Tuesday, 5 February 2019

Questions (1, 2, 3)

Brendan Howlin


1. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the priorities of his Department in 2019. [2738/19]

View answer

Mary Lou McDonald


2. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the priorities of his Department in 2019. [3890/19]

View answer

Richard Boyd Barrett


3. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the priorities of his Department in 2019. [5669/19]

View answer

Oral answers (7 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 1 to 3, inclusive, together.

The Department of the Taoiseach's statement of strategy for the period from 2017 to 2020, inclusive, reflects the priorities in 2019 and the period ahead. The main role of the Department is to assist the Taoiseach and the Government in developing a sustainable economy and successful society, pursue Ireland’s interests abroad, implement the Government’s programme and build a better future for all citizens.

The strategy statement is aligned with the Government's main priorities and policies and sets out the following six strategic priorities: providing excellent support services for the Taoiseach and the Government; ensuring Ireland has a sustainable economy; helping to ensure Government policies and services support a socially inclusive and fair society; ensuring Ireland maintains strong relationships in Europe and the world; ensuring the best possible outcomes for Ireland with regard to Brexit across all four priorities identified by the Government; and planning for the future in the context of all of the many uncertainties in the international environment.

Priorities in the immediate period ahead which my Department will assist in progressing, together with other relevant Departments, include the Brexit negotiations and no-deal preparedness; ongoing reform of the justice sector, particularly in the area of policing reform; issues relating to health policy, particularly the implementation of Sláintecare; continuing to build economic resilience, including through the Future Jobs Ireland framework; tackling climate change; housing and homelessness; pensions reform; Northern Ireland; and doubling Ireland's global footprint. Through these reforms and improvements, we will protect our growing economy and ensure Ireland is a more equal society, which will create opportunities for all people to participate and share in its prosperity.

The Taoiseach has rightly acknowledged that, strategically, one of the most important issues within the purview of his Department right now is Brexit preparedness. His analysis at the beginning was right. It is correct to front-load the issue of the unique situation on the Border in Ireland and have it agreed to in advance of future trade talks. One of the proposals which seems to be gaining traction in the United Kingdom Parliament involves the notion that the Article 50 implementation date could be extended and that the United Kingdom could move directly into trade talks, which would fundamentally alter the strategic approach of the European Union which has been to have the question of the Irish Border settled in advance of detailed discussions on long-term trade arrangements between the European Union and the United Kingdom. Will the Taoiseach give us his take on, and his understanding of, the views of the EU 27 on this matter? In his view, what are the circumstances in which there would be agreement to extend the implementation date for Article 50 of the Lisbon treaty? Is he of a similar mind in believing issues regarding the arrangements on the island of Ireland and the only external border between the United Kingdom and the European Union should be wound into the long-term trade talks with the United Kingdom?

On Brexit, I invite the Taoiseach to again confirm to the Dáil that the negotiations remain a matter for the British Government and the EU bloc and that there will be no bilateral negotiations between Ireland and Britain on the matter of the backstop or any alternatives thereto.

Last week I raised with the Taoiseach the urgent need to publish an affordable housing scheme, something for which local councils are screaming. The absence of such a scheme is delaying the delivery of affordable homes. Following our brief exchange on the matter, the Oireachtas Joint Committee on Housing, Planning and Local Government heard from the ESRI, the Housing Agency and the Ó Cualann Cohousing Alliance on the issue. The CEO of the Housing Agency, Mr. John O'Connor, said Government policy should strike a balance between the delivery of affordable homes for sale and rent and that the focus on home ownership must be tempered by the roll-out of affordable cost rental housing. The CEO of the Ó Cualann Cohousing Alliance, Mr. Hugh Brennan, stated his housing association had the capacity to deliver many more affordable homes for purchase and that it was actively looking at sites on which it could deliver such housing. It is vital and ought to be a priority for the Taoiseach and the Government that the heel-dragging in the publication of an affordable housing scheme be stopped. The Government should move on the issue. It is badly needed because affordable homes are badly needed. Will the Taoiseach clarify exactly when the scheme will be published?

As we see every day, the breakdown of normal relations within different strands of the peace settlement has caused deep damage. Irrespective of the form Brexit will take, we will need a new approach to relations with Britain. We also need a new approach to North-South relations. Given the problems even before June 2016, does the Taoiseach agree that we have to take a serious look at how the Government operates with respect to North-South and east-west relations? With the rapid decline in the level and quality of political leadership in these areas, does he accept that we need to ask whether we are approaching them in the right way? This must surely have implications for how the Department of the Taoiseach and the Taoiseach operate. A core function of the Department of the Taoiseach is to operate a system of Cabinet committees. The committees are supposed to involve much greater levels of preparation and longer discussions than are possible at a full Cabinet meeting. The committee dealing with European affairs used to meet regularly. The meetings involved detailed cross-government discussion of measures before the European Council. Last week it was revealed that the committee on Brexit and Europe had not met for seven months. That means that there have been no meetings with senior officials, no advance circulation of detailed documents and no separate minutes. The Taoiseach's claim that he prefers to discuss things at full Cabinet meetings suggests he prefers general discussions to getting into the level of detail which used to be involved in Cabinet sub-committee meetings.

Equally, it appears that the Cabinet committees on health and infrastructure have been sidelined on the vital issue of the massive overspend on the national children's hospital, which is quite extraordinary. It is an unfolding saga. The replies to Deputy Howlin's questions beggared belief and lacked credibility. The overspend on the project will have implications for other capital projects across the board, not just this year but also in future years. Will the Taoiseach outline how the background work which used to happen through the Cabinet committees is now done? If committees are not dealing with the major strategic challenges, why do they exist? If the committee on health is not dealing with the national children's hospital, what is it doing? Likewise, if the committee on Europe has not met for seven months, why does it exist?

I inform the House that today the Cabinet dealt with Brexit as a line item, as it almost always does. The reason we do not have regular meetings of the sub-committee on Brexit any more is that the issue impacts on pretty much every Department.

Without all the officials present.

Every Cabinet meeting now dedicates time to Brexit and EU affairs. The infrastructure subcommittee met last week, for example. The way preparation is done is that memos are prepared in the normal way, advisers meet at an advisory meeting and senior officials meet at the senior officials group, SOG, to prepare it. There is a senior officials group dealing specifically with Brexit but when the matters come to politicians they are dealt with by the whole of Cabinet, pretty much every week at this stage. The Minister of State, Deputy McEntee, attends on occasion when relevant. For example, there were two memos today at Cabinet on Brexit alone. One was dealing with tax, getting into more detail on the legislative provisions on tax that will have to be in the Brexit omnibus Bill. They particularly relate to corporation tax and VAT and how we can maintain the existing arrangements for a period in the event of a no-deal Brexit, until that gets clarified. There was some time spent on that. A little bit more time was spent today on the transport memo on Brexit, which related to the ports and airports, confirming that we will not need planning permission to make any of the necessary changes at Dublin Airport. It is already covered under exempted development. When it comes to Dublin Port and Rosslare, where we now control the land we need at those two ports, there are different scenarios for no-deal and in the event of a deal. In a no-deal scenario we will be able to use emergency legislation and emergency powers that the Minister for Finance has to direct the OPW to carry out certain works. That will be in the form of parking spaces for trucks and temporary buildings and portakabins to house officials. That will be the no-deal scenario. Obviously if we have a deal, we will have more time to put in place more permanent structures. That memo obviously was prepared in the normal way, seen by officials, put up on eCabinet and discussed by advisers. It is the same process we would use for a Cabinet subcommittee except there are 20 in the room rather than 50 or 60.

Tomorrow I will visit Brussels and we will meet with President Juncker, President Tusk, Mr. Michel Barnier, Mr. Guy Verhofstadt, MEP, and Commissioner Hogan to discuss the ongoing impasse in respect of Brexit and also to have an opportunity to discuss no-deal planning. People will be aware that there is a Commission delegation in Dublin at the moment discussing no-deal planning. It is going to every country. We are the ninth country they have been to so far. That is its main reason for being here. On Friday, I will travel to Northern Ireland where I will meet with the political parties there. When we travel to Northern Ireland, we should always listen to all of the parties and not just to any one party. Certainly I will be listening to the major parties and to the smaller ones if time allows as well. I also plan to speak to business and civil society in respect of Brexit. However, I will not be carrying out any negotiations with any political parties in Northern Ireland because, as Deputy McDonald rightly points out, the negotiations are between the EU and the UK. While we can certainly have discussions with the UK and with political parties or individual politicians, the negotiations can only happen with the EU and Ireland on one side of the table and the UK on the other. We are in a much stronger position in that regard and will not be departing from it. It is not just our strategy; it is also in the EU negotiating guidelines.

In respect of the various proposals that Deputy Howlin mentions, there are myriad proposals at this stage emanating from the House of Commons and it is hard to keep track of them all. There are no clear proposals yet from the UK Government other than a certain level of revisiting things that have already been rejected by the European Union. Specifically, Deputy Howlin asked about extending Article 50. Obviously, for Article 50 to be extended, the United Kingdom would have to request that, which it has not yet done. The Prime Minister has indicated that she does not intend to do so but, as we have said on a number of occasions now, if Article 50 were extended it would have to be extended for a particular purpose and that purpose would need to be agreed. We should never forget that the threat of no deal on 29 March is not a threat that Ireland or the European Union is making. The deadline of 29 March was set by Britain in Britain and it is open to it at any time to take away that no-deal possibility either by revoking Article 50 or by seeking an extension to Article 50, either of which it can do.

On affordable housing, Deputy English informs me that local authorities have already submitted seven or eight schemes for the construction of affordable housing. Councils can now proceed with those schemes so houses are built and ready so that people can purchase them under the new scheme. Cost rental is under way in Emmet Road. That is the pilot project, as it were, for cost rental in Dublin city. There is another project as well, I cannot remember exactly where, I think it is south Dublin somewhere in Dún Laoghaire-Rathdown. The scheme is going to be one of shared equity similar to what was there before. It will be published in a few weeks' time but there is already wide-scale awareness of how it will work. It will work on a shared equity basis with the council retaining equity in the home which people can then redeem at a later point. The affordable homes obviously have to be built before they can be purchased and there is no delay in allowing local authorities to proceed to build those houses.