Tuesday, 26 March 2019

Questions (9, 10, 11)

Brendan Howlin


9. Deputy Brendan Howlin asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee F (national security) last met. [9513/19]

View answer

Joan Burton


10. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his plans to establish a strategic threat analysis centre. [13947/19]

View answer

Mary Lou McDonald


11. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach when Cabinet committee F (national security) last met; and when it is scheduled to meet again. [12014/19]

View answer

Oral answers (51 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 9 to 11, inclusive, together.

The committee last met on 8 February. The meeting was attended by Ministers and senior officials from the Departments of Finance; Public Expenditure and Reform; Foreign Affairs and Trade; Justice and Equality; Health; Communications, Climate Action and Environment; Transport, Tourism and Sport; Housing, Planning and Local Government; and Defence. The next meeting of Cabinet committee F will be held next week. The role of Cabinet committee F is "to keep the State's systems for the analysis of, preparation for, and response to, threats to national security under review and to provide high-level [and political] coordination [among] relevant Departments and agencies on related matters".

In December 2018, Government published A Policing Service for the Future, the implementation plan of the report on the Commission on the Future of Policing. This is an ambitious but realistic four-year plan set out across four key phases, which will deliver a modern, highly professional, human rights-based police service.

Cabinet committee G provides political oversight of this programme of reform.

The Commission on the Future of Policing in Ireland published its report in September 2018 outlining a clear vision and roadmap for strengthening An Garda Síochána and the broader national framework for policing, security and community safety. The commission’s recommendations include the establishment of a strategic threat analysis centre, STAC. In December 2018, the Government published A Policing Service for the Future, a four-year plan covering the years 2019 to 2022, to implement the commission’s report, including the establishment of the new centre. We have decided that the new centre will be renamed the national security analysis centre, but its role and functions will be based on the recommendations of the commission. Work is under way on the identification and securing of premises, the procurement of IT systems, and the staffing of the centre. I expect the post of director to be advertised this week.

An Irish citizen, Ms Lisa Smith, is in a camp in north-eastern Syria, with her two year old daughter, Ruqayya. The 37 year old Dundalk woman has obviously made very poor personal choices and is responsible for the situation in which she finds herself. However, there is a two year old girl, an Irish citizen, involved in this who deserves a future. The Tánaiste has said that there is a duty of care. We understand that the Department of Foreign Affairs, the Department of Defence, and the Department of Justice and Equality have had meetings and are co-ordinating the State's response to this matter. Has this been discussed by the Cabinet sub-committee? What specific efforts are being made to return Lisa and her daughter to Ireland? It is reported that aid workers from the Red Cross have been approached directly and asked to get her home. When Ms Smith arrives home has it been determined how she will be treated?

In a related matter, recently shocking attacks were carried out in New Zealand by a far-right terrorist group. Such attacks have caused great concern, particularly among the Muslim community across the globe, but also in this State. Has An Garda Síochána consulted with the Muslim community in Ireland about its security? Have any concerns it has expressed been addressed, and are particular measures being put in place to give security and confidence to that community?

Where will the strategic threat analysis centre be located? Will it be a part of the Department of the Taoiseach, the Department of Defence or the Department of Justice and Equality? Will the Taoiseach explain the reasons it will be located in a specific Department?

One of the strategic threats I am most aware of, as a member of a family with many members who served in our Defence Forces, including my father, is that people are walking out of the Army at the moment. They are buying themselves out where they can afford to. The same is true of the Air Corps, which I know the Taoiseach is very familiar with, given that it was once in our joint constituency but is now in Dublin Mid-West. The personnel shortage crisis developing in the Army requires an urgent response. It is also the case that a three-star private in the Army cannot, on his or her current salary scale, afford to buy an affordable home. Most of those privates do not qualify for social housing, although a number of members of the Defence Forces qualify for a working family payment if they have a number of children. Does the Government have any proposals to ensure that serving members of the Defence Forces who do one or two contracts or perhaps serve three or four times overseas can be housed? They should have access to affordable housing. Those who are not ready to buy a house should have access to an affordable social rent. At the moment these things are not possible. Every week people who have retired from the ranks stand before the gates of Leinster House and seek to explain the situation to us in detail. It is the most fundamental threat our Defence Forces have faced in a long time.

In spite of months of denials it appears that there have been very substantial discussions with the European Union on how cross-Border trade will be handled in the event of a no-deal situation. Will the Taoiseach explain how these discussions match with the countless assertions he has made to the effect that nothing will be discussed until a no-deal Brexit actually happens? Will he confirm that Chancellor Merkel asked Commission officials to get on with making arrangements for the Border in the context of a no-deal situation arising?

The Minister for Transport, Tourism and Sport, Deputy Ross, got into some trouble a few months ago when he said that plans were being drawn up and that there would be checks at the Border in the event of a no-deal Brexit. He was immediately slapped down by the Tánaiste at the time on the grounds that we did not want it to appear that Ireland was bringing in any checks. The suggestion was that the Minister, Deputy Ross, did not know anything and the notion that he was a bit of an ignoramus was put out by Fine Gael spin doctors.

Do not give a dog a bad name.

We are now three days ahead of what was due to be Brexit day, and it is two weeks until the next possible no-deal deadline on 12 April. It is being reported again that there were discussions around this matter at the weekend. Any contingency planning required should have been completed by now. Will the Taoiseach be open with the people and detail exactly what will happen in the likely Brexit scenarios, in particular if no deal is reached? What is his sense of what will happen with the Border now? What has been proposed and what has been discussed with the Commission? When will the Taoiseach's office finally supply the information on our levels of Brexit preparedness which he promised to forward to me three weeks ago? We hope we do not arrive at a no-deal situation and that the UK will develop a coherent pathway out of this. That is significantly at risk at the moment, however, considering everything else going on there.

I call Deputy Boyd Barrett.

Deputy McDonald was supposed to speak before both me and Deputy Micheál Martin.

My deepest apologies. I have just taken over from the Ceann Comhairle.

It is all right. I want to place on the record, on my own behalf and on behalf of Sinn Féin, our sincere and heartfelt sympathies to the families and friends of those killed and injured during the horrific attack in Christchurch and to offer the people of New Zealand our condolences at what is an incredibly difficult time.

My questions relate to the strategic threat assessment centre and when it will be fully operational. Previous speakers have raised the issue as well. In the event of a no-deal, crash-out scenario, as outlined by Deputy Micheál Martin, there cannot be a hardening of the Border on the island. Will the Taoiseach tell us, very directly, what he will do in the event of a crash to ensure there is no hardening of the Border? What steps will he take to avoid not only the apparatus of a border but also the legal and real hardening of the Border? The paraphernalia is just one aspect of the issue. I have raised this matter with the Taoiseach many times and would appreciate a direct answer. I sincerely do not wish to see a crash, but if there is no deal, there is no backstop, and so there is potential for the hardening of the Border. How will the Taoiseach avoid that? Will he set out the actions he will take?

I thank the Deputy and apologise again.

The atrocity that took place in New Zealand should absolutely shock us all, but it should also make us consider how such a hate-filled racist and Islamophobic massacre could take place.

How did it happen? New Zealand is not the sort of country one would associate with this kind of thing. When I witnessed that horror and just a couple of days before I witnessed the Taoiseach meeting Donald Trump, I thought that whatever debates we may have had about Donald Trump, meeting him, inviting him here and so on, does the Taoiseach not now recognise that the anti-Muslim, nakedly racist rhetoric of Donald Trump directly legitimises, encourages and promotes the sort of horror we saw in New Zealand? He has given licence to the sorts of people who would carry that out. I am making a serious assertion. Considering the horror of what is going on and considering the growth of the far right and racism, I do not believe anybody could honestly draw any other conclusion but that Donald Trump has given licence, as the most powerful leader in the world, to the politics of hate, of the sort of hate that drove that massacre. I ask seriously in that context, if it is not a strategic threat to invite him here.

I was in the mosque in Clonskeagh over the weekend at the multicultural day. I am not exaggerating when I say that the worshippers there were really afraid. They were thinking about having to impose security around the mosque, something they never wanted to do before because when Muslim people pray, they pray with their backs to the entrances. They thought they are seriously vulnerable now and it only takes a few maniacs with that hate-filled politics to consider that sort of action. One would never have thought it would happen in New Zealand, but Mr. Trump legitimises that stuff. The sorts of people who share that sick ideology would be encouraged if he comes to this country. I seriously ask the Taoiseach to reconsider his invitation to Donald Trump to come to this country because it will give licence and encouragement to the sort of sick mentality that carried out that massacre in New Zealand.

It is my general practice to answer the questions in the sequence in which they are asked. As I do not want to be accused of not answering some important questions, I might slightly divert from that.

Are they not all important?

I have been asked several times by Deputy Micheál Martin and others to disclose what was said by whom at a European Council meeting. I cannot do that. The European Council operates under similar rules to a cabinet.

One would be able to read it on Twitter anyway.

It is not right nor is it possible for me to come in here and say that Chancellor Merkel said that or President Macron said this. It is not how the European Council works nor is it how it should work. If it has been reported that Chancellor Merkel said, "Get on with it", I can say that is not the case. On a no-deal Brexit, the fact that I neither confirm nor affirm something that somebody is alleged to have said at a European Council meeting does not mean that I did not did not deny it.

That is what the Taoiseach mentioned on Sunday.

I am not at liberty to say who said what at a European Council meeting any more than I am at liberty to say who said what at a Cabinet meeting. For anyone who does follow this session of a chamber, if anybody goes on the radio or television and tries to assert that a non-denial of something that somebody is alleged to have said at a European Council by me is confirmation, it is not. Those meetings are confidential.

I have been asked a few times what would happen in the hypothetical scenario of the United Kingdom crashing out of the European Union without a deal. Of course, I do not know for sure - nobody knows for sure - what would happen in that scenario. It will depend on various factors other than that. However, I can say that we have made no preparations for a hard border between Northern Ireland and Ireland and no preparations for physical infrastructure, checks or customs controls between Northern Ireland and Ireland. Even in the event of no deal, we believe the United Kingdom continues to have obligations under the Good Friday Agreement. We have obligations under the Good Friday Agreement as co-guarantors. We also recognise that the UK will have obligations under WTO rules and we will have obligations to protect our Single Market and our customs union, which obviously creates a problem. It creates a dilemma. Those are the conversations we have to have as to what might be done in different hypothetical scenarios.

However, you have had discussions with the Commission.

The Government has.

I do not think any Minister has, but at official level-----

I did not say Ministers, I mean officials acting on behalf of Government.

-----I am sure there have been discussions about what might be done in different hypothetical scenarios.

The Taoiseach said at the Fine Gael Ard-Fheis there was a rough plan already.

The Taoiseach without interruption, please.

They are absolutely on that level. I get accused of not answering questions.

I have been trying for three months to get answers.

When I refuse to affirm the many conspiracy theories of the Leader of the Opposition, I am accused of not answering any questions.

The Taoiseach, himself, said at the weekend there was a rough plan.

Can we have the Taoiseach without interruption, please?

I did not say "rough plan".

He did say that; I watched the press conference.

The Deputy is hearing things and by hearing things it feeds his conspiracy theories. I said there were rough preliminary discussions.

Discussions are not a plan.

It is a matter of concern to me that the Deputy actually hears things and by hearing things they feed his conspiracy theories.

What were the preliminary discussions about?

The Taoiseach to answer the questions, please.

Going on to-----

The Taoiseach owes it to the Dáil to be upfront, give straight answers and not dodge.

The Taoiseach without interruption, please.

I was asked about a consular case, the case being that of Lisa Marie Smith. That has not been discussed at a Cabinet sub-committee, but it was discussed at Cabinet today and previously. I am conscious that while nobody can condone the choices she has made and the actions she took in aligning herself with ISIS, a terrorist regime that is hell-bent on the destruction of the West and Christendom, she has a two year old child who is an Irish citizen. That child is an innocent child. As is the case with all Irish citizens they will be permitted to re-enter the State should they try to do so. Of course, a security assessment will need to be carried out to ensure that Lisa Marie Smith is not a threat to any of us. We are working out how that best can be done to ensure she does not become a threat to life and limb here in Ireland. That does not apply, obviously, to a two year old child.

I heard some suggestions that the Government jet might be used. That is absolutely without foundation. First, we do not use the Government jet to repatriate citizens. Second, it does not fly as far as Syria or even as far as Turkey. I do not know where that comes from, but it is absolutely not the case.

I am aware of reports that she is in an annex to the Al Hol camp in the area of northern Syria controlled by Kurdish forces. Another televised interview with the person in question was broadcast over the weekend. Efforts are continuing to verify the details and make direct contact with her. Consular assistance is provided to all Irish citizens abroad when requested, but our capacity to do so in an active war zone is limited.

Nonetheless I am aware of the vulnerability of the two year old child in these circumstances. The safety and welfare of Irish citizens is a priority for the consular service and the Government. This applies to the case in question where two Irish citizens are in high-risk locations and wish to leave. Officials from across Departments and Government services have been meeting this weekend to identify options to provide consular assistance to children such as these in Syria. We will step up these efforts and work with international partners, including international organisations, to ensure that decent humanitarian treatment is afforded. We will do what can and should be done to assist Irish citizens in distress or danger overseas, including by helping them return home.

I was asked about the Garda and its engagement with the Muslim community. I cannot speak for the Garda, but I know from my visits to the mosque and conversations with gardaí that Garda liaison officers are appointed to the Muslim community. They do very effective work, or at least that is the impression I have.

Deputy Burton asked about the national security advisory centre. That will form part of my Department but it will not be on-site as we do not have any room. We are looking for off-site accommodation for it. The reason it will form part of my Department follows on from the O'Toole commission, but more relevant than that it is co-ordinating three other Departments - Defence Forces intelligence, Garda intelligence and the National Cyber Security Centre, which falls under the Department of Communications, Climate Action and Environment. As it is co-ordinating the work of three bodies under three other Departments, it made sense to have it in the Department of the Taoiseach, rather than in one of those three Departments for obvious reasons.

Obviously, the Government acknowledges that Defence Forces pay is a major issue. While we have been very successful at recruiting people to the Defence Forces, with record recruitment levels in recent times, there is a very high turnover. The Defence Forces turnover rate is about 8%.

In the past it would have been more like 5% or 6% leaving every year, which would be closer to what one would expect than would be 8%. As to what is being done about it, instead of having bursts of recruitment, there will be year-around recruitment. For the first time, people can now re-enter the Defence Forces. In the past if they left they could not come back. Many want to come back and they will now be able to re-enter.

Pay restoration is very much under way under the agreements we have with the trade unions. The Public Service Pay Commission is doing a discrete piece of work on allowances that could be increased or restored if it recommends that this should be done and that it would be successful. Also, I have asked the Chief of Staff to examine the issue of housing. In the past, subsidised housing was provided on barracks and bases for members of the Defence Forces. Often when they were saving up for a deposit they would avail of that. I want them to consider that and see if we can do something similar on some of the bases where there is land in terms of providing low-cost subsidised housing for members of our Defence Forces, thus allowing them to save some money and build up a deposit.

What about my question about Trump? The Taoiseach does not want to answer that question.

The Taoiseach will not answer that question.

My answer to the Deputy's question is: no, I do not agree.

I thank the Taoiseach, Members and staff for their assistance and co-operation.