Vote 6 - Chief State Solicitor's Office (Revised)

I remind members to turn off their mobile phones. If they identify themselves and remove their masks, it will help with the recording of the meeting. I welcome the Taoiseach and his officials to the meeting.

I remind members of the notice relating to privilege. Members are reminded of the long-standing parliamentary practice to the effect that they should not comment on, criticise or make charges against a person outside the House, or an official, either by name or in such a way as to make him or her identifiable. Members are reminded that they have privilege within the confines of Leinster House or the convention centre. If they are not at this location, in Leinster House, today, they cannot participate in the meeting.

Today we are dealing with the Revised Estimates for Public Services 2021, the Taoiseach's group of Votes. At a private meeting before this one, we agreed to notify four members of the Committee of Public Accounts, its Chairman, Deputy Stanley, along with Deputies Carroll MacNeill, Verona Murphy and MacSharry, owing to their interest in the pay level of the Secretary General in a case that should be mentioned and today's meeting. We have invited them to attend.

I ask the Taoiseach to give his opening statement. He may give a shortened version if he wishes.

I am grateful for this opportunity to appear before the select committee as it considers the 2021 Estimates for Votes 1 to 3, inclusive, and Votes 5 and 6. The committee has been supplied with a detailed briefing document for each of these Votes in advance of the meeting.

I will outline the work of my Department in light of the proposed 2021 Estimates, and touch on the proposed 2021 Estimate allocations for the President’s Establishment, the Office of the Attorney General, the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions and the Office of the Chief State Solicitor. While I have certain responsibilities to the Oireachtas for administrative matters in some of these offices, they operate independently of my Department.

On Vote 1, the Estimate for the President's Establishment is €4.51 million. This includes €3 million for pay and administration, with the balance to fund the centenarians' bounty. On Vote 3, the Estimate for the Office of the Attorney General is €17.46 million. Of this €12.26 million relates to staff costs and €2.46 million is allocated to the Law Reform Commission. On Vote 5, the Estimate for the Office of the Director of Public Prosecutions is €44.7 million. This provides €16.5 million for fees to counsel engaged by the director to prosecute cases, €7.3 million to fund the local State solicitor service and costs awarded against the State arising out of legal proceedings. On Vote 6, the Estimate for the Chief State Solicitor’s Office is just under €37.69 million, the bulk of which relates to salaries and administration. A provision of just over €16.4 million is allocated for the payment of legal fees incurred.

The Estimate for my Department, Vote 2, is just over €50 million. Almost 47% of that relates to staff and administration. The remaining €26 million provides funding for Covid-19 public communications, the Citizens’ Assembly, the National Economic and Social Council and several independent inquiries.

My Department will continue its central role in providing, co-ordinating and overseeing a whole-of-government focus on the response to Covid-19. It is vital that we ensure that our overall approach to the management of the pandemic continues to be one that is prudent and sustainable over the immediate-, medium- and longer-term. It is essential that disease prevalence is brought to lower levels, hospital and critical care occupancy are reduced to low levels and that the most vulnerable are protected through vaccination before further easing of restrictions is considered. Any easing of measures should be gradual, with sufficient time between phases to assess the impact and to respond if the situation deteriorates. Subject to the prevailing public health situation, the areas under consideration for after 4 May are a full return of construction, the reopening of cultural institutions, a phased return of non-essential retail and the recommencement of personal and religious services on a staggered basis.

Ireland is working as part of the EU in securing a stable supply of Covid-19 vaccinations. Vaccines continue to be administered very quickly after their arrival here and Ireland is ahead of the EU average for doses administered. As of yesterday afternoon, a total of all 1,407,184 vaccines had been administered, including 1,007,003 first doses and 400,151 second doses. One in five of the population who can get the vaccine have received the first dose. A total of 12,000 vaccinators have also been trained in anticipation of the ramping up of vaccination corresponding with increased supply.

From the outset of the Covid-19 pandemic, it was recognised that providing clear and timely public information would play a vital role in the State's response to this public health emergency. There is provision for €50 million for Covid-19 public communications in this Estimate. The communications programme needed was of an unprecedented scale, comprising the majority of Departments and a large number of State agencies. Platforms used include national and local print and radio, television and a variety of digital channels depending on the specific audience being targeted. There have been 45 campaigns completed to date, covering multiple strands, including public health, business reports, well-being supports, societal supports and communications on the various roadmaps to lift the various restrictions.

The impact of the pandemic on the domestic economy and public finances has been severe. However, the enormous scale of Government intervention has prevented even larger declines in economic activity, even higher rates of unemployment and an even more rapid rate of firm exit. We hope it has laid the foundations for a swifter recovery by ensuring businesses can stay viable and survive and that jobs can be retained. As the virus is effectively brought under control, there will be a need to move away from these extensive and wide-ranging emergency supports, with a move first to more targeted interventions for sectors which remain subject to restrictions, as well as towards investments which support recovery and opportunities for future growth.

We know that the pandemic has not impacted everyone equally. It has had a disproportionate impact on people who work in contact intensive sectors, many of whom are younger and on lower pay. We must ensure that the recovery is inclusive and balanced and recognises the unequal burdens and risk of increasing inequality stemming from the pandemic. We must also ensure sustainability is to the fore as we rebuild. There will be challenges, but there will also be opportunities as we transition to more sustainable economic development.

Work is progressing on the development of the national economic recovery plan to support and reboot the economy to meet all of these challenges. It will set out a roadmap for a resilient, innovative and productive economy aligned with the Government's green and digital ambitions. Like all sectors, housing and construction have been impacted by the pandemic. However, we are committed to working with the sector to deliver an increased supply of affordable, quality and accessible housing.

Tackling climate change and transitioning to a climate-neutral economy remains a key focus of this Government. My Department plays an important role in driving the implementation of our ambitious climate agenda. This year the key architecture that will frame our approach to climate action for years to come is being put in place. This includes the climate Bill, Ireland's first carbon budget and an updated climate action plan, all of which will reflect a step up in ambition committed to in the programme for Government.

My Department played a key role in ensuring a successful outcome in the finalisation of the EU-UK Trade and Cooperation Agreement, which came into force on 1 January 2021. This work, together with the withdrawal agreement, including the protocol on Ireland and Northern Ireland, secured Ireland's key objectives in the Brexit process. These were protection of the Good Friday Agreement and avoiding a hard border on the island of Ireland, ensuring the best possible outcome for the economy, trade with the UK and the protection of Ireland's place in the Single Market, maintenance of the common travel area and our continued commitment to our place at the heart of Europe.

My Department has been strongly engaged in the national Brexit readiness work, in close collaboration with the Department of Foreign Affairs and across government. This has included the development of primary legislation, the provision of financial upskilling and advisory supports for business, extensive stakeholder outreach and a multi-year public communications campaign to promote readiness

Whole-of-government readiness work must continue as we support businesses or individuals encountering difficulties with customs checks or clearance and as we prepare for the introduction of new UK import controls. Right across government, we will work to mitigate the impact of Brexit on our economy and citizens. Covid-19 has also thrown into sharp relief how interconnected and interdependent our world is. As we work this year to overcome the pandemic and rebuild our economy, we will do so with the added strength and resilience of EU membership and through continued engagement with the wider international community.

At the beginning of January, Ireland took its seat at the United Nations Security Council. Our two years on the Security Council is an opportunity for Ireland to make a meaningful contribution to international peace and security. Three principles underpin our approach: building peace; strengthening prevention; and ensuring accountability. I plan to participate in a number of high-level debates in at council during our term in office and attend a regular UNGA high level week in September, a month during which Ireland will hold the presidency of the council.

We marked the 23rd anniversary of the signing of the Good Friday Agreement on 10 April. The Agreement represented a new beginning for political and community relationships on the island, with a new ethos of tolerance, equality and mutual respect. We must continue to protect and nurture the potential of the Agreement. I have established a shared island unit in my Department, which is funded from the Department's Vote as a whole-of-government priority to invest in and look to our shared future on the island in an open, inclusive and constructive way, engaging with all communities and political traditions.

In budget 2021, we established a shared island fund with a major commitment to €500 million in capital funding over the next five years, ring-fenced for North-South investment, to deliver projects that will enhance connectivity, sustainability and opportunity across the island. To inform how we deepen our co-operation and connections on the island, the unit is progressing the comprehensive research programme, working with the ESRI and other partners to enhance understanding across a range of policy areas.

Three shared island dialogue events have been held to date. There has been engagement with young people on climate and biodiversity issues and on the pivotal role of civil society in our peace process. There have been really refreshing, practical and thoughtful contributions in the dialogues from a range of community and sectoral perspectives.

Through the work of the Cabinet committee on social affairs and equality, my Department will continue to support whole-of-government efforts to combat poverty and disadvantage, improve the position of vulnerable groups, including people with disabilities, promote diversity and inclusion, tackle inequality in all its forms and provide ongoing support to children and families.

Work of the implementation group on policing reform is supported by an implementation office in my Department. I am encouraged to see the responsiveness and flexibility shown by An Garda Síochána in dealing with the demands of Covid-19. Its contribution at an organisational and individual level has been immense and we are extremely grateful to it.

My Department, together with the Department for Tourism, Culture, Arts, Gaeltacht, Sport and Media, provides the secretariat to the future of media commission, an independent expert body established by the Government to establish how public service aims can be delivered and sustainably funded through broadcasting, print and online media in Ireland over the next decade. Since it commenced its work last October, the commission has held a public consultation process that received more than 800 submissions from the public and has run six online dialogues with experts, stakeholders and the public. The commission is working to a very tight timeline and I expect it will bring forth a set of recommendations to Government by July of this year.

My Department continues to promote the deliberative democracy process by supporting the current Citizens’ Assembly on Gender Equality. The assembly published the results of its voting on 45 key recommendations last Saturday and I thanked the citizens involved for their commitment and hard work. Their full report, which will set those recommendations in context, is expected to be submitted to the Houses for consideration in June. The assembly’s experience of operating on an online basis will inform the approach to be taken with regard to the other citizens’ assemblies outlined in the programme for Government.

Provision is also made in the Estimate in 2021 for a number of independent inquiries, including the Moriarty tribunal, the Cregan commission and the Cooke commission. The Estimate includes an allocation of just over €2 million for the National Economic and Social Council, NESC, for its work in providing forward looking, strategic advice on economic, social and sustainable development issues. The current NESC work programme includes a programme of research to support the Shared Island initiative and to contribute to policy response and analysis on Covid-19. I welcome the opportunity to discuss the Revised Estimates with Deputies.

I thank the Taoiseach. At our earlier meeting Senator Higgins and Deputy Farrell raised the issue of the lack of information the committee is receiving on the EU recovery and resilience fund. While it is not the Taoiseach's Department, the committee would like to have a detailed and comprehensive response from the Minister and the Government on that fund as it operates. If the Taoiseach could assist in that regard, it would be helpful.

Second, we will have separate meetings on this but it would be helpful if the letters that went to the various individuals regarding the pay agreed for the Secretary General of the Department of Health were furnished, and that those involved furnish the committee with the relevant information that they were asked for. It is disappointing that their responses have been extremely slow, to say the least, and inadequate in terms of the extent of the information required by the committee. I ask the Taoiseach to consider the work of the committee and what it is trying to achieve. It is not personal to anybody or anyone who holds the position of Secretary General; it is simply that the committee has agreed a work programme, has set out the information it requires from the various individuals concerned but the response to date has not been to the standard that I expect from senior civil servants and politicians. We intend to proceed with our hearings and ask the Taoiseach to influence the others we have written to to ensure that the information required by the committee is forthcoming and that we can deal with the issue comprehensively.

May I respond?

You can indeed, Taoiseach.

The appointment of a Secretary General in any Department is a matter for Government and is set out in the Ministers and Secretaries Act 1924. That is a fundamental point that I want to underline. My officials have co-operated, in my view, with the committee. Letters have been responded to. I am not aware of specific information that the Chairman says the committee has not received but I will check. As far as I can see, we have responded to the correspondence we received from the Chairman on behalf of the committee.

On the recovery and resilience fund, the Ministers for Finance and Public Expenditure and Reform are preparing a Government submission to Europe and have been in touch with the European Commission. It has to be broadly aligned to the EU's recovery and resilience programme and the thematic approach the commission has adopted. Significant parts of that will involve investment in the green economy and digital transformation. The allocation to Ireland in grants is expected to be approximately €915 million over a four-year period. The Government is identifying priorities in the context of that plan and will submit it to Brussels in the first week of May, I think. That is the essence of it. I have talked to both Ministers. The Government is still working on prioritising, and has been doing a lot of work on this over the past while and has been engaged with the Commission. It also involves country-specific reforms that the Commission may indicate it would like to see consistency in fulfilling reforms it wants in the broader economy. It will represent a distinct piece of work involving how to strategically use the grants that will come from that fund. The idea is to concentrate it on some key strategic priorities in digital transformation and the green economy to create jobs. A broader national economic recovery plan will be published subsequent to that. There is also the national development plan that the Department of Public Expenditure and Reform is preparing, which will be a ten-year plan on the structural projects. There is also the Brexit adjustment reserve fund. Those are four big pieces of work in the Government's investment agenda, which we will announce during 2021 with a view to developing the economy after.

The point made by Senator Higgins and Deputy Farrell is that they are looking for information that was sought on an ongoing basis by the clerk to the committee. We look forward to receiving that. The committee has looked for specific and detailed information around the Secretary General's pay. The responses have, in my opinion, been weak. It is the first time that I have seen such a response. They are usually anxious to give information but it is quite clear from the content of the responses made so far that the information being asked for by the committee is simply being overlooked and not dealt with. I look forward to the co-operation of the senior civil servants, the Taoiseach and the senior politicians when we undertake the investigation, which is proceeding. While we are dealing with the Estimates today, I just want to make that point to the Taoiseach. If we do not conclude the Estimates today, members know that we can come back and go through it on another day. We will be sending a separate invitation regarding the investigation into the decision that was reached on the €82,000 increase. I encourage the Taoiseach to get all those involved to review their responses and perhaps come back to us again.

Can I just confirm that the committee has got responses from everyone it wrote to?

We got responses from all those we asked, but the issues we asked them to address were not addressed adequately and comprehensively. We will write again to those concerned and we will raise the same issues we raised in the previous correspondence. It would be far better if we were to just get the information we are asking for and moved on. We are not looking for anything other than how the decision was reached, how the increase of €82,000 was reached at a time the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform is telling us about austerity in the future, and the recent announcement by the person appointed that he would not accept the increase until the economy recovered. We want to find out what that means. It is not about that particular statement; it is about the position and the payment. We will write again to everyone and hopefully we will get the information we are asking for.

We will write back again, obviously. I am not fully accepting that the replies have not been of a comprehensive nature, but certainly, if there are specifics which the Chairman think we have not replied to, I will follow up on that. My understanding was-----

What sort of confidential nature is the Taoiseach referring to?

Did the Taoiseach say "confidential" nature?

No, I did not. I said if there is something of a specific nature-----

My understanding is that we have replied comprehensively. If that is not the case-----

It is not the case and we will be raising the matter with the Taoiseach again and pursuing it.

We may have a different view on that.

I am sure you have. We have a job to do here as a committee. We expect responses from those who should be acting in a way that gives the committee what it requires, which is information. I call Deputy Doherty.

Cuirim fáilte roimh an Taoiseach go dtí an coiste. Maybe this is his first time. I will add to what the Chairperson has just said. I do not believe those are the views of the Chairperson alone. They are shared by many members of the committee.

My first question relates to Government leaks. It does not concern the investigation by the Garda National Bureau of Criminal Investigation into the leaking of the document by the Tánaiste. This concerns a different leak and one that has caused much hurt, anger and pain. On 10 January, the mother and baby homes report was leaked to the national media before it was shared with the survivors. I am sure the Taoiseach is as aware as I am of how people, particularly the survivors, found that deeply insensitive, disrespectful and unacceptable. The Taoiseach responded two days later by saying that the Cabinet had agreed that the Secretary General of his Department would examine the leaking of the details to the Sunday Independent. We are now three months on, so can the Taoiseach inform this committee what this examination found? Does he know now and has he uncovered who shared the information with the newspaper in question, on whose authority this was done, what the repercussions were and whether there has been any communication with the survivors on this matter in a public way?

May I reply, Chairman?

Yes, Taoiseach, please do.

First of all, my understanding is that this has not come to a conclusion and I have not seen the outcome of that investigation yet. I understand and accept that the article caused a great deal of hurt at the time. That work is still under way and my understanding is that it has not been concluded. Meanwhile, the Government is working to try to deal with the issues that emerged from the recommendations of the report itself, particularly by fulfilling the commitments we have made on the Adoption (Information and Tracing) Bill 2021, which is essential for access to information, and in respect of the fund to redress financially and through various other recommended measures the survivors of mother and baby homes. That is where we are now.

More than three months have passed since the Taoiseach asked his Secretary General to investigate the leaking of this document. In that time, has the Taoiseach received an update from him on the progress of that investigation?

I have not received an update but I understand inquiries are under way on this matter.

Has the Taoiseach sought an update in over three months on this matter?

I have not sought an update yet but I am awaiting the conclusion of it.

Has the Taoiseach been given any indication as to when this matter will be brought to a conclusion given the limited number of people who would have had access to the report?

I have not at this stage.

Will the Taoiseach undertake to seek an update on the progress of this investigation and to provide it to this committee as soon as he can? The reason I ask is that the Estimates obviously cover the Secretary General of his Department and that is where the authority falls for this committee.

I will pursue that and come back to the committee.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Taoiseach.

I turn now to Vote 3 - Office of the Attorney General, regarding an issue on which the Taoiseach has also made commitments. It concerns the Stardust inquiry. Budget 2021 allocated funding for an inquest into the Stardust fire after years and years of campaigning by the families. I commend those families who have never let this issue go. A commitment was made that no family would be prevented from accessing justice, but that is not the case with many of them now being denied legal aid. My colleague, Senator Lynn Boylan, spoke about this matter in the Seanad as recently as yesterday. She said that these families have waited 40 years for justice and are now being asked to supply PPS numbers, bank statements and payslips. They are even being asked what kind of car they drive. This is 40 years in the waiting and families still have to fight and to protest for the justice that is their right. Section 29(2) of the Civil Legal Aid Act 1995 allows for a discretion to waive the financial eligibility test. This requires a statutory instrument from the Government. Given the commitment that the Government has given, is it willing to provide that statutory instrument to waive the financial eligibility test for these families who have campaigned and waited for so long? What communication, if any, has the Taoiseach had with the Office of the Attorney General or with the Department of Justice to bring forward a statutory instrument? As the Government has made a commitment to the families, what work has the Taoiseach’s Department done to provide access to legal aid for all of the families concerned?

The Office of the Attorney General operates independently in its interactions with various parties. I do not get involved in every case. We are very anxious to see that the original Government decision on the inquest will be followed through and facilitated and that the families of the victims will be given every co-operation that we can. I will pursue that and see what we can do on the issue. Invariably, legal issues of this kind are not as simple as presented. I know that from long experience. Fundamentally, we do not want to have barriers or obstacles in the way of pursuing the truth on this or facilitating families in getting access to information and justice in respect of this case in particular.

I appreciate the Taoiseach’s response. He is correct in saying that legal issues are sometimes more complex. At the heart of this is the financial test to legal aid. Given the scenario we are dealing with, the fact that it is an inquest and the provision in the 1995 Act to waive that test, surely that should be done in this case so that all of the families who have been impacted will not have to go through the types of obstacles and hurdles I have outlined. Each of them must now have access to justice in what has been agreed and long and hard fought for, which was an inquest into the Stardust incident.

I will pursue that for the Deputy and come back to him on it.

I thank the Taoiseach for that.

I turn now to the stability programme update and the upcoming budget. The Taoiseach’s Department is responsible for the implementation of the programme for Government. While the Department of Finance will obviously have responsibility for the budget, for public expenditure and for the 2021 stability programme update, it nonetheless falls within the Taoiseach’s remit to ensure commitments in the programme for Government are delivered. I am sure the Taoiseach is aware that the stability programme update contains a 3.5% increase in expenditure year-on-year over the next number of years. Is he aware that the Irish Fiscal Advisory Council has said that the fiscal projections rely on technical assumptions that do not reflect the Government's priorities and that projected spending increases are very close to what is needed just to cover rising prices, wages and demographics? In plain man's text, there is no money to deliver the commitments that are in the programme for Government under what is published in the stability programme update, not alone to talk about the commitments on major spending items like Sláintecare or the Climate Action and Low Carbon Development (Amendment) Bill 2021.

First of all, the Government is investing on an unprecedented scale in respect of its commitments under the programme for Government and, in the context of Covid-19, in underpinning the wider economy with the various supports that we have put forward to protect employers, to keep businesses intact during the Covid-19 period, to provide the pandemic unemployment payment to employees who are unemployed and to keep employees tied to enterprises so that these businesses may be kept viable for the future. There has also been a variety of very significant expenditures in education, health and across all of the various Departments to underpin activities that are under way within those Departments. The stability programme update is not the budget but it gives a broad technical framework as to where we are in fulfilling our commitments in that regard.

They do not exclude further increases, for example, in subsequent budgets or prioritisation that Governments may take beyond that. There are two key dimensions here as far as I see it: one is the degree to which we emerge from Covid and evolve from the level of supports that we currently have in place. I think we can get to a reasonable position in terms of reducing deficits over time, as specific Covid expenditure falls away and the economy reboots and restarts. Substantial elements of the current expenditure profile are made up of Covid expenditure, both current and, in some respects, capital. There will be challenges but, on the other hand, the macroeconomic advice from the Commission, the ECB, the IMF and others is to maintain the stimulus position until we emerge stronger out of Covid-19 and reboot the economy. It is not all within the stability programme update. There are a number of key issues. The budget will be the key milestone. The national economic recovery plan that we announced, the national development plan, NDP, will have clear indicative programmes in the coming years.

Given that the Taoiseach raised Covid supports, it is reported that the Cabinet has agreed to start to cut the pandemic unemployment payment, PUP, from the end of June. Could he comment on whether that is the direction of travel in terms of Government policy on the PUP? What would he say to all of those who have been made unemployed as a result of the pandemic, some who cannot go back to work because of public health restrictions that may still be in place at that time when it is planned to cut the payments?

No decision has been made to cut anything at the end of June. The clear international advice globally is that countries must be very careful that we do not cut off supports too early because it could create a very negative impact on the economy. As we reopen sectors of the economy and people go back to work there will be a fall-off in the number of people who avail of the PUP. It will decline naturally. People will go back to work in construction and in retail as we emerge from Covid-19. We must tailor supports over time and look at how we can help some sectors to restart and give them added support in the rebooting phase. I am thinking in particular of the hospitality and tourism area to see what we can do to help those sectors and later the entertainment sector. However, we must get the numbers down. As things stand, we have given clarity that up to the end of June the range of supports we currently have will stay in place. By the end of June, we hope to be in a much better position regarding Covid and that sectors of the economy will have restarted so that the dependence on the support mechanisms will reduce. We will have a chance to focus on the budget then.

I remind Deputy Doherty of his time.

This is my last question. We all want restrictions to be lifted in line with the public health advice and for people to be able to get back to work, but we also know that in the third quarter of this year 180,000 people are projected to be unemployed as a result of the pandemic restrictions due to Covid. It is outlined in the stability programme update that the pandemic unemployment payment will not exist in 2022. That is there in black and white in the report. What is reported is that it will be phased out from the end of June onwards. Is the Taoiseach denying that it will be phased out? Could he give the commitment given by his predecessor that the supports will not be cut while sectors are restricted from returning to work as a result of public health guidelines?

The Central Bank has found that Ireland's supports were among the most substantive in the eurozone. Our total supports to date represent 18.4% of national income. Deputy Doherty is trying to present a picture of cuts.

No, I am asking the Taoiseach a question. He can give the commitment if he wants.

I did not interrupt the Deputy. He is asking me questions in the context of creating the impression that massive cuts are on the way, whereas the story of this Government has been one of unprecedented intervention and support of income and jobs. We intend to maintain that theme of support for jobs and incomes but in 2022 we hope to be well out of this Covid experience. That is the hope of all of us. That would mean a different type of situation then in terms of the interventions by the Government in the form of income supports and supporting companies to provide employment. We hope that we would return to some level of a new normal but that we would also invest in new areas such as the green economy, digital transformation and the hospitality, travel and tourism sectors to try to get people back to work. The main focus of the national economic recovery plan is jobs and getting people back to work, in particular young people who have suffered a lot during this pandemic. Therefore, there might be a need to tailor supports, but the idea that we would keep the same supports going well into 2022 or forever is not tenable either. If we get out of the grip of Covid-19 and the influence it has on it, we will have to look at new areas for the allocation of expenditure, in particular in sectors that have suffered more than most in the past 12 months.

I thank the Taoiseach.

Could I clarify how much time I have in my slot?

The Deputy has eight minutes.

That is brilliant. Gabhaim míle buíochas leis an Taoiseach for his appearance and, most importantly, for the weighty documentation his Department presented in advance, which allows us the ability to dig in. I will ask two sets of questions on two very specific areas. They are pretty different from what Deputy Doherty asked but very similar to ones I regularly put to the Taoiseach on the floor of the Dáil during Question Time.

The first relates to Vote 2, part F, the shared island unit in the Department. It is something that I have said many times is an extremely welcome initiative driven by the Taoiseach's personal commitment. It has significant potential for everyone on this island regardless of our political beliefs. The unit has been allocated a ring-fenced budget of €500 million, which is extremely welcome. A review is in progress and three quasi-virtual dialogues have been held. Where is the advance in concrete proposals? I think, for example, of the Narrow Water bridge that has full planning permission and buy-in from both local authorities. It is supported by both the Executive and the Government here and it is something that, for want of a better word, is an easy win and can be achieved. Any possible strengths that will come out of the shared island unit will only be displayed when there are tangible and physical results, not just conversations but actual physical work. What is the status of that particular project, but also other ones the Taoiseach has mentioned many times in various speeches and within the programme for Government that are so important to show how important this unit is to communities North and South? I will come back in when the Taoiseach has replied.

It is a very important piece of work. The €500 million will be allocated through the relevant Departments for those expenditure items. A key project to which we have already allocated funding of approximately €6 million is the Ulster Canal. We intend to do more there to bring that project ultimately to conclusion. It will make a significant difference in bringing people together from both sides of the Border to enjoy a wonderful amenity and also develop a first-class facility for people to enjoy.

We have an interesting project coming forward on research. We are trying to develop a programme for research in third-level institutions, PRTLI, type project to be funded through the shared island unit in terms of collaboration between third level bodies North and South on topics of mutual interest. Both of those are coming close to realisation. We are working with the Department of Further and Higher Education, Research, Innovation and Science. We have already allocated some basic grants for research projects of €20,000 per project on the shared island itself.

The Narrow Water bridge project is one I am interested in pursuing. Both county councils are committed to it. I have been in touch with the Minister for Infrastructure, Nichola Mallon, on the Northern side.

We are hoping to progress that. Close to June, I would like to be in a position to outline some further projects on which we can get agreement and to which we can give the go ahead. The Deputy will be conscious we have supported a feasibility study with regard to North-South high-speed rail. We have also supported a complementary industrial project in Derry and Letterkenny, in conjunction with the City Deal initiative. We will create industrial parks on both the Derry and Donegal sides to try to develop both indigenous industry and foreign direct investment. This will be an investment in the North West Regional Development Group, whose members have worked consistently over many years irrespective of politics. We would like to be in a position to support that initiative, which will complement the work the group is doing. We will also be funding a feasibility study with regard to the Sligo-Enniskillen greenway. We announced quite a number of projects at the North-South Ministerial Council plenary session at Christmas. We hope to be in a position to announce spending on a number of further concrete projects in June.

I thank the Taoiseach very much for that. The real proof of this shared island initiative will be the sight of actual shovels in the ground and material advancements so that people can see these projects. The buy-in of the Northern Executive will be very important. I hope that certain political noises and stand-offs between certain elements of the Executive can be avoided to progress projects. That just makes sense for everyone on this island.

One of the issues the Taoiseach touched on was that of high-speed rail between Dublin and Belfast. This will be very important to the new Dublin-Belfast economic corridor. It also feeds into a second area, which relates to Vote 2. I refer to the Government's post-Brexit trade and investment plans. One of the great skills of one of the Taoiseach's predecessors, an iarThaoiseach, Enda Kenny, was his ability to take to the world and sell Ireland, to get companies of all sizes to invest in the country and to push through really imaginative projects that allowed the economy to recover and which restored so many people's jobs. Deputy Doherty has already spoken about those who have lost their jobs due to the pandemic. That will be a very significant challenge.

With regard to that section of Vote 2, the Department of the Taoiseach not only works alongside but co-ordinates with State agencies like Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland which come under the Tánaiste's Department. There is also the matter of how the Taoiseach envisages maximising Ireland's role on the UN Security Council. There are only 18 months left in that appointment. A great deal has been curtailed by the pandemic but the Taoiseach has said, both in his address and in the supporting documentation, that his Department has big plans for that role. As we are facing into a very acute economic squeeze post pandemic, with the spectre of the lingering fallout of Brexit, will the Taoiseach flesh out how his Department will lead the economic charge in that regard, bearing in mind the great work done by his predecessors, such as Enda Kenny?

In terms of the broader question, during the week of St. Patrick's Day we co-ordinated significant virtual outreach not only to the Irish diaspora but to the economic interests Ireland has. We had many meetings, under the auspices of the IDA and Enterprise Ireland, with companies and economic interests in the United States in respect of our interests in terms of both companies that want to expand into the United States and American companies that invest and are present in Ireland. Over recent months, I have held regular meetings with significant senior personnel in many multinational companies. These were held virtually as we could not travel. Thousands of jobs have been announced. Since January alone, I estimate that up to 6,000 jobs have been announced in a number of companies. There have been very significant announcements from the likes of Intel and from quite a range of digital companies that have announced plans for expansion and investment. As we get out of the Covid pandemic, we will be able to do this better by getting out there and visiting these companies. I anticipate the Government doing that with vigour once we can do so as a result of greater vaccination rates across Europe and the world. That will enable us to get back out there again with the IDA and Enterprise Ireland to advance Ireland's cause and to create jobs.

Some work has recently been done by the Tánaiste's Department of Enterprise, Trade and Employment on the value of economic trade agreements. This will be published. The research refers to four trade agreements, those with Korea, Japan, Canada and Mexico. These trade agreements have resulted in dramatic and very significant increases in Ireland's exports. We are a global nation and depend on global connectivity. I am very conscious of that.

With regard to our role on the UN Security Council, Ireland has been working extremely hard and doing a lot of work. The Minister for Foreign Affairs has been leading this contribution admirably. I intend to be there in September, as I have said. We have had engagement in respect of that, especially with regard to Syria and getting the agreement on the Iranian nuclear issue back on track. We have also had engagement on the climate front. We put the whole climate security issue on the agenda. So far, our representatives have been very effective and we hope to build on that. Our values and our approach to the conduct of international relations include encouraging a rules-based approach to international organisation and taking a peaceful approach to conflict. We want to apply the values that have informed Irish foreign policy over the years in the context of our membership of the UN Security Council. We do not necessarily wish to use our membership to raise our economic profile but rather to have a good and beneficial impact on the world, as best we can, through the Security Council.

With regard to the situation post Brexit, we need to do further analysis of the impact of Brexit on the British economy, as we export a great deal to Britain. The early figures as to the reductions in trade flows are significant. It remains to be seen whether these reductions will be sustained. That is something on which we have to keep an eye. In our engagement with the British Government, we are developing post-Brexit structures between Britain and Ireland. This will replace the kind of engagement we had as common members of the European Union. The work is ongoing with regard to the approach to the British-Irish dimension post Brexit but also with regard to putting the EU-UK relationship on a stronger basis. I hope that is happening because it would have a beneficial impact on the Irish trading experience for our exporters and importers and on the issue of Northern Ireland and the protocol.

I will begin by adding my voice to the comments of the Chairperson and Deputy Doherty as to what I consider to be the non-reply received with regard to the correspondence sent on the issue of the pay increase for the Secretary General of the Department of Health. I echo the points raised earlier.

I mainly want to ask the Taoiseach about Covid supports, and the pandemic unemployment payment in particular. Before I do so, however, I want to tease out an issue. It is possible I picked the Taoiseach up incorrectly, so this may be an opportunity for clarification, but I thought the Taoiseach said in his introduction that the State's vaccination programme is ahead of the European average. Will the Taoiseach clarify his comment in that regard?

I do not believe I used that phrase. Is the Deputy referring to my opening remarks? He is. I am sorry, the Deputy is right. I said, "Vaccines continue to be administered very quickly after their arrival here and Ireland is ahead of the EU average for doses administered."

I will comment on that.

It is the case that the percentage of the population that is fully vaccinated at 8.06% is ahead of the European average of 7.8%. These are the most recent figures I have, but they are two days old and the Taoiseach may have access to more recent ones. If he can, he might clarify. All of that said, the percentage of the population that has received one dose is 20% whereas the EU's percentage is 21.26%. In terms of what is probably the best indicator of where a nation stands, that being, doses per hundred, Ireland's figure was 28.6 whereas the figure for the EU was 29.18. This seems to indicate that, if anything, Ireland is behind the European average - not by a massive amount, but behind all the same - and that a statement asserting that we are ahead of the European average is not correct. Would the Taoiseach like to clarify?

Is the Deputy referring to the first dose?

The figures for the first dose are Ireland on 20% and the EU on 21.26%. We are behind. What is probably a more accurate figure is doses per hundred,-----

No, we are ahead of-----

-----which puts Ireland at 28.6 and the EU ahead of us at 29.18. I am putting it to the Taoiseach-----

I think the 20% figure is from some time back.

These are figures from two days ago on Sunday.

The best thing to do is for me to come back with the most up-to-date figures from the HSE and give them to the committee. They do change. There is about a two-day time lag in the official figures that are published in Ireland, but our figures are higher than that.

Those figures are two days old. The Taoiseach may have more accurate ones. As of two days ago, we were behind rather than ahead. Not massively, but it is best to be clear on the position. Perhaps the Taoiseach can clarify further.

In any case, I will turn to the key point that I want to raise. The Irish Examiner reported yesterday that there was to be a special Cabinet meeting at which the issue of unwinding Covid supports would be the sole item on the agenda, with reductions in the pandemic unemployment payment over the summer at the top of the list. Was that report incorrect? If it was correct and there is a plan for such a meeting, can the Taoiseach give us its date?

No, I cannot give a date for a meeting that has not been decided, convened or even envisaged at this stage. I am the Taoiseach and I am not aware of any special Cabinet meeting being organised to discuss the unwinding of supports. I have not seen the specifics of the report in the Irish Examiner and I am not commenting on it because I do not have it in front of me, but we have not considered the holding of any Cabinet special committee to unwind supports.

Okay. It is just that the report in the Irish Examiner seemed quite definite in stating that, while the date might not have been arranged yet, such a Cabinet meeting was going to take place, but-----

No. There is no Cabinet meeting specifically on the unwinding of supports.

The final question that I want to ask the Taoiseach-----

That idea has not been put forward. There is a Cabinet sub-committee that has been working on the national economic recovery plan, the recovery and resilience plan and various aspects of the economy. That meets regularly. There would not be a need for a special Cabinet meeting in the first instance. They would work their way through the Cabinet sub-committee if there were to be decisions of that kind.

For the sake of transparency, at Cabinet meetings per se, there can be expenditure reviews that various Ministers bring forward. They can be quarterly reviews and Ministers say how spending is going in their Departments, both current and capital. That is just good husbandry. It makes sense in terms of identifying earlier if there are underspends or overspends and whether we need to reallocate moneys to areas where they can be spent.

The context of the article was the correspondent making the point that the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, seemed keen to register the need to rein in public spending. The article referred to troika-style spending reviews for Departments and the need for a special Cabinet meeting. We will note the fact that the Taoiseach has indicated that there is no intent to have such a meeting and we will move on.

The so-called Covid solidarity tax or Covid wealth tax came back into the news at the start of April when a senior official in the International Monetary Fund, IMF, voiced support for it. It landed in Ireland again when a Minister of State - I believe it was Deputy Joe O'Brien of the Green Party - voiced his support for such a tax and wrote to the Minister for Finance in that regard. The basic argument put forward was that there were people who had gained enormously financially since the start of the pandemic and others who had been significant losers on the financial front. Some of the former include large pharmaceutical corporations, corporations that provide Zoom meetings and other social media meetings of that kind, etc. Obviously, people who have lost their jobs and, in particular, the poor and the young have lost out financially. It struck me that the Tánaiste, the Minister for Finance and the Taoiseach were very quick to rule out that tax and argumentation was not given to support the logic of their position. Many commentators wonder whether the ruling out of this suggestion was overly hasty and perhaps put Ireland behind the curve. The IMF is not in any way a radical organisation. It is proposing to clip the wings of the super wealthy in order to defend the system of the super wealthy, but it is proposing this as a serious suggestion. It has been ruled out very hastily, though. Will the Taoiseach comment on the idea that it was overly hasty to do so and that the Government has perhaps-----

I remind the Deputy of his time.

(Interruptions).

There is a lot of feedback coming through a different line. Someone might need to turn on the mute button. I heard Deputy Barry's-----

(Interruptions).

Apologies, Taoiseach, we have some interference. Does the Taoiseach wish to respond to Deputy Barry?

I do. I think the context there is that, as I said earlier, 18.4% of the national income is the level of support that the Irish Government has put in play. It is an unprecedented level of State expenditure. The State has never been more involved in the economy than now because of the pandemic. I would ordinarily have thought that such a position was something that Deputy Barry would have embraced.

In terms of the reviews, we want to get people back to work and we want to get sectors reopened in the economy. If we can, that will be a natural reduction in some of those expenditures, be it the employment wage subsidy scheme, EWSS, the Covid restrictions support scheme, CRSS, or the pandemic unemployment payment. We do not want to hit the economy with measures that could restrict the growth of the economy in 2021 and 2022.

That is why there is a view that the idea of a Covid-19 solidarity tax is not something that the Government is minded to do. Government is not minded to do that right now. Government wants to assist and facilitate recovery rather than choke it off unnecessarily, although I am not saying one issue on its own will choke it off. That philosophy will govern how we emerge from Covid-19. We want to try to reposition the economy so that we can create jobs and get sectors that have been hit hardest back up and running.

We have to look attentively at the sectors that have been hit hardest. I have identified some of them and they include hospitality, tourism, travel, aviation, entertainment, music and the arts. All these sectors have suffered greatly as a result of Covid-19. We have borrowed a vast amount of money to sustain this period. We are in a position to be able to do that given the role of the European Central Bank in underpinning the sovereigns throughout Europe and the collective way Europe has approached this. That is why we took the approach we did in terms of the idea spoken about by the Deputy. That is how we see it.

We have a progressive tax system in Ireland. Those on higher incomes are taxed more. That is a fact of the Irish taxation model.

There is a balance here. We want to try to create and grow enterprise as we emerge from the pandemic. We want to create new opportunities for people to create jobs as well. GDP is forecast to expand by 4.5% this year and 5% next year. Modified domestic demand is probably a more useful indicator and that is projected to go up by 2.5% this year and to reach 7% next year, which is significant. There are large amounts of savings. Can we trigger some of that back into the economy?

We have to work on many issues. We are looking at developmental things. How do we get construction back up and running? How do we get greater delivery on the construction side? How do we get more houses built in 2021 and 2022? These are key parts of the agenda. Can we get the skills side of that sector up and running? The reason for the launch of the national apprenticeship programme is to get far more apprentices into the field to back up the national electrical programme and several initiatives we have under way. We also need to continue to develop our health services post pandemic and learn lessons from it.

Gabhaim míle buíochas leis an Taoiseach as teacht isteach inniu agus as a chuid cur i láthair. The Secretary General of the Department of Health has stated he does not believe it is appropriate to take a pay increase given the current economic conditions that exist in the country. We spent €20 billion on Covid-19 last year. We have 500,000 people unemployed. We are marching steadily towards €270 billion of national debt by 2025. That works out at €100,000 of debt per worker in the State. Does the Taoiseach agree with the Secretary General that it was inappropriate to receive such a pay increase in the current economic conditions?

I will say on that generally and give my position-----

I only have eight minutes. I would prefer to deal with the specific question rather than general questions.

I am going to deal with the specific question.

The Taoiseach said "In general". I am sorry about that.

This is my position, having been a former Minister with responsibility for health. I believe the increase is appropriate to the position. I believe that long after the incumbent leaves the position the Secretary General of the Department of Health should get higher remuneration than Secretaries General of other Departments. It is an extraordinary Department, one that is way above any other Department in terms of the responsibility. I have served in four Departments.

This is a policy matter in the first instance. In some areas where we have done this before in the public service it has worked, whether it be in respect of the National Treasury Management Agency, National Asset Management Agency, the chief executive of the HSE, the Garda Commissioner or the financial regulator. In my view it is not only about one individual in the Department but rather the Department of Health and the responsibilities it has in terms of the allocation of the overall budget that goes to the Department, the transformation required in health, the need to address the issues during the Covid-19 pandemic, the implementation of the transformative programme of Sláintecare and the vast budget. We have had issues around the national children's hospital and so on.

The Secretary General has now taken the position in respect of himself and that was his decision. My view is we need to work on the Department of Health and transform it. The Department has a major challenge ahead. The issues the Department of Health has to deal with in any one year, even outside of the pandemic, are on a scale that is higher than other Departments.

I think it is an extraordinary pay increase given the fact the economy is under what is potentially unprecedented pressure at the moment and that other members of the health service are operating under extraordinary pressures. They have difficult jobs and are not being remunerated properly for them. What does waiving a salary mean, exactly? What economic conditions would trigger the payment of the full amount?

In the first instance we have waived part of our salaries. Ministers have gifted them back to the State. I presume the Secretary General would do the same. The person gifts the portion of the salary not received to the State. That is the most effective way to do something of that kind.

Perhaps it is not a permanent waiver, as such. Does this set a precedent for other wages at Secretary General level within the Government?

Any government at any particular time can make decisions in respect of remuneration. This Government has made a specific decision in respect of the Department of Health and it is a decision I support.

Does the waiver affect the pension? What is the Taoiseach's understanding of it?

I am not fully au fait with that.

I want to turn my attention to the Cregan commission. The Taoiseach mentioned this in his opening address. The first module of the commission has been examining the write-down of €119 million in debt by the State-controlled Irish Banking Resolution Corporation with the sale of Siteserv. The Taoiseach will remember this was a major crisis when it came to light previously. We understand the company was acquired by another company that was in the control of Denis O'Brien at the time. I am flabbergasted this particular module has been going on for six years. I understand that in recent weeks the Taoiseach has given the go-ahead for another extension until October. The final cost of this commission could be €30 million according to sources in the Government. The cost could run up to €70 million depending on how it completes.

Two major questions arise in the minds of people on this. There is the question of the length of time for justice to be achieved. That is a major question. Justice delayed is justice denied. This rocked the Government six years ago and is still receding into history without an answer of justice, and that is problematic. At issue is €30 million of taxpayers' money, which is especially difficult to raise at this stage. What will the Government do to ensure that the commission achieves its investigative purpose in a reasonable time and within a reasonable budget?

Once the Oireachtas agrees to establish a commission - in this case the office of An Taoiseach is the administrative locus for the commission - there can be absolutely no interference by either the Oireachtas or the Government in the work of that commission. We received a request. The interim report suggests it is at an advanced stage and there is a reasonable prospect of it being brought to conclusion. That is my view from what has been written to me as the administrative head. Therefore, we have written to all the relevant people outlining the decision to grant the recent request for a further extension until 31 October of this year. If that had not been granted, it would have had the effect of dissolving the commission with no findings to show or no return on the substantial costs to date, which run to €9.6 million. We would have no return for those costs or any additional costs that would occur but are not yet paid.

Does the Taoiseach have any idea when the commission will conclude its investigation?

As I said, the indications are it will be 31 October 2021.

I hope the Taoiseach is right but I am afraid I am not convinced at this moment. The Taoiseach mentioned the shared island element in his address. The Minister of Health in the North of Ireland, Mr. Robert Swann, stated just in the past week that he was finding it difficult to achieve co-operation with the southern Administration and that there was not a natural flow of information to his Ministry. He indicated, for example, that information pertaining to variants found in the South was obtained by him through the media. Is it not incredible, when there is so much logic to an all-Ireland approach to the illness, that there is a unionist, who in general would have an aversion to North–South co-operation, complaining about the southern Government not communicating key information required to ensure the health and well-being of the population? I have asked the Taoiseach where the secretariat is for North-South co-operation on Covid. I understand there is none. I asked him to state which Department is the locus of North-South co-operation on Covid and I now understand there is no specific Department managing this. Why is it that unionist ministers are complaining about the lack of co-operation of the southern Administration on a life-and-death issue such as this?

I do not accept the Deputy's point. I do not accept that there has been a lack of co-operation or that there has been a lack-----

Is it good enough that Mr. Swann obtained the information through the media?

I do not accept that either.

That is what he said.

I am just saying I do not know what happened. I cannot be-----

Deputy Tóibín should allow the Taoiseach to answer.

-----interpretation of what is in the media. I did not interrupt the Deputy. I want to make it very clear that I have had discussions with the First Minister and Deputy First Minister about variants as far back as variant B117. Our Chief Medical Officer has had discussions with Northern Ireland's Chief Medical Officer in respect of B117, which is one of the earliest variants and one we all know too much about because of the degree to which it spread so rapidly here, in the North and the rest of the UK, and now elsewhere across Europe. If I am not mistaken, everyone has acknowledged that the relationship between both sets of officials, North and South, has been constructive and productive.

The main area of difficulty has concerned travel information in terms of the passenger locater form information. We took steps to be satisfied in this regard. Requests were made of the Northern Ireland Executive in regard to it. A memorandum of understanding between the two Chief Medical Officers has been signed. They engage regularly in respect of decisions they are taking. On the political side, so too do the Executive and Irish Government. The Minister for Health here, Deputy Stephen Donnelly, has engaged with Mr. Robin Swann, and the Minister for Foreign Affairs, Deputy Coveney, has also engaged with political leaders in Northern Ireland. I engage in discussions with Ms Arlene Foster and Ms Michelle O'Neill at various times on aspects and dimensions of Covid.

Gabhaim buíochas leis an Taoiseach as teacht os comhair an choiste seo. I understand from his response to Deputy Tóibín on the increase in salary for the new Secretary General of the Department of Health that he has the same view as his colleague, the Minister for Public Expenditure and Reform, Deputy Michael McGrath, that is, that the new pay increase is commensurate with the scale of responsibility. Is that correct?

On the back of that, it is interesting to note that the new Secretary General heading the Department of Health will be on a higher salary than the Taoiseach. Does the Taoiseach believe, therefore, that the scale of responsibility of the new head of the Department of Health is actually greater than that of the Taoiseach?

I always saw a distinction between what occurs in the political world and recruitment for non-political appointments, be they Civil Service appointments or appointments more generally to agencies. I did not enter politics with an eye on salaries. Obviously, I believe in the basic principle that a Deputy's salary should be linked to that of a principal officer because I can recall a time, before the principle was put into effect, when politicians were competing with each other to try to reduce pay to see who was the best in the class and to get the best media commentary. I believed the reform many years ago to connect a Deputy's salary to that of a principal officer was good. Now and again, of course, when there are public service pay increases more generally, the focus falls on the increase for Deputies. When it comes to the salary of Ministers and the Taoiseach, the remuneration is high. I do not have any issue with that other than that if we are trying to attract people from different careers and fields, we have to look differently at it.

It is interesting, if one thinks about it, that the State, at local and national levels, has no difficulty in contracting individuals and companies, but mainly companies, at much higher levels of expenditure. We need to reconsider that. Many issues have arisen in the Department of Health over many years. Genuinely, given the nature of the budget, more than €20 billion, the position is as I describe. We saw issues associated with the children's hospital manifesting themselves. I am of the view we have a chance and opportunity. Through Covid, we can learn a lot. Sláintecare, with full Oireachtas agreement, has really transformed our approach to health. I am not saying it is down to one individual — of course it is not — but it sends a signal that we are going to deal with health positively and constructively through giving it a higher focus in terms of both policy and execution. We did that with the HSE, which was important, and we did it with the Garda Commissioner, the National Treasury Management Agency and other bodies. It was effective. I appreciate that not everybody would agree with me on this but that is my view on it.

It is an interesting point. I am sure that many people, when they look at the salary scale, would have a view on this. We need to admit there was a lot of outrage over the increase. When people note that the Taoiseach is on a lower salary than the new head of the Department of Health, they will be quite astonished.

The Taoiseach made an interesting point on attracting people into the sector. We have had many a debate on this with various Ministers. An interesting point that keeps cropping up is that we need to be able to attract international talent. We have seen that only three of the 23 applicants were international. What really shocks people is that it turns out we have somebody who was working for the State who was more than capable of doing the job and more than willing to take it. The individual even waived the salary increase. Therefore, it is quite clear the massive increase, of €81,000, was not in fact needed.

My view is we need to send a very clear signal on our commitment to both reforming and transforming health performance more generally and the Department of Health into the future. The decision on the competition is independent, based on the Top Level Appointments Committee, TLAC, approach and model, but, even for the successor to the incumbent, I would still leave the salary at the level in question. I was a Minister for Health and witnessed at first hand the enormity of issues and the rapidity with which they arrive on the desk of a Secretary General. The Department of Health is not like other Departments. Sometimes in the political debate, it is easy to have a go at these points. I appreciate that and that people have different perspectives, but when it comes to the substance and detail of this, I am of the view that while my approach is not the only approach, it is a correct one. There are other elements we have to put in place as well. We have to fund health to a greater degree and reform it also. A combination of funding and reform will enable us to have a stronger and better health service in the future. We need a more strategic, focused Department once it gets away from firefighting Covid-19.

Go raibh maith ag an Taoiseach. To be clear, I am not raising this to score political points, and I am not saying the Taoiseach was suggesting I was. I fundamentally believe the decision was wrong and rooted in inequality.

I want to move on to the issue of the shared island unit. With regard to the recent disturbances, how much of the funding for the shared island unit will be targeted at reaching out to loyalist and unionist communities?

The funding is primarily capital. There is also a reconciliation fund, which is administered by the Department of Foreign Affairs, and the PEACE fund, which is quite substantial. There is more than €1 billion in the PEACE fund, €500 million in the shared island fund and a number of millions in terms of the Department of Foreign Affairs budget for reconciliation and outreach to communities, particularly disadvantaged communities. My view is that we need to do more in respect of outreach to disadvantaged communities in the North, especially in loyalist communities. When I use the term "socioeconomic", I am speaking about the levels of unemployment. That applies in regard to the nationalist communities as well. I have consistently raised with the British Government, and will continue to raise, the need for very substantial investment in the area of early school leavers, school completion, progression to further education and third level education and the creation of opportunities for employment. Many young people live in areas where this does not exist at the moment. This is one of the areas that has not been sufficiently developed in the context of the Good Friday Agreement. I have long held that view. I would like to see a commitment over and above what we are already providing in collaboration with the British Government and the Northern Ireland Executive.

I have one more question on this issue and a final question on another matter. Will the Taoiseach confirm if he has spoken to the British Prime Minister about the disturbances in the North?

I have done so.

Tá ceist amháin eile agam a bhí luaite ag cúpla ball eile i leith na n-íocaíochtaí i gcomhair na paindéime. Tá sé ráite le roinnt laethanta anuas go mb'fhéidir go mbeidh siad sin á ngearradh ag an Rialtas. An bhfuil an Taoiseach in ann a rá linn go soiléir anois nach bhfuil cinneadh mar sin déanta? Tá a fhios againn ar fad go bhfuil daoine ag brath ar na híocaíochtaí seo, agus chomh maith leis sin, tá a fhios againn nach bhfuil daoine cinnte cén uair a bheidh siad ag dul ar ais chuig an obair.

Scéimeanna den scoth a cuireadh a bhfeidhm ag an Rialtas atá sna híocaíochtaí sin, go háirithe na híocaíochtaí paindéime. Níl sé ar intinn againn aon ghearradh a dhéanamh ar na híocaíochtaí sin. Mar a dúramar, an cinneadh atá déanta againn ná go mbeidh siad ann go dtí deireadh mhí an Mheithimh maraon leis na tacaíochtaí atá tugtha ag an Rialtas. Is éard atá i gceist againn ná na scéimeanna atá againn a choimeád go dtí deireadh mhí an Mheithimh. Gan amhras, déanfaimid machnamh ar an scéim ansin. Diaidh ar ndiaidh, de réir go mbeidh fostaíocht agus poist ag teacht ar ais i retail agus i dtógáil tithe agus mar sin de, beidh níos lú daoine ag brath ar na híocaíochtaí paindéime. Diaidh ar ndiaidh, beimid ag dul chun cinn le feiscint ar chúrsaí eacnamaíochta, agus de bharr sin, ní bheidh an gá céanna ag baint leis na híocaíochtaí sin agus atá anois.

Go raibh maith ag an Taoiseach.

My question is on Vote 2 - the shared island unit and climate action unit. The Green Party in Northern Ireland has introduced the Northern Ireland climate change Bill. It is timely that the Green Party, as an all-island political party, is front and centre in introducing transformative and ambitious climate action legislation. I understand the Bill is on Committee Stage today. I am fairly sure there are people who will oppose the science and the required net zero target of that Bill.

In his opening statement, the Taoiseach spoke about interconnectedness. Nothing connects us more than the natural environment. There are issues of climate change that will affect us as an island. The climate environment knows no borders. How important is it that Northern Ireland adopts the net zero target in context with the ambition stated here and in the UK?

On the shared island unit and the climate change unit, will the Taoiseach update us on the negotiations or work that has been ongoing to ensure we have all-island climate action?

I thank the Deputy. The UK Government as a whole has set fairly ambitious targets as well in regard to climate. In Northern Ireland and in terms of the all-island context, we believe climate is an obvious issue for the shared island unit and the shared island dialogue series. There has been one very good series of all-island dialogues North and South. Climate does not recognise any border so it is very important Northern Ireland would sign up to this and all of its implications. There are opportunities here as well in terms of the creation of jobs.

I would like to see joint actions between ourselves and the Northern Ireland Executive on biodiversity projects. I am saying to colleagues on the Border and in the North that there are opportunities for funding from the shared island fund in respect of the protection and so on of biodiversity. That is just one concrete example of where we could do something really effective on the ground. We also need to get alignment on awareness of the issues and on development of the debate around climate change. We are anxious to pursue that through the dialogue series and to get an all-island approach to it. We will work with all parties and, in particular, civil and environmental groups that are focused on this area to ensure we get unit of approach.

The Taoiseach raises important points in his responses in terms of interconnectivity and biodiversity, our inland waterways and the UK-Northern Ireland marine area as well. It is vital we take action on marine protected areas that covers all of the waters around our island, and in the area of transport. Investment in improving that interconnectivity through the Belfast-Dublin rail line is imperative as well in terms of reducing transport emissions. I see a number of opportunities there. Will the Taoiseach comment on the discussions he has had on the Belfast-Dublin rail line and improvements in that regard?

The Minister for Transport, Deputy Eamon Ryan, has announced an overall island strategy in regard to the development of the railway network, particularly high speed rail. That realm of public transport lends itself to an all-island approach, which would be to the benefit of all, not only from a climate change perspective but also from an economic and mobility perspective and the perspective of the integration of people throughout the island. All types of links would flow from that approach. As a Government, we are committed to that. The feasibility work needs to get under way. We want to do that work expeditiously so that this gets real follow-through.

In terms of the marine protected areas, there is potential for an east-west and North-South approach to this issue that will be very important. The Deputy will be aware that in the Republic we are developing the marine planning Bill because we want to create a single mechanism planning framework that will facilitate, for example, developments of offshore wind. The next decade in offshore wind will be very significant. I also see the potential of collaboration. I mentioned to the Northern Ireland Chamber of Commerce last week during my engagement with it that we are committed to the offshore wind agenda for the next number of years. It would make sense, therefore, that there would be a North-South approach to that as well from a private sector investment perspective and a public sector underpinning of it.

In those areas, and perhaps also in marine research, we are going to facilitate North-South research, as I have said. We would fund it from the shared island fund. We will work with both the Executive and the British Government in that respect if they can add to that value to it. The British Government may want to do so. I know the Prime Minister supports the shared island idea. We could very well get some east-west, North-South dimensions to those areas that have been mentioned, particularly the marine protected areas and the wider climate issue.

I thank the Taoiseach. It is particularly important that investment and supports are required for the data gathering and science gathering we need for marine areas. While I fully support the offshore renewable energy industry and the positive benefits it can bring in areas like job creation, energy resilience and surety of supply, we must ensure that development is carried out with marine protection and the preservation of that fragile environment at the forefront. That work is going to require significant research and investment in research capabilities. I was delighted to hear it mentioned by the Taoiseach. I support it and thank the Taoiseach.

I am particularly committed to the research area. It is something that I believe passionately in because I think it yields results for the longer term. It means that we can get things right overall as opposed to the short-term approach.

I thank the Taoiseach for coming before the committee and giving of his time. How much time do I have?

The Deputy has eight minutes.

I can do a lot with eight minutes if I use it properly. I thank and congratulate all of the people in the public and private sectors who have been involved in fighting the virus, which looked like an impossible task at the beginning but is beginning to show results. Will a resurgence in the virus require a further intervention in some shape or form? I do not suggest a lockdown. Do the Taoiseach and the various Departments have a proposal in mind to curtail a resurgence without a lockdown?

The Government's objective right now is to prevent any further surges, hence the cautious approach to date in reopening sectors of society. Our strategy has worked since Christmas but it has been very difficult for people and it has been very difficult for various sectors of the economy in particular. Companies have been hanging in there to try to keep themselves alive during a very difficult period for them, economically speaking and in terms of viability.

We have taken the pressure off the health service substantially. It was in a terrible state in January. The numbers were just too high and the pressure on the system was too high. We got case numbers down. Now the vaccination is going up apace. Currently, I think we are at about 25%, or so it is my understanding, although Deputy Barry might have mentioned 20%. We were at 25% some days ago in relation to that so we are in a good position. As vaccination increases, we hope we can avoid the scenario that has been outlined. We know that the vaccines have been effective. The incidence of death and severe illness has gone way down among those who have been vaccinated. Within the week we will have 95% of all over-70s vaccinated with a first dose of a vaccine, which offers huge protection. We have all the nursing home residents and front-line health care workers vaccinated with first doses, and also, substantially, the over-70s, more or less. We are into the 60s age cohort now. The point I am making is that we can avoid this if we do it right because of the vaccination combined with the progress we have made to date.

In the context of the situation thereafter and recovery, I agree entirely with the gradual phasing out of supports and the necessity to phase them out in a way that ensures a valley does not occur again and no further damage is done. In that context, will particular attention be given to those sectors of the economy that were particularly hard done by during the lockdown? In local towns and villages throughout the country, services like clothes shops and boutiques, which served the local community and were iconic for the local economy, could not operate and had to close down whereas their competitors in larger cities were able to continue. During the recovery, will particular attention be given to those who suffered the most in that regard?

What is important is that the supports we put in place are quite comprehensive and at a very high level relative to other economies. Many people in the different sectors have actually articulated their appreciation for the level of supports. They did not catch everybody in some respects. There are still some minority groupings who did not quite get caught due to the criteria attached to some of the supports. In terms of moving out of Covid, emerging from the Covid period and the national economic recovery plan, we are going to pay attention to those sectors that have suffered more than most to see whether we can give more developmental assistance. That has to be worked out. We will look at whether we can do things that will enable them to make a good recovery from what has been a very difficult period for them. I am conscious, as the Garda Síochána has been, that certain multiples should not exploit a situation when small individual retailers are closed, for example. In terms of drapery, clothes and other types of products that cannot be sold in retail shops at the moment, I am aware of some attempts to circumvent that and the Garda has clamped down on that.

Like the Taoiseach and everybody else, I have observed trends and issues that have arisen from time to time in Northern Ireland. There is a recognition that the peace process must be worked at on a continual basis and that measures must be taken to address issues that might arise at local level in the North of Ireland. I know that there has been quite an amount of discussion on whether a border poll should be taken now. In some areas, it is felt that a border poll should not take place for many years. Regardless of what happens, it is essential that both communities in Northern Ireland are reassured of the benign approach from the South of Ireland and from all the signatories to the Good Friday Agreement. There is a necessity to ensure that this continues. There is also a necessity to identify and address social or economic difficulties that may have arisen or are an ongoing source of aggravation. Is the Taoiseach satisfied that any such difficulties are being addressed adequately? I agree entirely with the shared island approach. Are there other issues that need to be advanced in that area?

First, I will take the Deputy's overall point, if I have interpreted it correctly, that we need to maintain dialogue at all times, in terms of all the perspectives in Northern Ireland - political, civic and community perspectives - and engage at a multi level. Let us use a "benign approach", as the Deputy put it. I would say that we must be proactively constructive in developing good cross-Border initiatives and economic alignment.

I was very struck by the meetings I had with the various council groups. The north west regional group really impressed me because they leave politics outside the doors of their councils in Derry, Strabane and Donegal. They look at themselves as an integrated region. They look at what can be expanded and how they can get investment into the region. Those are the kind of questions that they ask themselves and they create strategies around that. I want to support that type of initiative. We have made it very clear that we are there to support those kinds of initiatives. The shared island fund gives us some type of financial capacity to support those initiatives over and above the rhetoric. People have said for years that they would do this and that, but now we have put flesh on the bone to try to give real support to a number of cross-Border initiatives.

That would benefit citizens on the island of Ireland and help people to have a better quality of life. I think we can do an awful lot on the active transport piece, on the industrial side, in respect of broader economic co-operation and, above all, education and research.

We all recognise the remarkable performance of this country in the context of Brexit and the manner in which everybody involved - the Government, Ministers and the private and public sectors - responded to the challenges, of which there were many. Is it intended to continue a vigorous campaign at home and abroad to ensure that new markets, both import and export, are a continuous objective and that everybody is seen to be on the one track, working towards that?

I thank the Deputy. The Secretary General and his team in my Department deserve commendation for the work they did in regard to Brexit over a period of time, as do the Secretary General of the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Minister, Deputy Coveney, and others. Our objectives were achieved. We do not like Brexit and we think Brexit was not a good idea. What we need now is to do a deeper analysis of how Brexit is working out in practice, both in terms of Britain and the British economy, and how that will impact us. The early signs are of significant reductions in trade levels and the question is will that be sustained. We see a dramatic increase in direct routes to the Continent. We do get early signs of a change and we need to be very hands-on in terms of analysing and keeping on top of that because it will affect our SMEs and will affect our economic relationship with Britain.

There is still a lot of work to be done. We have managed to land it in a zone which is the best possible scenario in terms of our objectives, given the fact there is trade co-operation agreement and a no-deal has been avoided. I would prefer even greater alignment in some areas between the UK and the EU but a better relationship is developing and that is working. Recent meetings between David Frost and Maroš Šefčovič have been positive so far but there is a lot of work there too in terms of the EU-UK relationship. From Ireland's perspective, a strong, constructive, positive relationship between the EU and the UK is something we eagerly desire because it would benefit us as well.

In his later remarks to the meeting, the Taoiseach mentioned he supported the increase in the salary of €82,000, and he gave the reasons for that. This has nothing to do with the individual concerned; it has to do with the issue of transparency. In October 2019, the Government was specifically asked by the Public Service Pay Commission to consider re-establishing a special review body similar to that which had reported in 2007. The Department at that time was arguing that the then pay rates were determined on an ad hoc basis, similar to what happened on this occasion. If we bear in mind how that €82,000 was reached and the decision that was made on it, and I do not know the background to it, there were other employees within the HSE who were refused increases and increases were withheld from them. It would appear report No. 42 was overlooked and that it did not deal with the matter, the Financial Emergency Measures in the Public Interest (No. 2) Act 2009 was not considered and, as a result, there are still a significant number of retired staff and others who are continuing to work in the HSE who are battling for pay increases that they were due. The Taoiseach might compare this to the process the Army and the Defence Forces are going through to have their pay and conditions examined.

The Taoiseach can understand why there would be anger and upset over the decision that was so easily reached about the Secretary General of the Department of Health. In Mr. Fraser's reply, he was explaining how these appointments and transfers were made. He said it is usually dealt with by the use of an oral procedure to protect the integrity and confidentiality of the appointments process, and that it was usually dealt with at the end, as a last item on the agenda of Government business. This is what the members and I are asking about: the transparency of the process, where the €82,000 figure came from and the issues that are relevant to that increase, to do with other workers within the HSE, who did not get their increases when it was reported that they should, and who continue to fight for them.

I put it to the Taoiseach that giving someone a huge increase in their salary does not necessarily mean that projects like the children's hospital are going to come in within budget or, indeed, that all of the other ills of the Departments and the overspends that are recorded by the Comptroller and Auditor General are going to end. I have not seen a massive improvement in the context of the clients of the HSE who are looking for their services to improve. I have seen huge commitment from the front line but I have seen the waiting lists grow and grow. It is similar with regard to the reforms that were necessary in the Garda. We have not seen much of those either, despite the fact we gave the increases. Giving someone an increase does not always necessarily mean they are going to transform and reform, as the Taoiseach suggested.

It is important we know the process by which the initial temporary appointment was made and the process by which the salary increase of €82,000 was reached. In addition, what it was benchmarked against is very important for us to consider. I would again ask the Taoiseach to review the correspondence we have received and to come back to us then with his views on matters, to see if they have changed in any way.

I want to turn to the Estimates, in particular the Estimates in regard to the tribunals. Deputy Tóibín went through some of these figures already. They have cost the State considerable amounts of money. I wonder if it is the intention of the Government to review all of these costs and the outcomes to date, with a view to amending legislation or dealing with this ongoing cost, which is like a runaway train that cannot be stopped. What is the Taoiseach's view on that?

First, fundamentally, in regard to the Secretary General's position, it was a policy decision and I have made my points already in respect of my views on the need to genuinely move on the health service and transform it. That does not depend on one position and I take the Chairman's point on that. I understand where people are coming from and people are entitled to have different perspectives on this. There has been a restoration of FEMPI, not fully or completely in all circumstances but in a substantial number of circumstances, and that will continue. Work is under way in terms of the Army and Defence Forces. Part of the programme for Government is to work on that and to set up a commission in respect of the future of the Defence Forces, and we have taken some early steps in regard to some aspects of the Defence Forces. We are going to move on those things.

Obviously, the initiation and development of the children's hospital was before the current Secretary General arrived but, nonetheless, it is illustrative of the scale of projects that can come under the remit of the Department of Health, and that needs to be borne in mind as well. I think there are about 90 non-commercial State bodies under the aegis of the Department of Health and, overall, we are talking about 125,000 people employed in health services more generally and €22 billion allocated.

There have been huge increases this year in terms of services. The €600 million for the winter initiative alone was unprecedented and very effective during the winter period. There have been 5 million additional hours for home care packages, a dramatic increase in home care provision this year and one that will have to continue, in terms of the demographic and other needs and improving our home care packages more generally, both in quality and-----

Is the Taoiseach saying that if the Government did not give the increase to the chief executive of the HSE, those increases he has outlined would not have happened? The increases the Taoiseach has just outlined would have happened anyway.

The Chairman made comments to the effect that he has not seen anything in services.

No, I made a comment on waiting lists. I also made a comment about the increase awarded to the HSE chief executive. The figures the Taoiseach then quoted would have happened anyway.

I am not saying the figures are based on the increase.

That is okay.

I never said that. Neither do I want the impression to go out that there has been no increase in services at all in health this year. The opposite is the case. There has been an unprecedented increase in health service budgets this year across the board, in terms of acute services, home care packages, diagnostics and primary care. The key now is to embed that into the future of our health service so that we use the lessons of the pandemic to have a stronger health service into the future. That will require leadership at all levels.

In terms of cost, there is no question that in Ireland the original idea of setting up commissions of investigation was that they would reduce costs compared to the tribunal of inquiry model which had proved to be very expensive. Commissions of investigation are proving to be lengthy and expensive as well. People have legal representation, are entitled to protect their good names and so forth. Hence, some investigations can take far too long. I do not disagree with that. We will review the situation, but the Oireachtas needs to review it as well.

As an Oireachtas, we decide whether these investigations are necessary. We have had some investigations that have been completed quickly, but that has not always been the case. This area needs review and we will do that. I have no doubt the Oireachtas will deal with this through the various committees or at party level. All of us should reflect on the facts the Chair outlined, a view with which I do not necessarily disagree.

I had a number of other questions. Deputy Stanley has indicated. I have to finish the meeting at 5.15 p.m. I will adjourn and we can return to further consider the balance of the Estimates.

I have some straightforward questions. I am mindful of time. I refer to the salary increase for the Secretary General position in the Department of Health. Is the Taoiseach concerned it will lead to a cascade of claims at the top levels of the Civil Service, not just at Secretary General level, because once one person gets an increase surely the rest will look for it down the line? Will it also impact on other senior officers, such as principal officers and other senior grades?

No, I am not. This is specific to the Department of Health.

The Taoiseach does not see this as having a knock-on effect on others lining up for similar pay increases.

I do not. This is very specific to the Department of Health. I made my points earlier in respect of why I think this Department, more so than other Departments, has a burden of responsibilities-----

The Taoiseach's Department has a lot of responsibility, as does the Department of Finance. As we emerge from the pandemic, the Department of Finance will have to try to get the public finances back in order.

I want to give my own experience. I can tell the Deputy that, due to the nature of the Department of Health and the crises that arise very regularly across the breadth and depth of health services, the burden is of a far higher degree than most other Departments. That is, in my view, a fact of life that has not been acknowledged. It needs reform as a Department. It needs to be developed and have a stronger strategic focus. That is my view.

I would not cast aspersions on any person who occupies the position. I am not being personal in any of my remarks. Was Robert Watt headhunted by the Taoiseach and Ministers for this position?

No. On the acting position, we needed someone to take the role but we were clear there would have to be an independent approach. There was an independent process in terms of advertising and people from all over were entitled to apply. Whoever went through the interview process, the competition and all of the various steps would emerge. That is the position.

I thank the Chairman.

We will adjourn the meeting now. We can conclude the Estimates on another date. I will ask the clerk to set up a time when we can conclude the Estimates. I think the Taoiseach and his officials for attending. We look forward to meeting them again shortly. The select committee adjourned at 5.17 p.m. sine die.