleys in the unit today. I have asked the Minister for Health to consider the possibility of building a new hospital in Galway. While he is completely non-committal, I ask the Taoiseach to at least commit to giving consideration to that proposal now that senior clinicians in Galway are calling for it.
As for the traffic issue in Galway, where the former Minister for Health who is now a Member of this House once got stuck and was obliged to walk to meetings in the city, it is in absolute chaos and nothing really has been done to address the issue. Moreover, the homelessness crisis in Galway is absolutely diabolical, with 56 families and 133 children left homeless this year. Galway and the west need a much stronger focus from the Taoiseach to bring us back to where we need to be.
Tabharfaidh mé an t-am eile don Seanadóir Devine.
I thank the Taoiseach for his attendance. In the few seconds available to me, my guess is I will not get the Taoiseach to agree to solve the multiple emergencies throughout the fractured health system. Consequently, I have decided to go easy on him and ask him to solve one issue about which I was banging on yesterday and on different occasions, namely, the position of nurses, my colleagues. The Taoiseach should be aware there were hundreds of nurses outside Leinster House when the Dáil reconvened to welcome him back after the recess. The issue is about increments and the injustice of increments not being paid to intern students from 2011 to 2015. While this was agreed to by the Government, the Department of Health and the Health Service Executive, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Paschal Donohoe, has reneged on it. As he does not really wish to listen and is not responding, consequently, I appeal to the Taoiseach. It would be an easy-peasy thing to do and I am not asking for the sun, the moon and the stars. That is the subject of another debate for another time, but I really would like the Taoiseach to attend to the issue.
I will try to facilitate as many speakers as I can.
I dedicate the couple of minutes allocated to me to the memory of Michael Corbett, a strong disability advocate from County Mayo. He was my colleague and friend and a great champion of people with disabilities throughout Ireland. I thank the Taoiseach for his attendance and attention. Disability comes to every door and has a couple of hallmarks. It drives people into poverty and causes exclusion and these twin imposters conspire in a potent way to ensure people's hope and possibilities for the future are diminished. Ireland can and must work against these twin evils. In budget 2017 the Taoiseach has modest but significant resources to make a strong start in dealing with this matter.
Disability wreaks havoc in every community and group: urban and rural, among children, young people, adults and older people, as well as among poor people, those at risk of poverty, the squeezed middle and those who are well off.
It does not spare any such category. The Taoiseach has committed to ratifying the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities by the end of this year and to commence strong implementation. I ask him and his Government - he has the choice to do this - to develop a good, robust social infrastructure that will underpin the economy and serve all the people when they have needs. Something like 50,000 or 60,000 people who are not disabled today will be disabled by this day next year. It is something that comes to every one of us. We know this in our own lives.
A good start in 2017 is vital after the years of difficulty that we have had. The Taoiseach should harness the resources of his Government and the Cabinet and get to grips with this terrible dilemma, this running sore. Health and community services, income supports, the cost of disability payment, employment and housing are the issues that will have to be tackled in faith when we sign. The Taoiseach will ratify with his signature the UN convention within the next couple of months. To do that with confidence and strength, he should make a good start in the budget. If he marshals €300 million of the almost €700 million available to him in this area, he will distribute and triage much-needed support for people and families all over the country. Restoration needs to happen across the public service and this would be a potent way to do it. Michael Corbett was laid to rest today. It is our job not to rest until people with disabilities can take their full place, in terms of its values and participation, in this republic of ours.
I welcome the Taoiseach. In fairness to the Leader, Senator Jerry Buttimer, it is incumbent on us in this House to work together to try to solve problems, a few of which I want to raise with the Taoiseach in my short contribution.
Senator Lynn Ruane and I work in the drugs area and want to have good engagement with the Minister of State, Deputy Catherine Byrne. Senators Colette Kelleher and Pádraig Mac Lochlainn and I who work on the Traveller ethnicity issue hope to receive good co-operation from the Minister of State, Deputy David Stanton. However, I must ask the Taoiseach about the issue of direct provision and my contribution will be solely on that issue.
In this House, when I was Minister of State, there was uniformity of opinion on the issue of direct provision. I see Senator Martin Conway who is one of the most vocal on it in front of me. We came to speak with one voice and the need for action on it. A report was commissioned. At the time the Minister for Justice and Equality, Deputy Frances Fitzgerald, and I worked very hard to commission that report and worked to implement it. It was said on national radio last week that of the 2,000 people in direct provision accommodation over five years, as a direct result of that report, 1,500 are no longer in it, which is a good day's work.
However, the draft programme for Government that was released contained a commitment to implement the McMahon report, which took nine months to put together. It was compiled by NGOs and departmental officials and when it was signed off on, the assumption was that it would be implemented. To my horror and that of others, that sentence regarding the implementation of the McMahon report was dropped from the actual programme for Government. I, therefore, ask the Taoiseach, because of the nature of the vulnerability of the families and children living in direct provision accommodation, that we implement the report. We are not asking for a new report. We are not asking for action to be taken which has not been already cited. We are asking that the Taoiseach give a commitment to implement the report which was commissioned by the Department with officials from many Departments and NGOs in good faith and which has been published and was being implemented. The Minister of State was here and was not in a position to give at commitment that it would be implemented. The Minister for Justice and Equality is not in a position to say she will implement it. I would love if the Taoiseach could stand in this House and make such a commitment to the Members who collectively, in a cross-party manner - this is not a divisive issue in this House - are all committed to implementation of the report. The Taoiseach stood as a proud Irishman in the Dáil and spoke in a tearful way on the issue of the Magdalen women and was commended for doing so. I commended him - we all did - because it was an emotional day for everybody in the Oireachtas. However, I am fully convinced there will be a Taoiseach in 20 or 30 years' time who will have to make a similar apology on the issue of direct provision. It is within the Taoiseach's gift today to stand in front of us as a collective and say: "I, as Taoiseach, will oversee or ensure that the McMahon report will be implemented."
I join in the welcome to the Taoiseach and the recognition of the exemplary leadership he has given the country in getting people back to work, restoring the public finances and now setting about rebuilding a normal society.
I want to address the Brexit issue which I will address on a micro level first. In the context of the budget and governmental policies in the short term, there are a number of businesses and industries, notably in the agriculture sector - the mushroom industry being highlighted - that are suffering hugely because of the fluctuation in the value of sterling. Jobs will be dislocated in these sectors if we do not do something to help such sectors. Ultimately, that would involve a social welfare bill and a loss of dignity for people, which is not a correct policy. I, therefore, ask the Taoiseach, in the context of the budget and flexibility within the taxation system, that an effort be made to address the difficulty of sectors hit by the fluctuation in sterling in the budget and in the future.
On a broader level, regarding Brexit, it is welcome that the Taoiseach wants to have an all-Ireland dialogue. It is so important and was mentioned that there not only be a recognition that the people of Northern Ireland voted to stay in the European Union but also that there be a national approach because we do not want to see a return to a hard border. We want free movement of people, services and goods across the island and a normal society to continue here. The Taoiseach's attempt to achieve consensus nationally in that regard is great.
Regarding the arrangement with the United Kingdom, we need the United Kingdom to have a kind of Norwegian model. I know that the Taoiseach cannot personally or directly influence this, but perhaps he might create conditions or assist to create conditions that would lead to it. We need the United Kingdom to maintain as many links and much business and movement of goods, people and services as possible, with a certain adaptation, as in the case of Norway, which would suit its particular needs. We need as much normality as possible to continue after the result.
In a budgetary context, the 9% VAT rate which was revolutionary and one of the great planks in restoring the economy has now become very important. The prognosis is that sterling will continue to fluctuate downward. As sterling weakens, UK visitors will have less spending power. To attract tourists, hotels and businesses need the 9% VAT rate. In that context, I would be the first to support the view that has become common, anecdotally and otherwise, that hotels must measure up in the prices they are charging. This is a Dublin issue specifically, but in the areas where I live it is very important just to keep the tourism sector alive.
The fluctuation in the value of sterling is a real issue along the Border and across the agriculture sector, particularly in intensive agriculture. We could lose jobs and a lot of progress. I appeal to the Taoiseach to see how this could be headed off in the budget. It should be borne in mind that the ultimate cost of allowing a collapse in these sectors which I know he does not want to see happen would be enormous in terms of social welfare, health and societal problems.
A number of Members are offering to speak, but I cannot fit in all of them. Therefore, rather than start the rounds again, I ask the Taoiseach to respond. We must finish at 4 p.m. There are only nine minutes left.
I have enjoyed this experience and thank Senators for the contributions they have made. Some of them have been very valuable and constructive.
My agenda for the future is immediately to deal with the budget and the public finances, Brexit, the common travel area, Northern Ireland, our relationship with Britain, the protection of our own national interests and housing and homelessness. Regarding the latter, we have produced an action plan in 100 days, with €5 billion on the table, which is being implemented.
There are challenges in the health sector. The budget is €14 billion and we have waiting lists and issues with emergency departments. Our strategy is to have a ten-year focus on health.
I was asked when the Citizens' Assembly would report on the eighth amendment. It is the first issue with which Ms Justice Laffoy and the 99 citizens will deal. Obviously, I expect the recommendations or whatever report is produced to be available to the Oireachtas probably fairly early in 2017. I cannot put a date on it because I am not in a position to direct that the assembly have it back by a particular date. It is important that ordinary citizens be entitled to have their say at a public forum on an issue which has divided Irish society for well over 30 years. I look forward to the engagement and participation of people from throughout the country and various groups will have their say. It will eventually come back to the Oireachtas. I cannot give a date as to when the assembly will report, but it is the first item with which it will deal.
Senator Gerard P. Craughwell referred to public pay. This is a serious issue. Having gone through budgets since 2011, I know just how desperate the situation has been and still is in many cases. I take on board Senator Michael McDowell's words. We are not going to blow the economy off the rails on which the people have put it in recent years through their hard sacrifices and difficult political choices. There is a finite pot of approximately €1 billion as has been set out by both Ministers. It will be two to one in favour of public services as against taxation matters. We must make choices based on fairness, equality and priority to try to improve the lives of people where we can.
In many cases, when I sit at the European Council table people look at Ireland in a very different way now and see the growth rate and the deficit falling - to be eliminated by 2018. They see employment at over 2 million for the first time since 2009 and they see the improvements. However, there are challenges. The Senator raised a very particular point on the follow through from the Haddington Road agreement and the Lansdowne Road agreement, which is to end in 2017. I am a realist, as everybody must be in this business. The Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is acutely aware that there must be an arrangement to follow on from the Lansdowne Road agreement in due course. I will say no more about it now, except that the Minister is acutely aware of the importance of the public services in which people engage and the services they provide. I hope that in the current situation people will involve themselves in the mechanisms of the Workplace Relations Commission and the Labour Court and that we continue to keep the country moving in the direction it is now heading, towards a rising economy with the capacity to spread its fruits throughout the land where they are needed, where there is inequality and where people have been left behind.
The north inner city is an issue on which I intend to prove the Government actually takes an interest. It is an area that was neglected, left behind and in which there was not equality of opportunity. I have been there on many occasions. There are very strong, resilient and persistent people living in it who are committed to their families, streets and homes. They do not want their area to be blackened by a small percentage of criminal gangs that involve themselves in power, money and territory with a ruthlessness that is savage in how it imposes itself on communities. That is why the Garda has been given the resources and the opportunity to deal with them. It is also why Mr. Kieran Mulvey is speaking to all of the groups involved. We will receive his report in November and I hope we can deal with the issue and demonstrate that where community leaders and people want to get on with their lives, we will be there to help them. When I say "we", I mean everybody involved. This is a cross-party issue, not a party-political one.
The question of education interests me. We do not have the money to invest where we know we could. We must look to the Cassells report. We have shorter term issues. We have the issues of paternity leave and the second free preschool year. We must also deal with the question of child care costs.
I am concerned about the fragility of the European Union. Thirty-five or 40 years ago, a number of very strong leaders were recognised in Europe but now we have a single, serious economic power. For all of those years it was a case of countries applying to join the European Union and now a country has decided to leave it. I want Senators to understand the European Commission has always been the body which has dealt with applications to join because it has had the experience and expertise available to it. This is the first time a country is leaving and the Commission will still deal with the negotiations and discussions. It will be the European Council which will make the ultimate decisions because its members are the elected leaders and Heads of Government of the countries involved. There is fragility about the structure of Europe that needs to be focused on, with clear political thinking and a picture of where we want to be in five, ten, 15 and 20 years' time.
There are concerns about trade deals, but there is also the prize of being able to set down the standards for world trade for the next 50 years. People should not be afraid of globalisation. Socrates said he was not a citizen of Athens or of Greece but a citizen of the world. It is more important now to understand the interdependence of people and the international aspect of who we are in Ireland and the impact Irish people make worldwide every day, of which I am very proud. We have the challenge of continuing to keep the country as a place that is attractive for foreign direct investment and recognised as being open for business. We are first in the world for skilled labour and, according to some of the world reports, seventh in terms of competitiveness. We have moved up the line, which is where we need to be.
The forthcoming budget on 11 October will provide for Brexit-proofing on issues that we know are important. People have mentioned the industries under pressure - some have already gone under. Currency fluctuations, mentioned by Senator Joe O'Reilly, are an issue. Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland are examining it and the Minister is very cognisant of what it means. It also means that there is an issue with price increases in the case of some manufacturing exports to England. These matters will impact on British consumers in due course, which will be an issue. It is right and proper that the Prime Minister should have the opportunity to reflect on the issues on which the United Kingdom has to focus before Article 50 is triggered. Otherwise we will be into a complete mass of confusion. We cannot have a fix at on what the proposition is, as it is the legal right of the Prime Minister to move it. When it is moved, the European Union must respond on where it wants to be. Believe me, the complications will be absolutely complex and we have had some initial reaction to them.
People have asked whether we have a plan. Long before the vote, we established a unit in the Department of the Taoiseach to examine the contingencies that might have to be dealt with. There is a dedicated Cabinet committee. I was asked about appointing a Minister. This is bigger than one ministry and we need everybody involved. That is why I chair the Cabinet committee and bring in Ministers as necessary. I have asked all Ministers to look in detail at what is involved in their Departments in so far as their counterparts in Northern Ireland are concerned. The next meeting of the North-South Ministerial Council will be held in November and this will be an issue. I hope we will have held the first of a series of all-island discussions before then because it is important that the economic voice of Northern Ireland also be heard on cross-Border activities. It is very important that we hear all voices. The North-South Ministerial Council is well able to deal with the politics and political discussion, but there are other voices that also need to be heard.
On homelessness and housing, we have a €5 billion programme that is unprecedented in its scale. Some people remarked that not much was happening. The plan was produced within the first 100 days. The main aim in dealing with homeless families which was set out in the action plan is to ensure that by mid-2017 - it is an ambitious target - commercial hotels will only be used in exceptionally limited circumstances to accommodate homeless families.
For instance, the €200 million infrastructural fund being put in place is to open up sites that are held in public ownership but are not accessible. There is an intense interest in this already and I believe it will bring about an increased access to about 11,000 to 15,000 houses when they are built.
We also need new ways of thinking like the private sector building after Dublin City Council voted in respect of the site at O'Devaney Gardens, which is a massive operation. Bigger companies, where they are publicly quoted, have a capacity to have very low interest rates in the repayment of loans that they borrow to build houses and can come on stream. We will accelerate the rapid building programme. By the end of 2018, there will be at least 1,500 provided. Look at these sites - much of the material comes in already manufactured elsewhere and grows exponentially in very quick time. A total of 550 HAP homeless tenancies are to be delivered in 2016 and 1,200 in 2017. So far, 450 have been delivered this year. Two hundred extra emergency beds for rough sleepers are to be put in place before the end of the year, at a cost of €4 million. The Housing Agency will purchase 1,600 vacant properties, a number of which will be used to provide permanent homes for homeless persons. The agency has acquired 171 properties on behalf of the local authorities. In addition, in excess of 730 homes have been offered to the agency for sale. So far, bids have been made on 96 of them. Of these, 49 have been accepted and work is ongoing. The supply of social housing will increase to 47,000 by the end of 2021. It is an ambitious target, but it is one I believe will be achieved. Under Rebuilding Ireland, housing first teams in Dublin will increase from 100 tenancies to 300. The point made by those dealing with homeless persons is that the capacity of the Housing First Team is very good. Get the houses first and then provide the wraparound services for those who will live in and occupy them. It seems to be a very successful initiative which is now being expanded here and we hope it will be a big success.
I have mentioned the eighth amendment.
I am very happy to recognise Senator Billy Lawless. I know him for many years, but the reason - to be clear on this - for his appointment was I had seen him in action in the United States, on Capitol Hill in particular, talking to Republican and Democratic Senators and Congressmen. He is better known than many of those who serve on Capitol Hill in the White House. His connections on behalf of all of the Irish will be most fortunate for whoever is elected President in November and the new structure that will apply on Capitol Hill. I wish him well in his endeavours for the diaspora in general but also for the undocumented Irish and elderly Irish who find themselves stranded in condominiums far from their friends and relations, unable to move out. Our agencies and those who look after the needs of the Irish can be led by the Senator. They are in very good hands in that regard.
I thank the father of House for his inspiring words. I will be most happy to grant him an hour of my life to discuss his proposals on Seanad reform.
Afternoon tea, coffee or whatever is the Senator's liking. We will choose an appropriate location, visible, of course, and-----
I thank the Taoiseach. He is most gracious.
Senator Aodhán Ó Ríordáin raised a particular matter.
If I may, I would like to come back to the Seanad before the end of the year.
We might refer to a number of the issues raised, including the McMahon report which we commissioned. The learned judge produced a fine report.
The Minister of State, Deputy David Stanton, is dealing directly with refugees. We have had problems in that regard, not just in Ireland. We have been ready and committed to take 4,000 refugees, between relocation and resettlement, but it has been very slow in starting off. The process has been streamlined somewhat, particularly in Italy where there were problems. Obviously, there have been problems in other locations also. I think the Minister of State might be quite happy to come and give the Seanad an update. I know that he was answering questions in the Dáil yesterday on the issue. Much better progress is being made. Actually, he has been to visit quite a number of the locations where refugees or asylum seekers have been. By and large, where they have moved from direct provision accommodation into housing in Ireland, they find the country most welcoming and strive very hard to make a contribution to Ireland. I will be happy to follow up on the issue to see what we can do.
A Senator mentioned disability services. I would like to think we could sign the convention as soon as possible. When we set out the roadmap, there were a number of pieces of legislation that had to go through and they were stacked up. In Ireland, we prefer to pass the legislation before we sign. Others have signed and not dealt with the legislation. Perhaps we might discuss that issue also.
Bhí an Seanadóir ag caint faoi chathair na Gaillimhe. The traffic jams are horrendous in Galway.
The people in question are not driving around for nothing. They are working.
That will be of great comfort to the people of Briarhill.
The largest cluster of medical device centres in Europe is in the Galway area and I have been caught in the traffic jams myself. NUIG has expanded beyond all recognition. It is a university that has actually climbed up the rankings, despite many criticisms, but I take the Senator's point. Obviously, we put €900 million into the capital programme to provide a relief road in Galway. It is difficult to get agreement on these things, including the environmental and social aspects, as well as on the impact on people and so on, but it is a location that is going to be the city of culture in 2020. That is going to mean so much for the west and it will be an opportunity for Galway to show its capacity to be recognised as a European city.
On Stráiteis na Gaeilge, we have the new coiste. The draft recommendations will be before it shortly and Senators will be entitled to participate and help us in that regard.
I have mentioned the Lansdowne Road agreement.
As for the forgotten Irish in England, we have seen the "Men of Arlington" and the programmes produced during the years. I have to say there is a great connection with the Irish agencies in London, Birmingham, Liverpool and so on that look after those who left, particularly in the 1950s, some of whom fell on hard times in the more difficult years.
I mentioned Senator David Norris and his invitation.
Ná déan dearmad orainn.
On the all-island conversation mentioned by the Senator, obviously it is part of where we are and we are going to follow through on it.
Let us see whether we can make real headway on the Manning report andI hope all of the parties will agree to participate. Rather than have it vested in just one Department, it will be the responsibility of the implementation committee. The former Senator Maurice Manning and his people have said they will be available to work with the implementation group on any technicality or issue that might arise and on which it wants further background information.
Senator Rose Conway-Walsh mentioned Article 50. When it is to be triggered is the right of the Prime Minister. Obviously, I have met the Secretary of State, Mr. Davis, and the Secretary of State for Northern Ireland, Mr. Brokenshire. Most Ministers have met their counterparts and we are obviously looking at the contingency issues that are going to have to be dealt with, but remember this - of all the countries to be affected by Brexit, for Ireland it is the most critical. It will not affect other countries in south-eastern Europe to the same extent. Given our connections with Britain during the years - social, economic, political and so on - we need to maintain our working relationships. The common travel area arrangement affected both countries to their benefit before we joined the European Union and has done so since, but it has not been tested with one in and one out. Clearly, we do not want to return to having a hard border and it is my intention not to do so. It is also the intention of the British Prime Minister, but there may be different views elsewhere in Europe. If one has a land border between Dundalk and Derry, obviously we will need to be able to look after our national interests. Our national interests were voted on in 1998 when the Good Friday Agreement was voted on and the people, North and South, voted for the right and the opportunity to be able to travel on the island freely.
We do not want to see a situation where people in Northern Ireland who are entitled to Irish passports will be required to have visas to visit a part of the island that is a member state of the European Union when the United Kingdom eventually pulls out of it. There are issues that need to be examined. I have spoken to a number of people about imaginative ways of ensuring we can retain the best of what we have and move on. From a European perspective, we need to face the future in a way that will allow the European Union to move forward with its almost 500 million people and all of the opportunities that presents. It has evolved during the years from the slaughter in two world wars. Peace in Europe has been, possibly, taken for granted. In the context of the human catastrophic events happening in Syria and Aleppo, that peace should never be taken for granted. For this reason, it is important that the politics of Europe be focused on what we can do to deal with immigration and the prosperity and development of members countries.
Senator Michael McDowell made an important point. We are not going to play around with the public finances. All of the people of the country have made sacrifices and we have moved to a point where we are in a better position than we were, but we are not yet where we would like to be. Careful management of and continued growth in the economy allows for expenditure to deal with those who have been left behind, those who have been neglected and those who have been treated unfairly. We need to get people out of poverty and onto higher incomes in order that they can contribute fully to their communities and areas.
The point I have made is that the Cabinet has collective responsibility in that regard.
I assure the Senator that the collective responsibility of the Cabinet remains as it always has been. There has been no change. There has been collective responsibility since the foundation of the State and I do not intend to change it. When the Government and the Cabinet make decisions by collective responsibility, that principle stands, which is important. As I indicated in the Dáil to the former Leader of Senator Kevin Humphrey's party in recent days, I do not intend to change it.
I hope I have dealt with most of the issues raised.
Perhaps the Taoiseach might address the issue of voting rights for people in the North in presidential elections.
Following on from the appointment of the first Minister of State with responsibility for the diaspora, former Deputy Jimmy Deenihan, a new Minister of State has been appointed to that role. I will shortly meet the officials who deal with this area. I want the issues of voting rights for people in the North in presidential elections and the voting rights of emigrants to be addressed. There are complications and challenges.
I am not an emigrant.
Please allow the Taoiseach to respond.
I did not say the Senator was an emigrant. I said I wanted to deal with the issue of voting rights for people in the North in presidential elections and the voting rights of people who live in countries outside the island of Ireland. I hope I have made myself clear.
I will be happy to return to the House again before Christmas to deal with some of the other issues raised, if that is the wish of the Seanad.
The Taoiseach might address the issue of the Christmas bonus.
I hope he will come back with good news.
That issue has been raised in the Dáil and elsewhere. These are matters for the budget to be announced on 11 October, in the context of which discussions are ongoing between the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform and the other members of the Cabinet. As I said, we have a finite pot. All of these matters will be subject to the budgetary announcements to be made on 11 October.
We are well over time. I thank the Taoiseach for his visit and what has been a very interesting debate. We will hold him to his promise to return to the House before Christmas.
I will be happy to do so.
The Taoiseach can discuss the the issue of the Christmas bonus at that point.
When is it proposed to sit again?
Next Tuesday at 2.30 p.m.