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Seanad Éireann debate -
Wednesday, 23 Feb 2022

Vol. 283 No. 2

Address to Seanad Éireann by Members of the European Parliament

Is tráthnóna speisialta agus an-tábhachtach an tráthnóna seo. Táimid ag plé le cúrsaí Eorpacha, rudaí atá riachtanach, an-réalaíoch agus an-tábhachtach dúinn go léir ag an mbomaite. Tá deacrachtaí faoi leith againn san Eoraip anois. Tá siad ag cur isteach ar gach rud agus tá díomá, eagla agus faitíos orainn mar gheall orthu. Beidh muid ag plé na rudaí sin níos déanaí.

I welcome our distinguished MEPs - Mr. Billy Kelleher, MEP, Ms Grace O'Sullivan, MEP, and Mr. Seán Kelly, MEP - to the Chamber. We are honoured to have them and are delighted that they recognise the importance of this forum and connection. We are conscious of how busy they are and how difficult it is to fit everything into their schedules. As such, their presence is appreciated and we will try to honour it with the quality of inputs from our Members. I have no doubt that the MEPs will be impressed by that.

I welcome my colleagues who are here in great numbers. Their engagement with this process is appreciated. From the outset, An Cathaoirleach, Senator Mark Daly, has energetically embarked on a programme of Seanad reform. Central to that is the engagement with the European Parliament through our MEPs and the European institutions. I have worked with An Cathaoirleach and our excellent administrative team specifically on this European project. By agreement, I have taken a particularly active and lead role in this important project and I take that very serious, as does An Cathaoirleach and Members, as evidenced by their attendance today.

There will be further stages of this process and further meetings with our MEPs on specific topics and themed evenings etc. That is all to come, as was suggested by our distinguished colleague, Senator Boyhan. There will also be an involvement by the Seanad in the scrutiny of EU legislation. It is important that as part of Seanad reform and making the Seanad more relevant to contemporary times etc. that we get that link between us and Europe very clearly delineated, established and organic such that it is going on all of the time. Over 60% of legislative decisions that impact on the lives of people in Ireland, how we live and so on, come directly from Europe in the form of directives, regulations and recommendations. There is an extraordinarily close link and a real relevance of Europe which is often missed by some people. European legislation is very impactful in this country. It affects our daily lives and we should be very conscious of that. It is great that the Eurobarometer polls show a strong positivity towards Europe in Ireland. The polls also reflect a lack of knowledge about Europe. It is hoped this engagement will form part of bridging that gap and the establishment of a link between this important Chamber of a bicameral Parliament with the European Parliament.

We will now move to the business of the evening. I propose to call the MEPs in alphabetical order, which is purely an objective process. The entire evening is based on fair procedures, we hope. The first person to address us is Billy Kelleher, MEP, whom we are delighted to have here with us again. He is making a significant impact in Europe. Mr. Kelleher has six minutes to make his address.

Mr. Billy Kelleher

Is mór an onóir dom a bheith anseo mar Fheisire de Pharlaimint na hEorpa. Mar is eol do Sheanadóirí, bhíodh mé i mo Chomhalta den Teach seo idir 1993 agus 1997. Chaith mé go leor ama ag déileáil le píosaí éagsúla de reachtaíocht an tSeanaid mar Aire Stáit. I rith na mblianta, chreid mé i gcónaí go raibh ardchaighdeán díospóireachta sa Seanad. Tá ról tábhachtach agus rí-thairbheach ag an Seanad go háirithe maidir leis an Aontas Eorpach. Mar sin, is deis iontach í dúinne mar Fheisirí Eorpacha labhairt leis na Seanadóirí ar na ceisteanna is tábhachtaí faoi láthair.

A Leas-Chathaoirligh, Senators, friends, it is truly a great honour to be back in the Seanad after a long absence. I was a Senator in the early 1990s and I spent a good deal of time in the Seanad as a Member but, sometimes, as a Minister of State being asked questions and trying to answer them and also on legislation. I have always believed there is a high standard of debate in the Seanad. It is less partisan and it gives opportunities and more freedom to Members to express their views in a way that is not necessarily always possible in the Dáil. I very much welcome the role that is now being proposed by the Seanad with regard to scrutiny of the issue of the European Union and making sure we have that connectivity between the national Parliament and the European Parliament.

Membership of the European Union, a union of 450 million citizens from 27 different member states, has transformed our country. When we signed the Treaty of Accession 50 years ago, Ireland was a dramatically different country, economically poor and socially conservative. Despite various challenges over that time, Ireland has emerged as a global economic success story and an island of social progress. The European Union also has been a success. As I have said previously, membership gave us the ability to achieve economic independence and to add to the political independence achieved by the Twenty-six Counties in 1922. However, our Union is not perfect. The European Union does make mistakes. It does not get all things right all of the time. Moreover, it is also absolutely essential that those mistakes and imperfections are called out publicly, but primarily by those who support the Union. Very often, we allow those who are opposed to the European Union to be the ones who hold it to account. It is important that pro-European people, parties and members hold the European Union to account.

My colleague in the European Parliament, the former Prime Minister of Belgium, Guy Verhofstadt, said during a debate last year on how the Commission was handling the Covid-19 vaccine procurement process that pro-Europeans should be the first to be critical when things go wrong. Those in Ireland who are pro-European must not allow the debates about the future of the Union to take place without their input. If we are honest, Irish Governments of different colours have been slower than others in pushing their priorities on a variety of issues. Prior to Brexit, we were lucky to have the UK leading the fight on many of the issues that are also important to Ireland. We no longer have that luxury. We have to do these things ourselves now.

Staying with Brexit, it is fair to say that a major change has taken place in the European Parliament. Brexit as an issue once dominated the political discourse but it no longer commands the same level of interest. It is important to send out the message that while we in Ireland may still be very consumed about Brexit, Europe has moved on. There are technical discussions happening, most recently on the supply of medicines to Northern Ireland. The deep, meaningful, philosophical, political debates about Brexit in Europe are over. The euro bubble has moved on to more pressing issues. Brexit is a matter that I and other Irish MEPs must keep an eye on because there are still issues around the protocol that require Ireland to be alert and ready to act.

As an MEP I have seen first-hand the impact of attentive national governments on issues going through the European Parliament. Prior to it assuming the Presidency in January, the French Government was invested in finding out well in advance what was happening in the Parliament and then, crucially, seeking to influence its outcome for its interests. Political Ireland has not yet caught on with the post-Lisbon reality of Parliament being an equal co-legislator with the Council. While we do get great support from the permanent representative on legislative files, there are many other files that if not dealt with appropriately may cause issues down the road for Ireland. We know from experience that opinions and own initiative reports from Parliament now influence Commission proposals because of the fact that we are co-legislators.

Ireland needs to have a conversation on a couple of issues. One such issue is what exactly membership of the European Union means to it. Long gone is the idea that we are solely a trading, economic or customs bloc. We are now a Union of values, ideas and principles. A great example of this is the ongoing crisis on our eastern frontiers. Europe's border with Russia, which now stretches over 3,000 km from Lapland in the far north to the Black Sea in the south, is under threat. That border is also our border. When one speaks to Estonians, Latvians, Lithuanians, Poles and Romanians, they are genuinely fearful of an invasion at some stage from Russia. It is not being alarmist; it is just the way they see the world. To a certain extent, we are cocooned from that reality. This is known to all political groupings in the European Union who have members from those countries. They are genuinely fearful of that concept of Russian tanks being in a part of the European Union at some point in the future. The impact already in terms of cybersecurity and the threats that are continually being played out in those particular countries by Russia is very significant.

I again acknowledge the role the Seanad is playing in terms of promoting greater informed debate between it and the European Parliament.

I also look forward to continual engagement on this issue. I thank the Seanad for the invitation and I look forward to the questions and answers.

I thank Mr. Kelleher for an interesting, wide-ranging and good scene-setting address. It should hopefully provoke responses.

Europe has probably been the greatest peace process of all time. This person contributed immensely to the peace on this island when he was national president of the GAA, through his removal of the ban. He did much to advance understanding on the island. It is my great pleasure to now invite Mr. Seán Kelly to address the Chamber.

Mr. Seán Kelly

Bhí áthas orm gur chuir an Leas-Chathaoirleach fáilte romhainn as Gaeilge agus gur labhair Billy Kelleher as Gaeilge ar dtús chomh maith mar tá an Ghaeilge ina teanga oifigiúil agus oibre sa Pharlaimint ó thosach na bliana seo. Déanann sé sin difríocht mhór do stádas na Gaeilge. Beidh a lán jabanna ar fáil d'ateangairí agus d'aistritheoirí amach anseo. Molaim mo chomhfheisirí mar, dhá bhliain ó shin nuair a chuamar ann ar dtús, thángamar le chéile agus dúramar go ndéanfaimis iarracht an Ghaeilge a labhairt sa Pharlaimint. Tá sé sin déanta ag na feisirí, agus ag Billy Kelleher ach go háirithe. Leanfaimid ar aghaidh mar sin mar níl aon mhaitheas sa Ghaeilge a bheith ina teanga oifigiúil agus oibre muna n-úsáidimid í. Tugaim aitheantas freisin don Ombudsman Eorpach, Emily O'Reilly. Nuair a bhí sí ag leagan a tuarascáil os comhair na Parlaiminte coicís ó shin, labhair sí as Gaeilge amháin. Bá é seo an chéad uair a tharla é sin. Dá bhrí sin, is dóigh liom go bhfuil sé tábhachtach go ndéanfaimid ár ndícheall á dteanga dhúchais a chur chun cinn.

I am also pleased that the Cathaoirleach, Senator Mark Daly, is making a big effort to reform the Seanad. I have no hesitation in saying that I voted in the referendum for the retention of the Seanad, because I felt that it has a proper role to play. It needed reform, not abolition. I am glad to see that reform developing. Only this morning, before I came here, I had a meeting, at the request of my Romanian colleagues in the European Parliament, with the ambassador from Romania here in Ireland. He is just up the road, at 26 Waterloo Road. I was pleased when he told me that a friendship group has been established between Romanian politicians and Members here. In particular, he mentioned a few of my own colleagues, such as Senators Sherlock, Buttimer, Conway and so forth. That is significant for two reasons. First, in a post-Brexit scenario, and Mr. Kelleher alluded to this, we have lost the British, who are without a doubt our best allies, in the European Parliament. We therefore have to look for new allies.

It is important to have close relationships, particularly at a national level, as well as at a European level, above all with the eastern countries, such as those who have most recently joined the European Parliament. This will stand us in good stead in the future. They are looking for allies. If we can play that leadership role, that will be significant. As of now, they are totally unrepresented in the key positions in the European institutions. All of the key people, such as the President of the Commission, the President of the Parliament and the President of the Council, the rotating Presidency, the President of the ECB, are here in the West. That is not a good thing. We have a role to play in ensuring that we have a closer liaison with countries. This is especially the case for those countries that joined the European Union but who were part of the USSR previously. I am delighted to see that the Seanad can do that, not just in relation to Romania, but with many other countries. I would like to see that advertised as well. Otherwise, people will ask what the Seanad is doing. It was wonderful for me to hear that this morning, straight from the mouth of the ambassador. He has only been here for six months. Therefore, much progress has been made and that is important.

In Europe, I thankfully have many roles, above all, those that relate to Brexit. Mr. Kelleher said, and he is right, that there is a certain Brexit weariness in Europe but, at the same time, we have to get on with it. We have to deal not just with the European Union but with the United Kingdom. There is a whole pile of areas in which I am involved with this, particularly in my role at the Committee on International Trade. I represent the trade committee, which meets regularly with the United Kingdom. The trade committee will have a hearing on the protocol on 21 March because I asked it to do so. That will be significant.

As well as being a member of the trade committee and representing it in Brexit, I am also on the Committee on Budgetary Control. Maroš Šefčovič, of whom I am sure Senators will have heard, leads the European Union discussions. He feeds what is happening into the committee. One of the things I asked him at our meeting last week in Strasbourg, was to undertake a survey regarding the current state of the protocol in Northern Ireland. I think that he will do that, because it is significant from our point of view. The facts show that the protocol is working. It is working particularly for Northern Ireland. Trade between the Republic and Northern Ireland is up 65%. Of course, there are those who wanted Brexit, but for whom this was the last thing that they wanted. They never expected it to benefit the Republic. They thought that it would benefit a global Britain. They probably were not prepared for that. However, that is the reality.

My second point - which has come across clearly and I am glad of that - is that the European Union does not really play politics, as one might have to do at a national level. It works according to what it is entitled to do, which comes under the treaties. It observes the treaties. When an agreement is done, as was done with the the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, TCA, the EU is honour-bound to live by that, and it will do so. The idea of getting rid of the protocol will not be entertained. It would have knock-on effects and we will be working on that. There has been huge progress in the practicalities of it. They will be as flexible as possible. That will happen into the future.

My last point is on the Ukraine and Russia. The European Union stands 100% united in its view on what is happening. I must say that I was somewhat disappointed when we had a vote on that situation, as late as in December. It would surprise the Senators to see the number of MEPs from Ireland who did not support Ukraine and who sided with Russia. That should be looked at. That is not good, particularly when one looks at our history. We spent 700 years trying to get our freedom.

Táimid an-buíoch duit. Now it is a particular pleasure to welcome back - as everyone here did informally earlier in the corridors and elsewhere – one of our own. While former Senator Kelleher is a former distinguished Member of the Seanad, I personally served with former Senator O’Sullivan and many people here did. She was one of our very respected, warm and excellent colleagues. It is a homecoming day for her. She very recently left us, so we welcome back former Senator O’Sullivan and we look forward to her address.

Ms. Grace O'Sullivan

It is wonderful to be back in the Seanad Chamber. The last time I was here, the Chamber was being renovated. Fair dues. It has been a brilliant day to be here and to see it looking so well. I say “Hello” to all my of my former colleagues, to friends, to my fellow MEPs and to the administration staff here in the Seanad today. As a former Member of the House, and as a former member of the Civil Engagement Group here in the Seanad from 2016-2019, it gives me great pleasure to be here, in this particular year, when we celebrate the 100th anniversary of Seanad Éireann. For those I have not met, I am a mother, and I call myself a peace, climate and social justice activist. I am an ecologist and I have been a Green Party MEP for Ireland's South consituency since 2019.

As the Senators are no doubt aware, and as my colleagues have said, the European Parliament was elected as a legislative structure to unite European citizens’ voices, since 1979.

I was elected 40 years after this first election on the back of a green wave that could not have arrived at a more urgent time. I have spent most of my life actively campaigning on ecological and environmental issues and finding ways to make my work in the issues on which I campaign connect with people on the ground.

My past work with Greenpeace, my work as an ecologist, previous work in the Seanad and current work in the European Parliament are all very much interconnected. The focus of my work as a legislator in the European Parliament continues to be driven by that passion for the environment, biodiversity and creating a fairer planet for all.

Key work that I started here in the Seanad, for example, when I introduced a Bill on microbeads and microplastic pollution, continues apace for me at European level where later this year, I will work as a shadow rapporteur on the waste packaging directive. This legislation comes out of the ENVI committee, that is, the Committee on Environment, Public Health and Food Safety of which I am a member.

This committee is also where my work on the environment action programme to 2030 originated. This programme is far-reaching, decade-long legislation relating to the environment. I have been honoured to be the European Parliament's lead negotiator on this legislation. I am proud that after putting in a tremendous, hard teamworking effort over the past year, we successfully steered this legislation through very challenging negotiations with the European Commission and European Council, which showed stubborn opposition to introducing some ambitious environmental targets and commitments. We got it over the line, however. Next month's plenary meeting in Strasbourg will have the final votes on this legislation, which will see progress and actions on areas such as environmentally harmful subsidies, a well-being economy, soil protection and equally important conditions that ensure success in roll-out and implementation such as policy coherence, monitoring frameworks and binding targets. In particular, I am proud of the commitment to set down a deadline in the EU for phasing out fossil fuel subsidies that is consistent with limiting global warming to 1.5°C as per the lower limit laid down in the Paris Agreement. I can tell Senators that this was hard fought.

Going back in time again to reiterate the importance of that sense of connectedness I think is so vital, when I was 21, I joined Greenpeace and over the next 20 years, I was engaged in activism on peace, human rights and environment issues all over the world. Something I carry with me from that time is a sense of not just being a citizen of Europe and Ireland but being a global citizen. As such, I am a proud member of a number of delegations in the European Parliament, including the delegation for relations with Palestine, a country for which I know many Senators campaign and work very hard. If Senator Black was in the Chamber, she would be glad to hear me mention Palestine because I know of the huge work she has done in that area.

Another experience I take forward from my days in Greenpeace, and having been to Antarctica twice and seeing its beautiful richness, is that I tabled a resolution in the European Parliament to create two massive marine protected areas covering more than 3 million sq. km of southern ocean in the Antarctic. This is the largest area ever proposed to become a marine protected area. Work related to marine protection is really important for me, not only in Europe and globally but here on the home front. As spokesperson for the Green Party on the marine, I know that I am supported by Senator Pippa Hackett and the Minister of State, Deputy Noonan, who engaged with me on the marine and planning protection work.

I am a member of the PECH committee, that is, the European Parliament Committee on Fisheries, where I engaged over the past two years on really important legislation on the reform of the EU fisheries control system. This is an area in which the parliament wields significant control and power, with a direct impact on ocean sustainability and fishers livelihoods from how catches are recorded in logbooks to inspections, weighing and infringement procedures. Irish fishers have often raised concerns about how the EU regulates these areas but our concern is that there will be more leniency towards industrial fishers while not supporting small-scale fishers. Well-managed fisheries are of high importance to us.

The bottom line for me has always been about nurturing nature because we are part of the natural system. I look forward to hearing about Senators' work and answering their questions and to working collaboratively with Senators from all parties and none, as they say. If we are to make progress, we have to work collectively together. I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach very much.

I thank Ms O'Sullivan for that address. It is lovely to have her back. One of her big stated objectives is to hand over the planet to the next generation in better condition than we got it, if we can. That gives me a great cue to welcome the young people to the Visitors Gallery. What we do here is completely about their future. I am delighted to welcome them.

We will move now to the addresses by party spokespersons. We will stick rigidly to times. We have three minutes per spokesperson. First, to speak on behalf of the Fianna Fáil group we have the president of the Alliance of Liberals and Democrats for Europe, ALDE, party, which is a very good link between the European stage and our Parliament. I call Senator Dooley.

I welcome the three MEPs and thank them for their presentations. Mr. Kelleher at the outset talked about the Seanad being a Chamber of non-partisan politics and that is partly true. It is also well recognised that the three MEPs among us work collectively on behalf of the Irish people and the island of Ireland when they work in the European Parliament, notwithstanding the fact that they are in different groups and come from different political backgrounds. That is one of the important things about the way in which the island of Ireland has been represented both North and South when the North was part of the European Union. Regardless of the tradition or the party, those who represented did so in a collegial way and in the best interests. I am glad that is largely continuing.

They have all set out their very clear objectives. They have identified their concerns and they reflect on the concerns of this House and the wider people. If we were here two and a half years ago, the entire debate would have been dominated by Brexit. It has not gone away or been resolved. The outcome is not clear but it has somewhat faded in significance because of the geopolitical situation between Russia and Ukraine, and not just the potential for war on the mainland of Europe, something we thought would be the furthest thing we would be thinking about right now with the development of the European Union and its continuous growth. As the Cathaoirleach said at the outset, it is, and was, designed to be one of the greatest peace projects in the history of Europe.

Notwithstanding that, we have seen the emergence of a policy by the leader of Russia over a prolonged period. It is growing in strength and stature again and reasserting itself in an aggressive way towards its nearest neighbour. In the first instance, that is deeply disturbing from a political perspective. It has major ramifications for us economically, which obviously are secondary to the humanitarian issues that will be experienced on the ground. Following on from the pandemic, it is something that is deeply concerning when we consider the extent to which most countries in Europe have borrowed very significantly to address the health crisis attached to Covid-19 and are now figuring out where they move or what kinds of policies move forward from an economic perspective. To have the uncertainty of this aggression thrown in certainly shows that nothing remains the same at European level. We move from Brexit to Covid-19 and now to the potential for, as some might indicate, a third world war, something which obviously we hope does not happen.

I thank our guests sincerely for their ongoing engagement, which, as the Cathaoirleach indicated, is part of an engagement with us in a two-way dialogue. I know all the MEPs keep in contact with a group. I suppose I have more contact with Mr. Kelleher because of the party affiliation. The way in which he communicates with the Fianna Fáil parliamentarians and the wider public he represents is certainly exemplary.

We would want to recognise his assistant, Mr. Donnacha Maguire, who is also in the Chamber today. He neatly fitted in among the young people there and he did not even stand out as being anything other than one of them. Of course, that helps to keep Mr. Kelleher in vogue with the younger population.

I welcome the MEPs, Mr. Kelly, Ms O'Sullivan and Mr. Kelleher, all of whom collectively and individually certainly fly the Irish flag while out in Europe. As I served on the European Committee of the Regions for a number of years, I know the importance of that collaboration and of working with your colleagues right across the different countries. Quite often there is much commonality, to which many of them referred in their briefing today. Many of the same issues arise but sometimes it is necessary to fly the Irish flag together as well because sometimes there are things that may possibly impact Ireland that do not impact other countries. I am very aware of that. All of them have spoken about the issues that are of importance. I wish to raise two or three things today. One is on the Common Agricultural Policy, CAP, and the issues facing Irish farmers. Certainly it is a huge issue in Ireland, as I am sure all the MEPs are aware. There is a big fear factor there. The consultation is going on and much is happening both here in Ireland and also in Europe. I would like to hear the views of the MEPs in this regard. Also, on the EU digital green deal, many of us here are from the regions, as are the MEPs, who are from the Munster region. There are many companies looking at such things as airports and ports on our doorstep, which are an economic driver for the different regions. Several of the MEPs present serve on the Committee on Economic and Monetary Affairs. What are their views as to how we fit in or how we can further improve things in terms of Munster? In regard to Brexit, we are all very aware that our nearest EU neighbour is now France, as Brexit is still looming. They referred to the relationships between Ireland and the North and it is very important that that is built upon. In regard to connectivity with Europe, how do they see things happening now that things still are not settled or sorted out? As I only have three minutes, these are just a couple of short questions but I look forward to their responses.

I will speak on behalf of the Seanad Independent Group. As our visitors are aware, there are two independent groups within the Seanad. First I welcome the MEPs, Mr. Kelleher, Mr. Kelly and, in particular, Ms O'Sullivan. It is great to see her back. I remember the first time I met her was when she came out canvassing for the Seanad. We ran on the same panel. Her energy and enthusiasm were boundless. Of course, we immediately identified her as the Greenpeace Green. She was all of that and she deserved her place here. We missed her so I want to single her out in particular among her colleagues. I also acknowledge Mr. Maguire, who worked tirelessly around the building and was known. I see him down there. When they go to Europe they suddenly change somewhat but he has not. I barely recognised him there. I did not see the other half of him below the glass. He is a wonderful servant and I know Mr. Kelleher and the Fianna Fáil group in particular are exceptionally lucky to have him on their team.

I wish to say two or three things. I acknowledge the Minister of State, Senator Hackett. What I am going to talk about, very briefly, is agriculture, food and the marine. This is the area on which Oireachtas committee I am on. The ongoing challenge for us both in Ireland and in Europe is sustainable agriculture, sustainable food production, the environment, the European Green Deal, green architecture and the policies that flow within them. We are all on a journey. My concern is that we all travel at a different pace and a different time along that journey but we have to unite in terms of the rural and the urban. We must explain where we are coming from on our different perspectives. We all look to Europe as champions in terms of the European Green Deal, green architecture and the green policy and vision. The Minister of State, Senator Hackett, is working in that area and I interface with her on the committee. It is a challenge and it is difficult. At times we might appear to be at one another's throats in terms of our perspective but we are all on a journey. Fianna Fáil and Fine Gael, dare I say it, are on a journey too and are travelling well on that journey might I add, as someone who is on the outside looking in. My only request of the MEPs is that I would like them to look again at the Committee of the Regions. I am familiar with many of my colleagues on the Committee of the Regions and they tell me there is a disconnect between the Committee of the Regions and that very important work on subsidiarity in terms of Europe and how we relate back home in our countries. There are huge challenges and huge opportunities for the Committee of the Regions and I hear from them that there is a disconnect between it and the European Parliament and other activities, layers and levels within the Parliament and indeed with the MEPs. My one request is, can we see if we can improve and work on that area?

I thank Senator Boyhan. It has occurred to me that if we are establishing a good link between the European Parliament and the Seanad now, he always maintains the link between the Councillors and the Seanad.

I am glad we acknowledged that.

Nearly in every speech.

Cuirim fáilte roimh na feisirí. Tá sárobair déanta ag Seán Kelly ó thaobh ár dteanga álainn. Tá an meas atá tuillte aici san Eoraip faoi dheireadh. Bail ó Dhia air mar gheall ar an tsárobair. Tá sé sin an-tábhachtach dom. Gabhaim buíochas ó chroí leis. Labhróidh mé inniu mar gheall ar athrú aeráide amháin.

Mary Robinson, one of my heroes, was in recently to celebrate 100 years of the Seanad and she said it would be remiss of us not to discuss climate every single day in the Seanad. So I choose to do so today. I am only in the Green Party because I care about climate change and biodiversity but I would really like to see every party as concerned as we are. Then we would not need to be in existence. I do not see it happening at a European level. I am deeply concerned because as a member state of the European Union, Ireland is led by the EU and in some ways we have had some good environmental things come in but we have also had some other issues. For instance, food labelling is a huge issue in Ireland for Irish producers.

We cannot sustain ourselves without food and in light of climate change and biodiversity, if we do not look at food properly we are going to be in serious trouble as an island nation. We have not the proper supports to stop the complete destruction of our fish stocks even though we know now that it is illegal and they cannot come in but then it happens and I do not know what we are doing about it at an EU level. Ms O'Sullivan has done some work on it but it has to come from everybody. It cannot just be left to the Greens. We are not going to solve any problems if it is just left to the Greens.

The other big thing was the Mercosur deal. Not only is it cutting down the rainforest, it is bringing meat from the other side of the planet when we have a surplus of beef and milk here in our own country for which farmers are getting underpaid. In the meantime, we are also talking about maybe exporting pigs to China. The whole thing is completely insane. If we look at food alone, we will not be able to deal with climate. If we look at food and try to solve the food issue, it will make a huge inroad into dealing with the climate issue. We have to see that these things are linked. If we do not sort out the biodiversity crisis we will not be able to grow food. If you do not have biodiversity, you do not have insects that pollinate. Most people here know, hopefully, that if you do not pollinate, you do not get fruit or vegetables because they come after the flower has been pollinated. This issue is far beyond the Green Party. I do not care if we do not get any credit for anything but it has to be taken really seriously. Going to Europe many times as a teenager is what inspired me. Thirty years ago, I went to Germany and saw solutions there that we still do not have here yet. We in the Green Party are in government but we are a small party in government. Ireland is a small island in Europe but if we do not take it seriously, the people who are not taking climate seriously will be the ones who will be up in arms, probably literally, when billions of people are migrating to Europe as a result of our failing to take climate and biodiversity seriously.

I welcome our three colleagues from the European Parliament. Mr. Kelleher and Mr. Kelly will forgive me if give a particularly warm welcome to our former colleague, Ms Grace O'Sullivan, because she was such an exceptional Member of the Seanad. I am sure I would have said the same about Mr. Kelleher if I had been here at the same time as he was, or perhaps not. He is right. Ms O'Sullivan was an exceptional Member. She fought valiantly on a range of issues, and she was superb at building alliances. I have no doubt she is continuing that work. It is great to see her.

I want to take up the point Mr. Kelleher began with in describing the European Union as a union of values. It is important to have a conversation around those values today if we can. In that respect, I wish to raise two or three issues on which the MEPs might reflect. The first is the trade-related aspects of intellectual property rights, TRIPS, waiver. Surely if we are serious about European values, then we must address the fact that whereas, thankfully, there are very high vaccination rates across most of Europe, vaccination rates across Africa are 11%. Unfortunately, the European Commission is the key blocking vehicle in allowing a TRIPS waiver. Even last week, in talks with the African Union, it did not allow the word "waiver" to appear in the report of the dialogue. That is just wrong. I am very proud of the fact that this Seanad on a cross-party basis called for a TRIPS waiver before Christmas. There was some initial opposition from the Government, but it melted away because all of the Members here from every party stood up and said this is what needs to happen. The views of the three MEPs in that regard would be welcome, in particular as the Government, unfortunately, continues to drag its heels. Even last week, the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, did not speak out in favour of a TRIPS waiver; in fact, he did quite the opposite. It is important to hear Irish voices in Europe make that clear call here this afternoon if possible.

In a similar vein, as a member of the Council of Europe, I am particularly concerned about the plight of migrants in recent years. As the MEPs know, 20,000 migrants have drowned in the Mediterranean Sea. We have serious concern about the proposed European pact on migration. I am pleased that the Council of Europe passed a motion calling for a comprehensive human rights assessment by the European Commission on the compatibility of each of the proposed measures in the pact with case law of the European Court of Human Rights. It is hard to take seriously talk of European values when human beings are drowned in the Mediterranean and when MEPs vote against increased search and rescue missions, unfortunately including some in this room this afternoon. We need to speak out very clearly on the need for state-led search and rescue missions because, otherwise, how can we ever talk of values.

Finally, I wish to ask about the position on the proposed EU directive on the minimum wage. It is a very important directive regarding collective bargaining rights so I would like to hear the views of the MEPs on that as well.

I extend a warm welcome to all of the MEPs, including our former Civil Engagement group, CEG, colleague, Ms Grace O'Sullivan. There are a few areas of interest that are very important, some of which have been covered previously by Senator Gavan, such as the TRIPS waiver. The MEPs will be aware that this House unanimously called for Ireland to support the TRIPS waiver. It was deeply disappointing to see Ireland take one of the positions against that in the summit between the European Union and the African Union last week. Cyril Ramaphosa, the South African President, spoke about the fact that if we are not able to find each other on a matter of life and death and what this would do for the relationship between Europe and Africa. The European position in that regard, as well as being a moral and human rights failure, is also a diplomatic failure and will damage trust on the key issues of climate and environment where we need co-operation.

I would welcome if the MEPs could comment a little on some of the environmental areas they mentioned such as the new regulations that are coming in. One of the key points is the move away from fossil fuel subsidies. There seems to be a real battle at European level now between, for example, green hydrogen, which Ireland is in a position to champion, and the dragging on of gas networks. In a way, when we see that Nord Stream 2 cannot proceed now, it shows the fragility of dependence on such fossil fuel infrastructure. Could the MEPs comment on the taxonomy? Ireland has been clear that we should not be putting gas into a taxonomy and labelling it as sustainable because that directs money away from the kinds of renewable energy and green hydrogen Ireland should champion.

Ms O'Sullivan has done extensive work on the oceans, including the motions on the marine protected areas when she was in the House. Whales are dying and washing up around Europe at the moment. There is a need for real enforcement of the environmental impact tools that we have regarding oceans, not just the marine protected areas, which are becoming very pertinent. They were very pertinent recently even in respect of military activity outside Ireland's waters but also across Europe. Military activity is having an impact on the oceans but it also has an impact on emissions and it is important to count and measure that because it does affect the planet.

I wish to comment on the business and human rights legislation. Senator Black and others have worked in this area. Is there an opportunity to address such issues, for example, through the due diligence legislation and the citizens' initiative calling for a prohibition on the use of supply chains involving settlement goods?

I have so many issues I wish to raise. I will make a final comment on the future of Europe process, the next steps, because I am part of the process, and in particular on the strengthening of the EU Charter of Fundamental Rights.

We would all like to go over time. We have so many things to say to the MEPs.

I apologise for going over time. I have so many questions.

We will have to bring them back again.

Mr. Billy Kelleher

Sometimes we ask the EU to do more than it can do and what we allow it to do. That is a big challenge. For example, Senator Gavan referred to migrants and the need for us to have a compassionate way of dealing with people who come through the asylum process or who just present themselves at borders who are fleeing persecution or war-torn areas. The difficulty is that the European Commission and the European Parliament have published very detailed documents on this particular issue, but the Council at member state level is causing difficulties in trying to move the issue forward. That is a very problematic area for us. The parliament has consistently tried to move, along with the Commission, to have a humane, uniform way of dealing with people who either enter through the asylum process or arrive at borders fleeing persecution. Until such time as the Council gets its act together, we are moribund in trying to deal with that particular issue. That is a significant problem. I accept the criticism of it. We are asking the Union to do something that the member states that make it up will not allow it to do.

The European Green Deal, the Common Agricultural Policy, the biodiversity strategy, the farm to fork strategy, energy security, cybersecurity and the digital economy are all buzzwords and phrases, but at the end of the day what they are about in the coming years is that we are trying to define a policy that will shift our dependence on carbon emissions through to carbon neutrality. We have targets for 2030 and 2050 as well. We are bound by national legislation in terms of what Senators have passed in here, but also by our obligations under the Paris Agreement and the policies that were adopted by the European Parliament recently on the reduction in carbon emissions.

In response to Senator Higgins, one of the issues in moving from where we are to where we want to be is that many countries, primarily in eastern Europe, are very dependent on coal and fossil fuels in general for generating electricity. The question is if we can transition from where we are now to carbon neutrality by 2050 without using transition fuels like gas, for example.

There was a great debate around taxonomy and what would be included as sustainable or what would be excluded. If certain issues are excluded, it may not be possible to transition, particularly for countries with economies that are significantly dependent on coal. When we mention nuclear energy in this country and in this discussion, alarm bells are raised. We also have to acknowledge that 12 member states either have nuclear energy or are developing it. That is a significant number.

From our perspective in Ireland, one area where we are lethargic and could do a lot is biomethane and anaerobic digestion. We could address some of the agricultural challenges we will have in the coming years and transition the economy by using solar, wind and biomethane energy as a way of fuelling transportation, for home heating, etc. The rest of Europe is far ahead of us in this area, which would have a profound impact on agricultural production. Waste from agriculture, municipal waste and other forms of waste we generate regularly would be used to make the transition. That would be well within our remit if we could accept that it will play a significant role in the years ahead.

We will stay in alphabetical order. I invite Ms O'Sullivan to respond to themes or questions that were raised.

Ms Grace O'Sullivan

If we are speaking in alphabetical order, I am not next.

Sorry. Mr. Kelly is next. I do not even know the alphabet.

Mr. Seán Kelly

That is fine.

I will have to go back and learn it.

Mr. Seán Kelly

I thank Senators for their interesting comments and questions and I will try to deal with a few of them. The European Green Deal and the Fit for 55 package have been the main focus of the European Union in recent years, at least until Russia threatened Ukraine. The EU is the only unit in global politics to come up with a strategy for reducing emissions by such an amount. The EU was also to the forefront at COP26 and so on. The targets are in place, including in Fit for 55. The EU is putting the policies together to achieve those targets and most of its work makes sense.

Renewable energies are the future of energy and the sooner we have them, the sooner we will be able to wean ourselves off the various fossil fuels. For this reason, our focus in Ireland should be on ensuring we can deploy renewables as quickly as possible. I am working in this area. I am a member of the European Parliament's Committee on Industry, Research and Energy, I am the rapporteur for the energy performance of buildings directive and I was a rapporteur for the renewable energy directive. As such, I have been deeply involved in this issue.

We need to speed up the deployment of renewables. One of my proposals, which I believe the EU will take on board, is that renewable projects should have a Fit for 55 label on them. This would help projects to secure permits and planning quicker. We know planning in Ireland is a nightmare, as several people in the wind industry have told me. Those are the issues we need to focus on if we want to wean ourselves off fossil fuels as soon as possible.

We are inclined to be idealistic. We say we want renewables in the future, so we should get rid of fossil fuels in the meantime. We have to keep the lights on and have energy. How will we do that? Gas is the cleanest of the fossil fuels by far. We have seen the situation in Russia. It does not make sense to be dependent on one gas pipeline from the United Kingdom, which is no longer bound by European Union rules. We will need gas for 20 or 30 years, as even the Minister for the Environment, Climate and Communications, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has said. Gas infrastructure can be redeployed to take hydrogen, so that is another positive.

We need two strategies. First, we should speed up renewables and make it easier for people who want to invest in them to get their projects up and running. A Fit for 55 label will help that. Second, we should find out what we need in the meantime and make sure there is security for those who want to invest in the country. Ordinary citizens should also know there will not be outages into the future.

Ms Grace O'Sullivan

I will follow on from what my colleague, Mr. Kelly, said and raise the taxonomy regulation presented by the European Commission under the commissionership of Ms Mairead McGuinness. We have severe problems with the way this regulation is being presented. To call gas and nuclear sustainable mechanisms for creating energy is outrageous.

Ms Grace O'Sullivan

I hear what Mr. Kelly said and he is right that we need to move towards clean and renewable energies. We need all the financial institutes and mechanisms to support that move. However, if we decide to label nuclear and gas as green and sustainable energies, it will be a regressive step. We will be on a backwards path and we will never get to where we need to go. That is not only true for Ireland but for the EU.

There are alternatives and the current regulation is absurd in my view. We cannot call gas and nuclear sustainable. They could go into some other category. As a citizen of the EU which speaks of values, we will be getting our values wrong if we do that. I hope the Irish Government will listen to what I am saying. I have written to the Minister for Finance, Deputy Donohoe, and others to let them know our view on that. We undoubtedly need the financing but we need it to be mobilised in the direction of real renewable energies.

The Greens-European Free Alliance in the European Parliament was proactive on the trade related aspects of intellectual property rights, TRIPS, waiver. In a time of a grave global pandemic there is no question that a waiver should be put in place. We will pursue that as far as we can. As was said, this is about the values and morality of the EU. We are not looking at a level playing field for everyone and we are allowing some to do better, which is not on.

Senators asked so many questions and I am sorry we cannot address them all now. Perhaps I will speak to Senators outside before I leave.

Well said. Hear, hear.

I will move to questions from Members in a party order. I am working from a list submitted by the Whips offices. If Members are in a position on that list that they do not appreciate or are not happy with, they should speak to their Whip.

I do not see Senator Casey in the Chamber but he is well represented by his articulate colleague, Senator O'Sullivan

Cuirim fáilte is fiche roimh ár MEPs ó Pharlaimint na hEorpa. Tá sárobair déanta ag an dtriúr acu. Tá sé an-tábhachtach go mbeadh deis againn labhairt leo anseo sa Seanad faoi chúrsaí polaitíochta na hEorpa agus faoi chúrsaí in Éirinn.

I welcome our three MEPs and compliment them all, as well as their colleagues for their great work rate and performance. They have a very difficult job. It is hard, time-consuming and there is much travelling. Many people might think it is a great job but I do not envy them. I welcome having the chance to chat to them.

I am 15 years in the Seanad and have noticed in that time a much greater awareness and connection between the Oireachtas and the European Parliament. There are probably a number of reasons for that, including the growing importance of Europe in all our lives, the Brexit controversy that has made us all focus and there are also the recent unfortunate events in Ukraine. The MEPs have a part to play in that too and they have been reaching out to people and communities. I am aware they are going around meeting people and getting involved in local issues. Am I okay for time, a Leas-Chathaoirligh?

I apologise but I should have made this clear.

I thought I had three minutes.

Our European colleagues are very familiar with this but it is very difficult for us Irish. It is one minute. However, since I did not advise the Senator in advance he may put his question.

All right. I obviously have much to do with Mr. Kelleher because he is our party representative in-----

A Kerryman could not address the Chamber in one minute.

He is a great representative and I am proud of him in there. I worked with Ms O'Sullivan although unfortunately I do not have as much to do with her now. It would be very remiss if I did not give credit to my fellow countyman, Mr. Kelly, on the work he is doing in Europe as well, especially on the issue of gas, which he has just referred to. I have great time for my Green colleagues in Government and they have educated me in many ways but they are wrong about gas and about LNG. I hope all the work Mr. Kelly, and myself and others, have done will come to fruition very soon when the planning is announced next week. I hope if the go-ahead and the green light is given nobody will try to stop it again. It is 20 years in process. I was there for the start of it. It has been highly blackguarded. It has 99% support in the community of north Kerry. The objectors-----

I thank the Senator.

-----do not even know where it is. It is the only issue I get emotional about here. I wish I could say more to the MEPs but that is enough.

I thank the Senator. Given his experience and gravitas we indulged him a little there but I make it clear to colleagues that questions are to be one minute and it is questions only. I had not advised Senator O'Sullivan of that. At any rate, nobody would object to a certain indulgence of our very distinguished Kerry colleague. The MEPs have two minutes to respond to that. We will take all of them in sequence. Mr. Kelly might begin.

Mr. Seán Kelly

I have said already I agree 100% with Senator O'Sullivan. I do so from a practical point of view. As I said, I have led, in many respects, the whole drive for renewables in Europe and to decarbonise our economy but gas is the best by far of the transition fuels. We are hearing an awful lot about LNG. It is coming from all over the world. The alternative is to depend for power on Russia, which is madness at this stage. Only yesterday the German Chancellor cancelled Nord Stream 2. It was the right thing to do but it means less gas. What are we going to do? Should we turn the lights off and wait for the renewables to occur? That is the practical alternative and is something that does not make sense.

As Senator O'Sullivan said, 99% of people in north Kerry want this. Are they all against climate change? No, they are not. However, if one goes down to the Shannon Estuary and looks at what is down there, one will see a massive trawler full of coal that has come from Russia to keep the lights on by having Moneypoint running on coal. That is the alternative. Does one want gas or coal? That is the essential aspect. I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach.

I thank Mr. Kelly. To break the consensus, I call Ms O'Sullivan.

Ms Grace O'Sullivan

Do we want gas or coal? We want to progress towards neither because both are greenhouse gas emitters. Mr. Kelly says we want to decarbonise our economy. Unfortunately, it is more that just our economy. It is society. It is the very future or the planet we live on.

I absolutely appreciate and respect very much what Senator O'Sullivan and Mr. Kelly said. As a long-term activist pushing towards genuine sustainability, I mention the funding. We should remember the European Investment Bank, EIB, has said it will not use the taxonomy as is. The EIB will not use it as a classification system because it says it is flawed. Thus, we have big investment institutes that are already saying this taxonomy regulation will not be fit for purpose before it has even got over the line. We cannot even let it get to that line.

The point I am trying to make and will continue to make is we need all our efforts, all the funding mechanisms, and all the legislation and initiative coming through the Government to push towards renewable energy. I am aware this is the so-called transition stage but we must ensure the investment is in clean renewables. As we have said - and I heard this when I was in school way back in the 1970s - we have the natural resources. We have the wind and the waves. We have capacity. However, if we do not get a move on, climate change will overwhelm us. We see it in our climate patterns. We see the writing is on the wall. The glaciers are melting to the north in the Arctic and to the south in the Antarctic. We are in for extreme problems if we do not get a move on.

I thank Ms O'Sullivan and call Mr. Kelleher.

Mr. Billy Kelleher

We have obligations. As was already pointed out, legislation was passed in this House with regard to our climate change obligations. LNG will in my view be a significant component in the transition. I am working on a file on green bonds, whereby the funding of the transition will be classified. Certainly, the issues of nuclear and gas were and are very contentious in Europe. Bear in mind, as I said already, many countries either have nuclear or are building it. France recently announced it is going to build six to 12 new nuclear reactors over the next number of years.

From the point of view of Ballylongford and the development there, we must accept we are very lethargic in our ability to get issues through planning processes, be they wind farms, the Ballylongford development or major infrastructure developments. Everybody has a right and entitlement to object but we should at least have a streamlined process that is not dragged out for years and years. Something we seem to be very good at in this country is the continual appeals process right through, as we saw recently, to the Supreme Court etc. We need, therefore, to streamline that process.

We must accept we will need LNG in the short to medium term while we build up our capacity in renewables. This will mainly be through wind but also solar, anaerobic digestion, methane and hydrogen. Ballylongford or other similar developments will be part of that. When we are developing these projects we must do so mindful they are short term in terms of dependence on LNG and that they are strategically developed for the longer-term use of biomethanes and for other forms of gas generated through sustainability. That is in my view the critical component when we are developing these.

I am aware that Ballylongford and others have looked at the idea that in the short term they are using LNG but that in the long term they would be technologically suitable to be converted to biomethanes. That is really the debate we should be having. We all accept we must get to carbon neutrality by 2050. The question is whether we accept it is going to be a difficult journey or pretend it is going to be very easy.

I thank Mr. Kelleher. Our next distinguished questioner for one minute is Senator Conway from the Banner County.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Leas-Chathaoirleach. I welcome my three good colleagues and friends to the Chamber. It is a great privilege to have them here. I especially acknowledge Mr. Kelly for his long service and for achieving MEP of the Year. I raise with the MEPs the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, UNCRPD. What is their view on Ireland's ratification of that and the fact the optional protocol has not as yet been activated here?

How is the UNCRPD progressing in other European countries? Is there a shining example of best practice in its implementation from which we can glean learnings? What country in Europe would the MEPs identify as one the Government should view as the standard bearer? What do they think the European Parliament can do to improve equality of access for people with disabilities, especially in the area of employment? In this country, 80% of persons with disabilities find themselves having great difficulty gaining access to employment. This is a major issue that needs to be addressed at European level.

Mr. Billy Kelleher

One of the difficulties we have is a lot of employment rights legislation is still a member state competency. We have had this difficulty in Ireland for many years when it comes to accessibility for people with disabilities to employment, in addition to many other services. We have not adopted and ratified in full the UNCRPD. Other countries have not done so either, but the point is that the legislation which underpins this is primarily a national competency. We have been singularly slow in trying to ensure that services are in place and there are rights and obligations. Even in the Civil Service and the public service, we have failed many times in the context of the number of people with disabilities who are employed in the public service in this country. Accessibility, not just physical accessibility but accessibility to services, is something on which we have a lot of work to do.

The countries that do it best are primarily Nordic. Sweden and Finland, for example, have exceptional systems of rights for people with disabilities. We should just take the good that has been done in those countries in terms of legislation and obligations on employers, for example, the public service, to ensure people with disabilities have access to services and employment, in addition to parity. That is an area where we need to do a lot of work.

The European Parliament has consistently called for the full adoption of the UNCPRD, as it has for conventions on many issues, including women's rights and the areas of disability and migrant rights. However, member states - I keep saying this but it is not to pass the buck - consistently state this is an issue of subsidiarity and the member state will decide. The Council is slow to grant these particular concessions to move all these areas to where there is uniformity throughout the European Union.

Ms Grace O'Sullivan

I thank the Senator for his question. When the issue of disability is raised, two things spring to my mind. One is accessing services for people with disabilities, but also accessing services for carers and people who work with people with disabilities. It is an area that is very close to my heart as my daughter, aged 30, has intellectual and physical disabilities. I am worn out and very disappointed by the lack of services and opportunities for people with disabilities in this country, especially in the area of residential support and care, where I know there are families who are at their wits' end trying to get support services for their family members. In addition, carers who apply for the carer's allowance or carer's benefit are waiting months and months before they receive remuneration for the hours they are doing. The hours they are being remunerated for are only a fraction of the actual hours they are doing; you know that and I know that.

The Green Party group in the European Parliament, which I am part of, is very active in the area of trying to get acknowledgement of, and recognition for, the needs of people with disabilities. We always talk as if this is a level playing field. There is no level playing field for people with disabilities, be those physical or intellectual. They are, unfortunately, on the back foot and it is just not good enough.

Mr. Seán Kelly

I compliment Senator Conway on all his good work in this area. He is an example of how to overcome a disability and have a very successful political career, which he is to be complimented on. I remember when I became uachtarán of the GAA, one of the first things I was privileged to do was host the Special Olympics in Croke Park. It was the first time they were held outside the United States. There is a legacy from that, especially as regards sport, etc., and an awareness of what can be done, particularly at local level. There is an awful lot being done at local level in the area of the Special Olympics and, internationally, Mary Davis has spoken in that regard.

I have come across other areas that should be complimented. One is the question of social farming. Senator O'Sullivan will know that I visited a place in his neck of the woods in Ballybunion, where people with Down's syndrome went to different farms for one day a week and did some work. It was a highlight in their lives. A lot can be done in that regard. Another area I found interesting came up when I attended a seminar a few years ago at European level on tourism for those with disabilities. One point that was strongly made, which struck me, is we are talking about putting facilities in place for those with disabilities, but have we actually consulted with them? That is another thing. Ireland could give the lead in that regard and I would like to see it happening. We are good in many ways, but we can do an awful lot. I agree with Ms O'Sullivan on that, and on the issues of access and employment. We should ask people what they need rather than doing what we think they might need.

Senator Conway's point is very important. It tests our humanitarianism and our genuine respect for treating everybody equally, but we have to consult with people and then take on board what they do, primarily at national level. There is very good legislation at European level, but only last week we discussed going back to full participation in the Parliament and one of the things said was that everybody would have to speak from the rostrum. Somebody asked whether we had allowed for people with disabilities and how they were going to get to the rostrum. We have to be more aware of this issue in every aspect.

Before I call the Minister of State, Senator Pippa Hackett, I welcome to the Distinguished Visitors' Gallery the United States ambassador to Ireland, H. E. Claire Cronin. The ambassador is distinguished in many ways as she was the first woman to be the majority leader in the Massachusetts House of Representatives. Her great-uncle served in the House of Representatives. Her uncle served in the military during the Second World War, in addition to serving in the House of Representatives, and was also the mayor of Brockton, Massachusetts. I know the ambassador is looking forward to her time in Ireland and that she will represent her country with great distinction while she is here. We look forward to deepening the relationships between Ireland and the United States. I imagine that there is no place more Irish than Boston, especially in March. We are grateful for the ambassador's presence in the Chamber and for her service as a legislator in the United States of America. We look forward to her service here as an ambassador. I thank her for coming.

We have before us other distinguished guests I will point out to the ambassador. They include members of the European Parliament; former Senator and now MEP Grace O'Sullivan, Seán Kelly MEP, who was also president of the GAA - I do not know which is a more taxing job, being an MEP or a president of the GAA - and a previous Senator of this House at the tender age of 25, Billy Kelleher, now an MEP, and a former Deputy and Minister.

They are being questioned by Senators, inclusive of the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, who is next to address the MEPs.

I welcome Ambassador Cronin and our MEP colleagues, Billy Kelleher and Seán Kelly and, in particular, my party colleague, Grace O'Sullivan, whose seat I was most fortunate to take in the by-election following her election to the European Parliament.

I want to address the subject of the EU just transition fund, which we are finalising and will submit to the Commission very soon. I take this opportunity to remind the MEPs that the most northerly county in their constituency, County Offaly, is one of those counties most challenged by our economic decarbonisation. This is not conjecture; it is fact. It has been widely and well documented, most recently in the Indecon report 2021. I am asking that the MEPs do everything in their power at this final stage to ensure the just transition submission reflects the special case for Offaly, as has been widely highlighted to date. I would welcome their support on that.

Ms Grace O'Sullivan

I thank the Minister of State. She has our full support on that. It is critically important that we recognise that any transition has to be a fair and just and that we leave nobody behind.

I would like to bring to the attention of the Minister of State legislation I worked on in regard to the eighth environment action programme. In the European Union, there has been no law or directive on soil health. I know this is of interest to the Minister of State. I recently managed to get the eighth environment action programme over the line. It will be signed off and voted on in plenary in Strasbourg next month. I managed to put into that programme the deadline of 2023 in respect of which we would have soil regulation in the European Union. It amazes me that we have legislation on air quality and clean water but we have no legislation on soil and soil health. That will be critically important as we go forward. We will have this legislation by 2023. As MEPs in the European Parliament, we will collaborate to make sure it is sound and robust and that it will recognise the importance of carbon sequestration and how healthy soil helps to sequest.

A Senator mentioned the importance of food and how we grow it. The Minister of State is, I know, pushing very hard to ensure we increase our organic production. As she has often stated, it is through having the right tree in the right place that we will see more healthy forestry. To grow that food and those trees, we will need healthy soil. I am very proud that by 2023 we will have legislation on soil in the EU.

Mr. Seán Kelly

I agree with the Minister of State on the need for a just transition fund. When it was first brought in by the European Parliament a few years ago, it was designed for the coal regions, especially in Poland and other places like that. The rapporteur happened to be the former Polish Prime Minister, Jerzy Buzek, who is a very good friend of mine, and I raised with him the need to include the peatlands as well in order that it would apply to Ireland. In fairness, he took it on board. We now have to make sure it works. The idea is that nobody should be left behind, especially communities. Where it is necessary to close an emissions burning factory, we have to make sure the community is not left behind. That is the purpose of the just transition fund.

Ms O'Sullivan referred to forestry and so forth. I know the Minister of State is working hard on that and has made a big improvement in the area but it is farcical and almost embarrassing at European level for Ireland to set a target for forestry of 8,000 ha per annum and then achieve only 2,000 ha in that regard. It is not the farmers' fault or the investors' fault. They are ready and willing to plant the forests, but they are being held back by complicated or unnecessary regulation or legislation that has been introduced over the years. That is a fact. Many sought to put the blame for this on Europe but research shows that it does not apply in many of the European countries. I agree with the Minister of State that we need to have more forests and reduce red tape. She will need support to do that. It will not be possible for her to do it on her own. The Government needs to set a target of 8,000 ha for delivery next year and it must seek to achieve that target. That would be a plus. It would help to reduce emissions.

I agree also with the Minister of State that the foresters and not the state should own the carbon.

Mr. Billy Kelleher

The purpose of the just transition fund is to ensure that we look after people and that people and regions are not left behind. It was specifically for the purpose of transitioning from coal to cleaner fuels, as mentioned by Mr. Kelly and others who are involved from the European perspective. I recall that Deputy Barry Cowen lobbied the previous Commission intensely on this issue. He engaged a great deal with the Commission to ensure peatlands were included.

When Shannonbridge and Lanesborough, which is further north, were wound down in terms of electricity generation, that had an immediate impact on people in the sense that their livelihoods were taken from them but there was nothing immediate in place to ensure there was a fair transition. There was a reduction in peat harvesting and the re-wetting of bogs, primarily in Offaly. Any assessment must accept that Offaly is the county most affected. When I met local authority members from Offaly and others my concern was that we would have a scattergun approach, politically we would try to include everybody and just transition would not have a meaningful impact on any particular community that was very much affected by the closure of peat burning facilities and the cessation of peat harvesting. For all of those reasons, I also hope the just transition fund is fair and does what it is meant to do, that is, assess the impact on communities when we decarbonise fossil fuels. When we take them out of the equation, we must have in place training and job opportunities and infrastructural developments that will transition people's lives as well. I hope that will be the case.

When I met the groups, I expressed the concern that we were trying to include everybody and every area in the just transition and it specifically was not for that purpose. The sum of €85 million was eventually made available, with matching funds from the Irish Government. I hope that will go to the areas most affected, which by any assessment is Offaly in terms of the impact decarbonisation is having on that area.

I thank Ms O'Sullivan, Mr. Kelly and Mr. Kelleher. The next questioner is Senator Ruane.

I welcome our MEPs to the Chamber. I was following the debate from my office and I picked up on one or two points in Senator Higgins's contribution, which, owing to time constraints, were not addressed in the responses. I will reiterate some of those points. On the proposed EU legislation on business and human rights, which includes due diligence on supply chains, I ask that the MEPs speak directly to what this would mean in regard to goods from illegal settlements, scope 3 emissions, responsibility for the management of precious minerals and the embodied energy in buildings, which may be specifically of interest to Ms O'Sullivan who, during her time here with the Civil Engagement Group, tabled legislation on vacant and derelict sites.

Ms Grace O'Sullivan

I thank Senator Ruane, who has made an incredible contribution to Irish politics over the number of years she has been a Member of the Seanad.

She is a role model for so many. I want to put that on the record.

On the occupied territories, it is very interesting to be a member of the Green group in the European Parliament, to be on the delegation on Palestine and to see how difficult it is within the EU. I am being very honest and frank about this. I felt much more progressive here in this Chamber talking about Palestine and the occupied territories, the supply chain and the opportunity for sanctions and so on than I do in the European Parliament. I find it much more difficult to try to mobilise support around the position of the Senator and her colleague Senator Black and that of the Civil Engagement Group, which adopted a strong and vocal position here and the introduction of highly progressive legislation. It is quite remarkable to see how Ireland is very much championing the Palestinian cause. It is difficult for the Government to balance it sometimes. It is of huge public interest here in Ireland partly because of our own culture and how we identify with the Palestinian people and their cause. I have to be honest and say that it is difficult in the European Union. The drive that comes from here and from this Chamber is really important. It gives us opportunities. I was able to bring Senator Black over to the European Parliament to meet some key people there. We area a nation that is well thought of diplomatically. I would ask colleagues to forge on and really push the issue here at home because that gives us strength in the European Parliament to push from there.

Mr. Billy Kelleher

I thank Senator Ruane for raising this issue. This has been raised numerous times in the European Parliament itself. Josep Borrell, the High Commissioner, has said that he has no objections to us ensuring that we bring in some form of ban on goods coming from occupied territories. Of course, when we try to get traction on it, some member states are vehemently opposed to it. That may be for historical reasons but that is no comfort to the Palestinian people. I visited Palestine and sponsored a Bill through the Dáil on the occupied territories before I left the House. It is a different conflict but I note Donetsk and Luhansk are both being sanctioned and products coming from those two regions that have been illegally occupied by the Russians may have goods banned from them. That being the case for Donetsk and Luhansk, that is, being unable to export product to the European Union, I would say that the same should be for Palestine. I am very much of that view. I acknowledge the conflict in Ukraine is an immediate and massive issue but the Palestinian issue has been dragging on for so long.

When I visited Ramallah and met the Palestinian representative bodies, they had the Tricolour flying that day. They really believed that this was a symbolic gesture and that the world was listening. Unfortunately while the world may listen, partially, it has done nothing to address the situation. I believe that one or two large countries in the European Union are vehemently opposed to any sanctions on the occupied territories. That is for historical reasons. Germany is one, for example, and it simply does not want to discuss this matter. But we do have to discuss it. We owe that much to the Palestinian people. In the Parliament itself, there is an appetite for it. What we need to do is unlock the big member states.

Mr. Seán Kelly

My colleagues have given very good answers to the question and I concur with them. It is a very difficult situation because it goes against the grain of the European Union which was founded on the principles of peace, prosperity, fairness and human rights to have any place having an advantage in exporting goods to the EU or getting benefits that they should not have. It is something that we often discuss in Parliament. Mr. Kelleher is right. We can vote for something in Parliament but it must be implemented by the Council too and it includes those who will be opposed for different reasons. There is no question around the Parliament standing up for human rights. Every single month, when we go to Strasbourg we have Urgency Resolution debates where we discuss the abuse of human rights around the world. For instance, a week ago we had an Urgency Resolution debate about the Philippines where we asked that the generalised scheme of preferences plus, GSP+, on being able to export goods to the EU without tariffs would be withdrawn. That was passed unanimously, almost, by the Parliament. It is not often you get unanimity in Parliament because there are so many diverse groups. However, when it comes to human rights we are broad-minded and strong on it, I think. The same applies to China and the Uyghurs. People do not want to see places that are exploiting people or engaging in forced labour and so on having an advantage. There is an increased focus on it now particularly since the pandemic. Hopefully it can be done collectively and incorporating the Palestinian situation, as Billy Kelleher and Grace O'Sullivan said.

There are times in life, when we are most challenged, that we have to use our initiative. I propose that we break from procedure here and ask all the Members remaining to put their question. I have to do this because of the clock. The MEPs have shown a level of intellectual dexterity that we know that they will hold them all and then we can get two-minute responses from them. We will work our way through those now.

Billy Kelleher

The Leas-Chathaoirleach has great confidence in us.

Yes. I have absolute confidence. I am sure that the MEPs have faced greater or equal challenges in the past.

The next Member on the list is Senator Malcolm Byrne.

I thank the three MEPs who I know are working very hard on our behalf. I agree with Mr. Kelly on the commitment shown by our MEPs on human rights in particular. I really dislike the title of the programme, Fit For 55. It sounds like a seniors exercise class at my local gym. If there was one change possible, I would ask for that.

Our MEPs work very effectively together at EU level particularly on certain issues as we have seen here. However, I want to raise the elephant in the room, which is the stance taken by certain of our MEPs. Their support for dictators and regimes that oppress human rights is deeply concerning. Particularly in light of Russia's invasion of Ukraine, the decision of some Irish MEPs to effectively stand up for what has happened is deeply wrong. We in this Chamber have called it out. I ask those here as Members of the European Parliament to equally call out not only the Irish MEPs but also those right around the Continent who do so.

I call Senator Lombard who has been waiting patiently.

I welcome our three colleagues from the European Parliament, namely, Mr. Kelly, Mr. Kelleher and, in particular, our former colleague, Ms O'Sullivan. We have discussed many things today. Will our guests give an overview of where they think CAP reform is going? It is probably the most important legislation for the agricultural community. It has gone back from the European Parliament to the Commission. Are the Members happy with where they think the new proposals are going? Some Members voted for the proposals and some against. It is probably the most significant package of measures brought forward for farming for the next decade.

I refer to the just transition and the transition away from gas. That has been debated well today. Looking at Cork, it is a hub for energy, particularly gas.

The need for us to have a policy that is more appropriate to the current needs of our society, in particular over the short term, is very important.

I thank all the MEPs for their contributions. It has been a very worthwhile discussion. To follow on from what Senator Malcolm Byrne said, I ask that they call out some of their colleagues, who went a different route in terms of supporting Russia and others.

I was at the launch of a regional enterprise plan last Friday for the mid-west region of Tipperary, Clare and Limerick. The region has recorded the highest employment growth in the country. I think it was more than 13%, which is very positive. They spoke about opportunities that region and Ireland south, in general, have. They spoke in terms of Foynes and Shannon. The Tánaiste has set up a Shannon Estuary economic task force to look at the opportunities for the region. I am very interested in their take on what the Government and the European Parliament can do to support that.

This is a good opportunity to raise my last point, given how the discussions have gone. Mr. Kelly has spoken before about a hydrogen strategy. Will he take the opportunity to expand on that?

Adapting to realities of time and common sense, I suggest that our MEP guests, who have given us a wonderful afternoon, combine the answering of those questions with their concluding remarks. On that basis, they will have six minutes each, which I am sure is more than adequate.

Mr. Billy Kelleher

In response to Senator Malcolm Byrne, we have consistently called those members out in the sense that we normally vote against them on these issues. I refer to Irish MEPs. There is a body of MEPs out there and what is strange that they come from both the extreme left and extreme right and seem to coalesce around this issue of support for Russia, China and others who champion the abuse of human rights. That is a significant challenge. I am rarely on the same page, in terms of voting, with members who propose those viewpoints. We have to consistently highlight the fact that these are not representative of the overall views of Irish people, the Government and Irish elected representatives.

Of course, we live in a democracy. We do not want to sanction free speech. At the same time, however, we are obligated to exercise our views and to ensure they are heard as well, in terms of condemning the actions of countries that those MEPs support, such as Russia, Iran and other countries in which there are horrendous cases of human rights abuses. We must always condemn them, as well as those who support and advocate for them. We consistently do so.

With regard to Senator Lombard's views on CAP reform and just transition, the CAP reform is probably the most significant policy to be published. Two things will underpin it. First and foremost is the strategic plan that will be presented by the Government to the European Commission and whether that will be approved in the coming days. The CAP proposal, which came from the European Parliament and was eventually agreed last year, allowed member states certain flexibility. Of course, when one gives member states flexibility, one gives them choices and when one gives them choices, people have different opinions as to where those priorities should be. That was always an issue. Convergence, the capping of payments and complementary redistributed income support for sustainability, CRISS, payments are contentious in Ireland.

However, from a CAP perspective, the real issues that will impact on farming in the years ahead, leaving aside market volatility, which we see with pig farmers, though we also see positivities at present in terms of beef, sheep, milk and cereal prices, are the biodiversity and farm to fork strategies that will flow from CAP. They will have very stringent obligations on farming.

That is why I go back to the issue around just transition. The single biggest opportunity for the Irish agricultural industry and, potentially, the single biggest failing for the Government, if it does not act on it, will be the need to embrace anaerobic digestion and to incentivise and encourage investment in those areas in order that we mitigate the impacts agriculture will have on the environment. It is a win-win. Germany, France, Denmark, the Netherlands and many other countries are light years ahead of us on that issue. We very much need to advocate for that. It is in our control and we can do so.

With regard to the issue of the Shannon Estuary and what can be done, I was very disappointed that Equinor left the market for wind energy, but I do see significant opportunities on the west coast for deepwater wind energy generation. The science and technology is there. We need to ensure we streamline planning and permission processes in place, as Mr. Kelly outlined, in order that investors have confidence they can get in here and they know, after a number of years, they will either get permission or not to go ahead with something. However, investors will not stay around for ten, 12 or 14 years waiting for permission to be granted. They will go elsewhere.

Foynes is strategically located from the perspective of servicing and maintenance of offshore wind energy. Of course, it is centred around the University of Limerick with Galway up the road, and Cork down the road. The south-west and west regions are ripe for opportunity. One has Shannon Airport, the University of Limerick, Foynes deepwater port, the estuary and potential in Ballylongford and all the other areas feeding in there.

It should and will be a hive of business activity in the years ahead. However, we cannot have the continued prevarication around the granting of strategic planning permissions. They must be streamlined. People should have their right and entitlement to object but it cannot go on indefinitely, which is the case at present.

I thank the Members. It is nice to come back to see this House. I have very fond memories of the place. Certainly, what the Seanad does in terms of advocating or holding to account, observing and scrutinising legislation that flows from Europe is a very significant issue. As was said at the outset, some 60% to 70% of the legislation that is enacted through this House will have come from the promptings of the European Union, through policy, directive or regulation. That is quite a significant amount of legislation.

We are in a new dispensation in our relationship with Europe. We are post Brexit. We will have to be more alert around the issues that are of strategic importance to Ireland. We saw that in terms of the corporation tax. The UK left and very soon the pressure would come on countries that were holding the line on the 12.5% corporation tax rate. We have to be more assertive and more strategic in Europe. The Seanad plays a significant role in that in terms of keeping us to account, keeping us informed and scrutinising policies from the European Union.

Mr. Seán Kelly

I agree completely with Senator Malcolm Byrne. We had a debate and vote on Russia and Ukraine in the European Parliament before Christmas. Some 548 MEPs voted in favour, 69 voted against and 54 abstained. Of the Irish MEPs, seven of 13 voted in favour. That does not send a great message to our friends in Ukraine and is worth looking at. I will leave it at that because anybody who is any way sane will see that what Russia is doing to Ukraine is totally off the charts.

I compliment Senator Lombard on his good work on CAP and so forth. I agree with Mr. Kelleher. We have not emphasised enough the opportunities for farmers to improve in their performance. First, we cannot have a situation where emissions go up. Second, emissions have to come down by at least 22% and it is hoped, by more.

There are areas that are not being exploited enough to make this happen. One is the area of solar panels on the massive sheds we have throughout the country. Mr. Kelleher is absolutely right with regard to anaerobic digestion. It would solve a lot of problems. There could be one in almost every parish. It would be a huge factor in reducing emissions for farmers. Of course we also have practices such as genetics, protected urea etc. All of these measures can help. Something that must be made clear is the vast majority of farmers are farming because they like farming. They like the land. They do not want to be in a position where they are destroying the environment. It is a question of putting the measures in place to help them improve the situation. The bottom line is that emissions have to come down.

Senator Ahearn asked a very good question. What he spoke about is a huge opportunity. I am delighted the Tánaiste, Deputy Varadkar, announced a task force for the area. It is something he promised in the programme for Government almost two years ago. It is very encouraging. It has great opportunities. Let us look at the positives. We all want renewable energy and we want it 100% renewable but it will take time. Senator Ahearn mentioned planning, as did I. Senator Malcolm Byrne does not agree with the Fit for 55 label but it is there and we have to live with it.

Offshore wind off the west coast is off the charts with potential but we need the infrastructure at the coast to harness it. Shannon Foynes Port has everything going for it. It is one of the deepest seawater ports in Europe at 32 m deep. It needs no dredging. It has natural dredging. There are great advantages there. The chief executive officer, Pat Keating, and others have done huge work. It has benefited from European funds including the Cohesion Fund. A lot more than LNG would be able to come in once the gas is brought in. There is also a pile of ancillary industries that could be brought forward. They could use gas to get rid of the coal in Moneypoint. It could also transfer in due course to hydrogen and biogas. The offshore wind could also be used for hydrogen. All of this has huge potential. It would take in Senator Ahearn's county of Tipperary and all the places around it because it would have a knock-on effect. These are the main points that have been mentioned and I will leave it at that. I thank the Seanad and the Cathaoirleach for the invitation. It was wonderful to be here. Today's discussion with us reflects the wisdom of the Irish people in saying they wanted to retain the Seanad. It has taken the criticism on board. It has brought a positive new dimension and image to the Seanad and long may it continue to do so.

I thank Mr. Kelly. Those sentiments are deeply appreciated. With gender balance in action, the last word will go to Ms O'Sullivan.

Ms Grace O'Sullivan

I thank the Leas-Chathaoirleach. I wish there was gender balance across both Houses and across local government in Ireland. I hope it is something we will strive towards. We must strive towards it as we need gender equality. It is very important.

I will begin by responding to Senator Malcolm Byrne. Reputation is everything. We do our best as members of the European Parliament to represent those who voted for us. As Mr. Kelleher said, we are living in a democracy. I would say that at times when I speak in the Parliament my colleagues here are cringing. We are there to represent our views. The specific point the Senator raised is interesting. No names were mentioned but I know what he was referring to. Sometimes within the MEPs' own political groups there might not be agreement with how some members vote and behave. I always like to strive toward working in collaboration. Perhaps following on from the Senator's point, there is a job for Irish MEPs to spend some time together and to discuss various issues.

Covid has been difficult and there is no doubt about it. We have not met in person. Formerly Mr. Kelly used to meet Irish delegations. We really have not had that opportunity. We had one meeting at which we were all together. It was convened by the former Commissioner, Phil Hogan. Mentioning Mr. Hogan, so much water has gone under the bridge since then. That was the only time we really met as a collective. As I have said, reputation is everything and at times it is important that we sing from the same hymn sheet. Others have their opportunities and their own sets of values. We can vote in certain ways and then we sit back and watch.

Senator Lombard mentioned the CAP. Everything we do, certainly in the parliamentary group of which the Green Party is a member, is in the context of the climate and biodiversity crisis. Inasmuch as we did not vote for the CAP because we did not feel it was ambitious enough in the context of the Paris Agreement, nevertheless there are very good initiatives within the biodiversity strategy set out by the European Commission and in the farm to fork strategy. We hope Ireland will take the best view on climate, biodiversity and supporting farmers. There is no doubt about this. I agree with Mr. Kelly. I have always said that farmers are the custodians of the land. They want the best but they may need to be supported in this regard within the context of rising greenhouse gas emissions and biodiversity. It is very important that we recognise the context we are working in. For me having the Minister of State, Senator Hackett, at the table is very welcome given that her background is in running a family farm.

A just transition goes without saying. One of the areas on which I have worked very hard in recent months in the European Parliament is on a well-being economy in order that we move beyond GDP. We see that GDP and the way we are operating at present serve neither the people nor the planet. Other countries, such as New Zealand, Iceland and several others, are taking the lead in this regard. They are becoming well-being economies. They look at the well-being of the people and not just economic growth without the context of why we are trying to float our economy as high as we possibly can. We have to look at how we are doing it and not the why, and how it is impacting on people's health. From a Green perspective, we are looking at climate adaptation. Here in Ireland, it is a question of how do we adapt to rising sea levels and changing temperatures. How do we mitigate? We must also look at a circular economy and how we are doing business so we do not create waste just to dispose of it but that we create an environment where all resources are looked at in a circular fashion.

Another point that is very important for my group in the European Parliament is the area of production and consumption, how we produce things and how we consume. Something we are consuming at a very high rate is energy. It is not enough to say we will keep pumping in energy resources. We also have to look at how we can mitigate and work with citizens, particularly younger people who are leading the charge. They are saying to us we cannot sustain our lifestyles as we are doing and that we will have to reform. They are leading on this.

We have to get in behind the young people in terms of consumption and drive down areas where there are inefficiencies. That is just a good business model. In regard to Senator Ahearn's region, both Mr. Kelly and Mr. Kelleher have spoken very well on that. Without a doubt there are significant opportunities in the Clare, Shannon and Tipperary region, as well as offshore. The potential of offshore renewable energy offers great opportunities.

Bhí tráthnóna fiúntach spéisiúil thar barr againn. Is baill den chéad scoth iad Feisire de Pharlaimint na hEorpa agus tá sé sin an-soiléir inniu. Tá siad eolasach agus díograiseach, agus táimid iontach buíoch agus bródúil as sin. There are two things clear from this debate. The first is that our engagement with the MEPs and the European Parliament is an unqualified success. That is heartening in the context not only of Seanad reform but of the European project and our links to Europe. That is important.

The second thing, and it makes me proud when I say this very genuinely, and I think I reflect the thinking of everyone in the room, is that we can be so proud of the quality of the people who are representing us in the European Parliament, and their depth of knowledge, vision and capacity for collegiality when the Irish flag needs to be flown. I am certainly very proud, as is everyone else here, with the quality of people. We are particularly grateful to them for taking the trouble and giving the time to be here and for engaging so fully. It was a wonderful debate.

Cuireadh an Seanad ar fionraí ar 4.12 p.m. agus cuireadh tús leis arís ar 4.30 p.m.
Sitting suspended at 4.12 p.m. and resumed at 4.30 p.m.