Tuesday, 22 October 2019

Questions (8, 9, 10, 11, 12, 13, 14)

Micheál Martin


8. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to the UN; if he held bilaterals; and the issues discussed. [39631/19]

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Richard Boyd Barrett


9. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his visit to the United States of America for the recent UN meeting. [39637/19]

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Micheál Martin


10. Deputy Micheál Martin asked the Taoiseach if he will report on the meetings he held with business leaders while in the United States of America; and the issues that were discussed. [39894/19]

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Joan Burton


11. Deputy Joan Burton asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the recent United Nations climate action summit. [41986/19]

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Richard Boyd Barrett


12. Deputy Richard Boyd Barrett asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his recent visit to Los Angeles and his efforts to boost the film industry here. [42162/19]

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Ruth Coppinger


13. Deputy Ruth Coppinger asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the United Nations General Assembly and United Nations climate action summit. [43150/19]

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Mary Lou McDonald


14. Deputy Mary Lou McDonald asked the Taoiseach if he will report on his attendance at the recent United Nations climate action summit. [43407/19]

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Oral answers (15 contributions) (Question to Taoiseach)

I propose to take Questions Nos. 8 to 14, inclusive, together.

I travelled to the United States on 22 September for a five-day programme in New York and Los Angeles. My programme in New York centred on the 74th annual session of the UN General Assembly, where I joined Heads of State and Government from around the world for a series of engagements.

On Monday, 23 September, I participated in the UN climate action summit, accompanied by the Minister for Communications, Climate Action and Environment, Deputy Bruton. I outlined Ireland's approach to climate action, including the Government's commitments under the climate action plan, our intention to ring-fence any new carbon tax revenues for climate action and just transition, and the increased focus on climate action in our new policy for international development.

On Tuesday, 24 September, I attended the opening of the 74th session of the UN General Assembly, which was led by UN Secretary General, António Guterres.

I represented Ireland at the high level meeting on the UN sustainable development goals, SDGs, on Wednesday, 25 September, where I outlined Ireland's approach to meeting the goals. This was the first meeting on the SDGs at Heads of State and Government level since the goals were first adopted in 2015, in negotiations brokered by Ireland and Kenya.

I met Prime Minister Ardern of New Zealand, President Macron of France, King Abdullah of Jordan and other leaders at a meeting about the Christchurch Call to Action. This initiative is an alliance between governments, international organisations and tech companies, committed to doing more to remove online violent and extremist content. A shared crisis response protocol was adopted to ensure that all actors are prepared in case of future attacks. We have already seen the added value of these approaches following the anti-Semitic extremist attack on a synagogue in Halle, Germany earlier this month.

While at the UN, I met several leaders to discuss Ireland's candidature for a seat on the UN Security Council, including Heads of State and Government of Serbia, North Macedonia, Egypt, Liechtenstein, Senegal, Saint Vincent and the Grenadines, and the Vice President of Indonesia.

During my time in New York, I took the opportunity to have bilateral meetings with European Council President Tusk and UK Prime Minister Johnson to discuss the latest developments on Brexit at that time. I also spoke with many other EU and non-EU leaders, discussing matters of shared interest.

I began the economic aspect of my US programme with a visit to NBC studios in New York, where I met senior executives to discuss NBC Universal's experience of production in Ireland and plans for future investments.

I then travelled to Los Angeles for a further two-day programme on 26 and 27 September. While in Los Angeles, I opened the new Consulate General of Ireland there, which is the latest in a series of at least 26 new diplomatic missions that we will open under the Global Ireland 2025 initiative.

I undertook several engagements focused on developing economic ties with the west coast of the US, especially in the tourism, creative and tech sectors. I had meetings with California's Lieutenant Governor, Eleni Kounalakis and the Mayor of Los Angeles, Eric Garcetti.

I attended some events and meetings organised by Tourism Ireland, Screen Ireland, Enterprise Ireland and IDA Ireland. I met senior executives from leading US companies in the creative and tech industries, including Disney, Fox Searchlight Pictures, Hulu, Netflix, Skydance Media, SpaceX and Warner Bros.

I also met representatives of Irish companies who travelled to the US for the trade mission, including Ardmore Studios, Element Pictures, Troy Studios and Wild Atlantic Pictures.

I concluded my programme on Friday, 27 September with an event for the Irish Community at Loyola Marymount University, where I met with groups providing assistance to the Irish in the US.

I believe my visit to the Los Angeles area will help to highlight the growing opportunities for Ireland, and for Irish companies in the creative industries, tech and tourism sectors, which are significant growth sectors for our economy.

Previously when we discussed the Taoiseach's speech on climate change at the UN, he was incredibly sensitive about the idea that he was annoyed with an article criticising his main announcement as tokenistic. The Taoiseach said at the time that it was a shocking conspiracy theory to suggest that he sought the right of reply article which was carried the following week in the same paper. Because he seemed so upset about this, I would like to say on the record that I accept the Taoiseach's explanation that he received an unsolicited personal contact from the editor offering him space for an article. He will understand that this is the sort of attention that no one else here would be used to.

I also raised with the Taoiseach-----

I feel very sad for Deputy Martin.

-----the extensive commentary about the Government's target for electric vehicles. Everybody in the House supports an aggressive programme to increase the use of such vehicles. Some of us have even voted for important moves to rebalance in favour of a more carbon-neutral future. The issue is not whether we should try to maximise electric vehicle use but whether there is any substance behind the very specific target that underpins the current climate plan.

There is no indication, for example, in the budget for next year or in the projections for the following two years, that the Department of Finance is expecting to end the purchase of internal combustion engine propelled cars in the next few years. Nobody believes the figure of 1 million cars by the end of the plan is either realistic or has any substance behind it. That is an overall problem with the Government's approach because the Taoiseach has admitted the country is a laggard.

I recall that when the Taoiseach's predecessor, Deputy Enda Kenny, took office in 2011, he, along with other Fine Gael Ministers, spent a number of years attacking the previous Government's climate change targets as being unrealistic and attempting to pull the then Government back from those targets. I recall Commissioner Hogan rubbishing a lot of what was going on at that stage with climate change policies. He did everything he possibly could at that time and in the run-up to that period to undermine the Green Party, for example. We have fallen behind over the past eight years and there has been little action on the climate change front. There is a dire need for some substance behind all the hype and high-flown rhetoric. We need to see reality and concrete plans that can be brought to fruition.

I was disappointed with other aspects of the budget. There were no imaginative ideas, bar the carbon tax, which was well-known and proposed by the Joint Committee on Climate Action. There was nothing else in agriculture and so on to try to move on quickly on the climate change agenda. Is a plan being prepared to try to reach the new goal of electric vehicles or is this another target the Taoiseach has no intention of fulfilling?

Over the past decade or so, approximately 3 million US troops have passed through Shannon Airport to prosecute disastrous wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. We have had rendition flights illegally kidnapping people for torture using our airports, and we have had the US military transporting support to Saudi Arabia to carry out its horrific attacks in Yemen. The US war machine visits destruction on human beings but it is also important to say the US war machine and war machines generally are among the greatest destroyers of the environment and have done extraordinary damage to the climate.

Some of the greatest opponents of this war machine have been US military veterans. I welcome to the Gallery two US military veterans who served with the US paratroopers and the marine corps, Mr. Ken Mayers and Mr. Tarak Kauff. They have essentially been imprisoned in Ireland for the past seven months because they have had their passports taken from them. They are not allowed go back to the US and they are awaiting trial for a protest at Shannon Airport on St. Patrick's Day this year. Incredibly, they are aged 77 and 82 years, respectively, so they are hardly a danger or threat to anybody, but the State prosecutor submitted to the judge who was hearing their case that they were a flight risk. I can tell the Taoiseach that wild horses would not stop Mr. Mayers and Mr. Kauff from going to their trial, because they want to put the war, the US military and the role of Shannon Airport in the US military endeavours on trial. They are more than willing to come back and will sign affidavits to that effect. Mr. Michael Finucane is representing them.

In a purely vindictive act, which might have been brought about owing to pressure from the American Government, and in a shocking move, the State prosecutor pressed the judge to take their passports off them. They have been separated from their families and friends for seven months and they will not be able to go home at Christmas. The Taoiseach has their solemn pledge they will come back for their trial because, as I said, wild horses would not stop them from attending that trial. I am asking the Taoiseach to ask the State prosecutor to withdraw that submission that they are a flight risk, because they are not, and to let them have their passports back so they can return to their families pending that trial. We have not even got a date for the trial. The Taoiseach can have signed and solemn declarations from them that they will come back and face that trial.

The questions were about the Taoiseach reporting on his visit to the United States.

I want to ask the Taoiseach about his discussions of climate change at the UN, which is concerning and worrying to people, not just in Ireland but around the world, for what it forebodes for the future of the world unless we get our act together. Had he an opportunity to examine initiatives relating to the reduction in air quality, which affects cities and towns right around the world? Does he or the Government feel inclined to take action to reduce air pollution, which is a major cause of asthma for children and older people, in Dublin? As we know from all the different scientific reports, it causes a serious reduction in quality of life, serious illnesses that cost the health services dearly, and is responsible for approximately four times more deaths in the European Union collectively than road accidents. Did the Taoiseach learn anything about how to green our cities and towns, encourage planting and encourage the creation and preservation of carbon sinks?

He also referred to the Irish campaign for a seat on the UN Security Council. He has been courting many countries in the developing world for support. The people most likely to suffer from climate change in the developing world will be women and children. Women are the basic farmers in most developing countries. Without effective programmes to reduce and ameliorate climate change in the developing world, the lives of women and children, particularly young girls, will worsen. The wars of the future may well be resource wars, brought about by the impact of climate change. Has the Taoiseach had an opportunity to raise that and to reflect on it? Ireland's aid budget has increased, which is welcome, but the Government could do an awful lot more, particularly on air pollution, in this State to support the elimination of air pollution on a global basis, and to assist small farmers, the majority of whom are women with dependent children, in developing countries.

We all agree the UN summit was an important event for political leaders but it was also an opportunity to debate and secure international agreement for the bold policy responses that will be necessary to tackle climate change. In his speech to the summit, the Taoiseach said leadership is required to take action and, again, we agree. Much like the Taoiseach and Deputy Micheál Martin, we can agree on some issues. However, the Taoiseach's big message to the summit was carbon tax increases and some woolly references to a just transition, the transformation of transport, electricity, buildings and food production systems. Carbon tax is not a big idea and has not proved effective. If a behavioural tax does not change behaviour, it is just a plain old tax. Worse still, it is a tax that will actively work against a just transition for the workers in micro and small businesses that the Government should seek to protect.

Last month was an opportunity to push for the big public policy changes that can, and will, protect current and future generations and to push for solutions that will challenge developed countries' economic models but will protect future generations from having to walk to school knee deep in water day in and day out. For example, did the Taoiseach and others engage on the provision of free public transport? He told the gathering that he wants Ireland to be known as a green country because of how we respond to the climate and environmental challenges facing our planet. If he is serious about that ambition for Ireland, his policy objectives need to radically shift. We need incentives and solutions to get people out of their cars and onto publicly-funded buses and trains. Any climate scientist worth his or her salt is pushing for this change in individualised public policy to collective responses. How prominently did the provision of public transport for citizens feature in the Taoiseach's engagement with leaders during the summit?

I am afraid we do not have any time left for the Taoiseach to respond. Members need to be conscious that if they consume all of the time asking questions, there will be no time left for a response.

Can we not have a brief response?

No, because we are way over time. I am sorry. In fairness, we should have regard to the order of the House.

I stuck to the time.

If people stuck to the allocated time, it would not be a problem.

There was a flow to it before the Ceann Comhairle arrived. There might be different styles.

I am sorry to stop the flow but I must adhere. Some of us will be here until 10 p.m. or 11 p.m. and we would like to get the business done.